Introduction: What Is Your Abbey?
Chinese leaders might hope that repetition will breed acceptance, but the historical reality is that the “One China” concept is a lie. While American policymakers in pursuit of compromise and détente with the PRC have wavered over the decades in their commitment to Taiwan, the reality is that mainland China’s historical and legal claims to Taiwan do not stand up to scrutiny.
“Does conservative political thought have a place in America today?” If you are an American college student, I’d have to imagine this is a question you are confronted with somewhat frequently. But that is actually the first line in Samuel Huntington’s “Conservatism as an Ideology,” an essay in the American Political Science Review, published in 1957.1
As it turns out, trying to understand conservatism and its place in American politics and society is not new. How do we balance freedom and obligation, individualism and communitarianism, localism and cosmopolitanism, consumption and preservation, and change and stasis? These questions are central to organizing any society. They were wrestled with long before our time and will be wrestled with long after we’re gone.
So why should you care? All of us are trying to find a way to flourish in the world. We are looking for environments in which we can thrive, causes that are worthy of our support, and ways to understand the world. Conservatism posits that committing yourself to institutions, which are bigger than you, is the best path to human flourishing.
Allow me to share a brief story. A few years ago, my wife convinced me to watch the television show Downton Abbey. For those unfamiliar, it tells the story of the individuals who live and work in an English country estate in the years just before and after World War I. I was pretty sure I was going to hate it. At most, I thought, the American small-r republican in me, who detests inherited status, might become invested in the lives of the downstairs staff who cooked the food, kept the grounds, and served the blue bloods of the manor. The Lord and Lady Grantham and their effete, feckless, and useless children could pound sand.
But, being a dutiful husband, I started watching the show. Much to my surprise, I came to like and respect Lord Grantham, the patriarch of Downton Abbey. It was one line of his during the first season that did it for me. In describing his position at Downton, he says:
My fortune is the work of others who laboured to build a great dynasty. Do I have the right to destroy their work or impoverish that dynasty? I am a custodian, my dear, not an owner. I must strive to be worthy of the task I’ve been set.2
Rather than seeing his position as an entitlement that gave him license to do what he wanted with his home, land, and fortune, he saw it as an obligation. At any point, he could have cashed out, sold the manor, and moved to London, Paris, or New York. Instead, he saw the sacrifices that had been made to put him where he was. He also saw that line of obligation extending beyond him. His job was to build, in his own small way, on what those who came before him started and safeguard Downton Abbey for generations to come.
What is your Downton Abbey? What have you been given by those who have come before you that you must safeguard for the next generations? Or, to echo Lord Grantham, of what are you a custodian?
Custodians look at the world through a lens of gratitude and a sense of stewardship. They are thankful for the prosperity that entrepreneurship and ingenuity have brought—for example, the stability of an impartial system of justice or the beauty of Las Meninas. They don’t ask, “How can I use this for my personal gain?” They ask, “How can I preserve this so others can enjoy it too? How can I help preserve our great cultural legacies? How can I help preserve our system of government? How can I help preserve our planet?”
Too much of our culture pushes us to interact with the world not as custodians but as consumers. A consumer looks at the world and all its treasures as a playground for personal enjoyment. “How can I use this stuff to make me happy?” If, once they’ve had their fill, resources are exhausted, broken, or useless, who cares? They’ve had their go, milked it for all it was worth, and are on to the next thing.
A custodian does not think the world is perfect. Far from it. Part of a custodian’s job is to fix the bits that aren’t working right now and scrub the dirt off places where it has accumulated. The job is not mindless cheerleading for the status quo. But the custodian has a bigger purpose when making alterations. These alterations are not short-term kludges we hope will hold together until they become the next guy’s problem. True custodians try to fix things substantially and completely. They want their work to last.
The late Sir Roger Scruton once said, “Conservatism starts from a sentiment that all mature people can readily share: the sentiment that good things are easily destroyed, but not easily created.”3 You are inheriting a world of wonder from the generations that came before you, and it’s your job to figure out what to do with it.
Luckily for you, we’ve assembled some brilliant guides to help you think this through. We’ve divided them, in the form of chapters, into three sections. The first section considers some of the virtues and values central to conservative thought; in its first chapter, Yuval Levin reflects on two words—freedom and tradition—that you have heard a thousand times, but he asks you to look at them in a new light. Freedom, many of us have been taught, is about liberating people from the coercion of others. But, he argues, our own desires and vices can be tyrannical too.
Conservatives realize this and recognize that in promoting freedom, we mean freeing people from coercion but also working to cultivate habits and virtues that prevent people from falling victim to their own baser nature. How do we accomplish this? We can do so by tapping into the wellspring of lessons learned by our predecessors—that is, tradition. Levin encourages us to see tradition not as some inviolable list of dos and don’ts but as the accumulated wisdom of those who have come before us, which we can—through what he calls “careful adaptation”—use to make better choices and live happier lives.
Conservatism is often associated with patriotism, the lens through which Diana Schaub’s chapter looks at the speeches and statements of one of our nation’s greatest citizens, Frederick Douglass. For reasons entirely obvious, in the years immediately following his emancipation from bondage, Douglass did not see much to celebrate in the United States’ traditions, customs, or laws. But over time, he cultivated in himself a fervent patriotism—one that we could learn a lot from today. Schaub uses modifiers such as “reflective” and “irritable” to describe Douglass’s disgust and frustration with the actions of a nation that did not live up to the ideals in its founding documents. For all of us who might be experiencing something similar today, Douglass’s answers to questions of patriotism, loyalty, and citizenship can be helpful as we think about how to attach ourselves to our nation, even when it disappoints us.
Greg Weiner’s contribution meditates on humility, a habit of mind central to conservatism. Why are conservatives skeptical of change? Because they are humble about their ability to improve the world. Things are the way they are often for reasons difficult to ascertain. Conservatives believe that the world today rests on the foundation of what Edmund Burke called “the collected reason of ages.”4
For thousands of years, our ancestors have been building and destroying, loving and hating, killing and procreating, and, we believe, learning along the way. What they have learned has become embedded in the institutions of our society. Although our ancestors were fallible people (like us) and frequently embedded things that should be expunged, a humble person looks long and hard at the world before gathering the confidence to change it. When humble people make changes, there is a much higher likelihood they will actually succeed.
The first section concludes with my own reflections on human dignity and its centrality to both life and policymaking. If we want a world worth living in, we have to see each other as assets, not liabilities, and recognize the almost unimaginable potential of our fellow man. We have obligations to each other that come with the rights and freedoms we are so blessed to enjoy. Although public policy can help codify that dignity by helping people earn a stake in society, at the end of the day, this is something we are tasked with recognizing in the other members of our community.
The scholars in the second section examine core institutions that conservatives seek to uphold. Mary Eberstadt, building on a quotation from Soviet dissident Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, makes a heartfelt and passionate appeal to you in her chapter. She argues that the world’s 20th-century retreat from religion has led to an almost unfathomable amount of misery and suffering and that the humility at the center of religious belief will help make you a happier person. She also takes aim at the supposed liberation of atheism, showing that it has been anything but, and she concludes with a compelling case for religion’s place in the store of human knowledge that we must bestow to our children.
Moving from your relationship with God, Ian Rowe’s chapter has some intrapersonal relationship advice for you. He draws from a wealth of social science research and his experience as an educator to warn us about the rise of “fragile” families and the devastating impact they can have on children’s development. In a time when a wealth of potential romantic mates are available with the swipe of an index finger, how do we think about committing to families, which are the foundational institution of human existence? Rowe has both practical advice (e.g., instilling the “success sequence” in schools) and philosophical reflection (e.g., framing the chapter around a quotation about love and life from the character Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof).
Matthew Continetti’s chapter will introduce you (or, if you’re lucky, reintroduce you) to the great sociologist Robert Nisbet. Nisbet understood, perhaps better than anyone in America since Alexis de Tocqueville caught a slow boat back to France, the role civil society’s institutions play in creating space for humans to flourish. It is in families, churches, volunteer organizations, neighborhoods, sports teams, labor unions, and all the private spaces and groups that populate our communities where the real substance of life takes place. Nisbet reminds us that conservatives are tasked with both supporting and protecting these spaces from the intrusions of the government, the market, and the rapidly changing mores of contemporary life.
In the third section, our scholars make the case for the military, economic, and legal concepts that have been at the center of American conservatism for generations. Fear not, those of you interested in foreign policy: Gary J. Schmitt and Giselle Donnelly argue forcefully that America should remain a global leader and play an active role in establishing and maintaining stability around the world. After two long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, even some conservatives are skeptical of America’s ability to project its power and priorities. But Schmitt and Donnelly firmly believe there is no other option, as American retreat creates a vacuum for some of the worst actors on the planet to advance their interests. American cooperation with its allies isn’t just about wars; it is about trade, crime fighting, nuclear nonproliferation, intelligence sharing, and a host of other behind-the-scenes activities that too many Americans today take for granted. The world before the American-led order of the past 70 years is not something we should want to go back to, and it is our task today to think about how to lead prudently in the years and decades to come.
In a rollicking chapter that includes his wife’s love of Marmite, Bruce Springsteen growing bananas, dorm room electric guitar jam sessions, and a not-so-subtle plug for his most recent book, Michael R. Strain illustrates the incredible allocative capacity of the free market. But for all the complexity inherent in a system that moves billions of items every day, the quotation starting the piece keeps it simple, reminding us that in a free market, exchange only happens when both parties benefit. Now, the private benefit of two parties isn’t the only thing we care about, and Strain provides several examples in which people outside a transaction might step in to prevent harm to those not party to the decision. At its core, Strain argues, the market is about cooperation, differentiation, and ultimately human flourishing. It is worth conserving.
If the majority of people in the country want something to happen, why shouldn’t we be scandalized when our government isn’t able to make it so? This is the question at the heart of John Yoo’s contribution on the rule of law. Through the structure of our national government, its relationship to our state governments, and the provisions of our Constitution and Bill of Rights, our founders sought to constrain the swirling passions of human beings and the self-interest of factions present in the community. Slowing change and placing certain topics behind thick procedural firewalls can be frustrating for those wanting to make change right now. But taking the long view, it can also protect us from the worst angels of our nature, who would cast aside principle in a heartbeat to get what they want today.
You’ll notice that epigraphs introduce the topics explored in each chapter. These brief quotations and passages are themselves wonderful guides, and they show the enduring nature of the questions under discussion and the long tradition of conservative thought.
These chapters don’t compose a checklist of everything that all conservatives must believe. Nor are they intended to be prescriptions that will solve every societal challenge. Rather, I hope this volume is a helpful starting point for you to understand mainstream conservative thought or an opportunity for you to think more clearly about long-held assumptions. Some of these chapters may surprise you. If you’ve been exposed to conservatism through social media, cable news clips, and cautionary admonitions, you might not realize this is what or how conservatives think. But it is! Finally, more than trying to sell you on conservatism, I hope this volume will help settle you in a time of dislocation. In a world that feels like it is spinning out of control, locating touch points and footholds is incredibly important. They’re out there if you can take a moment and look. I hope you do.
- Samuel P. Huntington, “Conservatism as an Ideology,” American Political Science Review 51, no. 2 (June 1957): 454–73, https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/american-political-science-review/article/abs/conservatism-as-an-ideology/DFA31652E03A832C9E038D41F758600D.
- Downton Abbey, season 1, episode 4, directed by Brian Kelly, written by Julian Fellowes, aired October 17, 2010.
- Roger Scruton, How to Be a Conservative (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014), viii.
- Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, in The Works of the Right Honorable Edmund Burke (London: John C. Nimmo, 1887), 3:357.