This essay is a response to “Against the Dead Consensus
The philosophical premise of “Against the Dead Consensus” is that the Republican party’s ideological foundations have strengthened the atomistic liberalism that the conservative tradition has always opposed. By acquiescing to an understanding of the human condition as homo economicus, by indulging Wilsonian utopianism in foreign affairs, and by elevating freedom above all other political goods, the Republican establishment lost sight of “permanent truths.” Two decades into the twenty-first century, conservative politics needs to be recalibrated to the truths of conservative epistemology and sociology.
Conservatism's epistemological insight is rooted in the permanent truth of human imperfection. The argument for federalism and limited government, separated powers, a diffuse market economy, and civil society is not premised on greed or an abstract love of freedom, as capitalism’s critics sometimes accuse, but on the recognition that each of us is broken, needy, perhaps even partly wicked. Conservative epistemology is epistemological humility, and epistemological humility should guide conservative policy.
Conservative sociology is another response to human imperfection. “Against the Dead Consensus” describes the inadequacy of consensus conservatism to protect the society that matters most: family stability and communal solidarity. In our battle against Soviet collectivism, American conservatives weaponized Ayn Rand to fight Karl Marx, and for understandable reasons. But the opposition of statism with individualism was itself a fatal conceit. American sociologist Robert Nisbet offered a better framework, showing us that individualism and statism need each other, they grow together, and together they conspire against the society of mediating institutions that function as the seedbeds of virtue. As individuals become alienated from community, they come to rely on the impersonal state more than ever. The “Dead Consensus” too often strengthened the state by treating Americans as utility-maximizing abstractions instead of the friends, citizens, congregants, employees, and family that we are. Conservative domestic policy should ask what strengthens the collective “we” before it tends to the solitary “me.”
The principles articulated in “Against the Dead Consensus” seek to strengthen the bonds of American membership. But I would add a point about how technology shapes our tastes and affects our communities. Conservatives should face up to just how badly we are losing the popular culture. Streaming services have given music and television new life, and they will remain the most consequential shadows that dance on the walls of our cave, educating our sensibilities whether we like it or not. Conservatives should invest in creating ennobling media of the highest quality, including television. The same goes for social media. Conservatives have not yet thought through the manners and mores we need there.
As for our other tasks, it would be a mistake for those who look beyond the Trump years to assume that the Republican base is ideologically conservative. As Salena Zito and Brad Todd show in The Great Revolt, there were some conservatives among the president’s voting coalition, but that coalition also included voters frustrated with politics and voters not driven by any ideology at all. Conservative intellectuals should speak to these women and men without assuming that they are as conservative as we are. Our task, in serving the larger conservative movement, is to persuade.
And to persuade, conservative thinkers will have to become at once less political and more political. We need to become less political in the immediate term. That begins with not repeating the mistakes of religious progressives, whose political faith has eclipsed their religious obligations. The effort to conform the enduring truths of religion to the leftist politics of this cultural moment is wrong; no less wrong is the effort to make religion adhere to the worldly demands of political conservatism. Our great religious traditions are larger than politics.
In particular, conservative thinkers and religious authorities should not willingly exchange our ability to bear moral witness to our shared political life for trifling political gains. The senators who voted to support President Trump’s emergency declaration had their reasons, including a genuine crisis on our southern border. But when a Democratic president next declares a nakedly political executive emergency and these same senators repair to the language of constitutional limits, they will be criticized as hypocrites. And those criticisms will be right.
At the same time conservative thinkers need to become more political in the larger, democratic sense of the term. We should try to persuade our fellow citizens. We need to make arguments about the wisdom of our views, to defend the goods of givenness and tradition, and to demonstrate the fullness of our religious lives—especially to the segments of the Republican base that represent an anguished cry of civic suffering. Weekly attendance at houses of worship, marriage, and the having and rearing of children are all lived features of America’s Belmont communities, but these conditions of human happiness have collapsed in Fishtown. It falls to conservatives in the post-Trump age to recover the moral confidence to explain why these goods are good. Statecraft is unavoidably soulcraft, and whether we consciously desire to or not, our political debates inevitably assume and underscore more comprehensive visions of the good life.
There has perhaps been no more inviting moment for this kind of persuasion than the present. We should see the popularity of figures like Jordan Peterson as indicators of a vast popular hunger, indeed as invitations for yet more voices of moral seriousness—especially from the religious communities—to step back into public debates with the fullness of their religious witness. Conservatism should invest in and welcome a new generation of women and men like Martin Luther King Jr., Reinhold Niebuhr, and Jean Bethke Elshtain.
Zoom out, and such an effort to persuade is but one aspect of a more fundamental need to remoralize American society, the elite of which is not nearly so nihilistic and relativistic as we all thought twenty years ago. In the Clinton and Bush years conservatives misdiagnosed the main problem of the intellectual left as nihilistic relativism. It turns out that the woke left is not relativistic at all, but is in fact highly judgmental. That means that the woke left joins the right in our belief that the world is laden with moral meaning. We disagree on what morality demands.
Hope for a religious awakening in an earlier America might have looked to the traditional cradle of American religious life, the Protestant Mainline. But those Christian confessions are now the weakest and most liberal. Evangelical leadership has made its bet on the Trump administration, and only time will tell if that bet was wise or foolish. If we gain First Amendment protections in the courts but lose a generation of young evangelicals who see their leaders as partisan instruments rather than ministers of God’s loving-kindness, will that have been worth it? The rising generation of evangelical leadership will be crucial.
My own community of Jewish conservatives has its own work to do, which begins with encouraging Jewish Americans to embrace Judaism. But beyond our own small community the contributions we can make to the American public square are large. American mythology was once understood against the backdrop of the Exodus story—Americans too saw themselves as having fled oppression, crossed the wilderness, and arrived in a new promised land overflowing with providence. That foundational Hebraic contribution to the moral imagination of the West needs to be imbued with new energy and vitality.
Another Jewish contribution to the conservative future is the idea of covenant. Unlike a contract—such as the fabled “social contract” supposedly at the root of liberal politics—a covenant is a form of solidarity that does not depend exclusively on self-interest, and in which the human person is a responsible agent but not a masterless, Sovereign Self. Forgotten intellectual guides like Daniel Elazar are ripe for us to rediscover the significance of covenant. The truths of the Hebrew Bible are at the foundation of our American practice of liberty under the law, of liberty tempered by order, and they will be necessary for the future of American freedom.
One last point that the authors of “Against the Dead Consensus” do not discuss: Hard American military power must remain the leading guarantor of stability and order in a bloody and chaotic world. We should not shoulder this responsibility alone. We should not presume that a fully realized democracy lurks just beneath the surface of every despotic regime. American foreign policy should serve clear American purposes before utopian delusions. But if we wish to secure for ourselves and our posterity the same blessings of freedom that our ancestors have secured for us, we cannot retreat from the burdens of power, however prudently deployed.
Jonathan Silver is senior director at the Tikvah Fund.