A few weeks ago, I shared a video and was interviewed about my dissatisfaction with President Donald Trump and the current state of American conservatism. I stand by everything I said in the video and the interview. I also realize that dissatisfaction with something is only one side of the necessary conversation. Equally important is to offer a positive vision of what conservatism should be. I’ll do my best to offer such a vision in this essay, but first, we must try to understand how we got where we are.
Through most of its history, American conservatism has involved vibrant discussions about principles and policy. In the 1950’s, 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s, the American right accommodated statesmen as diverse as Barry Goldwater and Nelson Rockefeller, and thinkers from William F. Buckley to Irving Kristol to Harry Jaffa to Robert Bork (it is also worth noting here that the conservative movement actively excised entities like the White Citizens Council and John Birch Society, which were antithetical to principles of conservatism). These differences were reflected in the administrations of Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Bush.
Somehow, though, those conversations stopped. My guess is that the overwhelming electoral victories in 1980, 1984, and 1988 caused Republicans to rest on their laurels and feel that they had reached the perfect winning formula. They stopped. The world didn’t, and the conservative status quo became increasingly hollow. (This isn’t to say that there weren’t breaks from the orthodoxy; Pat Buchanan and the neoconservatives and the Ron/Rand Paul duo each offered something new and different. They were largely flashes in the pan, but they demonstrated the hunger for a new conservatism on the right).
In many ways, Donald Trump’s appeal to the Republican base was that he offered something different from the same bland corporate conservatism of the nineties and aughts. Certain members of the right wing intelegensia lept at this chance to move away from the broken and hollow orthodoxy. Michael Anton famously argued that 2016 was “the Flight 93 election: charge the cockpit or you die,” and that “a Hillary Clinton presidency is Russian Roulette with a semi-auto. With Trump, at least you can spin the cylinder and take your chances.” In some ways, in 2016, Anton’s argument held water. We knew Trump was crass and vulgar. We didn’t know how he would govern, and many just assumed he’d get out of the way and let Mike Pence, Mitch McConnell, and Paul Ryan run the show. We did know that Hillary Clinton was a shrewd operator and avowed liberal who would likely push through all manner of left-wing priorities. Even if we weren’t sure what conservatism meant, we knew it didn’t mean another Clinton presidency. And so, much of the American right accepted the shotgun marriage with Donald Trump.
Unfortunately, in Mr. Anton’s terms, we spun the cylinder and we lost the Russian roulette game. Trump pulled the trigger, and the post-Reagan consensus was put to rest. Trump’s trade wars rejected the free market, hurt American farmers, and looked much closer to the old left than anything from the Republican party. His failure to repeal Obamacare was due, in large part, to his commitment to preserving key left-wing facets of the failed law. His attempts to rule by decree (as of this writing, he was issuing executive orders at a 40% faster rate than Obama) bring him closer to a Hungary’s Orban than the kind of president the founding fathers intended. Donald Trump’s obvious disdain for America’s institutions—the media, the separation of powers, the independent judiciary, even the Church—are dangerously close to a disdain for liberal democracy. When Trump won, conservatives lost.
So this is the situation we find ourselves in, and it forces us to ask, “what should a conservative movement look like after Trump?” I believe that the conservative movement must be predicated on return to Declaration Principles and a commitment to prudent policymaking in light of these principles. Before you dismiss that as meaningless fluff—and the fact that we are inclined to do so speaks to just how hollowed out our politics are—let’s flesh it out.
Conserving the Declaration
The conservative is he who aims to preserve what is good in the American political order, and the best of our political order is the principles of our founding. The best articulation of these principles comes in the form of the Declaration of Independence, and I will be referring to them as Declaration Principles. Jefferson writes:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
The founders recognize that whatever differences may exist between us because of age, sex, creed, race, physical stature, sexual orientation, or any other category, we are as human persons endowed by our nature as humans with certain rights. These rights, “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness,” mean that human persons are free to order their lives and pursue property in the manner they deem most fitting to a happy life, and that they must recognize the rights of other persons to do the same.
They understood “that to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” This means a recognition that human persons interacting and exercising their rights will inevitably result in disputes about the intersection of different people exercising equal rights. Therefore, the people cede the exercise of certain rights to the Government so that by mediating these disputes the people can better exercise their rights and pursue their understanding of the human good. As Michael Oakeshott says in On Being Conservative, “the image of the ruler is the umpire whose business is to administer the rules of the game, or the chairman who governs the debate according to known rules but does not himself participate in it.”
The brilliance of the American Constitution is that its very structure, by a system of shared sovereignty between states and the federal government and a complex separation of powers between co-equal branches, preserves the rights and liberties of the people, makes known the rules by which they ought to live, and provides a means for the government to “administer the rules of the game,” but not “participate in it.” The American government does not pick winners and losers, and does not play favorites. It allows every person an equal footing on the basis of natural rights and protects their ability to pursue their own interests, opinions, and passions as they see fit.
Of course, the founders did not establish a perfect order. The government they brought forth was imperfect. Americans were enslaved until 1865. Women could not vote until the 1920 election. Segregation was legal until the 1960’s. Gay people could not marry nationwide until 2015. There is still a long way to go, but it is clear that Americans are at our best when we hold closest to the Declaration Principles, and the American Constitution provides a clear path for doing this. Each of these great strides forward—abolition, suffrage, desegregation, and more—was accomplished by moving closer to Declaration Principles through the Constitutional process.
Lincoln, in his second inaugural address, challenged us to, “strive on to finish the work we are in,” that is, the work of bringing America to closer harmony with the principles of its declaration, recognizing injustice and incongruity where it is, and prudently working within the constitutional system to root out the injustice. And though we are now much closer to our goal of harmony than we were at the founding or even at Lincoln’s refounding, we have a long way to go. We must always be striving for a more perfect union, recognizing that we may never get there, but knowing that the pursuit of a perfect union grounded in natural rights principles will concretely and positively impact the lives of our fellow countrymen.
A Prudent Politics
Most Americans, save the fringes of the left and right, agree in large part with the broad principles of the Declaration. It is in the modes of application of these principles that we find the difference in the political right and left. So how should the conservative go about applying the Declaration Principles? I believe Jefferson gives us an answer. His first word after his philosophical sketch is “Prudence,” or the practical wisdom that allows a leader to act in the manner made necessary by circumstance. As abstract as prudence might sound, there’s some pretty concrete guiding principles for conservative, prudent political leadership in the application of Declaration Principles.
The first principle is restraint. A large and excessively energetic government has a tendency to undermine the natural rights of the governed, and it has a tendency to act swiftly and rashly to placate the people without much regard for long term consequences and institutional damages. A restrained government inoculates itself to these concerns. It is worth noting here that the restrained government is not an absentee government. When the government sees a clear ill or injustice in a society, and deliberates and comes to a workable and prudent solution, it should implement it. But it should not do so without absolute clear-sightedness and certainty that it is acting constitutionally.
The second principle is what I call subsidiarity (I’m borrowing this word from the Catholic organizing principle). By subsidiarity I mean that problems should be solved at the closest level to the people possible. If we are to accept that the government draws its just power from the consent of the governed, as Jefferson says, then we should maximize people’s input in government and recognize that local solutions work best. In practice, this means that the city handles most streets and zoning ordinances, the state government handles many regulatory issues, and the federal government fights wars.
My third principle would be a commitment to the rule of law. I don’t mean Nixon era hard nosed policing, but I mean clear laws created through the proper channels and executed faithfully by the executive branch and interpreted textually by a fair judiciary. If all persons are truly equal in their natural rights and equal under the law, then they must have a reasonable expectation of what the law is. This does not mean that the law cannot be nuanced, and I’m not trying to put legions of con-law students on the job market. Think about golf. Golf has myriad complex rules and USGA regulations, but the principles of these rules are fairly simple and conducive to the average person to understand the game and play without too much fairway litigation. In those rare cases where the rules are unclear or contradictory, the Oakeshott’s Umpire can step in and sort out the rules.
A final principle, which is closely related to the third, is a respect for political institutions. American political institutions are expressly designed to protect natural rights and Declaration Principles against politicians who might try to gain power at the expense of others (see Federalist No. 75). When power becomes too concentrated in one person or branch of government, and this person or branch launches a sustained assault on our institutions, they begin to lose their ability to protect our natural rights. Conservatives must work proactively to conserve our institutions and by extension our natural rights. It is this principle which, in fast paced, increasingly technological and interconnected world, could foster the most interesting conservative policymaking.
A professor of mine once told me, “there’s no one sanctioned political position for those who care about the truth. Identifying with any party or movement or ideology will always involve making unsatisfying accommodations. Many people who are equally concerned with the truth will prioritize theory and praxis in different ways, place greater weight on some issues over others, and will then wind up on opposite sides of the net.”
This is certainly true of conservatism. My conservatism, my understanding of Declaration Principles and prudence, leads me to strongly support the right to bear arms and open markets. Most other conservatives will agree with me. It also compels me to oppose the death penalty. Many conservatives will disagree with me here.
That is all well and good because conservatism is not and ought not be a laundry list of policy litmus tests. It should be an attitude toward the preservation of our Declaration Principles through prudence and in policy. It is my hope that the post-Trump conservative reckoning will bring us toward this, whether it is in four months, or four years.
Will Galloway is a political theory student and Lyceum Scholar at Clemson University, serving from 2019-2020 as Chair of the South Carolina Federation of College Republicans. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.