Transatlantic Conservatism & the Pursuit of Truth
The West exhibits serious signs of decline. The premise of a basically unchanging human nature embedded in tradition, religion, community, and family—a fundamental component of the Western worldview that has grounded individual freedom and self-government for the past several centuries—no longer commands the general allegiance of Europeans nor of Americans.
Indeed, on the progressive side of the spectrum, the partisans of postmodern political correctness are committed to a diametrically opposed view: a radically secularist vision of the virtually unlimited malleability of human nature according to each person’s choice, essentially independent of traditional institutions and social relations. Every day we are witnessing the results: once freedom of choice—the right to choose—has been exalted above all else, there remain no meaningful limits on the social pressure and governmental power that are now wielded to impose ‘choice’ on everyone, whether they want it or not.
But precisely because the situation is so dire, we conservatives are living in a time of great opportunity. Throughout Europe and North America, we see an instinctive resurgence of conservatism in response to the assault on freedom of identity politics, political correctness, the growth of the bureaucratic-administrative state, and the soft-utopian globalism of the elites. Despite the risk of being branded ‘xenophobic nationalists’, everyday Europeans and Americans are reasserting a healthy, confident patriotism. To the chagrin of progressives, these people are demanding democratic accountability, responsive government limited in its powers, and social unity based on rootedness in national cultures, histories, and values.
How do we best seize this opportunity? The answer lies in the fact that, though this conservative ‘re-awakening’ seems at times chaotic, unthinking, and combative, the instincts underlying it are healthy and reliable: People understand innately that the erosion of democracy in the West is occurring because its basis—the West’s Judeo-Christian tradition—is disparaged or ignored in the public square and largely forgotten by those in authority.
As conservatives, we need to empower and give direction to today’s conservative resurgence by articulating—coherently and understandably—its underlying worldview. As our forebears did, conservatives today adhere to the fundamentals of the classical and Judeo-Christian Western tradition. But we must express and further develop this in the context of the hegemony of today’s anti-Western progressivism among media, academic, and governing elites, and its resulting power over people’s hearts and minds.
The key to this task is to remember and not to forget; to return to our fundamental belief in truth and reaffirm our commitment to its pursuit against the postmodern repudiation of any conviction or authority that is seen to conflict with choice.
The genius of Western democracy is that it is a system anchored in a basic truth about human beings. Rather than attempt to adapt human beings to a political dream, Western democracy seeks to adapt politics and government to human beings as they are. In this time of destructive postmodernist fantasies, our way of life and government must rest on this fundamental assertion: We are not creatures governed primarily by our arbitrary choices regarding, say, our sexuality, gender, ethnic identity, or by our perceived membership in privileged or disadvantaged groups. Rather, we are all— regardless of gender, race, wealth, or poverty—creatures of inalienable dignity who have rights prior to government—and of which no government can justifiably deprive us.
Among these is a right to self-government. At the same time, we are all flawed and subject to corruption. Therefore, in order to preserve and sustain self-government, the powers of government must be separated and subject to checks and balances, so that those in power cannot impose a tyranny on everyone else.
For me, this truth is grounded in Christian anthropology: We have inalienable dignity because we are made in the image of God. We are flawed and must limit and separate the powers of government because we are sinful.
For others, this and other truths may be grounded in common sense, historical observation, or even pragmatism. But if we are conservatives wedded to the Western tradition, we can all pursue truth in the tolerance and humility that our consciousness of the inalienable dignity of others—and of our own flaws—obliges us to practice.
Pursuing truth in true tolerance and true humility based on a recognition of the dignity of others and of our own limitations: that is the basis of constructive debate in a democracy. That is the heart of the Western democratic tradition. It is also the core of a right understanding of freedom as the unhindered ability to pursue truth, to do what is good, and to contribute to human flourishing.
It is also an insufficiently articulated heart of today’s conservative resurgence. This is the understanding that we need more than ever—especially in the face of the progressive view that ‘freedom’ means the right to decide for oneself what is true for oneself, and then to impose that decision on others. This is the view that ultimately ends in totalitarianism.
The hope of the Center for Transatlantic Renewal is that The European Conservative can be a medium for those who cherish the Western tradition and who desire to pursue, articulate, and debate its truths amidst the new falsehood that threatens to deconstruct all of the West’s achievements. In partnership with the Center for European Renewal, the CTR is proud to publish this journal.