Acton Institute Powerblog

Video: Avik Roy on the end of cultural conservatism as we know it

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Bill Buckley and Russell Kirk were leaders in building a movement of cultural conservatism to counter the dominant strain of liberalism that governed American politics following World War II. This movement would eventually lead to the presidency of Ronald Reagan and the end of the Cold War, as well as the rise of Republican congressional leadership in the 1990s and following. But with the fall of communism and a changing American society, cultural conservatism finds itself at a crossroads.

Avik Roy, president of The Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity and Opinion Editor at Forbes magazine, delivered an address as part of the 2017 Acton Lecture Series on this topic, detailing the fraying of the former conservative coalition, and examining what cultural conservatism may look like 25 years from now. We’re pleased to share the video of Roy’s address below.

Marc Vander Maas


  • Noah Smith

    Thank you Avik. Great talk.

  • Nohm

    Regrettably, many who define themselves as conservatives are caving in on the social issues and are pretty much limiting themselves to economics. That shows a very limited view of humanity.

  • Adam

    1) There are enormous differences among racism, nationalism, and culturalism. Roy conflates them. There is a portion of alt-right intellectuals such as Richard Spencer that adhere to racism, but the vast majority of traditional conservatives (both intellectuals and “normal” people) are culturalists (that must act at the level of the sovereign due to the realities of the world). They believe that countless pro-moral social norms–many sub-conscious and ineffable–ultimately drive a society rather than laws or material/intellectual endowments or a-moral optimizing actors.

    2) Roy also conflates the roles of Kirk and Buckley. Kirk was the key post-war U.S. intellectual of traditional conservatism while Buckley’s contribution was political pragmatism in creating the three-legged coalition of the Right/Republican Party (which erroneously became known as conservatism). Buckley never offered a cohesive moral and political philosophy. To do so would have defeated his purpose because traditional conservatism and minimal-state liberalism are inherently incompatible and any consistent philosophy must offend at least one of them (just as technocratic modern liberalism (Bloomberg), Leftist communitarianism (Sanders), and victim-identity-ism (Sharpton) are also inherently incompatible).

    3) Related to point #2, in the 1992 Republican primary, Russell Kirk was the Michigan State Chair for Pat Buchanan. This was no small act and often overlooked in today’s discussion of whether Trump is a conservative. To my knowledge, Kirk had not been active in electoral politics for a long time, and he jumped at the opportunity to support Buchanan. Contrary to Roy’s assertions, this demonstrates a certain coherence in the 4-legged chair of traditional conservatism. I would offer a different taxonomy of traditional conservatism than Roy, but the key unifying feature is culturalism, and Kirk was proudly and loudly a culturalist. And while we can debate the temperamental and rhetorical differences between Trump/Buchanan, the policy differences are pretty narrow.

    4) Not surprisingly, I think Roy’s litmus test of Asian immigration is absurd. The culture of large segments of the U.S. has rotted. As Chris Arnade has stated, class and economics are not the issue. Meaning and purpose are the issues. An enormous and increasing segment of the U.S. wakes up with no existential purpose and sees no existential purpose for themselves and their progeny. Focusing inward on these citizens rather than bringing in Asian immigrants to raise the ex-post average makes perfect sense to me. Policy decisions at the sovereign level should be whether a policy aids a priori citizens, not the ex-post average.

    If you tell a clustered, multi-generational group of citizens that they must live without dignity and purpose because they are not smart enough or did not work hard enough, your culture is going to rot and no amount of high-achieving, conservative-values Asian immigrants are going to reverse that. I do not care about GDP or incomes or even divorce stats except insofar what they tell me about the state of our culture.

    5) Why not instead wish these would-be Asian immigrants to the U.S. good luck in the slow process of changing their own cultures for the better? Why not respect the idea that the people of India and China can take their own path in other lands while the U.S. respects the sovereignty of their lands? Will this be sub-optimal (even resulting in persecution and death) for some would-be immigrants? I would be a fool to suggest otherwise. But traditional conservatism demands a certain humility with respect to the notion that the U.S. can save all people everywhere.