Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Anthropology Defines the Right

Despite disagreement on just about everything else, a common view of human nature runs through all camps of conservatism.

In times of change in American politics, we often find the most significant debates occurring within one of our broad political camps, rather than between the camps. We plainly live in such a time today. 

The Left has been rendered dull and shallow for now—deformed by hatred of Trump, defanged by the power of the comfortable upper-middle class within its coalition, and distracted by boomer nostalgia masquerading as youthful idealism (think of those keen college radicals trailing an elderly socialist who promises to put “for all” at the end of every Great Society program). I don’t doubt their good intentions. People mean well, mostly. But as the Democratic primary concluded in a faceoff between a 77-year-old and a 78-year-old, one got the sense that maybe the Left doesn’t have its eye on the future. 

The Right doesn’t lack for septuagenarian leaders, of course. President Trump is about to turn 74, and that’s the least of his problems. His amoral, ignorant narcissism is a dead end. But the Right is nonetheless in the midst of an internal dispute about its own priorities that shows more promise of actually pointing forward eventually.

The dispute is not always carried on very constructively. Political disputes generally aren’t. And the parties to it each risks falling into a dangerous extreme sometimes—on the one hand a worship of power, on the other a worship of freedom. That the argument is mostly carried out on Twitter doesn’t help.

But at its best, that dispute is over what idea of the good should orient our politics. One view would put individual freedom, material prosperity, and choice at the heart of its answer, and the other would put solidarity, tradition, and the common good at the heart. 

That sounds like a very deep divide, and we might wonder how these two factions might belong on one side of our politics together at all. But in fact, this dispute is not about the deepest question in our political life. The Left has its own individualist and communal factions (though the Left’s libertarians tend to emphasize moral issues while its communitarians focus on economics, and on the Right it tends to be the other way around). The deepest question in the politics of our free society, the question that often divides Left from Right, is not about sociology but about anthropology—about the nature of the human person. 

What often sets conservatives apart from progressives is our view that the human person is imperfect, broken, perhaps fallen, and yet also created in a divine image. This suggests to us that human beings require formation in order to be free, and that our institutions exist to enable that formation, but that as they do so they must also respect the inherent (indeed sacred) dignity of every human individual. It is not easy to establish norms, rules, and institutions that can manage to achieve this balance. So conservatives are duly protective and appreciative of those that have evolved over many generations to be capable of doing this—in the family, religion, culture, politics, education, civil society, and the economy. They are what we want to conserve, and to build upon.

The main factions of the Right’s internal squabbles in our time are both broadly conservative in this respect. But they emphasize different elements of the conservative anthropology. And each also tends to carelessly accept, and therefore sloppily affirm, the other’s caricatures of their dispute. Thus some libertarians can now be found asserting that there is no such thing as the common good, while some communitarians mock appeals to freedom as meaningless and shallow. 

But ultimately, the disagreement revolves around an inescapable tension. That human beings start out crooked and prone to sin means we require strong social institutions meant to form us, and that we cannot thrive in their absence. It means the good of the individual cannot be achieved in a society that is not meaningfully attuned to the true common good. But that human beings are made in a divine image and possessed of inherent dignity means that each of us has rights that in practice amount to constraints on what society can do to us. In this sense, the conservative anthropology points toward both communitarianism and individualism, and the tension between the two emerges in every conservative effort to wrestle with real-world governing challenges. 

Today’s intra-conservative debates are disfigured by the peculiar assumption that this problem needs to be resolved in the economic realm. Those dubbed libertarians or liberals sometimes imply that the common good can be measured in terms of gross domestic product, and that the purpose of public policy should be to enable prosperity which then can give people the room to live the lives they deem best. The market economy, by ensuring both the wealth of nations and the freedom of individuals, can resolve any tension between the citizen and society. There is some truth to this idea, but it’s dangerously inadequate. 

Those dubbed communitarians or nationalists, meanwhile, sometimes suggest that the common good involves a shared idea of dignity and solidarity and that it cannot be pursued unless economic decisions are made fully subservient to it. They imply that the fact that markets don’t address social problems means that markets also don’t address economic problems. This gets at a crucial truth as well, but expresses it in the wrong language. Thus both sides assume that the dispute over conservative priorities must be settled through a struggle about economic policy. 

But the dispute might be better resolved by taking a broader view of politics, of which economics is but a part and by no means the greatest part. Democratic capitalism is the best approach we have found for advancing the material prosperity of our society,
but there are times when other goods—family formation, the dignity of the individual, community life, moral principle, national interest, or national pride—need to be prioritized over economic prosperity. Exactly when and how that should happen is a matter
for robust debate and coalition bargaining to determine in individual cases, but we would do well to avoid casting our arguments about that as simply or most fundamentally debates about economics. 

Ultimately, these are debates about how best to apply a complex view of the human person to the politics of a free nation. That view is controversial in our society. It does not offer a complete answer to the question of what modern America believes. But it does, I think, offer the beginning of an answer to the question “what is American conservatism?”  

Yuval Levin is director of social, cultural, and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute and editor of National Affairs.

Related: Introducing the TAC Symposium: What Is American Conservatism?

See all the articles published in the symposium, here.