The conservative idolatry of the robust individual gave Karl Marx a way back into the mainstream. It’s a difficult admission for any conservative to make, but America’s future depends on effective treatment.
American individualism has existed since the founding of our nation. In writing the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson borrowed heavily from the English philosopher John Locke who believed that all men were created equal with “inalienable” rights, especially life, liberty, and property. No, we have never fully lived up to these ideals, but we have made tremendous strides in respecting the dignity of all Americans.
If individualism is essential to the American republic, it is not enough to keep it. Maximizing freedom and rejecting authoritarian statism is second nature to most conservatives, especially those of us born during the Reagan Revolution. We were the kids who grew up with Rocky IV. Freedom is great. Captain Ivan Drago is not.
We saw President Ronald Reagan at the Brandenburg Gate demanding that the Soviets tear down the Berlin Wall. The wall has fallen. America won the cold war. Almost immediately, Reagan’s rallying call for “the values we hold, the beliefs we hold dear, the ideals to which we are devoted” began to fade.
The “traditional” hierarchy of faith, family and country weakens from generation to generation. According to the Pew Research Center, only 10% of the Silent Generation (born 1928-1945) is not affiliated with any religion. Among millennials (born 1981-1996), 40% do not identify with any denomination. The number of American Christians and Catholics is declining rapidly while “nothing special” continues to grow.
The divorce rate has declined in recent years, as has the marriage rate. Families have so many options competing for time and attention. It’s hard to see the family as a moral anchor when so many families don’t see each other at all.
And the cultural condition of our country speaks for itself. We are literally a “selfie” nation that believes America’s purpose is to meet our personal desires. In a nation with no shared purpose or values, conservative voices extolling American individualism ring hollow.
Too many Americans fail to hear the bugle of capitalist desirability. Rather, they perceive a political class telling them that they are quite simply on their own.
Most Americans don’t want a lonely existence. Our lives are best lived together. We want a common cause. We need a moral goal. Marx understood the human need for community. He recognized that a large part of our individual identity lies in the relationships we form. Viewing history as a class struggle, Marx believed that citizens would give up much of their individualism to the state in order to improve their living conditions. In fact, Marx noted, “their power must take the form of the state.” History tragically shows how faith in extremely powerful governments has so often failed around the world. But modern Marxists recognize the power of class struggle and revolution in a nation that is not sure it really wants to live together, let alone forge a common future.
If America is simply a geographic collection of interested individuals, using the state as a blunt instrument of force to get what we want sounds much more appealing. It is also the formula for America’s decline that Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev happily prophesied. Conservatives will never defeat Marxist ideas by shouting “socialism” while simultaneously supporting massive government solutions to cultural problems.
Rather, we must use our economic and individual freedoms to deal more effectively with the same human conditions that Marx hoped to improve through state power. This is the American goal. We must be free people ready to eliminate unnecessary suffering and uplift human existence without our government forcing us to do so.
Marx’s socialist revolution was not inevitable in America, but it is becoming a worrying possibility. Conservatives should stand up for individual freedom, but we also need to develop a compelling moral vision of what we should do with it.
Smith is CEO of the Triptych Foundation, a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit. The Triptych Foundation engages the media, businesses and public policies to lay the foundations for a better cultural trajectory. He was most recently executive director of the Republican Policy Committee in the US House of Representatives. You can reach him at [email protected].