This interview with Ted V. McAllister and Bruce P. Frohnen, authors of Coming Home: Reclaiming America’s Conservative Soul, covers topics including the necessary connection between history and idealism and the enduring relationship of opportunity and equality in the American experience.
Thanks for speaking with us. Tell us how the book came about.
Ted: As part of The American Project, we had produced a public statement designed to reclaim American conservative principles in a time of great confusion. We called it “A Way Forward” and determined that we needed a supporting historical document that would demonstrate that these principles, however eclipsed recently, are deeply embedded in the American story. However, what wasn’t clear until I began writing it was that the recent collapse of the conservative establishment and the reemergence of long-dormant or quiet forces and ideas was forcing a new assessment of the past. The narrative that had long been part of the conservative establishment was far too Cold War centered and had completely ignored longer and deeper trends in American history. What was needed was a new history that revealed that the way forward in a time of intellectual chaos required reclaiming our deepest traditions.
As I confronted the opportunity of reclaiming a richer and more American conservative tradition I reached out to Bruce about turning it into a book. The idea was to wed an accessible but newly recovered historical account with a restatement of conservative principles that are rooted in nature and have emerged in American forms through the long experience of the American people. Bruce’s expertise in the U.S. Constitution, common law, and Natural Law made him the perfect choice to develop a book that blends historical and normative, and connects the American experience with human needs and human nature. What we argued was that the particular and the universal belong together and that divorcing a set of principles from the human experiences that helped reveal those principles is a fundamental error, leading to destructive ideology.
There have been a number of books recently trying to explain where conservatism goes from here, but perhaps a better question is how did it get here? The Trump presidency, for example, while attracting a lot of conservative popular support, seemed disconnected with the conservative intellectual ecosystem. What happened?
Bruce: That’s an important question. To understand where conservatism goes from here, we first must understand what went wrong with it. The seeds of the problem were sown at the beginning of the conservative “movement” formed during the 1950s, with the adoption of “fusionism”—a coalition of groups including traditional conservatives, libertarians, and disenchanted former leftists committed to opposing Communism. With the rise of cultural leftism during the 1960s, many in this coalition determined to soft-pedal so-called “social issues” for the sake of unity in the face of the Communist threat. Unfortunately, over time this devaluation of essential issues of culture and morality became deeply ingrained in the conservative movement. More generally, victory at the polls seemed to conservative leaders to require simple slogans rather than an affirmation of essential American norms. At the same time, identification with the Republican Party fostered growth of a kind of “Conservatism Inc.” that was rather hostile to the small-town institutions, beliefs, and practices at the heart of the American way of life.
Eventually “getting along” and winning elections for the Republican Party became more important to conservative elites than defending Americans’ ability to rule themselves in their own families, churches, and local associations. This, and the rise of globalist economics, bringing economic dislocation and waves of often illegal immigrants produced apathy (helping elect Barack Obama). Then, when Donald Trump came along and gave voice to people’s frustrations, we have a political realignment of massive proportions. It’s still unclear where this will lead, but one thing is for sure: conservatives have to address people’s basic alienation—our feeling that we have been forced from our homes in the sense of our most natural and fundamental connections—or we no longer have any purpose, no reason to exist.
In a nation defined by progress and reinvention, what do you mean when you say as one of your key claims that “conservatism is the most powerfully American tradition because conservatives seek to preserve American principles and norms”?
Ted: At its heart, the conservative American tradition is about liberty and, particularly, about political liberty. By emphasizing political liberty, we stress the right of groups of people to take care of themselves, to establish the rules and laws and norms that they use to govern themselves collectively, whether in families, churches, cities, or the YMCA. In the American context, this right of self-rule was exercised countless times as people moved west or groups organized to solve some new problem. In each case, some new community organized itself—invented itself—through social contracts. In other words, the art of self-rule necessarily meant creativity, reinvention, new beginnings.
While Americans love the word progress and they seem determined to tinker, invent, improve, change things, I believe the best way to understand this tendency is through the idea of opportunity. America has always been about opportunity, most famously with opportunities to start over or to leave behind restrictions or statuses or customs that hold one in a certain social, political, or economic place. This lure of opportunity (or, if you like, progress in the sense of having the chance to make one’s life better) has always served as a check on the lure of equality. Equality—the ideal of all leftist ideologies—ultimately eliminates opportunity in favor of some distributed justice. And so, while Americans have always loved equality, their deeper love of opportunity has caused them to love equality moderately, and to love it this way is to love both liberty of the individual and political liberty (liberty of the community).
The deepest American tradition is, therefore, the jealous regard for protections of our liberties, and it is because we defend our tradition of liberties that we empower individuals and groups to pursue opportunities that give to American life a vibrancy and a certain kind of progress without slipping into the deadening ideal of equality.
Some critics of liberalism argue that the Founding was tainted originally either because it bore within itself the seeds of a secular progressivism or because it has no antidote for such an ideology. How would you respond to that?
Bruce: It’s understandable that in a time when slogans have replaced serious argument, and in which even people who consider themselves conservative spend so much time talking about America as an ideological construct conceived as a servant to equality, that some people would come to see our own tradition and nation as somehow rooted in a rationalistic secularism. But it just ain’t so.
A serious examination of the American Revolution and the Constitution has to look at the context in which they came about. That context is a tradition forged by 150 years of self-government by a deeply religious people. That people was “liberal” in the limited sense that they were wedded to opportunity and to the limitation of governmental power. It was “conservative” in a much deeper, more fundamental sense because the colonists in America were steeped in traditions of faith, family, and a freedom that was intrinsically communal in character. Even before they came here, colonists forged social compacts consciously patterned after church covenants, pledging themselves to walk together in the ways of their Lord. These were no secularist progressives, nor were they likely to consent to be ruled by such.
As to the Constitution itself, scholars in particular are far too enamored of modern, rationalist readings of frames of government—seeing them as somehow the fundamental institution of a society. That may be true of constitutions rooted in the French revolutionary tradition. But ours isn’t. It’s a document intended to provide limited, enumerated powers necessary to maintain peace and economic freedom among semi-sovereign states while protecting the new nation against foreign aggression. It was intended to mediate—keep the peace—among more natural, fundamental associations (religious ones prominent among them), not to reorder society according to any blueprint, secularist or otherwise. Ours is not an ideological people. It’s essential to our recovery of our way of life that we reject readings of our tradition that would reduce them to ideologies of any kind.
We must understand that Progressivism, while an American phenomenon, wasn’t an inevitable product of some deeply flawed founding; it was the product of our deeply flawed, sinful nature as humans, played out in the specific circumstances of the United States. The mistaken assumptions about human nature, abstract reason, and the power of administrative structures to make us “better” people exist in different forms, for example in European Social Democracy and Liberation Theology.
You place a lot of emphasis in the book on the importance of local associations and groups in the face of both elite opinion and forces such as globalization that seek to disrupt the ones we form at local levels. Our reviewer noted that you did not also note how local associations could be stifling or themselves contribute to the tendencies you deplore. How do local associations fit into your conservative vision?
Bruce: Local associations are at the core of conservatism and of the American way of life. It certainly is true that local associations can stifle individual creativity and expression, and that some have in fact pushed our culture toward the very Progressive universalism that has undermined our way of life. Some of this is just the way life is, though some shows the impact of Progressivism on our culture.
Community is, of course, demanding, and not individualistic. Historically, Americans expressed their individualism more by heading to the frontier than by seeking to destroy local associations. Even then, they usually took their communities with them, or found new ones on arrival. There is a fundamental understanding, cultivated by leftist history, that Americans were individualists from the start, but in fact the “individual” was actually a householder. Republican government was rooted in the role of heads-of-household in political life. But that isn’t the same thing as individualism; the kinds of privacy so many Americans demand today is quite foreign to our traditions and was largely created by some very bad Supreme Court decisions over the last few decades.
In addition, it’s important to keep in mind that from the beginning many Americans suffered from a kind of mania for community perfection. After all, the Puritans were Puritans—they wanted great purity in their church and, from those fundamental institutions, their lives—and they were willing to come across the sea to make that vision real in extremely thick, sometimes utopian communities. These outpourings of enthusiasm always have been a (sometimes destructive) part of the fabric of our culture. It was how associations worked, with years of calm interrupted by times of passion and revival of one sort or another. It wasn’t until the massive, national movements, especially of the late nineteenth century, that things changed for the worse. We address this somewhat obliquely in the book in noting the different views of Progressives, but the point really is that temperance reformers in particular nationalized as well as politicized their demands, and this fed into the ideology of Progressivism that has been the central bane of American tradition ever since.
Where did you place the historical moment when conservatism was eclipsed as a way to understand our national story among elite institutions?
Ted: What we are calling conservatism is the collection of America’s deepest traditions, customs, and norms—the ones that persist for generations. But these are not understood as “conservative” until they are threatened or challenged in some way. It is perhaps appropriate that one of the first crises of historical understanding came when slavery finally posed a threat to the nation’s identity that, as Lincoln noted in his “House Divided” speech, required that the nation clarify and then defend an understanding of its core principles. This clarification required an understanding of our history that both identified our most cherished principles and that charted a new course that would force us to be true to those principles. While the word “conservative” is anachronistic in this context, I think that this process of historical remembrance and innovation to meet an emerging crisis and its aftermath is an example of a conservative way of understanding, of preserving, and of innovating appropriate to our highest principles.
We have not always been good at this sort of historical story-telling, and at times our most popular and dominant historical narratives concentrated too heavily on celebration of heroes, principles, ideals, and accomplishments that we associate most with American identity. Failure to engage with the challenges or limits or problems with that history didn’t buttress American conservatism as much as make the American people vulnerable to simplistic concepts of history that appeared to show hypocrisy and gross violations of natural rights as the core of American identity.
The Progressive movement in the early twentieth century came with a new view of American history, including the famous attack by Charles Beard on the Constitution’s framers as motivated by economic self-interest. Progressive historians stressed a history of exploitation that they hoped would serve their political purposes. But if I’m going to date the time when the overwhelming majority of elite institutions rejected a conservative view of American history in favor of a story of injustice and exploitation, then I think we have to look at the 1960s and 1970s as the turning point. American liberals, who dominated intellectual life from the 1930s through the 1960s, operated with a somewhat more complex (than leftists) understanding of American ideals in the context of American failures, and they remained largely devoted to a set of American principles that they believed were still being realized over time. But certainly by the 1970s, judging by the kind of history told to American students from grade school through college, a leftist consensus had emerged among those institutions most involved in shaping both historical memory and American self-understanding.
By the 1970s liberals were on the defensive against those who demanded that history be useful for the purpose of social transformation, and conservatives had failed in the one area where they ought to have flourished—supplying a supple historical account rooted in an understanding of human nature, that follows carefully the empirical record and that exposes the danger of all abstract systems of justice as enemies of human good. Indeed, by the seventies and eighties, most of what we call conservative history had become a tool of a political movement, of think tanks, or of an effort to find what they call a “nonhistoricist” version of America. Almost all of these “conservative” versions of American history were triumphalist in some form and ended in some slogan that defined America. Lost in such accounts is the irony, contingency, the moral complexity of our real history and, as a result, a failure to develop a deeper understanding of American traditions, customs, and norms that understands moral failures in all their contextual complexity. Among the things lost by this is the ability to use history to adjust and improve without losing the deeper principles and ideals that are our inheritance. We are left with this option: defend some abstract ideal of America or destroy a fundamentally unjust America in favor of an ideal system of social justice. Both of these are anti-conservative and hostile to the American tradition, properly understood.
What role has the law played in undermining the conservative vision you outline?
Bruce: It’s important to begin by understanding the central role a specific form of law has played in our tradition. The common law Americans brought over from Britain is the law of custom. It’s written down in judicial decisions and opinions, but these decisions follow the customs of the people. That understanding underlay, not just our written Constitution, but also the unwritten constitution—the character and traditions of the people. So while ours is not primarily a book about the courts, the courts have played an important role in replacing custom with their own arbitrary rules and with decrees emanating from the federal government. Courts have taken over the powers of Americans as a self-governing people. They did this through a series of terrible decisions, beginning with Dredd Scott, which made slave ownership into a kind of unlimited federal, constitutional right, accelerating through the “laissez faire” courts of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, and culminating in the lawless decisions of the post-World War II Supreme Court, determined to make over our nation and people according to judges’ abstract visions of social justice.
The courts have done two things, basically, to undermine our way of life. First, they have ignored, undermined, and “overruled” basic provisions of our Constitution limiting the federal government’s ability to rule the people directly from the center. Separation of Powers? Federalism? Enumeration of Powers? Inherent limits to the Commerce Power? All gone, and with them most of the reasons local communities traditionally had to exist and serve as the means by which the people rule themselves. Second, courts took over legislative power, all-too-often reducing a self-governing people to the role of supplicants before an imperial judiciary that makes law to serve its own goals. Neither can continue if we are to continue as a free people.
Where do you see the resources for a renewal of a conservative vision?
Ted: Over the last five decades or more, we have been experiencing the slow concentration of power into the hands of an oligarchic elite who now control almost all key cultural and social institutions. This was made possible by previous developments that undermined state and local control and that put more and more power and policy control in the hands of national elites. But the result is an assault on the deepest American traditions of individual and political liberty (self-rule). Recent events have exposed to a large swath of Americans who, previously, had been largely uninterested in politics, that their lives are controlled to an unacceptable degree by institutions over which they have no direct control or influence. This awakening to the fact of the oligarchy is the first and most important “resource” for a conservative renascence. Conservatives are made in response to abuse and the shape of their reaction depends on the context, but always moves toward a restatement of principles suited to a new environment. That is what we are seeing today.
The keys for this to develop into an effective conservative vision capable of motivating people to defend their inherited principles include demanding and getting more control over their private and communal lives and a vivid and powerful articulation of American traditions that invites people to love of an America that is beyond or perhaps beneath identity politics and simplistic ideals of justice. Americans must work “without permission” (to quote Charles Murray) to solve their problems, to build their neighborhoods and associations, to create the space for a self-ruling people to exercise their freedom. This will require fighting in the courts and in battling the administrative state and forming ever-new associations to help in these fights. But in the long run, the most important resource is an internalized belief that we govern ourselves and we will no longer tolerate the soft tyranny we have now exposed.
Bruce: We include in our book a number of policy discussions and concrete proposals for improvement. Most of them are aimed at undermining the oligarchy that currently controls our cultural high ground, especially in education (from preschool through graduate school), religion, and social policy. Also required is a return to understanding that our nation is, in fact, a nation—with borders, and with a common interest in the economic well-being of its people and the flourishing of all the communities that constitute it. So, we must take back control over our lives from technological elites through anti-monopoly policies, and from globalists of all kinds by defending our borders and the interests of American workers. Once the oligopoly’s grip on power is loosened—and I think it can be—the natural tendency of all people to form communities and to “come home” to their natural associations, will, God willing, reassert itself.