The central political crisis of our time is not the debt, Hunter Biden’s laptop, or even inflation — it is the weakening state of the American Family and the democratic decay accompanying. Crime, loneliness, a declining birthrate and much more signal a society that no longer knows how to use its freedom in a meaningful manner, tragically conflating freedom with nihilism and individualism with hedonism.
Our president’s use of a particular “F-word” is humorous because he seems to do it at the most inopportune times — while introducing President Obama during a White House celebration of the passage of the Affordable Care Act or on a recent trip to Florida to view the damage in the wake of Hurricane Ian.
It’s good for a chuckle and little else.
And yet, the most important three words in the modern political lexicon are very different “F-words:” freedom, family, and fortitude. The necessity of appreciating the interplay among the three is not just good social science and a prerequisite for crafting wise statecraft, but is especially relevant to our current national dialogue as traditional conservatives continue to lose faith in the basic tenets of the classical liberal tradition.
Almost every damning headline about how broken and unhappy our society has become in the past decade — lonely, addicted, jobless, single, uneducated, incarcerated — can somehow be traced to the modern reality of freedom becoming unmoored from virtue and liberty, degenerating into unapologetic orgies of licentiousness. Or, to put it another way, America the nation has become fundamentally broken because American citizens fundamentally do not know how to use their freedom.
To be blunt: this modern form of democratic decay is nothing less than the central and animating issue of our time—not the national debt, not Hunter Biden’s laptop, or even temporary inflation. A nation dedicated to freedom, whose paramount virtue is individual liberty and the celebration of robust individualism, cannot endure, much less thrive, when millions of its citizens do not use their freedom in a meaningful, productive, or worthy manner.
From communist authoritarians to Wahhabis clerics, a frequent critique of the West is that it is fundamentally hollow at its core, exalting freedom without answering the underlying question, “Free to do, what, exactly?” A regime that cannot answer this question is one that is prone to conflate freedom with nihilism and individualism with hedonism. It takes claims of equality much too far, celebrating a diversification of value systems that are decidedly destructive of both individual lives and the broader social fabric.
Distorted liberty and radical egalitarianism are how we arrive at a place in our politics where our commitment to freedom is absolute, almost to the point of being thoroughly unhinged, where commitments of any variety — familial, communal, fraternal, moral—are anathema to the modern sensibility. It explains why marriage is passe and parenthood is being abandoned. It illuminates why students frown when religion is even mentioned and how terms like “body autonomy” become a verbal talisman. It is why we rush to decriminalize felony offenses at the same time we convince ourselves that moral judgement is to be avoided at all costs. We fetishize the self and demonize the institutions, relationships, and commitments that allow the self to flourish.
This is the central paradox of the American Experiment and it is causing many of the Right to lose faith in the founding philosophy of the country. In the middle of the last century, two philosophic heavyweights of the West, Leo Strauss and Alexandre Kojeve, engaged in a spirited debate about classical philosophy, historicism and Hegel. But today the most fascinating debate in our particular era is an intra-party squabble between a newfangled conservatism that views liberalism as inherently hostile to family, faith, community, and thus civilizations itself, versus traditional American conservatives who want to conserve the society imagined by the likes of Thomas Jefferson and John Stuart Mill.
This is where the next “F-words,” family and fortitude, are central to understanding our problematic moment in history.
Freedom is our highest value, and yet, it is in our most intimate attachments, family, where we learn how to use our freedom in ways that nourish the elements of life beyond self-interest, narrow ambition, or petty indulgences. The advocates of classical liberalism famously asserted that humans are naturally free, and yet nature does not bequeath the knowledge or fortitude to use freedom so that it results in human flourishing.
Family life and the emotional fortitude it provides is the God Particle of liberalized society, imbuing future citizens with the substance of individual constraint and illuminating the parameters of how free citizens should behave in both the private and public realms of life. Aristotle recognized that the family unit is a political unit — structured with rules, roles, consequences, and duties. Learning how to live and thrive in families is a dress rehearsal for our behavior in broader society.
Look around our schools and our cities and it quickly becomes apparent what happens when children are reared in situations with little to no family stability or structure. The socialization that teaches children how to be free and the adult relationships that model it are simply missing from their lived experiences.
Mountains of research confirm time and time again that the best predictor of educational success, economic mobility, and avoiding destructive behaviors is the family structure of children. Progressives prattle endlessly about race and gender and sexual orientation. The “Post-Liberal Right” wants to blame modernity itself.
But the problem isn’t white privilege or John Locke. The problem is the utter decline of coherent and stable family life for young Americans desperately in need of guidance who often live with a struggling parent, or a parent battling substance abuse, or a parent who brings new men into the household but who are temporary father figures, at best.
A revitalized conservative movement doesn’t need to replace classical liberalism. It needs to support it with the weight of tradition and the authority of wisdom. Policies that serve these ends could be the next chapter in the conservative movement, understanding that revitalization is not a function of spending money, but of strengthening the families that make us strong.
Jeremy S. Adams is the author of Hollowed Out: A Warning About America’s Next Generation, recently released in paperback. He has taught American civics for 24 years in Bakersfield, California and was the 2014 California Teacher of the Year (DAR). You can follow him on Twitter @JeremyAdams6.
The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.