Where Are America’s Habits of the Heart?

The present state of chaos is puzzling, especially for conservatives. Everything would seem to be in place for success. So much favors the conservative cause. Conservatives have plenty of political power since the powers of government are in their hands. The victory in November went beyond Washington and extended to all levels of government—especially the state level.

Conservatives do not lack good ideas. Their advantage is made greater by the fact that liberals have so many bad ideas. Conservatives have plenty of good proposals that should serve to bring the nation back to prosperity and greatness. Less socialism is always a good idea. Ordered liberty is always a good idea. A strong national defense and secure borders are always good ideas.

Conservatives have talented people, political momentum and a mandate for change. Even the opposition of liberals, the media and the politically correct establishment should work in their favor since it serves to galvanize their base. The fact that President Trump is “not Hillary” has proven to be a source of unity and relief upon which to build.

An Ungovernable Nation?
And yet despite it all, some commentators ask if the nation is becoming ungovernable. Even inside the conservative movement, there is discord.

Perhaps the answer can be found by understanding the nature of governing. Governing cannot consist only of executive orders, legislative efforts and judicial decisions. True, these are the means the American political system uses to govern. However, the soul of governing lies in the ability to bring about a union of wills that has as its object the common good of the nation.

What is lacking in America today is this union of wills. And while this union can be expressed in policy statements, executive orders or electoral victories, it is never built on them. It can only be built on what Alexis de Tocqueville called “the habits of the heart.”

The Habits of the Heart
The “habits of the heart” sounds warm and refreshing to the postmodern ear. So many things are heartless in today’s cold mechanical world. Everything today is so changeable and fast-paced, much to the detriment of tradition and habits.

De Tocqueville’s observation of early America loosely defined the habits of the hearts as those morally binding customs, general opinions and attitudes that shaped the mental habits and intellectual dispositions of the people. These ideas and habitual practices slowly and organically melded together diverse people into a unified one. The habits of the heart made Americans intensely patriotic. They attached Americans to family and community. They made Americans staunch defenders of private property, free enterprise, hard and honest work, resourcefulness and ingenuity, and thus, vehemently anti-socialist and anti-communist. Above all, these habits of the heart made America very religious.

The habits of the heart help weave the social fabric from which a union of wills is possible. They lead to strong principled stands. They make America governable.

Polarizing the Nation
Liberals do not like the habits of the heart since they are the fruit of tradition and morals. Leftist policy steamrolls over the habits of the heart and tends to replace them with crushing government programs and regulations, politically correct mandates and guidelines, and ideological impositions and tyranny. By their radical rejection of America’s habits of the heart, the left has polarized the nation.

However, conservatives have embraced what remains of the habits of the heart that so attracts human nature. Their policy is much more suited to the slow and laborious process of returning to the basic social institutions of family, community, ordered and balanced government and vibrant faith that can weave together a social fabric.

An Abrupt and Misguided March into the Wilderness?
Conservatives are now faced with the temptation of abandoning the only road that can bring America back to greatness—the healthy restoration of the nation’s habits of the heart—and wandering off instead on a misguided and abrupt diversion into a wilderness.

They are being asked to embrace the very culture they have long opposed. Instead of the strong and principled habits of the heart anchored in moral values, there is the frenzy of unprincipled political pragmatism fueled by an endless stream of whimsical sound bites, tweets, snap decisions, contradictions and gratification.

Unpredictability is presented as strength in governing so that one can expect anything, anywhere, and at any time—good, bad or ugly. There is the idea that having no rules makes it easier to get things done. But what the nation is thirsting for is not whims and anarchy from the right, but calm and pondered wisdom; not erratic impulsiveness, but gravitas and stability.

The habits of the heart are by their nature good habits—virtues. There is the idea circulating that virtue is no longer needed to run a country. People need not be virtuous or even appear to be so. Moral opposition to procured abortion, so-called transgenderism or same-sex “marriage” is deemed irrelevant. All that is needed is an unholy alliance between a veneer of virtue and political pragmatism. Like rules, true virtues get in the way of those who can get things done.

A Doomed Policy
Such wrongheaded views on governing are doomed to fail. They have neither habits nor heart. Sad experience has shown that when people try to use questionable means to further supposedly virtuous ends, the situation soon turns upon those who entertain the illusion of such an alliance.

Such a policy would indeed make America ungovernable. It would lead people to think that having might is the same as being right. It confuses a union of wills with the breaking of wills. Thus, discord and mistrust will reign everywhere, even inside the conservative movement.

The Return of the Lions
Such policy gains a following among angry and impatient constituents who want to get things done. There is nothing wrong with this desire. However, they should realize that it is only through the strong habits of the heart that a nation is ever united and governed.

These habits of the heart should not be understood as false compassion or weakness. Rather they must be understood as principled stands based on moral standards that are maintained in daily life. Habits of the heart reflect practices that instill confidence, trust and loyalty. While the heart symbolizes affection, it also represents courage and strength. It is strong, but never brutal; flexible, never rigid; human, never mechanical.

Thus the habits of the heart forge strong human bonds. Failure by conservatives has always occurred when they have not been faithful to the habits of the heart. Indeed, there is no more powerful union of wills than that built by taking principled stands on the burning issues of the day. There is no higher moral ground than that of conservatives who will not back down from defending those exploited and ruined by bad liberal policy. There are no greater conditions for victory than a godly people that trusts in and loves Christ and his Church.

The habits of the heart are not for the faint-hearted but the lion-hearted. In America, it’s now time for the lions to return.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail of a portrait of Alexis de Tocqueville painted by Théodore Chassériau in 1850.

John Horvat II

By

John Horvat II is the Vice President of the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property and the author of the recent book Return to Order.

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