Conservatives frustrated with the direction of our nation should redirect their energies away from podcasts and Twitter and toward a more productive type of civic engagement: the creation of new institutions. Social entrepreneurialism is a venerable tradition on the American right, and it can be the best way—especially in this particular moment—to bring about the types of change that serve to conserve the most important aspects of society, culture, and governance.
It is helpful, first, to understand institutions as a reflection of needs. “Institution” can be a capacious term. It generally refers to ways of organizing collective action to accomplish shared goals. So it includes norms and traditions (formal and informal rules for guiding how we work together) as well as organizations that carry out specific functions. Societies create and adjust voluntary associations, public bodies, corporations, and sets of behavior to help us lead healthy, happy lives individually and as communities.
In some instances, human nature, a culture, or a regime produces an ongoing need that requires ongoing institutions. As long as children must be raised, we will need the family and marriage. As long as individuals and nations need to solve problems jointly, we will need civility, diplomacy, and embassies. As long as America is a constitutional democratic republic, we will need a Congress and state legislatures. Perpetual conditions require perpetual institutions.
That is not to say they are forever perfect. They are as susceptible to error as the humans who keep them going, and the passage of time can make them dusty. But when perpetual institutions require change, we work through them; we direct our energies toward improving the entities we have. We don’t create a new national legislature every time we’re displeased with Congress. We reform its rules and behavior.
That said, much of life is impermanent. Massive change can come from migration, technology, innovation, politics, culture, and more. Our needs evolve accordingly. Think of a period with soaring rates of certain excesses and addictions versus an era of abstemiousness; an area hit hard by job losses and foreclosures versus a stable, economically thriving area; or a homogeneous town in an era of solidarity versus a town experiencing rapid population change during a period of polarization. Societies must be imaginative and nimble enough to develop suitable responses for different circumstances and different areas. Shifting conditions demand shifting institutions.
Those on the right are more naturally inclined to engage in the incremental work of fine-tuning perpetual institutions. Conservatives conserve. We are mindful of the continuities across the human condition, and we appreciate the longstanding entities and customs that have evolved to address them. But when the social, cultural, or political environment changes, and individuals and their communities face new and mounting problems, we should think in terms of the institutions we need, not just in terms of those we have.
We need a Conservatism of Creation.
Learning from Previous Eras of Institutional Innovation
One of the most valuable arguments in The Upswing, the fascinating new book by Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett, is that new institutions were founded en masse about a century ago, when America was going through an era of change and disquiet not unlike today. Pulling from the work of Theda Skocpol and others, The Upswing shows the astonishing institutional fertility of the turn of the twentieth century.
Between 1880 and 1920, America saw the creation of the American Bar Association, American Red Cross, Knights of Columbus, Sierra Club, 4-H, Teamsters Union, Big Brothers, Audubon Society, Rotary Club, NAACP, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Hadassah, Kiwanis, Lions Club, American Legion, Farm Bureau Federation, League of Women Voters, and Jaycees, among many others. Although these organizations are often lumped together as fruits of the Progressive Era, I believe each should also be understood as an independent initiative fueled by voluntary action to address a particular matter, whether it was the fraternal needs of adults, the civic formation of children, the advancement of a trade, or the protection of workers.
But somewhat lost to history (and The Upswing) is conservatism’s era of institutional innovation. More than fifty years ago, frustrated by an array of policy, cultural, and legal trends, America’s political right launched a two-decade organization-creation spree. From Barry Goldwater’s landslide loss in 1964 through Ronald Reagan’s landslide reelection in 1984, conservatism was fecund not just with ideas but with new entities. During that period, we saw the founding of the American Conservative Union, The Public Interest, the National Right to Life Committee, the Business Roundtable, the Eagle Forum, the American Legislative Exchange Council, the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, the Manhattan Institute, the National Taxpayers Union, Concerned Women for America, the Claremont Institute, the Federalist Society, the Family Research Council, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, Young America’s Foundation, the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Focus on the Family, the Pacific Research Institute, Moral Majority, the Mercatus Center, the Heartland Institute, and Citizens Against Government Waste, among others.
That era of creation helped the American right accomplish political and social goals over the subsequent decades that would have seemed impossible in the age of the Great Society, campus protests, the Summer of Love, and the Warren Court’s excesses. If we think today’s challenges rival those of a half century ago, we need to go about institution-creation with the same verve as the right-of-center innovators of that era.
The Theory Behind the Practice
Support for this kind of social dynamism can be found across the conservative intellectual tradition, which has far deeper roots and broader implications than the “disruptive innovation” and “creative destruction” associated with modern private-sector actors. In short, though conservatives in all nations respect longstanding, evolved institutions, American conservatism also understands the indispensable role of continuous institutional development.
Tocqueville recognized that America possessed an unusual spirit of creation. Though his work is known for lauding our community groups, he wasn’t impressed by Americans’ fidelity to existing organizations but by our ongoing invention of new ones. “Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations,” he observed. He marveled at the diversity of such groups, whose focus ranged from commerce and manufacturing to education, religion, morality, entertainment, public health, and criminal justice. He also noted that American citizens’ creation of towns—which can be understood as a governmental form of local association—was so natural that they appeared to constitute themselves.
Robert Nisbet also underscored the difference between old and new institutions, between preservation or recovery on the one hand and creation on the other. In the preface to the 1970 edition of his seminal book, The Quest for Community, he wrote, “It is not the revival of old communities that the book in a sense pleads for; it is the establishment of new forms; forms which are relevant to contemporary life and thought.” That is, our desire to feel connected to one another need not be addressed solely by enduring bodies; fresh, newly relevant organizations can and should do the same.
Similarly, F. A. Hayek lauded the ongoing, organic process of free people creating social formations to address evolving problems and capitalize on opportunities. He opposed powerful, static entities that prevented “others from trying to do better.” On this score, he differentiated conservatism in America from conservatism elsewhere; ours was founded in part on classical liberal principles and the institutions they naturally fostered. Hayek was opposed to the European style of conservatism because it is sclerotic. Its adherents’ admiration “for free growth generally applies only to the past.” They are unwelcoming to contemporary undesigned change, and that kind of obdurate conservatism “cannot offer an alternative to the direction in which we are moving.” America’s conservatism can.
More recently, Sir Roger Scruton attributed the strength of American conservatism, in part, to our vibrant civil society. America was “built from below, through the free association of its citizens.” He cites the proliferation of liberal arts colleges as an example of “the American genius for civil associations” and of the broader point that our nation enables dynamism. “And the vastness of America, its great wealth and opportunities, mean that other such initiatives are always occurring and new things are always growing, so that the conservative virus, notwithstanding the most vigorous fumigation from the left, will always be taking root again in some dank and life-infested corner.”
None of this, however, is an argument for change instead of continuity. The two can—actually must—go together. As Edmund Burke famously wrote, a state lacking means of change lacks means of conservation.
In both theory and practice, the Catholic Church, which is among the world’s most permanence-focused entities, shows how the two are linked. In 1884, reacting to the nation’s mounting anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic animus, America’s bishops required all parishes to establish schools. Before the Civil War, America had only 200 or so Catholic schools, but by the turn of the twentieth century there were 5,000. By 1965, that number had risen to nearly 13,500. The Church understood that social entrepreneurialism was essential in that moment—that the faith’s conservation required creation.
But this was not merely pragmatism, an acquiescence to conditions. The Church’s teachings argue for the development of new, local, voluntary institutions. Church documents not only defend the right of various groups of citizens to form associations; they also hold that, because public participation in society is essential, the creation of voluntary societies must be encouraged. They defend pluralism and local initiative, a vibrant civil society of individuals and intermediate social groupings, and the right of small, local institutions to be free of the interference of larger entities. They see societies as individuals binding together organically. Catholic scholars Michael Novak and Paul Adams argue that “social justice,” contra contemporary usage, is a virtue that leads individuals to form associations to benefit a broader community.
American conservatives should understand that institutional development is part of our intellectual and practical tradition and that it is necessary for the preservation of things we revere.
In recent years, the right has properly diagnosed many social challenges related to the family, education, technology, deaths of despair, jobs, trade, solidarity, and more. Too often, though, we have looked to grand movements and gestures—whether nationalism, populism, federal action, or executive orders—to provide solutions. Instead, we need a period of social entrepreneurialism that is focused more locally, that produces a diversity of institutions, and that engages our fellow citizens in collective action.
Conservatives need not think primarily in terms of national initiatives and national organizations. We should respect community determination, small-scale democracy, local associations, pluralism, and federalism. We should identify our nearby problems and create the institutions to solve them. Although today’s leading organizations are often national or international in scale, they typically started as community-based initiatives: the Knights of Columbus was once a small parish society in New Haven, and Kiwanis was once a group of businessmen in Detroit.
If we are concerned about K–12 education, we can create new charter and private schools. If we want to strengthen families or help neighbors deal with opioid addiction, we can develop new social-service projects. If we want employers more committed to place, we can start such small businesses. If we think our faith traditions can offer more to our communities, we can create projects associated with our churches, synagogues, or mosques. If we think local charitable contributions can be more thoughtfully or efficiently invested, we can create new community foundations. If we want better candidates for office, we can form organizations to identify and prepare such candidates and then help their campaigns.
But we can also think bigger when necessary. If we are concerned about the state of journalism, we can create new outlets, whether national or local. One of the most intriguing developments of the last several years has been entrepreneurship in news and commentary. The right-of-center publications The Dispatch and The Bulwark are just a few years old, and several high-profile, talented writers decamped to Substack after their respective legacy publications became too doctrinaire and bellicose in their progressivism. Similarly, if higher-education institutions are no longer interested in hiring right-of-center scholars or seem intent on creating environments unaccommodating to right-of-center students and faculty, we can create new colleges and universities.
Conservatives should continuously engage in efforts to improve perpetual institutions, and we should avoid the temptation to write off major institutions that move in directions we dislike. We need to be part of the debates that take place inside of and about longstanding entities. But we must also appreciate that sometimes in order to preserve principles and practices that we hold dear, we must create new institutions dedicated to such causes.