Conservatism Remains Rooted in the Constitution
Though some would rather leave it behind, our founding document is the best expression of our ideals, and our best hope of realizing them.
“What is conservatism?” That question can only be answered with a concrete articulation of the political order we are trying to conserve and the clear identification of the threats to its existence. We must conserve this American nation with its constitutional form of government and commitment to ordered liberty. But that is precisely where we as a country keep falling out with one another. We struggle to find consensus about what America really is anymore. As a result, we seem unable to articulate what ideas and institutions we should defend. The central task of the conservative is to overcome this tremendous difficulty by illuminating for Americans that the best guarantee for their future happiness is in the freedom and responsibility of the Founders’ Constitution. And this will further require that conservative thought and practice lead America to renewed national purpose amidst severe divisions, which the coronavirus crisis has only intensified.
We are stuck with defending our constitutional order against an antagonistic world, much of which aches for an existence without America. For the conservative statesman, this requires the articulation of our national objectives whose goal is nothing less than the protection of our republican, constitutional life. Key objectives include achieving our national security in a fading unipolar moment, the recovery of self-government and congressional deliberation, confronting endless debt—itself a sign of indiscipline—and, once again, articulating the inherent goodness of middle-class existence with work, family, and faith as its elements. But that will require politics. Republican government presupposes politics as the pursuit of persons who are guided by reason to certain public ends. We remain in debate and conversation because the nation and its constitutional framework, undergirded by the “laws of nature and of nature’s God,” directs our loyalty and our friendship.
Rekindling republican virtues through exercising them, which also means forgoing outrage at every opportunity, is the only practical way for us to muddle through together in our current condition. But the institution of Congress itself is in decay, with much of its membership no longer raising their interests and ideas to the elevated rank of the institution and its rules and traditions. The show is about them exclusively. We no longer speak the language of duties and citizenship and the things that are required of us to return our country to a better footing. We need to do so. This isn’t to jettison concern for constitutional liberties and rights, but to understand that from duty come the rights to fulfill it. This comes naturally to the person who holds the conservative disposition. We can no longer afford to live the language of rights-talk with its endless egalitarianism of desires and proliferating demands on a public order that loses authority with citizens who are taught to take and not to give. This will require less short-term partisanship and more statesmanship, which must account for the full panoply of weaknesses, strengths, and trends that are shaping us.
We didn’t plan for this COVID-19 pandemic, but we should have. As Mark Helprin notes in the Claremont Review of Books, in 2005, former Senate Majority Leader William Frist of Tennessee oversaw the legislative creation of a plan that contained the elements we need but lack in the current crisis. It was never implemented. The near certainty of a pandemic has long been known in public health circles, hence the Frist plan, but the ability to see a plan through eluded us. That would have been the mark of a serious people. I say this not to cast blame on any person or party, but to note what it indicates about our country and what conservatives must do in response.
In many ways we have become a childish, emotionally immature country. We rush to assign blame to others. We bathe in victimhood mentalities. Unlike the America in World War II that defeated serial killer empires—and this effort came after a decade-plus of economic hardship—we chafe under the slightest inconveniences to our comforts. Yes, we know the Left has created literally entire government bureaucracies dedicated to cultivating victims. But many conservatives literally focus on nothing else but China’s role in this crisis. You neutralize a rival, you don’t endlessly fulminate about their abuses. China is such a rival; real and potential abuses inflicted on us by that country should be assumed. The only outcome we control is what steps we take to protect ourselves from the inevitable myriad conflicts we will have with them.
Will we be ready? We fret over the Chinese navy because we allowed ours to shrink. We worry about their potential lead in computing prowess and artificial intelligence because we have no plan to match their national effort. To take proper steps will require renewed levels of public spending. But we’re up to our necks in debt, which the coronavirus spending has increased greatly. To surmount our current mindset will require the language of rededication to America’s constitutional order and the nation that embodies it. This constitutional heritage isn’t steeped in false ideas, as our progressives and even many conservatives now say, and it hasn’t failed us. We are currently failing it.
The Constitution’s written articulation presupposes the inherent goodness of a life lived as both a citizen and as a creature whereby we participate in the best aspects of human existence. We are not given an ideological construction for our existence as Americans. Rather, our Constitution sets forth that it will act with limited delegations of power in a republican government for our “more perfect Union.” A strong Union presupposes security and legitimate public expenditures, along with a republican form of politics dedicated to ordered liberty, but the conservative must also protect the presuppositions of freedom, i.e., the sturdy virtues of middle-class life that seem to be fading. They now require a sustained theoretical defense. This is where our status as
both citizens and creatures is best displayed and understood, between the great wealth of our elites and all of their displaced affections, and our struggling working and poor Americans who need the religious, familial, and community-minded virtues of middle class existence to guide what should be their upwardly mobile aspirations.
Richard M. Reinsch II is editor of Law & Liberty, host of the podcast Liberty Law Talk, and coauthor with Peter Augustine Lawler of A Constitution in Full (Kansas Press, 2019).
See all the articles published in the symposium, here.