How Conservatives Can Save America

If properly understood and marshaled, they “can be a liberal democracy's strongest bulwark against the dangers posed by intolerant social movements.”

Joshua Roberts / Reuters

Conservatives can save America in 2017.

That’s my takeaway from a passage that I haven’t stopped thinking about since Donald Trump’s election. It appears in a 2005 book about the forces that tear countries apart.

It’s impossible to read without thinking of the United States right now.

Karen Stenner, then a professor of politics at Princeton University, studied places like the former Yugoslavia that descended into bloody civil war, as well as citizens of successful democracies in Europe and North America, and identified the conditions and political predispositions that make civil strife most likely. She found that across eras and countries, some humans, who she calls “libertarians,” strongly prefer individual freedom and diversity, while others, who she calls “authoritarians,” possess a perhaps innate discomfort with difference that causes them to prefer sameness and unity, even if coercive measures are needed to enforce it.

Usually, these types are able to coexist peacefully. But at times they come into conflict. How conservatives react in those times is crucial to the outcome. If they are properly understood and marshaled, conservatives “can be a liberal democracy's strongest bulwark against the dangers posed by intolerant social movements,” Stenner writes. And if not, they can push a nation toward repression or civil war.

Unfortunately, few people properly understand conservatives. In fact, many erroneously conflate them with authoritarians. And that is a very dangerous mistake.

To understand the passage I can’t get off my mind––it’s coming soon, I promise––we must first be precise about what makes conservatives in the United States different from authoritarians. Rather than quibble with this taxonomy, understand that it is how Stenner labels two types, and that what follows applies only to those who fit her definitions.

Her conservatives are characterized by two attributes:

  • aversion to government intervention
  • aversion to change and a desire to protect the status quo

Think of George Will.

In contrast, her authoritarians are, as already noted, highly averse to difference and diversity. They value sameness, unity, and those who force those qualities on others.

Think of Richard Spencer.

Now, folks with those two sets of beliefs or predispositions would cooperate in some circumstances with disastrous results. During the Civil Rights Era, for example, Southern authoritarians were highly averse to difference and diversity, and supported leaders who would marshal violence to enforce their preferences against black people. And they found functional allies in movement conservatives like Barry Goldwater (because he was highly averse to intervention by the federal government) and William F. Buckley (because he was highly averse to rapid social change).

But these divergent undergirding beliefs often put authoritarians and conservatives at odds with one another, too. Difference-hating authoritarians have been stymied in their desire for harsher enforcement of immigration laws in part because conservatives have an ideological affinity for free markets where the state doesn’t interfere with workers or employers. And those averse to change are pitted against authoritarians if the status quo is a liberal order, like the one that George W. Bush defended in his remarks about Muslims after 9/11, rather than a Jim Crow apartheid state.

“Authoritarianism and political conservatism appear to be largely distinct predispositions,” Stenner writes. “What is politically significant about this fact is that the relationship between authoritarianism and political conservatism is bound to be highly contingent: swinging to a positive, to an insignificant, even to a negative association, depending upon changing social conditions.” And that brings us to today. It brings us to Trump’s rise, and to that passage that unnerves me:

It is no secret that liberal democracy is most secure when individual freedom and diversity are pursued in a relatively orderly fashion, in a well-established institutional framework, under responsible leadership, within the bounds set by entrenched and consensually accepted "rules of the game."

Such "stable diversity" should be acceptable to conservatives but abhorrent to authoritarians (perhaps a diversity that is entrenched and unchallenged is actually the worst kind of all). On the other hand, the prospect of some wholesale overthrow of the system in pursuit of greater unity should be appealing, even exciting, to authoritarians, but appalling to conservatives. Liberal democracy would seem least secure when conservatives cannot be persuaded that freedom and diversity are authoritatively supported and institutionally constrained, and when authoritarians can be persuaded that greater sameness and oneness––the "one right way" for the "one true people"––lie just at the other end of the "shining path."

Isn’t that what happened during the 2016 election?

Conservatives feared that if Hillary Clinton was elected there would be no breaks on the advance of her coalition’s agenda, in part because parts of her coalition were encouraging her to change “the rules of the game.” Whether rationally or irrationally, they could not be persuaded that there were sufficient institutional constraints on immigration policy, the federal government’s new role in health care, or the pace of social change in a country where President Obama began his tenure opposed to gay marriage and ended it making federal policy on transgender rights.

Meanwhile, Trump persuaded credulous authoritarians that if they elected him, “greater sameness and oneness—the ‘one right way’ for the ‘one true people’—lie just at the other end of the ‘shining path.’” Stenner’s words could’ve been in his inaugural address.

Of course, Trump’s rise repelled a lot of conservatives, and required other factors to succeed, including a weak opponent, a system that awards the presidency to the person with the most electoral votes rather than the winner of the popular vote, and widespread mistrust of an establishment that has failed at home and abroad. But the fact that the Trump administration is heavily reliant on laissez-faire and status-quo conservatives to advance its agenda (and to avoid impeachment), coupled with the radical substantive divergence in what conservatives and authoritarians ultimately want, suggests to me that anyone wary of Trump should study this relationship.

This includes Democrats who hope to partner with conservatives to defeat Trump, but don’t yet understand the compromises or assurances that they must offer to succeed.

Erroneously conflating authoritarians and conservatives has created “needless skepticism and resistance among those (quite reasonably) reluctant to accept that distaste for change implies distaste for other races, or that commitment to economic freedom somehow suggests an interest in moral regulation and political repression,” Stenner writes, echoing a complaint many a movement conservative has made.

“This confusion among both scholars and political elites has significant implications,” she continues. “It can drive those who are merely averse to change into unnatural and unnecessary political alliances with the hateful and intolerant, when they could be rallied behind tolerance and respect for difference under the right conditions.”

What conditions are those?

  • authoritative reminders that tolerance and respect for difference are privileged ideas in our national tradition;
  • “reassurances regarding established brakes on the pace of change, and the settled rules of the game to which all will adhere;”
  • “confidence in the leaders and institutions managing social conflict , and regulating the extent and rate of social change.”

(That list of conditions actually suggests a silver lining for indignant Democrats watching the imminent confirmation of a movement conservative as the next Supreme Court.)

“Status quo conservatives, if properly understood and marshaled, can be a liberal democracy's strongest bulwark against the dangers posed by intolerant social movements,” Stenner concludes. “Those by nature averse to change should find the ‘shining path’ to a ‘glorious future’ far more frightening than exciting, and can be expected to defend faithfully an established order––including one of institutionalized respect for difference and protection of individual freedom––against ‘authoritarian revolution.’”

Some conservatives have already undertaken that project. Others haven’t yet grasped the nature of the coalition they joined when supporting Trump, or the ways that it threatens much that they hold dear. Perhaps Stenner can open more of their eyes.

The nuances in her book make it worth reading in full.