Conservatism is a complex movement — one that is maligned more frequently than it is understood. In fairness, there is much to malign and even more to caricature. From the rise of Donald Trump to the Capitol attack of January 6th, many are the stains on the Republican Party and conservatism as a whole. Nevertheless, while some may be tempted to purge conservatism from American politics altogether, the conservative tradition remains as relevant as ever. In fact, if we are to find the much-needed remedies to the ills of our age, we must accept what George Will calls conservatism’s clearest mission: “to articulat[e] and demonstrat[e] the pertinence of the Founders’ thinking.”
Let us start with one of the Founders’ most important lessons: the need to stop mythologizing “the People.” Voting is good, and democratic representation matters. But this does not mean that we should treat the average voter’s opinions as sacred. The popular will does not hold a mystical force that compels elected representatives to follow it without question. Last month, for instance, Sen. Josh Hawley contested the election results by claiming that “74 million Americans are not going to be told their voices don’t matter.”
There are many problems with this rhetoric. First, it assumes that all Trump voters would want to see the election overturned. Second, and most important, is the simple fact that “the People” can be wrong. Granted, the vast majority of Republican voters think the election was not free and fair. But Republican Congressmen should not use this as justification to object to the election certification. The fact that a majority of Republicans believe that the election was stolen ought not to compel Republican lawmakers to pretend that it was. Besides, the belief in an unfair election was effectively manufactured by the conservative media, who have been peddling this lie for months. Is it any wonder that the average Republican believes in election fraud when everyone they trust is telling them that’s the Gospel truth?
The broader problem with “the People” is that they will say whatever you want them to. From Nixon’s Silent Majority to the 99% of Occupy Wall Street, those who claim to be the mouthpiece of the People tend to project their own beliefs onto them — or, more likely, create those beliefs in the voters. Trump claimed to be the candidate of the forgotten man, an advocate for “Real” Americans, yet he lost among voters making less than $100,000/year. On the flip side, white liberals hold more left-wing views on race than POC liberals. While self-appointed champions of the People are ubiquitous in American politics, their rhetoric is at best misguided, and at worst disingenuous.
We must recapture the idea that Congressmen are not mouthpieces, but representatives. The Founders rejected proportional representation because they wanted Americans to elect individuals, not political parties. We rely on elected officials to use their judgement, discretion, and — yes — their conscience to cast votes in their legislative body. This occasionally requires Congressmen to use their judgement to frustrate the will of their own constituents. In a way, Republicans who voted against certification did what their constituents wanted them to. But the only way we can make sense of them nevertheless voting to certify is if we say that “the Will of the People” is not the only relevant factor. As Madison put it in Federalist No. 10, the very purpose of republicanism is to “refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country.”
Another lesson from the Founding is that we ought not to fetishize the government. We tend to view counter-majoritarian mechanisms as obstacles to the popular will, to justice, or to progress. But those who hold this view misunderstand the fundamental purpose of the American government: to create a stable, orderly, and prosperous society; no more, no less.
In this context, counter-majoritarian institutions act as bulwarks against absolutism and disorder. They also remind us that the government is not a tool for us to impose our worldview upon everyone else. The fact that the insurrectionists of January 6th believed that a change in administration would re-shape America is a problem in and of itself. To circumscribe the power of the executive branch, to limit the size and influence of the federal government, and to reinvigorate the place of local communities in public life — all constitute ways to avoid the kind of pernicious radicalism that Q-Anon represents.
Lastly, beyond the Constitution itself, we ought to follow the kind of classical liberalism that the Founders embodied. By establishing a set of neutral institutions, liberalism seeks to create rules by which all parties must abide. Yet there are many in America who think that the end justifies the means, that a sufficiently righteous cause can legitimize the otherwise unacceptable. The obvious problem is that everyone thinks their cause is morally righteous. I am fairly certain that the rioters on January 6th would justify their violence by claiming that they were not being heard. Similarly, in her new book “In Defense of Looting,” Vicky Osterweil argues that riots are legitimate so long as they serve the cause of justice. The problem in both cases is that by normalizing extra-legal action, it becomes justified for everyone else too. If you do not want your enemies to behave in a certain way, it is prudent not to create the permission structure for them to do so.
Self-appointed champions of the People, fetishization of the government, and breakdown of liberal norms — all are symptoms of wider malfunctions in the American political system. A proper response would be to relearn the value of republicanism, limited government, and political liberalism. In this sense, while the Republican Party looks more repugnant than ever, the conservative emphasis upon the wisdom of the Founding has never been more pertinent.