Before the outrageous assault on the U.S. Capitol, before the rancor of the 2020 presidential election, before the mob violence that engulfed cities across our nation last year—long before all this, Americans had been engaged in a fierce struggle over the history, meaning, and future of the United States. The American Founders, it is worth recalling, faced an even more fearsome challenge: to bring together different views and competing factions to build a unified, federal, and democratic republic. The possible consequences of failure focused many minds in Philadelphia in 1787.
Just so, the minds of many conservatives today are focused on another great task: defeating the progressive attack on our constitutional order and the moral legitimacy of the American Founding. Indeed, the ascendance of the progressive Left in politics and culture, and now the fury that has engulfed parts of the Right, can have only one result: an even more embittered and fractious society.
America was the first nation in history founded on a creed: a fundamental belief in the liberty and equality of every human soul. “The sacred rights of mankind,” wrote Alexander Hamilton in 1775, are imprinted in human nature “by the hand of the divinity itself, and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power.” The political expression of these self-evident truths is government by consent, the rule of law, and the separation of powers. These ideas are central to America’s political identity and represent a standing rebuke to those who would tear our nation apart. James Madison summarized the American achievement with these words: “The happy Union of these States is a wonder; their Constitution a miracle; their example the hope of Liberty throughout the world.”
Yet the American creed, and all its accomplishments, is under vicious assault. We have entered a season of identity-based politics and tribalism. It is dissolving the idea that Americans are, for all their differences, one people.
Although there are real dangers from abroad, much of the threat to our republic now comes from within. The ideological wolf is at the door: The separation of powers is giving way to judicial supremacy and the administrative state. Belief in free markets is denounced, while socialism is openly embraced. Meanwhile, the Left is ruthlessly pursuing its core objective—the liberation of the self from the universal moral norms embedded in the Western tradition.
In the midst of all this, we now face significant rifts within the conservative movement itself. While these divisions began to emerge at the end of the Cold War, they were deepened in the 9/11 era by the U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Economic globalization, the Great Recession, and failure to enforce immigration laws have sparked intense arguments about capitalism and free trade. The abuse of judicial power—by which the Supreme Court has effectively manufactured abortion on demand, redefined marriage, and reimagined sex and gender—has caused many social conservatives to become disillusioned with politics altogether.
Some conservatives have even rejected key propositions of the American Founding, especially those articulated by moderate Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke, Montesquieu, and William Blackstone. They complain that the emphasis on individual liberty—as mediated by the American Founders—poisoned American democracy from the beginning. Other conservatives want an imperial presidency working together with the administrative state.
The conservative movement has never been monolithic. But the emergence of thinking in some conservative circles that rejects the bedrock propositions of the American experiment shouldn’t be merely lamented; it must be strenuously opposed. A unified conservative movement cannot be forged around old labels; the pull of nostalgia must be resisted. Nevertheless, we can draw lessons from recent history. As Winston Churchill once put it, “the future is unknowable, but the past should give us hope.”
At the height of the Cold War, Frank Meyer proposed a synthesis of the traditionalist and libertarian strains of conservatism that came to be called “fusionism.” William F. Buckley embodied this synthesis in his own person: his belief in individual liberty and free markets was bracketed by his commitments to family, virtue, and communities of faith.
In a similar way, the traditionalist and classical-liberal streams also moderated each other. This helped to create the bonds that brought together social conservatives, foreign-policy hawks, and free marketeers. Led by Ronald Reagan, they forged a formidable alliance against the fearsome assault of Soviet communism on liberty, America, and civilization itself.
Today, our challenge is to confront and defeat progressivism by uniting around the principles of the American Founding: limited government and the separation of powers; responsible freedom, in which liberty is distinguished from license; a vibrant civil society, where individuals are neither radically atomized nor herded into tribes; a market economy, where men and women can use their talents to create wealth and value; and a strong national defense and a foreign policy that serve American interests. Therein lies the distinctiveness of American conservatism.
At this moment of crisis, conservatives must come together to defend our constitutional system of self-government. Here are some suggestions for a way forward.
Family, Faith, and Civil Society
All conservatives can embrace a renewed devotion to the family as the bedrock of a healthy civil society. Many of the nation’s greatest social ills are traceable to family breakdown. We must nurture the associations and faith-based organizations that strengthen families and unite individuals to tackle social problems with ingenuity, reason, compassion, and common sense.
During his trip to America in the 1830s, the great French thinker Alexis de Tocqueville marveled at what he called “the science of association,” the American habit of citizens’ coming together to solve common problems. “The same spirit pervades every act of social life,” Tocqueville observed. Organizations that help the poor, reach at-risk children, combat drug and alcohol abuse, educate the young, build hospitals, protect our parks, organize sports leagues, and bring people together to pray—these civic actors alongside the family have been the lifeblood of republican self-government in America. The Founders believed that such communities demanded special protection. Thus, they enshrined the rights to freedom of religion and freedom of association in the First Amendment.
Education is concerned with the pursuit of the truth—veritas—wherever that truth is to be found. That is the authentic meaning and goal of liberal education. For conservatives, it also means equipping people with the knowledge, skills, and habits they need to become responsible citizens. As Samuel Adams explained: “For no people will tamely surrender their Liberties, nor can any be easily subdued, when knowledge is diffused and Virtue is preserved.”
Against radical revisionist histories, educators must teach the truth about America’s heritage—its failings as well as its remarkable achievements. Every citizen should understand the nation’s roots in the concepts of freedom and virtue; study the great minds that have shaped the practice of self-government; and embrace the rights and obligations that accompany citizenship.
Every American family should also have the right to choose how and where its children are educated. This is why educational choice is supported across racial and economic lines. Whether it is through public, private, or charter schools, conservatives can agree that parents are the key decision-makers for their children’s education.
A Commercial Republic
The United States is not a European social democracy—rather, it was conceived as a commercial republic. American capitalism is based on our natural rights to life, liberty, and property. It is nourished by the rule of law and the freedom to trade freely within and outside America’s borders. It has been built from the bottom up on the practical wisdom and experience of generations. The result: Our system of democratic capitalism has lifted millions of people out of poverty for over 200 years.
Some imagine that experts should direct the American economy in particular directions. But American conservatives do not look to the government or technocrats for the economic salvation of the American people. Aggressive government intervention always undermines the creation of wealth over the long term, and experts cannot outguess markets.
We also know that big government—whether through widespread regulation or large welfare systems—produces the diseases of cronyism and soft despotism. It would have been inconceivable to the Founders that Americans would trade their liberties for the lie of perpetual economic security via the state. Conservatives must show how markets lead to long-term growth and upward economic mobility for all.
An American Foreign Policy
Throughout the 20th century, the concept of American exceptionalism was a motive force behind the defeat of Nazi Germany, the creation of NATO, the democratization of Japan and West Germany, the defense of Western Europe throughout the Cold War, and the defeat of Soviet communism. None of these achievements is explainable apart from America’s commitment to human freedom.
Isolationism became unthinkable after the Second World War. Just so today: Whether from China, Russia, North Korea, other nation-states, or non-state actors, the United States faces undeniable threats to its national security. And America’s national security depends upon its ability to effectively project its military power.
The progressive dream of internationalism—with its denigration of national sovereignty—would weaken American military and economic power. An America in decline, however, can neither serve the national interest nor remain a leading force for freedom on the world stage. In the ceaseless struggle between barbarism and civilization, the United States must tip the scales toward civilization. It is in our national interest to do so, and it reflects our deepest values.
This does not translate into endless military interventions abroad. America should not be in the business of nation-building. We cannot make anyone want to be free. Nevertheless, just as America played a decisive role in defeating totalitarianism, it remains indispensable in the West’s struggle against fundamentalist Islamist terrorism and authoritarian regimes seeking hegemony in the Middle East and Asia.
Restoring Confidence in the American Story
As important as these commitments are to our republic, many Americans, especially black Americans, remain alienated—not only from conservatism, but from the American story. We have made profound strides toward a more just society. Yet a sober view of human nature—a hallmark of conservatism—requires honesty about the history of slavery and the persistence of racist attitudes in the United States.
The conservative vision of a just society is utterly consistent with that of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his campaign to overcome racial injustice. King consciously rejected the politics of tribalism and resentment, as well as Marxist schemes for economic empowerment. He believed in the dignity of work and the essential value of a quality education as the gateway to human flourishing. Unlike today’s Left, King understood that the demand for equality, justice, and opportunity is embodied in the American Founding. He sought to bring the nation “back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.” King reached for an American solution to the problem of racism, one that all conservatives must embrace.
Also among those disillusioned with the promise of America are young people. This, in part, represents a crisis of memory: Our nation’s schools and colleges are failing miserably to teach the next generation the often tortuous yet rich and inspiring story of America’s journey toward a more just and democratic society. Young people also have experienced several traumas over the past 20 years—economic and financial crises, terrorism, a pandemic, and foreign wars—and have carried much of the burden. To the young, the Left offers socialism, “cancel culture,” and the legitimation of envy. Therein lies the path to cultural decline and eventual collapse.
Conservatives must challenge the next generation with a vision of life that speaks to their deepest aspirations: their longing for community, their entrepreneurial spirit, and their desire to invest their lives in noble causes. Abigail Adams expressed this outlook beautifully in a letter to her son, John Quincy Adams, during the Revolutionary War. She implored him to make the risky choice to join his father in Europe to advance the cause of freedom: “It is not in the still calm of life, or the repose of a pacific station, that great characters are formed. The habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties.”
Some Americans are inclined to resign themselves to a nation that slowly devolves into soft despotism or becomes a laboratory in which the Left can pursue its utopian delusions. We must resist these paths. “At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us,” warned Abraham Lincoln. “If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”
Only the distinctly American path of ordered liberty offers the prospect of healing old wounds and renewing our democratic institutions. Our republic, this bold experiment in self-government, is still ours to keep, but only through our own untiring efforts will it remain “the hope of Liberty throughout the world.”
This piece originally appeared in the National Review