Editors’ note: Last fall, the Buckley Program sponsored an essay contest open to student Fellows and others within the Yale community. The topic question, tied to our annual conference, was “What is a 21st Century Conservative?” Judged by three Yale professors, the following essay was written by Dimitri Halikias, a rising junior in Ezra Stiles and Operations Director of the Buckley Program. He won the first-place prize of $1,000.
Following Mitt Romney’s defeat last November, liberal and conservative pundits alike rushed to call for a radical rethinking of the Republican Party platform. They charged that conservatism has grown outmoded, with nothing left to offer an increasingly secular, liberal America of the twenty-first century. These criticisms are not without their merit, and they remind us that while it remains committed to absolute moral principles, conservatism as a political theory must remain firmly grounded in reality. Even the most ancient of truths require modern articulations. The project of the twenty-first-century conservative, therefore, is to promote the transcendent principles of human flourishing and virtue, but to do so in a society that can and must continue to evolve. But relying upon such platitudes alone is the mark of progressive or postmodern thought, not conservatism. Modern conservatives must not be afraid to recognize the clear battle of the day—the defense of the bedrock of civilization and culture: the family.
Much to its detriment, the conservative movement in America has relegated the family to the realm of “social” conservatism, ignoring its centrality as a mechanism of economic and political stability. In modern political discourse, “family conservatism” has become a buzzword for “the war on women” on the left and “traditional marriage” on the right. Meanwhile, “sensible” conservatives feel more comfortable discussing national deficits and economic growth rather than addressing the crisis of falling marriage rates and a collapse of marital culture. This is an alarming trend in American conservatism. Forgetting the significance of strong families and vibrant communities, conservatives become nothing more than soft liberals, debating meaningless points regarding corporate tax rates and regulations while doing nothing as the very fabric of American society falls apart.
The defense of the family must be picked up anew by twenty-first-century conservatives, and its defense must return to the center of any and all reform agendas. Conservatives should fight to uphold the importance of marriage and the accompanying norms of monogamy and permanence that are necessary for a free and virtuous people. At the same time, conservatives must recognize that the state can be used as a tool to help strengthen and defend the family. Tax policy should be overhauled to eliminate distortions and preferences that do nothing more than subsidize middle- and upper-class expenditures. But at the same time, conservatives should pay heed to proposals like that of Senator Mike Lee to expand child tax credits to support parents struggling to maintain a family in a stagnant economy.
Welfare must be reformed to guarantee its economic sustainability but, even more importantly, to eliminate leviathan programs that perpetuate poverty and create a permanent underclass of citizens. It must be recognized that poverty is not only an individual affliction but one that destroys families and communities alike. Conservatives should continue to vehemently oppose all government policies that target faith-based institutions both to defend religious freedom and also as recognition of the invaluable support churches, synagogues, and temples provide for a family structure that secular culture often devalues.
A revival of strong family culture would mean many things for a struggling American society. The family, as Professor Robert P. George often observes, is the original department of education, health, and human services. And as recent literature on economic inequality and social mobility clearly demonstrates, children who grow up in broken families are all but destined for lives of poverty, crime, and abandonment. Abandoning the family and focusing exclusively on the task of ever-faster economic growth and the maximization of personal autonomy will breed nothing but greater disillusionment and chaos in an increasingly fragmented culture.
A great deal of ink has been shed diagnosing the calamity of modern conservatism. These are important and valuable debates to be had by any intellectual movement, and there are many fresh and bold thinkers prepared to take the reins of the conservative movement. But conservatives must remain wary of the allure of libertarian “big-tent conservatism,” which purports to appeal to left and right alike in building the conservatism of the future. Combining the principles of 1960s liberationism, non-intervention abroad, and an unfettered free market, an increasingly libertarian conservatism would be left intellectually bereft, unable to make the philosophical case against the dangers of progressivism and relegated to debate the trivial distinction between a 35% and 39.6% top marginal tax rate.
Twenty-first-century conservatives must unite around the family as the fundamental building block of our culture and civilization. They must advocate for marriage as a comprehensive union, while shedding the image of intolerance and bigotry. They must fight for extensive economic reforms, but must recognize that lower taxes and reduced spending are important not as ends in themselves but as means to creating a healthy, vibrant civil society. And they must reenter the culture war to defend the strength of the family and the virtues of the American community that are essential to the wellbeing of the Republic.