10 Books Every Conservative Must Read: Plus Four Not to Miss and One Impostor by Benjamin Wiker was a book recommendation by my staunchly conservative Uncle Shane. I grew up hearing strong political discussions around the dinner table– many revolving around those darn environmentalists out to take the fun out of everything. I actually found them quite exciting, because they caused such strong feelings, but they also usually ended in a good-natured laugh. But when I got older, went off to school, and started to form opinions of my own, they often didn’t align with those of my family. I am admittedly an odd mix of contradictions. I’m gay Mormon in a mixed-orientation marriage. It took me a long wrestle to finally come to grips with my sexuality, because it seemed to conflict with my religious upbringing that I ardently would not give up. I now find myself what Richard Rohr calls living “on the edge of the inside”, coming to appreciate the deep truths of your tradition, because you have felt what it feels like to be an outsider.
To move away from all the “David Copperfield kind of crap,” my uncle is a deeply principled conservative and has very well thought-out opinions. When I was graduating from high school, he got me a subscription to the National Review for my birthday. Some of the articles I found very insightful, but even then, I found much that didn’t sit right with me. They had one section The Week in every issue that seemed to be a tirade of everything wrong those darn liberals were up to: His stimulus spend-a-palooza having failed, spectacularly, President Obama convened a “job summit”…, Obama’s self-regarding politicking knows neither time nor place…, etc. etc. Perhaps I just wasn’t cut out for politics, if it just came down to a bunch of name-calling. When I came back to Utah for Christmas break after first coming out, I tried to make a peace offering by checking out a book from the library, Conservativsm: An Anthology of Social and Political Thought from David Hume to the Present by Jerry Z. Muller. And I was hooked! I found some meat to conservatism that I had never found before. It was a way of viewing the world, with principles and a guiding philosophy. It was had high regard for the common sense in man, while accepting the limits of human reason and the reality of sin and vice. It respected existing institutions– regardless of type– because they are built on the wisdom of prior generations. It distrusted theories, especially theories that would remake the world in their own image. Politics actually didn’t come up at all, as I think my family was treading carefully around the elephant in the room, which I appreciated. But my uncle did recommend 10 Books Every Conservative Must Read, and I finally got around to reading it.
10 Books by the title sounds only slightly less pretentious than its predecessor 10 Books that Screwed Up the World: And 5 Others That Didn’t Help. But after I began reading it, I found it wasn’t a diatribe against the evils of liberalism, a swan song of nostalgia, or a love letter to free markets. Instead, its thesis is that conservatism has a strong and respectable intellectual pedigree, and that it isn’t merely a reaction to innovation:
We live in a culture that is largely defined by liberalism, but there is a swelling conservative reaction. Unfortunately, while that reaction is welcome, it is too often simply a reaction rather than a well thought-out and effective response deeply informed by truly conservative principles. It is my hope that this book can help carry out a conservative renaissance, a deep revolution, so that the conservative zeal animating so many souls can have a lasting and deep effect.
This was a lot different in tone that what I think of representing the conservative voice on social media. To me, conservatism was represented by Breitbart News declaring Obama a Muslim, Milo Yiannopoulos riling up college campuses, Alex Jones announcing he’s prepared to eat his neighbors, “Lock Her Up” memes and conspiracy theories of Hilary Clinton’s murdering of political opponents. Is this truly conservatism?
Wiker argues otherwise. He organizes his book into four parts: In Part I he seeks to define conservative principles (The Politics by Aristotle, Orthodoxy by G. K. Chesterton, The New Science of Politics by Eric Voegelin, and The Abolition of Man by C. S. Lewis) including the importance of self-government, the cultivation of virtue, and the reality of vice. These are truly conservative principles, not free markets or tradition for tradition’s sake. This is a conservatism I can truly get behind. I was pleasantly surprised to find both Chesterton and Lewis present in his books defining the conservative tradition. I stumbled upon both Chesterton and Lewis after returning from my mission, and I read everything I could get my hands on by both authors. To me, they represented a Christian creativity I had never encountered before, not limiting themselves to religious topics, but also bringing a faith alive that I had never seen fully animated before. And I didn’t think of them as “conservative” because to me, they were anything but– conservative religion was a dead religion, written in stone that couldn’t be questioned or challenged, the dead letter of the law. But perhaps it was always there, and I just hadn’t found it yet.
In Part II, Wiker argues that while the American experiment was revolutionary, it was grounded in conservative principles (Reflections on the Revolution in France by Edmund Burke, Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville, The Federalist Papers, and The Anti-Federalist Papers). Isn’t it interesting that Wiker claims both Federalist and Anti-Federalist positions as conservative? Perhaps because we have largely forgotten what the Founding Fathers were arguing about, and the conservative position is that both are worth preserving.
In Part III, Wiker introduces the conservative approach to economics (The Servile State by Hilaire Belloc and The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich Hayek). I was honestly surprised, because the books he selects don’t necessarily enshrine laissez faire economic policies. Usually, I associate conservative economic positions as free markets solve all problems, tax is theft, and regulation is evil. Instead, he establishes the ideal economy as a distributed economy, not concentrated in the hands of the few. To me, this sounds like this outcome overlaps strongly with many labelled liberal today. They may disagree on the means, but the diagnosis is very similar: concentrated power in the form of wealth is an evil.
In Part IV, Wiker explores what he calls the conservative imagination (The Tempest by William Shakespeare, Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen, The Lord of The Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, and The Jerusalem Bible). Wiker argues that conservative books have a moral order to which we must align ourselves. I had never thought to read Lord of the Rings in this way, and perhaps some would be upset to have a conservative claim it, and with it perhaps all of fantasy! Good versus evil isn’t necessarily a purely conservative trope, no? But it is a fascinating interpretation all the same.
In all of these points, Wiker develops a compelling world view, and one almost completely different from what I traditionally associate with the Republican embodiment of conservatism today. I wanted to engage Wiker with a few critiques of conservative viewpoints, how he addresses them, and what I found still needed answers.
Why Liberals Win The Culture Wars Even When They Lose Elections
The first comes from Stephen Prothero’s book Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars. In it, he essentially addresses conservatism as a response to changing cultural norms:
Many have attempted to reduce modern conservatism to anti-intellectualism, but modern conservatism has at its heart an idea. That idea is not states’ rights or individual liberty or free markets or limited government or federalism, however. Over the course of U.S. history, conservatives have argued for and against all these principles. The “big idea” behind modern convservatism is this: a form of culture is passing away and it is worth fighting to revive it. What activates this idea, transforming it into action, is a feeling. This feeling is akin to nsotalgia, but it runs deeper and is more fierce.
Prothero then goes on to explain five critical tipping points throughout U.S. history that cultural conservatives first defended a cultural norm and eventually lost. Each of them are typically about keeping a certain group out of the mainstream culture of America. These 5 are (1) Jeffersonian Deism, (2) Catholics, (3) Mormons, (4) Prohibition, and (5) contemporary culture wars such as race and sexual orientation.
This is one I find unsettling for a number of reasons. First off, how is conservatism meant to survive in a pluralistic society? Wiker is clear that conservatism and Christianity are not the same– but this brand of conservatism in America seems insistent on playing by its rules. Is conservatism going to be defined by excluding certain groups from participating in the exchange of ideas? Prothero’s argument hit so close to home for me because his key example of Latter-Day Saints: we were once the ire of cultural conservatives, excluded from the mainstream because we were seen as threatening conservative values. But the same could be said of Catholics, Asians, Latinos, Muslims– that are seem as a threat to white Protestant America. On what set of values can we build a conservative worldview, if we don’t share a religion and a culture? If American conservatism is limited to white Protestant America, I think we are already in its waning days, and we would do well to confront these questions. I think there is value in a conservative worldview, and I think the seeds of it are already present in conservative thought. Conservatives recognize the value of traditions across cultures, even seeing them as defenders of culture against the homogenizing effects of globalization. We need to better articulate a response and form a united front.
How Democracies Die
The second critique of American conservatism today I found in How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsy. The book examines across cultures how decaying political norms result in dictatorships and loss of freedom in what used to be democracies. And this doesn’t necessarily happen with coups or guns or hostile takeovers. It can all happen with a veneer of legitimacy. Its writing is very timely. The writers, at times implicitly, at other times explicitly, voice concerns about the direction of the Trump presidency. It was this passage that was a wake-up call:
Under unified government, where legislative and judicial institutions are in the hands of the president’s party, the risk is not confrontation but abdication. If partisan animosity prevails over mutual toleration, those in control of congress may prioritize defense of the president over the performance of their constitutional duties. In an effort to stave off opposition victory, they may abandon their oversight role, enabling the president to get away with abusive, illegal, and even authoritarian acts. Such a transformation from watchdog into lapdog can be an important enabler of authoritarian rule.
Has the Republican party become Trump’s lapdog? What does the Republican party even stand for at this point? Politics has been reduced to ensuring that Republicans are in power, rather than standing for any firm principles. Wiker’s argument that the conservative stance is self-government and local government are the most important fall on deaf ears. Where is this in the Republican Party:
The inhabitant is attached to his township because it is strong and independent; he is interested in it because he cooperates in directing it; he loves it because he has nothing to complain of in his lot; he places his ambition and his future in it; he mingles in each of the incidents of township life: in this restricted sphere that is within his reach he tries to govern society; he habituates himself to the forms without which freedom proceeds only through revolutions, permeates himself with their spirit, gets a taste for order, understands the harmony of powers, and finally assembles clear and practical ideas on the nature and the duties as well as the extent of his rights.