by Jean Stimmell
I take umbrage with Bret Stephens, a conservative columnist for the New York Times, for having the gall to tell me, a staunch liberal, what I believe. He praises paleoconservative Sohrab Ahmari’s new book, The Unbroken Thread for giving a “moral voice…against the values of elite liberalism, above all its disdain for limits, from moral taboos tor national borders.” 1
In the real world, when the right and the left fight over freedom versus limits, it’s not a clear-cut matter. As Max Boot recently wrote, conservatives are willing to accept substantial infringements on civil liberties to combat criminals and terrorists. Yet, they insist on dropping our guard against a pandemic that has already killed over 600,0000 Americans. In this case, it is liberals—following a long American tradition that started with George Washington—who want to limit freedom to save lives by mandating vaccinations and mask-wearing. 2
Certainly, liberals often have more elastic boundaries than conservatives: We believe that individuals should have the freedom to determine their gender, whom they can love, and how. We don’t like abortions but want the mother to have the freedom to decide rather than passing a law; we are in favor of rehabilitating folks who break the law, not punishing them for being sinners; we would like teachers to teach our children about our complete history, warts and all, in order to do better in the future. We recognize that some problems like nuclear proliferation, climate change, and Covid-19 can not be solved within single nations and require international cooperation.
In other areas, we are adamant about enforcing stricter limits than conservatives. We are more conservative than conservatives about not rushing into making humans guinea pigs to genetically modified food, nuclear power plants, pharmaceutical products, and toxic waste dumped into the environment. We favor conserving our natural resources and protecting the diversity of all life forms on earth. We favor guns for hunting and target shooting but would ban assault rifles with large clips, which facilitate the unhinged in committing mass murder. We favor zoning laws for reasons of health and safety.
Many decisions are difficult, finding the sweet spot between too much regulation and not enough. The underlying goal is not freedom at all costs but what promotes the common good. Achieving the right balance requires a willingness to come together in good conscience to negotiate a solution we can all live with.
In a manifesto that Ahmari wrote in 2019, he asserted that the new right’s greatest priority was “to resist efforts by liberals…to oppose the desire voters are expressing for a politics of the common good.” 3 On this point, I agree with him: voters are clamoring for a “politics of the common good.”
Poll after poll shows a substantial majority of voters across party lines view clean water, a quality public education, adequate food, and housing as fundamental human rights that the federal government should secure. More than 7 in 10 voters across party lines support guaranteed sick days, paid family and medical leave, and increased assistance for low-income people.
Further proof comes from polls that consistently show the “happiest people in the world” live in countries like Finland and Denmark, where citizens are guaranteed these human rights. President Biden is now working with Congress to extend more of these rights to all Americans. Yet conservatives oppose this common good.
Another aspect of conservative thinking has a religious component that goes back to the birth of our nation, based on the Calvinist notion that hard work is a sign an individual will achieve eternal salvation; meanwhile, those less industrious go to hell. Some conservatives still use this as a cudgel to deny aid to the poor and needy, claiming they don’t deserve it.
One offshoot of this doctrine was made popular in the 1800s by Russell Conwell, a Baptist minister, who equated poverty with sin and claimed that anyone could become rich through hard work alone, without the need of divine intervention. This notion became known as Muscular Christianity.
Speaking of Muscular Christianity, a recent book, Jesus and Johne Wayne, now on the bestseller list, explores why evangelicals were drawn to our former president. The author argues that their support is not a shocking aberration but a “culmination of evangelicals’ long-standing embrace of militant masculinity, presenting the man as protector and warrior.” 4
All of the above makes me question Bret Stephens’s assertion that it is the liberals who have rejected all limits and moral taboos. Instead, to my way of thinking, it is this new breed of conservatives who have abandoned long-standing, conservative doctrine around reason, tradition, and moral principles. Perhaps, as Timothy Snyder has written in the New York Times, “when conservatives give up on truth, they concede power to those with the wealth and charisma to create spectacle in its place. 5
People like our former president.