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The State of Social Conservatism and the Role of Public Discourse

Public Discourse offers social conservatives precisely the type of forum that the particular challenges of our time demand. In the face of countless challenges to our familiar assumptions about politics, law, and economics, we need an honest and robust conversation among people who share the same basic moral commitments but defend widely different policies on the basis of those commitments.

Bad times often produce good thoughts. The golden age of Athens coincided with the Peloponnesian War. The end of the Roman Republic gave us Cicero; the end of the Empire, Augustine. Few of the twentieth century’s greatest thinkers grew up under any of that century’s decent regimes.

Today, we live in bad times for social conservatism. We may hope for one small consolation: a resurgence of high-quality social conservative thought. As Public Discourse’s newest contributing editor, my job is to ensure that PD remains the most important American venue where such thought gets shared.

 

The senior editors have asked me to introduce myself. I thought the best way to do that would be to outline what I see as the most interesting political questions that confront our readers today. I am proud to join the masthead at PD because I believe the essays we publish can make a major contribution to our collective understanding of these questions.

The Socially Conservative Intellectual Today

Socially conservative intellectuals have always occupied a peculiar position. Intellectuals thrive on defying conventions. They do not, to put it mildly, form the natural constituency for a socially conservative movement. Or if some of us do, it is because we are the unusual intellectuals who thrive on defying the conventions of other intellectuals.

Socially conservative intellectuals share the habits of other people who think for a living. At the same time, we share the beliefs of many other people who feel a healthy contempt for all intellectuals (including us). Among our peers in government, law, the academy, education, journalism, etc., we are constantly on the defensive. We often develop the habit of partially concealing our real views in public. Yet the bittersweet consolation for our vanity is our sense that out of all intellectuals, we are the ones closest to the mainstream of historical, global, and even national public opinion. Our left-leaning peers are the lunatics who have taken over the asylum.

This fairly ordinary state of affairs has been aggravated into a crisis by the unprecedented beating that American social conservatism has taken during the short period of my own adulthood. In the first election in which I could vote, voters in thirteen states elected to define marriage as the union of a man and a woman; thirty states had done so by referendum before Obergefell v. Hodges (2015). In nearly all states, including my own Massachusetts, I watched the elected legislature take the same step as a reaction against the early legal victories of the marriage-equality movement. Obergefell knocked it all down, and the social conservative movement is still reeling from the blow. Bostock feels like a light slap by comparison.

Pierre Manent argues that the defining event for France’s self-understanding in his lifetime has been and remains the defeat of 1940. I sincerely believe that Obergefell, with all it stands for, occupies a comparable place in the psyche of American social conservatives. Our loss on the great battlefield of American culture was swift and devastating. We are still in the very early stages of processing the shock.

Our last great defeat, the sexual revolution—although its effects on society were even larger—had at least come from predictable causes. It was no secret that young people wished to have sex. It was no surprise that a birth control pill would encourage them to have more of it. But social conservatives in 2004 could hardly predict that just a decade later, the broad majority support for our view of marriage would evaporate, and our political and legal and cultural establishment would begin treating that view as the rough equivalent of racism. The Maginot line was overrun. Like the French, we will be arguing for decades about whose fault it was.

Nor can our intra-conservative recriminations ever be confined within the bounds of strictly political discourse. Since no one can seem to avoid judging theological views by their political consequences, the postwar French intellectual ferment also produced serious reflections on theology, including on how religion should relate to the social-political order. Frenchmen who had responded well to the great defeat now seemed to have something important to contribute to postwar theology. Frenchmen who had handled it poorly were held in contempt as theologians of appeasement.

The question of church-state relations is one of many similar questions that likewise deserve to be reopened in the US today. But the career of Jacques Maritain should be enough to warn us against the rash overreaction, and the naïve embrace of unreliable new bedfellows, that can easily be the result of such politically motivated theological reflection. We need time and space to think—about politics, law, theology, and the relations among them.

Public Policy Challenges

Like Maritain watching the founding of the United Nations, many social conservatives since 2016 have thought that a new political movement finally corresponds to their wishes: a movement that, if it cannot quite expunge the shame of the recent defeat, can at least forestall greater catastrophes in the future. More dangerous still, some socially conservative intellectuals appear to think that what this movement most needs is themselves. The tiger may appear ferocious, but he can be saddled and bridled by the tie-and-glasses-wearer who comes armed with the correct readings from the history of Western political thought.

This type of optimism is nothing new to American intellectuals. During the period from the election of Reagan through the second term of George W. Bush, a coterie of socially conservative intellectuals felt that an ascendant political movement on the Right—if only it benefited from their deft guidance—could fulfill at last the promises of our great nation’s founding, vanquishing old enemies on the Left along with the embarrassingly stodgy conservatives of the previous generation, while simultaneously bringing to light long-neglected moral truths taught in the Bible as interpreted by a suitably ecumenical swath of American Christian and Jewish sects.

Today it is a new group of socially conservative intellectuals who appear to have a remarkably similar feeling about the newest ascendant political movement on the Right, especially about its repudiation of the now-stodgy Reaganite conservatives of the previous generation. Perhaps they have gotten it right this time. After all, at least in Maritain’s eyes, the failure of the League of Nations was no argument against the United Nations. But history has not been kind to the twentieth-century liberal’s recurrent hope to play midwife to a developing global consciousness that will finally bring about world peace. We will have to see how it treats the American social conservative’s similarly recurrent hope to play court intellectual among a triumphant band of reactionary populists.

However that may turn out, our most optimistic social conservatives are indeed making one important observation about American politics today. Socially conservative views play a large, and insufficiently acknowledged, role in the cluster of related movements called nationalism, populism, national conservatism, working-class conservatism, common-good capitalism, or even Trumpism. I have not been to a Trump rally, but I am told that his promise to say “Merry Christmas” was one of his biggest applause lines in 2016. I did not attend last year’s National Conservatism conference in DC, but I am told that its own biggest applause line was its organizer’s stab at confused gender identities. I am not on Twitter, but I have the impression that Oren Cass’s Cost of Thriving Index has generated more excitement by its assumption of a male breadwinner than by any of the contested calculations it bases on that assumption.

In general, the scorched-earth policies of the cultural Left are awakening at least some broad-based resistance. Social conservatives are reasonably hoping that this might be good news. It is certainly worth discussing at length the means, and the political alliances, by which we today can best advance our preferences on the narrow range of concerns commonly referred to as “social issues.” Yet “social issues” are not the only issues that matter to social conservatives. Many other political questions, bubbling up from today’s intellectual ferment on the Right, do and should similarly attract our attention.

 

The American working class appears to be increasingly weighed down by family instability, economic insecurity, addiction, and isolation. We should continue to ask to what extent public policy decisions may have contributed to these pathologies. But even if they had not, it is becoming harder to deny that public policy now needs to be concerned with combating these awful threats to human flourishing, to the extent that it can.

The technologies that envelop more and more of our lives are also doing terrible things to us and to our children. Like Soviet Communist Party members in the 1980s, educated Americans have begun behaving as if this awfulness were an open secret: we can wink at it, so long as no one proposes any alternative that might make us feel too guilty about our ongoing participation in it. Those who claim to care about human flourishing must do better—when we make our own individual and parental choices, first of all, but also when we craft public policies to support such choices.

And our educational system, from K–12 to higher education, continues to fail more than it succeeds. It is not just that most colleges have become even more (!) hostile to socially conservative views than they were when I was a student. Nor is it even that that hostility has now begun to spread down to the level of public-school kindergarten. Nor is it even that this hostility encompasses larger threats to civility and honest conversation tout court. Rather, the most striking problem is that our secondary and higher education systems are increasingly failing to prepare their students, not just to be well educated or morally upstanding human beings, but to be basically functional adults. As custodians of precious truths about the human soul and its education, social conservatives cannot be indifferent to these failures.

Then there is our foreign policy. Social conservatives were divided over the Iraq War and over the rationales offered for it. Those who soured on the invasion during the early civil war could be rebutted by others who pointed to the impressive American surge strategy that tamped that war down. Those worried about the Arab Spring of 2011 could be rebutted by others who saw it as vindicating many of our Bush-era hopes for the region. But after seeing the aftermath of the Arab Spring, including the rise of ISIS, many of us have finally become more skeptical of the version of universalistic social conservatism that was embodied in Bush’s Second Inaugural of 2005. The Religious Right has yet to find an intellectually unified approach to domestic and foreign policy that could replace the attractive, but now deservedly discredited, unified vision offered by President George W. Bush.

I could list many other areas of policy and law that hold natural interest for social conservatives, from police reform to environmental regulation. In all of them, we face reasonable challenges to political and intellectual habits inherited from earlier generations of conservatives. I have my own opinions about some of these policy areas, but I remain more impressed by the difficulty of the problems than by my own tentative solutions to them. We all need help thinking these issues through.

The Place of Public Discourse

When we do debate political issues like these, social conservatives have every right to be tired of hiding what we think. The prospect of bringing our real beliefs into the public square, without apology or subterfuge, is naturally exciting. On the other hand, the attempt to fit those beliefs into a viable political movement can—no less than our countervailing desire for approval from our left-leaning peers—pose a serious risk to intellectual honesty. No one can say how much damage was done to American families when some religious leaders decided to soft-pedal their views on divorce in order to fit into the post-Reagan conservative movement. And however much we may enjoy watching a populist movement trample on liberal shibboleths, we know that such a movement always draws energy from a simple and crude nativism that no self-respecting intellectual can defend as such. Those who attempt that defense will, in the best case, share the predicament of the old Roman philosophers who tried desperately to explain away their fatherland’s native superstitions. (It may look like cultic prostitution, but it’s really just a metaphor for the soul’s ascent to the Supreme Intellect!)

Join a political movement if you like, but don’t confuse it with an intellectual movement. To the extent that you wish to pursue intellectual authenticity in public, you will need to give up on direct political influence.

But no one should give up on thinking through today’s political issues. What social conservatives most need today is a chance to argue about politics and law without having to water down our views in the way that, eventually, someone will have to water them down in order to be politically effective. We need to hash out the most interesting political questions confronting us without having to pretend to be someone we are not, or to apologize for what we know to be most important in human life. We need a forum in which social conservatives can talk and argue with each other—and, of course, with anyone else who does not share our views but is willing to join our conversation. Because social conservatism’s practical consequences (as well as its theoretical foundations) are so much up for grabs today, this forum needs to be as open as possible to the widest range of political, legal, and economic conclusions that can reasonably be defended in front of social conservatives.

 

This, to my mind, is what Public Discourse uniquely offers. No other journal presents its readers with, on the one hand, such an unashamed commitment to socially conservative moral views, and on the other hand, such a firm refusal to take an editorial stand on any concrete policies (political, legal, or economic). We do share certain very basic political commitments, such as to the American Constitution. But we will even publish reasoned challenges to those commitments. And we will certainly publish the widest possible range of arguments about how best to sustain those commitments in the twenty-first century, including by means unfamiliar to yesterday’s American conservatives.

I am profoundly excited to be a part of this journal’s editorial team. Writers, please send us your best writing, and encourage your friends to do the same. Readers, I look forward to learning alongside you from the best writers we can find. The times we live in demand nothing less.

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