When I was active in College Democrats at my small state college, in the early 2000s, we didn’t quite fancy ourselves revolutionaries. Middle class origins were universal; collared shirts were frequent; raised fists were nonexistent. Many of our meetings and events were, like so much else in college, little more than excuses to drink beer. We didn’t aspire to bring down a corrupt system; we would much rather have held power within it.
Still, we did our part to advance what we saw as worthy goals. We cared deeply about a range of liberal causes that sounds almost quaint now: wage equality, the national security state and post-9/11 surveillance; keeping the estate tax; checking corporate power. The Great Society was our model. Advancing the well-being of the less fortunate was, at least in our eyes, our animating cause. We were committed to Progress. We didn’t need God or tradition or history—we had science, rationalism, and modernity. We were, as our past few presidents have loved to say, on the right side of history.
Richard Weaver, the midcentury man of letters and leading voice of traditional conservatism, would have called this my “period of jejune optimism.” For I had become convinced, as he once had, that “the future was with science, liberalism, and equalitarianism, and that all opposed to these trends were people of ignorance or malevolence.”
Weaver’s own period of jejune optimism came during his years at the University of Kentucky, in the late 1920s and early 1930s, during which he was an active socialist and committed liberal. In his famous essay “Up From Liberalism,” published in the Winter 1958-59 issue of Modern Age, he detailed how his subsequent graduate work with the Southern Agrarians at Vanderbilt University changed his thinking:
I found that although I disagreed with these men on matters of social and political doctrine, I liked them all as persons. They seemed to me more humane, more generous, and considerably less dogmatic than those with whom I had been associated under the opposing banner. It began to dawn upon me uneasily that perhaps the right way to judge a movement was by the persons who made it up rather than by its rationalistic perfection and by the promises it held out.
Weaver did not complete a doctorate under their tutelage at Vanderbilt, but the Agrarians had gotten to him: “I had felt a powerful pull in the direction of the Agrarian ideal of the individual in contact with nature, of the small-property holding, and of the society of pluralistic organization.” By encountering people who proved Russell Kirk correct that conservatism is not an ideology but a way of life, Weaver’s thinking was permanently reshaped.
He left for a job, and was teaching at what is now Texas A&M (“where I encountered a rampant philistinism… and a complacent acceptance of success as the goal of life”) when he had his now-famous epiphany, in which “it came to me like a revelation that I did not have to go back to this job, which had become distasteful, and that I did not have to go on professing the clichés of liberalism, which were becoming meaningless to me.”
The clichés of liberalism—an intriguing phrase, precisely because the clichés of liberalism are so deeply ingrained in our culture. What Weaver was talking about was not “progressivism,” or the agenda of the Democratic Party, but rather the extended assumptions of the Enlightenment: rationality and empiricism, leading us out of the dark ages of faith, and promising an endless future of social and scientific progress leading to the perfectibility of man.
Certainly we College Democrats were neck-deep in these clichés of liberalism. Progress was our mantra and our guiding philosophy. Progress toward what? It didn’t matter. Progress away from the benighted past was the important thing. Perhaps we were already infected with that bleak ethos of Silicon Valley—Disrupt!—that so proudly thumbs its nose at tradition. Politics was the arena where we would finally right, and write, the ways of the world.
Not always such a bad thing, this skepticism of tradition. Certainly, as Weaver had it, “There is a worship of tradition and circumstance which is all fear, distrust, and feebleness of imagination, and to this the name ‘reaction’ is rightly applied.” It bears mentioning, perhaps, that things like child labor laws represent a victory over a loathsome and exploitative tradition. We can thank liberalism for this, and other victories.
But something happened to liberalism in the decade or so since I left college, and College Democrats, behind. The aforementioned topics that seemed so urgent to us have been completely forgotten, swept up in the tidal wave of identity politics and the therapeutic culture that insists upon not just recognition but outright worship of every conceivable preference and lifestyle. Corporate dominance? Structural inequality? An entertainment-addled populace? All subsumed under the reign of personal identity. Politics has succumbed to the tyranny of the self. To amend Wittgenstein: my world is all that is the case.
It is easy to spot this new liberalism in today’s culture. It’s the student insisting that the speaker with an opposing viewpoint has made him feel “unsafe.” It’s the insistence that we cannot deem any act to be good or bad because there is no capital-t Truth, and so how could we foist our judgments upon others? It’s the hip cosmopolitan who mistakes his lazy atheism for intellectual sophistication. It’s the new protest chant: What do we want? A living wage! When do we want it? Only after we have secured the right to use the restroom that corresponds with whatever point on the gender fluidity spectrum we are feeling at that particular moment!
How quickly tradition is discarded. Regardless of your opinion of the Obergefell decision, these words from Justice Scalia’s dissent should give you pause: “[The justices] have discovered in the Fourteenth Amendment a ‘fundamental right’ overlooked by every person alive at the time of ratification, and almost everyone else in the time since.” Such is Progress. It never proposes a specific goal, as Weaver’s mentor John Crowe Ransom said: it merely “initiates the infinite series.” Modern culture sees things that never were and insists they were there all along, waiting to be discovered by we enlightened citizens.
Weaver came to believe, as I did, that there are “two propositions which are hard to deny: we live in a universe which was given to us, in the sense that we did not create it; and, we don’t understand very much of it.” The clichés of liberalism tell us that we can make our world anew each day; Weaver believed that whatever exists “is there with considerable force… and in a network of relationships which we have only partly deciphered. Therefore, make haste slowly.”
So if the clichés of liberalism are so banal, why my titular qualifier? Surely there is no place to go but up from liberalism? After all, what could be better than discovering, as Weaver put it, the “lost capacity for wonder and enchantment” beneath the “dogmatic, utilitarian, essentially contumacious doctrines of liberalism and scientism”?
Here is the problematic question in today’s United States: up to where? It is a lamentable fact, but a fact nonetheless, that “conservative” has become a fairly meaningless term in this country. Consider this year’s spectrum of Republican presidential candidates, which may be what many people think of when they hear “conservative.” Picture them in your mind, lined up at their podia, hands over hearts, lips moving along with the Pledge of Allegiance.
Now ask yourself: what were these people lobbying to conserve? Which aspects of our tradition and social history, which networks of affection and affiliation, did they want to preserve? Did any of them see man, in Weaver’s words, as “a creature fearfully and wonderfully made” and try “to lead him with appropriate imagination and subtlety”? Did any argue eloquently for working “toward the reunion of man into a being who will both know and desire what he knows”?
What we call “conservative” in today’s mainstream politics is something more like radical libertarianism: a ruthless, individualized, atomistic view of the human as little more than a microeconomic agent operating in a loose association of other lone agents, with profit as telos and Progress as method. There is no talk of culture, of community, or of anything beyond next month’s job numbers or next year’s GDP. It is politics devoid of any non-fiscal concern; social life as measured in housing starts and quarterly returns.
When Weaver wrote “Up From Liberalism,” he was becoming increasingly concerned with social fracture at the hands of the atomists we see entrenched in power today. “The intent of the radical to defy all substance,” he wrote, “or to press it into forms conceived in his mind alone, is… an aggression by the self which outrages a deep-laid order of things.” Our libertarian age, in which an individual’s felt preference is granted ironclad and unquestioned ontological status, is not just socially dangerous but metaphysically ludicrous.
More importantly, it is a stance which cannot logically form the basis of culture. A society cannot be more than the sum of its parts when we insist that its parts are discrete, inviolable, and made in whichever image we prefer. If we say that no stance can be wrong if it is a genuinely felt preference, then what cultural leg have we left to stand on? A preference cannot be questioned even if the human will is wrong, and as Weaver wrote, “Nothing can be done if the will is wrong, and the correction of the will is precisely the task which modern radicalism fails to recognize.”
Weaver saw liberalism not so much as something he abandoned but rather as something that abandoned him. He felt betrayed by its claims of perfectibility, by the attempts to conquer creation, and by its know-nothing zealotry in the face of opposition. No doubt I am not alone in feeling the same way. I have known too many liberals who trumpet their munificent tolerance of all views while silencing people of “privilege”—as if total control over upbringing were required for informed debate. I have known too many liberals who insist that truth is whatever we say it is in any given instance. Weaver wrote that “this world of substantial things and substantial events is the very world which the Leftist of our time wishes to see abolished”; no doubt you hear some version of this almost weekly, as we are told that millennia-old universal realities are meaningless contrivances—and oppressive ones, at that.
History, tradition, social institutions: these things take time to build and effort to maintain. What has alarmed me most as I moved away from liberalism—or as it moved away from me—was how quick my liberal friends were to renounce and reject our delicate social fabric as oppressive, as exclusionary, or as just plain worthless. Churches? Schools? Communities? Not just anachronisms, according to the New Liberalism, but dangerous threats to a preference-based culture.
Richard Weaver did not write “Up From Liberalism” with anything resembling happiness. He was deeply saddened that a movement he once embraced had drifted from its admirable origins. So up, by all means: but up to where? True conservatives—those who care about preserving social institutions, taming ecocidal capitalism, laying out a vision of the good and virtuous life—have no political home. We are consigned to the wilderness, trying to focus, with Weaver, on “things which are immeasurably larger and greater than oneself.”