The One Question Conservatives Should Be Asking in 2020

Last month, the rapper who calls himself “Zuby” published the following tweet:

One day later, CJ Pearson—a seventeen-year-old apologist for Donald Trump—responded to a CNN article claiming that certain “young conservatives” were gathering in support of the apocalyptic environmentalist Greta Thunberg. “These people,” sniffed Pearson, “aren’t conservatives.”

Respondents to that tweet pointed out that Pearson, who previously supported Bernie Sanders, might not be well positioned to police the boundaries of conservatism. But that raises an important question—Who is?

The problem with defending or even thinking about conservatism in 2020 is that no one can quite agree on what the word means. Zuby, who got onto the right’s radar by defying the woke dogmas of identity politics, presents one definition: anyone who, like him, laughs off the excesses of radical progressivism is a “conservative.”

But by his use of the scare quotes, I infer Zuby to understand that the set containing everyone who opposes woke doctrine is by no means the set containing everyone you might typically call conservative. All sorts of people find the enforcement of transgender pronouns, the anathematization of controversial speakers, and the encouragement of racial grievance loathsome.

As far-left trends like these have become alarmingly mainstream in centers of high culture and education, a new ad hoc coalition has emerged that consists simpliciter of everyone who wants those trends reversed. Yet some of those people—like the satirist Andrew Doyle and the academic theorist James Lindsay—regularly insist that they are neither conservative nor right-wing.

Plenty of others would agree: the word conservative entails certain ideals that should not be abandoned for the sake of coalition building and political expediency. “Catholic integralists,” for example—who believe that real political virtue entails a government that reinforces the teachings of the One True Church—have no interest in making common cause with the likes of Doyle, Lindsay, or even Douglas Murray.

Murray, a devastatingly sharp critic of identity politics, is also a gay atheist. For an integralist—or for a “Groyper,” a member of the arcane online community that sets itself in opposition to all things lefty—Doyle, Murray, and their ilk are not conservatives at all but liberals (a label they themselves freely own).

Classical liberalism—in brief, the conviction that a just state is one committed to protecting its citizens’ individual liberties and right to private property—was once a hallmark of moderate conservative thought. Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, which came out in January 2018, represents a now-widespread effort to rethink that orthodoxy. “Post-liberals,” as Matthew Continetti observed in his useful primer on the new right, argue that “freedom has become a destructive end-in-itself.”

What, on such a contested playing field, can meaningfully be called conservative thought? Ben Sixsmith and Avi Woolf have both expressed consternation over the paucity and incoherence of meaningful discourse on the right. Small wonder since, as twenty-first-century conservatives, we are at pains even to say who we are.

Whose Conservatism?

The word conservative itself implies a little bit about who is and isn’t one: conservatives must want to conserve something. Anglo-American conservatism as a distinct political movement traces its roots to the eighteenth century and the likes of Edmund Burke. But conservatism in general, as a sensibility, may be discerned in all times and places.

Some scholars, for example, describe the fifth-century-BC comic playwright Aristophanes as a “conservative”—a word for which there is no easy analogue in Attic Greek. Aristophanes portrayed cultural innovation and military adventurism as ill-advised. He preferred rural mores to urban ones. So he was, in some sense, a conservative (though he couldn’t have called himself that).

But conservatism as a political agenda has a narrower meaning and history. The Encyclopedia Britannica defines it as “a preference for the historically inherited rather than the abstract and ideal.” Sir Roger Scruton, in his book on the subject, identified a love of one’s homeland and a care for maintaining its integrity as core conservative impulses.

America, famously, is itself the product of a rebellion. And yet the leaders of that rebellion understood themselves as heirs to classical antiquity, to Christian ethics, to British common law, and to the Scottish enlightenment. They used elements of each to inform the founding of a nation that, more than two centuries on, is now a unique homeland of its own with traditions to defend and die for.

Our confusion about what American conservatism is today comes from a real disagreement about which parts of our inheritance we are trying to defend, and against what. Woke radicals are hostile to the entire West—broadly understood as the best products of Athens, Jerusalem, and their cultural descendants throughout history. But America, which is among those descendants, represents a unique and innovative blend of Judeo-Christian morality with political liberty and republican self-government.

The far left wants to burn it all down—America in particular and the West in general. At the same time, the advent of ubiquitous digital technology threatens to unmoor us from something even more basic: the concrete boundaries of our humanity. As remote communication, gene editing, and virtual reality become yet more advanced, we will find ourselves further and further alienated from one another and from our own selves. We will be increasingly able and encouraged to alter our bodies, and those of our children, at will.

Progressives—who already long to transcend gender and childbirth—will doubtless embrace these changes. How will conservatives respond? All will presumably defend the West as an indispensable tradition of thought and action. Some, though, will argue that American liberalism and individual freedom are among the greatest fruits of that tradition. Others—the post-liberals—will argue that liberalism represents an aberrant deviation from true Western ideals whose end is welcome and inevitable.

In my estimation, this discussion, worthy though it is, should come second to another more foundational conversation, about what humans are and can be in the digital age. Humanness—that desperately urgent but tragically indefinable bedrock of all moral thought—is what is really under siege right now.

It will continue to be in the years to come. The unborn have been denied personhood for decades in our legal system. According to the frightening logic of that denial, the mentally ill and those with congenital maladies are now having their right to exist called into question. When we can change our genes at will, predict the traits of infants in the womb, and trick our brains into feeling whatever we want—will we? Why or why not?

Those are the questions with which we are going to be confronted and for which, I hope, we will have significant answers. Our humanity—the strange and painful joy of being a particular person in a particular time and place, relating to and constrained by other human beings—is the thing that most needs conserving.

It is on the basis of that humanity that we form and protect political communities at all. What anyone who calls himself conservative should be thinking about is how to keep ourselves human as the twenty-first century rockets onward. There are those—like James Poulos, Helen Andrews, and Mark Stahlman—who are already doing so. Marshall McLuhan, who preceded them, is also becoming ever more important to reread.

What is man? It is among the oldest questions I know and, as such, a fitting one for conservatives to ask anew and consider answering.


About the Author

Spencer Klavan (@SpencerKlavan) is assistant editor of the Claremont Review of Books and The American Mind. He holds a PhD in Classics from Oxford University.

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