What kind of conservatism is needed today? Whatever it is will have to be complicated, or at least different from that of the past. Conservatism as such is simply the desire to keep what’s good in an existing way of life. Conservatives today, however, have seen liberalism transform the world they once loved beyond recognition. What can there be to conserve in a world that makes inclusiveness the highest ideal, and enforces the requirements of inclusiveness—the abolition of all standards other than those of bureaucracy, market, and purely individual sentiment—ever more single-mindedly? Can Martin Luther King day ever truly be a conservative holiday?
Certainly we still have a great deal to be grateful for: prosperity, physical comfort, and (in a purely private sense) freedom. But those things hardly seem sufficient at a time in which Leftist indoctrination is compulsory in school, workplace and all public life. In America a man can read and say what he wants at home and among friends. However, if he says publicly anything seriously at odds with “inclusiveness”—that immigration or homosexuality is a problem, that racial differences do have consequences—he’ll discover how many ways there are of shutting someone up in a society as interdependent as our own. What he says will become much less public as opportunities for making his views known shut down. He’s likely to have career problems, if he holds any but the most technical of positions. And in Europe he may find himself in jail.
Further, how long will present freedoms last now that we’ve adopted a social ideal that requires thought control and abolishes the open public discussion and personal independence that hold rulers to account? Certainly our current ideals are not things we should conserve. Right-wingers sometimes worry that the future will bring a horrible Leftist utopia, like Brave New World only more perverse sexually. It’s more likely though that the future will be simply stupid and brutal. Utopia is impossible, and forbidding thought doesn’t make it less so. Social order requires particular loyalties, concrete ideals of conduct, and willingness to sacrifice one’s own interests. Abolish those things in the name of the universal right of self-realization, and the result may be very bad but it won’t be the horrifying perfection of a Leftist utopia.
So things seem bad, but not utterly impossible. There is always something to work with and for. What do we do though? Here are some approaches people have suggested:
- Mainstream conservatism takes the existing life of society as a standard, resolving conflicts when possible in favor of traditional ways. It’s not an approach that can work once the Left has won decisively, and standards that in principle reject tradition (like inclusiveness and self-realization) are treated as ultimate by all respectable authority. That’s where we are now.
- Libertarianism at its best (that is, most traditionalist) observes that tyranny requires government to enforce it. In the absence of government, people rely not only on the market but on traditional arrangements like family, ethnicity and religion to order life and provide security. Therefore, libertarians say, the best way to let human life develop in accordance with its own principles rather than those imposed by the Left is to do away with the state as much as possible. The problem, though, is that the ultimate standard for libertarians is freedom—which as an ultimate standard can only mean the untrammelled self-defining human will—and that standard is likely to determine the strategy, alliances, and practical effect of the movement.
- Withdrawal. Public life in the West is intolerable today. On the other hand people can do what they want in private. So instead of watching the Viagra ads on the evening news and sending your kids to be indoctrinated at school why not drop out and live as you choose? This approach has much to recommend it. It’s not equally possible for everyone, however, because of personal complications or because it requires the support of a community—most likely a religious one—and not everyone belongs to such a community or could join in good faith. A further difficulty is that withdrawal from public life can mean loss of influence, and that could be dangerous in a world in which giving children a traditional upbringing might at some point be declared a form of child abuse justifying state intervention.
- Restoration of the traditions of America and Christendom. That’s the obvious goal for conservatives if neither “what is” nor “as you wish” are taken as standards. The way forward to restoration is, however, unclear. At present it must exist largely as a movement of personal or at most marginal local reform, and as an intellectual movement that aims to clarify what a rebirth of Christendom and of America would be.
So what is the conclusion? As usual, a little eclecticism seems in order. If the principles that are publicly all-but-compulsory are radically wrong, alternative principles are needed, and Christendom and the traditional American regime can provide them. The alternative must be based on something actual, however, which requires disassociation from the existing way of life. Some degree of withdrawal is therefore necessary. That will require limitation of state power, so libertarianism is also needed. And it will require sensitivity to the seeds and remnants of a better way of life in what we have now, so mainstream conservatism, perhaps in a more self-aware form, has a necessary role as well. Each can contribute. Let a thousand flowers bloom!