Conservatism's Three Ills - Intercollegiate Studies Institute: Think. Live Free.

Conservatism’s Three Ills

We’re proud to publish the winner of the 2017 ISI Essay Contest. Congratulations, Evan Holguin! 

The forty-fifth president of the United States and his administration mark a turning point for American conservatism. On the face of it, the federal government is all but dominated by conservative leaders, Congress and the White House have Republican majorities, and the Supreme Court is but one justice away from a consistent conservative bent. This federal supermajority coincides with a tumultuous cultural trajectory away from such a movement, with political protests held with increased frequency and news stories constantly recounting how conservative speakers have been forcibly kept from expressing their message on college campuses. In response to this turmoil, many politicians, pundits, and everyday Americans have expressed concerns that the standards of American liberty are being eroded, and are calling for a remedy to our current sociological ills. Greg Weiner, assistant professor of political science at Assumption College, offers constitutionalism as the means to protect American liberty.

Though correct that a return to foundational constitutionalism is necessary for the rejuvenation of American liberties, a complete remedy cannot be made without reference to issues of philosophy and identity politics.

Weiner begins his essay “Conservatism’s Constitutional Moment” with what he believes is “the essential question confronting American conservatism,” namely, “what, precisely, it aspires to conserve.” Weiner, of course, offers his reader a clear answer in constitutionalism, particularly of the Madisonian stripe. He argues that conservatism is designed to protect the powers bestowed upon each branch of government, regardless of party desires, and for the preservation of each branch’s unique authority.

Weiner also articulates that it is to the benefit of Republicans in Congress to act according to constitutionalist thought. Simply put, a member of Congress would be wise to cling to the power to legislate because it is the “aura of power” that attracts one to Congress in the first place. A good-hearted citizen runs for Congress because she sees the office as the source of authority by which she can exercise her conception of goodness and justice. A greedy citizen, in turn, runs for Congress because she is attracted to the attention others give to one in a seat of power. Regardless of the motive, good or ill, Congress relies on its image as a seat of power to attract members into its company. It is highly illogical, therefore, for those who once campaigned for power to turn heel and abdicate that power to some other entity. Yet Weiner depicts the Republican majority in Congress as doing just that, fighting against executive and judicial policy not with their legislative fist but through strongly worded amicus briefs and press conferences.

This, then, is the precipice at which we stand, a majority party appearing to concede congressional power to the executive. Thus we run into the first cultural component that has sidelined conservative constitutionalism. Modern politics has developed in an era when legislative authority has been increasingly dispensed to the two nonlegislative branches of government. Thankfully for constitutional conservatives, such a process is by no means irreversible.

In fact, conservatives in government today are in an exceptionally strong place to return the powers of the branches to their rightful, constitutional place. The cause for this is that Republicans are, for the time being, not alone in their constitutional ideology—Democrats have joined in too. In his article “Fair-Weather Originalists,” Josh Blackman highlights the trend of Democratic leaders seizing the tenets of constitutionalism to cope with their being shut out of governmental authority. In response to the election of President Trump and a Republican-majority Congress, Democrats have taken to clinging to the division of power offered by constitutionalism, calling for the courts to counter President Trump’s executive orders, and exerting state authority in places like California to challenge federal immigration projects. In other words, Democrats are becoming champions, at least temporarily, of the same constitutionalist arguments that conservatives have clung to in response to federal growth. For the first time in recent history, we are on the same team.

Should conservative constitutionalists take the current opportunity to join with their now-constitutionalist liberal counterparts, they have the potential to reset the balance between the powers of the three branches of government. Should they do so, it is, to my mind, unquestionable that the nation will work more effectively—an engine runs best when its components are appropriately aligned—and when the nation works effectively, voter satisfaction will soar. A Congress stripped of its full legislative authority entered the 2016 elections with a mere 18 percent approval rating; allowed its fullest governing potential, Congress could raise its own approval profile, thus encouraging voters to elect representatives and senators who will exercise their constitutional right to legislate. It’s a long game, but one that begins by seizing on contemporary willingness to return to our traditional, constitutional state, and rewards the nation with a restoration of its original and intended republican structure.

There is still a question that needs answering: If Congress would not logically distance itself from its constitutional right to power, what caused this abdication? One such cause is a cultural one, found in our people’s philosophy and hinted at through Weiner’s discussion of “Presentism.” Presentism, according to Weiner, is a movement that leads to greater executive power because executive power is wielded more swiftly than is legislative power (that one decides faster than many is a governmental truth expounded upon by Thomas Hobbes). The use of the executive order to legislate (the “pen and phone” of former President Obama) allows for immediate change, a governing trend Americans have come to demand but one without the authority or stability of the legislative process. (As proof of this point, we need only look at the overturning of Obama-era executive orders and legislation. President Trump, in his first few days of office, was able to reverse a myriad of President Obama’s executive orders, while the replacement of the Affordable Care Act has bested Republicans up to this point.) The cause of citizens rejecting the traditional governing style of the legislature for Presentism’s hastened form finds its roots in a shift in philosophy in this modern era: the philosophy of contemporary culture equates change with “progress.”

Progress is desired as immediately as we can get it (anecdotally, this is supported by every supposed resistance to progress being countered by the charge that “This is [year]!”). As a result, resistance to change is diabolical and an affront to our mission of continual evolution. Such radicalism—that the new is necessarily good and the old bad—finds itself at odds with conservatism. As explained by Weiner, a conservative has a duty to his predecessors and his posterity—to uphold the benefits of the traditions passed on to us for the advantage of those to whom we shall pass it. To be a conservative is to be a steward of “the will of the dead,” as Madison put it. Such a philosophy, to uphold the “democracy of the dead” as Chesterton described tradition, spits in the face of contemporary philosophic sentiments of change. Not only does conservatism call for the preservation of the old; it also implies that the “old” can hold benefit. And so the conservative movement is faced with a public relations challenge that cannot be rectified solely by a return to constitutionalist practices. Rather, a stronger rhetoric championing respect for governmental traditions must be crafted, one that satiates the contemporary need for “progress” while also honoring the Founders’ desire for ancestral esteem.

Though a return to constitutionalism and conservative philosophy are important for the betterment of the nation, their absences are not the most pernicious problem at hand. That would be identity politics. For a true return to a free and traditional society, the proponents of constitutionalism need to defend their ideals from the identity politics perpetrated by their own party.

Identity politics in the United States is generally associate with the left and such issues as race, gender, and sexual orientation. The right, however, promotes its own identity politics, masking it as a matter of “virtue.” Rather than focusing on fundamentally important themes of government, like constitutionalism, many politicians base their platform on traditional Christian values and identity. Ted Cruz is an Evangelical; Jed Bush, Catholic; Mitt Romney, Mormon. Or course, it is our American right to subscribe freely and boast of our religious beliefs, and such an intimate aspect of our person is a valid concern to the electorate. In other words, we can learn much by the faith and practice of a politician; however, when conservative politicians run on a platform of personal righteousness, he acts just as a left-wing politician who champions the liberal virtues. Such a politician stokes up the politic of Evangelical identification, just as left-wing politicians stoke up racial and sexual orientation identification through connection with Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ communities.

Such identity politicking on the part of conservative politicians wounds the cause to balance American liberal society in a profound way. In an article for National Review, Fred Bauer reminds his readers of the signs of a healthy republic: “Americans of all types—of all creeds, incomes, and national origins—can come together to forge a body politic that, while diverse, has common civic and cultural touchstones.” In contrast, identity politics focuses on individual classifications and sets them against each other, creating a nation of persons fighting for their interests as a part of a subgroup without concern for the members of other subgroups and with no regard to a shared identity as American citizens. Though many conservatives call out the divisive power of identity politics on the left, it is generally the case that their own use of the traditional Judeo-Christian identity goes without internal criticism. As a result, even if Republicans establish a full return to constitutionalist practices, the ills of the nation would not be fully mended, and its citizens not truly free, because of the continued self-shackling to the divisive discourse of identity politics, left and right.

In conclusion, the question remains whether constitutionalism will be compelling politically.

Should conservatives in Congress capitalize on current Democratic support, should conservatives in cultural institutions combat the philosophical impasse between progressivism and constitutionalism, and should conservative pundits and politicians cease playing into identity politics, then the prospect of attractive conservatism is highly probable, and a return to American liberalism more than likely.

Evan Holguin studies literature and philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. 

Complement with the confused student’s guide to conservatism by Peter Lawler, what the rule of law actually means by Allen Mendenhall, and George Carey’s guide to American political thought

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