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CPAC in Search of Conservatism

Ben Sasse and Rick Santorum interpret traditionalism in response to Trump.

In the shadow of Donald Trump’s disruptive primary victories, it is understandable that conservatives at CPAC should seek to identify and unify the different traditions that constitute their movement. And so the annual movement congress kicked off yesterday with Sen. Ben Sasse, Sen. Rick Santorum, and Gov. Gary Johnson as the respective advocates of classical, populist, and libertarian conservatism.

The threat of Leviathan and the defense of the individual has traditionally bound together these different approaches for decades. But in recent years, the cohesion of the conservative movement has been in decline and even its relevance has been questioned by Trump’s brand of nationalist politics. While Johnson’s speech was just a pitch for the Libertarian party, Sasse and Santorum posed two different interpretations of American conservatism.

Sasse’s case for classical conservatism was actually a defense of classical liberalism. For the senator, America is an exceptional idea invented by the Founding and “ordained with natural rights”. This Lockean interpretation of the American Revolution is not how classical (or small-c) conservatives understand the Founding. Classical conservatives certainly believe in conserving the achievements of the Founding, but they also know America is not an idea. America is a culture and a nation composed of many regional and local communities. It is from these communities that a sense of self-government is developed and citizens who can underpin limited government are forged.

Sasse also described conservatism as a “set of policy preferences” directed towards the reduction of the size of government. Classical conservatism is not merely a checklist of anti-government policies, regardless of how virtuous those policies might be. It is a philosophical temperament which sees politics as the art of the possible, values prudential reform, and puts concrete institutions before abstract concepts.

Surprisingly, it was Santorum’s populist conservatism which provided a more organic and pragmatic understanding of America and conservatism. The former presidential candidate’s populist approach built upon his last book, Blue Collar Conservatism, by restating the centrality of the family in the economy and in the community. It is a brand of populism largely concerned with the social bonds which produce healthy communities, subtly departing from the centralizing nationalism of Trump.

Santorum forcefully addressed the economic and social grievances of blue-collar workers that have made Trump’s campaign so successful. In particular, he discussed how globalization and deindustrialization have had “serious consequences” for America’s working class, consequences that cannot be solved by more tax cuts. Instead of engaging with the working class, the Republican party has retreated into a comfort zone where it defends Wall Street and big business. This has left many working class Americans dissatisfied with conservatism and uncertain about the future.

The individual is undoubtedly important, but community has been given a poor place in contemporary conservative thought. It is only through social bonds such as marriage, family, faith, and community that individuals can become civilized and free. If the conservative movement hopes to defuse Trump’s nationalism, then a return to community might provide some answers.

David Cowan was a fall editorial assistant at The American Conservative.