When appraising American social cleavages, we should avoid lapsing into two unfortunate trends in conservative thinking: despair and polarization.
In “Conservatism and Class,” Bruce Frohnen argues that conservatives should embrace class analysis albeit in a more heterodox and less exclusively economic way than we typically think of it. His argument makes compelling points, especially in the way it extends the Madisonian principle of how competing interests secure liberty into the realm of sociology. At the same time, however, it falls into, a victimology that is often more asserted than argued.
Let’s start with where I think Frohnen is right. American associational life has been under stress for decades, if not since the nation’s inception. Westward expansion disrupted colonial and post-Revolutionary life. Industrialization pulled Americans away from close-knit rural communities and extended family networks.Six million Blacks migrated from the South, seeking social and economic freedom outside the Jim Crow system.In the post-World War II era, the dense, highly associational urban communities of our cities dispersed into suburbs and exurbs. In the 1960s and 1970s, women joined the workforce, which greatly enhanced our nation’s economic output but weakened a key family and community cohesion. Abortion rights, no-fault divorce, cohabitation, and gay rights appear to fit well with this general loosening (or, if you prefer, erosion) of the binding power of community ties. Not surprisingly, there’s a price tag for all this mobility, fragmentation, and personal freedom. On a range of measures, Americans are now lonelier and suffer more from afflictions like depression, suicide, and substance abuse.
Another area of strength in Frohnen’s essay is his (to me) novel and analytically helpful understanding of the idea of class as extending beyond economics and into values, culture, and politics. The notion that the values and interests we share with others “roll up” into the Madisonian system and contend with each other in the political economy seems exactly right to me and an aspect of “interests set against interests” that I had never before considered. This insight adds considerably to our understanding of a constitutional order that is not just clever ideas committed to paper but an outgrowth of, and dependent upon, fixed features of human nature.
In a way, I wish only that Frohnen trusted his own insights more. Instead of relying on the Madisonian system and the underlying strength of the American polity, the essay risks lapsing into two of the more unfortunate trends in conservative thinking over the past 30 years: despair and polarization.
Beginning in the late 1980s, I began to notice how conservatives, as they lost cultural market share, increasingly despaired of the country (“Come home, America,” as a National Conservative George McGovern might say.) If you’d asked me as a young, fusionist conservative back in the 1990s, I would have shared in some of this despair about American cultural decline. America was changing, the mores that had guided my youth were no longer as widely shared as they once were. As a person of religious faith and a believer in the idea of objective truth, it was disturbing. Then 9/11 hit and, ironically, overturned my despair. Liberal democracy’s value and the bankruptcy, aggression, and cruelty of its opponents, cured me of me of my pessimism. Even on an issue like abortion about which I did and do hold strong views, I concluded that I’d rather live in a country where the procedure was legal but debatable than one in which it was illegal but not open to debate.Jaw-jaw, as Churchill might say, is better than civil war-civil war.
For all its shortcomings, the Madisonian system undergirding liberal democracy, with its perpetual clash of factions, remains humanity’s last best hope, the worst system except for all the others. Whatever challenges America faced, I concluded, it was eminently worth defending because its institutions were better at preserving liberty and securing equality and opportunity than any of the others on offer. My convictions about this have only grown stronger over time. The astonishing cruelty of the Hamas assault on Israel is yet another reminder, stacked on top of Russia’s barbarism in Ukraine, that the world is filled with actual, real-time evil and the liberal democratic order, in the way it brings free peoples into alliance with one another, is the only bulwark against civilizational darkness.
Where does conservative despair originate? Part of the answer is nostalgia. Every generation tends to idealize the past, focusing on its assets and never its liabilities. This idealization is especially prevalent among those who were part of classes that enjoyed society’s fruits while avoiding its evils. Frohnen refers to the Civil Rights movement as a watershed moment at which Progressive elites began to remake America. I feel relatively certain that if passing civil rights legislation could be done only in conjunction with a diminished associational life, it would still have been worth doing, in large part because associations are not always legitimate in their goals. Some we are better off without. In objective terms, would women, Blacks, or gay Americans prefer to live in the 1950s or today?
For me, the best time to be alive, materially or socially, is right now. By contrast, many American conservatives have looked at the nation’s remarkable progress and, focusing on the losses, have scowled at the future. The cultural pessimism that consumed the American left in the 1960s and 1970s has migrated to the right generating a vocal “blame America first” faction that has persuaded itself Viktor Orbán’s Hungary is a model of social and political organization superior to our own tradition. I laugh through my tears at this.
Conservative disdain for liberal democracy also shares in common with 1960s liberalism an unfortunate strain of conspiratorial thinking that searches for an “other” to hold responsible for the supposed betrayal of the “real,” idealized America. Some of Frohnen’s essay leans in this direction. His discussion of the COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns is a good example: Frohnen asserts that the COVID-19 “lockdowns” were a gross infringement on liberty and commerce by government, a view that is, at a minimum, debatable.
Here’s my recollection of events. When the public learned a potentially lethal airborne virus was circulating, the streets emptied themselves, as people retreated to the safety of their homes. Largely, government lagged behind society—an interesting example of the associational effect in a negative expression—in closing the economy. Eventually, local and state governments moved to ratify and enforce these decisions. No doubt, closures went on too long in some places—and not nearly long enough in others. My own view was that the public’s decision to isolate, and the government policies that followed, were prudent and essential up until safe and effective vaccines were widely available. These policies were also well within historical norms for public health practices in the U.S. which, in the supposedly more associational past, were often far harsher. Typhoid Mary, who was kept under house arrest much of her life, could tell you all about it.
Another instance of the search for the “other” in Frohnen’s essay is his analysis of how economic change has affected America. Frohnen, like many on the NatCon right (I have no idea if he thinks of himself as a NatCon), attributes the loss of family-supporting manufacturing jobs to globalization and, by extension, globalist elites bent on surrendering national sovereignty and gaining profits at any price regardless of its costs to national independence and well-being.
This idealization of one-earner families radically discounts the value of the higher living standards Americans have enjoyed over the past 75 years to which women have contributed so much. It is also empirically incorrect in two ways. First, the rise of an integrated global economy has delivered huge benefits to American workers and consumers. We are an immensely wealthier country than we were before 2000, and because of trade we have both vastly expanded consumer choice and reduced the cost of many goods. Most Americans in most places are better off because of liberalized trade. Second, the best evidence suggests that the job losses we experienced were due not to trade, but to automation. We still “make things” in America, it just takes a lot fewer people. The real policy failure was the grossly inadequate provision we made for those hurt by the robotics revolution, workers who would have benefited greatly from more robust retraining, relocation, and wage adjustment programs (Note: The advent of generative artificial intelligence means we are facing another big transition. Let’s not let automation take us by surprise again). Yet a bipartisan failure of political imagination and foresight is much different from a progressive policy bender.
What these two examples point out is that big changes in social or economic organization have big effects, which entail costs as well as benefits. The wrenching transitions that have marked virtually every chapter of American social and economic development (farm to factory, urban to suburban, race and gender equality and others) have not been conspiracies but the product of opportunity, technology, and, crucially, the freedom to choose. Much of the conservative angst over how America has changed economically and culturally is, in the final analysis, an objection to decisions that have been ratified, implicitly or explicitly, by majorities of the populace. Recent election returns in which abortion has featured prominently make this point especially clear. As Lincoln noted, “Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed.” The current challenge for conservatives is less a shadowy conspiracy of progressives than a struggle against cultural and political trends that, more often than not, have the support of a majority of voters. Conservatives face a serious adaptation challenge; perhaps our role is to focus on recognizing and appreciating America as it is. Rather than stand athwart history shouting “stop,” we should argue in measured, thoughtful tones for why we should slow down and be careful. While we advocate for a better America, try to remember there are billions of people who would give almost anything to have what we, at times, seem prone to reject.
In America, no faction’s hold on power is unchallengeable. If progressive elites have too much power or are using it imprudently or wrongly, then they should be audited through elections and our political institutions and made to answer. Conversely, as the excesses of populism make their consequences felt, which they most surely have, these empirical and functional weaknesses must also be confronted, probed, and corrected. In other words, America’s contending interests need each other as part of system that “learns” and adapts as society changes. This is not a smooth or easy process but the dissatisfaction, friction, and striving that accompany it are the surest guarantees of our liberty and our progress.