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Conservatives Are Getting Lost in “Ideas”

(Calvin Mattheis)

“Shapiro’s most recent book How to Destroy America in Three Easy Steps presents the United States’ problems, which he sees as near-fatal if left unaddressed, as rooted in the world of ideas and political philosophy.”

Conservatism, in its American variety, is supposedly all about ideas. According to conservative pundits and thinkers, ideas are the main factor in altering and influencing the direction of politics. Those who have not read very much proclaim that “politics is downstream of culture,” mimicking the libertarian bomb-thrower Andrew Breitbart. On a higher plane, we learn from those who see Richard Weaver as the beginning and end of political-philosophy that “ideas have consequences.” Both of these statements hold some merit and are appropriate in their place. 

The problem is not the statements and thoughts behind them but what they leave out. As an outside spectator, contemporary American conservatism is invested in idealism, lost in the clouds of abstraction to the exclusion of concrete material realities, both in physical and structural terms. This epistemic gap leaves the incoherent fusion of social conservatism with economic liberalism standing on unstable foundations. To become more effective at both winning the political game and governing once in office, the Right should rectify this lack.

The most well-known example of this tendency on the American right is arguably Ben Shapiro, the political commentator and podcaster. Shapiro’s most recent book How to Destroy America in Three Easy Steps presents the United States’ problems, which he sees as near-fatal if left unaddressed, as rooted in the world of ideas and political philosophy. Looking at the contents page, one is immediately struck by the order and priorities. Over six chapters, split into three opposing couplets, Shapiro begins with American philosophy and its disintegration, then American culture and its disintegration, ending with American history and its disintegration. 

Those doing the disintegration are called “Disintegrationists.” How original. How original also that these Disintegrationists are mostly on the Left, a mix of identitarians, socialists, and gullible liberals. These villains apparently believe that “not much” holds Americans together, the country itself “is a marriage of interests.” This disparate coalition undermines the United States’ “philosophy, culture, institutions, and history.” Never mind the decades-long American right-wing pursuit of free trade, out-sourcing and off-shoring, combined with mass immigration and foreign wars. All of these have put serious strain on American social order. Instead, Shapiro repeats the charge again and again that Disintegrationists employ a selective reading of American history in order to do this. 

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The Unionists meanwhile (Civil war analogy rather on the nose) believe in “reason and universal morality above passion and tribalism,” twinned with God-given “individual rights” which are “fundamental, eternal, unalienable” rooted as they are in “human nature.” Democracy rounds out the Unionist credo. Right-wing and conservative ideas like historicism—defended by Edmund Burke among others—are castigated as innately progressive and relativist, since “a philosophy suggesting that all institutions and ideas are products of time and place…cuts directly against the notion of eternal, unchanging, inalienable natural rights.” Shapiro both discounts large swathes of conservative philosophy and has fallen prey to what Yoram Hazony callsconservative rationalism,” an over-reliance on reason and rationality divorced from particular tradition and culture in an attempt to rebut supposedly relativist left-wing ideas.

I have written elsewhere about Shapiro’s debt to the thought and work of the political philosopher Leo Strauss, and the deficiencies this demonstrates. Again, here, we are witness to an emphasis on supposedly universal philosophy as the prime, almost exclusive mover in human affairs. A focus on ideals and beliefs is important because individuals matter and are motivated by ideals and beliefs. However, individuals are also part of particular familial, communal, and national groups that interact with their particular environment, geography, and history, all of which shape their particular economy, language, politics, and culture. 

As I wrote earlier, this focus also ignores social structures and their role in shaping society. As James Davison Hunter writes of the Christian context in To Change the World, this way of seeing the world is similar to those modern Christians who think that everything would be fine if enough individuals believed the correct beliefs. Then, there would be a critical mass of these right-believing and right-thinking individuals, and the culture would be changed in a more Christian direction as a result of this mass transformation. Change happens from the bottom up when enough people adopt the appropriate ideas. This emphasis on ideas on an individual level is endemic in the American conservative movement.

Christianity conquered Rome by first conquering the system of education, and then moving into the adjacent elite social layer, mostly through elite Roman women and their networks.

Instead, as Hunter lays out, ideas come to be widely accepted when they become the dominant belief among the elites. What the 19th/20th century sociologists Vilfredo Pareto, Gaetano Mosca, and Robert Michels respectively call the “elite,” “ruling class,” or “oligarchy” set the terms of the culture and its norms, mores, and manners. Christianity conquered Rome by first conquering the system of education and then moving into the adjacent elite social layer, mostly through elite Roman women and their networks. In this way, it came to be the dominant belief of the governing elite. As such, those in the lower orders adopted it both as a way of maintaining their membership in the social order and because it had the ring of divine truth. While there was increasing conversion of the poor of the empire, this was enabled by the social consent provided by the adoption of this new faith by increasing numbers of the imperial elite. In this way, religious and social change came about through a change in elite norms and mores, which then enabled a filtering through the rest of society. It was anything but a bottom-up conversion.

Shapiro and other conservatives in his wing of the American Right ignore the role these social structures play, particularly in modern class terms. As an aside, one wonders whether those like Shapiro ignore the role of structures like social class because they have done awfully well thanks to the way American society is currently ordered. More broadly, those who manipulate concepts and ideas in abstract mental space benefit from the structure of this present American economy. Those who work with their hands in the real world have suffered since their means to make a decent living have been eroded through offshoring, automation, and globalization. 

As an example of the way structures are ignored, Shapiro spends much time talking about the dangers of what Wesley Yang calls the “successor ideology” and the threat it poses to social comity. However, it is not a threat because huge numbers of people believe in it. The successor ideology is a threat because this worldview, what Yang calls “authoritarian Utopianism that masquerades as liberal humanism while usurping it from within,” a mix of identity politics and discriminatory egalitarianism, is believed and implemented by the power centers of our society. 

It would not matter if it had not captured the heights of corporate, cultural, and political America, who can then enforce its dictates on society through their positions in the networks of power. There was no conspiracy here: Individuals learned the successor ideology worldview in university and took it with them into the wider world. Individuals hold ideas, but structures enable the spread and enforcement of those ideas. In order that conservatives should actually stand a chance in putting forward whatever vision they have left that is not just “more tax cuts, more war, more free trade,” they need to appreciate the structural realities of how ideas are instantiated in the real world. The ideas of American conservatism, internally contested as they are following the Trump turmoil are irrelevant as long as those in Michael Lind’s Overclass not only do not hold them but actively despise them. 

This ignorance of social structures extends to that of concrete realities of geography and the environment. American conservatives like to accuse those on the Left of engaging in a form of world-denying Gnosticism, wanting to “immanentise the eschaton” and bring their vision of heaven of earth. However, it could be argued that conservatives captured by the idealist fallacy are just as guilty of this alienation from physical, material realities as those they accuse. Those trapped in the Washington, D.C. Beltway produce policy papers on everything from economics to foreign policy with no idea of the possibility or practicalities in the real world. 

The corruption of Washington, D.C conservatism is that it is lost in a world of abstract Platonic ideals, which as Claes Ryn argues not only divorces it from real life as lived by real people at home and abroad but, also, induces a passivity because reality does not change according to some spotty conservative think-tanker’s whim. As he writes, this obsession with idealism encourages one “to withdraw from the shadowy, ignoble present to an ahistorical world of eternal perfection. What really matters always lies far beyond the actual. Why bother to think about or prepare oneself for acting in a world that counts for so little in the end?” Lost in a perfect world without limits, modern conservatives brush aside any constraint to their vision in real life. 

This alienation from the world is most tragically seen in the realm of foreign policy, when ideals of freedom and democracy in service to the all-encompassing market-state crash up against the implacability of the real world of geography, history, ethnicity, and language. As Robert D. Kaplan writes in The Revenge of Geography, “the legacies of geography, history, and culture really do set limits on what can be accomplished in any given place.” 

Realism in foreign policy, Hans Morgenthau wrote in Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace, sees the world as “the result of forces inherent in human nature.” Thucydides argued that human nature is motivated by fear, self-interest, and honor. As Morgenthau writes, “To improve the world, one must work with these forces, not against them.” The limits imposed by the tragic fallenness of the human condition mean that in foreign policy only so much can be achieved before the real breaks through the ideal.

These constraints from human nature within apply just as much if not more to nature without: “Nature imposes; man disposes,” wrote the English geographer W. Gordon East in The Geography Behind History. This is not to deny human individuality or agency but, rather, to temper the modern tendency towards Gnostic hubris that denies the constraints provided by the contours of the world as revealed through the relief map. Nicholas J. Spykman, professor at Yale and one of the great strategists during World War II, wrote in 1942 in his book America’s Strategy in World Politics: The United States and the Balance of Power that “geography does not argue. It simply is.” As he went on to say, “Geography is the most fundamental factor in the foreign policy of states because it is the most permanent. Ministers come and go, even dictators die, but mountain ranges stand unperturbed.” This was what the French Annales School historian Fernand Braudel called the longue durée, the history of slow trends and long processes almost geological in time that outlast multiple generations of statesmen.

One might say “well yes, these men would say that writing in the mid twentieth century. What relevance do they have to our globalized world of technological progress today?” In response to this, in his book, Great Powers and Geopolitical Change the Johns Hopkins University scholar Jakub J. Grygiel argues that geography “has been forgotten, not conquered.” The late British military strategist Colin S. Gray asserted meanwhile that technology has canceled geography contains just enough merit to be called a plausible fallacy.” 

As Kaplan writes, an acceptance of the role geography plays in human affairs and the limits it places on our ability to act in the world is not an argument for passivity, the concrete material mirror to the abstract idealism of Platonic perfection. However, he wishes “to argue for a modest acceptance of fate, secured ultimately in the facts of geography, in order to curb excessive zeal in foreign policy.” 

Take Iraq in 2003, for example, or Libya in 2011. A knowledge of the geography, history, and culture of these places would have suggested that remaking these states into Jeffersonian democracies by force was a fool’s errand. Iraq in 2003 was a confluence of ethnicities, religions, and languages. Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds were all held together by the brutal dictator in Saddam Hussein, enabled in part by the geography of Iraq itself: an arid country with difficult access to water and poor infrastructure. Libya meanwhile is an artificial construction, with the east and west points being the centers of civilization with little in between, save desert and banditry. 

Globalization, the interconnection of countries, societies, and cultures through a web of economic and technological links does not negate geography: It makes it more important. As Kaplan writes, “Geography, because it will be more accessible, will, counterintuitively, become more crucial. Globalization, understood as the breaking down of walls, results in an increase in the number and intensity of contacts, which holds out the greater likelihood of both political conflict and cooperation.” 

What is needed is some sort of synthesis, imperfect as anything attempted by man will be, between universal ideals and the particular structural and material realities of life itself.

An example is the Eurasian landmass, what the early 20th century British geographer Halford Mackinder called the “World Island.” This will become increasingly claustrophobic as it is knitted together: “The geography of Eurasia will become as intimate as the geography of Europe, where a myriad of powerful states, uncomfortably confined within a small space, constantly fought wars, with peace breaking out just as constantly through the practice of balance of power politics…Thus, a closed geography will demand the ablest practitioners of Metternichian balance of power statecraft in order to prevent mass violence.”

None of this seems to be relevant to the brightest and best of American conservatism. This detachment from the world is undoubtedly a bipartisan malaise, with both sides guilty of an idealism rooted in the United States’ blessed position as an island continent, endowed with the most beneficent environment and geography for cultivating a free and prosperous society in the world. However, the nominal right seems especially prone to this blindness to constraint, leading to disastrous foreign and domestic policy. 

The answer is not to abandon all ideals in favor of purely material realities, refusing transcendent truth revealed in and through immanent particularity. What is needed is some sort of synthesis, imperfect as anything attempted by man will be, between universal ideals and the particular structural and material realities of life itself. The Straussian tendency to denigrate the particular in favor of the abstract universal is just one example of the idealism that becomes pathological when it is divorced from concrete particulars. As Ryn argues, this idealism “points the person away from real possibilities and thus discourages action,” and, furthermore, “a moral philosophy that is not adjusted to man’s historical existence and does not concern itself with the needs and opportunities of actual politics is a form of evasion of responsibility using moralism as a cover.”

A step in the right direction would be to resist the temptation to proclaim that “America is just an idea.” Yes, America may be an idea, but it is also a people, culture, and, perhaps most importantly, a place. Simply reducing it to an idea removes complexity from reality and realism from morality. If America is just an idea, universally applicable as historian Allen Guelzo recently argued, then there is little to gainsay it being spread as much as possible for the betterment of humanity, no matter the impracticality or immorality in doing so. The last 20 years should have laid this to rest.

Instead, American conservatism might listen to those like Ryn in his book A Common Human Ground: Universality and Particularity in a Multicultural World, who argue that any moral and political universality can only be reached through the particularity of different places in various times. The local and particular point to the universal. To do this means, as Kaplan argues, taking into account facts of geography, history, and culture and the role these play in directing and constraining human affairs. Any goal for foreign and domestic policy must be grounded in this approach. The ideal needs the real. Divided, each becomes pathological, but when each informs the other, our fallen nature in dialogue with our place in the world can, perhaps, encourage domestic and foreign policies oriented towards the common good of the world as it is.

Henry George is a writer from the U.K., focusing on politics, political philosophy, and culture. He has also written at Quillette, Arc Digital, Reaction, The University Bookman, and Intercollegiate Review. 

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