Earlier this month, at the Liberty Law Site, my friend John McGinnis had an insightful post about the current, sad state of traditional conservatism—the sort that prizes custom and the wisdom of the past, not other versions like business or neo-conservatism. Although classical liberalism is having a bad year, he says, traditional conservatism has been having a bad couple of centuries. This is so because it fits so poorly with the goals and values of American culture.
Americans, John says, prize novelty and innovation more than anything else. Perhaps it wasn’t always so, or not to the same degree. The American Revolutionaries resisted Britain in part because the Crown had denied them the traditional rights of Englishmen. But the ascendancy of free market liberalism in the 19th century and the advance of technology in the 20th have made traditional conservatism more or less irrelevant. “Our heroes,” he writes, “tend be the innovators who will bring the next new thing that will change the tempo of our lives until that new thing is itself replaced. . . . [O]ur culture values those who are closest to the future, not those who can best remember the past. In such a culture legitimacy does not come from a defined past but an undefined, but presumably more glorious future.”
These are powerful points. The market and technology have accelerated the eclipse of conservatism over the last few generations. But the prospects are brighter than John suggests. There are reasons to think tradition is ready for a comeback.
Conservatism has always been a minority voice in American life, somewhat marginal and eccentric. Custom and institutions don’t matter very much in a frontier society. True, we have had writers like Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper and T.S. Eliot (if it’s fair to include the latter, who became a British subject), as well as the Southern Agrarians, and politicians like Fisher Ames and John Adams. We have had figures like William Buckley and Russell Kirk. But conservatism has always sat uneasily with the individualism at the heart of the American identity, and with America’s idea of itself as a novus ordo seclorum, a new order of the ages. When Americans look to our roots, we find Jefferson, not Burke; in America, even most conservatives are liberals. Robert Frost captured this paradox in “The Black Cottage,” a great poem that touches on the nature of American tradition. Our tradition, the poem suggests, the source to which we as a nation always return, is the revolutionary concept of human equality.
Even so, conservatism has fared particularly badly of late, and the market and technology bear much responsibility. The market disrupts settled ways of doing things; it honors individual consumer choice, not community and custom. As we extend the market to areas of life like family—in New York, where I live, the high court has ruled that agreements about disposing embryos created through IVF should be treated like any other contracts—tradition, and the traditional mindset that values community and the claims of the past, dissolve more and more.
Technology, too, has weakened conservatism’s appeal, especially information technology, which privileges the new, the airy, and the evanescent: think about the design of tablet computers. Conservatism holds that institutions like marriage have claims on us because they date back millennia, because they are “time-honored.” But what honor can time bestow in a culture in which devices people invented only five years ago are already obsolete? Deferring to an institution is apt to seem to like insisting on a rotary phone. (Google it, kids). The only major institution in America today that still values tradition as such, that isn’t defensive about it, is the military, and even there I’m not so sure. The rising generation of Americans has relatively little use for institutions—marriage, organized religion, political parties. We see where things are going.
Yet traditional conservatism seems ready for a comeback. Although markets and technology deliver great benefits, they can be isolating and disorienting. Take marriage, for example. We now think of it as just another form of contract; actually, it’s easier to get out of than many contracts. Our understanding of marriage honors personal freedom and mitigates suffering for spouses in abusive situations, and these are important benefits. But no-fault divorce is likely to make people feel uncertain and vulnerable. Who knows when your spouse will leave you and the kids for someone else? Similarly, technology can make one feel uneasy about one’s place in the world. Self-driving cars are great. But what if robots take my job?
In this context, people naturally turn to tradition to find a place for themselves and make sense of things. That’s not a new insight, of course. But I’ve noticed that the benefits of tradition have begun to reappear as a theme in contemporary culture. A random list: Michel Houellebecq’s recent novel, Submission, is about the need to return to tradition to cure the anomie of contemporary French life. For Houellebecq, that tradition is Islam—but only because, according to him, France’s Christian tradition has atrophied beyond recovery. Orhan Pamuk’s new book, A Strangeness in My Mind, praises the humane traditions of Istanbul’s past, which, according to Pamuk, have given way to commerce and vulgarity. And the Italian film, La Grande Belezza, which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2014, suggests that people must return to their roots to restore beauty and sanity in their lives. None of these examples is American. But the importance of tradition may begin to resonate in our culture as well.
Moreover, traditions and traditional institutions have survived, and will continue to survive, because they speak to human nature. They fulfill basic human needs: family; community; a sense of belonging; an attachment to place; a link to the transcendent. Perhaps some people can do without these things, or can invent them for themselves. The Nones, I gather, think they can fashion their own religions. But most of us cannot. Most of us need the stability the past provides, the guidance of received wisdom. Some very smart people think technology is on the brink of altering human nature forever—that we are about to create a new sort of being, a transhuman hybrid of man and computer, that will inherit the future. Well, it hasn’t happened yet. For the moment, old-fashioned human nature endures; and tradition, however much we neglect or try to erase it, endures too.
At least that’s how it seems to me. In that Frost poem I mentioned, two men stumble on a deserted cottage in the woods, made black by a passing rain shower. The cottage belonged to a Civil War widow who has passed away. The men walk inside to look around. The cottage is forgotten, deserted and decaying. Like the values the old woman held, it no longer has interest for anyone, not even her family. It can’t survive much longer. And yet, as they are leaving, the men notice that bees are busy in the wall, and that the windows have caught the sun. The cottage is ablaze with light.