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Conservatism Can Still Represent the American People

By Michael Lucchese

Last week, during an interview on CNBC, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump proudly declared “I am not a conservative.” His third nomination is undeniably a sign that the Republican party is moving away from the twentieth century conservative movement.

  In a recent essay for Fusion, evangelical Substacker Aaron Renn labels this trend the emergence of a “post-conservative world.” According to Renn, attempts by National Review’s writers and Republican politicians to “fuse” together libertarianism, traditionalism, and anticommunism may have succeeded in the 1980 election. Yet a similar “fusion” would today prove to be an “uneasy synthesis.”

  In one respect, Renn is right. The policy initiatives of the last century cannot make conservatism relevant again. Not many are crying out for more federal tax cuts. Libertarian ideology can never heal the diseases of social isolation, substance abuse, and the decline of marriage afflicting this country. After the defeat of the Soviet Union, there is less agreement about the main challenge for American foreign policy.

  But Renn underestimates the spiritual vitality conservatism can restore to the American republic, in no small part because he misrepresents the history of the conservative movement.

  Renn hangs much of his argument about the irrelevance of old-style conservatism on an observation from historian George Nash that the traditionalist thinkers of the 20th century were at some “distance” from the American people. Many were Roman or Anglo-Catholic, the argument goes, and therefore out-of-touch with the spiritual life of America, which was mostly a Protestant country. It true that intellectual conservatives were disproportionately Catholic, but this observation is somewhat misleading. Russell Kirk, for example, did not become a Roman Catholic until 1964, more than a decade after he published The Conservative Mind. Richard Weaver and M.E. Bradford, two leading Southern traditionalists, were Episcopalian and Southern Baptist respectively. Robert Nisbet, another prominent traditionalist with Southern roots, never converted to Roman Catholicism.

  But even among Roman Catholics, Renn overestimates the extent to which conservative leaders were alienated from the American people. The case of William F. Buckley, Jr., is instructive. As Matthew Continetti recounts in his magisterial The Right, Buckley began his career in conservatism with an essentially European outlook. His Roman Catholic faith was one of his chief intellectual inspirations and he moved in elitist circles that had a certain contempt for ordinary American life.

  Over time though, Continetti argues, Buckley’s conservatism became more and more self-consciously American. He came to understand the Founding more deeply, in part thanks to the scholarship of Harry Jaffa, and came to see the American way of life as an expression of the Founders’ philosophical insights. Buckley may not have exactly started from that patriotic position But he certainly ended up there – and he brought the movement along with him.

  Other movement conservatives were far more populist than Renn assumes. Whittaker Chambers, for instance, lauded the “common people” at great length in his memoir Witness and his work at Time Magazine and National Review. In The Conservative Mind, Kirk identifies the conservative interest with “the allegiance of humble men whose sureties are prejudice and prescription.” Even Buckley came to assert that “the average American is a little bit above average” and he “would rather be governed by the first 2000 people in the Boston telephone directory than by the 2000 people on the faculty of Harvard University.” The statement may reflect the influence of Willmoore Kendall, the son of a Methodist minister in Oklahoma, who did enter the Roman Catholic Church but never abandoned his populism.

  It was not the American people these conservatives opposed, but rather the liberal elite who falsely claimed to rule on their behalf. Movement conservatives saw progressive innovations as a betrayal of the American people, not a legitimate expression of their will. They considered Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal a kind of revolution against constitutional order, and the increasing control of centralizing bureaucrats a violation of popular sovereignty. Conservatism was, in fact, a radical position, completely at odds with the political and literary elite. That is, however, precisely why it came to resonate with the people.

  Renn further objects to midcentury conservatism in part because he does not believed it was “carrying on a historically continuous intellectual tradition.” But he misunderstands the purpose of the movement. As Continetti puts it in The Right, “The preservation of the American idea of liberty and the familial, communal, religious, and political institutions that incarnate and sustain it — that is what makes American conservatism distinctly American.” Kirk or Weaver may not have been able to trace their ideas back to a fountainhead such as Karl Marx or Leo Strauss, but they did not need to. They were simply attempting to defend the American way of life as most citizens of this republic lived it.

  It was this faith in the American way of life – our inherited institutions, our folkways, our shared religious convictions – that gave the conservative movement its vital energy. Unlike the declinists surrounding Richard Nixon, conservatives did not believe America’s best days were behind her or that they needed to simply “manage” competition with the Soviet Union. They believed, rather, that the concept of ordered liberty we inherited from the Founders was superior to any totalitarian ideology, and therefore must prevail against it. Shocking as it may seem to many on the Right today, the conservative movement fought for genuine victory over liberalism and communism alike.

  Here too, Renn severely underestimates the role movement conservatism played in American history. In this respect, his argument resembles one made by Princeton professor Greg Conti in a recent essay for Compact. “It’s all well and good for conservative intellectuals and think-tankers to invoke Russell Kirk and the like,” Conti argues, “but this outlook has had little real impact on the course of American policy and society.” These two writers believe the conservative movement could not arrest the progress of history and therefore failed.

  Renn and Conti would do well to reassess Ronald Reagan’s presidency. After the failures of Vietnam, the disappointments of the Great Society, and the corruption of Watergate, he restored America’s faith in herself by reminding the people of the true source of our greatness. Reagan was able to defeat Soviet communism and begin the long process of deconstructing the administrative state because he tapped into the spiritual vitality of the American people, a quality that conservatives such as Kirk and Buckley identified and gave voice to.

  Kirk himself saw Reagan as a man who would restore the foundations of the regime. In one essay, for example, he declared the significance of Reagan is that the statesman “had the audacity to declare that this American Republic will endure and thrive. He has been sufficiently bold to set his face against the prophets of decay.” Kirk did not believe conservatism was irrelevant, he believed it truly won the argument against liberalism and socialism. Republicans after Reagan may have squandered some of his victories, both geopolitically and culturally, but their failures should not lead us to discard the movement’s successes.

  Despite all his arguments against the conservative movement, Renn admirably refuses – unlike Donald Trump – to ditch the label “conservative.” He concludes that he “will not abandon identifying with the people I grew up with in Southern Indiana or others who are seen as low status because they are conservatives.” Such loyalty is praiseworthy, and very reminiscent of Kirk’s own dedication to small-town Michigan or Reagan’s fond memories of growing up in Illinois.

  The problem with the various so-called “post-conservatisms” with which Renn expresses sympathy is that they do not appreciate this “conservatism of the heart.” Advocates of integralism, national conservatism, or any number of emerging ideologies of the right do not understand the strength of everyday Americans’ allegiance to the Constitution or the broader American tradition. They lack the confidence in the people earlier conservatives possessed in abundance, and therefore will fail to gain the popularity necessary to implement true reform. Renn himself points out that Trump is most rhetorically effective when he talks about America and its own historical symbols.

  Renn is right to suppose that America does not need the revival of a vulgar libertarianism. But America does need, perhaps more than ever, a renewed confidence in her authentic traditions and real way of life. As Kirk put it at the end of The Conservative Mind, “If men of affairs can rise to the summons of poets, the norms of culture and politics may endure despite the follies of the time.”


Michael Lucchese is a Krauthammer Fellow at the Tikvah Fund, and the founder of Pipe Creek Consulting.


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