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The Quarrel within American Conservatism

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“The current politics of California, which more than any other American state has been shaped by mass immigration from Mexico, should likewise shake the confidence of conservatives who scoff at the alleged illiberalism of immigration hawks.”

The question of what American conservatism consists of has become an increasingly contested idea. The contest appears to pit an older and more liberal orientation against a newer and more nationalistic one. Kevin Williamson’s criticism of the nationalistic orientation in present-day American conservatism as inherently anti-capitalistic and hence inimical to liberty, followed by Nate Hochman’s defense of it as part of a legitimately conservative defense of community and hence of the moral preconditions of liberty, is one of the more recent illustrations of this divide.

This divide, of course, is not new. It has been the most politically significant fact about American conservatism since at least 2016. In the time since, one group of conservatives—originally led by National Review and arguably today by The Bulwark—has claimed that former President Donald Trump and the nationalist politics he catalyzed represent a betrayal of American conservatism. A newer group of conservatives—led most prominently by the America First movement and by the Claremont Institute’s online publication The American Mind and represented politically by a growing field of officeholders such as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, and Washington state congressional candidate Joe Kent, among others—has celebrated President Trump as an advocate, however flawed, of policies that accord with what they think American conservatism once was and what, going forward, it should again be.

What these two kinds of conservatives disagree on is by now well known. The new conservatives want a border wall, favor trade deals that bring back working class jobs, seek an end to the United States’ foreign wars, and, in general, are concerned with protecting traditional American culture from the deracinating effects of globalization. Certainly, the old conservatives might see reason to adopt some modest degree of reform in any one of these areas; however, they categorically and passionately deny that there is any reason why the United States should abandon its long-standing openness to mass immigration, free trade, and a robust military presence abroad. They see these policies as being largely prescribed by the United States’ founding principles, and they see a rejection of these principles in the policies of the new conservatives.

Now, it is not entirely strange that “conservatism” should be a contested term in the United States, which after all was midwifed by a revolution. The American conservative, in contrast to most European conservatives, has long been in the somewhat ironic position of seeking, among other things, to conserve a revolutionary break with tradition. And this revolutionary break did not simply enshrine the principles of a new political community; it sought to vindicate universal principles of political authority applicable to all men, on the basis of which government by consent could, in principle, be justified always and everywhere. For if all men are, by nature, equal in their right to govern themselves, then just government requires the consent of the governed.

The theoretical weight (or baggage, if one prefers) of this revolutionary teaching has always been a peculiarity of American conservatism. And this peculiarity has, I believe, long fostered a healthy tension in its soul, for an overriding concern with the principles of America’s founding may tend toward an intellectually reductive account of the nation that abstracts from all the things that stir the heart—especially the conservative heart—in the defense of home and hearth. The thoughtful American conservative is, in this sense, uncomfortably but perhaps fruitfully poised between the universalism of the American founding and the particularism that may be said to be conservatism’s proper domain. This duality is both the bloom and the thorn of American conservatism. One may then be tempted to see the torn soul of American conservatism writ large in the contest between the old and new conservatives: one side jealously defending the universal principles of the American founding against what it regards as extreme appeals to the particular. The other, all the while, is jealously defending the United States’ particular culture against what it regards as extreme appeals to the universal.

This view—though not wholly misleading—is inadequate. The contest between the old and the new conservatives is not one that pits a conservatism of principles against a conservatism of culture. It is, rather, a contest between two distinct understandings of the relation between the universal and the particular. The old conservatism is primarily concerned with principles because it believes that political principles, effected through law, are by themselves sufficient to shape the character of a political community. The new conservatism is primarily concerned with culture because it thinks that political principles, effected through law, are by themselves insufficient to shape the character of a political community. It is not that the new conservatives seek to reject the liberal principles of the Founders, as the old conservatives seem to think. They rather think that (1) these principles cannot endure in practice in the absence of certain cultural conditions, as well as that (2) the present moment demands a defense of the legitimacy of these conditions far more urgently than it does a defense of the truth of these principles.

Thomas West provides a succinct way of understanding the relation between theory and practice that animates the new conservatives in his 2017 book The Political Theory of the American Founding. At a certain point, he addresses the interpretation of the Founding that rejects the primacy of the natural rights teaching in favor of the view that America is to be understood primarily in cultural or historical terms, as the accretion of English common law and Anglo-Protestant custom. In refuting this interpretation, while recognizing the degree of truth he believes it possesses, West distinguishes between what he calls the “form” and the “matter” of the American Founding. The “form” refers to the basic political principles, the natural rights teaching, found in the Declaration of Independence and the various authoritative documents and private letters adopted or authored by the leading members of the founding generation. These documents articulate the deepest basis and highest ends of the American republic. The “matter,” on the other hand, refers to the set of facts—religious, moral, and social—that had long characterized the particular people who tried to live on this basis and pursue these ends. West’s crucial point is that form cannot create matter if matter is not to some degree receptive to such formation. If matter is not receptive, then whatever the form may be, and however true it may be, it will remain practically inert. Tocqueville gives an example of this inertia when he writes in Democracy in America that:

“The American laws are therefore good, and to them must be attributed a large portion of the success which attends the government of democracy in America: but I do not believe them to be the principal cause of that success; and if they seem to me to have more influence upon the social happiness of the Americans than the nature of the country, on the other hand there is reason to believe that their effect is still inferior to that produced by the manners of the people.

The Federal laws undoubtedly constitute the most important part of the legislation of the United States. Mexico, which is not less fortunately situated than the Anglo-American Union, has adopted the same laws, but is unable to accustom itself to the government of democracy. Some other cause is therefore at work, independently of those physical circumstances and peculiar laws which enable the democracy to rule in the United States.”

It is not crucial to my argument that one believe, as Tocqueville apparently did, that mores influence the character of society more than laws. What is crucial is his claim that laws cannot shape society without the support of mores and hence, by logical extension, that mores ought to be a primary object of study of political science. This argument about mores does not imply that the theoretical truth of a principle (e.g., a given body of law or set of constitutional principles) is affected by the capacity of a particular people to live in accord with it—this would be to fall into a historicist fallacy. It rather suggests that the practical or effectual truth of a principle in a given time and place is so affected. For it is one thing to ask whether the principles of the American founding are true and whether the conservative cause in America ought to be dedicated to the conservation of the belief that they are true. And it is quite another to ask whether the American people still possess the religious and moral habits (and the degree of social cohesion) that enable them to live in accord with those principles to the degree possible for human beings.

The implicit criticism the new conservatives have laid at the feet of the old is then the following: that they seem to think that politics involves only (or primarily) a concern with the former question and they have no patience—indeed, no ear—for the latter; but the second question is the emphatically political question, the one that should most concern citizens and statesmen living here and now. Thus, while the old conservatives lament the alleged illiberalism of the new conservatives, the new conservatives worry about preserving the kind of people that even want the Founders’ liberalism to begin with and that can, however imperfectly, live up to its civic demands.

This is why opposition to the unfettered globalization of capital and labor is the distinguishing mark, and opposition to “globalism” the rallying cry, of the new or national conservatives. This opposition manifests itself chiefly in an anxiety over deindustrialization and mass immigration. Many arguments have been made and should continue to be made about how both hurt the economic prospects of working-class communities. But what is crucial for the new conservatives is the recognition that both undermine the conditions that make the founder’s liberalism realizable.

As John Russo and Sherry Linkon argue in Manufacturing a Better Future for America, deindustrialization undermines the “shared sense of history and identity” of cities and towns. This shared self-understanding is what, for instance, once tied “Pittsburgh to steelmaking, Detroit to automaking,” and “Lowell to textiles.” With the “loss of population [and the] decline of the local [urban] landscape” and the “loss of faith in both the community and its institutions,” which often accompanies the sudden drying up of manufacturing jobs, social networks that fostered self-understanding and gave a community its sense of pride tend to dissipate. Social ills that have become especially well-known to Americans in the last decades, like urban blight and widespread drug abuse, are of a piece with these conditions. Globalization lowers prices for many goods, but do these lower prices make up for the social capital that is lost?

I contrast the cold Babel of faceless crowds shopping at giant retail chains with the fellow-feeling that imbues, or once imbued, the main street of a tight-knit American town, and I feel that something crucial to liberty has been lost. (Russell Kirk crystallized that same feeling when he called the car “a mechanical Jacobin.”) I, of course, do not mean to suggest that the new conservatism questions the practical indispensability of modern technology to modern society. The new conservatives’ sensitivity to laborist and communitarian concerns is not predicated on a failure to understand the fact that communication and transportation technology have moved us, in many ways inexorably, toward forms of commerce that are ever-more gargantuan, impersonal, and efficient. And they recognize that there is only so much present-day policymakers can do to protect the American main street from the whirlpool of unfettered globalization. But are policy-makers even doing that much? How much do they actually care about this problem, to the degree that they even see it as a problem? And what, finally, are the prospects under these conditions for the kind of civic engagement and vigilant love of one’s own that the Founders’ liberalism requires? These questions are at the heart of the new conservatives’ anxiety over deindustrialization.

Mass immigration, for its part, affects the cohesion of American culture more deeply and permanently than any other cause that is amenable to public policy. For a people must have enough things in common if it is to have a common culture, if it is to be, and see itself as, a single people or nation. Language, religion, customs, ideas, and sentiments are the constituent elements of this cohesion. This is why Publius remarks in Federalist No. 2 that the fact that the American states of the late-18th century had these things in common rendered them especially fit to adopt an extended and federal republic. Would Kevin Williamson accuse Publius of being illiberal because he expressed an emphatically political concern with these matters? That would be strange indeed, for Publius was concerned with these matters not in spite of supporting but because he supported the liberal principles of the Founding. An engaged and thoughtful conservative, moreover, could hardly read Publius’ remarks without reflecting on what he would have made of the multicultural hodgepodge that is the present-day United States.

And yet it is not only the cohesion but the substance of culture that is at issue for the new conservatives. For, to return to Tocqueville, one must ask whether the millions of illegal immigrants who regularly cross the United States’ southern border tend to have the ideas and sentiments apt to make them jealous guardians of such things as the separation of powers, the right to criticize government, the right to bear arms, and local government. The state of their home countries, in Tocqueville’s time as in ours, should at the very least give Americans pause. The current politics of California, which more than any other American state has been shaped by mass immigration from Mexico, should likewise shake the confidence of conservatives who scoff at the alleged illiberalism of immigration hawks. One would, of course, fall into the most puerile narcissism if one did not immediately add that the average American of today, whatever his provenance, hardly seems equal to the task of living up to the principles of the Founding. But this awareness, which honesty and self-correction demand, hardly furnishes an argument for continuing to accept a state of affairs that can only further decrease the receptivity of American matter to the Founders’ liberal form.

In sum: The quarrel within present-day American conservatism is indeed a quarrel over the status of liberal principles within American conservatism. But the issue is not whether the old and liberal conservatism should be supplanted by a new and illiberal conservatism. The issue is between a form of conservatism that seems increasingly and even willfully blind to the question of the cultural conditions that make liberal principles realizable, and a form of conservatism that sees this as the fundamental political question of our time.

Antonio Sosa is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Dallas and a policy director at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

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