William R. Brafford

First of all: I haven’t quite pulled my guest-blogging weight, so thanks to the rest of you for being more productive. Nevertheless, I’m glad to have the chance to write here. On to business.

R.R. Reno posted an article called “The Challenge Facing Conservatism” at First Things yesterday, in which he flips around all the labels in a really good way. Modern American conservatism, in Reno’s reading, is anything but a Burkean defense of some big-business status quo. Deregulation has been radically destabilizing. There are opportunities to get fantastically rich, but it’s just as easy to lose everything. In foreign policy, too, we’ve seen an idealism that doesn’t hesitate to “destabilize” (or “destroy,” if we want to be precise) a region in hopes of building something new and better.

The result of this instability is an anxious feeling of vulnerability. Reno argues that Obama won because he addressed this kind of worry: “Obama’s election signals a collective American desire for stability.” Conservatives since Reagan have been enamored of creative destruction, but “freedom to fail” scares even the successful. Thus:

“So, conservatives need to face this singular political fact squarely: The people who have benefited the most from free-market policies were the ones who led the charge against the Republican party. And if my analysis is correct, they did so because of a deeply felt insecurity—an insecurity that we can trace back to our collective experience with something conservatives fought to achieve: a raucously creative, productive, and invariably unpredictable economic system.


“Voters are reading the ideological situation accurately. And they are pushing back against the instabilities that arise from conservative economic philosophy and foreign policy.”

This explains, I think, what is going on with most Obamacons, and with the so-called centrism that drives the further-left segments of the Democratic Party absolutely crazy. And it implies that the liberal (“classical liberal”) strain of American conservatism has been much more effective than the traditionalist one. John McCain campaigned as an outsider (I refuse to use that M-word here), after all, trying to convince people that he would shake things up in Washington, to break up the old system. Obama’s promises of change, on the other hand, were not fundamentally about any sort of socialist utopia: they were about a turning away from the politics of destabilization.

If deregulation is meant to unleash latent energy in an economy, re-regulation clamps down on it. If the voters start to see the economy as a runaway train, it’s only natural for them to support the person who promises to hit the brakes. In this analogy, conservatives who pushed for further free-market reforms sound like they’re arguing that a runaway train just gets you to your destination faster. (Unless it crashes…)

I hope it’s clear that I see the problem of stability and dynamism as one of balance, of figuring out where to set limits. And here Reno asserts that it is most important for conservatism to set its sights on creating cultural stability through “a convincing public philosophy of cultural authority.” (I’m surprised that James Poulos hasn’t commented on this part yet.) One could see this as just another attempt to get some attention for the social conservative agenda, but I’m inclined to take it as a philosophical point. If we don’t attend to our culture, we won’t be able to handle instability that would be otherwise salutary. And I don’t mean attending to culture through government; I mean working through cultural institutions.

That’s the part of conservatism I’m most interested in. So many of my most talented peers are confused, rootless, and often depressed. Extra instability doesn’t help: it just makes the future look bleaker. I hate to have to come back to MacIntyre again, but Stanley Hauerwas draws on him to make this point in his inimitable (i.e. hyperbolic) style:

“Alasdair MacIntyre, a philosopher, has suggested that one of the worst things our society does to the young is to tell them they ought to be happy. MacIntyre thinks if you are happy, particularly when you are young, you are probably deeply self-deceived. Your appropriate stance is to be miserable. What a terrible time to be young. Shorn of any clear account for what it means to grow up, you are forced to make up your own lives. But you know that any life you make up is not a life you will want to live.”

This is what is at stake in questions of cultural authority. And I’m by no means convinced that conservatives have the best side of the argument. But I think conservatives have to recognize that in the absence of a public philosophy of cultural authority, an obsession with tax cuts and aggressive foreign policy is going to keep losing. The trick is that cultural authority can’t be primarily created through politics.

I have to add: Reno only talks about what instability does to economic winners. I hope that he writes about the other side sometime soon. Even if you can make the argument that the material standard of living has been rising, the less tangible consequences of economic inequality can be crushing.