Politics Foreign Affairs Culture

The Next Conservatism

By rejecting ideology and embracing "retroculture," the right can recover itself and perhaps reverse America's decline.

The only surprise about the Republican debacle in the 2006 congressional elections was that many conservatives found it surprising. For at least a decade, the conservative movement has been on intellectual cruise control. The well of conservative ideas that so richly watered conservative political successes from the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 through the Contract with America and the Republican capture of the House of Representatives in 1994 ran dry before the Clinton years ran out. Most conservatives know that liberalism suffered political eclipse as a consequence of intellectual aridity, of an agenda that had become a museum piece of New Deal-era class warfare.

Why were they surprised when a similar conservative idea deficit led to a similar electoral defeat? Just as you can’t beat something with nothing, the 2006 vote showed that conservatives can’t beat nothing with nothing.

Conservatism has become so weak in ideas that during the presidency of George W. Bush, the word “conservative” could be and was applied with scant objection to policies that were starkly anti-conservative. Americans witnessed “conservative” Wilsonianism, if not Jacobinism, in foreign policy and an unnecessary foreign war; record “conservative” trade and federal budget deficits; major “conservative” expansions of the power of the federal government at the expense of traditional liberties; and nonchalant “conservative” de-industrialization and dispossession of the middle class in the name of Ricardian free trade and Benthamite utilitarianism. No wonder the American people are confused and disillusioned by conservatism if these are its actions when in power. Were Russell Kirk still with us, what would he now call himself?

If conservatism is to be re-established as an intellectual force, and not merely a label for whatever the establishment does to its own benefit, it must first re-awaken intellectually. We need a new conservative agenda.

Since well before the 2006 elections, the authors of this essay have sought to begin the discussion of the next conservatism. Our motive was not solely political success. We recognized some time ago that the old conservative agenda, comprised largely of anti-communism and free-market economics, had run its course. It was born in the Cold War and much though not all of it became obsolescent once that war was won. The next conservatism, in our view, has to come to grips with a new and different external reality, one in which “the permanent things” remain permanent but must be related to new phenomena. Our starting point was Kirk’s observation that conservatism is not an ideology. Rather, it is a way of life.

Ideology, a child of the French Revolution, says that according to thus-and-such set of abstract principles, reality must be thus-and-so. Inevitably, reality is too complex to fit the ideological Procrustean bed. When that happens, the ideology in question decrees that certain aspects of reality, those that conflict with its precepts, must be ignored. If the ideology, through politics, achieves control of a state, it uses the power of the state to enforce its decree. Anyone who dares doubt that all of history is a factor of the ownership of the means of production or of the superiority of Aryan blood or of the inherent evil of white men and Western civilization is penalized by the state. If the ideology gains sufficient power, the penalty becomes the concentration camp, the Gulag, or the bullet into the back of the neck in the basement of the Lubyanka.

Real conservatism rejects all ideologies, recognizing them as armed cant. In their place, it offers a way of life built upon customs, traditions, and habits—themselves the products of the experiences of many generations. Because people are capable of learning over time, when they may do so in a specific, continuous cultural setting, the conservative way of life comes to reflect the prudential virtues: modesty, the dignity of labor, conservation and saving, the importance of family and community, personal duties and obligations, and caution in innovation. While these virtues tend to manifest themselves in most traditional societies, with variations conservatives usually value, they have had their happiest outcome in the traditional culture of the Christian West.

From this it follows that the next conservatism’s foremost task is defending and restoring Western, Judeo-Christian culture. Not only does this mean the next conservatism is cultural conservatism, it also tells us we must look beyond politics.

While conservatives have won many political victories since the election of Ronald Reagan, the Left has continued to win the culture war. Unfortunately, culture is more powerful than politics. Conservatives have thus won tactically while losing strategically, with the consequence that American society has continued to decline into the abyss that opened before it in the 1960s.

If the next conservatism is to reverse this decline and begin to recover the America we knew as recently as the 1950s, the last normal decade, it must do three things. First, it must aspire to change not merely how people vote but how they live their lives. It must lead growing numbers of Americans to secede from the rotten pop culture of materialism, consumerism, hyper-sexualization, and political correctness and return to the old ways of living. The next conservatism includes “retroculture”: a conscious, deliberate recovery of the past.

This recovery should not be, indeed cannot be, imposed through political power. This is the second action the next conservatism must take: putting power in its place. Tolkien’s ring of power is power itself, which in the long run cannot be used for good. The rejection of the counterculture that has become the mainstream culture must proceed bottom-up, person by person and family by family, on a voluntary basis.

The model here is the home-schooling movement. Home schooling has rescued more than a million children from the culturally Marxist Skinner boxes that most public schools have become. The power behind this important act of secession has been the only safe form of power: power of example. The next conservatism must extend that power to many other aspects of daily life, starting with entertainment, the popular culture’s poisoned well. Kirk set the example by throwing off the roof a television his wife and children had smuggled into Piety Hill.

By building the next conservatism primarily on the power of example, the example of lives well lived in the old ways, we can give honest reassurance to those Americans who fear that a vibrant cultural conservatism would impose some sort of Puritan theocracy on America. We may dismiss those fears as fanciful, but they are real.

Cultural Marxists have largely captured the powers of the state and use those powers to force their ideology through government policies from affirmative action to public-school curricula to the imposition of feminism on America’s Armed Forces. This points to the third thing the next conservatism must do: restore the American Republic by stripping the state of culturally Marxist ideology in all its dimensions.

A Republic devoted to liberty imposes no ideology on its citizens. The government has no business mandating diversity of races or sexes in hiring or school admissions, or forcing the armed services to make women into fighter pilots and ship captains, or “celebrating” homosexuality in the workplace, or any of the other myriad of actions the state now takes to impose political correctness.

The need for de-Marxification—not Moscow’s Marxism, but that of the Frankfurt School—of the American government points to another aspect of the next conservatism: while the restoration of our traditional culture should not be imposed through political power, conservatives must remain active in politics. The next conservatism is more than politics, but it includes politics. Were conservatives to turn away from politics altogether—something to which justified frustrations with the Republican Party could lead—the result would be disastrous.

The other side has no compunction about using state power in all its hideous fullness to ram its ideology down our throats. For example, leftists now want to restore the so-called “fairness doctrine,” which if implemented would destroy talk radio. Our agenda of restoring the Republic demands that we have sufficient power to stop them, to reverse course where they have already created an ideological state and to return American government to the powers envisioned by the Founders and enumerated in the Constitution. That is no small political agenda.

In summary, then, the next conservatism as we envision it is cultural conservatism, with an agenda both cultural and political, and activity both within and beyond the political process. It seeks to win elections with no less ardor than in 1980 or 1994, but, having perhaps more realistic expectations of what politics can do, it includes a bottom-up, grass-roots movement, similar to the home-schooling movement or the 19th-century temperance movement, devoted to restoring traditional ways of living.

What sort of specifics might the next conservative agenda include? Clearly some elements carry over from the current conservative agenda. The next conservatism still opposes abortion and supports traditional marriage. It seeks further cuts in marginal tax rates, though it insists on spending cuts as well, and a balanced federal budget. It wants a strong national defense, including missile defense. It demands effective control of our borders, elimination of illegal immigration, a reduction in legal immigration, and effective acculturation of recent immigrants. English should become America’s official language, the only language in which any government business may be conducted.

But the next conservatism also looks to new situations.

Its agenda should include the abandonment of a Wilsonian foreign policy, which is promoted by neoconservatives and neoliberals alike, and a return to a policy based on America’s concrete interests. Following the disaster of the war in Iraq, the American people may again be open to a non-interventionist foreign policy, as advocated more than half a century ago by Sen. Robert A. Taft. The next conservatism should explain that a realistic foreign policy is not isolationism, which is a bogeyman invented by globalists. America was never Japan under the Bakufu. Rather, through most of our history we related to the rest of the world, actively and successfully, through the private means of trade and ideas rather than by playing the game of Great Power. The Founders warned that we could either preserve liberty at home or seek Great Power status but not both. The next conservatism prefers liberty to the trappings of empire.

In Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, we face Fourth Generation war, not against state militaries similar to our own but non-state forces that fight very differently. While the next conservatism favors a strong defense, it should also question the hundreds of billions of dollars we pour annually into legacy forces and weapons suitable only for fighting other states. A strong defense requires military reform, not just heaps of money.

Along with military reform, the next conservatism should also call for political reform. Restoring the Republic requires breaking the monopoly of professional politicians and two parties that are for the most part one party—the Party of I’ve Got Mine. The next conservatism should promote increased use of ballot initiatives and referenda, term limits, putting “none of the above” on the ballot and requiring a new election with new candidates if it wins, and ending legalized bribery under the name of campaign contributions. Yes, they sell their votes. The two-party monopoly has generated a vast culture of corruption in Washington, and corruption is any republic’s deadliest enemy.

Further, the next conservatism should revive the dormant conservative agrarian tradition. As the Amish demonstrate, the small family farm can be economically viable. Organic farming, conservation and restoration of the soil, farmers’ markets and “crunchy cons” should find an honored place in the next conservative agenda. Family farms are good places for children to grow up. While environmentalism is becoming an ideology, conservation and care in the use of God’s creation have long-standing conservative credentials. In turn, agriculture has always been a conservative culture.

Similarly, the next conservatism should include the issue of scale of enterprise. Conservatives have long recognized the danger big government poses to free markets. Is there not a similar threat from big business enterprises, especially when those enterprises are international corporations with no concern for the homeland? Is the market truly free when vast corporations can manipulate prices and politicians to destroy local businesses, both manufacturers and retailers, that are anchored in the local community and contribute to it in ways big companies do not? When everything for sale is labeled “Made in China,” Heaven decrees fair trade instead of free trade.

Another old conservative issue the next conservatism should revive is aesthetics. America may be the richest nation in history, but that has not made it the most beautiful. Strip malls, suburban sprawl, and hollowed-out cities have created an environment few people can love. The New Urbanism offers an alternative that looks to the past to recover traditional designs for towns and cities. The next conservatism should incorporate New Urbanism but not on the Portland, Oregon model of urban growth boundaries and the like (inside of which you find, surprise, more sprawl!). Rather, the next conservatism should promote dual building codes. Developers could choose to build to existing sprawl codes or Traditional Neighborhood Design codes, depending on what they think the market wants.

Related1y, the next conservatism should promote the return of trains and streetcars as alternatives to dependence on automobiles. The private automobile is a great way to travel as long as not many people have one. At present, the proliferation of cars creates such congestion that everyone, liberals and conservatives alike, wastes vast amounts of time sitting in traffic. Not even a Mercedes sports car is much fun when it can’t move. Bringing back trains and trolleys can save us time and help revitalize our cities. The future energy situation also makes it likely that coming generations will thank us for re-creating the network of trains and streetcar lines America once enjoyed. Here as elsewhere, the next conservatism should take the long view.

One of conservatism’s most fundamental impulses, and one of its most valuable in a time when history is neglected or forgotten, is to recover good things from the past. Traditional cities and towns, passenger trains and streetcars, are examples of this tendency, which we label retroculture. The next conservatism should incorporate retroculture as one of its guiding themes, a basis for its actions beyond politics. Want to fix the public schools? How about Schools 1950? We already have retro cars such as Volkswagen’s New Beetle and the Mini. Why not retro manners and retro dress? It would be nice to see men’s and ladies’ hats again instead of kids’ underwear. By making old things new, retroculture might offer a counterweight to the endless spiral downward that pop culture decrees in everything. If fire is needed to fight fire, perhaps fashion should be used to fight fashion.

A troubling and difficult issue the next conservatism should confront is the social and cultural effects of technology. There are good aspects of technology. The Internet provides the ability to communicate without gatekeepers. But technology also poses some difficult questions. Is a post-literate culture something conservatives should accede to, drifting on the tide? Having spent 3,000 bloody years replacing the image with the word, should we now be untroubled that television, video games, and computer screens are replacing the word with the image? Do virtual realities not concern us, even as they lead our fellow citizens onward into Brave New World? As with the family farm, the Amish may offer us a model here, not in that everyone should become Amish but in that their community has a process for evaluating technologies for their social and moral effects while society as a whole does not. Conservatism has always been cautious about innovations, and the next conservatism’s caution should lead it to think hard about where technology is taking us.

This list is not exhaustive, but we will end it before we exhaust our readers. There is one final element of the next conservatism we would add. The next conservatism, if it is to be more than an intellectual parlor game, requires a new conservative movement.

Both of these authors have been involved in the conservative movement since they were in high school, back in the Pleistocene. The movement’s main problem over all those years has been its tendency to subordinate itself to the Republican Party.

During George W. Bush’s presidency, this tendency grew so powerful that most of the Washington elements of the conservative movement became wholly owned subsidiaries of the Republican Party. Grassroots conservative activists and many movement leaders outside Washington, especially those on the Religious Right, did not fall into this trap. But buckets of Republican money poured into conservative institutions that were willing to play the game, so most did. To the conservative movement’s recent intellectual sterility, Republican Party ownership added corruption.

The obvious consequence was the phenomenon we noted at the outset, “conservative” endorsement of Bush administration policies that were actually anti-conservative. The next conservative movement will not be credible if it is led by people and institutions that sold out to today’s equivalent of Rockefeller Republicanism. Nor can support for policies such as Wilsonianism and reverse mercantilism be reconciled with the next conservative agenda.

The problem, however, runs deeper than policies, deeper even than credibility. The Republican Party’s ultimate goal, because it is a political party, will always be winning elections. Once that is accomplished, the task becomes preparing to win the next election. There is and can be no higher goal than political victory because that is what political parties exist to obtain.

But the essence of the next conservatism, as we have argued here, must be that it does not stop with politics. It seeks political success, but it reaches beyond that goal in a quest to retake the culture from ideology generally and from sheer decadence. It wants to restore the old ways of life, the ways in which the vast majority of Americans lived up through the 1950s. If it fails in this, if conservatives continue to win politically while losing the culture war, it will have failed in everything.

So the next conservative movement is just this: a growing coalition of people who are committed to living differently. They share a common rejection of the popular culture, of a life based on wants and instant gratification, and of the ideology of multiculturalism and political correctness. They seek to work with other Americans, and perhaps Europeans as well, who know the past was better than the present and are committed to living as their ancestors did, by the rules of Western culture. They carry their quest into the political arena, lest their enemies mobilize the power of the state to crush them. But they look beyond politics to lives well lived in the old ways, as lamps for their neighbors’ footsteps, as harbingers of a world restored, and as testimonies to the only safe form of power, the power of example. We might add, as gifts to God as well.   

Paul M. Weyrich is the chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Research and Education Foundation. William S. Lind is the director of its Center for Cultural Conservatism.



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