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American Conservatism is a Failure

The movement has undone itself through its pursuit of unrestrained liberty.

American conservatism is … a failure. If our movement’s perennial mission is to conserve the Declaration’s promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—well, let’s look around us.

We’re prisoners in our own abode. On TV, a perpetual carousel of experts blasts bad news and grim statistics. Our children, if we have them, are absorbed in their own screens, barred from the swing and the see-saw even as the warm weather beckons them outside. We might be furloughed or laid-off, and even if lucky enough to be working remotely, we watch anxiously as the pink slips climb the social ladder: How long can I hang on to my rung?

We can’t sleep at night. We’re glued to the ghostly blue glow of our smart devices, endlessly scrolling the social feed, futilely arguing with strangers. A huge number of us also switch our browsers to incognito mode, to watch fleshy, moaning digital phantoms; the medium has somehow conditioned us to forget that these are real human beings, engaging in an act rightly ordered to bringing new life into the world.

Outside, the streets are deserted; the few faces we encounter, masked, suspicious, alien. Flying police robots blare orders at citizens. And if we’re unlucky enough to live in urban cores, we’re at grave risk of having life and property destroyed by rioters and antifa terrorists exploiting a genuine case of police injustice. 

Liberty, indeed.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that the pandemic itself is uniquely a crisis of our particular social, economic, and cultural arrangements; diseases have been with us since time immemorial. Nor am I questioning the wisdom of the lockdowns, though I have my doubts. No, what I argue is far more radical—and bleak: namely, that the pandemic and our response have merely widened and accelerated trends that were underway long before the virus crashed on our shores.

Consider. Long before the outbreak, we were subject to rule by a vast expert class. And this was by choice. Our own political choices—more growth, more productivity, more technological advancement, more, more, more!—made that class necessary. And we empowered the experts further by abandoning the broad account of reason inherited from the classical and Christian tradition in favor of a narrowly scientific outlook, according to which “truth” is only the things we can sense with our senses, measure with instruments, express in charts and formulas.

Long before the outbreak, we and our children were addicted to screens—a technological tyranny our anti-tyrannical impulse couldn’t resist. For several generations, American conservatism has only lived in fear of public or governmental tyranny, determinedly ignoring the possibility that private actors, too, can be tyrants.

Long before the outbreak, working-class Americans of all races lived in constant fear of losing their livelihoods, notwithstanding the pre-corona uptick in jobs and growth; for them, social insecurity, born of limitless automation and globalization, was a way of life. Now more of us share their lot. There is no reason to imagine that the system that long ago condemned the working class to precarious lives won’t adapt now by widening the scope of precarity.

Long before the outbreak, we were in a state of advanced moral and cultural decay. Hundreds of millions of visitors logged in to Pornhub daily to browse ever-more extreme images, including, we now know, images of underage trafficking victims.

Long before the outbreak, we lost our public squares to a thorough commercialization. Long before the outbreak, we were already socially distancing, with jet-setting professional-managerial types staying well more than six feet away from the Trump-Brexit class, interactions between classes kept to an essential minimum.

Long before the outbreak, the dream of a world without borders had wrought devastation for the underclass, though the Instagram-filtered “mask” of an idealized “global village” kept the upper classes from noticing. And besides, they could consider themselves virtuous for promoting “representation” and “diversity”—instead of actual justice.

 A republic, according to a very ancient definition, requires a true people, a people “associated with respect to justice and a partnership for the common good.” An ideology that denies that the common good is knowable, much less legislatable, was bound to create a vacuum of true, humane peoplehood, to be filled by sundry identity hucksters. The Founders revered the author of that definition, Cicero. Yet today, the common good, and classical thought as a whole, are held in odium in many “conservative” quarters.

No wonder American conservatives have largely failed to check, and in many cases have even abetted, these developments. In each of them, and many others of the kind, we see the working out of the same, strange paradox: how the demolition of barriers against individual choice and autonomy leaves us less, not more, free.

Abolishing moral regulation left millions addicted to porn, unfree in degradation. Breaking barriers against tech monopolies left Americans, especially children, beholden to oligarchs with the power to shape how they think, with neuroscientists on retainer to make the scroll ever more addictive. Free trade without limits entangled our affairs with a communist regime’s; a Chinese virus finally shuttered us inside. Marketization without limits destroyed our public square.

Conservative sages in the last century warned us about this, but the mainstream of the movement shut them down, relentlessly mocked them as theocrats and kooks, canceled them—Bozelled them. Think back, for example, to Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Harvard commencement address. Why would a writer who had survived the gulag tell Americans in 1978 that he couldn’t recommend their “free” modernity as a model to his compatriots trapped in the Soviet Union?

The problem Solzhenitsyn identified at Harvard is precisely the one that stares us in the face now. “Today’s Western society,” he said, “has revealed the inequality between the freedom for good deeds and the freedom for evil deeds.” We treat the two as equal, forgetting that the latter, freedom for unnatural or inhumane ends, isn’t even freedom, rightly understood. Meanwhile, true freedom accepts limits, authority, order—not begrudgingly, but as its friends, defenders, and benefactors.

Insisting on this distinction will be the great task of conservatives of my generation. In doing so, we might just recover the Declaration’s promise and give true meaning to our common aspiration to be a Land of the Free. 

Sohrab Ahmari is the op-ed editor of the New York Post. He is finishing a book exploring 12 questions our culture doesn’t ask, from which parts of this essay are adapted.