Getting There from Here

Getting There from Here

As you might have guessed, given that I didn’t write as I normally do on Tuesday, I was traveling this week.  My travels, while interesting and more than worthwhile, convinced me that we, as a society, face one of the most intractable problems in all of human existence.

As always, upon arrival at Washington’s Reagan National Airport, I was immediately struck by an overwhelming sense of whatever the opposite of nostalgia is.  Washington’s signature scent – a combination of asphalt, diesel fuel, and torpid, humid air – triggers something melancholy in my soul, reminding me that I never really belonged there.  It is the hub of national politics, of course, but it is also, I think, a massive reminder that politics is neither the source of nor the solution to what plagues us as a people.  People looking for those solutions must contend with Washington but merely in a way that keeps it from interfering too profoundly while the real work – whatever that is – is done.  As we’re wont to say: Washington is not where the important decisions and actions of the American people take place.  It is merely where the score is kept.

Fittingly, given this, none of the four speakers whom I made this trip to hear were actually from Washington or associated with it in any significant way.  Two, in fact, were not even born in the United States, although they have lived here now for decades and have enriched its cultural life immensely.

Three of these speakers received the prestigious Bradley Prize – awarded by Milwaukee’s Bradley Foundation – for their contributions to “advancing the ideals of American exceptionalism.”  All three of this year’s prize winners – Samuel Gregg, Jay Bhattacharya, and William Barclay Allen – are public intellectuals, academics.  Two – Gregg and Allen – have spent their careers studying and explaining (for readers and students alike) the intricacies of Western Civilization, that is to say, what enabled the West’s global ascendancy, what precipitated its political and economic liberty, and what has been lost or forgotten over the centuries by successive generations that are either ignorant or purposefully disdainful of those intricacies and how they necessarily function only in complex synchronization.

The fourth speaker I saw in a private, confidential session and will, therefore, remain anonymous.  I can say that this speaker’s work is undoubtedly known to many of you, as he has rightly become renowned over the last few years for his extremely successful efforts to undermine the Left’s political and cultural overreach.  He is not an intellectual – although he is inarguably brilliant – but an activist.  His campaigns have shown others in the conservative movement how to be effective in resisting the ongoing leftward tilt in our most important institutions.

This speaker’s most important message was one that resonated deeply with me and that I have always tried my best to practice: the key to persuasion is good, engaging, and attention-grabbing storytelling.  It doesn’t matter how solid your arguments are or how brilliantly you construct your models.  If you don’t tell an absorbing and emotionally compelling story, you aren’t going to convince anyone of anything.  You aren’t going to make any sort of real-world progress on the matters about which you care.

He argued – and has convincingly demonstrated – that the Left’s narratives can be destroyed.  They can be picked apart.  They can be made to look foolish in theory and damaging in practice.  With proper and emotional storytelling, the Left’s institutions can be relegated to the dustbin of history.

The catch with his broader argument is that it ends there.  It doesn’t explain what happens then, what one is supposed to do next.  It effectively identifies the means to destroy the prevailing cultural narrative, but it doesn’t have much to say about how the culture and civil society get rebuilt afterward.

And that’s a problem.

Between the two sets of speakers, we were reminded of two things.  First, when it comes to the “ideal” type of society, we generally know what we want.  From the moment the likes of Richard Weaver, Russell Kirk, and James Burnham put pen to paper, American conservatives have been slowly but surely defining, refining, and redefining the characteristics that made pre-modern/early-American/pre-Progressive society so great.  We know what Tocqueville saw and what made it so unique.  We understand what has been lost and what must be regained.  Thanks to Samuel Gregg and William Barclay Allen and innumerable others, we know what we’re missing and what would improve our lives.  We know as well not to expect our lives to be perfect and that no temporal reforms can accomplish such a thing.  But we know that the society we live in today isn’t what the Founders envisioned and isn’t anywhere near as supportive of liberty and human flourishing as it could be.

Second, we know how to beat the Left and expose the faultiness of its logic as well as the flimsiness of the vision it offers.  We know that we can and should tell the stories that undermine its narrative and leave it exposed for the fantastical nonsense it is.

What we DO NOT know, however, is how to get from here to there.  We don’t know what to do once we’ve destroyed that which we loathe.  We don’t really know how to build.

This, for lack of a better term, is the Enlightenment Paradox.

Civilization essentially began in Ur of Sumer some 5000 years ago.  Ur’s most famous and important resident was Abram, son of Terah, who was brought “out of Ur of the Chaldeans, to go to the land of Canaan.”  Abram became the father of the Jewish people, who became the progenitors of Western Civilization and who forged a moral code that would, with contributions from the Greeks and Romans, remain intact for some 4700 years.  At that point, of course, the moral code was itself destroyed by the brilliant minds of the Enlightenment who, through the power of their intellects, undermined all that had come before and replaced it with…well…nothing or at least nothing substantive.  The rest, as they say, is history – bloody, ugly, destructive, murderous history.

To reiterate: in the West, we know how to destroy existing moral guidelines and institutions.  We’ve done it before.  What we don’t know is how to build new guidelines and institutions to replace the ones we’ve destroyed.  We’ve NEVER done that before – and nor has anyone else.

That, in a nutshell, is the conundrum facing both the conservative movement and society more generally.  How do we do something that’s never been done before?  How do we rebuild that which was destroyed?  How do we build anything at all in short order, given that the original version evolved over centuries and millennia?

I have thoughts on this, of course, some of which are the subject of the next (and still unfinished and unpublished) book.  But even the ideas I offer require a buy-in from political authorities that will not be easily obtained.  They require something else that is rare in human history, for those with almost unchallenged and unlimited power to relinquish it voluntarily.

In any case, this is the challenge that faces us all.  Given what we know, how do we get what we need?  How do we get there from here?

Stephen Soukup
Stephen Soukup
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Steve Soukup is the Vice President and Publisher of The Political Forum, an “independent research provider” that delivers research and consulting services to the institutional investment community, with an emphasis on economic, social, political, and geopolitical events that are likely to have an impact on the financial markets in the United States and abroad.