Issues analysis
Conservatism as defender of the cultural supports of the common person
Patrick Garry, RenewAmerica analyst
May 8, 2015

Conservatism stands for something much larger than public policy prescriptions, government structure, and individual rights. It stands for a uniquely American type of civil society – a society that has created a uniquely prosperous American economy and a uniquely democratic American politics. This social aspect of conservatism, according to Edmund Burke, recognizes the desire of people to live together under shared norms in a morally defined community. It also recognizes that individuals are human beings, with characters formed through the interaction of reason and experience, both of which are social endeavors.

But it is not just any community or society that conservatism seeks to protect. It is the society that has historically proven to be the most stable foundation for all American life that is the concern of conservatism. As conservatism recognizes, democratic government arises out of democratic society. Government is neither the beginning nor the ending point – society is. It is not the government or government policies that define America, it is the social institutions and values giving rise to government that defines America.

Conservatism does not see society as something repressive or antagonistic to individuals, but as something that can elevate individuals, civilize them and lift them up to lives they would not otherwise have been able to live on their own. This is particularly vital to those individuals most in need of being uplifted.

The institutions, customs, and cultural values of society provide the guard rails not only for this uplifting, but for the exercise of individual freedom in general. And conservatism strives to cultivate the shared inheritance of these institutions and values from generation to generation – institutions and values that took centuries to develop, but can quickly be destroyed.

Society is not some outside entity. It is like home – an ordered space where people enshrine what they have and who they are. And like home, society is inherited. But this inheritance also carries the duties of trusteeship for those who have yet to be born, since it is their inheritance as well. And this duty of trusteeship requires not only the stewardship of protection, but the commitment to educate succeeding generations about the value and nature of this inheritance.

This is a prime focus of conservatism: to protect the common dwelling place of individuals that allows and directs individual freedom. To conservatives, home, or society, precedes freedom.

Conservatism offers the only effective antidote to the extreme effects of statism and global capitalism. Run amuck, capitalism can be a system in which individuals end up simply as isolated consumers in a brutally materialistic marketplace. But conservatism reminds us that there are other realms of value in human life – family, truth, beauty, and dignity – that supersede the market and have no market price.

Politics should not lose sight of society

Society is the air that must be breathed for a people's common life. It makes possible all communal life, including politics. Therefore, politics should never tear away the foundations of society. Politics should not become a means by which a political elite gain the power to weaken or transform society.

Liberalism has mounted a long and steady assault on society, seeking to replace society with government. It pursues this replacement by denying the exceptionalism of American society. For when society loses its specialness, it loses any claim for loyalty and becomes only an undefined and invaluable collection of individuals. And when it is just a collection of individuals, then it is the strong and powerful individuals who assume dominant control, and they do so through a government that has expanded to fill the void left by an eroded society.

As Burke foresaw centuries ago, the distinction between conservatism and liberalism would come down to contrasting views of society: one side being grateful for the good in society and wanting to use it to address the bad, and the other side seeing only the bad in society and thus seeking to end that society and start over. Modern liberalism, as it came of age in the 1960s, incorporates this latter view of American society. Under this view, American identity is centered on the historic wrongs and evils committed by America. This view also provides a justification for expanding the power of government to transform a society that has been so historically evil and enlightened. It rationalizes government power in the name of intervening against social evil.

But as G.K. Chesterton wrote, it is as important to know what is right with society as it is to know what is wrong. Consequently, an essential trait of conservatism is an appreciation for what has worked in society, and for the longstanding institutions that have contributed to those previous successes – institutions valued by generations of people dealing with the recurring types of basic social issues that current generations face.

In the liberal mindset, government is the only trustworthy and legitimate arena of American communal life, and the only way to redeem a corrupt society. Government stands apart from and in judgment of a fallen society.

The denial of American exceptionalism essentially removes any reason for defending American society or culture. This leads to and arises out of the multicultural view of society. Rebelling against the traditional model of assimilation, this multicultural view fosters a fragmented, adversarial society of competing groups.

America's success as an immigrant nation resulted from a uniquely American process of assimilation. Not surprisingly, ever since the multicultural view has taken hold, along with its rejection of assimilation, America's immigration system has broken down. And in a larger scheme, American society and culture have lost their unity. Not even a common language can be sustained. Not even traditional religious institutions and norms that have characterized the nation from its beginning can be acknowledged.

This contrasts dramatically with the era of Theodore Roosevelt. Reflecting the assimilation ethos of the time, Roosevelt defended an open immigration door, but also insisted that new immigrants assimilate into the special and admirable American society. To Roosevelt, a primary tool of this assimilation was the education system, which today often denies and even denigrates any notion of American commonality or exceptionalism.

Given the loss of liberalism's belief in a unified, exceptional America, it is no surprise that liberalism's current leader is a community activist president – a president trained in the view that the only thing that connects diverse individuals and groups in society is a rights-allocating government, and that each group has nothing in common with other groups or communities other than a common struggle for government benefits.

The false perfectionism of progressivism

The progressive component of modern liberalism has also been used to undermine the strength of society. Not trusting the common person to navigate her way through a complex world, progressives seek to expand a government run by experts. When society is influenced by history and the voluntary customs of everyday people, government can be controlled by a progressive elite. Government centralization replaces the social bonds of individuals that were built through families, religion, communities, and patriotism. With these social bonds dissolved, society can only be held together by the force of government, not by the voluntary bonds of mutual affection.

To progressives, an ever-growing federal government can be used by a governing elite to dictate to an increasingly disempowered society. So big government replaces society, and the push for greater government power replaces the drive to create conditions for individual independence. Consequently, not only does this government expansion erode society, it also disempowers individuals, who now become passive recipients of government rule and benefits. And it replaces the mutual dependence and reliance of society with the impersonal, one-way, materialistic dependence of passive beneficiaries on the rules and benefits of a distant government.

But while a centralized government can provide a stream of material benefits – uniform benefits determined by statistical factors formulated by a centralized bureaucracy – it cannot treat human beings personally. Nor can it determine and cater to the particular needs of the individual. Indeed, whereas the progressive mindset sees public policy as flowing from technical expertise imposed from the top down, the conservative approach relies on social institutions that gather wisdom and experience from the bottom up.

Progressivism either denies the existence or importance of society, or harbors the illusion that society can be sustained and rejuvenated not by the social interactions of people but by the dictating hand of government. Whereas conservatives try to preserve all those social values and identities that give rise to a healthy government, progressives focus only on creating a government that is free to ignore all those social forces that gave rise to it.

Society is the realm of reality. It reflects the reality of people's need for social connections and the reality of those connections. Society is not perfect, because people are not perfect, but this imperfection stands in the way of progressive reforms waged in the name of perfection.

The progressive faith in the perfection of government-directed reforms ignores social history and reality. Society will never be acceptable to the progressive, since it will never be perfect. And since social traditions and institutions are all part of an imperfect society, they too are all rejected in favor of a utopian state-perfectionism that exists only in the progressive mind. But since perfection is unattainable, pursuing it just means destroying society without justification.

This is why progressivism cannot see the exceptionalism of America – it is blinded by its vision of perfection, of which any social reality must surely fall short. The progressive rejection of any objective truth or reality outside its vision of perfection is a legacy of Rousseau. In contrast to Aristotle, Rousseau threw out objective natural ends, replacing them with subjective human desires that in turn become the sole determinants of reality.

Unlike Rousseau, conservatives see human beings as, although possessing both dignity and inalienable natural rights, inherently susceptible to sin and corruption, and hence always in need of self-discipline and moral guidance. Conservatism does not see this flawed human condition as something that can suddenly be permanently transformed into perfection by some utopian, government-imposed policy. While conservatives acknowledge the natural limits of the human and social world, progressives reject them and advocate policies designed to eradicate them. In so doing, the progressive mindset also rejects the timeless lessons of history. And in rejecting history, progressives dismiss all those social institutions, like family and religion, that highlight the inherent limitations of the power of individual choice in the human experience. The progressive worldview seeks to liberate the individual from all the limitations and obligations of both the human condition and social relationships.

The progressive obsession with utopian perfectionism inexorably leads to a destruction of society, which can never match those visions, and to an ever-growing government, which becomes the tool of implementing those visions. Even though government has never been able to achieve perfection, progressivism continues to call for more and more government, thinking that government failures are the result of government not having enough power.

The conservative finds value in the real, while the progressive finds fulfillment only in replacing the real with perceived perfection. While progressives seek to have government dictate all social behavior, conservatives concentrate on enforcing a rule of law that allows people to live peacefully with one another as they pursue their chosen social relationships and activities that, to them, express and deepen life in all its forms.

When it comes down to it, progressive utopianism is just not real. Therefore, all the damage it does to real society is done for the sake of the unreal. It rejects social institutions and values because those institutions and values are rooted in the past, not in some abstract utopian future. But to do so, progressives distort and manipulate the past as a way of breaking from it. The past, which contains the slow accumulation of knowledge and experience over millennia, and which stabilizes the present and gives direction to the future, is simply cast aside. And this is why progressives must "construct" new reality – a subjective reality based only on utopian schemes.

A culture-of-the-self erodes society

Individualism can be valuable and inspiring, and individual freedom has always been a pillar of American law and society. But individualism was salutary as long as it occurred within a certain social and moral order – an order that had created the conditions and opportunities for individualism. When it loses touch with that social order, individualism loses its direction and inspiration and becomes chaotic, emotional, and untethered.

Since the 1960s, liberalism has promoted a culture-of-the-self that rejects age-old social traditions and institutions seen as imposing restraints on the uninhibited desires of the self. But to focus only on freeing the self from any and all outside constraints, no matter how timeless and traditional those constraints, is to take a very narrow view of human life – and a very costly one. Because, to free the individual from outside constraints, all the prevailing social customs and norms have to be wiped away.

Religion has been one of those social institutions most affected by a culture-of-the-self, and perhaps the one most targeted by progressive elites in their attempt to fundamentally transform society. Indeed, a culture-of-the-self can be an effective way to attack religion, because that attack can be couched in language that sounds as if the individual is being benefitted. And religion must be attacked, since it is antithetical to a culture-of-the-self. Contrary to such a culture, religion requires the individual's submission to a force of nature that is unwavering and beyond human manipulation. It requires the recognition of an individual's role as creature.

Religion has influenced the customs, manners, mores, and laws of society for thousands of years, so a weakening of religion has a profoundly weakening effect on society. Yet, by eroding religion, the elite can escape from its authority and replace it with a public sector over which they have control. As Tocqueville observed, the unique strength of American society, the force that kept the extremist tendencies of democracy in check, was the prevalence of religious belief. To Tocqueville, only religion can moderate democracy, because it appeals to an authority higher than democracy itself. But the Left only looks at religion from the perspective of how it might curb lifestyle freedom.

A culture-of-the-self doesn't just weaken religion, it weakens all the social bonds and virtues associated with citizenship, which after all is based on an awareness that individual lives are all involved in a common enterprise and are defined in part by their service to the nation. But if people do not have this sense of connection and obligation, they are not going to make sacrifices in all the vital areas in which citizens need to make sacrifices – e.g., sacrifices necessary to avert the looming fiscal catastrophe of the entitlement state. As the Founders believed, republican self-government depends on civic virtue, on the ability to set aside the desires of self in favor of the civic ideals passed on through civil society.

An erosion of traditional social bonds and norms has also eroded the links between the generations. No generation, for instance, has so unthinkingly burdened future generations with the debts of its own present spending as has the current generation. Previous generations seemed to have had more of a visceral sense of themselves as just a small piece of a larger chain of life spanning the centuries.

A culture-of-the-self does not recognize that many political goals only become possible through certain social bonds and values. A strong political culture cannot exist if the foundations of citizenship have been weakened. Nor can a government be strong if the ties connecting people to the roots of that government have been severed. The past confers political identity, direction, and responsibility, and only society can sustain the ties between past and present.

Through isolating individuals by breaking down social bonds, a culture-of-the-self provides a path toward ever-bigger government, since government always steps into the void when the mediating social institutions weaken or disappear. In turn, an expanding government increasingly crowds out civil society and its institutions. So an effective way for elites to free themselves from the authority of social institutions like religion is simply to advocate for larger government.

The modern behemoth of government has very little space for common meaning, classic virtue, or shared purpose. Instead, it acts like a service provider, placating individuals by catering to their consumer preferences. Without the moral and civic guidance of society, a culture-of-the-self ends up confining people to a passive consumerist role. Work loses all meaning, except as a ticket to materialism. The ideal of work as a vocation gives way to the supposed happiness of material consumption. But this undermines a timeless human virtue and dignity in work, as well as in all the corresponding virtues to work – diligence, self-reliance, dependability, industriousness, discipline, and responsibility. For centuries, work has provided a life of dignity and meaning – a life that uplifts the individual to a fulfillment of his or her potential. This fulfillment function was articulated as far back as Aristotle, who argued that work was central to life's purpose and to the achievement of human virtue. As Aristotle observed, to be truly human was to be humanly at work, for work is at the heart of human flourishing and fulfillment. But the value and virtue of work disappears in a culture of the self that is defined only by government.

The consequences of a collapse of culture

The loss of a common purpose and identity is particularly harmful to the poor and less powerful, who are not able to go it alone. With the loss of their social associations, which have been eroded by a government crowding them out of their social space, and through which people once pursued their chosen purposes in life with other like-minded souls, individuals are left to fend for themselves in the face of life's tragedies and downturns, and in the face of a government convinced it knows what is best for the individual.

America's common culture, during the first two centuries of the nation's existence, has been replaced by what the elites call a culture of tolerance, which is a nice sounding term for essentially a culture of nothing. Tolerance erases all substantive meaning to society. While a very admirable and useful trait, tolerance does not confer identity or unity – it just further entrenches a fragmented society that has only government to provide direction and enforce the rules of toleration.

A society that does not aspire to anything more than a culture of tolerance is destined to become a society marked by a profound sense of alienation, which will most affect the poor and least powerful. The polite indifference among the inhabitants of a culture of tolerance is too thin a social bond to overcome the selfishness of people, and much too thin to inspire the kind of sacrifices, generosity and civic duties needed in a healthy society.

The Left claims that America's strength lies in its diversity, and that its greatest challenge is in the toleration of that diversity. But this is not right. The reality of America is diversity, but its greatest strength always has been in its ability to unify and connect the diverse. This strength, however, can only be maintained by a culture of commonality, by a nation and society that means more than just a toleration of all the differences between individuals – a nation and society that has some greater and separate meaning.

A culture of tolerance goes hand in hand with a culture-of-the-self. Under such a culture, there is no truth, no accepted norms, no unifying standards, just the desires of the individual, which must be tolerated. But the more a society is defined by the self, the more subjective it becomes, which in turn erodes the rule of law – and those most in need of a rule of law are those who have the least political and economic power.

Paradoxically, a culture-of-the-self makes the individual less capable of directing his or her own life. In a culture with no objective or prevailing norms, the individual becomes lost in a consumerist world that offers no real empowerment or support. A culture-of-the-self offers no compelling reason for individuals to be concerned about anything beyond themselves; nor does it provide any framework or context for understanding a world beyond the self. A culture-of-the-self erases anything beyond the individual, anything that would connect two different individuals into one common bond. But life without a moral guide or common purpose leads to anarchy, which again is far more destructive to the more vulnerable members of society than to the rich and powerful.

The destructive impact on the poor and average person

Complete social and moral freedom, and liberation from the influences or restraints of all cultural values and institutions, certainly sounds appealing. And because it sounds so universally appealing, it is an easy cause to promote. But in reality, a culture-of-the-self is only "good" for the elite, because only the elite have the financial resources, political connections and Ivy League-type education to be able to "go their own way" and enjoy "lifestyle liberation." The elite do not need to find jobs that require discipline and restraint and obedience. The elite do not need, or think they don't need, the integrity of the family to protect them from economic storms. The elite do not think they need the guidance of religion to lead them to happy, fulfilled lives. For the elite, it is good to be freed from the inherited authorities of family, community, and religion, because those institutions impose values that restrict an individual's ability to experiment in lifestyles.

The lifestyle liberation of a culture-of-the-self has become strongly engrained in modern liberalism. This is why liberalism today cannot appeal to strong moral ideals, since that moralism might threaten the new relativism and hence compromise the goal of lifestyle liberation. But this moral retreat does not affect only sexual, romantic, or intimate relationships – it affects the entire terrain of morality.

Americans have traditionally harbored a range of moral concerns: caring for the poor and sick, loyalty to community, respect for authority, liberty, the sanctity of work, etc. But when liberalism abandons moral ideals in favor of a culture-of-the-self, it abandons all moral ideals. It abandons the very vocabulary of morality. And when it abandons this vocabulary, it loses the power of moral suasion. So helping the poor and sick cannot be a moral duty, it is just another function of a limitless government. But while the former can inspire a whole society, the latter is just one of thousands of different activities funded by an unknowable public finance system. Moreover, since the poor depend on support from their communities, they need strong and enduring communities – but enduring communities need loyalty and respect for authority, which a culture-of-the-self rejects.

The loss of purpose and moral power

The absence in a culture-of-the-self of any moral strength for society can be particularly seen in how America is dealing with the fanaticism of radical Islam. Suffering from a deficit of moral authority, America turns its eyes from confronting the basic questions of good and evil presented by radical Islam. We make no judgment on Islam's failure to condemn its radical elements, lest we appear imperialistic and insensitive. Likewise, we refuse to enforce our democratically enacted border laws, lest we appear racist. We refuse to expect new immigrants to assimilate into America, lest we appear xenophobic. And we refuse to celebrate Western Civilization in our educational curriculum, lest we appear supremacist and intolerant. Consequently, we live on the defensive, asking our culture and society not for anything positive, but only for constant disassociation from all the sins of the past. Yet it is a constant focus on the bad side of America that allows the Left to pursue its agenda of social transformation through government expansion.

The collapse of cultural self-confidence in the West has produced a drought of spiritual food to offer the children of Muslim immigrants, leaving some to turn to militant Islam in a search for lost roots. As Pope Francis recognizes, the great cultural crisis of modern times is the rise of a new Gnosticism, in which everything in the human condition is plastic, malleable, and subject to human whim. Nothing is given, and human beings are reduced, by self-delusion, legal definition or judicial dictums to mere bundles of desires.

A decline of freedom that impoverishes

A culture-of-the-self has basically eliminated a whole aspect of freedom. According to Isaiah Berlin, there are two types of freedom. Negative freedom is the absence of government constraints on liberty. Positive freedom, on the other hand, refers to the ability to use negative freedom to pursue the highest ideals to which humans have striven for centuries – e.g., ideals like truth and moral virtue. This is the real freedom – not just a freedom from restraint, but a freedom to pursue and achieve. Conservatism aims for a non-state-imposed positive freedom to pursue virtue, truth, and dignity, but this positive freedom can only be nurtured within the institutions of civil society.

The freedom offered by a culture-of-the-self feels like freedom only insofar as it liberates people from responsibility. But true freedom only exists with true responsibility. In the absence of a culture of moral formation, freedom can easily be seen as simply the absence of any type of moral restraint or persuasion. For this reason, then, the political goal is a morally neutered public space. The conservative view, however, envisions freedom as needing a vibrant private culture of moral guidance. And this culture is maintained through the social institutions that facilitate such guidance.

The government arena is filled with the dialogue of rights, but contains little discussion of the purpose of those rights. Mammoth government bureaucracies exist to address social problems, but cannot provide a glimpse into what the solutions to those problems would look like. As Burke demonstrated, individualism without community, rights without duties, the present without history, and whim without virtue produces liberty only in the narrowest sense.

Individuals and society suffer when the knowledge and wisdom of tradition – that font of human understanding tested in the court of history – is no longer passed down to subsequent generations. Modernity's destruction of the objective standards of tradition has created a vacuum into which people's selfishly customized demands of the present have flown. But again, this hurts the poor and less powerful, who do not have the resources or influences either to convert their own desires into "reality" or to manipulate or ignore the objective human reality that the elite are ignoring.

Culture and society civilize individuals. But decadence is the culprit of moral-spiritual corruption, which is fueled by a cynical disregard for the knowledge and wisdom of tradition, and nihilism is the end product of this corruption. And once again, the poor are much more dependent on a civilized public space than are the rich.

The poverty that results from a loss of culture and society is a poverty that can be devastating, especially for the poor and vulnerable. Between 1979 and 2010, for instance, the average after-tax income for the poorest quintile of American households rose from $14,800 to $19,200. For the second poorest quintile, it rose from $29,900 to $39,100. Meanwhile, per-person antipoverty spending at the state and federal level increased six-fold between 1968 and 2008 – and that excludes Medicare, unemployment benefits, and Social Security. So the poor have become much better off, economically, in recent decades. But still, inequality persists and is getting worse, and the poor are falling further behind and having a harder time achieving a traditional middle-class life. This is because the social and cultural poverty of the current age has much more devastating consequences than just the economic poverty. Indeed, the poverty inherent in America's widening inequality stems more from social and cultural deprivation than from economic factors.

© Patrick Garry

RenewAmerica analyst Patrick Garry also writes a column for RenewAmerica.


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They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. —Isaiah 40:31