Unhyphenated Conservatism

COMMENTARY Conservatism

Unhyphenated Conservatism

Sep 6, 2023 11 min read
COMMENTARY BY
Kevin D. Roberts, PhD

President

Heritage Trustee since 2023
One of the surest signs that America is in trouble today is the increasing division on the right. Bob Rowan / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

To move forward and win the hearts of the American people we must agree on certain fundamental principles that make conservatives conservative.

Conservatism must resist the temptation to answer the left’s outrage addiction with revenge and resentment of our own.

Conservatives must remember the soil of human flourishing is ordered liberty, not simply freedom from constraints.

The following essay is adapted from remarks made to the Steamboat Institute Freedom Conference on August 24.

American politics today is increasingly defined by personalities and superficial partisanship. From social media click-bait to cable news shout-fests to paid campaign influencers whose antics hurt our cause, our national discourse seems more designed to hunt heretics than win converts.

And, since our movement is dedicated to the survival and success of America’s exceptional experiment in “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” the furious tone of our politics today poses a unique threat to conservatism. It is not a coincidence that as America’s public debate has plumbed new depths of ugliness and arrogance, our public institutions have lurched further and further to the left. After all, progressivism is nothing more than premeditated outrage in an attempt to gain power. Anger, resentment, intimidation, and division have been its natural modes of expression since the French Revolution.

Conservatism, by contrast, is grounded in gratitude. At a very deep level, every caustic Tweet, every snide insult, every exaggerated accusation—however momentarily satisfying—ultimately advances our opponents’ interests, not ours. And not America’s. That’s why a commitment to civil discourse, good-faith debate, and principled persuasion is so important today. Especially for the conservative movement, whose prospects only ever rise and fall alongside those of our nation, considering how intertwined are the principles of conservatism and of the Founding.

One of the surest signs that America is in trouble today is the increasing division on the right. The success of the woke left—in public policy and electoral politics, yes, but especially among elite corporate and cultural institutions—has split our movement across countless fissures. Today many conservatives are at each other’s throats, even on many issues that used to unite us, from foreign policy to trade and from taxes to law enforcement. We have entered an era of “hyphenated conservatism.”

This corrosive disease is especially prevalent in Washington. There, too many Republicans would prefer to pretend these debates are not happening. When they do acknowledge internal friction, they say the debates do not matter. They say that the right’s sole focus should be opposition to the left. What they don’t say is that this mindless strategy of negative partisanship would conveniently leave the next conservative government’s actual agenda up to them.

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But we have tried this tactic many times before, with the same results: Wishy-washy, small-ball policymaking that endears few new adherents to our policy agenda—let alone delivering on the bold campaign promises our side makes to ordinary Americans. Grassroots conservatives cannot ignore our movement’s internal disagreements. We have to engage them, as uncomfortable as that process may be, for it is in those debates—if they’re intellectually honest—that together we can begin advancing a policy program that unites not just the right, but a majority of Americans.

The only way to revive and reunite the American right—and reaffirm American exceptionalism—is by rebuilding our movement from its foundation: from our principles up rather than from our politicians down.

Before we can know where we’re going, first we should understand how we got here. Few remember it now, but in five of the last six presidential elections before the end of the Cold War, Republicans actually won the popular vote—most of them by landslides. By contrast, in the eight presidential elections since, Republicans have only won the popular vote once.  

Clearly, something changed over the last 30 years. But perhaps it is more accurate to say everything changed…except the Washington Republican Party. Most GOP insiders still think of themselves as the party of business—even as corporate America has embraced cultural Marxism. They call themselves tough on crime while they facilitated illegal immigration along our Southern border and the weaponization of the FBI and Department of Justice. They think of themselves as the wise “grown ups” on foreign policy despite losing multi-trillion dollar wars of choice.

On fiscal policy, pornography, opioids, education, health care—and especially on political strategy—the Washington Republican establishment thinks conservatives should trust them. But the painful historical record of the last three decades shows irrefutably that we can’t. They inherited Ronald Reagan’s “shining city on a hill” and have bequeathed to us the Rise of China, Big Tech, and Woke Totalitarianism.

Now, I am president of The Heritage Foundation and a son of the Cold War. No one is more sympathetic to the Reagan Revolution than me. But we cannot forget that the conservative agenda of the 1980s was designed to solve the problems of the late 1970s—hyper-inflation, confiscatory tax rates, and the global threat of communism. The reason we revere Reagan is that he clearly identified and won those battles.

Today, we face many different challenges: Cultural Marxism, corporate anti-Americanism, an increasingly weaponized federal government, anti-parent schools, family disintegration, and the crisis of boys. And the fact is that tax relief, budget cuts, and a military buildup are not going to solve these new existential problems. To address those problems, to unite our fractured movement, and to move forward and win the hearts of the American people we must agree on certain fundamental principles that make conservatives conservative.

The first principle of conservative politics must be the basic unit of community, cooperation, and ordered liberty: The primacy of the family. It is astonishing—given the crucial role the nuclear family plays in the life of every individual and nation—that this point even needs to be made.

But the fact is the very idea of “family” is under attack today. The left rejects out-of-hand the rights of parents to educate their children and mold their character; children’s rights to a mother and a father; and unborn babies’ right to life at all. As the left has downgraded family life, marriage, and children, Americans have retreated from all three. Can we really be surprised that a nation dismissing family bonds finds itself in a crisis of loneliness, isolation, addiction, and mental illness?

Second, conservatism must resist the temptation to answer the left’s outrage addiction with revenge and resentment of our own. Rather, we must overwhelm it with gratitude. Gratitude for our history and traditions, gratitude for those who came before us, and gratitude to our Maker for the blessings of liberty He bestowed upon this nation.

What is conservatism except the belief that there is good in our world that we must preserve and protect from harm? “Tend and keep the garden,” Adam was charged. America has its problems, and the time we have left to save her is running short. But America is still America, still great, and still deserving of our work to save her. And as G.K. Chesterton reminds us, “The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him but because he loves what is behind him.”

Of course, one of the objects and sources of American conservatives’ gratitude will always be our miraculous Founding. And that brings us to our third principle. Contrary to the woke narrative, the United States of America is and has been the greatest country in the world from the moment we declared our independence in 1776. Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, Franklin, Adams, Madison and the rest really were heroes of history and all humanity. The immortal words of the Declaration’s preamble are as true and vital today as they were when they were written.

The Constitution is still the greatest achievement in justice and ordered liberty in the history of man. The Bill of Rights still protects us from the schemes of politicians. And we are still right to celebrate both. The left’s fundamental project is to undo the American founding. The right’s, therefore, must be to defend it and secure its myriad blessings for ourselves and our posterity.

Our fourth core principle is the reality of moral virtue and society’s absolute duty to promote it. The left long wanted us to believe that there was no truth and that every option had the same moral value. They worked hard to twist and supercharge Jefferson’s idea of “separation of church and state” to purge any hint of religion, moral order, and now the idea of Truth itself, from all public life. It was always a lie, but a lot of Americans—including many right-leaning thinkers in Washington, D.C.—believed it. Many of our own leaders retreated to defending “moral neutrality” and now openly support the postmodern, progressive dogma of subjective moral value.  

But the fact is, mankind cannot be happy outside of moral virtue. Faith, hope, and charity are not simply good manners but the very fuel on which our souls run. They are what make us truly ourselves—individuals, friends, spouses, patriots. We cannot shy away from this Truth; we must champion it. Neutrality between opinions is not enough. Americans need to know that virtue exists—and what is virtuous—in order to lead our nation as sovereign citizens.

Fifth, conservatives must reassert the core truth that our rights are endowed by our Creator, equally, to all people and not granted by government to the privileged, anointed few. For all their talk about “democracy,” the left utterly rejects human equality. Leftists’ entire philosophy is based on a belief of their own superiority, enlightenment, and entitlement. They believe the government should fund progressive interest groups and ban conservative ones. They believe freedom of speech should depend on speakers’ political views. They believe religious freedom should only extend to churches that attest to woke doctrines. They support racial discrimination in college admissions and in distributing government benefits.

Leftists believe left-wing mobs have a right to loot, riot, and shoplift. They believe government elites should be allowed to trade stocks with insider information. They believe conservative speakers should be shouted down and assaulted on college campuses. They don’t believe in the American people’s sovereign right to secure their borders, or ensure the integrity of their elections. They believe liberal politicians should be shielded from accountability while conservative citizens should be targeted by the criminal justice system.

Whenever stories and scandals like these arise, we look at the headline, grumble, and then move on. But we have to understand that what they threaten are the basic principles of equal rights, the rule of law, and the natural rights of man. Conservatives cannot hope to defeat this attack if we refuse to call it out.

Sixth, conservatives must redouble our commitment to subsidiarity—the moral and constitutional principle that says problems should be addressed by the competent authority closest to them. Matters of war and peace, treaties, and trade are by their nature national and must be taken up by the federal government. On the other hand, children’s bedtimes are the responsibility of their moms and dads, not government at any level.

The centralization of power is always and everywhere the left’s obsession. You see it in the dangerous, undemocratic growth of the administrative state. But you also see it in the creepy TikTok videos of teachers saying their mission is to encourage kids to reject their parents’ values. A conservative wit once said the only way to get rid of corruption in high places is to get rid of the high places. Conservatives must hold fast to our support for local, accountable, community government. For democracy to work, it has to be bottom-up, not top-down.

Seventh, conservatives must hold firm to the moral case for property rights and free enterprise. Yes, capitalism creates wealth and jobs and economic opportunity. But much more importantly, it affirms the innate dignity of the human person to create, serve, and reap the fruits of his or her labor. The left pretends to hate capitalism. But really, they just want to limit it to themselves and their friends. They want “contingent capitalism” whereby entrepreneurs are rewarded not for serving customers, but for serving the cause of the Great Awokening. Their problem is not that businesses like Target and Bud Light can choose to promote woke values. Their problem is that mere people have the economic power to punish and reward them for it.

Eighth, conservatives must hold firm to the eternal truths from which all our other values derive. This eternal or transcendent “moral order” as Burke described it, is what all just society must measure up to regardless of the government structure. Established in our Christian values, human beings have free will and fallen natures. Men and women are inherently different and complementary. Children do best growing up with their married parents, and both men and women are happier, healthier, and more prosperous when they get and stay married. Crazy as it sounds, the elite left rejects—or pretends to reject—every one of the above statements. They have injected their lies into our popular culture, our education system, our news media, and corporate human resources departments.

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Principle number nine is the nation-state. Though our ancestors came from all over the world, we are all citizens of America. And as Americans, we alone have the constitutional power and civic duty to lead our country into the future. The left does not like this arrangement. They distrust national patriotism, heritage, and pride. They would prefer America to be governed by international elites and institutions like the United Nations and the World Health Organization. They would like America to be ruled by Brussels or Beijing, and certainly not from Beaver Creek, Colorado.

Conservatives cannot play this game. There is no such thing as a conservative cosmopolitan. We’re Americans, born with God-given rights, including the right to direct the course of our national life. As such, our posture toward national defense emanates from the vibrancy of our belief in the American nation-state. The first question of our national security policy must always be, “What is in the best interest of Americans?”

The global adventurism which has reared its head occasionally in recent history has no roots in conservatism. Quite the contrary: A conservative national defense policy is one rooted in overwhelming strength—brought to bear virtuously, overwhelmingly, and, yes, sparingly. We must always be extraordinarily clear about what our strategic purpose is; republics, as our Founders would remind us, demand time-limited incursions overseas, otherwise we risk undermining our own common good. In sum, our mantra “peace through strength” ought not be equated with Americans paying for a global police force.

Finally, conservatives must remember the soil of human flourishing is ordered liberty, not simply freedom from constraints. Licentious living no more represents “freedom” than mindlessly banging piano keys represents “music.” Ask any spouse if their marriage bonds or parental responsibilities made them happier or less happy. Ask any athlete if their disciplined diet, exercise, and personal habits improve or detract from their performance on the field.

All rights carry with them duties—and duties, challenges. But it’s only in overcoming those challenges that we grow and succeed in life. Only when our lives are ordered toward the good, the beautiful, and the true do our individual lives and broader communities flourish. Neither selfish license nor woke tyranny can make America happy. Only individual freedom, grounded in moral virtue and interpersonal responsibilities, can achieve that.

Ten principles may be a little more involved than a traditional three-step plan. But conservatism is like that—because it’s true. The divisions today on the American right cannot be papered over. They must be bridged. The various sparring camps among our hyphenated brother conservatives must understand that the only way to build those bridges is together. And the only way to come together is not through campaigns and candidates, but in the deep roots of principle. The good news is, we all already try to live these principles in our own lives.

We all aspire to be men and women of family, gratitude, patriotism, virtue, respect, solidarity, and true freedom. It is no mystery, then, how we ensure the conservative movement reflects those values as well. I am confident that if we each commit to living out these principles, our movement will reunite and win.  

This piece originally appeared in The American Conservative

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