Does Anthropology Define American Conservatism?

If I had to pick a benevolent dictator to rule over us I think I would lean toward Yuval Levin. Levin, the director of Social, Cultural, and Constitutional Studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), is the author of three books I highly recommend if you want to understand where we are as a country:

Levin’s historical and intellectual heft combined with his deep policy knowledge is truly impressive. The Great Debate will give you a greater understanding of the historical and intellectual roots of left and right while Fractured Republic and A Time to Build will give you great insights into our troubled politics and culture. Evidence of our failing institutions mounts greater every day I am afraid.

But that is for another day perhaps.  Today, I want to focus on Levin’s contribution to the What is American Conservatism issue of The American Spectator.  He argues that Anthropology Defines The Right:

What often sets conservatives apart from progressives is our view that the human person is imperfect, broken, perhaps fallen, and yet also created in a divine image. This suggests to us that human beings require formation in order to be free, and that our institutions exist to enable that formation, but that as they do so they must also respect the inherent (indeed sacred) dignity of every human individual. It is not easy to establish norms, rules, and institutions that can manage to achieve this balance. So conservatives are duly protective and appreciative of those that have evolved over many generations to be capable of doing this—in the family, religion, culture, politics, education, civil society, and the economy. They are what we want to conserve, and to build upon.

We could wrestle with and unpack this idea, which I largely agree with, but I want to note something else that actually makes up the bulk of Levin’s essay.  How this leads to intra-conservative infighting.

Levin argues that this “conservative anthropology points toward both communitarianism and individualism, and the tension between the two emerges in every conservative effort to wrestle with real-world governing challenges.”

This gets to something that drives me crazy as someone who has strong tendencies to both sides of what he calls communitarianism and individualism but what also falls under traditionalist and libertarian labels.

Both sides seem to be arguing past each other.  It is assumed that debate must play out in one arena or the other.  “Those dubbed libertarians or liberals sometimes imply that the common good can be measured in terms of gross domestic product” while “Those dubbed communitarians or nationalists, meanwhile, sometimes suggest that the common good involves a shared idea of dignity and solidarity and that it cannot be pursued unless economic decisions are made fully subservient to it.” 

In Levin’s mind this mindset prevents the two sides from getting anywhere:

But the dispute might be better resolved by taking a broader view of politics, of which economics is but a part and by no means the greatest part. Democratic capitalism is the best approach we have found for advancing the material prosperity of our society,
but there are times when other goods—family formation, the dignity of the individual, community life, moral principle, national  interest, or national pride—need to be prioritized over economic prosperity. Exactly when and how that should happen is a matter for robust debate and coalition bargaining to determine in individual cases, but we would do well to avoid casting our arguments about that as simply or most fundamentally debates about economics.

To which I offer a hearty “Amen!”

But as I noted in my previous post, some seem intent on emoting and attacking rather engaging in “robust debate and coalition bargaining.”  One particular example drives me nuts.  When traditionalists/populists talk about “market fundamentalists” and of libertarians “running” Washington, DC as if we don’t have a massive regulatory apparatus that is growing by the minute; as if what we have is some sort of laissez faire pure market system that must be curbed if families are to flourish.

Ironically, many conservatives attacked the so-called Reform Conservatives as some sort of squishes; compassionate conservatives under a different name.  Any attempt to view policy through the lens of family formation or working class concerns was social engineering and big government.  Conservatives in the GOP rejected a serious and policy orientated change and now many have embraced a much less intelligent and coherent populism under Trump.

The problem, however, is that the lines are not always clear.  Many who rejected the ReformCons are now die-hard Trumpists. Nevertheless, there is some truth in the fact that conservatism failed to address populists issues then and now faces them today in less attractive form.

If conservatism is to (re)form itself into a more unified and effective influence of politics and culture post-Trump, it will have to wrestle with this inescapable tension:

That human beings start out crooked and prone to sin means we require strong social institutions meant to form us, and that we cannot thrive in their absence. It means the good of the individual cannot be achieved in a society that is not meaningfully attuned to the true common good. But that human beings are made in a divine image and possessed of inherent dignity means that each of us has rights that in practice amount to constraints on what society can do to us.

Personally, I think an important start is to stop attempting to, or acquiescing in, nationalizing politics and culture.  As Levin brilliant argued in Fractured Republic, localism and variety are critical if we are to lower conflict and encourage dialog and engagement. Pushing power down may seem quixotic but I think it is more important than ever.

At the same time we have to start highlighting the things we agree on, the ends, before we immediately start arguing about our disagreements about policy, the means.  Conservatives of good faith are seeking the common good of our nation and communities but have disagreements about the best policies to achieve our shared goals.  Outrage, personal attacks, strawman labels, and vague over-generalizations don’t help.

The question is whether we can find common ground on this shared anthropology and begin the hard work of robust debate and coalitional bargaining we so desperately need.

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