America’s authentic conservative movement

In the influential reform conservative manifesto, Room to Grow, Yuval Levin argues

that what matters most about society happens in the space between the individual and the state—the space occupied by families, communities, civic and religious institutions, and the private economy. … Local knowledge channeled by evolved social institutions—from families and civic and fraternal groups to traditional religious establishments, charitable enterprises, private companies, and complex markets—will make for better material outcomes and a better common life. … What happens in that space generally happens face to face—between parents and children, neighbors and friends, buyers and sellers. It therefore answers to immediately felt needs, and is tailored to the characters, sentiments, priorities, and preferences of the people involved. That kind of bottom-up common life, rather than massive, distant systems of material provision, is what makes society tick and what holds it together. While it can certainly be reinforced by public policy, it could never be replaced with centralized administration, however capable or rational it might be.

Levin decries “public programs that consolidate the application of technical expertise: that try to take on social problems by managing large portions of society as if they were systems in need of better organization and direction.” Instead he advocates a “kind of bottom-up, incremental, continuous learning process, rather than imposing wholesale solutions from above.”

Imagine that there were a large but decentralized grassroots movement dedicated to precisely these values. It would operate at a remove from the state and would be based instead in nonprofit organizations and colleges. It would be skeptical of top-down directives, expertise, and centralizing policies–especially the drive to measure and assess outcomes quantitatively. It would often stand in the way of ambitious plans that originate in bureaucracies.

This movement would evolve elaborate tools for appreciating and developing local norms and assets. These tools might be branded, for example, Asset Based Community Development or Participatory Action Research. The movement might also rely heavily on local deliberative processes to decide what to do, and the real hallmark of those deliberations would be “a belief that constructive processes must focus on strengths and future-oriented possibilities” (as Caroline Lee writes).

Because the movement would believe, as Levin does, in the importance of face-to-face human connections, its characteristic response to a local problem would be a hands-on service project. Prospective volunteers would be taught to respect local norms. They might even insist (in the words of Talmage A. Stanley) on a “militant or radical particularity, knowing a place in its fullness, with its contradictions, its conflicts, its questions, what it means to be a citizen in that place.” The movement would strongly endorse “relational organizing,” with its emphasis on human-to-human bonds.

The movement would also be anchored in the values of diversity (i.e., support for inherited and “evolved” cultures and norms); social capital (seeing value in the networks and values that connect people to each other); and sustainability (strategies for continuing to do what we have done in the past).

In all these respects, this movement would be authentically conservative. But–as my readers will have realized several paragraphs ago–I am referring to community service programs, campus/community partnerships, community-based research projects, and other “civic” practices, most of whose leaders would place themselves well to the left of President Obama on the political spectrum.

I make this argument not to score debating points against Yuval Levin, although he is deeply invested in the idea that the “Left’s social vision tends to consist of individuals and the state, so that all common action is state action, and its purpose is to liberate individuals
from material want and moral sway.” (I have trouble thinking of any prominent American liberal to whom that sentence would apply.) On the whole, I would like to make common cause with Levin, not debate him.

Nor do I mean to provoke my friends and collaborators in the “civic” world by calling them authentic conservatives. I have deep regard for genuine conservative values and believe that they need intellectual development and political support. Authentic conservatism has been swamped by laissez-faire neoliberalism on the right and by soft technocratic managerialism on the left.

But I do think it’s clarifying to recognize everyday civic work as conservative. Like any valid ideology, conservatism highlights certain goods with which other goods conflict. As Bill Galston insists, the hard part of politics is not the choice between good and bad but between good and good. In promoting decentralized, relational, appreciative, bottom-up, voluntary politics, the civic movement to which I belong (and which Levin ought to endorse) risks overlooking other values, especially social critique, cosmopolitanism, efficiency, and dissent.

See also: “what defines conservatism?” “how conservatives can reclaim the civic ideal;” “Edmund Burke would vote Democratic“; and “is society an artifact or an ecosystem?

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.