In the turmoil and fractiousness of the current American moment, it is understandable that many express sadness, anger, and anxiety that things are falling apart, a feeling that the center cannot hold.
Among conservatives, there is fragmentation and confusion. Some of this follows from the convolutions and intense debates about the last administration; but it goes beyond President Trump, revealing the fragility of the coalitions that defined the right during the Cold War and its aftermath. Still, even if the old fusionism is rejected by some, there is a need for some sort of new consensus.
Conservatives—particularly social and religious conservatives—are faced with, and ought to recognize, serious threats to the institutions we value. Even as various conservative schools disagree on important aspects of economics, policy, or theology—among other issues—we are all aware that the “unity” proposed to us by the current administration is less an invitation than a cudgel. Whatever our differences, all conservatives face similar threats. We would be irresponsibly naïve or indulgent to allow our internal disputes to distract us from our common tasks.
Beyond Totalizing Politics
At Public Discourse, we do not minimize the importance of politics. We insist on the responsibility of free women and men to be politically informed and active, taking their rightful place in the republic with all the responsibilities and rights of citizens and persons. A political regime sets conditions, influences attitudes, and shapes options with respect to marriage, education, health, civil rights, property, markets, war, justice, and, at times, life and death. Our temporal happiness is caught up inextricably with political realities, for, as Aristotle noted, only gods and beasts can live—let alone flourish—outside the polis.
Still, politics is not the most important thing; politics is neither first nor ultimate. In the end, human fulfillment and happiness lie beyond the political and are attained only in the Kingdom of God. Consequently, a sound politics is not totalizing. The political should not lay claim to every aspect of life, liberty, and happiness, and there should be ample space for reasonable people to exercise prudential judgment, and even to compromise. Compromise in prudential matters is not a moral failing, but often a sign of political wisdom. Fusionism is not a dirty word.
Thus, Public Discourse does not here provide an editorial statement of policy conclusions about which we insist on consensus. Instead, we outline some of the most important issues needing engagement, and sometimes debate, by conservatives—especially debate about the best means to attain our shared aims. If we are to intelligently meet our responsibilities, these, we suggest, are the themes that best advance our cause. A new consensus is needed, and we invite others to work with us toward shaping it.
Who Should Be Involved?
Toward that end, we begin with some foundational questions.
1. Among various conservative groups and schools, what aims are shared in common? What is the common opponent or threat to be met?
2. What are the fences? That is, just as Buckley excised the Birchers from the old fusionism, who cannot be allowed in the new consensus so to avoid loss of our souls and minds? Which are the most relevant conservative schools to include?
3. How do we address the conservative generational problem? Boomer Cons and Millennial Cons seem to misunderstand each other’s accomplishments and grievances, at the risk of alienating or radicalizing younger conservatives.
If we can establish the conversation partners of a post-Trump conservative coalition, then we can begin the hard work of engaging the most serious questions that face us.
The Goods We Share
Next, we present a series of core commitments—elements of our common life that conservatives believe are central to human flourishing. There is room for a broad range of disagreement about the best ways of conserving these goods. However one judges the Trump phenomenon, for example, the underlying social and economic pressures that made his presidency possible remain, and they demand a response. Conservatives need to acknowledge, understand, and respond to the forces that threaten to dissolve the goods we hold in common.
1. Marriage and Life. Marriage and life issues have formed the cornerstone of social conservatism for decades. Today, however, we must grapple not only with the obvious problems—same-sex marriage, gender ideology, abortion, and so on—but also with subtler forces that eat away at the foundations of family life, making it more difficult to build lives rich in meaning and purpose.
We used to worry about young people having premarital sex and children out of wedlock. Today, we worry that fundamental human desires are being subverted altogether, with pornography consumed in isolation replacing sexual intimacy and contraception, and voluntary sterility replacing cooperation in the creation of new human life. With relationships to others—as father, mother, daughter, son—too often shorn of their power to ground each person’s identity as one who exists within a web of mutual duty and dependence, the upper classes turn to careers in search of self-definition. Bereft of the financial ability to provide for their families, more and more working-class men succumb to addiction and despair, while corresponding numbers of women are faced with the choice to either raise children without stable fathers or forgo motherhood altogether. Alone together, people of all social strata are increasingly attached to technology that promises to connect us but too often leaves us feeling more alone, locked in an endless loop of doom-scrolling in search of another dopamine hit.
Conservatives must find ways to shore up the cultural supports for more human ways of life. How can we counter technology’s worst effects on our souls while preserving the freedom of expression that makes meaningful discourse possible? How will we help young people to see the emptiness of endless consumption—of both people and things—and its insufficiency as a source of joy? How can we help our fellow citizens overcome the fear of commitment and suffering and recover the belief that self-giving love is worth the cost? Should these efforts be confined to private institutions alone, or should we also invest in government programs to, for example, incentivize family formation and childbearing? Under an administration whose vision of human sexuality is so dangerously distorted, how can we fight back against ideological encroachment into other spheres of life, particularly education?
2. Religion. The first days of the Biden administration have already heightened concerns about religious freedom. Misguided views on sexual orientation and gender identity have received the presidential imprimatur via executive order, with the Equality Act and the Do No Harm Act posing considerable challenges for individual freedom of conscience, as indeed for schools, churches, hospitals, adoption agencies, and businesses. How do we continue the hard work of defending religious freedom?
Of course, however necessary the defense of religious freedom, such freedom in itself is insufficient for the promotion and flourishing of religion, particularly at a moment when religion in America is in decline in both adherents and substance. Morally therapeutic religion, “woke” religion, and a doctrinally enfeebled, ritually impoverished, and pastorally impotent religion—however technically free by the standards of First Amendment jurisprudence—don’t constitute the flourishing of religious liberty. Too few religious leaders and intellectuals seem prepared to provide and teach thick, meaningful religious truths in a publicly accessible and winsome way. Like so much in our moment, contemporary religion appears trapped in decadence. How can we revive and restore it?
3. Education. In a similar way, educational institutions could serve as sources of a common culture. Instead, their tendency to iconoclasm either acts as a solvent on that common history or, perhaps worse, creates a new common story of grievance. Conservative support for school choice, local control, parental rights, and quality of education should continue, along with the defense of free speech and academic freedom. Still, those efforts, however needful, are not adequate. Without a substantive vision of education, no set of skills outcomes will halt the decline and inequities of our schools or the faddish obsessions of our universities.
Of particular concern is the deformation in the understanding of language. Control of language is control of thought, and obfuscation of language erodes the ability for thought to explore and uncover reality. Moreover, when language is understood primarily through the lens of power dynamics (whether race, gender, class, etc.), the community of inquiry becomes deformed, governed by will and assertion rather than intellect and receptivity. Those trained to view truth as power and power as truth are themselves harmed and have proclivities to harm and constrain others. Justice without truth is not justice.
4. Justice. Conservatism should be governed by a sense of the primacy of the person. No law or policy or institution destructive of the human person can be just. Our moment contains a powerful demand for justice. There are certainly exaggerations in the debates about the legacy of race, economic inequality, and the market economy, making it easy to discount the excesses of certain “social justice warriors.” Yet such excesses do not negate what is true in the protests. Conservatives work for human flourishing, and while we caution against sudden upheaval, social experiments, and utopian visions, it violates our own principles, diminishes our cause, and harms our moral witness if we are cavalier or dishonest about injustice, either past or present. Our commitment to the person and to those institutions that allow persons to be properly formed does not allow for reactionary views, denial of hard truths, or indifference.
Race, equity, justice before the law, fair business practices, unions, the dignity of workers, just compensation, civil rights, taxation, respect for the contributions of women, sexual identity—these are not topics to ignore or deride. The first task is to understand. Then, from the stance of understanding and compassion, we must clearly articulate the true conditions of human well-being, working through law, civil society, family, and individual action to bring about those conditions as we are able. Given their commitment to human dignity, social conservatives—more than anyone—ought to seek to understand and cherish every human being. As always, such charity must be intelligent and true, not merely sentimental.
These are not the only issues worth sustained reflection, but they are worthy of deliberation in the attempt to build a new consensus. Any viable conservative coalition must find ways to preserve the goods that unite us by honestly confronting and responding to the forces that endanger them.
Since its launch twelve years ago, Public Discourse and its publisher, the Witherspoon Institute, have insisted that “careful reasoning” has something to offer the most “contested question(s) of our public life,” sure that in an “emotive and hasty age,” real political reflection required a “longer, slower approach, where reason is the coin of the realm.”
Conservatives might disagree on many things, but disagreement is not something to avoid; in fact, a real and productive disagreement is an accomplishment. Civilization, in the end, is “formed” by men and women “locked together in argument.” We invite all thoughtful conservatives to argue with us and with each other in these pages.
R. J. Snell
Ryan T. Anderson
Daniel E. Burns
Matthew J. Franck
Andrew T. Walker