In the United States, Conservatism has faced a significant amount of cultural resistance from political liberals, progressives, and libertarians. The amount of internal tension within the American Conservative and Right-of-Center political spheres has been equally significant. With the election of Donald Trump, it is logical to argue that Conservatism seems to have failed in upholding the honor of its own values: Trump seems to be allied to a sort of transactional realpolitik bent on creating a blood-and-soil party in a nation where blood-and-soil logic is impossible. I intend to argue that Conservatism has been the label for 3 ideological strains, that American Conservatism was and should be of the Secular vein, that Secular Conservatism is compatible with Classical Liberalism, and that Secular Conservatism is the most important ideology of modern times.
Historical Roots of Conservatism and the Three Types
The story of modern Conservatism is much more difficult to dissect than that of modern liberalism. While the latter readily accepted scientific determinism and the support for large government during the progressive era, Conservatism has historically taken much more diverse forms. The first Conservatism might be described as the anti-plebiscite Romans, like Cicero and Cincinnatus, who wanted the Roman Republic to avoid a democracy of the plebeians and patricians alike. Their conservatism, while repugnant to modern notions of egalitarianism and rule-of-law, was genuine and contained each of the three strains of conservatism that I will attempt to lay out.
The three Conservatisms I identify are as follows (in order of historical appearance): National conservatism, Religious conservatism, and Secular Conservatism. National Conservatism, the first, can be described as rooted in ethnic (tribal) identity, and the utilization of the nation-state to preserve not only cultural values, but also cultural hegemony. It developed under the Romans in certain parts of Italy, and was staunchly opposed by the central government of the multicultural and multinational republic/empire. From there, it took up home in the German and Italian nation-states, manifesting itself in the unification efforts of those two countries. National conservatism emphasizes a regard for the rule of tradition over the individual, and of the three most staunchly stands against liberal values.
Religious conservatism is more simple, and indeed more obvious to spot. It is, as its name suggests, a branch of conservatism dedicated to preserving the historical and cultural place of religion in the lives of individuals. It was prevalent throughout the Middle Ages, and most staunchly opposes the individualistic attitude of capitalism. John Stuart Mill, a classical liberal from the 19th century, was harshly critical of religious conservatism; in “On Liberty”, religious institutions are the only non-governmental institutions that he says can wrongfully take away the liberty of individuals. Religion depends on the instilling of religious values in children, and it is the preservation of family that naturally follows the Religious Conservative line-of-thinking. Religious Conservatives, knowing the instances of government turning against religion during the French Revolution, in Communist countries, and with the rise of Nazi Germany, are often less willing to work through government. Still, their rhetoric (especially in the U.S.) calls for government programs with religion as a justification (like discussions of halting gay marriage, restricting access to abortion, and censoring media).
The final strain of Conservatism that I will cover is Secular Conservatism. This movement occurred alongside the development of classical liberalism, and essentially acted as a more philosophical, general conservatism. Unlike the other two, which are rooted in specific cultural traditions, secular conservatism was a movement based upon a way of thinking, conducting oneself, and acting through government. Its central tenets were drawn up by Edmund Burke, who was wary that the democratization of society would lead to Jacobin-style mob rule in Europe and America. Burke synthesized the liberal Enlightenment ideals of individualism, liberty, equality, and just rule-of-law with the underlying philosophical values of the other two conservatisms: respect for tradition, respect for communities, upholding of dogma, and wariness of change. Burke’s mission was not one dedicated to preventing the change in the world around him, but rather, one devoted to ensuring that change was worthwhile and done in accordance with good values.
Secular Conservatism fought with National Conservatism to fill the power vacuum of the Right left by the decline of Religious Conservatism in the 18th Century. Liberalism, in general, won out throughout the 19th Century, while Conservatism remained strongest in areas embracing nationalism. Still, the Secular Conservative position was strengthened through the philosophical arguments of G.K. Chesterton. Chesterton wrote extensively on the importance of dogma in a society, and called for an opposition to moral relativism and the giving of moral weight to “open mindedness”. He used comedy and observational examples to explain how civilization was truly a manifestation of a Burkean body of knowledge. He famously declared that “turnips are singularly broad-minded” in a defense of the social rules, norms, and orthodoxies that societies create. Unlike nationalists, Chesterton did not extend this knowledge to only a certain ethnicity or culture, viewing the nation state as a removed, library-like housing for certain rules and values. Unlike traditionalists, Chesterton believed that government should remain separate from religious institutions. Further, it should be noted that Chesterton disliked the conservatives of his time, believing that they simply acted as surrogates for nationalism and obstructionism.
The story of American Conservatism is as complex as the story of Conservatism on whole. Breaking it down, it essentially begins with the Progressive Era; though Know-Nothing nationalists, Puritanical Traditionalists, and Federalists might be regarded as Conservatives (with the latter having the strongest case, resembling patrician republicans aiming to preserve the order of English liberalism in opposition to French liberalism), the true identity of Conservatism is not manifested until it stands clearly against Progressivism.
While American Progressivism may seem to have been a movement for a moderate form of mixed economy, it was a movement motivated by poor philosophical principles. With a love for the Prussian autocratic nation-state (featuring an economy controlled by experts of social sciences and regulated by an unelected bureaucracy), Progressives found themselves at odds with the republican nature of the Constitution. Before the Progressive era, support for Constitutionalism (which was then essentially synonymous with originalism) was universal and non-political. With the rise of elite, liberal universities, however, the Constitution became regarded as a roadblock to be overcome for the purpose of Progressive policies.
Thus, in the 1920s, Conservatism witnessed its first major presence in American public life. Worn out from Wilsonian Internationalism which (for better or worse) seemed to drag America into unimportant European scuffles, Conservatism coalesced around a non-interventionist, pro-market, simple style of governance. However, party lines were not yet in definite opposition, and the Progressive Constitutional actions of the late 1800s and early 1900s could not be undone. With the Great Depression, Conservatives seethed in exile at the success of F.D.R., whose radically Keynesian policies seemed to be the final commitment of the American people to a Progressive agenda.
In the 1950s, Conservatism in the United States reached a true point of division. The threat of Communism (and the U.S.S.R.) put both parties into a pro-intervention position. The Republicans, however, were split between two notions of anti-Communism. Some viewed Communism as an ideological threat best dealt with through support for international cooperation and a defense of American religious, philosophical, and cultural values. Others were more nationalistic, desiring a purge of leftists from American government and American life through use of the Alien and Sedition powers. In the end, it was the former group that won out, ushering in a 1950s marked by American cultural hegemony, disregard for the suffering of Black America, and international stalemate with the Soviets. The Conservatives of the 50s failed to put forth an anti-New-Deal economic agenda, instead opting to simply cut down on funds to the agencies set up by FDR. Their intervention in Korea had mixed results, but was a powerful defense of liberal-minded Koreans faced with both Chinese and Russian spheres of influence. The culture of the 50s was more bottom-up than top-down, with social doctrines enforced as a collective bulwark against external existential threats. However, it remains true that Conservatives of the time focused on American culture as one devoted to a free and prosperous way of life.
The 1960s on whole were a second victory for Progressivism, and largely formed the basis for Conservatism in the United States as a truly definite movement. The failures of Richard Nixon and Barry Goldwater in the early 1960s were largely due to the global backlash against the controlled, conformist attitudes of the 50s. With the 1968 election of Nixon, it became clear that the Progressives were winning the economic battle: his failure to dismantle the Great Society, his creation of wage and price controls, and his creation of the EPA were all actions that conceded that Progressivism had created an American economic model that could generate votes. It is simply true, politically, that a dollar given to a person by the government seems better even than two dollars saved in tax money or government spending. Conservatism, bristling against the solely culturally conservative Nixon, resided in intellectual circles. It advocated for the rule of law, the elimination of the Great Society programs, and a return to American values. Downplaying cultural battles over race and emphasizing the sexual and substance-abuse culture of the 60s and 70s, it was truly a movement devoted towards the preservation of American ideals. Few saw a return to the ways of the 50s as favorable or feasible; rather, they admired the fact that during the 50s, Americans were united under American ideals.
None of this history would have been as it was without the influence of William F. Buckley. Buckley was the founder of National Review, a conservative-fusionist news magazine. He focused Conservatism into a movement directed towards both the philosophical and political return to American values and principles. It was he who argued against Murray Rothbard and the Libertarians, claiming that their views were so contrary to convention as to be essentially founded on hubris. He viewed dogma as a way to define that which is acceptable in society, and wished to counter the philosophical realm of relativism and moral subjectivism with the argument that the constraints of society are the only things allowing for society at all. Buckley was a staunch supporter of international intervention, and he held the view that American power abroad was necessary to preserve a free world.
From the post-Nixon era onward, Conservatism is more recognizable. We see the rise of the religious Right as a voting bloc, a sort of re-emergence of Religious Conservatism. The victory of Reagan is one of mixed outcomes, with some economic liberalization, a commitment to military might, and a strongly American Exceptionalist line of argument. The Bush and Clinton eras are decidedly moderate, as is the Second Bush’s “compassionate conservatism”.
In analyzing American Conservatism, one can take note of several consistent trends. First, it was never really of a Religious or National nature, at least in terms of elected officials or intellectuals. The Religious Right was a voting bloc, not a movement for any real legislative actions besides sex-and-pregnancy-related law. The Paleoconservative movement fizzled as attitudes against globalization shifted from right to left. American Conservatism was essentially about preserving the institutions and social values that allowed for classically liberal governance. It came about because of risk: once the Progressives expanded the capacity for power of the U.S. government, the Constitution was an insufficient guard against anti-American, anti-Enlightenment values. Despite certain economic concessions of the Nixonians, Supply-Siders, and W. Bush supporters, Conservatism was of the economic Right and looking to oppose greater expansion of government. I will, on principle, remember here to criticize the way that Republican politicians have handled economic issues, deferring to experts without much in the way of rhetoric in explaining the benefits of a market economy. However, in the same vein as Burke, Conservatism in the United States recognized the enriching nature of liberalism and strove to defend the body of institutional knowledge that supported liberal American life. Like Chesterton, Conservatives spoke widely of the importance of orthodoxy and tradition, calling for a re-alignment of values for the purposes of maintaining good society.
A Defense of Secular Conservatism
Secular Conservatism must be regarded in modern contexts as well. For while it is historically observable that Secular Conservatism is present in American Conservatism, a strong definition of Secular Conservatism within contemporary America is necessary to advocate for it. When I say Secular Conservatism, I mean
- Advocacy for Constitutional Originalism,
- Defense of the institutions of the republic,
- Defense of Federalism,
- Opposition to actions taken against conventional American values,
- Philosophical advocacy for both individualism and social dogma/convention.
- Defense of free speech and free religion,
- Advocacy for a transparent, linear system of general rules and narrow exceptions,
- Promotion of unifying principles of American government,
- Advocacy for small government,
- Advocacy for government where costs and benefits are distributed fairly and evenly,
- Promotion of market systems where appropriate, and support for subsidy of individual choice where appropriate,
- Advocacy for a secure nation and the secure growth of America through the human capital of individuals subscribing to American values,
- Support for families,
- Support for traditional institutions,
- Support for local communities and the people behind them,
- Wariness toward unnecessary, disruptive, or risky change, especially when undertaken by central government and/or when involving children,
- Recognition of the importance of political and social orthodoxy in preventing the devolution of the republic into mob rule, and
- Reverence for the body of knowledge that has proven to be the greatest achievement in human history: Western Civilization.
Through these 18 core values, Secular Conservatism is rendered ideologically clear. With its fundamental goal lying in the preservation of classically liberal American values (roughly stated as entrepreneurship, trust, individualism, honesty, civility, equality, work ethic, family, mercy, and justice) and American government, Secular Conservatism is distinct from Religious and National Conservatism even despite overlapping concerns for religious freedom and national values, respectively.
I will lay out how all of these values are compatible with classical liberalism by going through the values that cannot be completely manifested governmentally. One such value is Point 18, which states that Secular Conservatism begets “Reverence for the body of knowledge that has proven to be the greatest achievement in human history: Western Civilization”. This point is especially important to remember if one is considering the ideological-organizational axis of the alt-right and neoreactionaries. If there is one Burkean lesson to be learned in looking at modern civilization, it is that Western liberalism must be preserved as the basis of human society. The Chestertonian dogma of our time must be a collective reverence for the liberal values of the American Founding.
I also anticipate potential concerns from libertarians and progressives about how support for families, tradition, and local institutions can be done in a non-authoritarian way. Simply put, the term “Support” does not imply a positive enforcement of these normative concerns, but rather, the enforcement of a government structure that allows these institutions to flourish. The family, for instance, can be supported through a subsidization of nuclear families, a school sex education system that highlights the importance of family in child-rearing, and subsidization of pornography-free, violence-free internet safe-zones for children. Tradition can be supported through continued tax breaks for religious institutions and protections for free speech and association for religious protestors (who have recently come under attack in liberal states). Local institutions can be supported in similar ways. A blanket tax on profanity and pornographic businesses could also act as provisions for Secular Conservatism. It is important to note that the philosophical justification here is somewhat utilitarian: by favoring institutions that embody some Burkean social knowledge, society will have better outcomes. These policies are not meant to be forceful or coercive, but instead, positive and liberally consistent ways to enhance the society of the United States.
Having dealt with specific values that must be manifested in a restrained fashion when dictated by government, I will move onto a general defense of Secular Conservatism. On a philosophical level, I anticipate some level of pushback from existentialists and hardline individualist libertarians. After all, it is perhaps a bit counter-intuitive that a classical liberal might speak so highly of conservatism. Yet there are many important overlaps here between conservatism and classical liberalism. After all, Hayek’s argument about the Extended Order was not philosophical, but scientific: it was not a consequence of individualism alone that made aggregate free actions most efficient, but rather, a consequence of scientifically verifiable knowledge stored from the past being distributed in the present. While I am staunchly opposed to alt-right notions of ‘traditionalism’ and ‘preservation of the West’ (both of which are concepts I find rife with contradictions both practical and philosophical), we must not forget that history matters.
There is a certain amount of hubris that comes with the extreme individualism of some existentialists and anarchists. It is somewhat prideful to think that an individual knows both how best to allocate its own resources and how best to interact with other individuals and their resources. It is somewhat naïve to think that government does not play an institutional and structural role in setting up society. I am a Classical Liberal because I believe in small government that does not meddle in or prevent the social organizations of individuals. I am a Secular Conservative because I understand the ways that government can reasonably and justly work to provide structures that uphold the Burkean body of knowledge of traditions. The distinction might be found in Arundhati Roy’s “The God of Small Things,” a novel made famous for its take on the caste-colonialist social hierarchy set up by Indian and British governments. I am a Classical Liberal because I, like Roy, oppose caste, colonialism, racism, and government corruption. I am a Secular Conservative because I do not agree with Roy that all social order is inherently wrong. Roy, after all, characterizes all social order as “laws [dictating] who should be loved, and how”, with an instance of incest between the two main characters written as an example of “love laws” being truly defied. On some consequentialist level, dogma and orthodoxy are necessary to set a standard of normality for civilization, and to allow for a universal moral lingua franca to exist between individuals: this lesson is one which Roy might very well need to learn.
Secular Conservatism vs. Donald Trump
Secular Conservatism, in my opinion, is the single most important ideology in modern politics. The reason for this (apologies in advance to any to which this will be offensive) is Donald Trump. One can go back and forth about Trump’s policies (most of his nominations, save Sessions and Carson, I’ve liked); one can also debate about his racism and sexism (which I’ve found appalling and saddening). I do not plan to make an argument in either of those fields. Instead, Secular Conservatism is made necessary today due to the philosophical threat to American values that Trump poses. His postmodern language has accelerated to the point where, to him, facts and past statements are but irrelevant encumbrances to the now. His strategy was one that represented a complete abandonment of Secular Conservatism: Trump engaged in identity politics with whites, fueled nationalistic “blood and soil” sentiments on the political Right, and enabled a lot of illiberal power-worship. After all, with rhetoric that specifically engaged the white working class as a “silent majority,” Trump opened the door to class warfare and future opposition to American values like markets and free speech. His talk of blood-and-soil (of which there was plenty) has been echoed by growing alt-right and neo-reactionary communities, who have essentially created American nationalism from what was once American patriotism.
Trump’s maleffects on Conservatism can be clearly seen in the current populist stance on immigration. After all, as John Podhoretz argues, liberal immigration policies are empirically a manner in which national wealth and national values are strengthened, especially in nations like America. Podhoretz describes immigration as a manner by which the wisdom of one nation can be spread to others. Citing the history of Jewish people (riddled with exiles from countries and migrations into others), he argues that the acceptance of working, willing immigrants is a moral duty of nations with good values. How this conventional, Secular-Conservative argument could have evolved into today’s blood-and-soil, ethnicist, protectionist, prejudiced argument is best explained by Trump’s enabling.
One can also think about Charles Murray’s book “The Bell Curve” in the context of how Trump has fueled un-Conservative values on the right. Murray, a conservative, wrote about scientific findings concerning the heritability of IQ and the connection between race and IQ. His argument, both when the book was published and today, is that public policies designed to support poor minorities in the short run actually prevent the function of long-run environmental functions that would increase their IQs and prevent a serflike intelligence hierarchy. He explains at length (in a book of over 900 pages few on the alt-right have actually read) that his findings do not support actual biological differences between races, nor a method of achieving a eugenic society. Instead, his argument is sociological, and rooted in the notion that in-group preference and non-heritable factors are the responsible parties for the risk of dysgenics. Yet, largely because of Trump, many today speak of “The Bell Curve” as a testament to inherent racial inequality and the necessity for nationalism.
Ultimately, it is only through a Secularly Conservative enforcement of social orthodoxy that Trump’s ill-effects can be tempered. By recognizing the necessity of anti-democratic institutions, by promoting civil and politically courteous speech whenever possible, by standing by Constitutional rights, and by avoiding the rhetorical allure of illiberalism, we can preserve the philosophical language common to America. In condemning the language of Trump and in condemning those who disingenuously defend him for gains personal, political, or financial, we are able to return discussions to reasonable, honest endeavors to improve society. This is not a document designed as some silver bullet against Trump. Instead, it is an essay to tell a story and to make a suggestion. If Trump succeeds with his policies and gets by without internal resistance over his rhetoric, the Right will have abandoned commitment to limited, just, honest, peaceful, secure, reverent, principled government. Without a robust Secular Conservatism underscoring modern political advocacy, we will be unable to claim any form of conservatism in the future. Even today, I fear that it might be too late: true, honest Conservatism is all but absent in Washington and in America; the former is bitterly divided, the latter is swept up in populism, socialism, and nationalism. Without a defense of order, social civility, disinterestedness, graciousness, humility, and skepticism, Trump will have gutted Conservatism from the GOP entirely.
Conservatism Future and Past, and Final Conclusions
Looking toward the future, several threats face the liberty of the United States of America. Chinese autocratic communism, the radical left, the European economic model, and techno-unemployment all threaten to reduce human liberty and twist the hand of government into one of well-intentioned authoritarianism. The American response to these cannot be nationalistic. Sealing off our border sends a message to the world that liberty is no longer universal under market liberalism. Calling for blood and soil is not just immature: it is wrong-headed fuel for the tribal fires of those who oppose human freedom. America cannot become Europe or China or some college-campus Soviet. The rhetoric and ideology of secular conservatism will save us, not by reverting to some imagined unified goodness, but by recognizing the fact that historical ways of looking at our world tend to be ones that uphold long-run liberty. Viewing people as individuals and upholding republican government–the two central tenets of Classical Liberalism–are our two most important cultural values identified through a Secular Conservative analysis of American History. By creating pragmatic solutions to these problems, by recognizing how structures and institutions can house social history, and by acting in accordance with all values of Classical Liberalism, we will be truly prepared to face the challenges of tomorrow. In short, if Conservatism is to be applied in modern times, it suggests a return not to traditionalist social roles or nationalist culture division, but instead, a governmental return to Classical Liberalism and the structural defense of traditions and orthodoxies consistent with Western Liberalism.