Holland, MI

Let it be said that there is no longer any politically relevant conservative voice in America. The conservative movement has been thoroughly ghettoized. The only party that paid rhetorical lip service to conservatives put forward a presidential candidate that caused conservatives of various stripes to hold their nose when voting. The other party is openly hostile to conservatives. The American voters have now twice put in office a profoundly unserious but highly ambitious man. When approaching a fiscal and cultural cliff, Americans responded by hitting the accelerator.

There are at least three causes for conservatism’s decline. The first is the replacement of constitutionalism with German (read: Hegelian) state theory. The constitutional regime is a complex mechanistic order predicated upon the division of sovereignty, and suspicion concerning human nature. Actually, suspicion isn’t quite the right word. Most writers were rather convinced that human beings, especially those interested in power, couldn’t be trusted and would constantly work toward aggrandizement. Convinced of the imperfectability of human beings, but also of the character forming properties of associative life, the originating principles of American political life sought to preserve, for better or for worse, the kaleidoscopic variety of American life.

Conservatives prefer voluntary variation to enforced collectivization, even if such variation can be off-putting or rife with problems. Collectivization destroys the liberty, sense of cooperation, governmental responsiveness, and immediate dependency we associate with local governance. Conservatives accept the fact the Constitution creates awkward clumsiness in politics, seeking balance among competing groups, interests, and places as perhaps the best that can be hoped for.

By the end of the 19th century and a catastrophic war, American thinkers and statesmen turned to the organicism of German (and Rousseauian) social theory. Herbert Croly’s hero in The Promise of American Life was … Bismarck. America could stick with the past or join the emerging progressivism of modern state-based politics which gathered the Rube Goldberg-like contraptions of American federalism and melted them down into an undifferentiated unity. The New Nationalism that resulted insisted on the absorption of local life and the transformation of human nature through systems of coercive education and genetic selection. Local associative life threatened the organic unity which was the non plus ultra of political life and, really, life in general.

To accomplish this required the destruction of the complex machinery which inhibited the movement toward monumental oneness. Central to the destruction was the devaluing of representative and federalist government to be replaced by nationalism as embodied in a charismatic leader. Wilson and Teddy Roosevelt sought to replace the cumbersome and awkward system of checks and balances with an organic system unified into the charisma of one man and having replaced politics with administration. Efficiency, uniformity, and bigness rather than liberty, variation, and modesty became the greatest goods of political life. So presidential politics and management became ways of bypassing constitutional restraints, and the Court became a central player in reshaping the Constitution to meet the demands of the new nationalism. Constitutional amendments turned the Constitution against itself.

A second major reason for Conservatism’s decline involves regnant ideas of identity formation (with its concomitant moral expressivism) and social constructivism. These themes highlight the essential malleability of human beings and social institutions, so they can be restructured and reordered according to the perceived needs or desires of those doing the restructuring. We see ourselves as infinitely fluid – inhabiting a narrative that is of our own making, and that requires reciprocal respect or approval from others in order to validate itself. Should such respect be withheld the person withholding will be vilified for the violent denial of the other’s autonomous self-determination. The withholder is engaged in a metaphorical murder. Of course, none of this is articulated, but it is assumed. Indeed, the churches under the guise of compassion have welcomed the beast into their midst. Colleges have reconstructed themselves in service of these claims. To question them in virtually any forum is to welcome looks of incredulity.

This process of self-determination does not mesh with the conservative insistence on calling, on the prescriptive elements of the moral life, on an enduring moral order to which we can only respond obediently or rebelliously, and of patterns or paradigms of human excellence that determine for us the roles we must play. The conservative thus sees social institutions as integrally related, indeed ordained, to insure the right sort of human flourishing, not as captured in the self-deceptive reports of their concordance with desire, but in the thick social ties that necessarily connect us to one another. A conservative father knows, for example, that being a father is not indeterminate but requires the performance of a role the father does not create for himself, it rather has an eternal author, and the evaluation of which belongs exclusively to others.

Social institutions are therefore not simply constructions of human beings but operate at the interchange of the natural and the creative. The family is a natural institution for it involves the most basic of human impulses and something essential to the perpetuation of the species: the creation and nurturing of human beings out of love. The conservative worries that we live in a world that hates children: hates having them, hates raising them, and hates the crimp children put on a bourgeois life.¹ Indeed, since the evidence piles up that liberals are hostile to the very idea of children, the conservative finds some hope in the idea that the future belongs to those who procreate.

Finally, the conservative voice worries about the use of social science as a handmaiden of public policy and the acquisition of power. The New Nationalism saw the social sciences as modeled on the natural sciences, which would provide a certain and indubitable (incontrovertible and neutral) foundation for social order. This required the vacating of other forms of authority: religion through its privatization,  philosophy via a pragmatism that measured it by its utility, and tradition by the formation of a (progressive) mass culture that made unsubstantiated claims about the future. The transcendent was collapsed into the immanent and made authoritative through its truncated notion of reason. Government was now about administrating “findings” on the passive material of political life: the citizen as subject, made legitimate by the expanding of the franchise as a necessary component of the expansion of power into the life of the individual.²

Likewise, those who desired power quickly saw the advantages of social science in their quest to grab power. Today’s Washington Post gives an indication of how social science is used not to measure the electorate, but to manipulate it:

“The tools allowed campaign officials to determine — on a house by house basis, rather than on a Zip-code-by-Zip-code basis – how people were likely to vote and whether they were likely to vote at all.Voters were given “support” scores and “turnout” scores to tell the campaign’s field offices who to go after and how. Field workers were outfitted with mobile applications to give an instant report on every doorstep chat.”

The stories can be repeated endlessly, but the fact is that modern electoral politics is essentially about duping, manipulating, and buying off the electorate. One lesson of this election is that for all the talk about two views of governing, a divided America, and so forth, there really is one shared idea among most Americans and that is that they love big government. The conservative voice hasn’t been able to acknowledge or penetrate that, and won’t unless it gives a comprehensive accounting of human freedom that,  inter alia, will get people to stop participating in polls, the sole beneficiaries of which are politicians and the toadies who try to get them elected. That same voice must address the entitlement mentality, the abuse of rights-talk, and the central principles of identity expression.

All of this, as I say, means restating what human beings are, how we account for their lives, what they are responsible for, and the limits of a freedom so articulated. But Americans don’t like to hear about limits, and for that reason alone the conservative voice will remain one crying in the wilderness.

Until the city becomes the wilderness, as inevitably it must. We are on the way of Nineveh, and those who live on its margins will be those who survive the collapse and can reconstruct something humanly meaningful. I’ve committed myself to the idea that this culture and our politics can be saved, and that things aren’t so bad as all that. I’ve resisted the strategy of withdrawal as irresponsible and impractical.

I don’t think yesterday has changed that. I still have eager young students who seek to know the truth about human life. I would express hope that my Church could offer a helpful alternative voice in our national debates, but it is difficult to retain such hope when 53% of Catholics voted to reelect an administration that has been relentlessly hostile to Catholic beliefs and institutions. We still have venues such as the Porch and the American Conservative and First Things which continue to light candles in the midst of the darkness. I have not yet despaired. Americans like to think of themselves as optimists, but only a fool would continue down a path so featureless and unpromising.

As Plato taught us, there comes a point when a political regime is beyond saving, and then the only alternative is to retreat into communities of like-minded people and wait out the storm. Conservatives have not been able to calm the waters, but they may yet be called upon after the seas surge beyond the levees. So it remains for us to keep our ancient compasses intact.


¹Too harsh? Well, how else to explain the insistence on unlimited and absolute abortion rights? How to explain that secular people (take Europe) are well below ZPG? How to explain the advent of books such as Christine Overall’s Why Have Children? The Ethical Debate or David Benatar’s Never to Have Been Born, both of which treat coming into existence as regrettable? How to explain the Obama campaign’s madcap (and successful) pitch to young women, perpetually single and lionized in the pages of The Atlantic; these young women who are now more likely to be single than married; these young women trying to make sense of their loneliness; these young women who voted for Obama at a ratio of better than 2:1; these young women who actually seem to think that the Founding Fathers intentionally sought to create a governmental system that would insure that promiscuity be subsidized? Why treat non-procreative relationships as equal to procreative ones, or to remove procreation from the idea of marriage altogether? How to explain the near-universal warehousing of children in day care centers and schools, all on the public’s dime? How to explain the destruction of their souls through the endless exposure to mass culture via television? We live in a society that hates children.

² This is quite a ways away from Hamilton who denounced the couplet “For forms of government let fools contest/That which is best administered is best” as a “political heresy.”

Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture
Previous articleTrue Politics in the Wake of Obama
Next articleScience and Elections
Jeffrey Polet
Jeffrey Polet grew up in an immigrant household in the immigrant town of Holland MI. After twenty years of academic wandering he returned to Holland and now teaches political science at Hope College, where he also grudgingly serves as chair of the department, having unsuccessfully evaded all requests. In the interim, he continues to nurture quirky beliefs: Division III basketball is both athletically and morally superior to Division I; the Hope/Calvin rivalry is the greatest in sports; the lecture is still the best form of classroom instruction; never buy a car with less than 100,000 miles on it; putts will still lip out in heaven; bears are the incarnation of evil; Athens actually has something to do with Jerusalem; and Tombstone is a cinematic classic. His academic work has mirrored his peripatetic career. Originally trained at the Catholic University of America in German philosophy and hermeneutical theory, he has since gravitated to American Political Thought. He still occasionally writes about European thinkers such as Michel Foucault or the great Max Weber, but mostly is interested in the relationship between theological reflection and political formation in the American context. In the process of working on a book on John Marshall for The Johns Hopkins University Press, he became more sensitive to the ways in which centralized decision-making undid local communities and autonomy. He has also written on figures such as William James and the unjustly neglected Swedish novelist Paer Lagerkvist. A knee injury and arthritis eliminated daily basketball playing, and he now spends his excess energy annoying his saintly wife and their three children, two of whom are off to college. Expressions of sympathy for the one who remains can be posted in the comments section. He doesn’t care too much for movies, but thinks opera is indeed the Gesamtkuntswerk, that the music of Gustav Mahler is as close as human beings get to expressing the ineffable, that God listens to Mozart in his spare time, and that Bach is history’s greatest genius.


  1. Would things have changed if Romney had won? I don’t quite understand the laments here. Or rather I do; I just don’t understand their relation to this election. Can somebody explain it to me?

  2. Very interesting analysis. The main question I have pertains to the necessity of belief in a universal morality written by an “eternal author.” While an obvious extension of Catholic belief (or Christianity and monotheism more generally), I do not see how this belief is necessary for a conservative understanding of the world. Surely the contingent, localized ethics of Aristotle (via MacIntyre) do not require a deity or universal morality and yet remain conservative in as much as they are organic. If anything, the addition of a religious litmus test creates a conservatism that is ideological rather than an extension of the natural associations of a political man.

  3. Mr. Medaille,

    Half the success of any writing endeavor in journalism, blogging, etc. is timing. With various conservatives (generally ill-informed and perhaps hardly conservative in the truest senses) are up in a tizzy with fear and despair, it’s the right time to review first principles. For better or worse, the GOP has become the usual haunt for well-meaning conservatives, and it is they that are especially lamenting, even though Mr. Romney seemed almost indistinguishable from Mr. Obama. This is a good time to get this message out there. Kudos, Dr. Polet, on this excellent essay.

  4. I think this is a wonderful example of how conservatives and liberals need each other to strike a perfect balance in government (and life). I see in myself (and this is probably true for just about everyone) not a pure left or pure right, but a little bit of each. Unfortunately, these days both sides seem more intent on “winning the game” than working with each other to make this country the best it can be. We all lose out.

  5. I wasn’t surprised by the result–and I agree Romney wouldn’t have been much better–still, it is painful to watch your countrymen enthusiastically renounce the goodness of God’s creation and hand themselves over to publicly-funded debauchery.

  6. I have often wondered why rural Republicans never seem to end up shaping a national agenda. I wonder how much of it is the willingness to show up and vote en masse while holding one’s nose, something the Democrats have never been quite as good at doing (Dems are more likely to withhold their vote generally).

    I think the other thing is the rise of libertarianism as the replacement for conservatism within the Republican party. Liberals in general put their faith in social machines, and the major difference between the libertarians and the progressives here is the question of public sector solution vs private sector solution, in other words, the choice between big central government and big business.

  7. “Profoundly unserious”?

    I’d like to read an explanation for such a statement. There are a lot of criticisms that can be leveled at Obama, I would argue “unserious” is not one of them. When I run into a clanger like that I tend to stop and think you just plain don’t like the man and bury your subconscious bias in a sea of rhetorical jargon and intellectual justifications.

    I also take issue with your assertion that the city will “inevitably” become a wilderness. This is possible, but I found Jacques Ellul’s thesis in “The Meaning of the City” to be rather compelling: The result of man’s rebellion from God is his expulsion from the Garden and his building of cities (Cain), but instead of cursing the City, God chooses to redeem it, and ultimately in the Book of Revelation the new Jerusalem becomes the vision for God’s redemption and the descent of the Kingdom of Heaven to earth.

    Your citing of Ninevah was further confusing. Wasn’t Ninevah spared God’s judgement because it repented? Did I miss something?

    You, indeed, strike something of a petulant Jonah with this article, angry at the withering of your precious America, unable to see beyond the narrow (unserious?) confines of your tunnel vision.

    God is sovereign, and last night’s election gave me hope that the Pharisaic spirit that seems to have deceived vast portions of Christendom will not triumph.

  8. A caveat:

    There are many bright thinkers here. And, Mr Polet, I agree with much of your analysis and assessment of what is wrong with America. But I think the Right is even more lost and idolatrous than the Left.

    It is over. We are living another cycle of Genesis 14. The Lord has confused us all, and the scattering has begun. To save us from ourselves.

  9. “The other party is openly hostile to conservatives…53% of Catholics voted to reelect an administration that has been relentlessly hostile to Catholic beliefs and institutions.”

    I would suggest conservatives – and Catholics – of your stripe are your own worst enemy.

  10. ~~There are a lot of criticisms that can be leveled at Obama, I would argue “unserious” is not one of them. ~~

    He is unserious in the sense that he is an idealist ideologue who believes in a sort of Leftist cloud-cuckoo land. He may be deadly serious about his ideology, but the ideology itself does not bear up under serious scrutiny. I’m currently reading Dostoevsky’s ‘Demons’ (the perfect novel for this period of our history) and the novel is replete with such characters — deadly serious about what amounts to political buffoonery. Thing is, they themselves don’t realize that it’s buffoonery, and it is in that sense that Flannery O’Connor states that such sentimentality will lead to the gas chambers. Heads will roll, and perhaps not only metaphorically, when an ideologue takes seriously a profoundly unserious (i.e., unrealistic) ideology, because the hallmark of an ideologue is the attempt to force reality to fit the idea.

  11. I would say that Obama is serious, at least about what he believes, but not very ambitious. He’s also very good at campaigning while being much worse at actual politics and governance. He would have been better in a Karl Rovesque position.

    I can’t weep much for Romney, though I think he would have probably been a fine enough governor. Romney’s big problem was not his own moderation, but rather the basket of ridiculous ideological positions forced upon him by the various interest groups that have seized the conservative movement and the Republican party. Honestly, if Obama had been a half-decent president this election may well have been a true landslide.

  12. President Obama is unserious in so far as he doesn’t seem to understand the gravity of his position and what leadership requires of him. His accomplishments to date have been achieved by working hard to avoid having to engage seriously with those who hold differing views and he has chosen to avoid making the serious choices needed when he had the political capital to do so (disregarding Simpson-Bowles, using his former congressional majority to focus on a pet issue – healthcare)

    More fundamentally though, the President does not demonstrate that he understands (willfully or otherwise) the viewpoints of a large portion of the population that he executes policies on behalf of. Instead of acknowledging that deeply-held beliefs might have been arrived at through a serious introspection that requires serious engagement, we hear caricatures (clinging to guns and religion, the 1%) and the blame game of “obstructionism”, with a host of scare tactics and straw men arguments presented as serious policy discussion (rewarding shipping jobs overseas, seniors under attack, etc.).

    This type of rhetoric has served this very ambitious man well in circles where he has found ideological agreement and his career trajectory is a testament to this. However, when he arrived on the presidential stage he found his ideas challenged for the first time. His response has been to poison the well with less than generous rhetoric, circumvent the legislature (and existing law) through executive order and parliamentary tricks, and use political gimmickry to avoid the serious and necessary adult conversation that this country needs to have regarding its (and the President’s) future vision. Ambitious, yes. Serious, not yet.

  13. You did know that many/most children (regardless of your definition of the unborn) are actually born, right? That means caring for children after they enter the world. One could be forgiven for looking at the policies of the two parties and deciding that the Democratic platform is actually *more* supportive of children (yes, that means spending money on things like education, health care (Matt’s pet issue), and public safety/health).

    You also do realize that the Catholic church has positions on issues other than contraceptions and abortion, right? That means for many Catholics social justice that the Church also preaches pushes them to Democratic candidates.

    These were probably the two places that I had the most visceral reaction to your piece Dr. Polet. If Hope taught me one thing, it was that the world is more complex than some simplistic model. If it taught me two things, it was that my Conservative friends had more intellectual vigor than the stereotype. I would hate for you to learn the opposite by living in West Michigan’s bubble, not seeing the gray in the world, and engaging with enough bright liberals to be able to see the other side.

    • Since I have high regard for Tim Fry as a former student, as a person, and as a basketball fan, I decided to forgo my normal policy of not responding to posts to respond to Tim’s.

      Tim accuses me of living in a West Michigan bubble that has prevented me from spending time with intelligent liberals, resulting in my inability to see gray in the world. Tim has been away too long. I can, and frequently do, walk down the hallway and have conversations with intelligent liberals. Indeed, there are far more liberals on second floor Lubbers than there are conservatives. If he had seen me the day before the election he would have seen me having lunch with one of my liberal friends discussing the next day’s events.

      Nor is it the case that West Michigan forms a bubble – whatever that might be. Would that it were so. In 2008 Barack Obama carried the city of Holland. This year again he took the precincts in the heart of the city, wherein lies Hope College. Nor are Hope students monochromatically red. More of my students were Obama supporters than Romney. So Mr. Fry’s characterization of my purported isolation is both unfair and inaccurate. Of course, none of this has anything to do with seeing the gray in the world. A central tone of my essay was that the world was looking pretty gray to me. But I suspect that Mr. Fry means that I am insufficiently attuned to nuance and complexity. Well, that one hurts. Sometimes, however, what appears to some to be grayness is simple opacity of vision. Wisdom involves knowing the difference between when something is in itself gray and when one’s own vision is clouded. This can only be determined on a case-by-case basis and not resolved by cliches concerning the grayness of the world and denouncing those who seek to know the difference as “simplistic.”

      All this is really incidental, however, to the claims Mr. Fry makes as regards my one point (among many) concerning Catholic teaching and the election. Here he misunderstands the positions of the Catholic church. In deciding the relationship between the existence of children and how to care for them the priority of emphasis must always attend to the former, for it is the condition of the latter. Aborting children is an absolute wrong while not having them wear a bicycle helmet is a relative one. Debates about education, health care, etcetera are subordinate arguments and must be a rung down on the order of priorities. And then, of course, there is the question concerning who ought to be doing those things.

      What role politics must play in the formation of communities best suited to the development of children is an argument involving prudence, experience, and weighing of relative goods. Take, for example, Mr. Fry’s claims that the Democratic platform is “more” supportive of children because of its emphasis on increased educational spending. Well, that is a highly contestable claim, especially if one has read Tony Esolen’s posts on these pages. In any case, the value of public systems of education and how they function requires arguments about tradeoffs – such arguments being largely absent in the abortion debate. Then, too, if the Catholic church has long been convinced of a state-based monopoly on education it wouldn’t have committed so much of its resources to developing alternatives.

      None of these issues are solved by the really inexact use of the words “social justice” – and honestly it frustrates me that Catholics (or other Christians) will use the concept as a Catholic concept without having read what the Church actually teaches about it. There are two concepts of social justice that emerged in the 20th century: the Church’s, through the encyclicals from Rerum Novarum forward, and a secular version that emerged within the Progressivist and Social Gospel movements in America and was later absorbed by the Democratic Party. And here’s the thing: they are not commensurate with each other. Indeed, an argument could be made they are not even compatible with each other. So when one uses the secular version, as adapted by the Democratic Party, as if it were the Catholic version, as used by neither party, one is engaged in a fundamental act of intellectual dishonesty. Many Catholics have not been made to understand this. Many Protestants do not understand this because they aren’t familiar with the details of Catholic teaching. But it is a source of tremendous confusion among serious Christians today who confound “caring for children” with the coercive policies of the managerial state.

      I’m perfectly willing to engage discussions about the proper role of the state in the formation of a just society, but not in the absence of understanding what the state is, what the Church is, what social justice is, what social institutions should be responsible for what (in Mr. Fry’s own tradition this would relate to Abraham Kuyper’s idea of “sphere sovereignty”), and the proper prioritizing of human goods. (For the record, I am aware that roughly 4 out of 5 children in America are born.)

  14. “So when one uses the secular version, as adapted by the Democratic Party, as if it were the Catholic version, as used by neither party, one is engaged in a fundamental act of intellectual dishonesty.”

    This is spot-on. Sadly, a startling number of Catholics (and other well-meaning, yet misguided Christians) have committed this act of intellectual dishonesty so often, they’ve habituated themselves into believing it somehow both virtuous and true.

    Rather than practicing mercy and cultivating virtue, they prefer to feed Leviathan. And the ravenous beast will one day threaten to devour us all.

    Lord, have mercy.

  15. When America’s Anglo-Protestant elite, and Anglo-Protestant working and lumpen classes, observed large numbers of Roman Catholics among the immigrant stream populating the USA, many objected that Roman Catholics could not be admitted to citizenship in a constitutional republic, because they would vote as a bloc, at the direction of their priests, and eventually overwhelm the First Amendment by sheer numbers.

    I thank God that the perceived bigotry of being Roman Catholic was not sufficiently substantial to justify the bigotry of religious exclusion. Roman Catholics became good citizens, and voted in all kinds of ways, for all kinds of reasons. Similarly, members of the Church of God in Christ may tithe promptly and buy CD’s of their pastors’ sermons, but they routinely ignore the advice of their bishops on how to vote. Thus, as citizens of the republic, 53 percent of Roman Catholic voters may well have found a somewhat different basis for choosing how to vote than looking for the most perfect reflection of the doctrines of their church. That is as it should be.

    Not to hog too much space in a comment box, here is what I though Biden should have said about his Catholic faith and abortion:
    One does not have to legislate the entire doctrine of the church in order to adhere to it.

    There shouldn’t be a “Catholic way to vote,” nor a “Presbyterian way to vote” or a “Jewish way to vote,” and although majoritarian trends may be observed from time to time, and sometimes shifting over time, there really isn’t.

  16. It is necessary to inform you that Hamilton did not denounce the couplet cited in footnote #2. And, of course, he could not do that as he argued in the Federalist that administration in its broadest sense encompassed all the functions of government; and even when he went on to describe what he called the more limited understanding of “administration,” what he described encompassed most of the important stuff that government does. It is not that I disagree with your take on genuine conservatism and its lack today, and even wish with you that such a conservatism were available, but you cannot point to Hamilton as wishing for such a conservatism. For that, you have to go to the Anti-Federalists, not the Federalists. What you might say, of course, is that even the Federalists would be shocked by the embrace of the “leadership principle” embraced by the likes of Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson [and many, many others of course] as that principle draws its legitimacy not from a constitution but from some nebulous kind of “charisma” that seems to be traceable to “History” and one’s ability to see “where history is going.” The Federalists embraced presidential power but while realizing, in a way few do today, that such power is dangerous and will be abused, especially by ambitious human beings who lust for fame. Hence, even G. Morris embraced what we call “the impeachment process” after initially arguing against it. But to give the impression that Federalist like Hamilton were “conservatives” in their opposition to bureaucratic power is misleading.

Comments are closed.