Theses for Disputation on Conservatism

[This article was originally intended to be part of a general series on the future of conservatism. As that project has sadly been put on hold, I offer this call for discussion, instead. Read it, debate it, share it, add suggestions. A.W.]

A lot’s been said about conservatism in the past year and a half, very little of it good. It’s dead, they say. It was always morally rotten to the core, they say. Whether we should celebrate the death of a movement, it is most certainly dead. Or so they say.

On the other end are people who point to the complete political victory of the GOP as a sign that conservatism is ascendant. The party is stronger than it has been since Calvin Coolidge. Surely, that means that there is cause for celebration, not lamentation?

I emphatically reject both views. Conservatism has been “dead” before. It was barely worth taking seriously in 1950, when Lionel Trilling, rightly, called it a series of “irritable mental gestures” masquerading as serious thought. It was also once far more tainted with bigotry and moral compromise than it is now, hard as it may be to believe. If conservatism could recover from that, it can make it back from this abyss, as well.

On the other hand, I do not at all share the exultation of “we won” of the worshippers of Saint Donald. Winning without a purpose is a worthless victory. Winning without a vision or idea of where to take the victory is useless. To paraphrase what was once said of King Charles after he lost the English Civil War: If we beat the Democrats ninety times and nine, without a positive vision for the future, the victories will be empty and hollow, our moral energy depleted.

What I propose below is a new way of thinking for conservatism. It is not a grand unified theory, nor is it a dogma. It is instead a series of propositions which I believe together can help rebuild the foundations of a movement which not only wins but deserves to, of ideas which every human being can appreciate even when they disagree. It is intended as a work in progress, and I will be adding new theses as time goes on. Some of these ideas are “common sense” people have forgotten, others are more new.

What they all share is this: I care not what conservatism is so much as what it can become and what it should become. The point of the past should be to better guide us to the future. We stand athwart history yelling not STOP — but change direction away from the cliffs. Any and all feedback, so long as it is constructive, will be appreciated.

Here’s to a conservatism which deserves to win.

Free Will and Moral Agency

Human free will and moral agency, individual and collective, are the foundations of the entire system of democracy. From the government agent to the lowest citizen, from the richest tech baron to the poor Whites living in towns or minorities in inner cities, from the police officer and soldier to the defense attorney and activist for social justice, we all bear moral responsibility for our actions, good and bad.

Any move towards a deterministic view, whether it be based on biology, or sociology, or otherwise, is to cut the legs from under the whole system, regardless of right or left. Either all citizens have the same rights, or those rights are but privileges to be taken away when power shifts. Either we are involved citizens taking responsibility for our sovereignty or we forfeit it in favor of people who may not have our best interests at heart.

Some will say that this approach “blames the victim.” I emphatically disagree. Nothing is more empowering than to state, unequivocally and without reservation, that we all have the power, within whatever limits, to determine how we live. To the contrary, nothing is more dehumanizing than to repeatedly state that we as human beings are nothing more than billiard balls to be played around with at will. It is contrary to the very core of democracy, of individual rights, dignity, and freedom to even consider such a possibility.

Means, Not Ends

It is in this context that we must cease to speak of the means of achieving human ends and fulfilling free will and agency as though they were ends. The market, for instance, is a wonderful tool for human flourishing. Milton Friedman was and remains right that no other method has been found which can hold a candle to the market as a means for bringing the lowest classes of humanity to levels of prosperity undreamed of by kings.

But it is still a means, not an end. It satisfies human desires; it cannot create them for us. Like any tool, it can be abused. The internet can be used to become better people, better learned, more friendly. It can also be used to engage in criminality, to abuse others, and to waste time in trivialities.

Virtue

It is here that conservatism has a message that goes beyond government: The cultivation of personal and public virtue. How that virtue is expressed and what virtues are relevant today are a legitimate subject for debate. What is not up for debate is that conservatives have or should have an idea of the formation and development of societies and communities outside the scope of government coercion. In the intense politicization of everything, we have lost sight of this, and it is time to bring that back.

The Conservative Movement is Global

But when we discuss virtue, we need to understand that the context has changed. The conservative movement is no longer restricted to Europe or America. It is not just the thinking of Buckley and de Maistre and Hayek. Conservative thinkers and parties now exist around the globe, from Asia to Africa to South America. They bring with them not just different cultural sides of European virtues, but also entirely new visions and perspectives based on their racial, cultural, or religious heritage. These voices are part of the conversation, already. It is time that they be made a full part thereof. Conservatism will, I believe, only benefit.

Conservatism Can and Will Be Understood Differently By Different People

While conservatism has many universal principles, it has been and always will be “translated” differently for different people depending on their social background, environment, and personal inclinations. If there was a failing on the part of conservative elites before 2016, it was this failure to understand this process of translation, which was instead left to the hucksters and con artists more interested in making money off the public than increasing their virtue. Going forward, we will need to correct this — if only to correct the forgeries we let be passed as conservative thought.

The Past Was not Perfect, The Future Not Necessarily Bleak

Conservatives believe in the past as a guide. We see ourselves not as a gnostic group aiming to perpetually break free and smash the old, but a link in a much longer human chain, rich and pregnant with glory and tragedy, wisdom and folly, beauty and ugliness. We are not or should not be the sort who simply play catch up with progressives, arguing for retaining what was created twenty years ago and which we protested them. We must draw on the entirety of human knowledge stretching back to the present towards the future.

This attachment to the past has sadly been distorted into treacly nostalgia. Worse: A desperate clinging to the past for dear life, a revulsion towards the present, and a sheer sense of terror regarding the future. In this vision, everything in the past was good, must have been good, and everything about to happen will be bad. For many conservatives today, Buckley’s slogan of a conservative standing athwart History yelling stop is less a determined and confident move than a desperate shriek on the inevitable retreat.

This must end. Conservatives, at least in the twenty-first century, should not be telling history itself to stop. Human beings, in every period, have always strove to improve themselves and their lives, develop and expand. We do not oppose history as such. We oppose History with a capital H, that “inevitable” defeat of conservatism which progressives are always prophesying.

Self-Criticism

But if we are going to discuss stopping History and moving and guiding humanity in the directions we desire, we need to start being far, far more honest about our own failures and mistakes. We cannot demand others learn from history if we do not learn from our own. Brush aside the usual partisan exaggerations whenever the left attacks the right, and you will see that sadly, a lot sticks.

Take our opposition to government intervention in people’s lives. Whenever the left did or does it, we cry foul. But our hands are not clean here. The right went on its own moral crusades with the use of the government and the result, always and everywhere, was moral degradation and corruption on a worse scale than the problem we were fighting. Whether it be Prohibition and the War on Drugs, or McCarthyism and Nativism, our zeal to “fix” society ended up wrecking it far beyond the original problem.

Yes, there are no guarantees that people will act properly in free societies. I’d say there’s a fair chance that many won’t. But the sorry record of government coercion in these matters must teach us the harsh, conservative lesson that all the other options are worse, as Churchill would say.

Furthermore, if conservatism is to be a truly global movement, then it must shed its baggage as a solely Western European concept. Even if all the racism and racialist thinking on the right were tossed aside this instant, it will be for naught, it must learn to be vigorous in its principles and inclusive in its people.

Reconstruction, not Conservation

To move forward, we’re also going to have to stop thinking about conserving and more about rebuilding. In normal times, conservatives work to strengthen and improve existing institutions. In periods of real upheaval like the Industrial Revolution or today, that’s not going to cut it. Communities everywhere are falling apart or have been dismantled. Institutions which used to be the bedrock of communities in cities and small towns are in trouble.

This is bad for humanity and bad for the kind of natural, evolving, and adaptive society conservatives support. To move forward, we need to think seriously about how to rebuild and strengthen robust social institutions — familial, religious, social, and otherwise. Sometimes this will involve government, but more often than not, it will require the hard, slow work of what is left of collective civil society. This is not the sexy activism of justice or protest, but the slow, boring, but far more lasting and worthwhile work of recreating what has served humanity so well across the generations.

[More to come]