Published January 11, 2022
Liberalism is becoming a dirty joke, along the lines of the infamous Aristocrats stand-up routine. The setup for the latter is that a talent agent is auditioning an act—the details vary depending on who is telling the joke, but are always filthy. The stunned agent asks the name of the act, and is answered with the punchline, “The Aristocrats.” The joke, such as it is, is that aristocracy is as depraved as the sewers of a comedian’s mind.
Liberalism, as it now stands in the United States, is at about the same place, endorsing just about any degeneracy—from abortion on demand until birth to removing the breasts of confused 13-year-old girls. Liberal deviancy is particularly focused on recruiting children, from aggressive indoctrination of young children into transgender ideology in school to taking them to explicit LGBT events, cheering child drag queens, celebrating 7-year-olds transitioning and even pushing the idea of transgender toddlers. The LGBT movement’s radical wing’s motto might as well be “get them while they’re young.” So-called moderate liberals are all but useless against this aggressive degeneracy, but many conservatives are almost as bad, in large part because they do not understand what they should be conserving.
There are, of course, many other symptoms of degeneracy in our nation. Big Business is comfortable with using slave labor so long as it’s overseas. The entertainment industry is likewise eager to kowtow to the totalitarian slave regime run by the Chinese Communist Party. Crime and disorder are rising, and the education system in many states is being overrun by race- and sex-obsessed ideologues.
But the central problem is that our culture is on a death march in which family and community life are being replaced by lonely, atomized existence maintained by the sedatives of pot, porn, pills, and endless entertainment options. Despite, or perhaps because of, our culture’s sexual obsessions, marriage and childbearing are withering away, and misanthropic anti-natalism is commonplace in elite discourse.
There is more to liberalism than this, just as there is more to aristocracy than degeneracy. But you wouldn’t know it right now, as very few liberals are willing to stand against the escalating radicalism of their left wing. And so in only a decade we’ve gone from “same-sex marriage won’t affect you” to “bake the cake, bigot” to “transition the children.” What, then, should conservatives conserve, and how should they respond to escalating debauchery?
Conservatism of Founding Principles?
Many on the Right believe that the obvious answer is that American conservatives should preserve our Founding. National Review Online’s Jack Butler spoke for many when he recently asserted that “the conservative movement is organized around and ought always to be promoting . . . the founding principles.” But it is not that simple. The Founding and its principles were complex, sometimes even contradictory. Furthermore, they are not in themselves sufficient organizing principles for an effective conservatism.
Even worse, many self-described American conservatives believe that the task of American conservatism is to preserve, promote, and perfect liberalism. They are enthusiastic about the American Founding because they perceive it as liberal political thought manifested. In their view, other aspects or influences are historical dross from which the gold of a purer liberalism is to be refined. As New York Times columnist Bret Stephens succinctly put it, “the purpose of American conservatism is to conserve the substantive principles of 1776—that is, of the open mind and the ever more open society.” But there is little conservatism in this ideology, and an American regime based on it will tend toward an oppressive dogmatism of its own. The “even more open society” is in practice increasingly closed to dissenters and nonconformists, especially those with traditional religious beliefs.
Failure of Right-Liberalism
Fortunately, this sort of right-liberalism is not a true representation of our nation’s heritage and founding principles, which deliberately tempered and restrained liberal ideology. Locke was in the air at the time, but so were Lycurgus and Leviticus. The American system of government was devised not from ideological abstractions, but from experience and compromise. Thus, American conservatives may support the liberal practices and traditions, from the ballot box to the jury box, that are our patrimony, without giving allegiance to the specious claims of liberal ideologues.
Nonetheless, we must recognize that the conservation of our “founding principles” is not at the heart of conservatism. Indeed, the Permanent Things (as they have been called) that conservatism defends, of which family, faith and community are foremost, are too often left behind in a focus on the “founding principles.” Nor is this always an accidental oversight.
Emphasizing founding principles (especially if these are redefined according to liberal ideology) allows conservatives in elite institutions to cater to the prejudices of their audiences. An excellent example is provided by the incoherent eulogy David Brooks recently composed for conservatism. Writing in the Atlantic, Brooks reiterated the argument that because the War for Independence was “fought partly on behalf of abstract liberal ideals and universal principles, the tradition that American conservatism seeks to preserve is liberal.” Brooks, like many other right-liberals, exaggerates the partial truth of this into a lie by effacing other, non-liberal aspects of the American heritage.
Consequently, Brooks’s conservatism is impotent to repulse and rectify liberal decadence and depravity. For instance, though Brooks recognizes that “[t]he danger we should be most concerned with lies in family and community breakdown, which leaves teenagers adrift and depressed, adults addicted and isolated,” he has no political response beyond supporting “moderate” Democrats. Yet it is on cultural matters that moderate Democrats have been the least moderate. They are willing to stand up to their Party’s left wing on economics and foreign policy, but not on abortion, prepubescent gender transition, or religious liberty. The same pusillanimity marks Brooks, who is unwilling to tell his readers (or himself) what they really need to hear in order to stem and reverse family and community breakdown. Brooks will not be the man to tell them to go to church and repent of the sexual revolution.
The Fiction of Value Neutrality
The embrace of liberal ideology as the core of conservatism cripples even those who do not cheer social degeneracy. They tend to shrug their shoulders and say that there is nothing to be done, or even that grooming children is among the “blessings of liberty.” They are political moral relativists, who swear fealty to a liberal ideology that they presume to be value-neutral.
This is folly. It is impossible to be value-neutral. This does not mean that tolerance, forbearance, and pluralism are not beneficial, at least to a point. But it does mean that the sort of historically illiterate moral nihilism embraced by some right-liberal ideologues is impossible in practice and pernicious in the attempt. The United States has been a tolerant nation by historical standards, but our nation’s founding principles do not require official indifference between God and Satan, or between marriage and debauchery. And historically they have not been interpreted to mean that. American legal history is full of moral legislation on subjects from adultery and alcohol to sodomy and usury. American public education has always contained moral instruction, and it always will.
Because it is impossible to be value-neutral, conservatives have no choice but to fight for our values to prevail. Thus, conservatives who have accepted the supposed neutrality of liberal ideology have been duped, selling out their patrimony and betraying actual conservatism. Their concern for abstract liberal principles produced a practical indifference to liberal decadence and depravity. Conservative principles of prudence and humility have been transmogrified into a fear of using political power to do anything to advance our values.
Time for an Updated Strategy
In fairness, this is in part a reiteration of the past necessities of conservatism. Many of the Right’s political pieties developed for good reasons, but they do not ring as true as they did in, say, the Reagan years. For instance, though it is touted by conservative think tanks as an essential principle, free enterprise is a subordinate end. It is good insofar as it protects and promotes what is most important—family, faith, and community. These are what conservatism must protect as higher goods, for they are the sources of a good life in this world, and of hope for the next. Consequently, conservatism must adapt to changing circumstances, as the threats to these Permanent Things vary with the times. Simply put, in the 1980s, the well-being of the nation was threatened by communism abroad and high crime and taxes at home, but today the greater threats are global managerial oligarchy and social atomization. Conservatism must adapt its methods to the moment, even as its ends remain constant.
And in our time, conservatism must take on a counter-revolutionary aspect. There is still much that must be preserved, but there is also much to rebuild, and we must be willing to use political power, as well as cultural means, to achieve this. The ravages of ideological liberalism, especially the damage done by the sexual revolution to family and community, require active redress. Conservatives, drawing on the wisdom and traditions we have sustained (and which have sustained us), must help our culture relearn essential parts of being human. Just as educators prioritize helping first-generation college students, we must, for example, reach out to those entering first-generation marriages, or who have become first-generation churchgoers.
Renewal will take the form of a great relearning of the truths rejected by current liberal ideology—that we are embodied as men and women; that the two halves of the human race are meant for union with each other; that children should be conceived in love and commitment, but should still be protected even when they are not; that we are dependent and finite beings who are fulfilled in relationships, rather than self-indulgence.
Public policy must be made to accord with these truths and to enable genuine human flourishing. Not only should moral dangers to marriage and family formation, such as the ubiquity of pornography, be confronted by state power, but it will also sometimes be necessary to restrain market forces to protect family and community life. Some examples, such as blue laws that provide a weekly respite from the market, have deep roots in our nation. Others, such as paid family leave, are more recent ideas that conservatives must carefully evaluate. And some problems, such as those due to adolescent use of social media, are novel, and therefore require conservatives to innovate in order to fulfill our duties of preserving and promoting human flourishing.
Policies that limit the market to protect family life and the common good are in accord with the American heritage of practical liberalism, which has always been distinct from the extremes of ideology. And yet even liberal theory need not devolve into a dirty joke, for there are philosophers capable of articulating a richer vision of liberalism. Conservatives may hope that liberalism’s better angels prevail. But we must never allow the false premises of liberal ideology to masquerade as our national patrimony, or become enshrined as the heart of conservatism.
Nathanael Blake is a postdoctoral fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.