Published October 31, 2022
This is a strange time for conservatives to despair of conservatism. We just won a generational legal victory by overturning Roe v. Wade, and abortion facilities are closing in state after state. Republicans are poised for electoral triumph in the midterms, and the Supreme Court justices who delivered Dobbs are likely to continue rolling back judicial liberalism’s legal abuses.
And yet some on the right are convinced that we are losing, indeed, that we have already lost and therefore need new strategies and labels. For example, Federalist Senior Editor John Daniel Davidson recently argued in these pages that “conservatives should stop calling themselves conservatives … because the conservative project has largely failed, and it is time for a new approach.”
This dour assessment seems based less on various defeats on discrete policy issues than on the sense that conservatives, especially conservative Christians, now live in what has been called the negative world. The institutions and power centers of our culture are determined to suppress, even eradicate, orthodox Christian beliefs on marriage, family, sexuality, and the human person. Consequently, we are fighting just to preserve refuges in which we may still live peaceably according to our beliefs, and not be compelled to repeat lies and participate in evil.
We find ourselves besieged in a hostile culture. And though the political coalition we are part of may triumph at the polls for a day, against the powers arrayed against us there is no victory through politics as usual. Consequently, Davidson argues that the failures of the conservative project have become debilitating for conservatism as a practical approach to politics because there is little left to conserve. He writes that:
Calling oneself a conservative in today’s political climate would be like saying one is a conservative because one wants to preserve the medieval European traditions of arranged marriage and trial by combat. Whatever the merits of those practices, you cannot preserve or defend something that is dead. Perhaps you can retain a memory of it or knowledge of it. But that is not what conservatism was purportedly about. It was about maintaining traditions and preserving Western civilization as a living and vibrant thing. Well, too late. Western civilization is dying. The traditions and practices that conservatives champion are, at best, being preserved only in an ever-shrinking private sphere. At worst, they are being trampled to dust. They certainly do not form the basis of our common culture or civic life, as they did for most of our nation’s history.
Davidson argues that it is therefore necessary for conservatives to start thinking of themselves as “radicals, restorationists, and counterrevolutionaries. Indeed, that is what they are, whether they embrace those labels or not.” He wants conservativism to transform into something that can raze the wicked and corrupt institutions that dominate our society. Only after we clear the ground and rebuild a healthy culture will conservatism again make sense. And achieving this goal will require wielding government power more vigorously than conservatives have usually been comfortable with.
There is some truth in this argument, and it should not be casually dismissed. The hysterical overreactions by various conservative failures and turncoats (e.g. Bill Kristol) deserve the scorn Davidson heaped upon them in a follow-up column. Nonetheless, Davidson and his faction have significant weaknesses — there are policy problems, personnel issues, and philosophical errors.
The policy problems are often intertwined with the personnel ones. The dire situation Davidson describes will require extraordinarily deft leadership on the part of his small counter-revolutionary cabal if it is to succeed in attaining, holding, and using political power to transform our nation. Unfortunately, most of those vying for the role rarely seem up to the task.
For example, the mostly Catholic chorus clustered around figures such as journalist Sohrab Ahmari and law professor Adrian Vermeule has a history of rapidly evolving views and a penchant for picking fights with potential allies. Ahmari even spent the afternoon after the Dobbs decision was released not celebrating, but rage-tweeting about the Heritage Foundation. Vermeule recently embraced the New Deal.
Davidson is not, of course, responsible for these choices, but they have nonetheless created practical difficulties for his proposals. This sort of inconstancy and querulousness bodes ill for assembling a large and durable majority coalition that is able and willing to remake our culture according to the designs of a beleaguered minority.
But even if the cliques of the so-called New Right were less mercurial, more temperate, and more skilled at coalition-building (all of which we should hope for), conservatives should still not abandon conservatism. We certainly don’t need to abandon the name just because some scrabbling grifters and washed-up pundits have abandoned the substance.
The substance of conservatism is much more than a reflexive defense and preservation of the status quo. Indeed, conservatism has always contained the counter-revolutionary and restorationist impulses that Davidson longs for. This is readily seen in the career of Edmund Burke, who is regarded as the father of Anglo-American conservatism. The man who wrote “Reflections on the Revolution in France” was also the crusading reformer leading the impeachment of Warren Hastings, and he would soon write his “Letters on a Regicide Peace,” which were as counter-revolutionary as anything Davidson might wish for. This is not the work of a defender of a tranquil status quo, placidly passing on traditions in a healthy society. This is the work of a man determined to reform society while preserving its achievements, to do so while respecting both the natural law and the limits of human contrivance.
Philosophical conservatism knows that tradition is always active and interpretive, for each new generation has to learn and live by what is passed down to it. Furthermore, it recognizes that political conservatism attains self-consciousness when threatened. Thus, it is always already counter-revolutionary and directed toward the restoration and repair of that which has been neglected, abused, and defaced.
This does not mean that conservatism always arrives too late, that it is somnambulant until after the damage has already been done. Sometimes conservatives detect and head off evils before they become widespread and powerful. And sometimes conservatives see evil coming early, rally against it, and lose anyway. Such is life as sinful people in a fallen world. Sometimes evil wins. The kingdoms of this earth do not last forever. Yet there may be hope in this, rather than despair. As T.S. Eliot observed, there are no lost causes because there are no gained causes.
Conservatives know that the struggle for tolerably just political order in this life is always ongoing. And American conservatives should recognize that there is still much to protect and preserve in our nation and culture. The best traditions of the United States and its people are still alive, even though many, especially among the ruling classes, now neglect them. That we will have to teach these traditions and ways of life to some of our neighbors, as well as our children, does not mean they are dead — they are still living in the families, churches, and communities of many millions of Americans.
This does not mean that Davidson is wrong in arguing that government has a role to play in restoring our culture. Neither conservatism nor the Constitution mandates government neutrality between good and evil, God and Satan, or those who know the difference between men and women and those who do not. Thus, much may be done through the legitimate exercise of political powers that have been too long dormant.
The revolutionary forces destroying our culture and families are heavily dependent upon government subsidy, patronage, and privileges. We should not reject using political power to clean house in education, to bring Big Tech to heel, to curb the poisonous grift of the diversity industry, and to punish corporations that prey on Americans and sell our nation out to our rivals. But in doing so, we need to recognize that government is often a crude tool and a treacherous weapon.
Conservatism knows this because it is humble, grounded in the givenness of our lives, and in human fallibility and finitude. The deepest roots of conservatism are the truths of natural law and human nature. Conservatives know that there is a moral order we owe obedience to and that we are unable to fully apprehend and articulate, let alone instantiate it.
Thus, conservatism does not despair over the evils of the age, and we need not despair of it. We should stick with conservatism.
Nathanael Blake, Ph.D. is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. His primary research interests are American political theory, Christian political thought, and the intersection of natural law and philosophical hermeneutics. His published scholarship has included work on Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Alasdair MacIntyre, Russell Kirk and J.R.R. Tolkien. He is currently working on a study of Kierkegaard and labor. As a cultural observer and commentator, he is also fascinated at how our secularizing culture develops substitutes for the loss of religious symbols, meaning and order.