A Review of Up From Conservatism
Donald Trump’s stunning victory in the 2016 election should have settled the debate once and for all that the conservative movement failed. It was caught completely off guard, sputtering “not conservative” and “That’s not who we are” as it drifted into irrelevance for all but a small segment of voters. What the political philosopher Leo Strauss once wrote of the “value-free” political science of his day could equally be said of modern conservatism: “It does not know that it fiddles, and it does not know that Rome burns.”
Invoking William F. Buckley’s Up from Liberalism, in which the National Review founder attempted to correct the flaws of the corporatist liberalism of the mid-1950s, Up from Conservatism: Revitalizing the Right After a Generation of Decay features a who’s who of some of the brightest thinkers on the Right who seek to provide answers where the fusionist project fell short. The eighteen contributors present an array of bold policy proposals that seek to build a Right that, in the words of David Reaboi, knows “what time it is” and is equipped to launch a full-scale counteroffensive against the Left.
In the introduction, editor Arthur Milikh paints a bleak—but accurate—portrait of where things currently stand. “While leaders of the establishment Right were busy saluting American symbols—the Founders and the Constitution—the Left strove with great success to end constitutional government in America.” Milikh, the Executive Director of the Claremont Institute’s Center for the American Way of Life (full disclosure: I work for the Claremont Institute), writes that the “untold thousands of white papers” and “billions of dollars” in donor funds have been no match for the coordinated efforts of the Left, which currently “rules every consequential sector of society”—even the once thought impregnable halls of the Pentagon.
As the Left moved to take over every square inch of American life, conservatives have overseen a seemingly non-stop string of defeats on crucial matters of civilizational significance.
In the black-pilling opening chapter, Michael Anton contends that conservatives failed to secure America’s borders, deter the weaponization of the intelligence community, stop the free flow of fentanyl and heroin across the southern border, and halt post-Ferguson and Floyd crime waves. As home prices skyrocket and wages stagnate, wealth inequality continues to grow, especially between Boomers and Millennials. DEI has foisted skin color over competence in virtually every public college and university and Fortune 500 boardroom. And pop culture produces nothing but a barrage of schlock and rehashed movie franchises.
Moreover, Anton notes that conservatives have allowed the Americans they supposedly represent to be at the mercy of a ruling class that believes they are “irredeemable: born evil and deserving of every fresh insult” (see Hillary Clinton’s deplorables 2.0 rant for confirmation). Our so-called elites, he says, work “tirelessly to further degrade social and economic conditions for tens of millions and then enjoys kicking them while they object.” And what have conservative voters received in return for their troubles? Licensing reform for hairdressers, immigration giveaways, and their own rainbow coalition: Arthur Brooks’s Oprah-approved happycons.
Modern Conservatism’s Intellectual Errors
The core problems of modern conservatism can be traced to a series of deep-seated intellectual and moral confusions. First and foremost is perhaps the chief conservative myth: that America is a proposition nation. Carson Holloway defines this as the claim that America can be understood solely by its “commitment to the truths articulated in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence.”
According to Holloway, this error “elevates adherence to abstract principles at the expense of loyalty to our nation and to our fellow citizens”—in other words, it confuses a part (natural rights) with the whole. It has produced “a reflexive moralism” that gives short shrift to the preconditions of republican government and securing the particular good of Americans. It has also undermined our nation’s immigration policy (after all, the world is full of over seven billion potential Americans) and boosts the neoconservative dream of spreading democracy abroad.
Holloway instead rightly urges the Right to “offer a substantive view of the common good” that “appeals to the self-interest of the voters by promoting policies that aim to make the nation more powerful and more prosperous.” Above all, the Right should help inculcate a “patriotism that loves and wants to preserve the country we have inherited.”
Another stumbling block is conservatives’ obeisance to the current zeitgeist on race, which is as embarrassing as it is fruitless. John Fonte, the distinguished scholar at the Hudson Institute, argues that the Right must manfully defend the American way of life against the deeply flawed narrative of oppression, guilt, and shame pushed by the Left and its army of DEI bureaucrats and street anarchists. “We are not involved in academic arguments among intellectuals, but a life and death regime struggle over the American way of life,” writes Fonte.
In a similar vein, Hillsdale College’s David Azerrad demands that the Right “abandon the church of antiracism” and “refuse to play by the Left’s racial rules,” which have straight-jacketed conservatives for decades. Continuing to recite half of a line from a single speech from the “conservative” Martin Luther King Jr. is woefully ineffective and only further pads the Left’s strong lead over conservatism (since they can cite far more from King that agrees with their project).
First, Azerrad calls the Right to rebuff the powerful psychological pull of racial guilt. Second, it must also reject the “pathological pity for blacks” that has the effect of treating them like children rather than fully-grown adults. Azerrad urges the Right to abandon cloud cuckoo land dreams of solving the race issue and strenuously denounce the policies of affirmative action and the disparate impact that the civil rights regime has ushered in.
Finally, on the economic front, Up From Conservatism thankfully makes a clean break with the strong impulse on the Right to see socialism and Marxism behind every effort to revive a capacious understanding of political economy and a concern for the common good. “Abstract libertarian economics and a sloppy, overgeneralized application of laissez-faire rhetoric,” notes The Blaze’s Matthew Peterson, have ruled the conservative mind ever since the start of the Cold War. But this is completely out of step with the American political tradition. From the American founding onward, the prudential use of tariffs, promoting domestic manufacturing, and protecting key industries that are tied to maintaining America’s independence, among many other means, were tools of statecraft that generations of American statesmen have used to benefit the American people. It’s worth noting that following the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, the Tariff Act of 1789 was the first major piece of legislation passed by Congress.
As conservatives developed a truncated view of economics without the oikos, Milikh argues that they tended to reduce all political questions to their brand of economics. This is seen most acutely in their paeans to free trade ideology, which Peter Santenello’s hit YouTube series over the summer showed has helped hollow out Appalachia. But man was not made to boost GDP.
Conservatives’ adherence to what they mistakenly call “capitalism” has actually served to strengthen the financial power of the wokeified, transnational managerial regime. Regularly using the rhetoric of economic Hegelianism—that shipping jobs overseas is just simply a law of nature—conveniently denies the political choices that have been made, which has had the effect of hastening our subjugation to foreign powers.
Importantly, Milikh also reminds conservatives “that a nation can easily combine, in the short term at least, both prosperity and moral degeneracy.” Turn on the NFL for five minutes and you’ll be inundated with wall-to-wall promotions for sports gambling—even peddled by self-professed Christians who used to play in the league. And then there’s the rampant porn, drug use, and abortions (which have actually risen overall since the Dobbs decision).
Reciting conservatism’s litany of failures, however necessary, is not sufficient for reviving America.
Policy Solutions For Our Times
The contributors to Up From Conservatism offer a smorgasbord of policy proposals that seek to match the seriousness of the problems Americans face.
In the realm of education, Milikh and frequent American Reformer contributor Scott Yenor map out an audacious roadmap that restructures the entire existing system of education. With the guiding motto that “Destruction followed by reconquest is necessary and proper,” they call for states to eliminate teacher certification standards, mandate physical education for all students, and promote the trades as a viable option for students rather than continuing to push failed “college for all” schemes. Regarding higher education, they call for defunding state schools’ teacher education tracks, along with anything to do with DEI and “studies ” degrees—and even sociology and social work programs. Racial preferences must be banned, and state university systems must be broken up into constituent parts.
What should the Right do to dismantle the administrative state, something conservatives have been talking about (and failing to do anything about in a fundamental way) since FDR’s administration? Theodore Wold calls for the Right to reject the popular view of the rule of experts, root and branch. Practically speaking, this means firing a sizable chunk of the two million plus civilian employees who work in the bureaucracy and shuttering entire departments. Wold also urges Congress to pass legislation that would sunset all regulations, impose term limits for bureaucrats, and ban public-private partnerships that have woven thick webs between government and business, often allowing the former to capture the latter.
To break woke capital, Peterson recommends that instead of impotent chants of “Go woke, go broke,” states should follow the example of West Virginia’s Riley Moore. They should pass anti-ESG measures, forbid banks from discriminating against their customers, and remove pension funds from woke investment firms like BlackRock and Vanguard. Peterson also implores the Right to copy the Left in creating nonprofits that “run pressure campaigns,” including strategically filing targeted lawsuits. A significant part of this plan is building a parallel polis of aligned businesses that would actually serve the needs of half of the U.S. population, who our elites view with disdain at best.
Relatedly, The American Mind’s James Poulos writes that to “reassert salutary human control over technology,” a Tech Bill of Rights needs to be passed that protects Americans’ digital rights of creation and shields them from the surveillance of unaccountable intelligence agencies.
Regarding ways to break the Left’s grip on race and ethnicity, Eric Kaufmann makes the case that the Right must strenuously resist “the hegemonic diversity narrative” and emphasize and honor the myriad contributions of the “ethnic majority” in public. He proposes to stem the flow of immigration to bolster cohesion and protect political diversity through a systematic effort that includes adding political protections to DEI statements (whether this is a short- or long-term fix is left unclear) and adopting the Klaven Report, which bars university officials from publicly staking out political positions. Presenting a far more radical plan than Kaufmann’s, Jeremy Carl takes a sledgehammer to the “nation of immigrants” myth and advocates deporting anyone who is in the country illegally, ending birthright citizenship, and having the army patrol the border.
Last but certainly not least, multiple contributors offer ways to tame the forces that are tearing the family apart. The American Conservative’s Helen Andrews proposes that rather than making slight tweaks to the tax code, the Right should stop subsidizing college and childcare and promote male-dominated industries. In another chapter, Scott Yenor exhorts the Right to supplant our “Queer Constitution,” which “honors all manner of sex,” with one that supports marriage as an enduring union between man and woman.
Perhaps not every policy put forward in this volume will work. Maybe some lend too much credence to the existing system and others are better understood as ends rather than realizable means. But, at the very least, taking this roadmap seriously and implementing it could markedly shift the Right from a position of surrender to one of authority.
Building a Conservative Protestantism
I cannot conclude without highlighting the most important chapter for Protestants in Up From Conservatism. Joshua Mitchell and American Reformer co-founder Aaron Renn maintain that yesterday’s conservatism failed for one overarching reason: It lacked a discernable Protestant voice, instead being “a conservatism of religious outsiders.” It wrongly assumed, they write, that “there can be an America without Protestantism and a conservative movement without Protestants.”
Though I’ve personally heard these views be voiced in hushed tones during conservations when I worked in DC, I’ve never read anything in print prior that acknowledges this problem.
Mitchell and Renn point out that Roman Catholics have historically dominated the upper echelons of the conservative movement. Evangelical Protestants, meanwhile, have typically never risen above the rank and file. As the old WASP establishment gradually lost its cultural power and prestige, Catholic conservatives were able to “attract a large Protestant voting bloc” composed of “lower status evangelical Christians.” They cite Chuck Colson’s (possibly apocryphal) comment to Richard John Neuhaus on this power dynamic between Catholics and Evangelicals, which is still accurate today: “You supply the ideas; we supply the votes.”
This does not mean that Catholics have intentionally worked to keep Protestants out of the seats of power. Mitchell and Renn note that evangelicals themselves have largely been “actively and stubbornly anti-intellectual” and farmed out their political theology to Catholics. However, it does signal that the conservative movement’s strategy, rhetoric, and goals are undoubtedly influenced to some degree by the priorities and theological presuppositions of Catholicism. For example, try imagining the mainstream pro-life movement shorn from its Catholic foundations; it’s simply not possible to do so. What segment of the conservative movement could you say the same about Protestantism?
The Protestant elite vacuum is even more problematic in light of identity politics, which Mitchell and Renn argue has transmogrified key Protestant theological formulations on sin, man, and Christ’s redemptive sacrifice for its own evil ends. Unfortunately, this Protestant heresy currently enjoys “conversion rates seen only in previous periods of American religious awakening”—alarmingly, especially among Protestants themselves. “A weakened Protestantism gave rise to identity politics; only a stronger one will dispose of it,” they write.
Mitchell and Renn urge Protestants to reject the “flaccid teaching” of modern evangelicalism and draw from the deep wells of historic Reformed theology, which is only now beginning to be utilized. They also call Protestants to form a new elite with the remnant of believers still left in mainline churches.
There is no question that without reviving the Protestant mind, the American mind will continue to degenerate.
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