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Am I a Conservative?

Am I a conservative? Heck if I know. All I know for sure is that the good people here at The American Conservative are interested enough in what I have to say to give me a platform on which to say it. For which I am genuinely grateful.

I am not and never have been a Republican. I feel roughly as alienated from that party as I do from the Democratic Party. I hold a number of political views that strong-minded Republicans typically find appalling: I think racism is one of the greatest problems in American society today; I am not convinced that austerity programs are helpful in addressing our economic condition; I am absolutely convinced that what many Republicans call free-market capitalism is in fact crony capitalism, calculated to favor the extremely wealthy and immensely powerful multinational corporations; I think that for all of the flaws of Obamacare, it was at least an attempt to solve a drastically unjust and often morally corrupt network of medical care in this country; I dislike military adventurism, and believe that our various attempts at nation-building over the past decade were miscalculated from the outset.

So is there any sense in which I might plausibly be called a conservative? I don’t really know; I’ll leave that to others to decide. It doesn’t really matter to me whether I fit into any pre-existing political or intellectual categories. I can only say this: that I do have three overarching political commitments (or beliefs, or convictions) that are more important to me than any others.

The first is that I strive to be a consistently pro-life Christian. I am aware that many people believe that the whole notion of a “consistent pro-life ethic” is a way for liberal Christians to minimize the evil of abortion by wrapping it in a whole series of other issues, and that may well be true for many, but I do believe that there is such a thing as a consistently pro-life position and that that position involves an absolute commitment to the unborn and also to the weak, the sick, the elderly, the mentally ill, and all the others who find themselves at the margins of our society, generally unloved and uncared for. My models in this quest are the Cappadocian fathers of the Church.

My second steady commitment is to the principle of subsidiarity. I believe that almost all of our social evils and shortcomings can be handled better by small, local organizations and empowered persons than by national institutions or for that matter even state-level institutions. There is no question that local communities can be cruel and indifferent to sufferings in their midst, but they are also more subject to shame and other forms of correction than high-level political systems. They can be more easily altered, turned, reformed. A great deal of suffering in America today is caused by the evacuation of intermediary structures: the church, the family, voluntary organizations. These intermediary structures are in desperate need of renewal and that can only happen if there is a systematic shift of power, wealth, and influence from state and national governments to local units. Among my chief teachers on this matter is Robert Nisbet, and another is Patrick Deneen, so let me cite the latter writing about the former here and here. Nisbet himself simply identified conservatism with this tendency: “The essence of this body of ideas is the protection of the social order — family, neighborhood, local community, and region foremost — from the ravishments of the centralized political state.”

My third leading political conviction is that the wisdom of our ancestors is both deeply valuable and tragically neglected. On this let me cite Roger Scruton:

Our work, it seems to me, consists in what Plato called anamnesis — the defeat of forgetting. We cannot ask young people to live as we lived or to value what we valued. But we can encourage them to see the point of how we lived, and to recognize that freedom without responsibility is, in the end, an empty asset. We can tell them stories of the old virtues, and enlarge their sympathies toward a world in which suffering and sacrifice were not the purely negative things that they are represented to be by the consumer culture but an immovable part of any lasting happiness. Our task, in other words, is now less political than cultural — an education of the sympathies, which requires from us virtues (such as imagination, creativity, and a respect for high culture) that have a diminishing place in the world of politics.

So that’s largely what I believe about politics. And again, whether that qualifies me as a True Conservative I neither know nor care.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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