By: Robert Rosamelia
In a turbulent and demoralizing political landscape, we should defer to tradition to steady ourselves
President Donald Trump is unique in nearly every metric on which a president is judged. He was elected without any prior military or political experience, he has an infamous penchant for tweeting whatever thoughts come into his head, and—most notably for a Republican president—he seldom talks about Constitutionalism or conservatism. This article will not focus on the conduct of President Trump, but it is important to underscore the fact that he is the first Republican president to so demonstrably break with what has been the party’s governing political philosophy since at least the 1980s. That is also not to say that President Trump has not done anything that advances conservative political goals (most notably the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court), but it is important to note that Republicans can and should remain stewards of conservatism regardless of President Trump’s lukewarm reaction to the notion if we still believe that Americans still possess the tenacity to improve their well-being without the clumsy hand of government.
What is conservatism?
We must first be clear about what is meant by the term “conservatism” rightly understood. Conservatism is unique from other ideologies because it has no intrinsic ideological content. In his essay “Conservatism as an Ideology,” Samuel Huntington writes that “[t]he lack of a conservative ideal necessarily vitiates the autonomous definition of conservatism.” In other words, while a libertarian in America roughly believes in the same things as a libertarian in Britain or a socialist in France roughly believes in the same things as a socialist on AU’s campus, conservatives do not have a consistent ideology divorced from political context.
A conservative during the French Revolution or in modern-day Syria, for example, would endeavor to conserve vastly different ideologies and value systems than an American conservative. This understanding of conservatism has its roots in the writings of the Irish statesman Edmund Burke who asserted that “circumstances are what render every civil and political scheme beneficial or noxious to mankind.” American conservatism is distinct and remains necessary because of what it is striving to conserve in America’s political framework.
To that end, it is precisely why American conservatives place so much value in the rule of law, ordered liberty, and limited government. Economist Friedrich Hayek summarizes the uniqueness of American conservatives by pointing out “the fact that in the United States it is still possible to defend individual liberty by defending long-established institutions.” Aforementioned conservatives in Syria would be fundamentally at odds with American conservatives because they would be trying to conserve the authoritarianism of the Syrian Ba’ath party while American conservatives endeavor to conserve the institutions, ideas, and principles of the American founding.
But why is all of this important? Why try to preserve the ideals of Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, both of which were written over 200 years ago? As a matter of fact, it is now the opinion of nearly half of contemporary Americans that the Constitution should be interpreted as it is meant “in current times.” Almost as shocking is the fact that according to a survey done by the Newseum in 2015, 38% of Americans find that the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it protects. These trends are worrisome because the alternative to American conservatism also isn’t as rosy as progressives would have you believe. To be sure, I have many friends who are progressives, and I truly believe their political views originate from a place of good intentions (Remember that saying about good intentions?).
The false promise of progressivism
Progressives like to indulge the idea that if we centralize government and grow the size and scope of its power, it will create a sort of utopian society with responsibilities placed in the hands of a few chosen people. U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) bluntly distilled this outlook in an interview where she stated that, “[W]e’re [government officials] here to help people, and if we’re not helping people, we should go the f–k home.” President Obama displayed a similar worldview in his 2012 campaign’s infographic titled “The Life of Julia.” In this slideshow, the timeline of a woman named Julia from birth to old age depicts how various government programs, as opposed to the virtual Julia’s own talents and abilities, are the reason she was able to excel in grade school, go to college, start a family, and ultimately lead a successful life.
Former 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton provided perhaps the most stark example of this mindset when she claimed that in order to truly care for the worst off in society, “we have to start thinking and believing that there isn’t really any such thing as someone else’s child.” In other words, individualism must be sacrificed in order to adequately care for the whole of society. However, the problem with using the federal government as the mechanism to rectify societal woes is that the whole of society is made up of 320 million people with 320 million different personalities and opinions.
The underlying assumption is that such actions are virtuous because of the belief that human nature is one of constant improvement, i.e. to constantly progress. Woodrow Wilson mused as much by admitting that “[a]ll that progressives ask or desire is permission—in an era when ‘development,’ ‘evolution,’ is the scientific word—to interpret the Constitution according to the Darwinian principle.” The inherently corrupting and immoral element of this kind of worldview comes when you reach the point where you must resolve to get rid of anything that stands in the way of realizing that progressive utopia, and the greatest threat to this hierarchical thinking is individualism.
Conservatives instead opt for a disposition that can be summed up in a phrase William F. Buckley borrowed from philosopher Eric Voegelin: “Don’t immanentize the eschaton.” This phrase essentially means that as conservatives, we understand that the bliss of the afterlife is reserved for the end of days and that attempts to create a utopian “heaven on Earth” with collectivist ideologies like fascism, socialism, and communism have historically devolved into the opposite. This is not to say that conservatives do not wish to make improvements to the world we live in, but we are more suspicious of progressive overtures to sacrifice the good of the here and now for the abstractions of the perfect, especially at the expense of individual liberty.
Conservatism and happiness
It is therefore clear that—eschewing progressivism—America needs to recommit itself to conserving the ideals of the Founders because ultimately, it will make for a happier and more empowered citizenry. Speaking at the American Enterprise Institute, U.S. Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) reflected on why conserving the local and limited nature of government makes for stronger communities and more effective addressing of problems within those communities. This problem is just as much to do with spiritual well-being as it does economic well-being. “Government,” Senator Lee said, “crowds out civic groups by competing with them to perform similar social functions [and] to perform functions once provided by institutions of civil society.”
Senator Lee’s point dovetails with insistence by conservatives that when government is more localized, people have more control over the way they want to live their lives. People are also much happier when this is the case. In the context of workplace happiness, author Gretchen Rubin observed that “Happiness is affected by [an employee’s] sense of control over their lives,” and the same principle for employees in their professional lives holds true for Americans in their civic life. According to a Pew Research study, conservatives who are parents, married, and religious lead markedly happier lives than all other demographics. People take pride in what Edmund Burke called the “little platoon we belong to in society” such as our families and our workplaces. These forums afford us more self-determination and affection toward people and institutions we can relate to rather than the distant and faceless bureaucratic structures of government, and Burke is right to conclude that this “is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections.”
This is why it is no coincidence that while only 19% of Americans trust the federal government, 71% of Americans trust their local governments. If trust is to be restored in the federal government, it will require a more conservative outlook on the way Americans view government. A study conducted by professors at the University of Iowa found that “culture, in the form of social capital, is an important correlate of happiness and that the relationship between regime type and happiness is often changed considerably when social capital is included in the equation.” It cannot be stressed enough that the main determination for leading a happy, fulfilled life is our interpersonal connections and relationships with one another—what the study defines as social capital—as opposed to the influence of government.
Instead of looking to Washington for one-size-fits-all solutions that cannot satisfy the diverse interests of the United States by virtue of their design, Americans will be more fulfilled and more empowered to take control of their own destiny by relying on our shared tradition of federalism. Conservatism still matters, and a recommittal to conserving our unique national traditions of rule of law, ordered liberty, and limited government will be necessary if we are to restore faith in our communities and ultimately be happier and more free to choose our own destinies.