If the dueling manifestos of National Conservatism and Freedom Conservatism are any indication, the meaning of conservatism is contested as sharply now as any time in the modern conservative movement. Perhaps this is more of a feature than a bug of conservatism, since, as George H. Nash observed, the quest for self-definition was a central motif of post–World War II conservatism. For conservatives to assess the crossroads in front of them, it is fitting for them to also grasp the contours of the path blazed behind them. For this reason and others, George Hawley’s Conservatism in a Divided America: The Right and Identity Politics is a timely, if flawed, book.
In the abstract, the fusionist conservatism of the Cold War era seems an unlikely alliance. Traditionalist conservatives like Russell Kirk defended tradition and ordered liberty anchored in religion and the moral law. Classical liberals like Friedrich Hayek defended individual economic freedom and political freedom against an overweening state. And neoconservatives like James Burnham and other former left-liberals disillusioned by communism argued for an aggressive posture against the Soviet Union. And yet these three intellectual currents were as three different metals, and the Marxian threat of the totalitarian state, foreign and domestic, was like a forging fire that alloyed them together. The steely pages of William F. Buckley’s National Review from that era are an enduring testament to the strength of the movement.
Yet fusionist conservatism was quickly faced with internal tensions or contradictions and the prospect of disintegration after the defeat of the Soviet menace. The more traditionalist or “paleo” conservatives like Pat Buchanan lambasted the free trade and open border policies promoted by the classical liberals as economically and culturally destructive of America. And paleocons were increasingly critical of the next generation of neocons’ apparent desire for American-led liberal hegemony. In this light, the election of Donald Trump represented not only a backlash against the cultural aggression of the Left, but also a resurgence of paleocon ideas, which have found new theoretical life and expression in national conservatism.
Trump’s pitch to conservatives in 2016 was that the Left hates me because they hate you. His most enticing promise to them was that he would be their junkyard bulldog and protect their way of life from leftist predation. The fact that it convinced most conservatives to vote for Trump teaches us that anti-Marxism was once again a potent enough force to unite the Right. For, as the Right was becoming increasingly aware, Marxism didn’t die with the Soviet Union—it evolved. It lived on in leftist identity politics, which conceives of traditional American legal and political institutions not as the product of reason and deliberation among free and equal citizens, but as the instruments of oppression by those with power, particularly, white heterosexual men.
Conservatives have long argued that the vision of identity politics is wholly destructive of the American idea of polity. As George Will explained, if the premises of identity politics are true, it would follow that there are:
[N]o general standards of intellectual discourse, and no ethic of ennobling disputation, no process of civil persuasion toward friendly consent, no source of legitimacy other than power, and we all live immersed in our tribes, warily watching other tribes across the chasms of “our differences.”
In short, in the world of identity politics, reason is a mere instrument of power, and power is a function of individual or group identity. If true, genuine democratic deliberation is impossible because speech can only be rhetorical manipulation of emotions and politics a game of thermodynamics. But that is absurd. Freedom Conservatives and National Conservatives are united on this critique of identity politics.
But is this critique unhypocritically available to conservatism? Here is where Hawley’s book presents a worthy challenge to conservatives. Hawley sympathetically summarizes various conservative arguments against identity politics, and various conservative diagnoses of its origins. But, Hawley suggests, the conservative arguments ultimately fall short. “Identity politics is, in some form, inevitable,” he writes. Moreover, conservatives’ refrain to “stop the identity politics” comes off as disingenuous because, gathering evidence from conservatism’s response to civil rights, feminism, and immigration, Hawley contends that the conservative movement itself has embraced identity politics in various ways.
Hawley’s book is commendable for throwing new light on conservatism’s intellectual history, including some unsavory history of some conservatives’ ambiguity or hostility toward civil rights. It also shines in its summary and application of contemporary political science literature to show how political partisanship has itself become an identity that drives increased negative partisanship (voting out of hatred of the rival team) and may even be causing people to change their religion and race to better align with their political identity.
Still, even with his strongest evidence, Hawley’s conclusion that conservatism must succumb to the inevitability of identity politics seems shaky at best. While the conservative movement in America has been dynamically related to the Republican Party, surely any intellectually serious formulation of conservative political philosophy rejects in principle the notion that partisanship should become a tribalistic feature of a person’s identity rather than merely a strategic vehicle for the victory and implementation of conservative ideas. Similarly, if and when right-wingers have engaged in identity politics (e.g., in appeals to white identity), then it may simply be the case that they failed to express genuinely conservative political philosophy, which rejects racism. Hawley’s discussion of other alleged evidence of conservative identity politics trades on an equivocation on the term “identity politics.”
Consider, for example, Hawley’s example of Phyllis Schlafly’s arguments against the ERA, which he correctly identifies as one of social conservatism’s greatest successes. Schlafly defended the privileges of the homemaking American wife against the feminist push for women to enter the workplace, arguing that most women would rather cuddle a baby than a typewriter. On Hawley’s analysis, Schlafly thus engaged in a sort of identity politics, because she appealed to a particular notion of essential female identity.
Only in the broadest sense of identity (“an orientation of a person within a broader social context using a specific set of markers recognized by others”) does Hawley have a point. But that isn’t surprising. Any political philosophy will, either implicitly or explicitly, hold some philosophical anthropology, some account of what it means to be a human person. Conservatism is no different. It indeed provides an account of what a human person is. In fact, the divide between left and right can be boiled down to a fundamental divide over this question.
I agree with Hawley that it would be simplistic, a la Richard Weaver, to trace all modern ills back to William of Ockham’s nominalism. But the nominalist idea does have consequences. The leftist identitarian typically assumes a nominalistic account of the human person, rejecting any notion that each person is a member of a universal kind or nature distinguished by an objective set of powers and a divinely or naturally prescribed telos. Rather, a person is an expressive self, distinguished by a bundle of socially constructed group memberships, some of which can and others which cannot be entered and exited at will.
This vision dovetails with an attitude that I have called the obsession with the exception, i.e., the compulsive drive to seek out individual instances that seem to fall outside some universal norm or rule. Leftist identity politics is a fusion of this nominalistic attitude with neo-Marxist ideology to identify and critique oppressive power structures as the cause of some evil (unequal outcomes) associated with being an exception (a member of a marginalized identity group).
Consider again the example of sex. Like Schlafly, the Right tends to think that biological maleness and femaleness are essential features of persons, that those differences are manifested in our physical bodies, and that those differences can be a reasonable basis upon which the law treats men and women differently as, for example, in the military draft. Meanwhile, the identitarian Left looks out at the world and sees some exceptions to the apparent norms of sexual dimorphism, drawing a nominalist conclusion that biological sex is merely accidental. Unmoored from any putatively universal human nature, one’s subjective perception of gender identity (itself a socially constructed category with no essential relationship to biological sex) becomes essential to personhood. And therefore, they conclude, any differential treatment on the basis of “gender identity” is unjust discrimination.
Schlafly rejected such nominalism in favor of a classical, Judeo-Christian account of the person. Hence, labeling her conservative argument as a form of “identity politics” is equivocal at best and obscures more than it reveals. The more salient point is that Schlafly’s argument totally upends both the feminist and identitarian critique of domestic life as oppressive drudgery and the promotion of professional life as liberation. As Schlafly articulated, the defense of female privilege to be free from the drudgery of the office came packaged with men’s embracing that same drudgery, as a sacrifice made for the good of their wives and children. This, she argued, was because we inherited the tradition of Christian chivalry, which framed male strength as vocationally directed toward sacrifice for the protection of women and children. She thus defended a hierarchy in which men are vocationally subordinated to women, because life outside the home is ordered to the life within the home. Schlafly demonstrated that the traditional family wasn’t the oppressive hierarchy that the feminists imagined it was, nor was it an institution that could be explained in the cramped terms of power and identity.
We are led to the conclusion that the conservative critique of identity politics remains unhypocritically available to the conservative, at least insofar as conservatism is grounded upon a Judeo-Christian philosophical-theological anthropology. Why? Its account of “gender essentialism” does not subvert and destroy the possibility of reasoned deliberation. The Judeo-Christian philosophical anthropology keeps intact the very ground upon which democratic deliberation can take place, namely, that our common human nature is endowed with the powers of intellect and will. These are oriented toward truth and goodness, but they are also fallible, such that space remains for pluralism and reasoned disagreement.
To all of this, Hawley has a reply. He expresses skepticism at the idea that metaphysical foundations really make all that much difference to conservatism. Hawley says that conservatives could concede postmodern constructionist theories of social reality, and then simply defend the “social constructions” that they like—such as traditional family structures, masculinity, and femininity—on empirical grounds as conducing to most people’s happiness.
While Hawley’s reference to the social science data supporting the traditional family is welcome, I don’t think conservatives should accept this invitation. We cannot avoid the metaphysical questions any more than social constructions can avoid the test of truth. Consider that the “use” value of a social construction does not tell us its “truth” value. There could be useful social practices that would fail the test of truth. Imagine that a law enforcement agency created an institution that randomly selected an innocent person at certain time intervals to falsely frame for conspiring to commit some crime that we wanted to deter (e.g., mass shootings), then severely publicly tortured and executed him. And suppose that the practice had a demonstrated effect of deterring that crime and saving thousands of innocent lives. No amount of good social effects would change the fact that the institution was built on a lie. And the conservative believes, I think correctly, that it is better not to live by lies.
While I have focused here on some of my disagreements with Hawley, I do not mean to suggest that conservatives should not read the book, nor that it does not make many cogent observations, nor that it does not significantly contribute to our understanding of conservatism. The future of conservatism remains uncertain. This book illuminates the path the modern conservative movement has taken heretofore and therefore will be an important aid to conservatism’s ongoing quest for self-definition.
The featured image is in the public domain courtesy of Adobe Stock.