There’s much to admire in a piece that summons Americans back to “prudential values,” based on “customs, traditions, and habits.” But at the same time, since our lives are, as the authors correctly assert, the products of our experiences, plenty of room must be allowed for new experiences.
To put it politely, there’s a bit of contradiction between the authors’ clarion call for a “Next Conservatism” and their lyrical urging to “restore the old ways of life, the ways in which the vast majority of Americans lived up through the 1950s.” Either you go forward, or you go backward. You can’t do both. And more to the point, going backward isn’t truly an option—you can’t go home again.
As the wise Edmund Burke reminded us, the task for the statesman is to channel the tides of change through the canals of custom. That’s why Burke supported modest and incremental change. He defended the conservatism of the American Revolution, even as he abhorred the radicalism of the French Revolution. Yes, the past must be venerated, but the future must be accommodated.
So the authors’ hymn to “retroculture” is not going to be heard by many. If they wish to see “men’s and ladies’ hats” restored, that’s quite all right. Reactionary cultural flourishes are harmless enough. Today’s hipsters, after all, seem to adore octogenarian Tony Bennett. And it will always be thus; in Neal Stephenson’s 1995 sci-fi novel, The Diamond Age, the “Neo-Victorians” favor handmade garments in their own little niche realm, even as they revel in the worldwide economic potential of the latest nanotechnology.
And that’s the point: technology is here to stay. The authors can admire Russell Kirk for pushing a TV set off the roof, but George Gilder is a better guide for conservatives wishing to use computerized and networked TVs to navigate safely the inevitably Mumfordian future.
Indeed, the authors might wish to reflect on the dolorous reality that throughout human history avowed conservatives have opposed technology, seeing it as the dangerous handmaiden of a force they fear even more: progress. Yet since the end of the Dark Ages, technology has been unstoppable.
In the last thousand years or so, conservatives have often kneejerkily opposed technology, thereby forcing technophiles to conclude that they have to embrace a worldview other than conservatism. Communists, fascists, and mere liberals, on the other hand, have been happy to endorse technology and growth—especially if they could use technology as a substitute, or hoped-for substitute, for freedom.
So conservatism has often been routed. And nowhere has the defeat for “old ways” been more spectacular than on the battlefield. The old verities have been defeated, literally, as traditional militaries have been annihilated by radical new technologies, emblemized by the machine gun, tank, and airplane. And let’s not forget weapons of mass destruction—nothing conservative about them, and yet they aren’t going anywhere. So much for retroculture.
The better role models, in keeping with the spirit of Burke, are those consciously conservative groups who nonetheless embrace technology—for example, the Mormons. Nobody questions their commitment to family values, and to big-family values, but they are comfortable with the latest gadgetry. (Ask anyone who has used their genealogical databases to track down a family tree.) Indeed, it might be my imagination, but it seems as if every Latter Day Saint in Utah is a software engineer.
More broadly, evangelical Protestantism seems to be doing a pretty good job at channeling change through custom. A visit to a megachurch is an eye-opener. Everything is gleaming and high-tech, like an office park—no wonder officer-park workers feel so comfortable worshiping inside them. And while it is true that some will always yearn for an oakier and smokier religion, it is equally true that those avowedly old believers will always be in the minority. Happily, both styles of religious experience are safe so long as they stick together to confront the latest onslaught from litigious secular authoritarians.
Which, of course, is a reminder that the Next Conservatism needs to be more just than a jeremiad. As the authors say, conservatism must maintain its political currency—it must be able to win elections.
Specifically, true conservatives should realize that Americans don’t want retroculture. They want American Culture. Conservative-leaning nationalism, deeply informed by religion, is the most powerful force in America—and that’s a good thing. Plain old patriotism is the hammer that has smashed, and will continue to smash, the nation-negating ideologies of communism, world federalism, and neoconservatism.
The American Conservative can be part of that ongoing powerful movement, if its writers and readers remember that the 21st century is here to stay.
James P. Pinkerton is a columnist for Newsday. He served in the White House under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.