The final two years of two-term American presidencies are generally seen as their least significant. President Obama’s recent recourse to what some regard as extra-legal measures indicates, however, that we shouldn’t take this for granted. But no matter what political events unfold between now and November 2016, one thing is certain: American conservatives have to consider how they will address this and other legacies bequeathed by a very ideologically driven administration and people who, back in 2008, didn’t hesitate to state that they were about “fundamentally transforming the United States of America.”
A major challenge facing conservatives after Obama will be the breadth and depth of modern liberalism’s impact since 2008. This includes the relentless promotion of lifestyle liberalism at the level of social policy; the easy-money, top-down approach to the economy; and a foreign policy that’s alienating firm allies ranging from Israel to Australia, and which even many liberals have given up defending. This list doesn’t even include the cavalier approach to the rule of law that’s characterized the past six years.
Part of the conservative response will necessarily take the form of something many American conservatives love: policy. Given, however, the scale of modern liberalism’s advances, policy development just isn’t going to be enough. If conservatives are serious about up-ending some of the key assumptions driving American social, foreign, and economic policy since 2008, they need to go beyond framing legislation. Instead, they must seriously consider what a conservative fundamental transformation of America would look like.
Beyond Co-option and Pragmatism
Since 2008, some conservatives have responded to modern liberalism’s advances by trying to show that they’re more effective at realizing goals like social justice. This isn’t a problem in itself because, depending on how something like social justice is defined, such claims happen to be true.
The downside to seeking to outflank modern liberals on their own turf is that key liberal preoccupations will continue dominating public discussion at the expense of more distinctly conservative concerns. Moreover, no matter how much conservatives try, does anyone doubt that most Americans still equate social justice with government programs ranging from wealth redistribution to “diversity-enhancement” policies?
Another response adopted by some conservatives is revealed by the use of expressions such as “let’s be practical” or “we need problem-solvers.” They are appealing to something Americans pride themselves on: their pragmatism and willingness to avoid making the perfect the enemy of the good.
Certainly politics, like life, is full of compromises, especially if we take human freedom and fallibility seriously. Utopianism is not, and cannot be, part of the conservative lexicon. But the parameters of “what’s practical” in a given society are determined by the pre-existing philosophical commitments and political parameters already in place. There’s every difference in the world between being pragmatic in the settings of relatively free societies and pursuing practical solutions in a Western European social democracy mired in soft despotism.
Back to Principles
In short, conservatives determined to roll back America’s steady slouch toward a progressivist dystopia must be more than just adept at cutting deals, devising legislation, or using social media (as important as such activities are). Without the forceful elucidation of principles that conservatives hold dear, it will be all too easy for conservative responses to the “Obama effect” to become exercises in damage control rather than establishing a full-spectrum conservative agenda as the new normal.
The explication of such principles must also go beyond something like the 1994 Contract with America. Such documents help show how conservative principles translate into policy. Our present situation, however, is such that conservatives require something more: something with all the rhetorical force and normative weight of a text such as the Federalist Papers. This isn’t to claim the Federalist Papers as a conservative manifesto. My point is that it’s hard to dispute the role played by these writings in effecting another far-reaching and permanent change: the transformation of America from a loose confederation of quarrelsome states into a united federal republic.
So where should American conservatives look for inspiration for a powerful explanation of conservative principles and the political and economic arrangements that flow from them? A common starting point would be helpful, if only to smooth the tensions among fiscal conservatives, social conservatives, neoconservatives, religious conservatives, classical liberals, traditionalists, and national security conservatives—not to mention those who don’t fit neatly into any of these camps.
There’s no shortage of potential thinkers to draw upon, ranging from Aristotle to Tocqueville. I would suggest two authors as starting points for those conservatives who want to delegitimize modern liberalism, overturn its political gains, and replace them with entirely different political parameters. Both are eighteenth-century British thinkers who never visited America, yet were sympathetic to the American Revolution and have wielded profound influence on American conservatism for decades.
Burke, Smith, and Renewing Conservatism
The names of Edmund Burke and Adam Smith are regularly referenced by American conservatives of all stripes as sources for reflection on matters ranging from economics to foreign policy. In our own time, however, Burke and Smith should assume even greater significance. That’s partly because the challenges they addressed bear more than a passing resemblance to those facing conservatives today. More importantly, they exemplify how good ideas can change reality. In a few relatively short writings, Burke more or less inaugurated modern conservatism as a political force. In a single book, Smith codified the case for an economic revolution that continues to transform the world today. How easily we forget the sheer magnitude of their achievements.
To be sure, Burke and Smith didn’t agree about everything. Burke, for instance, ascribed more importance to the West’s Judeo-Christian heritage than did Smith. Yet Burke and Smith held remarkably similar views on many questions. Smith even described Burke as “the only man I ever knew who thinks on economic subjects exactly as I do, without any previous communications having passed between us.”
Both men fiercely criticized the mercantilist economic system that dominated eighteenth-century Europe. But neither Burke nor Smith limited his attack on mercantilism to its economic inefficiency. Each also denounced the way in which mercantilism gave those with access to government officials an unfair advantage over those with real economic creativity who were meeting consumer demand but lacked political connections. Given the extent to which crony capitalism’s growth has accelerated in recent years, a similarly penetrating moral critique bears repeating by contemporary conservatives if they’re serious about addressing a problem that’s corrupting American economic and political life.
Restoring Rule of Law and Civil Society
Burke and Smith also had much to say about something else on many American conservatives’ minds today: the executive branch’s undermining of the separation of powers. Both were critical—and in Burke’s case, outspokenly so—of George III’s efforts to corrode the delicate balance between monarch and parliament established after the 1688 Glorious Revolution. Even beyond constitutional questions, however, both grasped the importance of what we would call a strong civil society—by which they didn’t mean legions of government-funded NGOs—for not only maintaining limits on government power but also creating new arenas for human flourishing.
Here, Burke had in mind what he famously called the “little platoons” that draw people out of isolation and into many forms of association without absorbing them into the state. Smith similarly focused attention on what he described as the “orders and societies” that obstruct the “man of system” who’s succumbed to the hubris that everything must be perpetually organized from the top down.
All this is anathema to modern liberalism’s conviction that the primary locus of associational life is government. Smith and Burke’s attention to civil society’s crucial importance, however, also reminds conservatives that the difficult task of strengthening what Tocqueville called the habits of free association requires greater priority if America is to avoid becoming a highly atomized Western European nation: i.e., one in which most social problems are left to the welfare state to solve and where government has become the primary means through which many individuals relate to each other.
Looking beyond domestic issues, Burke and Smith point to ways in which American conservatives can respond creatively to developments outside our borders. Smith saw great potential for what he called the “system of natural liberty” gathering apace in eighteenth-century Britain to level many of the obsolete practices and self-serving institutions that obstructed greater prosperity and peace throughout the world.
Smith’s argument for economic freedom, however, went beyond economics. He underscored the enhanced possibilities for civilizational growth opened by the spread of commerce and the diminution of poverty. To that extent, Smith provides conservatives with a potent economic and moral rationale for reviving American commitments to enhancing free trade around the world and repudiating protectionism’s defensive mindset.
Yet Smith was too sophisticated a thinker to imagine that economic liberty and prosperity could somehow resolve all the world’s problems. As his writings demonstrate, Smith didn’t view man as homo economicus. People’s motivations for action go, Smith knew, beyond the economic.
Ideas Matter in a Dangerous World
This brings us to one of the most pressing international issues facing American conservatives. Put bluntly: how do they address the ongoing problem of Islamist jihadism in a context in which most Western governments don’t seem to want to acknowledge that specific variants of Islam are driving the global terrorism to which America has had to respond since 2001?
The first step to opening up the way to clearer thinking about these matters is to directly criticize the happy talk and political correctness that hamper honest discussion of these issues. Though the analogy isn’t exact, Burke engaged in a similar exercise in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790).
At the time, most people in Britain saw the French Revolution’s violence as resulting from pent-up rage at the ancien régime’s injustices. Such outbreaks, many held, would run their course and be superseded by a benevolent, mildly liberal order. Burke, however, took a different view. To his fellow Whigs’ consternation, he identified the specific ideological claims driving the French Revolution’s radical dimensions and spelled out the likely consequences: terrorism, aggressive war, and military dictatorship. Burke was proved right on all three counts.
Burke was no fan of endless foreign wars. Nonetheless, he didn’t hesitate to face his fellow countrymen up to the forces being unleashed by the men in Paris. In the recent past, many conservatives drew upon Burke to comprehend and address the threat of Communism. Is it too much of a stretch to suggest that Burke’s insistence that (1) destructive movements are driven in large part by bad ideas—about God, man, and society—and that (2) we need to name and dispute such ideas in the public square, has something to teach conservatives about how they address a problem that isn’t disappearing in the foreseeable future?
Much more could be said about American conservatism’s possible paths in a post-Obama America. Without, however, a willingness by conservatives to engage in a spirited dismantling of modern liberal orthodoxies—the near-obsession with economic equality, the insistence that problems are best solved through international institutions and top-down government programs, the unremitting promotion of relativism under the guise of tolerance, etc.—accompanied by a principled articulation of the conservative alternative, my suspicion is that the necessary changes in heart and mind won’t occur, either at the elite or the broader level.
Since John Stuart Mill’s time, modern liberals have been much better at grasping the importance of establishing and then dominating the parameters of what issues are discussed in the public square and how we do so. In the aftermath of Obama, it’s time for conservatives who want to see fundamental transformation of a different kind to summon the moral courage to do the same.
Editor’s note: This essay first appeared December 12, 2014 in Public Discourse, the online journal of the Witherspoon Institute and is reprinted with permission. The graphic above combines an image of the Adam Smith statue on Edinburgh’s High Street with a photo of the Edmund Burke statue in front of Trinity College, Dublin.