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Has America ever had a true conservative tradition? I discussed this recently with Patrick J. Deneen of the University of Notre Dame, where he teaches the history of political thought, American political thought, religion and politics, and literature and politics. Dr. Deneen is also the author of the book “Conserving America?: Essays on Present Discontents,” which we talk about in the lightly edited transcript below. Check out the podcast episode over on Ricochet and the short-read version here.
PETHOKOUKIS: I became interested in your work after reading a review of your book “Conserving America?: Essays on Present Discontents.” It was a Wall Street Journal review, which called the book — it’s a collection of essays and various talks you have given — a “dark and dissident vision, but not without hope.” And then more recently, you wrote an essay titled “The Ghost of Conservatism Past” which is also frankly a dark and dissident vision of sorts that asked the question: After almost a century of political ascendancy, what exactly did American conservatism conserve?
So obviously we are going to talk about the state of American conservatism today, and let me begin by piecing together just a few quotes from that essay, “The Ghost of Conservatism Past.” You write:
Conservatism as a practical matter seems dead in America, as far as the eye can see…. If nothing else, the exceedingly narrow victory of Donald Trump may be understood as the last gasp of a dying conservatism that has been destroyed by American liberalism…. American conservatism was ultimately a failure because it advanced a liberalism that has now been visibly revealed to be fundamentally destructive of the fabric of lives of a wide swath of countrymen, particularly those who are in many respects by design the “losers” in the liberal order.
I think that sets the stage. Because we’re going to be using words like “conservatism” and “liberalism,” maybe even “progressivism,” let me start by asking: What is the American conservative tradition in America? And is what we’ve seen from conservatives and the Republican party since World War II within that American conservative tradition, or is it something different?
I’m doubtless your listeners — or many of your listeners — when they hear the words “conservatism” and “liberalism” have a certain idea of what that means and that may differ in the way in which I use those terms. When I use the word “liberal,” I’m thinking particularly of the political philosophical tradition that in particular arises from the philosophical thinking of figures like John Locke, developed further by John Stuart Mill, and obviously was operative at the time of the American founding. And so, ironically, in America, often to be a conservative means to be someone who is conserving the liberal tradition, conserving the tradition of political thought within the liberal tradition. When I use the word “conservative,” I tend to use it against this idea of conservatism. In other words, the liberal tradition is actually corrosive of things, practices, ways of life that in my view would accord more with a kind of Burkean understanding of tradition — the idea of the past governing the present and the future, of something that’s conserved over a lengthy period of time, particularly passed along from generation to generation. And so the irony, it seems to me, in the American experience is that conservatism has tended to seek to conserve something, or political conservatism has sought to conserve something that’s non- or even anti-conservative.
The irony, it seems to me, in the American experience is that conservatism has tended to seek to conserve something, or political conservatism has sought to conserve something that’s non- or even anti-conservative.
So when we talk about American conservatism, then, we’re talking about something just completely different than British or Burkean conservatism? Oftentimes, American conservatives will call themselves, “I’m a Burkean conservative.” We love reading Edmund Burke. Are these just two different things?
Burke is, of course, an interesting figure. He plays relatively a small role in American political and intellectual history until roughly the 1950s where he’s largely revived as a matter of interest by Russell Kirk especially. So in an interesting way, American conservatism to the extent that it can in any way be thought to be Burkean is largely a fairly recent invention, a fairly recent vintage. The longstanding American political tradition has been fundamentally liberal, and I would say even the appropriation of Burke has been largely within that liberal political ambit. In that essay you quoted from, one of the things that I note is that Ronald Reagan actually was not very fond of quoting from Edmund Burke. His preferred figure from whom he would often quote was actually Thomas Paine, and in particular Paine’s line that “I believe we have it in our power to begin the world over again.” This is a very stunning figure and a stunning kind of quote for the architect for contemporary American political conservatism.
Right. And again, to get to your point, what we call American conservatism is really sort of liberalism, a version of maybe 19th century open, free market, free trade liberalism. And by that definition, neither Reagan nor maybe Margaret Thatcher were really conservatives as you would use the term.
I would say, certainly in the case of Ronald Reagan, he appealed to people who would’ve considered themselves to be obviously socially conservative, religious conservatives — someone like a Russell Kirk who did see himself as more in that kind of Tory tradition. In the main, that leg or that part of conservatism has played an important electoral role, but I would argue and I argue in that piece, a relatively modest, if even insignificant, role in the ultimate outcomes in both policy and general trajectory within the course of American liberal political life, which included obviously the ascendance of what we typically call conservative political figures like Ronald Reagan, George H.W., and George W. Bush, etc.
Right. And, what we’ve seen though, as you say very directly, American conservatism is a failure because what it actually is is a form of liberalism. And on the left, they have their own form of liberalism: progressivism. How is that fundamentally different from the liberalism you see on the right? In basic terms here.
Classical liberalism is what we tend to call conservatism in the American political context.
Sure, I see sort of liberalism broadly — certainly in the recent last 100 years — as being two sides of essentially the same coin. The first of these is what we typically call classical liberalism, and classical liberalism is what we tend to call conservatism in the American political context. It’s the liberalism of the founding fathers; it’s the liberalism of the 19th-century mainstream liberal tradition that increasingly became seen as something that needed to be conserving; it’s the liberalism that posed itself against communism and against the welfare state. This is what we typically call conservatism. But in the European context, that’s called classical liberalism. And that’s probably the term that I’d prefer to use. In some ways, both a reaction to but also an outgrowth of the classical liberal tradition is what we typically today call progressive liberalism, or progressivism, or in some cases, liberalism. So we have two distinct kinds of liberalism that in our political context we tend to pose against each other. We tend to see them as antithetical to each other. And part of what I try to argue in a number of my writings and a number of these essays and books is I think that within the perspective of the liberal American political tradition, we can see these as antithetical, but from a wider range perspective of political philosophy we really need to see them as really fundamentally related and in many ways as sharing the same features.
I write a lot about economic policy, and I’ve certainly spent time talking, for instance, to the economists from the Obama administration. If you talk to the Obama economists and the economists from, let’s say, the George W. Bush administration, they agree on an awful lot. Their worldviews are not diametrically opposed, because I think they’re just basically dealing with two different strains of liberalism. Whereas what we’ve seen from the Trump administration or Donald Trump or his version of economics and his worldview, we’d probably see something very different. It doesn’t seem to be a different strain of liberalism but something just completely separate.
I think that’s absolutely correct. In the essay you mentioned “The Ghost of Conservatism,” what I really tried to articulate is that Donald Trump on the one hand represents a certain kind of strain of traditionalist conservatism: the idea of a society needing to be bounded, not a globalized economic, or social, or political order; the idea of markets serving the political system, we could say the markets subservient to politics as opposed to markets being autonomous entities that we think about in the abstract; a nation defined by a particular kind of culture, and a particular set of traditions, as opposed to a set of political ideas and abstract set of philosophical ideas that we typically hear described more in both the Constitution and Declaration of Independence.
Whereas there are a range of ways Donald Trump on the one hand seemed to represent a certain kind of very conservative reaction, but in a way we could say is profoundly un-conservative, that was obviously carried by a figure who by any estimation is not — one wouldn’t look to him as a lion of a conservative life, a model of stability and order and a balance. Rather, almost a reaction of one seeking to break rather than construct, one seeking to upend rather than restore or to order.
You were talking about the more traditional conservative element to Trumpism, but isn’t a lot of Trumpism really just nostalgia? That’s different from conservatism, at least conservatism as you would define it.
The word nostalgia is an invention of the 19th century. The word is a combination of two Greek words which mean a kind of longing to return home that can’t be entirely fulfilled. So I think nostalgia itself is a modern phenomenon if I can put it that way. It emanates from a time of instability and rapid change and transformation, and it evokes this sense that we’ve lost something that we can’t return to.
I take it that the support for Donald Trump came from many corners from our polity — the kind of Rust Belt places where I live in South Bend, Indiana, and the more rural areas of the country because of a sense that the expectation of relative stability, the expectation that families would be places of stability and ongoing life over generations — that all that has been upended by a whole set of both economic and political forces that have not served this part of our population very well. In my essay, when I describe these as the “losers” of our economic and political system, the reaction of this part of the population was not in some senses to restore something that in some ways had been lost, as much as I think that longing was there, as it was to sort of attack those they had seen who were benefiting from what they saw was a rigged system. A system that was benefiting those who were living in the elite cities in the Northeast and the West Coast. In this sense, we might attribute it to nostalgia, but I think it was at least as much a form of hostility as it was any kind of appeal to restoration or a return to normalcy.
Right. They would send reporters to West Virginia and Kentucky, and they would say “What do you expect from Donald Trump?” And very rarely did I get a sense that anyone expected the steel mills to be like they were in the 1960s, and the coal mines, and families that looked like they did. Maybe they hoped a little bit. Mostly I think you’re right, it was something more hostile. In your essay, you talked about the anti-Hillary Clinton “lock her up” chant. In fact, they could’ve just been saying: “Lock her up. Lock up Goldman Sachs. Lock up Silicon Valley. Lock a lot of people up!” It was something again far more aggressive than it was backward looking.
I compare it to that sense in 1980 when Ronald Reagan talked about morning in America. I use a line in the essay in which I said there was more of a sense in this election that it was playing Russian roulette over flyover country at dusk, that it wasn’t morning in America, it wasn’t a restoration. It was more like: “Things are so bad that we’re willing to gamble on someone who we think is going to upend the entire system.”
It wasn’t morning in America, it wasn’t a restoration. It was more like: “Things are so bad that we’re willing to gamble on someone who we think is going to upend the entire system.”
Again, to get to the original quote that I mentioned in the beginning, you wrote that conservatism is a failure because it advanced a liberalism that was destructive. But was American-style conservatism a failure because it failed to conserve something? Or was that ever even possible given the forces of globalization, which though you may be able to slow globalization, it seems unlikely you could have stopped or reversed it, as well as the progress of technology — those huge macro forces. What was the alternative, or the alternative policies, or the alternative approaches? There are always going to be winners and losers, and maybe we did a really poor job minimizing the losers or helping the so-called losers, but there were going to be losers.
Right. Here I would point to a work that is going to be published in about six months. It’s a somewhat provocatively titled book: “Why Liberalism Failed.” And one of the things that I note in that book is that at the very moment that we crow and praise ourselves at having achieved the greatest degree of liberty, freedom, the kind of breaking down of obstacles and constraints to living the kinds of lives that we seem to pursue — at the same time we kind of recognize and indeed pay obeisance to forces that we largely regard as being out of our control. You just invoked several of those. Globalization, as a force that has its own life, which can’t fundamentally be stopped. Technology, which is a force that’s seen as having its own internal logic, that can’t be stopped, that can’t be restrained. And far be it from me to propose various proposals that might restrain or control some of these forces. It seems to me that as soon as you accept certain of the basic premises of the liberal political order, which require the breaking down of any obstacles in the forms of tradition, culture, a kind of lived form of existence that itself is a kind of counterforce to some of these forces — then you do unleash these forces as sort of unstoppable, implacable, unfolding of a certain kind of logic. So I do find it extremely ironic, but also revealing that the very achievement of the kind of liberty that we enjoy is achieved through a set of forces that we regard as largely uncontrollable and in fact in certain respects controlling and governing us.
The essay is a harsh assessment of American conservatism in which you really paint it as sort of an artificial, elite project, that was very successful politically, but then ironically is perhaps overturned permanently by a project which said it was in favor of something organic, Burkean, not believing in central planning, yet it was an essentially planned project that is overturned by a more organic uprising of people living a Burkean life, based in their everyday experience. Talk a little bit about that.
Well in fact what I suggest in that essay is those who rose up against what — as you put it — is the centralized project of conservatism, about 20 years ago were often described as the inheritors of this kind of lived Burkean tradition. These were the salt of the earth, the every man, the lunch pail Joe, family values, standing up for good traditional American values — what we now see in the writings of AEI’s Charles Murray in his book “Coming Apart” really demonstrate that in fact it’s this part of our population that no longer enjoys the sort of fruits of a kind of lived conservatism, that we see the devastation of family life in these communities, we see the devastation of economic, and social, and moral life and religiosity in these communities, the inability of parents to pass along the family values, or even to form families, and to maintain families, to maintain marriages, the opioid epidemic in these communities. So it was far less, I think, the example of conservatism rearing itself in a kind of defense of itself, as opposed to a kind of sense of despair of a loss of a way of life that I have very little confidence in Donald Trump being able to restore. So when I say that conservatism as a political project was able to conserve very little, I’m thinking especially about these people. These people who in many ways were the greatest beneficiaries of stable communities, in many ways needed the kind of stability that was once afforded by relatively stable religious, and social, and political, and economic life and are now subject to the ravages of globalization, of rampant transformations of technology, and so forth. What we’re seeing now are not able to maintain or even form what we would think about as a conservative way of life, and rather are living kind of in the fruits of an achieved form of the liberal order itself.
Can conservatism be reformed? There are certainly people — I’m one of them — who call themselves conservative reformers. Generally conservative reformers don’t like to say that conservatism needs to be reformed, they view conservatism as something that can reform society, reform Washington. But can American conservatism change in a way at this date that you would view it as a more productive effort?
Well I suppose I’m among those who are highly skeptical that this can be a project that is successfully born out of Washington, DC. In many ways, many of our problems emanate from the fact that both of our parties — the liberal and conservative parties, if you want to call them that — really do see so much of the contemporary political activity taking place in Washington. Of course this is not to say that the federal government doesn’t play some kind of role, obviously in the formation of a kind of national set of ethics. On the other hand, it would seem to me that the solution broadly speaking to many of the problems facing contemporary American life are not so much political as they are cultural. That there’s a kind of broadly cultural breakdown, and it’s not clear, it’s far from clear how you begin to ameliorate what is a set of cultural failings, the disruption of the transmission of a set of cultural values from one generation to the next generation. This is a much more difficult project. I have some considerable sympathy for the arguments that have been made recently by the author and blogger Rod Dreher who has talked about a kind of Benedict Option which — that phrase can often be kind of problematic — but I think a restoration of a healthy form of relatively more local forms of community as ways of restoring what would be a lived form of conservatism, a lived form of family values, community values, religious values that can emanate outward, as opposed to top down engineering.
So I had Yuval Levin on this podcast, a couple of podcasts ago. And he obviously believes there is an American tradition of conservatism and I think he believes that that is what he is practicing, that’s what he espouses. And he believes, as he says in “The Fractured Republic” — that what we need to do is sort of restore the civil society between the state and the individual. And maybe it’s an incremental thing, maybe it will gain momentum, but what do you think of that perspective?
I agree completely with Yuval’s argument, for the need for a much more decentralized, sort of Catholic tradition of subsidiarity within the American political tradition, federalism as an essential way of thinking about the reformation of a kind of lived conservatism. Where I think we often go awry is thinking that this is somehow going to be supported or advanced by the American or philosophical tradition of liberalism. In many ways what’s needed is a lived conservative way of life, as opposed to the restoration of a set of conservative philosophical values. And so much of the way that we think about this form of conservatism actually works across purposes with the restoration, or the effort to cultivate these more local forms of culture. So I agree, Yuval has put his finger on exactly what is needed, a strengthening of civil society. But so much of that really does require a kind of pulling back from the basic premises of individualism, of materialism, of the kind of things that Tocqueville described in “Democracy in America” as the restlessness that defines the American spirit, as often working across purposes with that kind of restoration.
In many ways what’s needed is a lived conservative way of life, as opposed to the restoration of a set of conservative philosophical values.
The economist Tyler Cowen just wrote a book called “The Complacent Class” which you could have also called “The Stagnant Society,” which bemoans the lack of restlessness in society, that we’re not willing to take risks the way we used to, we’re not as geographically mobile as we used to be. And you portray that as a bad thing if you want more economic growth, more innovation. I write a lot about economic growth and innovation and I love it and want as much growth and innovation and technological progress as possible, but am I wrong? Are those bad things that are actually ruining America? Should we actually want to be more complacent, and less restless, and as you would say, less materialistic?
Maybe those are really good things, but maybe they also come at the price of what we’re calling conservatism. Or a kind of moral society grounded in a certain kind of way of life, a certain kind of culture, a certain set of beliefs that are passed down from one generation to the next. In other words it may be that that’s exactly what American civilization is, and maybe we shouldn’t be surprised then that we’re not conserving a lot. That a kind of a society defined increasingly by the inability of especially the middle class to form families, to pass on tradition, to forge and create religious belief — that one of the results of a society dedicated to restlessness, constant technological innovation, globalization, etc. is that it’s not going to be a very conservative society. And if that’s what we want that’s fine. But conservatives should fess up. They should acknowledge that that’s going to be a cost. And that seems to me what American conservatism has failed to do, and why, in many ways, if we look at the landscape of American life today — social, cultural, political, religious life — why we have actually conserved very little.
When I look back at the 2000s — a period which has not been defined as an amazingly prosperous period — I’m concerned we live in a society where we don’t have enough economic growth. Not only because it provides really cool stuff, which it does, but also because it provides people with opportunities to pursue whatever dreams they happen to have. I worry that a society that doesn’t have that is a stagnant society. Didn’t we just have an election where people who were not experiencing prosperity sent a very clear message about their unhappiness at the ballot box? Maybe the alternative to the market, liberal society is one of stagnation and a different kind of unhappiness?
That might well be. It seems to me it doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. A society can be a market society, it can be one that in many ways innovates, but doesn’t displace or, in particular, doesn’t constantly encourage a world of disruption, of constant transformation. We can think of economics, ultimately, as being supportive, or not supportive, of the ends of human life — which ought, properly, to be: the formation of families, the passing on of certain kinds of values, the formation of a culture that can have multi-generational staying power. And if our economy is not serving those ends, then it’s not an economy that we should necessarily embrace. So in many ways I think we have to stop thinking of the economy as itself the ends to which we orient ourselves, and to think about it as a means that should be serving those ends.
To the extent then that we see, on the one hand, great energy, globalization and so forth benefitting one class of people, and stagnation among another set of people, it seems to me that we shouldn’t assume that what would best serve everyone is more globalization and more technological innovation and disruption. But rather, to think about how the economy can be conceived in ways that can be supportive of the formation of that kind of culture, for everyone. And to that extent the elites who have congregated in these cities described as Charles Murray in “Coming Apart” bear a certain kind of responsibility, it seems to me, to being exemplars, not only of a certain kind of economic success, but also to contributing to the betterment of those people who are not benefiting from our economy.
You write some in the book we mentioned earlier, “Conserving America,” about movies. Are there recent movies that you’ve seen that you’ve drawn any political lessons from, that you see reflect any political currents in the culture, anything recently? You’ve mentioned in the past some movies like “It’s a Wonderful Life,” but let me put you on the spot and ask are there any more recent films which you’ve taken a particular interest in?
Well, I haven’t seen a lot of movies of late. I did see the movie “Passengers,” where people are on a sort of floating cruise ship going to colonize another planet, and what struck me, and what struck me about that movie, as it portrays a young couple…
That’s a Jennifer Lawrence…
Right, and Chris Pratt film. So you have these people are going off to colonize this planet, and they wake up early so they have to live on this essentially floating cruise ship for 80 years before anyone else will wake up. I hope I don’t spoil the plot for anyone. But after some number of centuries, when everyone else on the ship wake up, they discover that these people who have been living on the ship — what’s amazing and startling is that they don’t have any children. At the end of the movie they show every evidence of having lived lives and then of eventually having died, and they don’t actually have any children, and that to me seemed to be a sort of representative example of where the fate of our Western civilization is going.
We have the technological ability, at least as it is portrayed, to build these spaceships, to colonize space, to explore strange new worlds and new civilizations, and yet this couple, this beautiful young couple, apparently don’t do the one thing that beautiful young couples, arguably lost in space on a desert island might do, which is to make a family. And I thought that perfectly encapsulated the crisis of the contemporary American and the Western civilization, which is technological ability to do almost anything, and yet incapable of doing the one thing human beings should be able to do any time and any place, which is to make families.
Professor Deneen, one last thing: When does your new book come out again?
I believe it’s slated for January 2018. It will be called “Why Liberalism Failed” at the Yale University Press.
I’m going to ask for an early commitment for you to come back when that book comes out and we can talk about that. Other than that, I appreciate you being on the podcast. It’s been fascinating.
I’d be happy to talk about that and I appreciate the time we spent together now.
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