The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

November 20, 2018

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How Firm a Foundation? The Prospects for American Conservatism
George H. Nash - 01/30/09

During the past year it became commonplace in the media to suggest that the culture wars are over as a salient feature of American life. It was said, for example, that young evangelical Protestants are tiring of the old battles and turning to new causes like global warming and relief for AIDS victims in Africa. But, oh, the unpredictable contingencies of history: in the past two months the culture wars have returned to the national arena with a vengeance. We shall see how this latest episode in the contest for our culture plays out. For now, at least for a season, the seemingly irrepressible conflict between conservative people of faith and the secular Left has resumed, especially among the media and chattering classes for whom politics seems increasingly to be a form of warfare.

Fourthly, the conservative coalition seems likely to endure for awhile because most of the external stimuli that goaded it into existence have not disappeared. In some respects, they have recently grown stronger. The Berlin Wall may be gone, and unvarnished socialist economics may be discredited in theory, but the Russian bear under Vladimir Putin is growling again, while at home the drive for redistribution of wealth and a nationalized medical care system gathers force. Large swatches of American life—notably, the universities, the major media, and the entertainment industry—seem more hostile than ever to the Christian faith and worldview. For defenders of Judeo-Christian ethics—and that means most conservatives—there remains much work to do. There is still a potent enemy on the Left.

This awareness of external challenge from the Left is, I believe, integral to the prospects for American conservatism in the years ahead. If anyone doubts this, the phenomenal events of the past two months should be persuasive. If the conservative movement earlier this year seemed anemic and in need of fresh energy, it received it massively on August 29, 2008 when Senator John McCain introduced Governor Sarah Palin to the nation, and a few days later, on September 3, when Palin addressed the Republican national convention. I do not think we will soon forget the emotional intensity of those six days—an intensity not felt on the American Right since the presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater. To the amazement of much of the punditocracy, the conservative grassroots turned out to be alive after all.

But Governor Palin’s nomination did more than bring joy and rejuvenating vigor to most conservative hearts. The ferocious and mocking assault on her by many in the media reminded indignant conservatives of who they are and, even more vividly, of who their opponents are. It restored to conservatives a sense of their cause as a fighting faith. Moreover, at least temporarily, it relieved some of the internal, structural stresses in the conservative camp and tended to pull the fractious coalition back together. From the paleoconservative Patrick Buchanan to the neoconservative William Kristol, from ardent free marketeers like Lawrence Kudlow to the crunchy conservative Rod Dreher and a legion of social conservatives, with just a few conspicuous exceptions, leading spokesmen for the American Right rallied to the Palin candidacy.

Now whether this turnabout will prove to be a fleeting spasm or a precursor to a conservative revival, one cannot say. As I mentioned earlier, it is always risky to presume that tomorrow’s headlines will necessarily resemble today’s. But it does appear significant that in the fiery furnace of political and cultural contention this autumn, an insurgent spirit has returned to American conservatism. If this persists, it will likely buttress the movement’s foundations.

Nevertheless, spirit alone cannot do it all. Ideas, too, have consequences, as Richard Weaver long ago reminded us, and it is in this realm that conservatives face challenges that should curb any temptation toward triumphalism. Consider for example, the phenomenon known as globalization. When we use this word, we tend to think first of the globalization of markets—of free trade in goods and services across national borders. But far more significant, I think, is the accelerating globalization of human migration patterns, with cultural and political consequences that we have scarcely begun to fathom. More people are now on the move in the world than at any time in the history of the human race, and more and more of them are making America their destination. The number of international students, for instance, attending American colleges and universities is now approximately 600,000 per year—a figure more than double what it was in 1980.

Meanwhile, increasing numbers of Americans are electing to live outside the United States. At least four to six million Americans are now permanent residents abroad. Among American college students, particularly those matriculating at elite institutions, it is now quite common to spend one’s junior year overseas—something very few could afford to do just a generation ago.

This unprecedented intermingling of peoples and cultures—abetted by rising prosperity, expanding air travel, and the incredible velocity of mass communication—has already begun to have ideological ramifications. In the United States, it has been accompanied by the emergence of multiculturalism as the driving philosophy of our educational system. It has been accompanied by the deliberate dilution of traditional civic education and the resultant explosion of cultural illiteracy about America’s heritage. It has been accompanied, in the field of historiography, by narratives which accentuate the failures and blemishes of the American experience. It has been accompanied by the rise of a liberal, cosmopolitan elite imbued with a post-national, even anti-national sensibility and motivated by what the historian John Fonte calls “transnational progressivism”—an ideology profoundly antithetical to conservative beliefs.

What does all this portend for the party of the Right? For generations, American conservatives have been united in their defense of our nation, of our inherited constitutional order, against enemies both foreign and domestic—something relatively easy to do during the Cold War but increasingly difficult today. Traditionally, American conservatives have been Eurocentric in their political and cultural discourse, but how can conservatives convincingly articulate this perspective to non-Europeans immigrants and to millions of superficially educated young Americans at a time when Europe itself no longer seems Eurocentric?

These are not idle questions. The political scientist James Ceaser recently observed that for thirty years the conservative movement in the United States has been defending ideas “that almost all other nations in the West are abandoning”: “the concept of the nation itself,” “the importance of Biblical religion,” and “the truth of natural right” philosophy. Traditionally Americans have adhered to a form of national self-understanding that scholars term American exceptionalism. Ronald Reagan did, and he carried the country with him. Now, increasingly, the Reaganite vision of American goodness and uniqueness that most conservatives embrace seems both more exceptional and more vulnerable than ever.

With what arguments, symbols, rituals, and vocabulary can conservatives make their case for the American way of life that they cherish to those for whom the traditional arguments, symbols, rituals, and vocabulary are either unfamiliar or seem hopelessly passé? Again, this is not a trivial concern. It lies at the very heart of our current election campaign. Behind the disputes over public policy and personal fitness for the presidency, behind the vehemence of the culture war surrounding Governor Palin, lurks the question: What kind of a polity does America desire to become? As the conservative British commentator Gerard Baker recently noted, the election of 2008 has turned into a “struggle between the followers of American exceptionalism and the supporters of global universalism.” Whatever the outcome on November 4, American conservatives have not yet adequately articulated their convictions in terms that can appeal to people outside their own camp and particularly to those whom James Burnham called the “verbalizers” of our society.

This leads me to a final observation. I am a historian of American conservatism, and I can happily report that sophisticated discourse is thriving on the American Right—in journals like Modern Age, the Intercollegiate Review, the New Criterion, the University Bookman, the Claremont Review of Books, and Humanitas, to name a few. But it also appears to me that conservatives spend much of their time (in current parlance) “cocooning” with one another and that, in this Age of the Internet, too much conservative advocacy has been reduced to sound byte certitudes and sterile clichés. What do conservatives want? Limited government, they answer; free enterprise; strict construction of the Constitution; fiscal responsibility; traditional values and respect for the sanctity of human life. No doubt, but I wonder: how much are these traditional catchphrases and abstractions persuading people anymore? How much are they inspiring the rising generation? How much are they resonating with America’s dominant professional classes, particularly those in the more secularized and urbanized regions of this country? It is not a new problem. In fact, it is a perennial problem, the essence of which Whittaker Chambers captured long ago. “Each age,” he wrote, “finds its own language for an eternal meaning.”

What do conservatives want? To put it in elementary terms, we want to be free, we want to live virtuous and productive lives, and we want to be secure from threats beyond and within our borders. We want to live in a society that sustains and encourages these aspirations. Freedom, virtue, safety: goals reflected in the libertarian, traditionalist, and national security dimensions of the conservative movement. But to achieve these perennial goals, we must communicate in language that connects not only with our own coterie but with the great majority of the American people.

Can it be done? I think it can. If there is one thing that virtually all conservatives hold in common, it is the conviction that there is indeed an “eternal meaning,” a fount of wisdom to be drawn upon through thick and thin, and believing that, we can smile and persevere. The immediate future may prove unsettling to American conservatives, but in the words of William F. Buckley Jr. nearly fifty years ago, “the wells of regeneration are infinitely deep.”

To learn more, visit our short course on Conservative Thought.

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