There is a wide-ranging effort afoot to label and define whatever movement has taken over the right wing in the United States and in many other states across the world. There is a conference on “national conservatism,” in Washington, DC, next month. Yoram Hazony wrote a book on The Virtue of Nationalism last year (my review here). Victor Orban of Hungary has championed “illiberal democracy.” And now Hazony is back with a defense of “conservative democracy.” For the most part, these are all of a kind with each other, different labels for the same type of thing, or similar types of thing along a tight spectrum. What kind of thing is it, and is it any good?
Whatever it is, it is not progressivism. Hazony makes clear in his essay his disdain for the cultural catastrophe of progressivism in America and Europe. He laments secularization, family breakdown, the decay of tradition and heritage, and more, echoing the same critique we have heard for decades from social conservatives. Hazony isn’t wrong about these things, but—and this is the first problem with “conservative democracy”—like all social conservatives, Hazony’s tale of decline and fall is selective, biased, and misleading—and it reveals the bias in favor of majority groups inherent in nationalism.
American culture has improved by leaps and bounds for pretty much every other group aside from Christian men of European descent. Twenty Nineteen is the best year to be alive and black in American history (that’s an easy call because it’s a low bar), and the same is pretty much true for American women as well. When Hazony and others complain about the decline and collapse of American tradition and heritage, lots of other Americans say good riddance because lots of traditions are bad. To ethnic and religious minorities, it is blindingly obvious that the conservative fetish for preserving old ways functions as a convenient way for powerful people to entrench their power. Another word for the loss of tradition is “change.” As a law of nature, elites resist change; thus, we have elections to force them to accept change, and thus elites work so hard to rig elections.
I most often hear the argument for “heritage” in arguments to preserve Confederate monuments and statues (Hazony himself, to my knowledge, does not make this argument, but plenty of his fellow-travelers do). That’s a good example of why preserving tradition and heritage is not a virtue in and of itself. There is no intrinsic merit to heritage. Our heritage includes episodes of white supremacy, slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, Japanese internment camps, sexism, and anti-Semitism. It matters what heritage you are trying to cultivate and remember and emulate. There needs to be some standard outside of and above the heritage that can help us evaluate our heritage to judge it and do better. That’s what helps us change and improve our heritage—and that is often a profoundly un-conservative thing to do.
I am sympathetic to Hazony’s point that Enlightenment epistemology is naïve, utopian, universalist, and puts too much faith in abstract reason, and thus we need to cultivate an appreciation for the wisdom of local, distributed, generationally-accumulated knowledge—the sort of “wisdom of the ages” that elites often dismiss as superstition or fundamentalism. But Hazony is throwing out the baby with the bathwater. We need both forms of knowledge because they correct and balance one another. Too much universalism leads to socialism, communism, progressivism, and more. But too much localism leads to its own set of problems, most often in the form of prejudice, bigotry, and fascism.
Conflating Progressivism with Liberalism
Hazony gets himself into this trouble because, like Patrick Deneen in his book Why Liberalism Failed, he conflates progressivism with liberalism. As I wrote in my critique of Deneen’s book, they are clearly separate things. But because they treat the two ideologies as the same, they throw out the benefits of (good) classical liberalism in their eagerness to jettison the evils of progressivism. Their diagnosis of progressivism is sound; I hate it as much as they do. They wrongly apply their critique to liberalism as a whole rather than the progressive distortion of it. Hazony complains that liberalism isn’t just a procedural theory for adjudicating disputes; it is a substantive belief about human nature and human autonomy. What he is saying is true of progressivism, not liberalism.
I’ll not rehash the whole argument here. The short version is that progressivism started life in the early twentieth century as an explicit and orchestrated campaign to reject classical liberalism— including the natural law basis of human rights, the idea of checks and balances in government, indeed, even the entire notion of limited government, which is sort of the whole point of liberalism. Progressives stole the language of liberalism while fundamentally hollowing out its concepts and changing their meaning.
When Hazony and Deneen and an alarmingly large portion of thinking Christians agree that liberalism is progressivism; that the one naturally and ineluctably leads to the other; that the seeds of liberalism blossom into the poisoned fruit of progressivism, they are simply repeating the propaganda that progressives have been peddling for a century without attention to the real intellectual history of either movement. Hazony and others are validating progressives’ self-serving narrative. To do so is especially counterproductive because, when you accept that premise, anyone who opposes progressivism is forced to argue against the entire classical liberal tradition as a whole. That doesn’t simply make us look like illiberal extremists; it means we actually are that.
Liberalism is good. Or, at least, it is salvageable. Progressivism is not the only version of liberalism. Indeed, it isn’t a version of liberalism at all. It is illiberal. It is inconsistent with the main tenets of classical liberalism. Real liberalism is the solution to progressivism, not the cause of it. When Hazony and Deneen train fire on liberalism, they are committing a horrendous act of friendly fire. This is precisely the time to restore, resurrect, and breathe new life into liberalism, not tear it down.
Establishing a Public Religion?
Alas, Hazony is tearing down the classical liberal tradition. His first recommendation for a new form of “conservative democracy” is to establish a “public religion” that will form the basis of our shared moral life. This amounts to a reversal of the disestablishment of religion, a key cornerstone of the American experiment and the good kind of liberalism we should revive.
Hazony seems to believe that the disestablishment of religion is a novel “liberal doctrine.” Hazony’s ignorance is excusable because that is the version of intellectual history most people learn in higher education. But like with myths of progressivism, that narrative is false and validates a version of history that is profoundly self-serving for secular fundamentalists.
The disestablishment of religion is important not because John Locke said so, but because it is an essential biblical doctrine deeply rooted in the Baptist tradition and, from it, the American tradition. That the state should not establish or favor one particular church is the great contribution of Baptist political thought to Christianity and, indeed, to the world, central to the work of Baptist divines like Thomas Helwys (1575 – 1616), John Smith (1570 – 1612), Roger Williams (1603 – 1683), and John Leland (1754 – 1841). They invented modern religious freedom; John Locke was late to the party.
Hazony’s argument about reestablishing a public religion will appeal to conservative Christians who want to argue that America was and should remain a “Christian nation.” As a historical argument, that idea is only partly true (yes, Christianity influenced the Founders, but do you really want to make Christianity responsible for America’s entire historical track record? There are more than a few sins that I hope did not flow from a Christian identity).
But as a political program, advocating for a Christian America is a deeply un-American and un-Christian idea. Politics should be about flourishing for all and about the common good, not about perks and privileges for our tribe. Hazony’s call for public religion, Christian nationalists’ call for a Christian America, and some Catholics’ call for a new era of “integralism” all amount to an effort to resurrect Christendom in the twenty-first century.
That a new Christendom is wildly unrealistic and could provoke armed resistance (or mass exodus) from minorities and non-Christians across the country is only the smallest problem with this idea. The bigger problem is that it goes against everything the American experiment stands for and everything we should have learned from the past two millennia of mistakes in political theology.
Misunderstanding Democracy’s History
But Hazony and his fellow-travelers seem ill-informed about that history, or indeed about the history and practice of liberalism and democracy around the world. And his historical misunderstanding leads directly into his illiberal policy prescriptions, especially about immigration and internationalism.
Hazony repeatedly asserts that what he calls the Anglo-American tradition of conservative democracy arose within the unique historical and cultural circumstances of Britain and America. That much is true, but, he argues, history is destiny. Because democracy arose within the Anglo-American context, it depends on that unique heritage for its continued survival. The Enlightenment is wrong, he thinks, to treat liberalism as an abstract universal idea that can be transplanted to other societies. If this is true, we should be careful to avoid putting much faith in the role democracy might play around the world, and at the same time we should be cautious about what kind of immigrants we let into our country. The first argument gained a lot of ground since the botched democratic transitions in Iraq and Afghanistan and since the fizzle of the Arab Spring. The second argument has gained ground since President Donald Trump’s promise to build a border wall has become a cultural wedge issue.
Forgive me if I am blunt for a moment: this argument is nakedly false and I grow impatient at how often I hear so many make versions of an argument that is so easily refuted. Classical liberalism arose with the context of eighteenth-century Protestant Britain. That doesn’t mean it only works under the conditions of eighteenth-century Protestant Britain. Hazony treats the originating conditions of democracy as the necessary prerequisites of democracy. This is obviously wrong.
Ideas migrate and adapt to new conditions. For any new idea, invention, or concept, there is a difference between the pristine or original case and subsequent imitations of it. It’s really hard to come up with something new. The first time a new thing comes along, its arrival is contingent, accidental, and dependent on a lot of things that could have happened otherwise. It is usually possible only with herculean effort and visionary insight about how things could be different.
But once a new thing is invented or a new idea discovered and other people can see it, they can emulate it with far less hassle and effort. Galileo was persecuted for his heliocentrism; a few brief years later, anyone who wasn’t a heliocentrist was mocked for stupidity and ignorance. It took centuries of study to master the art of latitudinal navigation; now a Boy Scout can do it with a map, compass, and a few short lessons. The first iPhone was a work of genius. Now you can get a cheap knock-off at any corner market for cut-rate prices.
As Jonah Goldberg has argued, the institutional arrangements of capitalism and democracy are a miracle that depended on the weird tribal habits of a bunch of Angles, Saxons, and Normans as they developed, sui generis, over centuries. They didn’t drop from the heavens as a revelation in the brain of Locke, Jefferson, or Rawls (the philosophers explained, they did not invent, liberalism). But, as Fukuyama rightly pointed out, history has delivered a verdict: these institutions have proven the most effective in world history. They work. And so other societies copy them or get left behind.
This is where I go barking mad at the suggestion that democracy is somehow necessarily tied to the West, or only works in the West, or can’t be transplanted elsewhere, or that we need to be suspicious of non-Western or non-Christian immigrants. If you believe that, I respectfully invite you to consider the history of non-Western democracy.
Professor Hazony, the prime minister of India would like a word with you. As might the leaders of over 60 other non-Western states that Freedom House considers “free” or “partly free.” We are living at the high point of human freedom in recorded history. This is a really strange time to doubt the applicability of liberalism around the world, seeing as we’ve never had it better. The empirical evidence is so overwhelming—and not at all hard to find—that one can no longer make a credible case against it in good faith.
Liberalism is widely practiced around the world. Other societies can adapt to its norms, and it is good for America when they do because liberal order is the outer perimeter of American security. By the same token, immigrants to our country from around the world can assimilate to democratic norms and contribute positively to our national fabric. Just as liberalism has gone abroad and Westernized the world, immigrants assimilate and Americanize themselves. The United States may become culturally less Western, less British, or less Christian. That says nothing at all about the prospects of democracy in America.
I love the United States and I love (the good parts of) Western civilization. We should cultivate an appreciation for the best parts of our heritage. But I don’t think that heritage is a necessary precondition for the survival of the ideals of the American experiment. More importantly, I don’t think the preservation of a particular heritage or belief system is the business of the government.
I don’t want bureaucrats in Washington, DC, to develop a blueprint of the correct form of national culture we’re supposed to identify with. Any effort to do so will inevitably, and justifiably, backfire. And any effort to do so, ironically, would be neither conservative nor democratic; it is precisely what the progressive left is trying to do from the opposite direction. Nationalism, national conservatism, conservative democracy, and all their related labels and movements are bankrupt ideas that deserve to die as quick a death as possible.
Paul D. Miller is a professor at Georgetown University, a research fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, a contributing editor of Providence, and a veteran of the United States Army.
Photo Credit: By praline3001, via Flickr.