Because no movement resembling American social conservatism exists in any other affluent democracy, it is widely seen as a “retro” phenomenon soon to disappear, a sure casualty of globalization. Author and political activist Jeffrey Bell argues, however, that social conservatism is uniquely American precisely because it is an outgrowth of American exceptionalism. It exists here because our founding principles, centering on the belief that we receive equal rights from God rather than from government, remain popular among American voters – if not at elite institutions.
In his new book, Bell posits that upheavals of the 1960s set the stage for social conservatism’s rise. The left’s agenda, particularly the sexual revolution, triumphed among elite opinion in the United States, Europe, Japan, and elsewhere. This happened after the left sidelined its century-long drive for socialism and returned to its roots in Rousseau and the radical French revolutionaries, who sought to break free from civilizing institutions, particularly religion and the family.
American social conservatism derives from a branch of the Enlightenment that Bell analyzes as the “conservative enlightenment.” The ability of this optimistic belief system – which dominated the American founding and transformed the English-speaking world – to spread its natural-law-centered vision of democracy will affect the shape of politics in the decades ahead.
Jeffrey Bell, a former president of the Manhattan Institute, ran for the U.S. Senate from New Jersey in 1978 and 1982. He served as an aide to President Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon and to Congressman Jack Kemp of New York. A Visiting Scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, he presently serves on the Board of Directors of the American Conservative Union and the Campaign Finance Institute at George Washington University.
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