Note from the editor: this essay is based on a recent talk our editor-in-chief R. J. Snell gave to an audience of college-age conservatives about the current moment. It also includes some commentary on the students’ response, as well as Snell’s advice for them and for conservatives more broadly. For a bit of context, the first part of the talk, not included in this essay, was a summary and exposition of Russell Kirk’s 1974 book, The Roots of American Order. A version of that excised section, first written in 2014, is available to read here.
We know that conservatives find themselves in a fractious moment. The old alliances of the Reagan era have frayed. New ideas and schools of thought abound, with all the tensions and arguments and (sometimes) exasperations natural to moments of rethinking and rebuilding. It is no longer 2014, and the conversation in conservative circles has changed considerably since then. In 2014 no one said “President Trump,” and the smart money was on Jeb. The Flight 93 essay was still two years in the future. No one thought David French-ism was either good or bad. The consensus might have died but people were polite enough not to mention it, and we wouldn’t know why liberalism had failed for another four years. Drag Time Story Hour hadn’t yet formally begun. There was a bronze age pervert but no one cared, and integralism existed only in dusty, unread manuals. A lot has happened in these years, to put it mildly.
In fact, so much has changed that the story told by Russell Kirk in The Roots of America Order reads a bit like a eulogy for America. When we hear a eulogy, after all, we expect an emphasis on the virtues of the deceased and a bit of window dressing on their shortcomings. But given the current mood, Kirk’s story can read like a sanitized account of an America that no longer exists, if it ever did. Rather than “ordered liberty,” the terms which might better describe reality would include the following: carnage, emergency, crisis, depravity, degradation, decadence, collapse, malaise, illegitimacy, and Benedict Option. Many believe it is time for conservatives to reject civility, neutrality, free speech, originalism, fusionism, separation of Church and state, liberalism, right liberalism (and especially boomer liberalism), little platoons, localism, and bow ties. Neither Great Books nor the Constitution are going to save us, and politics isn’t downstream of culture. Moreover, instead of Locke, Madison, and Jefferson, we ought (apparently) to read Donoso Cortes, Julius Evola, Ernst Jünger, Carl Schmitt, and the Hungarians. (If those names are unfamiliar to you, trust me when I say they are familiar to young, restless conservatives of the moment.)
The young experience not order, but disorder: drugs, deaths of despair, tent camps, fatherlessness, the lowest rates of marriage ever, non-replacement levels of birthrates, ubiquitous pornography (and of the most violent and vulgar sort), corrupt and rotten institutions, failed education systems, pointless (but utterly expensive) colleges and universities, crushing student loan debt and inability to purchase a house, gig economies, rust belt towns, miserably incompetent elites, wokism, DEI, the collapse of religion, the absence of marriageable men, the suppression of the Latin Mass, endless war, the national debt, and open borders and open markets. Zombie Reaganism and the neocons are not going to help us now, they think.
We are no longer the yeoman farmers of Jefferson or the commercial republicans of Hamilton but instead an unhealthy, enervated, exhausted, alienated, numbed populace zoned out on the filth produced by our anti-culture. Only the blind, the foolish, the RINO, the Boomer, and the cuck think otherwise. It’s time to get red-pilled, Claremonstered, #tradwifed, and out of the Longhouse! (That last line received quite a cheer from a sizable group of young men at the event. So sizable I read the line again, to another cheer, and then chastised them for doing so; they shouldn’t cheer for such ideas. The women, notably, did not cheer.) Some of this is perhaps understandable, but some of it leads to accepting vile ideas beyond the pale of decency.
Conservatism has fractured into many stories, each vying tremendously with each other. All these ideas are being embraced or repudiated, and there is much passion about it all. It makes sense that this is so. Things do seem to have fallen apart, the center does seem wobbly, and some older conservative institutions and policies are non-responsive to current needs. This is natural: when many, especially many of the young, feel the status quo is failing, a variety of new theories and positions will emerge, each attempting to reframe the story, capture imaginations, and win arguments and votes. This is to be expected, even welcomed. Fences need to be painted from time to time so they don’t rot; conservatives shouldn’t refuse to paint out of some strange nostalgia for the status quo. Conservatives are not ideologues, but inclined to cautious empiricism in politics, embracing what is sensible, workable, moral and decent, but without demanding perfection or stasis. If what we’ve been doing and thinking no longer responds, the genuine conservative does something better. The creation of a decent society never stops, and didn’t stop in 1776, 1989 or 2014.
With schools and camps arguing and competing, times like ours can be exciting, or exasperating, or enraging. That, too, is perfectly normal, and can even end up being a source of new life, energy, alliances, and policies if we manage to avoid tearing ourselves to shreds. I, for one, mostly welcome it, although I do wish we could dispute arguments rather than persons—but ad hominems are also to be expected. Conservatives realize we live in a time of revolution, of wildness, and as the revolution continues its monstrous but endless destruction, our own responses will be incomplete and even confused. That is to be expected. Conservatives don’t long nostalgically for a world no longer existing, but attempt to live in ordered liberty, find the truth of being, realize the common good, and embrace a disposition of joy, gratitude, and delight.
As younger conservatives know, conservatism cannot simply continue as it has been operating. Rather than “natural conservatism,” something else is required of us:
. . . [A] conscious conservatism, a clearly principled restatement in new circumstances of philosophical and political truth. This conscious conservatism cannot be a simple piety, although in a deep sense it must have piety towards the constitution of being. Nevertheless in its consciousness it necessarily reflects a reaction to the rude break the revolution has made in the continuity of human wisdom. It is called forth by a sense of the loss which that cutting off has created. It cannot now be identical with the natural conservatism towards which it yearns. The world in which it exists is the revolutionary world. … [T]he revolution has destroyed … that tradition; the delicate fabric can never be re-created in the identical form; its integral character has been destroyed. The conscious conservatism of a revolutionary or post-revolutionary era faces problems inconceivable to the natural conservatism of a prerevolutionary time.
We have the burden and vocation of living in a moment of revolution; it can very much seem there is not much left to conserve, at times. Our task is to constitute a more self-aware, conscious, articulate account of who we are and what it is we are trying to do; to be intelligent rather than committed to the status quo, to be forward looking rather than attempting to instantiate a supposedly glorious past. Doing so will feel disorienting, experimental, and more risk-taking than conservatives find comfortable. It will also require us to argue with each other, making our case with each other—which will be also against each other, in many ways. But unless the revolution simply collapses under its own illogic, devours itself, fails to stop converting our children, loses its monopoly on our institutions, or decides to play fair—and none of this looks very likely—then we find ourselves in a position of rebuilding.
The author I quoted above is Frank Meyer, the famous fusionist who worked tirelessly, along with William F. Buckley, Jr. and others, to put together a fusion of anticommunists, antistatists, and social conservatives in the 1950s through 1970s. It is precisely his fusionism that has fallen apart, which became the so-called dead consensus many young conservatives find zombified. I am not trying to sneak in the old fusionism as if it were new again, not at all. Perhaps the old fusionism is dead and buried, and not a moment too soon; perhaps many moments too late. But if you read a history of that time, say by George Nash, you realize the arguments and inventions of theories, personas, and schools happening now is not so different from then. They were dealing with Revolution and so could not simply repeat what they had been doing; so, too, us. They had to decide who could be legitimate conversation partners and who, like Ayn Rand or the Birchers, were not going to be acceptable interlocutors; so, too, us. They had to decide what was principle and what was preference, what could be compromised and what must be maintained; so, too, us. I’m not suggesting we take Meyer’s solution, but, rather, that we acknowledge we live in the midst of a terrible revolution, and struggle to form a new, intelligent, responsive, and responsible conservatism to preserve the most precious things against those who wish to rend and tear and ruin.
In our experiments we can expect post-liberalism, and post-post-liberalism; we can expect originalism, in new and varied forms, but also common good constitutionalism. There will be variants of traditionalism. We can expect proponents of national industrial policy as well as those who roll their eyes. Natalists will look to support the having and rearing of children, and others see governmental action as inefficient and a moral hazard. All this is to be expected; all of this is to be welcomed, in some ways. We are thinking again. We are attempting to respond. We are attempting a struggle against a dehumanizing revolution—but we are all attempting to overcome the same common threat. City building isn’t pretty, and it isn’t all that calm.
At the same time, in our efforts against revolution, we should not respond with our own. Guardrails are required, and some positions should not be legitimized. We should react with uncompromising scorn when we hear proposals to overturn the Nineteenth Amendment or disenfranchise Jewish people. These are not acceptable proposals. Kinism and ethnic nationalism are not acceptable proposals and should be rejected root and branch. Sneering references about the longhouse or satirical tones about the dignity of women are not acceptable. Any form of Nietzscheanism, the metaphysics of violence, and aristocrats of the soul is not acceptable. Revolution is not overcome with revolution. Wildness not undone with wildness.
Also, we’re not rationalists. We certainly believe in reason and reason’s capacity to know the good and true, but we realize the domains of metaphysics and logic differ from the domain of politics. Axioms and geometrical deductions work well in some human endeavors, but not at all in the political—or at least not without tyranny, violence, totalization, and the trampling down of the very thing conservatives most value, the integrity of the human person and the drama of their own responsible action. There are no five-year plans to perpetual justice or the messianic age; no theories of the city in speech which simply map on to actual cities; no common good to instantiate without the long, difficult, tentative, and modest work of reality-based governance. This kind of governance seeks the common good in a way it can actually exist in this city, in this time, with these people, under these conditions. There’s no magical solution, no panacea, no scheme of rationality, no blueprint, and no merely human ruler sent by God to bring about the eschaton in this vale of tears. It is as it ever was: prudence, seriousness, intelligence, gratitude, reverence, law, virtue, patience, forgiveness, forbearance, dependence, order, and responsible freedom. Those are good things. Think on them.