Notes & Comments January 2022
The right targets
Introducing “Common-good conservatism: a debate.”
Conservatism may rarely announce itself in maxims, formulae or aims. Its essence is inarticulate, and its expression, when compelled, sceptical.
—Roger Scruton, The Meaning of Conservatism, 1980
A large part of this issue of The New Criterion is devoted to a debate over the merits and limitations of what, for lack of a better term, has come to be called “common-good conservatism.” I say “for lack of a better term” because the phrase does seem to load the dice. Surely any plausible alternative to “common-good conservatism” would also seek to foster the common good.
The occasion for the debate is the essay printed below by Kim R. Holmes, a prolific author and for many years a senior official at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. Holmes describes and criticizes two strands of this new(ish) conservative impulse. One revolves around the claims of national sovereignty, which (critics contend) has been slighted by the regnant corporate globalism that has increasingly held sway in the corridors of power. The other, perhaps more recondite, strand urges a theologically based moral renewal. Edmund Burke is the intellectual patron saint of the former, Thomas Aquinas (and therefore Aristotle, “the Stagirite”) of the latter. Both share an impatience with the philosophy of John Locke, which they reject as ethically “thin” and infected by a proto-libertarian “hedonism” and unacknowledged kinship with the dour philosophy of Hobbes.
I do not wish to intervene directly in this exchange. Holmes and his interlocutors—R. R. Reno, Josh Hammer, Ryan T. Anderson, Daniel J. Mahoney, Robert R. Reilly, Charles R. Kesler, and James Piereson—are able and articulate ambassadors of their ideas. Instead, I should like to step back to say a few words about the context and presuppositions of the debate: on recule pour mieux sauter.
By chance (if chance it was), just as I was sitting down to inscribe these remarks, I happened upon a recent interview with Norman Podhoretz, a doyen of conservative cultural criticism and the storied editor of Commentary. Speaking with The Wall Street Journal’s Barton Swaim, Podhoretz affirms two things that bear upon the debate we publish below. The first is that the “culture war” we have been hearing about for decades has not died down or petered out. On the contrary, it is raging with more virulence than ever. Invocations of 1858 and the advent of civil war may be exaggerated, Podhoretz grants. Nevertheless, “We’re in a war, and it’s a war to the death. Now they [the Left] actually admit it. They used to pretend. Not anymore.”
The woke culture of the Left seeks to destroy not only America as we know it but also the political, moral, and economic foundations upon which it rests.
Podhoretz’s point is that the stakes in this culture war are high. The woke culture of the Left seeks to destroy not only America as we know it but also the political, moral, and economic foundations upon which it rests. The conflagration is partly physical, as we saw and see on city streets throughout the country. It is also partly spiritual, as the most basic human realities and aspirations are deconstructed and politicized. When the criterion of merit and the ideal of disinterested judgment are rejected as white, patriarchal tools of oppression, or racial and sexual identity are elevated into sacrosanct shibboleths of election, we are cast into a vertiginous, all-consuming whirlpool of nihilistic self-engorgement.
Podhoretz’s second point bears more directly on the intramural debate we publish below. The Left wants to win, Podhoretz told Swaim, but “I’m not sure anymore what our side wants. The Right, as I used to understand it, no longer exists. So you’ve got one very clear side, and one very muddled side.” It was in an effort to illuminate, or rather to help clarify and dispel, that muddle that we undertook this debate.
A few observations: to begin, I believe that the parties to this debate have more in common with one another than may at first appear. They certainly have more in common with one another than they do with the apostles of woke identity politics.
But that is not the whole story or the only relevant opposition. Lurking behind the debate set forth below (though it is adumbrated by a few of the participants) is the opposition between new brands of conservatism and what has come to be called “Conservatism, Inc.” The columnist Ross Douthat touched on one essential feature of that dispensation last month in The New York Times. In a column called “What the New Right Sees,” he wrote that “The ossified Reaganism that the younger conservatives intend to supplant is locked into the world of 1980.” That’s putting it invidiously, of course, and Holmes responds to the charge in his concluding remarks.
But Conservatism, Inc. embraces more than a nostalgia for the battles and conservative triumphs of the 1980s. In my view, one of the most intellectually energetic essays of the last several years is “The Flight 93 Election,” which appeared in early September 2016 in the Claremont Review of Books. Originally published under the pseudonym Publius Decius Mus (a figure described by Livy in his account of the Battle of Vesuvius, 340 B.C.), the piece was soon revealed to have been written by Michael Anton, a political philosopher who later served on the national security team in the Trump White House. The essay earned instant notoriety for its comparison of the 2016 election to the doomed United Flight 93 on 9/11. The contest between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, Anton said, was an existential battle for the soul of the country. Whatever Donald Trump’s faults, his election, unlikely though it seemed at the time, represented the only chance for national survival.
That essay was celebrated or disparaged according to the political coloration of its readers. Indeed, it has emerged as a sort of ideological litmus test. The Left abominates it. So do the denizens of Conservatism, Inc. This is understandable. Anton was unsparing in his criticism of the conservative establishment’s fecklessness. “[A]t root,” he wrote, those conservatives are “keepers of the status quo. Oh, sure, they want some things to change. They want their pet ideas adopted—tax deductions for having more babies and the like. Many of them are even good ideas. But are any of them truly fundamental? Do they get to the heart of our problems?”
Those are among the questions that stand behind the debate we publish below. As are the points Anton makes in this litany:
If conservatives are right about the importance of virtue, morality, religious faith, stability, character and so on in the individual; if they are right about sexual morality or what came to be termed “family values”; if they are right about the importance of education to inculcate good character and to teach the fundamentals that have defined knowledge in the West for millennia; if they are right about societal norms and public order; if they are right about the centrality of initiative, enterprise, industry, and thrift to a sound economy and a healthy society; if they are right about the soul-sapping effects of paternalistic Big Government and its cannibalization of civil society and religious institutions; if they are right about the necessity of a strong defense and prudent statesmanship in the international sphere—if they are right about the importance of all this to national health and even survival, then they must believe—mustn’t they?—that we are headed off a cliff.
Actions speak louder than words. It seems to me that Anton was quite right when he went on to observe that it was “obvious that conservatives don’t believe any such thing, that they feel no such sense of urgency, of an immediate necessity to change course and avoid the cliff.”
I have noticed that both admirers and critics of Anton’s essay say that it “helped get Trump elected.” I think that is completely wrong. It made a deep impression on the eighty-seven (or 187) people who engaged with it. What got Trump elected in 2016 were the sixty-three million people who responded to his agenda and voted for him. This is not to take anything away from Anton’s essay. I think it is a brilliant piece of work. But it was not part of the metabolism of retail politics.
That brings me to the controversy about Locke and Burke. As Charles R. Kesler and James Piereson both point out, there is an element of anachronism about the claim that the founders were (or should have been) more attentive to Burke than Locke. I am an avid admirer of Edmund Burke. But the relevant writings of Burke—especially his Reflections on the Revolution in France—appeared years after the American Revolution and the framing of the Constitution. So introducing Burke into the economy of the American founding would be a Borgesian gambit akin to asking about Wordsworth’s influence on Milton.
As for Locke, I am puzzled by efforts to extirpate him from the American founding. I do not believe that what’s wrong with America can be laid at his doorstep. Below, Kesler cites a recent scholar who reports that Locke was an avid reader of Hobbes and habitually had Leviathan on his table at home. But Locke read and was influenced by many thinkers, Straussian-approved ones like Machiavelli as well as such Christian apologists as Pascal. As for Locke’s being a libertarian atheist, I think that there is at least as much evidence against as for that claim. In “The appropriation of Locke” (The New Criterion of October 2021), Joseph Loconte quoted the Locke scholar John Dunn to make the case. “Locke’s entire intellectual enterprise,” he wrote, “depended upon ‘the axiomatic centrality of the purposes of God.’ . . . Scholars debate Locke’s orthodoxy,” he continued, “but there is little doubt that he maintained a lifelong belief in the divine authority of the Bible, in Jesus as the Messiah, in the hope of eternal life, and in a final judgment.” In any event, although Locke and Hobbes begin from similar assumptions about human nature, one was an advocate of absolute monarchy, the other of a form of republicanism in which power was divided. There is a reason that Jefferson borrowed the language of Locke, not Hobbes, in the Declaration of Independence.
One concluding observation: this debate revolves largely around the proper meaning and vocation of conservatism. That is essentially a theoretical question. The existential pressure behind that question, however, is eminently practical. It involves not only the fate of conservatism but, more graphically, the failure of liberalism. Our basic problem, that is to say, is not so much a poverty of understanding as a paralysis of will. The real problem conservatives face is not in formulating sophisticated principles but in effectively confronting the juggernaut of progressive usurpation. For decades we have been living with the one-way ratchet of liberal imposition. The harvest is a situation in which conservatives are considered legitimate only when they embrace progressive aims. Conservatives, in other words, have conspired in their own eclipse. Meanwhile, the true sources of value—not government but the family, the churches, and our educational institutions—have been twisted out of all recognition. The answer to this tyranny lies not in the framing of better arguments but in the deployment of a more efficacious politics.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 40 Number 5, on page 1
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