This essay was authored by Gerald J. Russello for Nomocracy in Politics.
Conservatives have attacked the centralization of American government over the past half-century in three broad ways. The first may be termed the historical argument. In this view, the American founding is not a triumph of the imperial state but a celebration of locality. As historians such as Barry Alan Shain have reminded us, the communities that actually debated and ratified the Constitution on a state-by-state basis were not atomized Lockeans arguing about an imagined social contract. They were, rather overwhelmingly, religiously and culturally homogenous. The Constitution was never meant to create a centralized state; the government’s monstrous growth since then has been a deformation of its original, federal plan. Conservatives differ on the ultimate villain responsible for the unitary state: Lincoln or the Progressives—Wilson or FDR—but they all agree that this concentration of power has no historical warrant. The conservative responses to this development, at least since the 1960s, has been to revive originalism as a constitutional theory and advocate various forms of state’s rights, including secession. Alan Mendenhall in this journal contributes an important review of this latter principle and its role in American political history, and contrasts it with a kind of messianic statism.
The second critique is based on economics. A consolidated federal system is defined by a lack of efficiency, increased costs, and corruption far in excess of what fifty smaller state governments would possess on their own. The massive waste associated with our worldwide system of military bases, national programs like Medicare, and routine surveillance by police and law-enforcement agencies are all inevitable results of big government. Although conservatives have railed against this trend for decades, they have had only limited success in stemming the tide. And as Tim Carney and others have written, such big government projects help big business as well, to the detriment of both the economy and liberty.
The third conservative critique is a cultural one. This critique connects the perceived lack of rootedness among the populace with the growth of government. True community in America is dying, and with it any real bulwark of local government or resistance to tyranny. The ideological and messianic character some believe is America’s mission has only increased with the destruction of local, stable communities. And a new elite has grown up, concentrated in media, entertainment, and academia, whose driving purpose seems to be destroying any loyalty or community not driven by the cash nexus or the government dole.
Bruce Frohnen has written a characteristically insightful and provocative piece on the dangers of what he calls the rise of the “cosmo-Americans,” and the lack of any real offsetting benefits from our atomization. People are told their loyalties and fortunes lie with the national state rather than with a smaller community; is it any wonder they skip from place to place, forming and dissolving bonds and trusting in the market, the state, and pop culture to provide meaning to their lives? This “cosmopolitanism” has only made citizens more vulnerable to, and reliant on, the omnipotent state. One may quibble with some of the details—native, rooted WASPs have arguably been the greatest destroyers of federalism—but the larger picture is persuasive. Tocqueville noted that a radical individualism leads to less freedom, not more, and (not surprisingly) increased state power. We need look no further than the actions taken against religious institutions in connection with the Health and Human Services contraceptive mandate to see what happens when the state moves against institutions in the name of abstract individual rights.
And yet, unfortunately, these three critiques, true as they are, have largely failed to carry the day, and each has failed for the same reason. Conservatives have largely lost the ability to speak persuasively to the larger population. When conservatives invoke history, the larger culture insists it means “prejudice.” Economic arguments read to our governing elites (and not just to elites) as simple capitalist greed, even as some of those same elites gorge themselves on taxpayer-funded “bailouts” and other government largesse. In this connection, the libertarian turn among some Republicans is only a partially hopeful sign. A stable polity requires duties as well as rights, bonds of culture and community as well as liberty. The libertarian perspective, although valuable for its insights about the advantages of smaller government, will not likely prevail against those who see advantages in bigger government unless the wider culture is changed.
Conservatives need to rethink localism, because the way conservatives talk about it simply does not resonate. I am not sure why this should be the case. Localism is having a moment in the United States. Across the country, people increasingly want to live, work, and eat locally. As Rod Dreher shows in his book Crunchy Cons, not all of these people are recognizably conservative. But even those who do not have affinities to traditional conservative concerns often ascertain worthiness in issues such as localism and a rejection of big government and big business as cultural or political arbiters. Yet Dreher’s book ultimately had little effect on how conservatives have positioned themselves in the culture wars.
To say people should be rooted makes sense and is in deep accord with human nature, but doing so cuts against the grain of American life. Many—one might even say most—Americans have deep traditions of moving around, which form a part of their own family story and history. Every immigrant family starts with someone who leaves to come to America. Even Russell Kirk moved from Plymouth to Mecosta, and for a long time the frontier was a defining element of the American self-understanding. Part of tradition is the choice to become part of or to make a tradition. And part of choice is what a friend, long a figure in conservative publishing circles, once described to me as “vocation”: if you live in a small town with no hospital, but you have the skills and vocation to be a surgeon, you must, in all likelihood, leave that town and forge new bonds elsewhere. Multiply that set of circumstances by millions and that is the challenge conservatives must address in their defense of tradition. Kirk described what must happen next: “brighten the corner where you are.” Rather than heeding this advice, “movement” conservatives took the wrong message, calling for market forces to dominate all relations, from the family to the nation-state, and drawing all resources and effort toward Washington. This strategy has failed, as even the Heritage Foundation has acknowledged; according to recent research, only 20% of major legislation since 1945 has furthered conservative ends. So much for the “movement.”
Conservatives have the key anthropological insight that people are tradition-making animals. Wherever people gather, they try to collect the individual shards of their existence into a whole that extends through time. The presumption toward tradition is where conservatives should be focused. Change is the means to our preservation, Kirk liked to say, quoting Burke, but that change must be in service of our preservation. But what must be preserved is our inclination toward and defense of tradition. Only when conservatives have a place in the debate can we expect our historical, economic, or cultural arguments against the mass-state to begin to make sense.
Gerald J. Russello is editor of the University Bookman (www.kirkcenter.org). He is working on a book about contemporary conservatism.