An essay by Frank Filocomo.

The conservatism of Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk is fundamentally incompatible with an ungrounded and listless libertarian ethos. While Burke and Kirk emphasize the importance of social cohesiveness and community, libertarians vociferously oppose anything they deem to be collectivist. In recent years, however, some conservatives have erroneously conflated an ideology that stresses the importance of social bonds and Christian community with that of rugged individualism and absolute self-interest. As contemporary scholars such as Robert Putnam and Francis Fukuyama have noted, America is suffering from a dangerous bout of civic disengagement. If this continues, the America that our ancestors once knew and loved will cease to exist.

Robert Putnam, in his latest book, The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again, illustrates the country’s declining civic engagement with an inverted U-curve. The upward slope of the curve begins almost immediately. From its inception as a new nation in 1776, America progressively became more communitarian, despite citizens’ affinity for liberty and individualism. As the great Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville observed when he visited the States in the 1830s, Americans, who inhabited a country with an unusually decentralized government, effectively governed themselves by forming small voluntary associations. In later years, fraternal associations like the Rotary clubs and the Independent Order of Odd Fellows acted as a glue that bonded individuals together. 

Societal togetherness, or what Putnam calls “we-ness,” peaked in the 1960s. 

We are now living in an America plagued by a libertarian ethos; this is the downward slope in Putnam’s U-curve. Total libertarianism, which sees the individual as the only important variable, is a fundamentally un-American idea. Russell Kirk, in his prescient essay, Libertarians: the Chirping Sectaries, rightly posits that fusing conservatism and libertarianism is akin to “advocating a union of ice and fire.”  

The question remains: Why do conservatives today continue to conflate these two clearly contradictory ideologies? Furthermore, why aren’t conservatives actively advocating for a return of American community? Though these are difficult questions to answer succinctly, I propose that the lines have been blurred due to a shift in understanding the role of the conservative. The Edmund Burke Foundation’s National Conservatism Project, for example, in trying to correct neoconservative tendencies toward internationalism, has itself drifted from conservatism’s communitarian moorings by elevating the nation state—as opposed to local associations and state governments—as the guarantor and goal of conservatism. National goals, of course, will always remain essential to the American people. But a disproportionate “nation first” emphasis entices conservatives to look beyond the particular communities they inhabit toward a universal idea to which it is much more difficult to contribute.

An individual who defines conservatism as nothing more than freedom from a totalist state mistakes the forest for the trees. While opposition to totalism is certainly important, it is a consequence, not the essence, of what it means to be a conservative. Many today who fancy themselves as conservatives are lacking in the fundamental works of literature, history, philosophy, and theology that both shape and reflect Western civilization. In his 1958 Modern Age essay entitled “Cultural Debris,” Kirk advocates for a return to classical literature that, for centuries, has acted as the bedrock of Western civilization. Kirk argues that the undoing of a cohesive Western community is due to our indifference toward tradition:

Whether our civilization really retains coherence sufficient for restoration to be possible may be made clear to all thinking men within a few years. If the fabric of our ancient society has declined to the condition of a mere scattering of debris, all the tailors in the world cannot put it aright—nor all the beachcombers live by raking the sand for its vestiges. The totalists say that the old order is a corpse, and that man and society must be fashioned afresh, upon a grim plan. Yet there survive among us some people of intellectual power who hold that the wardrobe of our moral imagination is not yet altogether depleted.

Through the gloomy horizon Kirk points us to a shining light. Conservatives who love and revere Burkean traditionalism can save the day. The problem, though, is that many conservatives remain ideologically confused.

Often, those who deem themselves conservatives will echo certain familiar buzzwords: civil liberty, individualism, constitutional rights, freedom of speech. While there is nothing wrong with these terms per se, there is an essential piece of the pie missing here: community. The doctrine of rugged individualism, it seems to me, is incompatible with community. The Gadsden flag, which reads “Don’t tread on me,” is erroneously called a conservative symbol; rather it is an exclusively libertarian one. Kirk emphasized that conservatives and libertarians can both agree that bureaucratic overreach forces a straightjacket over individuals and municipalities. But where is the sense of community in “Don’t tread on me?” Libertarianism, at least in its most fundamentalist form, is a rebuke of community. 

While it does seem to be the case that civic participation and societal togetherness is in precipitous decline, that does not mean that it cannot be restored. This civic restoration, however, requires a return to what made America in the first place. As Kirkian conservatives and protectors of Western civilization, we must make it our mission to revive the America that Tocqueville so eloquently wrote about: an America characterized by strong social bonds, neighborliness, and a collective willingness to govern ourselves. As stated by Kirk: “[C]onservatives declare that society is a community of souls, joining the dead, the living, and those yet unborn; and that it coheres through what Aristotle called friendship and Christians call love of neighbor.”

Frank Filocomo is a graduate student at New York University and an intern at National Review Institute.

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