Conservatives do not do well in the cities. We assume, strangely, that this indicates a problem with the cities rather than a problem with . . . us. We may as well be trying to sell New York City and Los Angeles Edsels full of New Coke — and cursing the consumers for being too thick to appreciate what we are offering.
New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Philadelphia — as far as conservatives are concerned, these may as well be so many Sodoms upon which we are all too happy to call down fire and judgment. But it’s not only the coastal dens of sin that we have written off: In Texas — Texas! — Republican office-seekers (a reasonable if imperfect proxy for conservative political tendencies) are largely shut out of the cities: Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Austin, El Paso — all are reliably Democratic. There is no Texas city larger than Fort Worth that routinely elects Republican mayors or that can be relied upon to support Republican candidates in state and national elections.
And if any American city should have a prestigious institution of higher education in it, it may as well be Pyongyang... Which is a real missed opportunity: If you live in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and work in Manhattan, then you get an object lesson in the failures of statism and centralization every damned work day — twice. If you live in Philadelphia and have school-age children, you don’t need to read Milton Friedman: You know from bitter experience what a blessing it is to be free to choose — and what a curse it is to have choices taken away.
Fusionism was an idea championed most forcefully by Frank Meyer, the longtime literary editor of National Review. He argued that libertarianism — then often called “individualism” — and traditionalism are the twin pillars of conservatism and, more broadly, of a just and free society. The chief obligation of the state is to protect individual liberty, but the chief obligation of the individual is to live virtuously. Coerced virtue is tyrannical: Virtue not freely chosen is not virtuous.
.. But as both a philosophical and a prudential matter, we understand — just as Meyer did to some extent — that freedom is a concept with limits, that each principle must be circumscribed at the extremes by other important principles. A society where literally everything is permitted isn’t free except according to some quasi-Hobbesian or fully Rousseauian or Randian theory about the freedom inherent in a state of nature or an anarcho-capitalist utopia. Some forms of authority must be morally permissible, even to the lover of liberty.
.. Decisions made by others can profoundly affect the ease or difficulty of one’s pursuit of virtue or salvation. If I tell my daughter that her mother and I will not punish her if she uses drugs or ignores her responsibilities, I’m making it harder for her to live a decent, virtuous life. She will have the ultimate choice, but as an authority over her, I can make some choices easier or more difficult.
.. Here’s how I think about it: When presented with a political or philosophical challenge, the conservative, particularly the conservative of the Buckleyan variety, asks two important questions: Does the challenge threaten freedom? Does it hinder the practice of virtue? And he asks the same questions about the proposed response to the challenge.
.. Rothbardians, Randians, and other hyper-individualists are often inmates of their single idea, refusing to temper it with others. “An individualist,” Ayn Rand wrote, “is a man who says: ‘I’ll not run anyone’s life — nor let anyone run mine. I will not rule nor be ruled. I will not be a master nor a slave. I will not sacrifice myself to anyone — nor sacrifice anyone to myself.’” When thoughts are presented in such stark light, all nuance is lost in shadow. It is fine and good to say one will be neither master nor slave, but what about brother or sister, father or son? What about neighbor, friend, or simply fellow citizen? Social solidarity, whether at the intimate level of the family or the broad level of the nation, requires a vastly complex ecosystem of obligations and dependencies that fall to the cutting-room floor when we apply the razor of hyper-individualism.
.. The American tradition, as Tocqueville most famously chronicled, is a stew of both extreme individualism and remarkable associationism. Visitors such as Tocqueville have an easier time seeing this than do native-born Americans themselves. When you grow up in a tradition, that tradition becomes, if not entirely invisible, then certainly recessed into your background assumptions about how the world works.
.. Meyer understood that the strongest metal is an alloy. Steel is stronger than iron because of its blended nature. The Western tradition from antiquity onward was a conversation between two imperatives,
- freedom and order,
- liberty and virtue.
Prior to the Enlightenment, these imperatives were less of a tension and more of a process. Virtue was the way in which one achieved liberty, rightly understood. This conversation, Meyer wrote, was a “dialectic between doctrines which emphasize opposite sides of the same truth.”
.. When intellectuals such as Bozell and Rothbard emphasize one side of the coin, each side appears as a negation of the other. But, in reality, “on neither side is there a purposeful, philosophically founded rejection of the ends the other side proclaims,” Meyer wrote. “Rather, each side emphasizes so strongly the aspect of the great tradition of the West which it sees as decisive that distortion sets in.
.. The place of its goals in the total tradition of the West is lost sight of, and the complementary interdependence of freedom and virtue, of the individual person and political order, is forgotten.”
.. In short, tradition is not a philosophy but the arena in which competing philosophies shape the civilization around them. Libertarians and conservatives, despite all of their disagreements, can find common ground because they share some assumptions that Marxists, Randians, and others do not.
.. The libertarian individualists of the 1960s were more virtue-oriented than they appreciated. The traditionalists of the period were more concerned with freedom than they often let on. And many of the arguments about fusionism amounted to the sorts of squabbles we associate with the faculty lounge; they were so vicious because the stakes were so low.
Meanwhile, the more relevant debate was between populists and elitists. I say “elitists,” not “elites,” because this debate was also fought almost entirely among elites as well.
.. Kendall was an unapologetic majoritarian who believed that the masses were the virtuous citizens of “We the People.” He described himself as an “Appalachians-to-the-Rockies patriot.”
.. Conservatism, and America generally, got through the McCarthy period all right, in large part because elite institutions continued to play their role in constraining and channeling popular uprisings — though, as the 1960s demonstrated, there were also considerable failures. On the right, the competing elite factions disagreed about the extent to which populism should drive conservative political projects, but it was always assumed — if not always stated — that elites in the form of statesmen, intellectuals, etc. would still play an important role in channeling popular passions toward productive ends.
.. That system has largely broken down. The Internet and cable television deserve generous portions of blame, as do our educational system and the media generally. America is not immune to the tendency toward populism when high levels of immigration meet low or nonexistent levels of assimilation. The market itself is part of the problem, too. Division and anger are easily monetized, while moderation and prudence struggle to find a customer base.
.. Talk radio, cable news channels, and various PACs and interest groups have replaced the parties as the main educators of voters and drivers of turnout, and they have done so by stoking partisan anger, often collecting a tidy profit in the process. Much of the conservative movement has become a de facto consultant class for the Republican party, and any effort to provide intellectual correction from a critical distance is deemed an act of betrayal or heresy. What was once a healthy tension has become a kind of co-dependence, and in some instances little more than a racket.
.. Simply put, we live in a populist moment when many of the gatekeepers have either abandoned their posts to join the mob or stand lonely vigil at gates that are no longer needed because the walls are crumbling.
For Trump defenders, it requires incredible effort to keep yourself convinced that he’s the man you want him to be rather than the man he actually is. Orwell was right when he said, “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” But the opposite is often true as well. It is incandescently obvious that Donald Trump is not the world’s best negotiator or an honest person, among other glaring truths. But for people either emotionally or professionally invested in Trump, any admission that the Trumpian eminence front is a put-on is a threat of one kind or another. Maintaining the fiction that the emperor’s new clothes are glorious and resplendent takes a lot of effort, too. (For instance, imagine the energy it takes even to attempt to argue that Trump’s accidental “covfefe” tweet was a “genius move that is a very powerful demonstration of his ability to persuade”).
I’m convinced that one of the things that causes Trump disciples to get so angry at conservative Trump critics is that we make it so much harder to sustain the fiction. Of course, Trump makes it much harder than we do, but Trump gets a pass because he is the object of the adulation, while we’re supposed to be in the pews yelling, “Amen.”
.. George Will, William F. Buckley, and numerous writers at National Review were personally fond of, or close to, Reagan, and usually supported him. But when the situation required it, they could be quite blistering in their criticisms. And yet, no one — or no one serious — claimed that Will and Buckley weren’t conservatives.
What changed? Well, lots of things. But one of them has been the populist takeover of the conservative movement. (I have an essay on this in the latest issue of NR.) Populist movements can vary in ideological content but they all share the same psychological passions. Independent thought, naysaying, and insufficient ardor are seen as a kind of disloyalty. Better and earlier than most, Matt Continetti recognized the crisis of the conservative intellectual this takeover represents.
“Debating the Trump Presidency” with
Public debate took place on October 12, 2018, at the University of Notre Dame.