America Needs a Re-Founding
Conservatism can no longer be about conserving. It must be about reshaping.
American conservatism refers to a post-World War II political movement that arose in opposition to the progressive liberalism that dominated our political and culture institutions in the 20th century. It has always included squabbling, disparate elements; the coalition has never quite agreed on what, exactly, it is trying to conserve.
The conservative movement succeeded in keeping America engaged enough to achieve victory in the Cold War against the former Soviet Union—a victory most American elites did not predict.
Conservatives also succeeded in galvanizing organized opposition against cultural dissolution and progressive alterations to our form of government. But it mostly failed to win any of those battles, instead fighting a long retreat.
This retreat was exacerbated by partial success. Circumstantial policy preferences of the conservative Right hardened into supposed principles of political thought after the Reagan administration. Over time, as the Republican Party establishment absorbed conservatism into itself, the movement evolved into “Conservatism, Inc.”—the set of quasi-official conservative institutions we have with us today.
This state of affairs resulted in President Trump hijacking an anemic Republican Party with the help of Republican voters—and largely without Conservatism, Inc.
Both party establishments are now scrambling to conserve their power, but the liberalism of the last century is breaking down. The American people no longer trust the institutions it has long controlled, and its cultural hold is waning (due largely to technological disruption). What will replace it?
The Left, in conjunction with its own establishment, wishes to build on the radical changes it has already made, ushering in a governing philosophy of transhumanism, the further enforcement of identity politics, and government-sanctioned domination of all opposition. As in California, the Left explicitly hopes that its control over our institutions combined with immigration will lead to a one-party nation-state.
President Trump’s first term unexpectedly interrupted this project, revealing the depths to which we have fallen. The administrative state worked with the Left to destroy him by means previously unimaginable in America.
Looking to the future, the outlines of a new conservative coalition that understands why voters turned to President Trump and not Conservatism, Inc. can be discerned on the horizon. But if it is to last, it will have to build a new framework of policy for the Republican Party on a firmer intellectual foundation. The question of what conservatives are trying to conserve can no longer be ignored.
Neoconservatism has either degenerated into a defense of the liberal establishment or refuses to acknowledge or grapple with the gravity of the situation.
Paleoconservatism is rising again, and for good reason, but its reliance on tradition has never been enough on its own. Some traditions are good, and some (slavery) are bad: how will we tell the difference, especially in a nation whose tradition and history is now a century of progressive liberalism?
The Claremont Institute and its friends have always provided a different, albeit partially compatible answer, and it is now more salient than ever: we must preserve and recover distinctly American principles of political life that have long been forgotten. Good tradition is in accord with Nature and Reason, both understood properly in the Anglo-American tradition as compatible with Christianity and divine revelation.
This synthesis is what formed the American republic. Despite the last century of the American elite’s successful efforts to transform our nation, America yet contains structural and cultural elements that arise from deep within the Western tradition, constituting the prudential response of well-educated statesmen in the old republic to the modern world.
Perhaps the most documented and observable founding in human history, ours is a regime based on both the protection of natural rights—arising from the contours of human nature, not government sanction or positive law—and the promotion of the common good. It asserted that certain truths, the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God, could be known by men of good will who understand Nature and Reason, and that these truths ought to shape our political structures and our political and cultural life.
Since our Creator made us rational creatures, the consent of the governed is necessary for just governance, but justice is the end of government, and is also necessary to validate that consent. Our branches of government, as bent out of shape as they now are, were not created as merely procedural gimmicks to separate and check power, but to allow for good governance rather than bad.
But the understanding that formed America is no longer taught to Americans, and to the extent our ruling class is familiar with it at all, it rabidly opposes these ideas. Further, the founding generations did not think that republicanism could survive without Christianity and virtue. For too long, the “culture war” was relegated to the “Religious Right.” It is now an existential civic question.
Outside of a precious few exceptions, the institutions that should inculcate these truths and way of life do not presently do so. Conservatism must face the fact that in our era conserving alone is not enough.
The Left re-founded America. We are in need of statesmanship of the highest order to re-found it again. Even those conservatives who believe the founding was flawed often agree on what is needed moving forward. As we do so, we must promote an American way of life that is appealing to Americans of good will.
Conservatism must not merely make arguments, and reshape a bold new platform of policy—it must act on them, wielding “regime-level” power in the service of good political order to do so—or it will fail. We must lead a counter-revolution. Since this is not, by definition, “conservative,” American conservatism may no longer be called “conservatism” if it chooses to rise to the occasion.
Whether or not conservatives attempt to reshape America back to health is yet unclear, but a coalition in opposition to liberalism will be with us for a while yet—until the Left further establishes the dystopia it is now intent on conserving.
Matthew J. Peterson is the Claremont Institute’s Vice President of Education and the Founding Editor of The American Mind.
See all the articles published in the symposium, here.