When times are good, when institutions are stable and prosperity abundant, it may be that we are less likely to ask fundamental questions about values in society. Their importance is not as obvious to us when troubles do not appear close. It is when we feel the roots of society seeming pulled upwards by discord and social strife that ordinary people begin to wonder again what held the ground beneath a nation’s feet together to begin with. The conservative movement was born, in essence, to remind us of the roots of our society. Perhaps there are ways in which that conservatism has become itself uprooted from the deeper philosophy that sparked it. But what often appears to some on the left as a lurching backwards for patriarchal nostalgia on the part of conservatives today is far more often an attempt to hold down the tent posts of common creed—without which neither liberals nor conservatives have a nation.
On a call with Better Angels national membership the night before this article was published, author Francis Fukuyama in discussing his book Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment lamented that the United States has entered a period wherein identity based politics of the right and the left have plunged us into a polarization that threatens the civic health of our society. Professor Mark Lilla makes much the same point in his recent book The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics. Neither Lilla nor Fukuyama could be called conservatives. Like increasingly many liberals, they have come to believe that the dissolving of an agreed upon set of values and narratives at the core of our culture has left our political society vulnerable to chaos and decline. Each yearns for a politics that calls upon us to rise above the limiting brands of mere race, gender, sexual orientation, or the type of nationalism that prizes the tribal identity of the nation above any transcendent idealism that the nation might represent. To do this, Fukuyama believes, we must resuscitate our common understanding of the American creed.
The principles of American conservativism were first thoroughly articulated with the publication of a book called The Conservative Mind by Russell Kirk in 1953. In it Kirk articulated, for the first time, a defined philosophy of conservatism that tied together the contributions of various figures to the manifestation of this formalized political philosophy starting with the British statesman Edmund Burke and continuing through American history to include figures like John Adams, Alexander Hamilton and John C. Calhoun. Many of these figures were not necessarily Laissez Faire economic thinkers or evangelical Christians like many of those who would inherit the mantle of conservatism. What John Adams and Ronald Reagan arguably had in common however was that each grounded his politics in a reverence for the heritage of the nations and a respect for the continuing need of the institutions of culture and religion that had been its foundation.
In Russel Kirk’s words, “Men cannot improve a society by setting fire to it: they must seek out its old virtues, and bring them back into the light.” Barry Goldwater, William F. Buckley and Ronald Reagan were indeed figures seeking out the old virtues of society, including values such as personal liberty, faith in not only God but the nuclear family. In the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s conservatives like this were seen then as seeking to do much as they are seen by many as seeking to do now, that is to say to push the United States not towards old virtue so much as towards moral backwardness and greater inequality. It is also true that conservatives were not the only one’s seeking to rally Americans behind a common understanding of American idealism in those years. Martin Luther King, Jr. appealed to America’s Christian heritage and the idealism of Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson just as surely as Ronald Reagan did. But for all the great moral progress that was made in the fight for equality that defined particularly the years of the 1960’s, the conservative view that America was coming loose from her nobler traditions and institutions in the cultural zeal that emerged for freedom from tradition—not just the ugly traditions of racism and gender discrimination but from old notions of religious and familial norms and the laudability of military service, to name a few—would seem to have a great deal of evidence behind it now that we are nearing the third decade of the 21st century.
From 1960 to the present day marriage rates in the states have fallen from 72% to 50%. Birth rates fell to a 30 year low in 2017. Religious affiliation, participation and belief in God have also fallen across these years in similarly dramatic fashion. The percentage of Americans participating in military life is also at a historic low.
There are reasonable or at least plausible arguments to be made as to why all of these trends might actually be looked at as good things. Liberals are quicker to remember that there was a time when women could not leave abusive marriages, and that as a civil rights matter the easing of the process of divorce was an important change. Population has been at an all time high, in this country and globally while woman are for the first time in history approaching greater equality in career opportunities, so if people are waiting longer to have children or not have them at all that may not be a bad thing. The military industrial complex has a voracious appetite for war and conflict which we don’t want to feed. And as far as religion goes, well, religion—many will understandably say—is the source of a great deal of humanity’s superstition and prejudice. So if belief in and affiliation with this particular institution is falling, well, so much the better.
There is at least a kernel of truth in all of these counter claims. But what conservatives (and many liberals and others) also remember is that family, faith and national service are historically primary sources of meaning and fulfillment in people’s lives. Can it be any coincidence then that the sense of meaning, purpose and fulfillment in the American experience is diminishing precisely as our commitment to these traditional institutions is eroding? Anxiety, depression and loneliness in American life stand at all-time highs. Suicide rates, meanwhile, have been increasing for 20 years. And then look at our politics.
None of these social negatives in our society can be wholly explained by the decline of one area of American life or the other of which conservatives in particular tend to feel protective. But neither is it likely that the deterioration of these traditional bonds of American life are simply unrelated to our massive decline in social and psychological health.
All people need purpose and meaning in life. In our individualistic age, we tend to find it in our relationships with one another.
For me my sense of purpose and connection in life was strengthened when I got married. I met my wife to be, ironically, fundraising for the Democratic National Committee back when both were still Democrats (I’m a Republican and she’s an Independent). I met her and through her I met the church. Raised in a traditional black Baptist household, Triawna introduced me to a community of worship that I hadn’t had any connection to before. Seeing the culture of communal support in the black church community and the unrelenting optimism that faith provides, though I had a sense of that from prior experience, revealed for me in a new way the power of religious life in providing connection and fulfillment for a community.
My wife joined the army and for a time we lived in the upper Midwest. The military town of Colorado Springs was not overwhelmingly conservative, but in comparison to Los Angeles (where we are from) it might as well have been rural Texas.
There we lived with soldiers. Day in and day out, I got to see the comradery of men and women in arms, the suffering and solidarity of military families supporting, and waiting for, spouses and parents who were serving overseas to come home. I saw the bonds of purpose and friendship that tied young people from all across the country forged in the common trials of military service and sacrifice. I tasted my own grief at the loss of my best friend in a Taliban attack on Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan. But I’ll never forget his patriotism, nor the pride with which he wore the uniform. His example inspires my commitment to this country, and that of many of others.
America should be a place where people can dissent, where free thinkers and free-spirits can buck tradition and live life their own way. That is absolutely a part of this country’s character. It also should be a nation where people are free to criticize the state, the president and anyone else in power where conscience moves one to do so. It should not be a country where people are forced to fight in wars they do not believe in. It should not be a country where people are forced into a religion.
Yet even as these things are true, conservatism exists because the emphasis on this freedom from convention can cause us to forget the power and value that these parts of our culture have always held, and must continue to have for a great part of our nation, to anchor us in appreciation of the country itself and our obligations to one another.
Not all Republicans voted for Donald Trump, though surely most did. It is a vote that many people could not understand, and surely there is some number of those who did however big or small who were motivated by a vision of American identity that was tied to a belief in this country as necessarily a predominantly white country, and who saw Mr. Trump as a means to establishing such a country.
But for most Republicans, including many conservatives who disagreed with a great many of Trump’s words and deeds, there was nonetheless a view that Trump would boldly fight for the place of the church, the importance of the military, and even the sovereignty and identity of the country as one rooted in the ideals undergirding these institutions. Trump had not served in the military, was not convincingly religious, and though a father had philandered and been famously divorced several times. But as a politician, he seemed committed to defending the most important parts of American life, in a moment where the academy, Hollywood and much of the nation’s higher cultural institutions seemed arrayed against them.
I do not find my conservatism in Donald Trump. Many of those conservatives who voted for him do not. I do find it in the values of family, earnest faith, community and service that are so near the heart of America’s past, present and I should hope her future. I find it in an American creed that encompasses but transcends conservatism and liberalism. It is one that says that this country is a union of the people, whomever they are and however they believe, governed by the people, with equality, liberty and justice for all.