by Stanley Schwartz 

When the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union fell, many conservatives in America and around the world were quick to sense and then declare an ideological victory. The modernistic, secular, totalitarian enemy of socialism had been defeated. The permanent things–as British author T.S. Eliot[1] and conservative scholar Russell Kirk[2] called them–such as religion, tradition, order, freedom, and virtue, had been vindicated against their opposites. Nevertheless, as time has passed since the Cold War, the conservative consensus which oversaw that American victory has faced increasing challenges in the political arena at home. Why did the seeming dominance of Ronald Reagan’s political coalition break down? How could the intellectual resurgence of conservatism in thinkers like Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver, and Frank Meyer so quickly become unconvincing and disregarded by many? Although several explanations for this decline are plausible, it is often tempting to lay blame on the movement itself and its various members.

In an age of increased self-focus, even conservatism has made the mistake of examining itself too much. The desire to express a unique individuality, so prevalent in American society today, is manifest in the mare’s nest of groups and labels on the spectrum of conservatism, including libertarian, fusionist, conservatarian, crunchy conservative, neocon, and traditional conservative. Tracing the history of some of the groups and attaching proverbial founding fathers to each has been the focus of some excellent historical work, but it may have perpetuated the message of self-obsession to the majority of conservative Americans who do not write and philosophize for a living. While very intellectually stimulating, the questions “Where do I fit?” and “What makes me unique?” are not as pragmatic or productive as the questions “What do we share?” and “How can we work together?”

For clarity on American conservatism’s present and prospects, it may be helpful to consider external factors instead of internal definitions. The 21st century has presented American conservatism with an entirely new set of opponents and allies, which has ultimately been less conducive to ideological or political flourishing. While Soviet communism was the ideal enemy upon which the ideas of conservatism could act, the current adversaries of radical Islam and Russian nationalism are far from perfect, and present American conservatism with real political and ideological conflicts.

The form of communitarian totalitarianism which was embodied in the Soviet Union throughout the majority of the twentieth century was the manifestation of a very specific ideology with diverse antagonisms and limited associations. Marxism, in its Leninist form with Stalin in command, was hostile to all religion, any freedom,[3] and even several alternative forms of socialism. Lenin alone made passionate attacks on the various ideologies of Edward Bernstein’s democratic socialism, Mikhail Bakunin’s anarchism, Pierre Proudhon’s utopian socialism, and others. These were not simply niche viewpoints in Soviet Russian intellectual circles, but fully formed socialist ideologies. Soviet communism was not particularly interested in intellectual alliances, and under Josef Stalin, disputes turned to violent persecution. As a result, the Soviet Union faced broad opposition from Afghani Muslims, European liberals, and Chinese communists, in addition to American conservatives.

From a limited, American viewpoint, it was legitimate to either believe or assume that the Cold War and its outcome indicated a surge in conservative sentiment among the allies who helped bring about the Soviet Union’s dissolution. However, while conservatives assumed that the blow dealt to communism in 1991 was a corresponding victory for their ideology of measured freedom and traditional virtue, other movements in American and global society maintained their own perspective. Western liberals set about promoting a secular, unlimited, and idealized freedom of personal autonomy and self-constructed identity. Meanwhile, Muslim warriors and imams who turned back the tide of communism in Afghanistan have fought and preached for the rightness of their own system of virtue. Given this new set of ideological conditions, American conservatism ought to have quickly and broadly adapted. New alliances should have been forged and new enemies should have been challenged in order to achieve and demonstrate the excellence of American conservatism.

The inability to turn foreign policy success in the 1980’s into an ongoing stream of policy achievements–one which demonstrates American conservatism in action–has cost the movement global momentum and integrity of purpose. On domestic policy, conservatives have sought to win the culture wars by opposing the legalization of drugs and same-sex marriage, while increasing restrictions on abortion. From a purely ideological point of view, conservatism has taken a firm, if often unsuccessful, stand against certain radical, secular freedoms at home. Yet in the realm of foreign policy, the United States’ main opponents since 1991 have been radical Islamists, a revitalized Russia, and an assertive China. None of these countries represent or manifest the kind of extreme freedom which has solidified conservative attentions at home.

Rather, this triad of foreign powers regularly opposes a more general freedom, both for the citizens under their authority and more broadly in their stance toward global concerns. Yet the Christian Science Monitor has recently reported that the percentage of Republicans who view Russian President Vladimir Putin somewhat or very favorably has risen from 10% to 37% since July 2014.[4] Correspondingly, the same article noted that the percentage of Republicans viewing Putin very unfavorably fell from 51 % to 10% during that same period. This change cannot be due to any change of policy on Putin’s part. He has consistently engaged in nationalistic maneuvering, promoting Russian and personal aggrandizement, which includes militarily interfering with neighbors, while emphasizing traditional values at home, such as opposition to the LGBT community. Instead, it is U.S. conservatives who have wavered, first viewing Putin as unfavorable during his seizure of the Crimea, before becoming more appreciative of his traditionalism as the new wave of domestic conflict over same-sex marriage broke in 2015 (following its legalization in the United States via Obergefell v. Hodges).

This double-mindedness about its goals has prevented conservatism from fostering and maintaining effective ideological coalitions. Is Putin an ally to be courted or an enemy to be opposed? Further, the timing of these conflicts has muddied the waters of conservatism’s ideological platform in America. Which is more dangerous: foreign nationalist aggression or domestic expansion of LGBT rights and privileges? An inability to formulate a consistent ideological hierarchy, and apply it as an integrated and holistic public policy has significantly harmed conservatism as an ideological movement since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

While it would be easy to argue that a great leader, like Ronald Reagan, could have successfully guided American conservatism in the post-USSR era, this is an unjustified assumption. Reagan was a strong and effective president precisely because he perfectly represented and enacted the true and good prescriptions of conservatism in the Soviet era. He resisted communism abroad and promoted virtue at home. He radiated strength and optimism, which was exactly what was needed in a situation where the global opposition to freedom and virtue was crystallized in a single opponent whom Reagan had the tools, men, and ideas to defeat. In the current atmosphere, the strategy for conservatism remains to be formulated. The enemy is no longer fully clear, and the allies and resources for the struggle appear limited.

Conservatism must renew its position in terms of freedom and virtue relative to the current context of foreign and domestic policy. Vladimir Putin’s suppression of the LGBT community for reasons of national culture should not be applauded any more than his local military interventions. Both tactics are cut from the same ideological cloth: a modern, Russia-centered, security-focused nationalism. American conservatism should make clear that it is fundamentally aligned with a set of Western, Judeo-Christian values, such as the dignified worth of the individual–from which the conservative definition of freedom is derived–the objective moral order, and the beauty of the resulting way of life and community. In light of modern conditions, these values suggest that threads of increased localism, spirituality, liberty, and equity should be touchstones of a conservative social vision. In order to articulate the intricacies of such positions and walk the fine line that they require, what are needed most now are scholars, not elected officials.

Despite these significant challenges, American conservatives should take heart. The victory over communism was not for nothing. The main antagonists of conservatism today–the radical secular view of freedom and the aggressive foreign perspectives on virtue–have each adopted one of 20th century conservatism’s pillars: freedom and virtue, respectively. As a result, when the conflicts with modern liberalism or non-Western religion occur, it is likely that neither will be as destructive or wicked as Soviet communism. It will be easier to convert advocates of the new opposing views because of the underlying values they share with American conservatism. The relationship of conservatism to the other systems will become evident over time. This may allow American conservatism to eventually achieve the dominant position in a three-way ideological struggle to demonstrate the flourishing society. In the end, no matter the outcome of 21st century events, conservatism will survive, either in its own victory or in the presence of its fundamental elements within the purview of the opposing viewpoints.

Stanley Schwartz is a native of Indianapolis, Indiana studying history and economics as a senior at Cedarville University. 

Notes:

[1] T.S. Eliot, Christianity and Culture: The Idea of a Christian Society and Notes towards the Definition of Culture (Wilmington, MA: Mariner Books, 1977).

[2]  Russell Kirk, Enemies of the Permanent Things: Observations of Abnormity in Literature and Politics (Tacoma, WA: Cluny Media, 2016).

[3] As Lenin argued in a straightforward fashion in State and Revolution: “While the state exists, there is no freedom” and “Again, during the transition from capitalism to communism, suppression is still necessary, but it is the suppression of the minority of exploiters by the majority of exploited. A special apparatus, special machinery for suppression, the ‘state’ is still necessary.” In the first phase of communist society, which is where Soviet communist theoreticians placed their society, freedom was not to be promoted. Quotations taken from Carl Cohen, Communism, Fascism, and Democracy: The Theoretical Foundations, 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1997), 179 & 182.

[4]  Howard LaFranchi, “Why Putin is suddenly gaining popularity among conservatives,” Christian Science Monitor, December 16, 2016.