the federalist

We Need To Stop Calling Ourselves Conservatives

Given the state of America in 2022, conservatives should stop calling themselves conservatives.

Why? Because the conservative project has largely failed, and it is time for a new approach. Conservatives have long defined their politics in terms of what they wish to conserve or preserve — individual rights, family values, religious freedom, and so on. Conservatives, we are told, want to preserve the rich traditions and civilizational achievements of the past, pass them on to the next generation, and defend them from the left. In America, conservatives and classical liberals alike rightly believe an ascendent left wants to dismantle our constitutional system and transform America into a woke dystopia. The task of conservatives, going back many decades now, has been to stop them.

In an earlier era, this made sense. There was much to conserve. But any honest appraisal of our situation today renders such a definition absurd. After all, what have conservatives succeeded in conserving? In just my lifetime, they have lost much: marriage as it has been understood for thousands of years, the First Amendment, any semblance of control over our borders, a fundamental distinction between men and women, and, especially of late, the basic rule of law.

Calling oneself a conservative in today’s political climate would be like saying one is a conservative because one wants to preserve the medieval European traditions of arranged marriage and trial by combat. Whatever the merits of those practices, you cannot preserve or defend something that is dead. Perhaps you can retain a memory of it or knowledge of it. But that is not what conservatism was purportedly about. It was about maintaining traditions and preserving Western civilization as a living and vibrant thing.

Well, too late. Western civilization is dying. The traditions and practices that conservatives champion are, at best, being preserved only in an ever-shrinking private sphere. At worst, they are being trampled to dust. They certainly do not form the basis of our common culture or civic life, as they did for most of our nation’s history.

To talk now of “family values” is to assume that there are enough Americans able and willing to marry and raise children together for something like “family values” to matter in the public discourse, much less in the halls of power. To talk of defending “religious freedom” is to misapprehend that the real risk today is widespread irreligion, which will leave so few religious Americans in the coming generations that the government and large corporations will inevitably — and easily — persecute them.

Conservatives are still invoking these things as if they are magic incantations that can roll back time, just as they did during the crucial decades of the past half-century when a cultural and technological revolution was re-making America before their eyes, and they did nothing to stop it.

In a recent essay for Compact, Jon Askonas argues convincingly that the conservative project failed because “it didn’t take into account the revolutionary principle of technology, and its intrinsic connection to


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