Conservatism’s Path Not Taken
In the age of Trump, the right should revisit the neglected Humanist Conservative tradition.
Usually our longer reads delve into the liberal philosophical tradition, but today we are delighted to publish an essay about a neglected strand in conservative thought—one that has some overlap with liberalism, and which offers a positive alternative to a Republican Party dominated by extremists. We hope you enjoy it!
For the last several years, conservatism has been locked in a duel to the death between two competing ideologies.
On one side are the Fusionists—heirs of Ronald Reagan and William F. Buckley. Fusionism emerged in the mid-twentieth century as a response to the moderate conservatism of the previous generation on both sides of the Atlantic. The domestic policies of men such as Dwight D. Eisenhower and Winston Churchill alienated a great many right-leaning scholars and politicians who felt that genuine freedom required a robust, take-no-prisoners attack on the power of the state. A collection of these individuals coalesced around Buckley and his magazine National Review. They argued that conservatives needed to fuse the best of libertarian and traditionalist ideas to form a single cohesive political philosophy.
In practice this meant severely restricting federal government and promoting a robust, largely unregulated, free market. This plucky intellectual movement soon came to dominate Republican politics in America, thanks first to Barry Goldwater in the 1960s and later Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. These politicians pushed for low taxes, slashing government regulations, and the broad acceptance of Christian social norms on the local level as a way to preserve the American constitutional order. In England, it was Margaret Thatcher who, more than any single American, fully embodied the politics of Fusionism.
On the other side of the conservative civil war are the National Conservatives. They emerged from a political tradition far older than Fusionism. National Conservatism’s political goal is to sustain the moral tradition of the nation by using the full force of the state. Anywhere the nation state has been affirmed as the most important political unit, and traditional Christian morality has been widespread, National Conservatism has existed in some form or another.
In the 20th century it was advocated by the isolationist activist Charles Lindberg and his America First Committee, and by arch-traditionalists such as Patrick Buchanan. More recently, National Conservatism has been championed by former president Donald Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Though they differ in many respects, both seek to use the power of the state to challenge cultural progressivism—as evidenced by Trump’s severe immigration policies and DeSantis’ top down remaking of Florida’s university system.
There are several problems with the two main schools of conservatism.
On the one hand, National Conservatives have shown themselves to be at best hopelessly naïve about the foundations of human flourishing, and at worst incapable of understanding that some people may wish to live a life different from their own. When not pressuring mothers into staying home from work with their kids, they are defending foreign despots for preserving their national identity at the cost of basic civil liberties. To allow National Conservatives free rein in the United States would be to permit the very worst elements of the right to control the levers of our government. In the process it would undercut genuine virtue and allow bureaucratic tyranny to grow unabated.
The weaknesses of Fusionism are less drastic and more nuanced than National Conservatism. After all, there is no denying the economic successes of the Reagan-Thatcher years. But these successes came at a high cost. The same policies that led to tremendous economic growth—rapid economic deregulation and the privatization of government power—led over time to the hollowing out of the West’s economic heartlands. This economic ravaging left a disheartened, angry populace who blame their present situation on the out-of-touch establishment. For such individuals, National Conservatism has become an ideological lifeboat.
The Fusionists’ greatest sin, however, is that they are incapable of actually beating National Conservatism. Once the fresh new kids on the block, Fusionists have run out of ideas. The glittering movement of William F. Buckley has grown stagnant—ceaselessly proffering the same tired policy solutions they have pushed for decades.
That’s why, after nearly a decade of struggle, the National Conservatives are edging out their establishment opponents. The newly elected Speaker of the House of Representatives, Mike Johnson, is a hardline Christian Nationalist, while one of the largest think tanks in America, the Heritage Foundation, happily parrots nationalist talking points at every opportunity. But the biggest indication of National Conservatism’s impending victory is the political dominance of Donald Trump. Despite facing a multitude of criminal indictments, the former president is the clear frontrunner for his party’s nomination. You just have to remember the horrors of January 6th to see that the victory of Trumpian National Conservatism in the right’s civil war would spell disaster for America.
If National Conservatism is dangerous and Fusionism is incapable of defeating it, then a third school of conservatism is needed—one that can unify the nation, preserve America’s liberal heritage, and resolve our many contemporary crises. That school of thought is Humanist Conservatism.
The concept of Humanist Conservatism was first articulated by the American poet and historian Peter Viereck in 1940. It describes conservatives who are driven by a desire to preserve the dignity of everyday human existence—those mundane practices of life that sit outside the grandiosity of constitutional systems and national traditions. Though it has been known by different names over the years, it is the ideology’s broad commitment to the most truly human aspects of life that give Humanist Conservatism its name.
Schools of conservatism are best defined by what they primarily wish to conserve: Fusionists aim to preserve a constitutional order built upon freedom from government, while National Conservatives hope to steadfastly maintain unique cultural traditions. By contrast, Humanist Conservativism does not primarily mean preserving capitalism or tradition. For the humanist, conservatism means preserving the diverse daily practices of human existence. At the most basic level it means ensuring that fathers and sons can enjoy an afternoon fishing with one another, that mothers and daughters can bond over a good book together, that a local community can gather at a town festival or church, or simply relish the company of others despite their differences. All of this requires shielding people’s lives from the intrusion of partisan divisions stoked by radical activists, from the tyranny of bloated governments, and from unfettered private companies.
Humanist Conservatism draws on the insights of two other prominent ideological traditions to make its case. The first is British Toryism, the complex sensibilities of which were best captured by the writer Michael Oakeshott. A distinguished professor of political theory in the 20th century, Oakeshott highlighted the great danger that absolutist thinking poses to human flourishing. On one side stand the “Rationalists” (always with a capital R in Oakeshott’s writings) who seek to march at breakneck speed to some glorious future. On the other side are the traditionalists who seek to preserve or return to some blissful past state. In between these extreme poles, Oakeshott posited a Humanist Conservative disposition. He believed that to be conservative means simply to prefer “present laughter to utopian bliss.” In other words, Oakeshott saw as conservative anyone who appreciates the best aspects of human life in the present day and does not seek to tamper with them.
The ability to enjoy the present is threatened ceaselessly by those Rationalists and traditionalists who believe that “to govern is to turn private dreams into a public and compulsory manner of living.” These ideological purists fail to understand that human life is complicated and messy. They seek to impose order through a uniform acceptance of some general principle. The Rationalists and the traditionalist alike feel comfortable promoting their absolutist principles because they mistakenly think their conception of order is the only one compatible with human nature.
Oakeshott regarded such thinking as nonsense. He boldly declared: “There is no such thing as ‘human nature’; there are really only men, women, and children responding gaily or reluctantly, reflectively or not so reflectively, to the ordeal of human consciousness, who exist only in terms of their self-understanding.” One need not adopt Oakeshott’s radical notion that humans have no fundamental nature to accept his basic premise—that there is no given formula for a happy life.
This insight serves as the defining feature of Humanist Conservative politics. Humanist Conservatives seek to preserve the infinite variety of human existence as a way to secure human flourishing. To put it another way, Humanist Conservatives do not pretend to understand how each and every person should live. Rather than allow this intellectual humility to degenerate into nihilism, they see an opportunity to defend human life as worthwhile in itself, and to preserve our daily customs and joys from the interference of boorish intellectual systems.
The other ideological source of Humanist Conservatism is Christian Democracy. Despite the name, one need not be a Christian to be a Christian Democrat: the term simply refers to a political tradition whose foundations align with the teachings of scripture. At the heart of this tradition is the concept of human dignity—that every individual is endowed with inherent worth. The French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain is easily the most celebrated advocate of Christian Democracy. He wrote that: “In the flesh and bones of man there lives a soul which is a spirit and which has a greater value than the whole physical universe. However dependent it may be on the slightest accidents of matter, the human person exists by virtue of the existence of its soul, which dominates time and death.”
The political implications of this are clear. Maritain eloquently argues that since all humans have dignity, they all possess rights. Consequently, there are things that no other human is entitled to do to his fellow man, and society is obligated to protect these rights. To put all this more simply, preserving the quiet dignity of everyday life requires a firm, and often bold, commitment to natural rights.
Though Michael Oakeshott and Jacques Maritain never referred to themselves as Humanist Conservatives, their theoretical outlook embodied its core beliefs. Nor are the ideas of Humanist Conservatism exclusive to the heads of these two brilliant men. Literary giants such as Robert Penn Warren and W.H. Auden have, directly or indirectly, articulated many of the same principles. Likewise, philosophers from Marcus Tullius Cicero to Edmund Burke have shared Oakeshott and Maritain’s broad outlook. All of this gives Humanist Conservatism a distinct history that sets it apart from Fusionism and National Conservatism.
Like most ideological schools, however, the core of Humanist Conservatism is easiest to discern in practice rather than in theory. One of the greatest statesmen to embody the Humanist Conservative worldview was Wendell Willkie, the trailblazing moderate Republican of the early 1940s.
In that period, the Republican Party was dominated by the libertarianism of Robert Taft. A Senator from Ohio, Taft worked diligently to organize his party against Franklin Roosevelt’s expansive New Deal programs. At the same time, there was a strong isolationist strand in Republican politics. During World War Two, Charles Lindberg’s America First Committee helped rally much of the GOP behind the idea that siding with the Allied Powers would be a grievous error—that America should instead simply stay out of the conflict.
Willkie pushed back against both of these impulses. Like Taft, he was troubled by what he saw as the New Deal’s excesses—its centralization of economic authority in the hands of the federal government and its trampling of constitutional traditions. Roosevelt’s attempt to pack the Supreme Court in 1937, followed by his running for an unprecedented third term, incensed Willkie. Standing up to both actions became a central theme of his successful campaign for his Party’s nomination in 1940, launching Willkie to stardom among Republican voters.
However, unlike Taft he believed that the Industrial Revolution had made necessary the creation of a strong social safety net, and that government and the market represented equal threats to human flourishing. As a result, each had to be firmly checked. While Willkie sought to undo the New Deal’s most intrusive economic regulations, he had little problem with welfare programs such as Social Security.
But soon after receiving the nomination for president, Willkie came up against his party’s isolationist foreign policy. To the ire of many who had originally supported him, Willkie advocated an internationalist stance that pushed against nationalism and promoted human rights across the globe. Like Roosevelt, Willkie believed that World War Two proved isolationism to be fundamentally outdated. After losing the 1940 presidential election, he worked with Roosevelt to build relationships across the Atlantic and helped convince Congress to provide much-needed help to the British in their fight against the Nazis.
These bold moves cost Willkie a second nomination for president in 1944, but cemented his legacy as a principled defender of liberal democracy. In the process, he inspired a new generation of Humanist Conservatives across both sides of the political aisle—figures like figures like Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., Gerald Ford, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
This brief sketch highlights the five main strands of Humanist Conservatism.
First, it is committed to compassionate capitalism. Humanist Conservatives believe that free market competition is vital to a healthy economy, but that the sometimes-brutal tendencies of capitalism must be offset with generous welfare and jobs programs. Instead of slashing welfare (as Fusionists want) or drastically expanding the regulatory state (as National Conservatives want), Humanist Conservatives long for a more efficient entitlement system that gives money to those who deserve it without unnecessary bureaucratic bloat. Through a generous, semi-public healthcare system, solvent retirement plans, jobs programs for the unemployed, and other reforms, the United States can work to revitalize all geographic areas and not just its urban centers.
Second, Humanist Conservatism seeks to preserve communities. It directs much of its energy towards ending the gradual collapse of American civil society. It adopts this stance partly out of the conviction that human life is best lived in a community with others, but also out of a belief that genuine self-government can only exist in those institutions we inhabit in our daily lives. In practice, this means using government to support and shield what Edmund Burke called the “little platoons”—those intermediary institutions that stand between the individual and the state such as school, church, trade union, town hall, and so on.
Third, Humanist Conservatism stands for pragmatic internationalism. It understands that no nation can simply ignore the universal struggle for freedom across the globe. But Humanist Conservatives also appreciate that promoting international harmony and human rights is no easy task—that to advance such goals requires a painful awareness of our own limitations. In our current moment this would mean providing critical support to allies like Ukraine and Israel. However, it would also mean avoiding the hawkish war mongering that is common on the right. There is no reason to level all of Palestine, provoke a coup in Iran, or goad Vladimir Putin into attacking NATO. Humanist Conservatives understand better than most that as bad as things are now, they can always get worse. The goal of foreign policy is not just to improve the international situation but to prevent it from deteriorating.
Fourth, Humanist Conservatism promotes a pluralist society. It seeks to build a state whose main purpose is to protect the rights of individuals and ensure a multitude of cultural communities can live in harmony. Rather than arrange a battle royale between secular progressivism and our distinct cultural traditions, as National Conservatives do, pluralism permits both to exist harmoniously.
Finally, Humanist Conservatism embraces moderate politics. Polling data shows that most voters are relatively moderate on issues like abortion, transgender rights, and guns. Humanist Conservativism reflects the views of this largely neglected demographic.
These five principles offer a viable alternative to Fusionism and National Conservatism alike. Humanist Conservatism is moderate, broadly appealing, and committed to human flourishing. This is not meant to imply that Humanist Conservatism simply meets the extremes in the middle on contentious issues. To be committed to moderate politics means excluding the political extremes, not compromising between all sides.
In the last thirty or so years, this sort of politics has been maligned in conservative circles. As the extremes have grown more prominent, the partisans of the middle have been unceremoniously shoved aside. But a great many Americans are looking for something to believe in, something that helps them stand against the ever-mounting social isolation of modern society. Humanist Conservatism could be that something. Only by fighting for it can the conservative movement be saved from the destructive battle between National Conservatives and Fusionists that today threatens America.
Jeffery Tyler Syck is an Assistant Professor of Political Science and History at the University of Pikeville in his native Kentucky.
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