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How Do You Begin Reforming Conservatism?

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The law touches us but here and there, [but manners] are what vex or sooth…barbarize or refine us, by a constant, steady, uniform, insensible operation, like that of the air we breathe in.

- Edmund Burke, Letters on a Regicide Peace[1]

Yuval Levin’s recent explication of “The Roots of Reforming Conservatism” is instructive in its breadth and depth, incisive in its clarity, and inspiring but somewhat daunting in its call to action. IR readers may be wondering where to begin. How do you become an effective “reforming conservative”?

Reforming conservatism is more challenging than progressivism, and raises a host of questions. How do you sort out which parts of our society to “preserve” and which to “reform”? How is it possible to preserve the “elevated yet gloomy conception of man, deeply informed by the peculiar, paradoxical wisdom of the West’s great religions” when this view is progressively evaporating in exchange for the vapid pursuit of self-discovery and liberation? How do you support action-oriented reform efforts with due regard for the complexity of society and the danger of unintended consequences?

Progressivism is easy. Progressives believe we are marching to a better future, and everyone should just get with the program. Who wants to stand in the way of “progress”? Progressives have no compunction about proposing sweeping, comprehensive, national action. Even if the action is cosmetic or detrimental, it generates excitement and a sense of purpose. To recognize, as conservatives like Ross Douthat and Ramesh Ponnuru do, that we are not "a new federal program away" from fixing problems like racial division or poverty, can generate a sense of lethargy toward these kinds of problems if we're not careful. Conservatives often get stuck appearing like naysayers, standing athwart progress and yelling, “STOP!” to paraphrase William F. Buckley.

This is one of Levin’s main points, and he is right: “To advance our cause, then, American conservatives need to offer our vision as a genuine alternative to the status quo.” But how to begin?

The great reforming conservatives of the past understood the importance of manners. Foundational to William Wilberforce’s campaign to abolish the Atlantic slave trade was a “Reformation of Manners,” as Eric Metaxas argues in his biography Amazing Grace. Wilberforce looked around at pre-Victorian British society and saw that the way people treated each other, especially the way they treated the poor, was degrading and undignified. Acceptance of slavery was an outgrowth of this lack of manners, broadly understood—the result of an impoverished vision of human life. Wilberforce’s contemporary Edmund Burke, a reformer in his own right, also cared about manners; Levin describes his appreciation for (non-consensual) family obligations as the true foundation of human society and "conservative sociology."

I enjoy the informality of American society as much as the next millennial - or the next baby-boomer, for that matter. Growing up, I was constantly exasperated when my dad would harangue me for talking with my mouth full. “What’s the big deal?” I would ask. When I worked at a corporation, I was delighted to be allowed to address even the COO on a first-name basis. In contrast, my friend from Singapore recently explained to me that in his culture every relationship, including each friendship, is marked by a strong sense of propriety and inequality, with each person filling an unspoken but understood hierarchical role. I’m not advocating that level of formality, but perhaps a few more “sirs” and “ma’ams” is not too much to ask.

Manners shape our daily interpersonal interactions, and as Theodore Dalrymple observed in a terrific piece on manners almost a decade ago, “after all, small interactions are, within quite wide limits, what determine the quality of our lives.” They help us identify roles and responsibilities in a given situation, and exhibit regard for the people around us. Since manners involve personal restraint and respect for others, they also point to something deeper, something political scientist James Q. Wilson noticed is very relevant to public problems, from the national debt to poverty, but often absent from public conversation: character.

A casual glance at our 50 Shades of Grey culture shows that a new “Reformation of Manners,” broadly understood, would not be irrelevant. Conservatives aspiring to contribute to Levin’s “genuine progress” and reform should remember that minding our manners, recognizing that every interaction with a neighbor or stranger, is an opportunity to exude regard for others and a rich vision of human life with all its frailty, complexity, and promise. Manners aren’t the answer to all the questions Levin’s thoughtful piece raises—as he points out, getting into the nitty-gritty of policy is critical—but they're a good place to start, in keeping with the tradition of the great reforming conservatives. Wilberforce and his fellow reformers' success should shield us from despair, providing grounds for hope that cultures can change and be renewed in surprising ways. Indeed, Michael Barone presented evidence early this year that our manners and mores—millenials' I mean—are in fact changing for the better, prompting him to ask whether we will end up a "New Victorian Generation," reinvigorating the notion of civic responsibility.

So here’s to refraining from speaking when our mouths are full—and more importantly, to speaking with respect and grace when they’re not.


[1] Quoted in Empire and Community: Edmund Burke’s Writings and Speeches on International Relations, David P. Fidler and Jennifer M. Welsh, eds. (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1999), 48.

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