The Future of Conservatism: Community, the Common Good, and State Power

COMMENTARY Conservatism

The Future of Conservatism: Community, the Common Good, and State Power

May 24th, 2022 16 min read
COMMENTARY BY
Kevin Roberts, Ph.D.

President

Dr. Kevin Roberts serves as the seventh president in Heritage’s 49-year history.
We who describe ourselves as conservatives have our work cut out for us. John Aravosis / EyeEm / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

Even as we engage in very important policy debates, what don’t change are the principles that give us the very understanding of what it means to be conservative.

Three forces will soon converge, providing a once-in-a-lifetime opening for our side—provided we can minimize the tribalism that currently besets the Right.

Ultimately, this is a battle between us and the self-appointed elites who have instituted a despotism that just five years ago I would not have predicted.

We who describe ourselves as conservatives have our work cut out for us. This is not true merely because of the policies of the current presidential administration, or the increasingly radical stances of the modern American Left, or because of the state of American culture. What presents the greatest challenge to conservatives is, well . . . conservatives.

Our movement is deeply splintered. That tends to be our historical default, but today the movement’s fissures are especially deep. In fact, veritable chasms have emerged, ever widening as political currents erode the bedrock on which generations of agreement, or at least detente, have rested.

It’s now fashionable to carve out one’s ideological niche and verbally assail other conservatives, as some sort of dystopian competition on the American Right. Consequently, American conservatism now totters on shifting sands. Many of its leading contemporary thinkers explicitly reject much of its intellectual foundation, whether that be classical liberalism or the American founding, or even whether a pluralistic secular republic is a heroic undertaking. That so much of this discourse occurs on Twitter only aggravates these tensions. It also degrades the conversation and—dare I say—those of us who participate in it.

One might observe that the very manner of the online banter is decidedly unconservative. Too few of these social media exchanges appeal to first principles, clarify important claims, or acknowledge that the competing position might have some validity. How in the world can conservatives expect to influence future policy—let alone win future elections—if we place “owning” other conservatives on Twitter ahead of building a more cohesive movement?

The good news is that our movement has been fractured before. The better news is that roughly once in a generation, conservatives are able to coalesce just enough to win all the right elections in the same electoral cycle, giving them power, however briefly, to implement those very policies over which so much intellectual blood has been spilled.

In addition, there are already fruitful gatherings where this kind of open dialogue is occurring. Since 2019, the National Conservatism Conferences have covered the widening fissures in the movement, admirably attempting to represent a wide range of opinions. Similarly, the January 2022 issue of The New Criterion highlighted the debate over “common-good conservatism,” where the same fissures are revealed—and about which a few participants display a significant emotional attachment to their positions.

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Emotions run high in this discourse because so much is at stake. On that, all tribes of conservatives can agree. Yet as we hash out our differences—sometimes collegially, sometimes less productively—what continues apace is the Left’s assault on truth. Leftists aim to impose a technocratic and elitist regime—the very purpose of which is to undermine every last institution that stands between us and Leviathan. One might say that conservative bickering is akin to “fiddling while Rome is burning.” (And, no doubt, there would be a robust debate on the Right about the extent of the fire!)

We engage in these arguments because our tradition as conservatives is to welcome discourse, recognizing that we subscribe not to an ideology, but to a set of beliefs that rest on the permanent things. As the historian Russell Kirk wrote, “conservatism is sustained by a body of sentiments, rather than by a system of ideological dogmata.” And yet our dogmatism, aggravated by the limitations of 280-character tweets, undermines our shared sentiments more than it advances some necessary and good evolution of conservative thought.

Reclaiming “the Common Good” and Culture

Community and the common good are central components of conservatism. The practical, specific circumstances of today don’t change the fact that these two elements are eternal parts of our beliefs. Part of this understanding is that even as we engage in very important policy debates, what don’t change are the principles that give us the very understanding of what it means to be conservative.

The use of the phrase “common good” has been, like so many other phrases, co-opted by the modern American Left, for whom centralized government power trumps civil society. In truth, the common good is an eternal principle of a just polity and is therefore central to conservatism. The common good, just order, and the central institution of society, the family, all subsume every other good that has sprouted from them, including the free market. The very reason the free market and free enterprise exist, and that our constitutional order guards them, is to promote and embody the common good. This “ordered liberty” is the fulcrum on which all the principles and ideals of the American Founding rest.

But the common good is built on the essential dignity we possess as human persons who are formed in our families, churches, and civil society. As a long line of Dominicans and Jesuits have instructed, most pointedly in the early modern School of Salamanca, this dignity includes our right of conscience, which is sacred because it represents our opportunity to participate in God’s eternal order of right. From conscience comes the recognition that we are free human beings whose choices must be respected, except when they gravely injure ourselves and our society.

Part of this freedom is economic and political, built on our natural capacity and need to trade and to govern ourselves with others. These pursuits require our common efforts and produce the common good of flourishing persons, families, and a politics that recognizes and protects these natural realities of the person. Government cannot dictate a malleable form of the family, civil society, or economic system. Those who propose such comprehensive visions, on either the Left or the Right, in the name of the common good, will surely bring injustice because human persons will receive not what is owed to them but will be commanded to arbitrary ends.

All of this implies the significance of culture that is built on noble habits, practices, and worthy leisure. In my view, borrowing from generations of conservative thought, culture is the very essence of what it means to be conservative, because it forms our political behavior. It originates in our homes, our neighborhoods, our communities, our cities, our schools, and it should guide our national debates. To use today’s parlance, politics is downstream from culture.

The historian-luminary Christopher Dawson summarized well the origins of culture. In his magisterial The Crisis of Western Education (1961), he observed:

Culture, as its name denotes, is an artificial product. It’s like a city that has been built up laboriously by the work of successive generations, not a jungle which is grown up spontaneously by the blind pressure of natural forces. It is the essence of culture that it is communicated and acquired. And although it is inherited by one generation from another, it is a social not a biological inheritance, a tradition of learning, and an accumulated capital of knowledge and a community of folkways into which the individual has to be initiated.

We ought to focus on Dawson’s last word there: initiated. Consider how little initiation happens in our culture today. It is, after all, hard to be initiated into something that is rotting.

Indeed, if we adopt a broader definition of what culture is to include the vacuous existence of social media and the malignant indoctrination of a generation of American schoolchildren by the education-industrial complex, we ought to be worried. If, in fact, our folkways, to use Dawson’s term, are now dictated by Big Tech oligarchs who exploit America’s free-market system, while being decidedly hostile to America, and by self-appointed progressive elites who are equally hostile to our country, then what hope do we have to save our republic, let alone our culture?

The beginning of the answer lies with a troubling, but very helpful, reality. At least the latter group are finally saying what they’ve always thought: they, not parents, are in charge of students. They see the government-funded school system as the means by which their revolution can be perpetuated. But it also reveals who the enemies are and what the battle line is, convincing a slew of Americans and political leaders who, for too long, have denied the problem.

Restoring culture must include enlisting these new arrivals to our cause—and not just in purely political exercises, as important as those may be, but in the long, hard work of rebuilding our institutions, whose revered rites of initiation have withered under the pressure of generation after generation of progressive assault.

Recognizing the Moment

America will succeed if and only if we reject these elites and tear up, root and branch, the institutions that fuel their ransacking of our republic. The future of conservatism, therefore, lies in building a program on political, policy, cultural, social, and educational foundations that can rebuild America from the ground up. Anything short of that will merely prolong our agony.

Three forces will soon converge, providing a once-in-a-lifetime opening for our side—provided we can minimize the tribalism that currently besets the Right. First, the healthy wrangling among conservatives will soon evolve into some semblance of agreement, hopefully with a heavy dose of an aspirational vision of how we return to self-governance. Second, the unraveling of the new political order and its strange oligarchical amalgam of the radical left, big government, and big business will begin (the last of which may believe least in the ideals of America). And third, most promisingly, will be the organic emergence of regular Americans announcing they’re fed up with the technocrats, the elites, “the science,” and all the ways those malcontents have exploited a virus to accelerate the imposition of their radicalism.

But we must seize the moment. The empirical record speaks to us as conservatives here. We utterly miss the moment if we don’t celebrate the Convoy of Freedom in Canada and its American analogue. We miss the moment if we don’t applaud the courage of Merianne Jensen, a Virginia mom of four, who respectfully but forcefully challenged the illogic of her local school elites. We miss the moment if we don’t appreciate our collective victory over Leviathan when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down President Biden’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

Those of us who lead legacy institutions also miss the moment if we don’t adapt our organizations to the modern threats. For example, I’m happy to say for the first time in its fifty-year history, The Heritage Foundation filed a lawsuit, to oppose the federal vaccination mandate. And the reason we did was not merely to make a statement about the vaccine mandate. It was, ultimately, about the absolute lack of authority the executive branch possesses to have issued the mandate to begin with. I’m pleased we won, obviously. But I’m even more pleased by what our lawsuit signified: that it is eminently possible, even for D.C.-based institutions, to recognize that the source of our problems is D.C.

Free people the world over are rejecting the ruling elites. There is perhaps no better encapsulation of the inanity of our elites than Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s antics in imposing emergency measures on his own people because of a largely peaceful protest. Pressured, for example, to explain the unwarranted continuation of various COVID-related mandates, Trudeau remarked, and I quote him exactly, “Mandates need to be followed so we can avoid further restrictions.” This is so traumatic to civil society: not just the shutdown, but the explicitly stated desire of elites to tell us how we need to live our lives.

I say that as a conservative. I say that as someone who understands that we all enter civil society recognizing that there is a proper place for government. There’s even a proper place for government in helping us understand that the free market isn’t the ultimate principle we’re aiming for. Witness, for example, why The Heritage Foundation issued a report against Big Tech, arguing for antitrust action to be pursued against their business practices. We lament deeply that antitrust action is, right now, the best tool in the toolbox. And the fact that it is the best tool in the policy toolbox suggests the work we have to do in rebuilding our institutions, including the regulatory state.

Big Tech is the enemy of the people not merely because they have taken advantage of our free-market principles. They have earned this untoward distinction because of what Big Tech does to us in our relationships with one another as human persons. And it might be nice if one of the intended consequences of this action that Heritage is proposing would be to help to restore those relationships. So once again, even that comes back to culture.

Roger Kimball summarized this well in the aforementioned wonderful issue of New Criterion earlier this year. I’ll quote one paragraph of his introduction, which is poignant:

The real problem conservatives face is not in formulating sophisticated principles, but in effectively confronting the juggernaut of progressive usurpation. For decades, we have been living with the one-way ratchet of liberal imposition. The harvest is a situation in which conservatives are considered legitimate only when they embrace progressive aims. Conservatives, in other words, have conspired in their own eclipse. Meanwhile, the true sources of value, not government, but the family, the churches and our educational institutions have twisted or been twisted out of all recognition. The answer to this tyranny lies not in the framing of better arguments, but in the deployment of a more efficacious politics.

A Better Political Agenda

More effective politics means placing the right priorities on ideas whose time has come, as my mentor, former Senator Phil Gramm, says often. The first is in education. I’ve told my Heritage colleagues and others in Washington, D.C., that if we as conservatives, especially those of us who are in policy because of school choice, miss this moment, we probably need to go do something else. The fights over Critical Race Theory are essential. If you’re engaged in them, continue. But that isn’t the end. You’re not engaged in that because that’s the ultimate aim of your activism—you’re engaged in it because you understand it is the latest example in a generation or two of indoctrination. And hopefully, it leads you to the next conclusion, which would be logical: there must be something wrong with the structure of government-funded schools.

What’s wrong is that we don’t have every dollar following every student, so that parents can make the choice. We are not going to fix Critical Race Theory, ultimately, until we go upstream and address the structural problem in public education. Therefore, it is the express objective of the Heritage Foundation under my leadership to continue something it’s always done, and that’s to be very active in school choice movements at the state level. In Texas, where nearly 10 percent of all school-aged Americans live, the opportunity to effect massive social change via school choice is unprecedented.

But our movement has missed a lot of opportunities recently. Until and unless we completely eliminate the U.S. Department of Education, we’re not going to win. Wedding our aspirational policy aims at the federal level with equally bold yet achievable policy objectives at the state level is the path to conservative victory.

Rejuvenating Federalism

This emphasis on federalism used to be conservative dogma, but it has gotten lost in the flurry of executive orders and D.C.-based proposals by leaders on the Right. Let me be clear: those are problematic, not just for our movement, but for the common good, for just order, and for freedom and flourishing.

There must be a place for the states in conservatism. Federalism is the constitutional recognition that federal power in America is forever limited by the robust and diverse circumstances of states in our continental republic. A federal government that ignores the self-governing traditions of the states and attempts to nationalize virtually every policy problem will falter under the weight of its own incompetence.

In fact, conservatism’s origins lay in the “country ideology” of early modern England, where an early version of centralized power by ruling class elites came at the expense of those who lived outside those centers of power. Because civil society and the common good are at its core, conservatism has always had a hostile disposition to centralized administration. Consequently, modern Americans who claim some sort of “new conservatism” while leaving little or no room for state action would unmoor our movement from its foundation. Whatever their ideological program may be, it is not conservative. Federalism is not just a last chapter in the book. It ought to be the introduction. Whether on education, on health care, or—as the attorney general of Arizona recently reminded us—on the federal issue of immigration, states have a role to play.

Third, it’s crucial that we recognize that we have an external threat to this country that is the gravest external threat to America since the Soviet Union: the Chinese Communist Party. There’s not just disagreement, but pretty vehement disagreement on the Right about that statement. I respect those who disagree, but respectfully would say that they’re wrong. And they’re wrong because of not just the human rights abuses in China. They’re wrong because the Chinese rulers mean to empower their own Communist Party elites, with malevolent intentions, including the extermination of the American ideal by the middle part of this century. We must come to grips with the reality that defeating the CCP’s aim is the clarifying battle of the century. It could clarify the context of our differences of opinion on education, on industrial policy, on free trade, on big tech, while we also focus on rebuilding our American institutions.

I say this as a recovering neoconservative. Over time, I have changed my opinion that America needs to be involved in every conflict to export Americanism. I learned how wrong I was by reading and listening to those with whom I had a difference of opinion. Many conservatives did the same, and we became far more united, especially on foreign policy, in the late 2010s. That approach to participating in discourse, without descending into tribalism, will lead us to building a more cohesive and coherent movement.

Rebuilding Institutions—and Keeping the Faith

Let me finish by mentioning two things I’ve not spent much time on explicitly. The first is institutions. This is where I’m getting into some solutions.

We’re going to agree largely in terms of principles that we’re skeptical of centralized power, and that we need to focus on decentralization to some extent or another. We recognize, especially those of us who are Catholics, that subsidiarity is a guide, but the church never intends to talk about subsidiarity without talking about solidarity.

For those of who are conservative Catholics, we ought to be able to work toward putting solidarity and subsidiarity in concert with regard to labor. This is what former President Trump put his finger on in his very unique way. With regard to institutions, now is the time for each of us to decide which institutions we save and which institutions we leave behind because they are set against us.

Yuval Levin has called this a time to build. Dan Burns has called this a time to build more schools—an effort, given my own background in founding and leading schools, I emphatically support! As we build, let us recognize an important reality: we need to stop wasting time and money on institutions that are working against us and find those institutions that not only are neutral, but more importantly, have a fighting chance to survive, because they’re going to take a stand for what we believe. And it’s because so many of those exist, because of the new efforts that many are making, that I’m optimistic. We’re winning.

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And that winning goes beyond the Virginia gubernatorial election. Elections are important—please participate in them!—but they are not the be-all and end-all. The end is what we’re doing far upstream from elections in building these institutions and having heart-to-heart conversations as spouses, as families, as siblings, as friends about whether our time and our talent and our treasure should keep going to institutions, however important they once were in our formation, that may no longer be worth preserving.

The second thing is the role of faith. There’s very little wrong with the structure of our government, the core structure set in motion by the Constitution.

What’s wrong is what Alexis de Tocqueville observed a couple of generations after our founding. To paraphrase him, what was wrong was us. Civic virtue can easily fail. He never could have imagined that we would stop going to church, that we would have each year, as Pew Research Center documents in its studies of religiosity, fewer and fewer Americans who even claim a religious affiliation. Politics is not going to cure that. The handful of schools who inculcate a serious faith in their students can help cure it. But ultimately, you and I will fix that as evangelists living out the Gospel Commission.

Amid all these very important principle and policy debates, we have to remember that, ultimately, this is a rejuvenation of society and of conservatism one soul at a time. Ultimately, this is a battle between us and the self-appointed elites who have instituted a despotism that just five years ago I would not have predicted. To quote de Tocqueville:

Despotism ignores the body and goes straight for the soul. The master no longer says: “You will think as I do or die.” He says: “You are free not to think as I do, you will retain your civic privileges, but they will be of no use to you. You will remain among men, but you will forfeit your rights to humanity. Go in peace, I will not take your life, but the life I leave you is worse than death.”

I sincerely hope that none of us will have to die for our republic. But if we’re not fighting for it with the zeal that comes from knowing everything is on the line—our nation, our most effective institutions, our churches, our families, our lives, to say nothing of our freedoms—then we have already lost. I’m not willing to concede, and I can tell you the Heritage Foundation is not willing to concede. For we see a distant hill—perhaps it’s a mountain, beyond a few other mountains, where hindsight will, if we can get there, offer a sweet, sweet view of having conquered these struggles.

But to conquer them, we must start on the journey.

Today.

This essay has been adapted from a speech delivered on February 10, 2022 to the Dallas Forum on Law, Politics, and Culture.

This piece originally appeared in The Public Discourse