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What’s Left To Conserve?

August 7, 2020
What’s Left To Conserve?
circa 1896: A satirical cartoon showing the sliding scale of worth of American politicians, (from left) the founder of the republic, George Washington (1732 - 1799), Abraham Lincoln (1809 - 1865), depicted as a martyr who died for the union, Ulysses S Grant (1822 - 1885) who fought for his country, Benjamin Harrison (1833 - 1901) who reduced the national debt then Grover Cleveland (1837 - 1908) who led the country into the depression of 1893. Finally the Democratic candidate in the election of 1896, William Jennings Bryan is depicted as a fool whose free silver hammer will smash the nation's credit. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)

Conservatism is in crisis. But we knew that.

With the exception of 2004—a squeaker that came down to the wire in Ohio, almost necessitating a replay of Florida’s dramatic 2000 recount—the conservative movement has not unambiguously won a presidential election by popular vote since 1988.

And that was before Trump came along. Since that time, of course, the conservative movement has been tarred by association not only with Trump’s corruption, incompetence, and brutality, but also with the dangerous fanatics of the alt-right and similar white supremacist groups whom he has tolerated, even tacitly allied with. If the conservative movement had troubles already, a key guardrail had broken: the very people whom William F. Buckley and others had desperately tried to keep out of the movement, and who had been seen off again and again, in the persona of George Wallace, David Duke, Pat Buchanan, and others, had now taken control of the movement.

Amid the current culture war, and especially its latest and hardest-contested battleground, the understanding and commemoration of American history itself, traditional conservatives have a vital role to play. But only if they go back to first principles: reverence for the Constitution and its freedoms, and a commitment to implement them for all Americans, not just some. These core values, not a thoughtless and unqualified deification of the past, nor a Manichaean opposition to the ideas of others, will ensure that conservative values will endure.

A Zombie From The ’80s

American conservatism has always had a spotty record on racial matters. Even though founders of the modern conservative movement like William F. Buckley sought to distance themselves from overt bigots, anti-Semites, and crackpots, their own record on matters of civil rights was spotty at best, checkered at worst. More recently, the “law and order” conservatism of the Reagan era, however sympathetically one reads it in light of the “Boomer crime wave,” carried with it a contempt for civil rights and a tolerance for abuse of power.

These problems look quaint in retrospect. Today, the conservative movement looks dated at the very least, and toxic at worst. Perhaps the biggest indicator of the conservative movement’s weakness was that, at the time Trump knocked it over in the 2016 Republican presidential primaries, 16 other candidates had no real solution to America’s problems. Despite repeated allusions to a 1980s icon in the form of Ronald Reagan, there was no “vision.”

This is unfortunate not just for the conservative movement, but for America. Obscured by the fanaticism and partisanship brought on by Trump, the American left has gone crazy. The left has avoided the much-needed discussion on race and policing brought on by the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and instead used his killing as a justification for the vandalism of monuments (not just Confederate ones), the renaming of major institutions, and the “cancelling” of those who disagree, all the while peddling the argument that the United States is irredeemable.

The response on the right has been inarticulate at best, but its most prominent voice has been a president who ordered the National Guard to use force on peaceful protesters outside the White House so that he could wave a Bible in front of a church whose minister he had just injured. The latest development in this increasingly alarming back and forth has been the attempted sacking of a federal courthouse followed by extrajudicial detention of citizens in Portland (and potentiallyelsewhere) by federal law enforcement with questionable jurisdiction and chains of command.

Amid all this, doomsayers are now all but openly pronouncing the imminentcollapse of the United States. Amid deconstructionism on the left and crushing authoritarianism on the right, we may fear that, as W.B. Yeats would put it, “the center cannot hold.”

A reasonable conservative, surveying the intellectual and social carnage, might reasonably ask, what’s left to conserve?

Plenty, in fact.

On Rebuilding a Movement

There is, in fact, a historic opportunity for American conservatives to reclaim their core principles and build a winning political coalition. In the process, they can rebuild, rearticulate, and revive the American consensus about what our nation is, what it stands for, and where it can go.

What one is against can serve as the basis of what one is for. Indeed, as a conservative speaker pointed out to one of us in 2016, in the short to medium term, one can unite a squabbling party by pointing at something all of its factions find intolerable and reminding them that they oppose it. This, it was argued, was what Reagan had done in the 1980s and what Trump attempted to do and mostly failed.

It’s quite debatable whether this was really the secret of past conservative coalitions’ success, and whether the lesson is applicable now. The real key to Reagan’s success may well have been the simple fecklessness of his, and his successor George H.W. Bush’s, opposition, and the relative absence of partisanship that allowed for super coalitions to be built. But even if it is true, the limitations of this logic have become apparent.

Clearly, conservatives are going to need to articulate a real vision for the United States, and not just “stand athwart history yelling, ‘Stop!’” They are, moreover, going to have to look past Reagan and abandon Trump. They need a new vision, and a chance to articulate it.

The good news, though, is that the excesses of the left and the vacuousness of Trump offer an opportunity to rebuild. Cancel culture, with its internet mobs, digitized harassment and slurs, nihilistic reverse racism, and attempt to shift the climate of intolerance it has created from the college campus to the boardroom is not a viable way forward for America. Indeed, given its origins in postmodernist deconstructionism and its characterization of the United States as irredeemably oppressive, it does not seek to be. The reaction against this over-reach by the postmodern left has come from all corners—from the campus free speech movement, to online contrarians, to left-libertarians, to liberals and former Hillary Clintonsupporters, to NeverTrumpconservatives, to moderate free-marketers—in addition to Trump supporters themselves.

A movement that can unite this many people across the political spectrum potentially signals the basis for a principled opposition. For conservatives who have historically styled themselves classical liberals, conserving the original liberal principles of America’s founding, this is an opportunity. The challenge for conservatives is not simply to oppose, but to lead.

It must be emphasized: this will not save conservatives or Republicans this election cycle—not in net terms anyway. The Republican Party and the conservative movement are too tainted by Trump and too disorganized to do much more than tread water–if they are lucky. There is no winning this time, and, in fairness, there probably should not be. The question is how to lay the groundwork for a reboot, and what the conservative vision for America would look like in that case.

It is here that we can offer some thoughts.

Preserving (The Right) History

The biggest issue in the current culture war is how America is to remember its history. Without some agreement, or at least give and take, on how to understand and value their shared experience as a nation, Americans have no reason to stick together at all—a frightening prospect, doubly so in this age of division and hyper-partisanship.

We live at a time when historical figures are literally being pulled off pedestals, and when the ire of those doing it extends not only to Confederate leaders and soldiers but any historical figure whose views or practices were typical of another era. This has extended even to Union leaders such as Ulysses S. Grant and abolitionist Union soldiers such as Hans Christian Heg. It is vital for some reasonableness to be injected into the discourse. Conservatives, who prize reason and moderation and value historical inheritance, have no choice but to weigh in. They are well-positioned to do so, if they can overcome their worst instincts that have been on display in the Trump era.

As George Will articulated in his recent book, one of few constants in American conservatism over the centuries is its veneration of the Madisonian Constitution, not merely as a legal system to be manipulated or circumvented, but a worthy blueprint for a free society. Limited government, checks and balances, and individual rights are the sine qua non of conservatism; all else may come and go. With them, in the here and now, comes a basic acknowledgement that the country that possesses them should cherish them, implement them, and take pride in them – not scorn them. When the conservative movement sided with a president who had no respect for anything but popularity and naked power, it went astray from its roots. It must find its way back.

In doing so, conservatives will have to confront a valid point that the left-wing opposition is making: that American society today, especially if it reveres the principles and guarantees of the Constitution, cannot uncritically praise all of the actions of the great figures of American history, or even curate the list of such figures as it has. Equally, the conservative movement will have to articulate a way to view America that does not involve whitewashing actions and events which cannot be justified under the principles Americans—and especially conservatives—hold dear.

The way to do this is for conservatives to reclaim the American story honestly, including the nasty parts of which Americans are justly ashamed. Rather than mindlessly take the yin to the woke brigade’s yang by positing an America that is all good against a vision of America as all bad, conservatives, as befits a group who are trying to, well, conserve something, can simply remind Americans of the obvious: that they have a great (and ongoing) national story, but that that story includes imperfections, wrong turns, and dark hours where the American promise was unfulfilled.

America does, indeed, have much promise, even at this dark hour. As investors have noted, it is still the world’s preferred place to park money: whatever one would like to see done with its economy, it remains a dynamo of productivity. This is not a mere bit of investment analysis: it means that America is still seen, fundamentally, as a good place to make a living and, therefore, a life. Despite anti-immigrant sentiment, people from all over the world still try to get visas to get into the United States; Americans are in far less of a hurry to leave. This is all ultimately a reflection of America’s greatness.

The United States was founded on the noble ideal of the protection of the rights of the individual by a democratic state, with a constitution that is a masterpiece of legal engineering, with an inspiring story of improving itself even if it falls short of its own pretensions, that not only overcame evil at home in the form of slavery but fought it abroad and defeated it twice in the form of fascism and communism. A country of visionaries and practical people, it is almost a byword for inventiveness, creativity, and toughness in the face of adversity. Its final legacy, whatever happens, will be the footprints it left on the surface of the moon. However many its faults and shortcomings, its story is not a thing of no value to be thrown away, and in the absence of others it will fall to conservatives to plead its case.

Reclaim American History; Conserve the Best Within Us

To do that, though, conservatives must enter debates about America’s history not as simple-minded Manicheans, but as opponents of that worldview. The conservative thesis must not be that if the left regards America as all bad, conservatives in turn must regard it as all good. It should rather be that American history is the great story of an imperfect but self-improving people.

To take an example: it is not a contradiction to characterize Christopher Columbus as a brutal colonizer and conquistador and also as an intrepid mariner whose crossing of the Atlantic was perhaps the single most influential distinct act in human history, one that paved the way for the New World and Western liberalism. He was assuredly both. Conservatives can acknowledge the value of understanding history’s complexity without simplifying it themselves.

In the current dialectic, conservatives’ natural role is to argue for understanding and appreciating history, against those who do not see value in it rather than whitewashing it and undermining their own case by doing so. They can, and should, be the adults in the room, arguing for appreciation and, especially, simple knowledge of history, without reducing it to hagiography.

This may be too complex for soundbites and bumper stickers, but is a reasonable enough case for commentators and elected leaders alike to make. Conservatives would be wise to argue that America is not perfect, but that it is fundamentally worth preserving and that its historical figures who made important contributions be subject both to respect and honest appraisal about their deficiencies

Drop the Confederacy; Save and Contextualize All Others

To that end, those conservatives who continue to defend Confederate statues should retreat and retrench to those other areas of historical commemoration where the individuals being commemorated actually contributed something positive to America. Conservatives can and should argue against condemnation of historical figures for failing to live up to modern standards; they can and should argue for appreciating the contributions of imperfect people. But they do well to stop short of defending people who, largely for the worst of reasons, tried—and failed—to destroy the United States.

This is more than simply a pragmatic attempt to avoid a “bad look,” but a key element of our principles. Conservatives should concede the point that the Confederacy was a wrong turn for America that was rightly corrected. Moreover, the case for retaining the commemoration of imperfect contributors like Ulysses S. Grant or George Washington, or originators like Columbus who are otherwise almost Martian to us now, will be made stronger if they do not also defend those who, at a critical moment, actively tried to undermine America.

Admittedly, there is assuredly a case to be made in individual cases for retaining old artwork—including that deemed “problematic”—for its aesthetic value, particularly in the case of old buildings that often contain too much late-nineteenth century memorabilia to easily be removable. But conservatives should pick their battles: defending a Confederate statue outside a courthouse where thousands were unjustly treated by the intellectual, if not literal, descendants of the Confederacy is bad enough; it is worse if the statue is a cheap piece of kitsch.

In order to defend George Washington and Thomas Jefferson—and, more importantly, the ideas they established—conservatives will have to prove that they are not the racists and reactionaries that their critics claim.

Champion the Actual Constitution

This is where conservatives’ reverence for the Constitution can work for them.

Precisely because their opponents in the current dialogue are utopian and fanatical, conservatives have plenty of room to become realistic, thoughtful, and prudent—as well as respectful of institutions, especially the Constitution. David French’s call for conservatives to become “Bill of Rights conservatives” instead of “law and order conservatives” is therefore extremely topical. If conservatives find progressives’ racialization of American discourse toxic and ineffective, they should substitute something that can work. Protecting the rights of individual Americans from the arbitrary and heavy-handed use of force by unaccountable and overpaid public servants is something conservatives normally support. They should apply that logic to police brutality and police reform.

Conservatives should also reclaim their understanding of the human condition as essentially tragic. Utopian projects with vague goals accomplish little; excesses committed in their name leave no positive legacy. Substantial reform that better safeguards constitutional rights from abuses by law enforcement can be championed by conservatives, even as they reject anger and censorship in the service of nebulous goals. Reining in official abuse, and exercising checks and balances, is a bedrock principle of conservatism. It also helps people.

Build Policy Around These Values

Conservatives are therefore in a position to take the lead on police reform without sacrificing their concern for law and order. There is nothing inconsistent about asking that police to obey legal constraints regarding reasonable and appropriate use of force and subjecting them to impartial oversight, while also being in favor of effective and humane policing on the other. Both are examples of the rule of law in action.

On this, conservatives should be willing to forge links with those elements of the civil rights left who reject utopianism to work together on police reform. Reasonable proposals have already been floated, including scaling back or ending the qualified immunity doctrine and removing investigations of police killings from overly interested local prosecutors. The issue has already found acceptance (and urgent advocacy) among the libertarian right, which was decrying the judicial system’s acceptance of law enforcement excesses as early as the 1990s, and whose adherents have chronicled police brutality and overreach in depressing detail. Since 2014, there has been a historic opportunity for the civil rights left and the libertarian right to get something done on this by working together, and their failure to do so has arguably been one of the great tragedies of America’s partisan conflict. Regrettably, partisanship is now killing police reform in the Senate, even as America burns. If one does not want radical anarchists and Trumpian thugs to take over the conversation, it is time for conservatives to start conserving actual law and order, and not its simulacrum. (For those arguing that such proposals do not go far enough, the criticism is valid—but the solution conservatives should advocate is to add more tangible policy ideas that support constitutional rights, not recklessly champion a “defund the police” agenda that Americans do not and cannot support, and not support lawlessness by federal and local law enforcement either.)

Doing this would have involved something akin to implementing the reforms recommended by the famous Republican National Committee 2012 postmortem, or Paul Ryan’s recommendation that Republicans campaign in minority neighborhoods. It would require not only acknowledging that minority groups have constitutional rights, but actively working to protect them, and showing real results. And if this meant that Republicans could win an election in a city now and then, so much the better.

Although this is the issue of the day, the re-articulation of the value of America’s history and national story, and the end to the hagiography of those who tried to end that story, linked to a recommitment to individual rights, the rule of law, and the Constitution, would allow conservatives to take the lead in other areas as well. This would allow for conservatives to again have a sense of purpose on a broad range of issues such as the environment, science, health care, right to life issues, deficits, and the proper size and scope of government more generally. Only by returning to these principles and having enlightened conversations can conservatives redeem the Republican Party as a party of ideas and patriotism once again.

Find a New Figurehead

That, though, will require turning away from Donald Trump. The only chance the Republican Party, and thereby the conservative movement, has at redemption and resuscitation lies in actively stating that the nomination of Donald Trump was the wrong move. It will not help much this time, but it is the only way to chart a new course.

The worst that might happen is not the loss of the presidency, or even the Senate. It is that, divided and visionless, conservatives will have presided over the disintegration of the Republic they love, when they had an opportunity to save it by living up to their best vision of America and themselves.

Martin Skold and J. Furman Daniel

Martin Skold holds a Ph.D. in international relations from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and has served in the executive and legislative branches of government. The views he expresses in his articles are his own, and not those of anybody he has ever worked for—but he thinks you might want to have a look. J. Furman Daniel, III, an historian and political scientist, is an Associate Professor in the College of Security and Intelligence at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, and author of several books, including Patton: Battling With History (2020) and The First Space War: How the Patterns of History and the Principles of STEM Will Shape Its Form (2019).