It is one of fate’s cruel jokes that conservatism should be at its modern nadir just as the Republican Party is at its zenith – if conservatism is defined as embracing limited government, displaying a rational, skeptical and moderate temperament and believing in the priority of the moral order.
All these principles are related, and under attack.
Conservatives believe that human beings are fallible and prone to ambition, passion and selfishness. They (actually, we) tend to become swaggering dictators in realms where we can act with impunity – a DMV office, a hostile traffic stop, a country under personal rule. It is the particular genius of the American system to balance ambition against ambition through a divided government (executive, legislative and judicial). The American system employs human nature to limit the power of the state – assuming that every branch of government is dedicated to the common good and jealous of its own power.
Conservatives believe that finite and fallen creatures are often wrong. We know that many of our attitudes and beliefs are the brain’s justification for pre-rational tendencies and desires. This does not make perception of truth impossible, or truth itself relative, but it should encourage healthy self-examination and a suspicion of all forms of fanaticism. All of us have things to learn, even from our political opponents. The truth is out there, but it is generally broken into pieces and scattered across the human experience. We only reassemble it through listening and civil communication.
And conservatives believe that a just society depends on the moral striving of finite and fallen creatures, who treat each other with a respect and decency that laws can encourage but not enforce. Such virtues, often rooted in faith, are what turn families and communities into the nurseries of citizenship. These institutions not only shape good people, they inculcate the belief that human beings have a dignity that, while often dishonored, can never be effaced. In the midst of all our justified skepticism, we can never be skeptical of this: that the reason for politics is to honor the equal value of every life, beginning with the weakest and most vulnerable. No bad goal – say, racial purity or communist ideology – outweighs this commitment. And no good goal – the efficiency of markets or the pursuit of greater equality – does either.
So how do we get this set of beliefs and commitments when they seem in short supply? It is hopeless to demand results from an organic process – to order the grass to grow faster. But this type of conservatism – a conservatism of intellectual humility and moral aspiration – also has the advantage of being an organic process. It grows with tenacity in hidden places, eventually breaking down the cement and asphalt of our modern life. It appeals to people who would never call themselves conservatives – who probably wouldn’t use words like “nadir” and “zenith” – who provide examples of hard work, personal responsibility, unfailing decency, family commitment, quiet faith, inspiring compassion and resilience in adversity. They are the potential recruits of a humane political conservatism.
This is not the political force that has recently taken over the Republican Party – with a plurality in the presidential primaries and a narrow victory in November. That has been the result of extreme polarization, not a turn toward enduring values. The movement is authoritarian in theory, apocalyptic in mood, prone to conspiracy theories and personal abuse, and dismissive of ethical standards. The president-elect seems to offer equal chances of constitutional crisis and utter, debilitating incompetence.
The plausible case that Russian espionage materially contributed to the election of an American president has been an additional invitation to anger. Now, not only the quality but also the legitimacy of our democracy is at stake. This extreme threat would seem to require a commensurately radical response – some way to change the outcome.
But what is the proper conservative response? It is to live within the boundaries of law and reality. There is no certain way to determine if Russian influence was decisive. And no serious constitutional recourse seems to remain. While open to other options, I see none. It will now fall to citizens and institutions to (1) defend the legislature and judiciary from any encroachment, (2) defend every group of people from organized oppression, including Muslims and refugees, (3) expand and defend the institutions – from think tanks to civil liberty organizations – that make the case for a politics that honors human dignity. And pray for the grass to grow.
Contact Michael Gerson at firstname.lastname@example.org.