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Against Conservative Self-Defeatism

In the aftermath of the 2020 election, a growing number of conservatives have voiced the opinion that America simply cannot go on. On this view, the differences between the various factions in America are so profound that significant cooperation is impossible, and the opportunities for advancing conservative principles are almost nonexistent—tyranny, civil strife, or disunion are inevitable and unavoidable. Obviously, this claim has important implications for politics, law, and human flourishing. If the defeatists are correct, politics and law will soon cease to function as pillars of human flourishing. Although I share the concerns of conservative defeatists, I do not concede the collapse of the common good, the inevitability of disunion, or the demise of conservatism. In fact, I fear that defeatism could end up being a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The defeatist line of thought may be formulated in the terms of classical philosophy. According to Thomas Aquinas (and others) there are three forms of unity: the unity of an individual substance, the unity of an abstract concept, and the unity of order. Although we may speak metaphorically of the body politic, in truth the political community is not an individual substance, and it is not an abstract idea. Order is the form of unity proper to political community, and it consists in many powers being ordered toward a common shared objective, namely, the common good. The many parts of the political community “hang together,” so to speak, in virtue of the common good. Within the classical natural law tradition, the political common good is not the total aggregate of individual goods, but the public life of the whole community sometimes referred to as civic happiness or civic flourishing. For defeatists, deep disagreement about the meaning of the common good fatally undermines unity and cooperation. On the face of it, this is a somewhat persuasive claim. Order and unity are derived from a shared view of the common good for society. Defeatists could argue like this: if we do not share a view of the common good, and if we cannot agree on the common good, then how shall maintain order and unity? For example, in a recent article, Patrick Buchanan suggests that America is just too fractured to survive and Thomas Sowell worries that the election of Biden heralds an irrevocable turn towards left authoritarianism. These concerns are exasperated on the right by concerns of massive voter fraud. I usually sympathize with authors like Buchanan and Sowell, but I think political action is a bit more complicated. I believe it is possible for those with mutually exclusive political ideas to advance the common good and maintain the unity of order.

I concede many of the premises contained in defeatist reasoning. I have made similar, but not identical arguments (see my “In Defense of the Old Republic,” or my book, Understanding Modern Political Ideas). After all, if we are all pursuing mutually contradictory objectives, how can we hope to preserve unity? Nevertheless, the current version of conservative defeatism presupposes a faulty view of political agency because it downplays the role of natural inclinations, interests, and other non-abstract factors of human action. It also underestimates the efficacy of the natural law.

The Complexity of Human Action

Abstract ideas do not populate political communities. The human person and not his beliefs are the ultimate subject of politics. And this is important because of the complexity of human action. Each human person is a complex composition of powers, inclinations, habits, memory, imagination, passion, and intentions (or interests) and this complexity excludes reductive accounts of human action, psychology, and motivation.

From a classical perspective, human action does not proceed from a person’s political philosophy in a strictly deductive process. Real human action is not geometry. Of course, ideas are important. Ideas shape human action in profound ways, and classical philosophy provides abundant resources for criticizing voluntarist, romantic, and materialist accounts of human action. Nevertheless, real agents, in time and place, do not—in fact, often must not—act only according to universal ideas. To be sure men and women must always reject intrinsic evils—murder, fraud, adultery, etc., but outside of such sure moral norms we live in a vale of tears. We make moral choices “under these circumstances.” Again, on a classical model, human action is preceded by a judgment of practical reason, but such judgments are about this or that particular objective; it is rarely a pristine deduction from abstract ideals.

If one affirms the existence of human nature and natural inclinations then one ought to recognize that it is possible for citizens of differing political philosophies to act together for the common good.

Someone may be deeply devoted to Marxism or Roman Catholicism, but still intend self-preservation. One may be devoted to the fight against climate change and still drive a car, take vacations on cruise ships, and own stock in airline companies. Real agents act on a diverse range of motivations and objectives, in addition to their philosophical commitments. Reflect on your own experience. How often do we find conflicting ideas, intentions, and passions within ourselves? One need not embrace relativism to accept this fact of human existence. Ideas guide human agency, but they are mediated by circumstances, passions, temperaments, habits, and particular objectives. When we examine a man’s life, it is mere rationalism to reduce it to a set of philosophical ideas. If this is true of individual men and women, it is also true of citizens and true of political action more broadly.

The Complexity of Political Action

To be sure, ideas have consequences—to quote Richard Weaver—but citizens are not reducible to ideas. And the same is true of voters, congressional representatives, Senators, etc. As such, the agents of political action evade the deductive determinism or inevitability of abstract ideas. In addition to abstract ideas, political agents are concerned with changing circumstances and particular objectives. This is very important because it indicates how political agents can compromise and even sometimes cooperate despite incommensurate political ideas.

If one were to reduce political action to expressions of ideology, it would be very difficult to explain international relations. Consider the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. The two sides could hardly have been more opposed, but (thanks be to God) the Cold War never became hot. There are many reasons that this was so, but it indicates that interests and inclinations often modify the trajectory of our ideas. No one can reasonably accuse Nikita Khrushchev of having lacked ideological commitment, but he was also interested objectives beyond ideology: preserving his own life and the existence of his country. On the basis of particular objectives and changing circumstances, restraint and even compromise emerge in the real world of politics. Neither cooperation nor unity are impossible in such cases. This is even truer when we turn from large-scale political conflicts to the concrete activities of citizens.

For my own part, I believe that progressivism and certainly Marxism—as ideologies—are inimical to the common good and therefore contrary to the unity of order. But even if this is so it does not prevent individual citizens who vote for progressive candidates from contributing to the common good. Obviously, progressives can (and do) avoid murder, stop at stop signs, pay taxes, vote for legislation against sex trafficking, contribute to the relief of the poor, feed their own children, serve as detectives pursuing rapists and thieves, etc. Surely progressives could say the same of conservatives.

Achieving the Common Good

The truth is that the unity wrought by the common good is not achieved exclusively or even primarily through abstract theoretical correctness, but by concrete intentions and choices.

Whenever citizens intend and choose the just production and exchange of basic goods and services, the political common good is advanced and strengthened. Often, the common good is practically advanced because nature is strong and the natural law is written on the heart of man. Human nature is real, and it is not erased by possessing a set of stupid or erroneous ideas; rather, human nature is objective and stable, and it endows each person with a range of innate inclinations. Given that this is so, conservatives and progressives sometimes have overlapping interests despite their political differences. Indeed, we should surmise that all citizens actually share a wide range of similar interests and goals. Even in a time when traditional marriage is in decline, people with diverse political beliefs still pursue marriage—this is why one can find endless books, YouTube channels, and podcasts about everything from how to buy an engagement ring to avoiding divorce.

Given the reality of human nature and the convergence of natural inclinations and interests, compromise and cooperation for the common good is indeed possible. If one affirms the existence of human nature and natural inclinations then one ought to recognize that it is possible for citizens of differing political philosophies to act together for the common good (maybe even in spite of their bad ideas). In stating these things, I am merely making the case for the possibility of political cooperation; I am not committing myself to naiveté.

Conservatives are right to fear and lament progressivism and Marxism; both forms of thought are inimical to the natural law and an authentic understanding of the common good. Nevertheless, as long as the natural law remains inscribed upon the hearts of American men and women, it is possible to find points of contact that make it possible to advance the common good, albeit imperfectly. 

Conservative Hope

Finally, in defending the possibility of unity and cooperation, I am not ignorant of the difficulties involved. Indeed, the American Republic may decline into a decadent and stagnant, socialist nanny-state, but this outcome is only inevitable if conservatives give up the fight. If conservative defeatists despair of the American experiment in ordered liberty, then their gloomy premonitions will indeed come to fruition. Defeatism can ensure its own truth by undermining the struggle for the common good. In saying this, I am not backing away from confidence in the natural law. The natural law is effective. Thomas Aquinas says that the most general precepts of the natural law cannot be erased from the human heart. Yet, he also teaches (here, here, and here) that the most general precepts must be complemented by secondary precepts, particular conclusions, and additions of reason. If conservatives despair, then the full weight of the natural law may go unrealized. However, if conservatives persevere, they may indeed find that they do not contend in vain. After all, the best form of conservatism affirms both providence and the permanent things of human nature. If conservatives truly believe in these things, then they should rally to the cause of being “the loyal opposition,” confident that their principles are based on the reality of the human person rather than utopian fantasies.

To put it another way, conservatism can still advance the common good because it is based on the reality of the human person reflected in the natural law and honorable customs. It is true that we live in vale of tears and conservative victories will often be partial and imperfect. Such victories are possible, but only if we maintain a realistic understanding of human action and political history. In politics, we do not contend with abstract ideas, but our neighbors and fellow citizens, endowed with abiding interests rooted in human nature. In our shared human nature, conservatives can find a point of departure for unity and cooperation in concrete, less-controversial matters, but also for articulating a vision of politics that speaks of the permanent things, laudable customs, and the concrete institutions of American liberty. Defeatism is neither good theory nor good politics; it does not reflect an accurate view of human action or political agency, and it is not politically conducive to the best aspirations of conservatism. We owe more to ourselves, and to the America Republic.

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