America and American conservatism are at a crossroads. Conservatives are naturally the “patriotic party,” proud of their country and committed to defending it against its cultured despisers. Most of us, most of the time, remain confident that America is mankind's “last best hope.” Yet many of us cannot help but acknowledge that our country is becoming less morally estimable, as human freedom is increasingly understood as limitless relativism and accompanied by totalitarian moralism on much of the left. Some conservatives, such as Patrick J. Deneen in his widely discussed book Why Liberalism Failed, are tempted to blame this state of affairs on the principles of the American Founding. Deneen and some other Catholic traditionalists chalk up our discontent to liberalism itself, which is said, in the long run, to corrode personal responsibility, civic spirit, and authentic culture. Deneen argues that the American Founding is complicit in the corruption of true democracy because it is ultimately rooted in the not-so-concealed nihilism at the heart of Enlightenment liberalism. In this view, liberalism inexorably gives rise to an unrelenting anti-culture, which, because it recognizes no authoritative institutions, is destructive of civilization as such.
In another sector of the American Right, perhaps even more influential, the threat to American liberty is identified as big-government progressivism. It is progressivism that has increasingly eroded the “natural rights” constitutionalism bequeathed to us by John Locke and the American Founders. This is the basic story told by the students of Harry V. Jaffa and, in a more libertarian form — one less friendly to religion and natural law — by George F. Will in his new book, The Conservative Sensibility. In this view, the secular contest between natural-rights republicanism and egalitarian progressivism is the great struggle of our time.
As Richard Reinsch and the late Peter Augustine Lawler, two remarkably talented students of American political thought and Western political philosophy, argue in their thoughtful and provocative new book, our country's appeal to natural rights was indispensable in the effort to “discredit the communist or fascist reduction of the particular person to nothing but an expendable cog in a machine.” And rights are certainly not arbitrary or groundless, given to us capriciously by a state that can take them away at will. They do indeed have real roots in human nature and the order of things. The problem, as Lawler and Reinsch see it, is that these rights are increasingly disconnected from the traditions that gave rise to them and from the ends and purposes of human freedom. Many libertarians and soi-disant classical liberals, and almost all progressives, ignore or explain away the essentially relational character of human existence in the name of an ever more unconstricted view of personal liberty. This conception of liberty is severed from the moral foundations of democracy: loyalty to country; the love, support, and discipline of the family; and the eternal verities conveyed by traditional religion. These are among the precious “moral contents of life,” as the French political philosopher Pierre Manent calls them, without which liberty degenerates into a nihilistic form of self-assertion or, at best, an indifference to human excellence or to the primordial distinction between good and evil. Without its conservative foundations, liberty withers and turns against itself.