For more than half a century, the luminaries of the mainstream American right had a clear mission and sense of where they came from. If liberals were fixated on quixotic schemes for building a perfect society, conservatives would be on hand to do the sober work of defending liberty against tyranny. Conservatives traced their roots to 1790, with the British statesman Edmund Burke’s warnings about the dangers of revolution and his insistence on the contractual relationship between the inherited past and the imagined future. They counted the English philosopher Michael Oakeshott and the Austrian émigré economist Friedrich Hayek as ancestors and viewed public intellectuals, such as the American writer William F. Buckley, Jr., and people of action, such as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and U.S. President Ronald Reagan, as fighters for the same cause: individualism, the wisdom of the market, the universal yearning for freedom, and the conviction that solutions to social problems will bubble up from below, if only government would get out of the way. As Barry Goldwater, the Arizona senator and forefather of the modern Republican Party, put it in The Conscience of a Conservative, in 1960, “The Conservative looks upon politics as the art of achieving the maximum amount of freedom for individuals that is consistent with the maintenance of the social order.”
Over the last decade, however, this account has given way to an alternative reading of the past. For a vocal cohort of writers and activists, the real conservative tradition lies in what is sometimes called “integralism”—the weaving of religion, personal morality, national culture, and public policy into a unified order. This intellectual history no longer reflects the easy confidence of a Buckley, nor does it advance an argument, formed primarily in conversation with the American founders, for government resting on a balance-of-powers constitution and enabling a free citizen’s pursuit of happiness. Instead, it imagines a return to a much older order, before the wrong turn of the Enlightenment, the fetishizing of human rights, and the belief in progress—a time when nature, community, and divinity were thought to work as one indivisible whole.
Integralism was born on the Catholic right, but its reach has transcended its origins, now as an approach to politics, law, and social policy known to its promoters as “common-good conservatism.” In states such as Florida and Texas, its worldview has informed restrictions on voting access, curbs on public school curricula dealing with race and gender, and purges of school libraries. Its legal theory has shaped recent Supreme Court decisions that narrowed the rights of women and weakened the separation between religion and public institutions. Its theology has lain behind the bans on abortion passed by nearly half of U.S. state legislatures. Its proponents will be present in any future Republican presidential administration, and in their fight against liberals and cosmopolitans, they are more likely than earlier American conservatives to look for allies abroad—not on the British or European center-right but among newer, far-right parties and authoritarian governments committed to unraveling the “liberal order” at home and abroad. “They hate me and slander me and my country, as they hate you and slander you and the America you stand for,” Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban told a crowd last year in Dallas, at the annual Conservative Political Action Coalition conference, a gathering of conservative activists, politicians, and donors. “But we have a different future in mind. The globalists can all go to hell.”
For all these reasons, reading right-wing philosophers is the first step toward understanding what amounts to the most radical rethinking of the American political consensus in generations. Theorists such as Patrick Deneen, Adrian Vermeule, and Yoram Hazony insist that the United States’ economic ills, its political discord, and its relative decline as a world power spring from a single source: the liberalism that they identify as the dominant economic, political, and cultural framework in the United States since World War II and the model that the country has spent the better part of a century foisting on the rest of the globe. Yet these ideas also point toward a deeper change in how conservatives diagnose their country’s troubles. On the American right, there is a growing intuition that the problem with liberal democracy is not just the adjective. It is also the noun.