Civilization is a gift, not a given. This point is one of the fundamental truths of modern American conservatism: the idea that any government, country, nation, or culture can be gone in the blink of a historical eye. Understanding how civilizations are built, how they last, and how we can avoid our ancestors’ mistakes is core to shepherding the world to a better tomorrow.
The conservative always looks back, grounded in what has been and using that to guide the future.
One of the earliest writers of the conservative movement in America, Richard M. Weaver, put it like this: “Civilization has been an intermittent phenomenon; to this truth we have allowed ourselves to be blinded by the insolence of material success.”
The United States is one of the most materially wealthy nations to have ever existed, from top to bottom. And we’re just as blind, top to bottom, to the things that could threaten the longevity of our civilization.
We witnessed some threats to our longevity on the National Mall and at the United States Capitol building on Jan. 6, 2021.
Three people died at the rally from medical emergencies. U.S. Capitol Police shot and killed one Trump supporter after she was part of a group storming the Capitol building. Dozens of police officers were injured in the riots, including one who later died. Those who stormed the building ransacked it, causing damage and inflicting chaos as they went.
These are the actions of a lawless mob, people intent on causing destruction and turmoil. And I’m not necessarily referring to just the physical destruction they caused. Those in the crowd were demanding a usurpation of the system the Founders put into place.
Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) described it best, telling Congress in a speech ahead of chaos: “We’re debating a step that has never been taken in American history, whether congress should overrule the voters and overturn a presidential election.”
He went on:
Every election we know features some illegality and irregularity, and of course, that’s unacceptable. […] The Constitution gives us here in Congress a limited role. We cannot simply declare ourselves a national board of elections on steroids. The voters, the courts, and the states have all spoken. They’ve all spoken. If we overrule them, it would damage our republic forever.
Indeed, the mob is calling for the wholesale destruction of the constitutional order created by the Founders and supported for centuries by patriotic Americans of all stripes. This is no different than the physical destruction in the U.S. Capitol building or the widespread looting and vandalism seen in cities across America last summer.
Right now, the major problem we’re dealing with in American politics is that we’re seeing nearly identical behavior as we did in the summer of 2020 — but only now are some considering the perpetrators to be part of an out-of-control mob. If, as Democrats say, what happened at the U.S. Capitol building is a form of sedition, then what were the leftists who declared sovereign zones in cities in the Pacific Northwest?
This point is not about whataboutism or shifting blame. It’s about identifying a problem and snuffing it out on both ends of the political spectrum.
Our civilization is a gift to us from our ancestors, and it’s clear from looking around at the people populating these protests that we couldn’t recreate this civilization in a vacuum, no matter how hard we tried. We must preserve and protect it at all costs.
Protecting what makes us a truly great civilization in human history has been a valid concern at all times. Some people on the left refused to recognize it over the summer because they didn’t want to condemn people on their side. And now, the same is happening on the right in the nation’s capital. In the meantime, both events are threats to the long term health of our republic.
There’s a central thread running through all this, which we should follow instead of pivoting from one political extreme to another. I’m not calling for centrism between the extremes; I’m saying we need to protect what is rare and good about our country and civilization.
In a democratic republic, like the United States, elected political leaders reflect the people. We choose them. If the leadership is lousy, that’s a reflection of the people.
Sure, it’s possible for the occasional bad apple to slip through even if the populace is good. But if the issue is widespread, you can’t blame the leaders, because they come from the people who selected them.
We have a crisis of leadership in this country. And by a crisis, I mean we don’t have any leaders at all. We have plenty of elected officials, but no leaders.
The people have to change before the leaders do. Our system depends on that. The system can only control the destructive impulses of the people for so long. If those checks in the system give way, we suddenly lose what makes us great.
And if we lose that, we lose a great gift. Nothing is given in political systems. Every great civilization before us eventually crumbled into the sands of history. We can decay, too.
To avoid that, we have to prevent the outbursts of purposeful destruction of our political order. We have to condemn it when it arrives and work to prevent it from coming back. We possess a great gift, and we should protect and conserve it. That’s the central idea of conservatism, and we need to live up to that principle.