This essay is part of a RealClearPolicy series centered on the American Project, an initiative of the Pepperdine School of Public Policy. The project looks to the country’s founding principles to respond to our current cultural and political upheaval.
The Declaration of Independence served a dual function at the momentous occasion of its adoption, July 4, 1776. The first was that it was the issuance of a statement of political independence containing within it a rational defense of our dramatic break with the government of Great Britain and its unaccountable king. The second, however, was the annunciation of the principles animating that declaration. According to the Founders, it was the violation of these principles that justified separation; their defense demanded the birth of a new nation.
These principles are outlined in the document’s most famous line: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The rights to life and to liberty suggest the autonomy of the individual, whereas the statement that men are created equal highlights the universal dignity of all. The dynamic tension between these two principles, liberty and equality, underlies the ongoing left-right dialectic that has characterized American politics from the beginning. For this reason, it may be easy to overlook the last phrase in this statement, “the pursuit of Happiness.” It reads to modern eyes, perhaps, like a poetic after thought to the weightier philosophical statements that precede it. Yet it is in the pursuit of happiness that we are called upon to exercise the virtues needed to weave the fabric of a nation.
It is the role of virtue in realizing happiness through community — especially a community of free and equal citizens — that conservatism should remind us of today.
What is virtue? Before offering an answer, it is worth noting that it is a term that exists in our moral vocabulary today largely as an artifact of classical literature and our Christian heritage — rather like a poetical term sapped of substantive meaning. We think of moral questions today predominantly in deontological or consequentialist terms, rather than in terms of the virtues. Deontological ethics holds that an action is right or wrong depending on whether it conforms to some rule or maxim (“It is always wrong to do X,” “It is my duty to do Y.”). Consequentialism, by contrast, holds that we should evaluate an action based on its outcomes or consequences. In the political sphere, we often waver between these two, incompatible approaches to moral questions.
Take just about any debate in the realm of policy. The right to own a firearm or the right to health care is often met with arguments about why such alleged rights may or may not be practical. The right to bear arms makes it too easy for bad actors to buy guns; universal health care is too expensive or will have other harmful consequences, etc. Some oppose abortion on the basis of the right to life for unborn children, whereas opponents object with practical arguments about the difficulty of raising children in certain conditions. These disagreements, however legitimate, leave us speaking conflicting moral languages that offer no path to resolution. More importantly, both moral languages overlook the importance of moral character, which is what yields meaningful happiness and establishes the basis of flourishing community.
The virtues are habits of moral character. In the classical tradition, these include such qualities as fortitude or courage, prudence, temperance, and justice. The Christian tradition adds the “theological virtues:” faith, hope, and charity (love). We might easily add qualities such as honor, nobility, fairness, equanimity, and wisdom (the cornerstone of the good life, according to Aristotle). According to the tradition of virtue ethics, we should aspire to cultivate these habits, which conduce to lives of human flourishing, rather than basing our actions on rules or consequences.
This classical understanding informed the founding of the United States. Though the empirical orientation of the Enlightenment had much to do with setting us on a course away from virtue as the ground of morality, the founding fathers nevertheless recognized the indispensability of moral virtue in securing the project of liberty, representative government, and the pursuit of happiness. As Benjamin Franklin put it: “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become more corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.” Or Thomas Jefferson: “A nation as a society forms a moral person, and every member of it is personally responsible for his society.” Or, finally, George Washington: “There is no truth more thoroughly established, than that there exists … an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness.”
This is not to downplay the glaring vices present in American society at the founding. The point is that the Founders were at least minimally aware of the vital role virtue plays in establishing a political society capable of securing individual liberty and the common good. Whence the motivation for John Adams’ saying: “Public virtue cannot exist in a nation without private, and public virtue is the only foundation of republics.”
American society today has reaped the benefits of a prosperous economy aided by a political system that is the legacy of previous generations of Americans bound by more than the pursuit of riches. Indeed, the political liberalism of the Enlightenment has had much to do with the quest for a more egalitarian society in America, rooted in the dignity of the individual. However, the moral basis not merely of the Founding but also many of the great periods of moral progress in our history since the Founding can be traced to a religious consciousness that has stirred popular demands for social reforms, expressed through a moral language preserved by a Christian culture far older than classical liberalism.
Examples of this include the Abolitionist Movement, the Women’s Suffrage Movement and the Civil Rights Movement. William Lloyd Garrison, apart from Frederick Douglass perhaps the most well-remembered figure of the late abolitionist movement, might be described as less orthodoxly Christian than some of his peers in the movement. Yet, he could not have been more Christian in the framing of his moral arguments against slavery and the institutions that abided it, decrying both South and North in the years preceding the Civil War for their complicity:
The reason why the South rules, and the North falls prostrate in servile terror, is simply this: with the South, the preservation of slavery is paramount to all other considerations above party success, denominational unity, pecuniary interest, legal integrity, and constitutional obligation. With the North, the preservation of the Union is placed above all other things-above honor, justice, freedom, integrity of soul, the Decalogue and the Golden Rule-the infinite God himself.
Such language leans heavily upon conceptions of virtue harvested from Christian ethical teachings. Similarly, the sermons of Quaker minister and women’s rights activist Lucretia Mottemphasized the ethical substance of New Testament teachings against dogmatic interpretations that justified the subjugation of women, emphasizing religious behavior over rigidity of doctrine.
The nonviolent philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr., should be understood as the application not only of the methodology of Gandhi but also the moral substance of the Gospels. “Christian love” demanded more than a belief in equality. One of the most important and distinguishing elements of nonviolence, according to Reverend King, was that it “avoids not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. The nonviolent resister not only refuses to shoot his opponent but he also refuses to hate him. At the center of nonviolence stands the principle of love.” Love was not only the preeminent value but also the preeminent virtue of the Nonviolent Civil Rights Movement. The embrace of love as a virtue required the embrace of attendant virtues such as patience, courage, forgiveness, humility, and the suite of moral attributes that lent such ethical force to the work of King and those who followed his moral path.
If the importance of virtue is evident in great social movements it is also visible in the ideational edifice of America’s long-standing institutions. The United States Armed Forces is not merely as a functional organization that safeguards our national security, it is also, at its best, an institution that models and cultivates in its soldiers many of the virtues that we associate with what is most admirable in the American character. “The Army Values” lists seven key virtues that soldiers are trained to adhere to: loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage. In a similar way, the judicial oath taken by every judge or justice of the United States requires that they “administer justice without respect to persons, and do equal right to the poor and the rich,” and to do so “faithfully and impartially,” clearly implying the virtues of faithfulness and impartiality as necessary to the moral character of a proper judge or justice. Even the traditional etiquette of reference that attends the addressing of members of congress (‘the honorable senator…’) expresses the hope that our elected officials possess, or should be held accountable to, the virtue of honor.
It may not be an exaggeration to say that virtue alone serves as the enforcer of all social contract and civic obligation. There are practical arguments that may justify the existence of our institutions, and there are rules, more or less reasonable, that might compel certain behavior from individuals or groups. But if the inward motivation to act in accordance with these rules or to seek the common good through participation in these institutions is lacking, what prevents any of us from subverting our institutions and social relationships for our own gain or becoming altogether alienated from them and one another?
The institution of marriage requires its participants to practice the virtues of selflessness and fidelity in order for it to be sustained. To be a proper friend, one must exhibit the qualities of understanding, patience, and helpfulness. To be a good parent, educator, or really anyone in a position of authority, one must be temperate, fair-minded, and balanced. To be a good student, employee, or soldier, one should be humble and coachable. To be a good leader, one ought to have courage, integrity, and, perhaps, even nobility.
Virtue, as opposed to legal compulsion or mere rationality, forms the basis of genuine interpersonal and social trust. The more we are able to see in and demonstrate for each other those habits of character necessary for flourishing, the more we find ourselves able (as both a reflection of our own virtues and those of our fellows) to collaborate with others, bear with each other’s faults, accept each other’s legitimate authority, and refrain from doing one another harm, whether out of fear, contempt or ambition.
Individual virtue breeds communal virtue, and vice versa, making virtue the great nourisher of our social fabric. If virtue seems to be vanishing from our social, political, and cultural spheres — if it is no longer something that we even pretend to demand of our politicians — this may be because virtue is vanishing from our moral language. At a moment when our political discourse is increasingly limited to our commitments to equality or individualism, and the policies they may seem to imply, American conservativism would do well to reintroduce the virtues into our moral vocabulary — those inward qualities of moral character have always formed the basis for our national excellence and our political community.
Hillary Clinton called them “the deplorables.” Barack Obama called them losers who “cling” to their Bibles, bigotries and guns.
To President Jean-Claude Juncker of the European Commission, they are “these populist, nationalists, stupid nationalists… in love with their own countries.”
Well, “stupid” they may be, and, yes, they do love their countries, but last week they gave Juncker a thrashing, as they shook up the West and the world.
Elections in the world’s largest electoral blocs — the 28-nation EU, and an India of 1.3 billion people — showed that the tide of nationalism continues to rise and spread across Europe and Asia.
In India, the Hindu Nationalist BJP party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi won a smashing victory. So strong was Modi’s showing that he rushed to reassure non-Hindus, especially India’s 200 million Muslims, that they remain equal citizens. But in India the Hindu hour is at hand.
Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, formed just months ago, ran first in Britain with 31%. No other party came close. Labor won 14% and Prime Minister Theresa May’s Tories ran 5th with 9%, a historic humiliation.
In the French elections, Emmanuel Macron’s party lost to the National Rally of Marine Le Pen, whom he had defeated 2-1 in the last presidential election.
Matteo Salvini’s populist-nationalist League, with 34%, ran first in Italy in a showing that could lead to national elections that could make him prime minister.
The nationalist Law and Justice Party in Poland and the populist Fidesz Party of Viktor Orban in Hungary were easily victorious.
In Germany, however, the conservative-socialist coalition of Angela Merkel bled support. Both the CDU and SPD lost strength in defeats that could shake the Berlin government.
What do these elections tell us?
If the Conservatives wish to remain in power in Parliament, they will have to leave the European Union and, if necessary, crash out without a divorce settlement with Brussels.
The Tories cannot defy the will of their own majority on the most critical issue in 50 years — a nationalist demand to be free of Brussels — and still survive as Britain’s first party.
Whoever wins the Tory competition to succeed May will almost surely become the prime minister who leads Britain out of the EU.
Nor is that such a tragedy.
The first Brexit, after all, was in 1776, when the 13 colonies of North America severed all ties to the British crown and set out alone on the path to independence. It did not turn out all that badly.
Last week’s election also saw major gains for the Green parties across Europe. Laser-focused on climate change, these parties will be entering coalitions to provide center-left and center-right regimes the necessary votes to create parliamentary majorities.
The environment is now likely to rival Third World immigration as an issue in all elections in Europe.
While nationalist and populists control a fourth of the seats in the EU Parliament, they are isolated. They may have the power to block or veto EU actions by Brussels, but they cannot impose their own agenda.
Yet even larger lessons emerge from these two elections.
Liberalism appears to be losing its appeal. A majority in the world’s largest democracy, India, consciously used their democratic right to vote — to advance sectarian and nationalist ends.
Why is liberalism fading away, and nationalism ascendant?
The former is an idea that appeals to the intellect; the latter, rooted in love of family, faith, tribe and nation, is of the heart. In its potency to motivate men, liberalism is to nationalism what near beer is to Bombay gin.
To be a proud Pole, Hungarian, Italian or Scotsman has a greater grip on men’s love, loyalty and allegiance than to be a citizen of Europe.
“Whoever speaks of Europe is wrong,” said Bismarck. Europe is but “a geographical expression.”
Identity politics, people identifying themselves by their ethnicity, nationality, race, culture and faith, appears to be the world’s future.
Even leftists are bowing to the new reality.
“Identity politics is exactly who we are and it’s exactly how we won,” says Stacy Abrams, the African American Democrat who almost won the Georgia governor’s race. “By centering communities in Georgia, we… increased voter participation, we brought new folks to the process.”
The Democratic Party is now a coalition easily identifiable by race, ethnicity, ideology and gender — African American, Hispanic, Asian, LGBTQ, feminist and Green.
Our Founding Fathers believed we Americans were a new people, a separate, unique, identifiable people, a band of brothers, who had risked their lives and shed their blood. Liberals believe we are held together by abstract ideas and ideals, such as democracy, equality and diversity.
But did Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Calhoun, Clay, Jackson, Sam Houston, Tyler and Polk really believe in equality and diversity as they drove Indians, French, British, Spanish and Mexicans out of this land to create a continentwide nation of their own?
Or was Manifest Destiny really all about us, and not them?
For some time now there has been a certain “Woe is me” attitude among American conservatives of almost all stripes. It seems to be rooted in a deep sense that the culture war is already lost and the country is changing too fast in ways we can’t combat. It is true that progressive dominance of the media, the educational system, and our cultural institutions very often makes it appear that this is the case.
But is it? And if we are to judge the success of American conservatism, to what should we compare it?
The most sensible comparison is to the rest of the English-speaking world. We don’t tend to think much about the “English-speaking world,” anymore, notwithstanding Winston Churchill’s several somewhat tedious volumes about it. In this case I’m referring roughly to the United States, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. All of these countries have societies and governments that emerged from the same crucible of English power in the 17th and 18th centuries. So how does American conservatism stack up against that of our siblings with the charming accents?
Pretty well. On issues like free speech, gun rights, religious freedom, taxation, health care, energy, and a host of others, the United States has policies that would be unthinkable in the nations of the other sons and daughters of William Shakespeare. In fact, it is a common leftist talking point that United States is the only industrialized nation that doesn’t have blah, blah, blah. In the American context, in almost every case this is meant to say that we are too conservative.
A lot of this is baked into the mechanics of our system of government, as opposed to the other nations’ parliamentary models. This was on display recently when New Zealand passed new anti-gun measures a mere month after the tragic terrorist attack at Christchurch. The American left marveled. “Why can’t we do that?” they demanded. The answer of course is the Constitution.
Under a parliamentary system, a simple majority in the legislative body can do almost anything it wants, as New Zealand’s did. Under our system, such laws would have to pass two legislative bodies, an executive branch, a judiciary system, and possibly a constitutional amendment process that requires something approaching national consensus. Although our own left and almost everyone in our sibling nations think of this as a flaw, it is in fact a marvelous feature.
But it isn’t merely the rigidity of our government’s self-imposed impotence that explains why America’s laws are so much more deeply conservative than is any other English-speaking nation. After all, even under our system laws can change. The other essential element is the unique nature of the American conservative. There is a symbiosis between government and culture, and ours led to a conservative culture that is far more individualistic than any other.
By American standards, most other English-speaking conservatives are practically socialists. For all the talk of the dangerous, right-wing, mostly international Intellectual Dark Web, Quillette, or Jordan Peterson, by American standards they aren’t conservative. They can’t buy guns, they have socialized medicine, the government controls vast swaths of their news and media, and there is no significant movement to change much of that. This is because other English-speaking conservatives are comfortable with a far greater level of collectivization imposed by the state. It’s kind of a “Let’s all pitch in” attitude instead of the American conservative’s “Stay the H-ll off my lawn” approach.
The American conservative has succeeded in keeping more of her rights not merely because the Constitution is more protective of them, but because she is. And the defense of those is not rooted in fear, but in faith. It is rooted in the sincere belief that all of us get to choose what is best for ourselves.
Fear is a legitimate political tool. It is being employed by almost every version of today’s American conservative. For some it is fear of socialism, for others fear of multiculturalism, for a small but noisy segment it is fear of Donald Trump. For all the blogs and tweets and clicks and takes that we love so dearly, these divisions are likely to stay. So what still unites us as conservatives? Liberty does, as it always has.
John Adams knew this when he wrote these words to his wife in 1775, “Liberty once lost is lost forever. When the People once surrender their share in the Legislature, and their Right of defending the Limitations upon the Government, and of resisting every Encroachment upon them, they can never regain it.” I posit that the encroaching natures of every other English-speaking nation’s governments prove Adams right in this, as in so much else.
It is liberty that must guide a wounded and fractured American conservative movement that holds significant if not decisive power in our government. There need not be unity. We can hate each other, but from all of our perches on the political spectrum our first principle must be individual rights. And we must continue to protect them while so many other nations fail to.
In this regard, it is best not to be too distracted by the global rise of so called right-wing populism. American conservatism, especially in regard to Trump, is related to this rise, but it is not the root of it. Brexit happened before Trump, after all. An anti-globalist, anti-foreign intervention, and anti-immigration wing of the conservative movement has always existed, with figures like Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan leading the way. It is now perhaps ascendant, but it faces the same gridlock of the American system that every other movement does, as we have well seen.
It is natural and healthy for conservatives to argue over where the movement’s energy should be spent, to understand what the greatest threats to liberty are. And it is fine for all of the branches to disagree about that so long as everyone’s ultimate goal is to protect freedom from forces that would replace it with equality of outcomes.
So cheer up, conservatives. It’s going well. There is a lot to be proud of, a lot to cling to, and a lot to fight for. Ronald Reagan said freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction, and that we don’t pass it down to our children through the bloodstream. It must be fought for. We have preserved it for a generation. Twenty-five years from now, provided the earth isn’t destroyed by climate change as some leftists predict, the United States will still be a conservative country.
But we have to teach our kids to fight for it. And what we have to teach them has nothing to do with Trump, populism, norms, or globalism. It has to do with natural rights. It has to do with the idea that the individual matters more than what the state wants to make of him. It has to do with never ceding the power and risk of being free people. More than anything else, and what we must focus on completely, it has to do with liberty.
By Rich Logis • The Federalist
Remember the famous garden scene in “The Godfather,” when Marlon Brando’s character, Don Vito Corleone, warns his son, Michael, played by Al Pacino, that someone close to the family will arrange a meeting where Michael will be assassinated?
The real-life political equivalent of that landmark cinematic moment is playing out before our very eyes, with the Republican National Committee and congressional Republicans. On the omnibus, on the Second Amendment, on border safety—almost every issue—the GOP continues to betray the family. Who is the family? The American people, that’s who.
In fairness, yes, Justice Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation, the president’s constitutionally bona fide federal judges, and tax reform were big wins in the last year. But we didn’t elect the biggest GOP majority in the modern era to take baby steps, did we? We colored the map red (even though guaranteed red states no longer exist) to take giant leaps, especially after eight years of mostly impotent GOP opposition to President Obama. And let’s be honest: 90 percent of the reason our map was red was because of President Trump. Continue reading
For years, media bias has been hotly debated. Let me settle this here and now. The mainstream media is not biased. Bias implies some level of subtly in the prejudice. There is nothing subtle about the media’s blatant partiality which actually reaches the level of dishonest propaganda.
There is an unmistakeable trend in play – some evil and/or demented person kills and injures a large number of innocent people and the extreme Left and the “mainstream” media (but I repeat myself) blame conservatives for the evil-doer’s actions. This is an almost reflexive reaction for the media and the Left. Continue reading
“Do British workers have no deep feelings for freedom, for order, for the education of their children, for the right to work without disruption by political militants? Of course they do. And if they are no more than cash-grabbing anarchists, then we must all bear some of the responsibility and try to show them the way back to sanity. But I do not believe they are. Most of them want to do a fair day’s work in a job that gives them satisfaction—and strongly resent what they regard as State subsidies to shirkers.”
by Margaret Thatcher
(Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Jan 30, 1975 on rebuilding a conservative party after electoral defeat.)
Two electoral defeats in a year do not represent total disaster; but they could prove to be the beginning of a disastrous decline unless Conservatives have the courage and humility to examine the reasons for their defeat and ask themselves in what respects they have failed the British people.
To deny that we failed the people is futile, as well as arrogant. Successful Governments win elections. So do parties with broadly acceptable policies. We lost. Continue reading
November 7, 2012
Dear Fellow Americans,
For many of us, there is tremendous disappointment and frustration that a President who spent the last four years stagnating the economy, expanding the government, projecting weakness abroad, and attacking and dividing Americans has been reelected to a second term. But despite our disappointment, we must remember that there are no permanent victories and no permanent defeats. We must take courage. Continue reading