Since the election of Donald Trump as the nation’s 45th president, essays about conservatism—what it is, how it ought to relate to Trump—are all the rage. Some—like Greg Weiner’s “Conservatism’s Constitutional Moment”—argue that the right way to understand conservatism is to view it as a disposition committed to conservation. Without that orientation, he argues, “conservative” will become a mere “label for policy preferences that are, by their nature, momentary.”
This was a point amplified by Michael Anton, writing as Publius Decius Mus, in his now famous essay, “The Flight 93 Election.” In that essay, Anton criticizes “Conservatism, Inc.” for its insistence on small-ball thinking—attempting, in essence, to put out the raging wildfire in America (a fire started by progressivism) with water-bottle-sized proposals such as “tax deductions for having more babies and the like.”
Weiner asks: “But what in the age of Trumpism . . . are conservatives to conserve?” His answer is the “constitutional regime” which ought to undergird all policy disputes. I agree wholeheartedly that the constitutional sub- and superstructure that is our birthright as Americans is of immense importance and should be treasured. But Weiner, and others like him, unfortunately, put the proverbial cart before the horse. To borrow a concept from the late, fiercely anti-Communist political theorist James Burnham, they miss the “key”: the central challenge of the age, against which all else is “secondary, subordinate.”
What is that key? The reenchantment of the American mind with its constitutional heritage. Before conservatism can preserve the constitutional order bequeathed to us by the founders, the nation itself must rediscover what that order entails, offers, and demands of us. We cannot preserve what we do not currently understand or possess. We the People have forgotten what it truly means to live in the American constitutional republic with all its responsibilities and associated privileges—rights and duties alike.
The primary problem with trying to preserve the constitutional structure of our republic before the people have rediscovered the necessity for it is that we run into the problem: that politics, in the words of the inimitable Andrew Breitbart, “is downstream from culture.” Thus, merely preserving the modes of a constitutional order emphatically is not sufficient to stem the cultural tide against free government because, to a large extent, that order no longer exists in people’s everyday lives and imaginations.
This is because, except in certain boutique corners of the culture, all understanding of it has been eviscerated, chiefly, by the bloated, liberty-killing modern administrative state. We thus can no longer count on the habits or the thinking of a free and self-governing people, something essential to the existence of a well-ordered, prosperous nation-state. The siren song of equity, a stifling P.C. culture, and the rapid technological advancements that have disrupted traditional mores and habits of work that sustain a healthy middle class have also contributed their share to the damage. The problem, in other words, runs much, much deeper than Weiner and other advocates of “constitutionalism” may realize or admit.
Commentators like Weiner speak of, envision, and hope for a Congress that will stand up for itself as a co-equal branch of our tripartite federal government. They imagine that if Congress were just more willing to assert itself, perhaps by puffing up its chest and “elbowing” its way back to the table of power, then we could all return to journeying unencumbered toward the sunny uplands of liberty and prosperity. But this is largely wishful thinking. It elides a crucial reality: Congressional members are voted into their offices by a polity that has, for all intents and purposes, no memory of, lived experience with, or historical tradition of the kind of self-governing constitutional republic that is the subject of these scholars’ studies. What they understand to be the legitimate historical American regime is no longer the regime under which voters actually live—neither is it a thing alive in their imagination or memory.
How then can “We the People” expect that Congress—given its powers by such an impoverished people and comprised of nothing more than 535 persons drawn from such a diminished polity—will or can right the ship of state and set us on a course worthy of the American idea? To agree with the conservation-before-recovery argument advanced by Weiner is to think that an “institutional bandage” (i.e., a more muscular Congress) will suffice to stem the advance of our nation’s “cancer” (i.e., the decay of our collective commitment to our American heritage). The solution to the problem of the hollowing out of the idea and reality of a free America simply must address causes and forces deeper than those Weiner identifies if it is to be successful.
In addition, it is odd to hear conservatives insist that adhering more strictly to the mechanisms of the Constitution—mere political practice—will rescue us. That is a profoundly unconservative position, for it has never been in the past and ought never to be now the conservative position that the mechanisms of politics are of prime importance but, rather, that these are subordinate to (and rightly so) other goods that inform politics in the higher sense (i.e., deliberation about how we ought to live together)—namely, family, religion, community, and the like.
This is not at all to say that Weiner’s prescription for repairing and restoring the indispensable principle of separation of powers to its rightful pride of place is not a necessary step to be taken; it absolutely is. But that is the key insight. It is necessary, but not sufficient, to restoring the American creed and the promise of opportunity, mobility, and liberty for all.
To think that government and the mechanisms of politics can save us is to throw our lot in with the political Left which clings to these forms as one would to driftwood out at sea. For those with no other higher good at which to aim, this is understandable. But it won’t do for us.
Progressives, sadly, have no genuine summum bonum outside of political activism; politics is their god, plain and simple. To ape their rhetoric is to accept their blinkered view of human dignity and flourishing which cheapens and damages conservatism and the conservative project greatly.
Our current political moment is not one in which the Burkean-Madisonian view described and endorsed by Weiner—that “enduring practice ratified by the people acting through all three branches of government [can] … ‘alter’ … constitutional meaning” and that “long possession creates a rightful title”—applies. To accept this view is to accept that the Progressive Left, keen as it has been to push the constitutional envelope ever since the days of President Woodrow Wilson—a man who utterly abhorred the separation of powers—will be nearly always unilaterally setting the terms of engagement; it is to cede, wholly unprompted, an unbelievable amount of political ground to the enemies of the very “constitutional regime” Weiner so clearly respects and cherishes. (Not to mention that so much of the process has been hijacked by an illegitimate “fourth branch” of government, so the requisite conditions of alteration don’t even obtain.)
New entitlements are difficult to undo, and people alive today are very much incapable of imagining what life was like in a pre-New Deal America, so any move to, for example, slow the growth of government spending—not even cut it in an absolute sense but merely slow its rate of growth—is met with fevered denunciations and outlandish claims that the GOP consciously desires the demise of the sick and elderly. We cannot allow anti-constitutional innovations, if they just so happen to “stick” to the wall of our common life, to gain legitimacy. This is so for a purely instrumental reason: such bastardizations of the Constitution serve the Left’s perverse agenda at the expense of the Right’s vision. The Left gives no quarter to the Right in pursuit of its agenda; the Right ought to resist in kind, otherwise any hope of preserving a constitutional regime is a fool’s errand.
This posture massively benefits aggressors (the political Left) at the expense of would-be conservers (the political Right) and trades very heavily on the idea that those seeking power have the best interests of the nation at heart. Conservatives are thus put in the awkward position of having to conserve every new aberration that the Left shoves down the country’s throat if it cannot be undone before it becomes even just a marginally ingrained idea, practice, or institution. Perhaps paradoxically, conservatives—if we are to achieve the sort of conservation Weiner believes is fundamental to our identity—must at times act in the ways our foes smear and accuse us: reactionary and in that way refusing to allow distortions of our Constitution to crystallize. For if we don’t, then we offer both precedent and justification for ever more new, frequent, and extreme distortions and crystallizations until the original order of 1791 (or, better, of post-1868/pre-1937) is all but unintelligible. We would do well to heed the words of Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater in this regard: “[E]xtremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And … moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!”
The only real solution, then, is to reject the notion that our political deliverance will come, in the words of Burke, “ready made [sic] and ready armed, mature in its birth, a perfect goddess of wisdom and of war, hammered by our blacksmith midwives out of the brain of Jupiter himself”—that is, salvation won’t come in a top-down manner, beginning with Congress. It must come, rather, to draw yet again upon the eminent Burke, by way of “example”: “the school of mankind; [for] they will learn at no other.” Americans must relearn what it means to be a self-governing polity, freed from the fetters of an overweening government. Will that require a change in how our government operates so that it ceases to crowd out American ingenuity and push to the point of obliteration communal ties and social capital?
Yes, definitely. But that cannot happen until We the People reawaken to the great promise, traditions, and heritage of which we have been robbed.