How should conservatives respond if they conclude that society is sinking into degeneracy all around them? There’s a traditional answer to that question: defiance. But as their sense of crisis mounts, some conservatives are pushing that defiance to a new level, and openly advocating civil disobedience. In the process, they are exposing both tensions within their own movement, and the limits of civil disobedience as a tactic.
In a letter to Henry Regnery, publisher of then-forthcoming The Conservative Mind, Russell Kirk made his case for defiance as the quintessential act of conservative valor. “By opposing what seems inevitable, often enough we find that its force is not irresistible; and at the worst, we have the satisfaction of the heroic attitude,” he wrote. Kirk, the modern American right’s intellectual godfather, was not indulging romantic daydreams. His intended title for the book was The Conservative Rout, and his wager was on the cosmic significance of defying society's evident fate.
More than half a century on, neither two terms of Reagan nor three terms of Bushes have lessened the sense among many conservatives that the rout goes on. Some on the Christian right now push the “Benedict option”—a retreat from majoritarian politics and into monastic sanctuary, escaping from degeneracy instead of opposing it. But the defiant attitude remains, even among those who place heaven’s justice above human justice. A host of conservatives insist that they must stand and fight, even if the cause seems hopeless, even if the deck is stacked.