If the American conservative movement has failed, don’t blame politics
Notre Dame’s Patrick Deneen writes in Modern Age that America’s conservative movement is dying, despite—perhaps in part because of—the election of Donald Trump. He contends that the three “legs” of the conservative movement—anti-Communism, libertarianism, and social or religious traditionalism—never hung together philosophically. He suggests that conservative leaders, living comfortably inside the Beltway, gradually abandoned the American middle class, in which the theorists of past generations had seen the repository of the ordinary American virtues. More important, he writes, in practice conservative leaders sacrificed their principles to political expediency and to their own vested interests.
So while while the conservative movement seemed to prosper in the past 50 years, conservative causes lost support. To illustrate his argument Deneen offers a litany of depressing developments:
In the roughly half century of political ascendancy of American conservatism, little was recognizably conserved. The economic landscape of America was remade not only by a series of free trade agreements that accelerated globalization and economic integration but also by internal policies, both federal and local, that favored large corporations over small business. The rise of big-box stores was coincident with the postwar creation of suburbia and settlement patterns that found Americans increasingly living often at vast distances from work, school, church, and commerce. Findings by social scientists, most prominently Robert Putnam, demonstrated a consistent and substantial decline in the associational life of Americans and the rise of forms of what Tocqueville predicted would be the dominant democratic ethic of individualism. Every religious tradition, with the notable exception of Mormonism, saw extensive losses in adherents, especially pronounced among the millennial generation whose commitments to “none” began approaching the 50 percent mark. Schooling increasingly emphasized both sensitivity and utilitarian skills, rejecting traditional efforts to steward history and perpetuate a culture. Universities, in turn, became dominated by left-wing identitarians and a bloated corporate administrative class that together eviscerated distinctive cultural and religious institutional traditions in a deracinated commitment to vague social justice and job preparation. The media became saturated with explicit sexuality, incessant sarcasm, and default mockery of traditionalist beliefs. Pornography went mainstream. Demonstrations of bathetic patriotism became obligatory at every public event even though a tiny minority of Americans would ever be directly affected by the inconveniences of military service. In nearly every aspect of American life, little worth conserving was conserved.
This is a stinging indictment of American conservatism, and Deneen—who has been involved with the conservative movement for virtually all of the period he covers in his essay—makes a strong and unsettling case for the prosecution. But with his tight focus on the conservative movement in the political world, he fails to take into account the success of liberal ideology in its “long march through the institutions.” Conservatives came into power in Washington with the election of Ronald Reagan, but liberals maintained their near-monopoly control of the media and the educational establishment. So while conservatives were setting policies for the 1980s, liberals were forming the attitudes of young people who would take control in the next generation.
In this philippic, Deneen laments not merely the political failures of conservatism, but the broader failure to conserve a culture. The federal bureaucracy is not to blame for the loss of religious adherents and for the emergence of big-box stores (to cite just a couple of counts from the indictment above). Government plays an important role in shaping a society’s culture, but the church and the neighborhood and the workplace and the school all have their roles to play as well. Deneen recognizes this when he scolds conservatives for putting too much emphasis on political success. But he seems to forget it as he rounds toward his conclusion.
Deneen knows all too well, from his own experience, how unwelcome conservative ideas are in mainstream academic institutions. If today’s conservative leaders seem unacquainted with the wisdom of Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk, it is because the works of those conservative theorists have been pruned out of the PC curriculum. If people are becoming addicted to recreational drugs and to pornography, it is because those deadly diversions are so readily available and so rarely condemned. If young Catholics no longer go to Mass, it is because they have been given so little reason to go.
Deneen is more than half right, and religious conservatives need to grapple with his argument. But the failure of American conservatism—the failure to conserve a once-healthy culture—is not just, nor even primarily, a political disaster.
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