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PhillySoc and the Need for Conservative Institutions

Posted on Sunday, April 28, 2024
by David P. Deavel


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Tampa, Florida, was the site of last week’s 60th Anniversary meeting of the Philadelphia Society, familiarly known as PhillySoc. Several hundred members, invited guests, and fellowship attendees gathered at the Grand Hyatt for several days of conversation, argument, networking, fellowship, and celebration. It was a good reminder of the fact that the post-World War II right has always been a rather diverse and sometimes fractious group of people and institutions proposing to defend tradition, individuality, community, religion, and freedom against the modern left’s tendency to eliminate or reduce all the above. It was also a good reminder of the importance of institutions in the conservative movement’s success at the end of the twentieth century. Many people today complain, and rightly, about some of the institutions of “Con Inc.” But we’ll need institutions if conservatives can again mount an effective political program. 

PhillySoc as an institution is incredibly important as a clearinghouse for discussion about those differences on the right. Its mission is the following: “To sponsor the interchange of ideas through discussion and writing, in the interest of deepening the intellectual foundations of a free and ordered society, and of broadening the understanding of its basic principles and traditions. In pursuit of this end we shall examine a wide range of issues: economic, political, cultural, religious, and philosophic. We shall seek understanding, not conformity.” Indeed, anyone who has read any histories of American conservatism, such as George Nash’s The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945, knows that conformity has never been a thing for us.  

To get a glimpse of the great debates that have been had over sixty years under the group’s sponsorship, one can read a good collection of them printed in the first and second volumes of the series Conversations on Conservatism. The second, just-released volume, subtitled “Controversies Among Conservatives,” includes debates on immigration, the future of Reaganomics, the limits of America’s intervention in world affairs, and civil rights. The debates were carried on by figures such as William F. Buckley, Paul Gottfried, Edwin Meese, Midge Decter, Thomas Fleming, Stan Evans, and many others. If you’d rather listen, the PhillySoc website’s Voices of Conservatism page has recordings of a great many of the talks and debates going back to 1965. There, one can hear even more: Russell Kirk, Friedrich Hayek, Eric Voegelin, Henry Hazlitt, Stephen Tonsor, Ernest van den Haag, and on and on.  

But though PhillySoc’s goal is indeed intellectual, it is not merely for the sake of intellects. It has always been about the interchange of ideas for the sake of cultural, political, and economic change. This year’s meeting was titled, “Uniting a Movement.” It is only when people are united that they can actually effect change. If people on the right sometimes seem particularly fierce with each other, it is because we share enough to be angry when those who are so close to us differ. And we do want to make a difference.

That’s why a group like PhillySoc is important. It gathers together private individuals and representatives of various institutions who are generally on the same page. And institutions—PhillySoc and the others—are important. They signal that people want to do something. As G. K. Chesterton, an Englishman who is an inspiration to many stripes of American conservative, said, “The truth is that when people are in exceptionally high spirits, really wild with freedom and invention, they always must, and they always do, create institutions.”

The Philadelphia Society was forged in 1964, a time when many still thought of conservatives, in Lionel Trilling’s famous formulation, as dealing “in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” It wasn’t true. There was a symphony—and sometimes cacophony—of ideas that needed to be conducted to produce something that resonated with the American public. If the 1964 candidacy of Barry Goldwater showed that conservatism didn’t quite sound right to the American public even as liberal craziness was starting to manifest itself in “the 60s,” the movement’s electoral loss was not final. All those new and about-to-be-created institutions such as Young America’s Foundation, the Heritage Foundation, the American Conservative Union, the Claremont Institute, the Acton Institute, and so many others all had an effect on remaking the Republican Party into an officially conservative party that was united on a great deal.

Today, I hear from some people on the right that all is lost. After all, conservatives are just as fractious as they were sixty years ago—particularly if you belong, as I do, to the chattering class. And indeed there are differences that matter. Intelligent and principled conservatives may disagree strongly about immigration, foreign policy, the intersection of morality and law, and whether some policy issues must be treated in more than their economic dimensions. This author has not been shy about criticizing institutions that have gone astray or groups that have not successfully adjusted their rhetoric and strategy to the current circumstances. But the reality is that any successful movement must figure out ways for people who don’t agree on everything to work together on some important things. When I go to PhillySoc, I talk to people whom I have criticized—and who have criticized me. And the reality is that in almost all cases, I find that there is still a lot of common ground.

That’s a hallmark of the Philadelphia Society. Joe Morris, a Chicago lawyer and distinguished member of the Society, recounted during the banquet his delight upon arriving at one meeting in the 1970s to find Milton Friedman and Russell Kirk sitting together “and liking each other.” Edwin Feulner, one of the founding members of the Philadelphia Society and a co-founder of the Heritage Foundation, likes to say that successful politics is a matter of addition rather than subtraction. And so it is.

Conservative institutions may have their problems, but we need them. This week, journalist and filmmaker Chris Rufo responded on X (Twitter) to journalist Michael Tracey’s criticisms of him and others as corrupted by association with the Manhattan Institute, Hillsdale College, and other parts of Con Inc. The idea is that anybody affiliated with these groups becomes a captive of the conservative donor class.  

While that is certainly a possibility, Rufo answered with realism and integrity. He observed that, “Political movements must be formalized into institutions, which, in turn, must be disciplined in pursuit of governing authority.” Of his place in the conservative political movement, he said that while he “maintain[s] strategic discipline in his communications” and also “appreciate[s] the great institutions that support my work,” this doesn’t translate to his being “beholden to them” or to him doing “their bidding.” Instead, he has a great freedom in his work that he is happy to use to fulfill his “duty to make sure those institutions also achieve their missions.” He is happy to do it “because our principles are aligned,” and this “is how mature adults approach working relationships.”

As long as there is a Conservative Movement of any sort, there will always be institutions and thus always a Con Inc. That’s not a bad thing. It’s a sign of life. That such institutions must be disciplined by donors and critics is not a sign that there shouldn’t be such institutions. We need them, and we need them to be healthy. Given its role in sorting out what conservative health looks like, the Philadelphia Society is a model of a vibrant institution in the life of the right. 

David P. Deavel teaches at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas, and is a Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative. Follow him on X (Twitter) @davidpdeavel.

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19 days ago

Seems to me they are all talk and debate and no action. What specifically are they doing to DESTROY the left!

Barry Obummer, Kenyan By Birth
Barry Obummer, Kenyan By Birth
19 days ago

TRUMP 2024

19 days ago

I loved it. Hope to see you next year

19 days ago

MUST form consortium or syndicate to get a goal of governance for ALL legal – lawful citizens SOON.

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