Can We Still Be Conservatives?

As someone who is paid to study rhetoric, I am not an easy guy to convince. But when I first read Michael Anton’s essay, “The Flight 93 Election,” in the run-up to the 2016 election, I immediately knew it had joined the few dozen seminal texts that have shaped my political thought.

It wasn’t that Anton said anything that I wasn’t already feeling on a gut level—I simply wasn’t yet able to articulate those feelings in a coherent account of that particular moment in American politics. Before I read the essay I was NeverTrump. After I read it . . . well, I was convinced. I am indebted to Anton, who I think is a first-rate thinker and one whose voice must be heard in shaping the agenda of the political Right.

Expecting to recapture some of the thrill I felt in reading the original essay, I was eager to read Anton’s new book, After the Flight 93 Election: The Vote that Saved America and What We Still Have to Lose. But rather than clarifying my thinking on the way forward, the book seemed to point in contradictory directions.

One thing I love about Anton’s writing is his knack for plainly stating heretical truths, like the one I think serves as a central thesis of the book:

It should now be obvious that what we have known as ‘conservatism’ has failed at the task encapsulated in its very name. Its task going forward—for those remaining conservative intellectuals who have not formally or functionally defected to the Left—is to relearn, or learn for the first time, what to conserve, why it is worth conserving, and how to conserve it.

Shocked by this little bit of radical candor, I considered this passage for a few days. Over time, it seemed to me to contain a paradox. If conservatism has truly failed (and Anton is close to convincing me that it has), then that can only mean it has lost the things it intended to preserve. But if that is true, then there is nothing left to conserve—so it doesn’t make much sense to spend a lot of time learning to conserve something that has already been lost.

Of course, the subtitle of Anton’s book insists we “still have [something] to lose.” But the general impression that the book gave me was that this thing we must fight to preserve is the remaining philosophical rubble of the American project as it was conceived by America’s Founders. Is rubble worth saving? Can it be anything more than a historical monument or an homage to the Left’s success in “fundamentally transforming” America?

Thinning Patience

Anton rightly notes that conservatism has been losing for at least three decades now, but he doesn’t really acknowledge something every conservative must understand: fundamentally, conservatism is a losing game. Change is the one constant in our world, and change will win. America will not last forever. For conservatives, then, victory must be understood as nothing more than losing as slowly as possible. Leftists enjoy more victories simply because their central project is change, and they seem increasingly uninterested in whether that change is for the better or worse, as long as it happens. And it will. So, for the Left, victory is always assured. It is just a question of how long it takes. Clearly, their patience is wearing very thin.

Where the Right and Left stand in relation to change dictates how they operate. The Founders gave us the architecture for a small, limited government that secures individual liberties and protects the essential requirements for the existence of the nation. This ensured the passivity of the conservative project: we merely needed to protect this inheritance and prevent attacks meant to undermine the foundations of our democracy. Put differently, conservatives don’t act—they react.

In contrast, the project of the Left has always been active. They don’t have to bother with the Sisyphean task of maintaining one’s grasp on something that is constantly slipping away. No—they don’t work in protection and prevention. They work in creation and destruction—actively eliminating the past and riding the current of change as they build their dark utopia.

Restoration . . . or Rebuilding?

If Anton is right—if conservatism has failed—then can conservatism (as a fundamentally reactive political philosophy) meet the needs of the political moment? Trump’s election exposed the fatal dysfunction in conservatism, and it provided the needed impetus for a re-invention of right-wing politics in this country.

In other words, it is a time for building—it is a time for action. And these pursuits are unfamiliar to conservatives, because until very recently, we were unaware that the project had been reduced to rubble. The task that Anton suggests, then, is inadequate: we can’t continue to figure out what to conserve and how to do it. We need to watch the Left and learn the arts of creation and destruction.

The pressing creative work before us is actually a re-creation: a recreation of the nation that conservatism lost to the cultural Left. This will require some demolition. Anton rightly notes that “Leftists hold virtually every commanding height in our society—financial, intellectual, educational, cultural, administrative.” It is this unassailed Left consensus that needs to be destroyed. This can be accomplished by an active, incessant, intelligent demonstration of the contradictions and falsehoods that undergird the leftist vision for American life. This demolition is a rhetorical project. The contradictions are so obvious that it should be easy.

But there are heavy penalties imposed for speaking these heretical truths. As Anton notes, this will take some spine.

As we proceed in this demolition, our re-creation will unfold. Literally and metaphorically, we elected a builder. But his efforts in this kind of political building can be erratic. And even if President Trump was the steady hand that we need, this isn’t a four-year project. Or an eight-year project. Or a 30-year project. This is a lifelong project. For that reason, I think we might be overly sanguine in calling 2016 “the Vote that Saved America.”

What are we building? We are rebuilding the nation envisioned in America’s founding documents. Beware: the progressive Left will call this a “regressive” project. They will say we are “turning back the clock.” We can’t be cowed by these slurs. They are only slurs if one accepts the silly idea that (in every way) the republican past was demonstrably inferior to the present. They are only slurs if you believe that everything we lost was never worth conserving anyway. Say what you will: at least regression is an active way to engage the political sphere.

It is an exciting time to be a conservative: we are rebuilding right-wing politics in America. But can we call ourselves conservatives anymore?

About Adam Ellwanger

Adam Ellwanger is an associate professor of English at the University of Houston – Downtown where he directs the M.A. program in rhetoric and composition. His new book, Metanoia: Rhetoric, Authenticity, and the Transformation of the Self, will be released from Penn State University Press in 2020. You can follow him on Twitter at @DoctorEllwanger

Photo: Getty Images

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