Among his many exhortations to conservatives is Russell Kirk’s insistence that they be guided by the principle of prudence. Prudence, properly understood, requires the ability to be self-critical — to avoid an unmoving fealty to outmoded dogmas, to re-examine assumptions, and, most of all, to have the courage and foresight to correct course if and when things have gone wayward.
Leading lights on the Right gathered last week under the banner of “national conservatism” to apply some prudent self-examination to the now well-trodden path of the traditional conservative consensus. It was a necessary effort, and one that may prove to be transformational.
The “consensus,” as it was once described, is hardly without its cracks. At the National Conservatism Conference last week, the orthodoxy that has defined the Right for the last 40 years — philosophical allegiance to the three-legged stool of markets, moral values, and military might — was visibly and profoundly challenged.
That it was challenged so enthusiastically and with such intellectual rigor suggests that there is, in fact, an ascendant movement afoot.
It arises out of an acknowledgment that there is a rootlessness in America today that conservatism, as it has been traditionally defined, has left unaddressed. "Fusionism," the prevailing political consensus between traditional social conservatives and economic libertarians, has made America rich, but it has also left us morally bereft.
All of this provided the context for a deeply resonant closing speech by Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO). The new Republican senator from Missouri has made quite a name for himself by vigorously vetting lifetime judicial nominees and unapologetically taking Silicon Valley giants to task.
But Hawley's philosophical roots have not had much public exposure in Washington, D.C. Hearing them was worth the wait.
The senator did not hesitate to make his mark as the clear embodiment of this self-critical, self-aware, shifting consensus on the Right.
“For too long now,” Hawley opened, “this country has been badly led ... by a political consensus forged by a political class that has lost touch with what binds us together as Americans.”
In a statement that left little room for doubt about where Hawley stands on the need to cling to old shibboleths, he declared the great divide was “not between Trump supporters and Trump opponents, or between suburban voters and rural ones, or between Red America and Blue America,” but between “the political agenda of the leadership elite and the great broad middle of our society.”
In a searing indictment of the current political arrangement, the senator did not mince words:
Because in this bargain, foreign competitors get to make the goods, and we just buy them. And then they buy up American companies with the profits. And yes, in this bargain there are lots of jobs — jobs on Wall Street, or in Hollywood, or in Silicon Valley.
Because the truth is, the cosmopolitan economy has made the cosmopolitan class an aristocracy. At the same time, it has encouraged multinational corporations to move jobs and assets overseas to chase the cheapest wages and pay the lowest taxes.
And it has rewarded these same corporations for then turning around and investing their profits not in American workers, not in American development, but in financial instruments that benefit the cosmopolitan elite.
The elite have benefited at the expense of middle America — which is left with flat wages, lost jobs, and declining opportunity. “Is it any surprise,” Hawley pondered, “that in the last half century, as our leaders have pursued a program that the American middle does not espouse, does not support, and does not benefit from, that public confidence in American government has collapsed?”
It should not surprise anyone who has paid attention to how President Trump was elected. Salena Zito and Brad Todd wrote an entire book about it, based largely on interviews with voters from both parties who pulled the lever for Trump. Both parties had let them down, they said. Not only that, but these voters felt disrespected, unheard, and belittled.
Trump was a disrupter, with allegiance to no one, and an allergy to being pushed around by orthodoxies on any side — the orthodoxies which Hawley identifies on the Left as “champion[ing] multiculturalism that degrades our common identity,” and on the Right as “celebrat[ing] hyper-globalization and promis[ing] that the market will make everything right in the end, eventually ... perhaps.”
So what is to be done?
The new consensus that Hawley sets forth includes support for policies ranging from more investment in middle America, upending “the economic concentration that stifles small producers and family enterprises,” removing mountainous college debt as a barrier to entry to the modern workforce, an immigration system that “rewards and nourishes American labor,” and trade policies that prioritize American workers over cheap foreign goods and “arbitrage schemes by the great corporations.”
In just a 20-minute speech, Sen. Hawley set himself at the head of a vanguard that presents a new way for conservatives to think about old problems.
It was also personally meaningful. I grew up in a small, rural town in upstate New York plagued by low wages and low expectations — offset only by high rates of heroin addiction. By the time I graduated high school, I had lost classmates to suicide, overdose, and murder. In the seventeen years since then, I have heard many on the Right appeal to me on the basis of our shared, and deeply held, principles.
But I can mark Hawley’s speech as the first time in my life that I’ve heard a Republican so forcefully and intentionally address the very real problems of the impoverished, rural communities that truly do not care about the corporate tax breaks or the Mueller investigation.
It is time for conservatives to acknowledge that while our principles remain steadfast, their application — and the political consensus that guides them — is in need of self-critical review.
Josh Hawley may be the senator best positioned to do this. His fearlessness in subjecting the old assumptions to rigorous evaluation is breathing new life into our increasingly rusty and irrelevant Congress. And his embodiment of the commitment to the foundations of conservatism with a profound understanding for grievances that animate the populists makes him one of the most intellectually interesting and relevant policymakers to watch.
Like he did so many things, Russell Kirk anticipated this. His adage to all of us would seem appropriate to where Josh Hawley has the potential to take conservatism: “Men cannot improve a society by setting fire to it: they must seek out its old virtues, and bring them back into the light.”
Rachel Bovard is policy director at Conservative Partnership Institute.