AMAC Exclusive – By David P. Deavel
“Can we all just get along?” was the famous and ironic line attributed to Rodney King during the 1992 Los Angeles riots. King, a black man whose brutal beating by four Los Angeles police officers had been the proximate cause of those very riots, was the one who called for those rioting supposedly in his name to stop. Many of us watching the craziness in our country wonder if our country itself can get along or will go down in flames. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene famously proposed a “national divorce” several weeks ago. And the question of what we have in common as Americans today came to the fore with the recent Wall Street Journal/National Opinion Research Council poll that showed a steep decline in the percentage of Americans who say patriotism, religion, family, and community involvement are important—the declines were largest and starkest among Democrats and Independents.
Yet if Republicans and conservatives are increasingly separated in views from others on the political spectrum, they are also deeply separated from each other. Social conservatives are more likely to be separated from free market advocates, while arguments about what to think about Ukraine divide even those who consider themselves national defense conservatives. While regime media likes to depict a monolithic “right” for the public to abhor, the reality is that the right is actually fractured in various ways such that the terms “conservative” and “the right” always need an explanation. Is this ok? Can we get along?
I was thinking about these questions this weekend at the spring meeting of the Philadelphia Society in Indianapolis. The venerable conservative society, founded in 1964 with the express purpose of exploring, discussing, and spreading the understanding of the basic principles of the free and ordered society, has been one of the places where the arguments have been long and consistent. While some people think that sounds terrible, it is really one of the signs of hope. Arguing is not quarreling, for arguing presumes that the issues that fracture us as conservatives are intellectual matters. Argument is about the truth of things and prudent action about them, something that conversation, even occasionally loud conversation, at its best helps us to find.
Who has argued at the Philadelphia Society and what have they argued about? The answer to the first is: conservatives, paleoconservatives, neoconservatives, classical liberals, libertarians, national conservatives, common good conservatives, social conservatives, national defense conservatives, integralists, monarchists, and many other varieties of thinkers who can be categorized as “the right.” PhillySoc (as it is affectionately known) began with people from very different but not wholly incompatible points of view. At the members’ breakfast this year, legal scholar Edward Feulner, one of the two charter members still alive, recalled being there when Milton Friedman first met William F. Buckley and Frank Meyer. It was the last-named figure, an editor at Buckley’s National Review, who proposed an idea of “fusionism” that would put together the different strands of thinking of those on the traditionalist side and those on the libertarian side.
The “who” helps answer the question of what was being argued about. The arguments have been about how tradition, culture, religion, markets, freedom, and government fit together and operate as foundations of that free and ordered society. As is obvious, free market figures in the early years such as Milton Friedman or Friedrich Hayek did not perfectly agree with traditionalists such as historian Forrest McDonald or Mel Bradford on questions of economics, culture, and foreign and domestic policy. Questions of economic regulation, immigration policy, war and peace, and many other topics have never just had one “conservative” answer—instead, they have had a number of answers about which all the groups have clashed repeatedly.
That is not surprising because even those who have generally the same viewpoints will not agree on everything. William F. Buckley famously observed of the political philosopher Harry Jaffa that if one thought disagreement with him was difficult, agreement was even more difficult. People in the same family—especially in the same family of ideas—can argue louder and longer because there is enough agreement to see disagreement.
That is a good thing. This weekend’s meeting, on the topic of “Conservatism and the Place of Religion in Public Life,” featured plenty of debate about what a healthy American society ought to look like. Should the Catholic group known as “integralists,” who propose some sort of union of church and state, win the day? Should any of those “Neo-Constantinians” of whatever Christian persuasion use state power to advance religious and cultural goals? How should religious people (especially Christians) think about approaching a market scene in which current corporate life distorts community life? Should the conservative legal movement move beyond simply arguing for the courts to stick to the original meaning of the U. S. Constitution?
All of these topics and more were addressed in the organized sessions, at the dinner tables, and in the hallways and the hotel bar. What this writer experienced quite often was the fact that many people were arguing with themselves. There is a good reason for that. Many of us have worked with and have sympathies for a number of those different conservative camps because they emphasize and develop different aspects of those foundational pieces of a free and ordered society that are essential.
What we often disagree about are how those pieces can be fit together today and which piece is most important. We disagree on how far our country has strayed from Constitutional government, which is going to determine what we think is necessary in the here and now and what is worth risking. We disagree about what unintended consequences are worth risking in our actions.
All of these disagreements will make decisions about the way to advance difficult. But they don’t make it impossible. Amid all the arguing, the experience at the Philadelphia Society is one of deep peace that is afforded by the fact that we are arguing together for the same larger goods, what the great Russell Kirk called “the permanent things.” We can get along because we are still in the same moral universe and are arguing about the good, the true, and the beautiful.
What is hopeful is that these arguments stand a very good chance of continuing. Allen Mendenhall is a professor at Troy University and director of the Philadelphia Society’s fellowship programs. At the members’ meeting, he reported on the seminars that various members of the Society have been leading for the young fellows in attendance at the meeting. The fellows, he said, were learning about the different positions they encounter at the Society’s meetings—and they are learning how to think and debate the ideas rather than settling into intellectual bunkers. “They disagree so well,” Mendenhall testified. “It’s the exact opposite of how it works in the universities these days.”
Those various conservative movements can still get along and work together in the midst of our arguments, for they are arguments based on questions of truth. And ultimately we must get along in the face of the left’s aggressive assaults on us and the country. As Benjamin Franklin observed at the signing of the Declaration, if we do not hang together, we will all hang separately.
David P. Deavel teaches at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas, and is a Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative.