For centuries, January 6th has been best known as the feast of the Epiphany, a celebration of the Magi’s visit to the newborn Christ child—a holy day of joy, gift giving, and the revelation of God’s immense love for mankind. January 6th, 2021 will be remembered for quite a different revelation: the exposition of American conservatism’s silent surrender to the culture of modernity.
Brought to life by the overwhelming passions of a hyper-polarized polity, a vitriol for the elites, and the near deification of the 45th President of the United States, the breaching of the US Capitol building by rioters represents the most overt and striking evidence of a reality glossed over by the majority of the political mainstream. This is the reality that American conservatism, or at least conservatism as the traditional preserver of the good life—participation in those institutions and goods most conducive to human flourishing—has become obsolete. Lost is any notion of what conservatism actually seeks to conserve, forgotten is man’s telos, his ultimate and proper end. Yet, these things have been washed away not by any sort of progressive “blue wave” but rather by a tsunami of cultural decay and atrophy.
Modern conservatism has become oblivious to its proper ends, ignorant to reason, and distracted by temporal pleasures of a modern world. The father of conservatism, Edmund Burke, once described such behavior expressed by the Jacobins of the French Revolution, observing that they had the power to “subvert and destroy, but not to construct, except such machines as may be fitted for further subversion and further destruction.” This description applies just as validly to the present rioters on Capitol Hill, who engaged in behavior and rhetoric more typical of Marxist revolutionaries.
The tragedy of January 6th, 2021 might be most immediately attributed to the great divide between the left and the right, the stubborn inability of President Trump to concede to Joe Biden, or a seemingly universal skepticism toward mainstream media networks. Yet for conservatives, these components should be viewed as a greater issue: conservatism no longer exists as the meter and preserver of the good life. Instead, it has become a mere product of a progressive modern culture.
“Conservatism is a state of mind, a type of character, a way of looking at the civil social order. The attitude we call conservatism is sustained by a body of sentiments, rather than a system of ideological dogmata. It is almost true that a conservative may be defined as a person who thinks himself such.”
Kirk asserts that, in the purest sense, conservatism ought not to regard merely policy or dogma. Instead, conservatism should exist as more of a temperament — a rule of sorts for how to live the good life. Conservatism is thus not so much a party or a political machine, as is the case on the progressive left, but rather a reaction to ideology, concerned more with preservation of the good than any sort of political movement. While an ideology sees politics and the agenda as its end, Kirk asserts that conservatism, correctly ordered, sees the political agenda as but a single component of a higher and more intimate purpose.
Nonetheless, what has become known as American “conservatism” in recent years reflects much more as an ideology than any sort of temperament. While the conservative temperament exists as a character, a rule of contemplation, and a discernment of the good life and living well, the conservative ideology concerns itself with set ideas and ideals. The conservative temperament concerns itself with one’s own actions, station, and life as a way of forming a better world. The ideology pursues an abstract agenda, a utopian goal, and orients itself without deviation towards its achievement.
Contextualizing the events of January 6th within the dichotomy of temperament versus ideology, it becomes very clear that modern conservatism is very much in the second camp. The people who stormed the capitol building and shattered windows clearly did so with an agenda, concerned less with the preservation of the good life than with accomplishing their political desires. To see such behavior from conservatives, and conservatives motivated by a conservative President’s rhetoric no less, is both bewildering and disheartening.
This turn from conservative temperament into ideology is indicative of American conservatism’s newfound existence firmly downstream of culture. In its shift from temperament to ideology, conservatism has left culture unchecked, vulnerable to the whims and attractive vices that the modern world has brought with it—including trends towards secularization, relativism, deeply entrenched demographic divisions, and social atomization. These trends have yielded the political climate that we see today, one of virtually universal skepticism of government and elites, rampant herd mentality and tribalism, and a dominance of appetites over intellect. Dissent now manifests as animalistic stampedes and destruction, as opposed to rational debate and discourse. The dominant modern desires of immediacy, self-service, and passion have run rampant. Conservatism used to moderate and restrain such devolutions. Instead, it is now an active participant in them.
Idolizing the Temporal
Perhaps the modern conservative, swept up in the dopamine high of riots and rallies, will respond that ideology is good—that conservatives ought to set their aim upon a political project, the achieving of a picturesque ideal for the American future. After all, such an ideal is what President Trump has talked about for years, no? Yet in this sentiment, we find the core issue with modern conservatism: an idealization and pursuit of things strictly temporal. What was once chalked up as a left-wing pipe dream of utopian paradise, of all problems solved by a prosperous state and a benevolent dictator, has now become the objective of conservatives too.
Conservatism today increasingly appears to no longer aim at the good life. Instead, like its interlocutors across the aisle, it looks to the temporal entity of the state with virtual exclusivity. It devotes itself wholly to rhetoric and policy directed at temporal goods—material wealth, military strength, national pride, profits, and the like.
These goals are certainly not obsolete. Yet they ought to be properly viewed as mere components of a higher purpose: human happiness and flourishing. Instead, what has emerged is a ready subscription to the collectivized state. The conservative no longer asks “how can I contribute to my community?” Rather, he states “we need this policy to achieve our objectives—no matter the cost.” He no longer focuses on discerning the good life and studying the social order as Kirk once suggested. Instead, he concerns himself with the futile dream of achieving earthly utopia. If only the government could become a portion less overbearing, if America might only invade one more despotic state, if citizens would just love their country with vigor, if we could only impede the tabulation of electoral votes, then the perfect polis might be achieved.
And make no mistake—the rhetoric of the Trump years has, at least in part, fueled this sentiment with fervor. When one promises a golden age of prosperity, of dramatic policy initiatives and executive orders to bring America into greatness, thoughts of utopia will inevitably creep into the picture. Coupling this with modern America’s widespread reliance on the state for manifold needs, the tensions of a polarized polity, and the dictatorial grip of passions over modern decision-making, the actions of January 6th now make much more sense. Conservatism has set its sights on the temporal, utopia-on-earth, with Trump as the movement’s dauntless figurehead. Such utopian aspirations have fueled multitudes of riots and revolutionary spirits throughout history. Those on January 6th were no different.
Dare We Hope?
With modern conservatism torn from its traditional role and captivated by a pursuit of the temporal, we must ask: is there anything powerful enough to fight upstream and reshape our culture? Indeed, this is perhaps the most important question that conservatives must address.
Three theories of cultural reform appear at the forefront of this debate. We might call them the initiatives of Nisbet, Hunter, and Dreher. The first, deriving from the arguments of Robert Nisbet in The Quest for Community, advocates for cultural change at the local and individual level through community building — the beautification of our own little corner of the world through strong bonds and social capital. This approach hopes for evangelization through witness, that the observation of healthy communities living the good life might gradually grow and change the cultural tides. The second comes from James Davison Hunter and his book To Change the World, advocating that in order to change culture, one must capture elites and cultural production centers, taking a more active approach. It relies heavily on institutions, evangelizing through explicit guidance to change the culture from on high. The final, most extreme initiative comes from Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option, arguing for an intentional withdrawal from the mainstream world itself and building a healthy culture away from the threats and vices of modernity. Amidst the anxiety and chaos of today, this option often appears most attractive, a means to escape the decay and build anew.
These theories present direct action targeted toward modern culture, and each is not exclusive from the others. Fighting upstream might indeed require the combined strength of local community building, institutions, and Benedictine retreat.
Regardless of the approach we favor, we must reckon with conservatism’s worrisome metamorphosis. If it is to survive, then conservatism must rediscover its original temperament and purposes. The events of January 6th, though shocking, expose a reality long extant. The issue is not so much one of Donald Trump himself, civic passions, or a desire for change. Rather, it is an issue of transformation—the adoption of utopia and temporal desires as the object and end of modern conservatism. Yet we know that such is not only inauthentic to genuine conservatism, but also to the very nature and created purpose of the human person. As such, let us use the atrocities of modern conservatism as motivation to begin the arduous journey upstream, strengthened by a conviction to act toward our natural created ends, pursue the good life, and strive through both contemplation of and participation in what is good, true, and beautiful.
And as we do so, we must always remember the mortality of temporal things. Man is inevitably fallible and fallen. He errs and disappoints. So too will the institutions that he builds erupt into disarray. Presidential terms expire. Tides will change. Nations will rise and fall. Man conquers, and man surrenders. Such is the history and future of man-made politics.
“For dust thou art, and into dust thou shalt return”– Genesis 3:19 (Douay-Rheims)
Samuel D. Samson is a fourth-year student studying political philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin, and an undergraduate fellow at the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture. His work focuses St. Thomas Aquinas’s natural law theory and the intersection of conservatism with religion, family, community, economics, and culture.