Published May 9, 2019
“Make America Great Again” resonates with so many on the right because national identity is crucial to their self-definition. To understand the American right as it understands itself, one must grasp why this is so and why all elements of the right feel threatened by dominant strains of the American left.
There’s a reason the largest conservative think tank is named the Heritage Foundation. American conservatism understands itself to be conserving the principles of the founding — our national heritage — and draws its intellectual and political sustenance from that connection. Conservatives in all their variations think that the United States has always been a special, unique and good nation, and that this is linked to the principles that formed our nation. That’s why polls consistently show that conservatives are likelier to believe that the United States is exceptional, and why explicit appeals to patriotism have always featured so prominently in American conservatism.
That’s not to say the right is united in what it considers those principles to be. Libertarians emphasize the ideas of limited — some might say constricted — government, especially a limited federal government. Christian conservatives emphasize the Protestant morality of the original generations and hold that our political health is tied to our adherence to these virtues. Business-focused conservatives emphasize economic freedom and the opportunity to become wealthy as the source of our greatness. And still other conservatives find our democratic republican elements to be crucial, as in this way we have adapted to new circumstances without violence or descent into authoritarian tyranny.
These differences underlie the sometimes bitter feuds within the Republican Party. But in the end, these groups usually come together because they share a common foe: progressivism.
Each element feels uniquely threatened by a progressive understanding that seems to disparage these values. The progressive faith in federal government power, its apparent hostility toward traditional Christian doctrine, its distrust of private economic freedom and economic inequality, and its love of judicial and administrative action to overcome conservative political majorities puts all factions of conservatives on guard.
The American left tends to see conservative beliefs as a plea for cultural restoration. There are certainly parts of the right that do want to turn back the clock to some extent, but that’s not where the bulk of conservatives are today. Instead, conservatives wonder if there is any place for their beliefs in the face of what appears to be a militant and intolerant progressivism.
I’ve recently participated in three events sponsored by conservative or libertarian groups dedicated to the question of American identity. The question of restoration was absent in all of them. Instead, we talked about how to conserve and protect our values in a frequently hostile environment.
I emphasized the same things at each conference. Conservatives are right to be proud of America’s heritage. They are right to emphasize the importance of freedom to American identity, and they are right to promote private action as a moral and often more effective way to address challenges. They are right to contend that the family is the crucial building block of society and that a free society requires more than a smattering of personal virtue and self-restraint. A country where everyone wants to be Gordon Gekko cannot be free.
But the right falls short when it fails to recognize that some governmental action is essential to our national enterprise. The left is correct in acknowledging that too many Americans were left behind through legal and social discrimination. Conservatives lose support and credibility among people who otherwise share their principles whenever they oppose those cries. They cannot protect American values if their neighbors do not believe they share those values.
America’s best and most important conservative leaders have always understood this. Abraham Lincoln wrote in 1858, “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy.” Ronald Reagan’s epitaph says nothing about freedom or liberty but reminds us that “man is good” and that “there’s purpose and worth to each and every life.” Their understanding that liberty is meant to serve humanity, not the other way around, is why Lincoln was able to save the nation and Reagan was able to save the world.
American identity revolves around a devotion to ideals: freedom, equality and self-government. But that identity is strained whenever one ideal is emphasized at the expense of the others. For example, progressives break this balance when they seek to deny traditional Christians or campus conservatives their right to speak their own truths. They break with our national heritage when they seek to force private economic activity to submit to a Green New Deal “mobilization,” which by definition can never end. And they break with our commitment to self-government when they revel in excess judicial power but then proclaim the appointment of conservative judges a “judicial coup.” Conservatives are right to fight these developments with every fiber of our being.
But conservatism can only effectively claim to represent American identity when it endorses the balance among these ideals. Making America great again must mean making America great for everyone. If conservatives fail in this devotion, they will fail to conserve our national heritage, leading to a victory for those they wish to defeat.
Henry Olsen is a Washington Post columnist and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.