The 2016 election laid bare profound but long-hidden ideological divisions among America’s conservative intellectuals.
Some of us heartily supported the Trumpian insurgency. Others reluctantly pulled the lever for Trump. Still others opposed his candidacy, adopted the label “Never Trump,” or even endorsed Hillary Clinton.
Yet more than two years later, we speak with one voice: There is no returning to the pre-Trump conservative consensus that collapsed in 2016. Any attempt to revive the failed conservative consensus that preceded Trump would be misguided and harmful to the right.
We give credit where it is due: Consensus conservatism played a heroic role in defeating Communism in the last century, by promoting prosperity at home and the expansion of a rules-based international order. At its best, the old consensus defended the natural rights of Americans and the “transcendent dignity of the human person, as the visible image of the invisible God” (Pope John Paul II, Centesimus Annus) against the depredations of totalitarian regimes.
But even during the Cold War, this conservatism too often tracked the same lodestar liberalism did—namely, individual autonomy. The fetishizing of autonomy paradoxically yielded the very tyranny that consensus conservatives claim most to detest.
America’s public philosophy now puts great stock in “the right to define one’s own concept of . . . the mystery of human life,” as Justice Anthony Kennedy, the libertarian conservative par excellence, wrote while upholding the constitutional “right” to abortion. But this vast leeway to discover the meaning of existence extends to destroying the freedom and lives of others (the unborn child’s, in the case of abortion).
Yes, the old conservative consensus paid lip service to traditional values. But it failed to retard, much less reverse, the eclipse of permanent truths, family stability, communal solidarity, and much else. It surrendered to the pornographization of daily life, to the culture of death, to the cult of competitiveness. It too often bowed to a poisonous and censorious multiculturalism.
Faced with voters’ resounding “No!” to these centrifugal forces, consensus conservatives have grown only more rigid in their certainties. They have elevated prudential judgments and policies into sacred dogmas. These dogmas—free trade on every front, free movement through every boundary, small government as an end in itself, technological advancement as a cure-all—foreclose debate about the nature and purpose of our common life.
Consensus conservatism long ago ceased to inquire into the first things. But we will not.
We oppose the soulless society of individual affluence.
Our society must not prioritize the needs of the childless, the healthy, and the intellectually competitive. Our policy must accommodate the messy demands of authentic human attachments: family, faith, and the political community. We welcome allies who oppose dehumanizing attempts at “liberation” such as pornography, “designer babies,” wombs for rent, and the severing of the link between sex and gender.
We stand with the American citizen.
In recent years, some have argued for immigration by saying that working-class Americans are less hard-working, less fertile, in some sense less worthy than potential immigrants. We oppose attempts to displace American citizens. Advancing the common good requires standing with, rather than abandoning, our countrymen. They are our fellow citizens, not interchangeable economic units. And as Americans we owe each other a distinct allegiance and must put each other first.
We reject attempts to compromise on human dignity.
In 2013, the Republican National Committee released an “autopsy report” that proposed compromising on social issues in order to appeal to young voters. In fact, millennials are the most pro-life generation in America, while economic libertarianism isn’t nearly as popular as its Beltway proponents imagine. We affirm the nonnegotiable dignity of every unborn life and oppose the transhumanist project of radical self-identification.
We resist a tyrannical liberalism.
We seek to revive the virtues of liberality and neighborliness that many people describe as “liberalism.” But we oppose any attempt to conflate American interests with liberal ideology. When an ideological liberalism seeks to dictate our foreign policy and dominate our religious and charitable institutions, tyranny is the result, at home and abroad.
We want a country that works for workers.
The Republican Party has for too long held investors and “job creators” above workers and citizens, dismissing vast swaths of Americans as takers unworthy of its time. Trump’s victory, driven in part by his appeal to working-class voters, shows the potential of a political movement that heeds the cries of the working class as much as the demands of capital. Americans take more pride in their identity as workers than their identity as consumers. Economic and welfare policy should prioritize work over consumption.
We believe home matters.
For those who enjoy the upsides, a borderless world brings intoxicating new liberties. They can go anywhere, work anywhere. They can call themselves “citizens” of the world. But the jet-setters’ vision clashes with the human need for a common life. And it has bred resentments that are only beginning to surface. We embrace the new nationalism insofar as it stands against the utopian ideal of a borderless world that, in practice, leads to universal tyranny.
Whatever else might be said about it, the Trump phenomenon has opened up space in which to pose these questions anew. We will guard that space jealously. And we respectfully decline to join with those who would resurrect warmed-over Reaganism and foreclose honest debate.
New York Post
University of Notre Dame
The American Conservative
Ethics and Public Policy Center
C. C. Pecknold
The Catholic University of America
The Claremont Institute
The American Mind
University of Texas at Austin
Kevin E. Stuart
University of Dallas
Institutional affiliations are for identification purposes only and do not represent institutional endorsement.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?