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A Practice in the Common Good

The tone of the “Restoring a Nation” conference in Steubenville was reactionary, but far from revolutionary.

Ohio Senate candidate JD Vance speaks in Ohio
A campaign rally for J.D. Vance, with President Donald Trump, at the Covelli Centre in Youngstown, Ohio on September 17, 2022. (Andrew Spear for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

"What we really should be asking is: who gets to decide the common good?"

I don't remember hearing this obfuscating question, or any derivative of it, at a recent conference hosted at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. It wasn't a question worth asking.

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The vast majority of the presenters at the conference—entitled "Restoring a Nation" and organized by TAC contributing editor Sohrab Ahmari—submit to the Roman Church and shared a fair number of political preconceptions. The conference pamphlet, for example, took for granted that

America’s liberal consensus has failed our nation and its people. Our way forward isn’t to fashion something new, but rather to recover the forgotten wisdom of our nation’s classical and Christian foundations.

The tone of the conference was reactionary, but far from revolutionary: family policy was addressed as a matter of the dignity of the human person, economic questions considered subsidiarity and solidarity, and cultural concerns balanced localism and federal statism.

While the posture of the event was simultaneously refreshing and far from novel, the venue itself was the most consequential aspect of the weekend. It’s a noteworthy historical fact that a conference organized to discuss the common good in America located in Steubenville, Ohio, sold out tickets: over 200 people decided to surround themselves in Ohio shale for a weekend. And it wasn’t just the typical crowd for conservative conferences—the combination of recently postpubescent boys and travelers on the shuttle bus from Phase II of the Pines of Mar Gables. Working-aged men and women took off work to attend.

Patrick Deneen seemed to anticipate the significance of the place before anyone else. His presentation featured side-by-side photos of Steubenville from decades past and photos from today; he did the same for his own South Bend. The visual images were stark: relatively comfortable and secure town squares contrast run-down city streets. He refrained: “It doesn’t have to be this way.”

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So why did the Wall Street Journal editorial page call the presenters “eggheads” before they even met up? Why did this event, which Ahmari called an “academic conference,” lack the self-referential stiffness so typical to that venue? I’d wager that the location itself and the risk associated with it contributed to the success of the weekend. I remember hearing a few weeks before the event: “Who’s going to go to Steubenville?” It was a fair question, and one that I wondered too. But the location itself was a signal for the newly formalized coalition.

That coalition is one which attempts to identify the essence and attributes of the “perfect society.” As Chad Pecknold said, that society is not a sort of “libertarian spiritualism,” but an environment in which “sinners can become saints.” It’s one that Rusty Reno suggested should strive to “rethink and redraw the laws that both encourage and restrain commercial life, as well as to ensure that its costs and benefits are equitably distributed,” and one that Scott Hahn claimed should emphasize sacramental marriage instead of merely natural marriage. Adrian Vermeule, for his part, concluded his remarks on imperium by reminding the crowd that

The executive and his agents serve the whole commonwealth, not the other way around, and acts for the common advantage and welfare of all, not merely the rich and powerful. When the poor cry, then as a matter of constitutional principle and justice, the president will weep. Such has been the development of our institutions.

Ahmari offered a foretaste of next year’s book on tyranny in the private sphere by suggesting that “the market isn’t some mystical, self-directing being, but a human institution subject, as all human institutions are, to power and political choice.” On the next day, Michael Lind identified the market and institutions of civil society as animals of the public order, and Johnny Burtka followed with an ode to the American System of state development capitalism. Three panels followed: one on family policy, the next on the ideological and strategic distinctives of the so-called “new right,” and the last presented FDR’s New Deal as an administrative and social triumph.

For a thorough review of the weekend’s priorities, I can’t recommend enough Kurt Hofer’s write-up in the European Conservative. These ideas are important: I suspect that the cultural commentary and policy prescriptions offered in the two days will help shape our nation’s continued self-understanding and our industrial, family, and economic policy.

But what happens outside of the sessions can often be just as important as the sessions themselves. For example, every first Friday, the town shuts down a block on Fourth Street for a party. The time elicited what the Germans call gemütlichkeit, a sense of shared friendliness and belonging. On Saturday evening, some friends and I went to dinner at Naples Spaghetti House, where J.D. Vance was having dinner with his wife, his driver, Michael Lind, and Josh Hammer. He drank a couple Miller Lites, ate dinner with his plate on a paper placemat, and left for his keynote.

His address was titled, “Learning from Steubenville.” When I saw that title a week before the conference, I thought “Steubenville” referred to the university: its triumphs and failures since it opened in 1946. Or perhaps, I thought, it referred to the conference itself: Vance would outline a way for attendees to implement what they learned from the sessions. I was wrong. His unscripted and impassioned speech included a short story from a campaign event:

This guy came up to me… he was a good guy, he was probably, I don’t know, 70 or so years old, and he went to [my wife] Usha afterwards, and I didn’t hear this, I was sort of talking to somebody else, and it’s going to make me tear up, but he said, “I wish you could’ve seen this place when I was a kid.” And he said it with such pride. And I remember thinking to myself when Usha told me: this man deserves to have pride in the community that made him who he was.

The focus of Vance’s speech was consistent with the rest of the conference: learning from Steubenville—lessons of decline and restoration that can’t be taught in D.C., New York, or Chicago.

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