Conservative No More?

Three Priorities for the Right

Two recent articles are well worth your time and thought. The first is a piece at The Federalist by John Davidson. He argues that “conservatives” should drop that label in favor of something more descriptive of their position in, and posture toward, predominant liberal society:

[A]ny honest appraisal of our situation today renders [the label] absurd. After all, what have conservatives succeeded in conserving? In just my lifetime, they have lost much: marriage as it has been understood for thousands of years, the First Amendment, any semblance of control over our borders, a fundamental distinction between men and women, and, especially of late, the basic rule of law. Calling oneself a conservative in today’s political climate would be like saying one is a conservative because one wants to preserve the medieval European traditions of arranged marriage and trial by combat. Whatever the merits of those practices, you cannot preserve or defend something that is dead. Perhaps you can retain a memory of it or knowledge of it. But that is not what conservatism was purportedly about. It was about maintaining traditions and preserving Western civilization as a living and vibrant thing.

Radicals, restorationists, or counterrevolutionaries are all suggested as alternative monikers for what is typically now called the “New Right.” I find the invocation of Thomas Jefferson’s brand of radicalism distasteful as a model—albeit there is something to it—but Davidson’s nod toward the Puritan settlers of Massachusetts is one I’ve offered as well. The enduring conservative impulse here is to look to the past for inspiration, an impulse that someone like Yoram Hazony makes definitionally definitive for conservatism. That hasn’t changed with the New Right, though a creative, often eclectic approach now animates that exercise.   

Much of the New Right, reactionary energy is fueled by critiques of what has passed for conservatism for the past several generations. Such conservatives, as Davidson justifiably argues, have conserved precious little. Chief among the old conservative defects in the dead consensus was an allergy to state power. Said allergy was defended on surprisingly non-conservative basis, namely, that the American ethos was historically defined by the bare pursuit of personal pleasure (a bastardized, unclassical “happiness”) governed by harm-principle-ethics such that no generally applicable substantive vision of the good could be justly pursued by government power. Instead, government power was cast in the role of defending everyone’s right to define and pursue the sweet mysteries of life for themselves. Left undefended, the old ties that bind—moral, familial, and legal—were frayed. In other words, the chosen strategy of the old right against the openly deconstructive and destructive impulses of the left was ineffective. Like water on a grease fire. False visions of the good must be combated with an equivalent counter. Conservatives of the past half century opted to fight with one (or both?) hand(s) tied behind their backs in the face of a long (but brisk) march through the institutions.

And so, here we are. Shedding tired, deleterious dogmas (e.g., small government) is a prerequisite for conservatives, formerly so-called. Market fundamentalism and libertarian fictions can no longer inform policy. Simultaneously optimizing consumer choice and insulating demonstrably predatorial corporations from public accountability is a recipe for unmitigated disaster, especially now.

This is where Jon Askonas comes in. His astute analysis at Compact is essential material. It considers what “conservatives” have been so reluctant to even notice, i.e., the disruptive effects of technology and the interaction between ideology and material conditions generally. While conservatives have decried ideologies of progress they have typically left unchecked, indeed, encouraged, technological advancement.

What defined modern conservatism was its attempt, against the onslaught of revolutionary ideologies, to set aside foundational questions in order to make common cause in defense of the actually existing human order. But the movement failed because it neglected the true revolutionary principle: technological transformation. When you descend from lofty rhetoric about “Traditions” and “Values,” it becomes apparent that a huge number of the actual practices and social institutions which built those virtues have disintegrated, not because of Progressivism or Socialism but because of the new environment and political economy generated by technology.

For example, Carl Trueman often discusses the effect of mass market automobiles on church attendance, the demolition of the parish system, and an adoption of seeker-friendly models of ministry to accommodate religious market competition. This does not entail Luddism. Andrew Pettegree has shown the indispensability of press technology for Luther’s reformation. Rather, it means that although technology itself is not essentially good or bad, we must account for its effects and adapt (or not adapt) the latest and greatest to higher ends, to the human telos and the common good. For Askonas, much like Davidson, we can no longer conserve. We must build. This inevitably requires building in our own time which requires confrontation with available technology. What Askonas calls for is the exercise of judgment according to higher ends than profit and a rejection of the lie that one can “change the material form of society” without dismantling healthy and important traditions.

This is heterodox thinking for old conservatism, but not for the restorationist, reactionary, or radical. (For more commentary on this see Colin Redemer’s latest at Mere Orthodoxy.)  

From these insights from Davidson and Askonas we can, perhaps, construct something of a new three-legged stool. Negatively (and strategically) put, we need a party of opposition, a topic I will return to and treat at greater length soon. Positively, and rightly understood, we need a party of the state and a party of nature.

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Timon Cline

Timon Cline is an attorney practicing in New Jersey and a fellow at the Craig Center at Westminster Theological Seminary. His writing has appeared in the American Spectator, Mere Orthodoxy, American Greatness, Areo Magazine, and the American Mind, among others. He writes regularly at Modern Reformation and Conciliar Post and lives in Philadelphia with his wife, Rachel.