DANIEL VAUGHAN: Conserving the rebellious impulse during a pandemic

Not all conservatisms are the same. What makes a person conservative depends both on the time and country they live in. The essential question for a conservative is: What are we conserving?

For the person answering that question, their response depends on the ideas and traditions that have been established and need protection.

It’s a bit like the historical preservation society in a given county. While everyone has some of the same general ideas in place when preserving a historic building or site, the kinds of structures and sites that are important vary considerably between localities.

That is why an American conservative is much different than an English one. And more differences arise when you go out and include French conservatives, Italian, Greek, Russian, African, Indian, and so on.

What ideas and concepts deserve preservation vary. That does not mean things are relative. Often, you can find certain truths enveloped in beliefs and traditions.

But it does mean the project of conservation varies from country to country. Not all traditions are under attack.

One of the more curious tasks of American conservatism is preserving a specific part of America’s cultural DNA. That is, conserving America’s rebellious streak against authority.

It’s something of a cinematic trope at this point that Americans don’t want to follow authority. In a movie, the American spirit is always the person in the film playing by their own rules — perhaps to the detriment of everyone else.

A few years ago, a Washington Post story came out proving this point. The article outlined the favorite TV shows of liberals and conservatives. On the right, the most-watched show was FX’s Sons of Anarchy, a show about an outlaw motorcycle gang. And on the left, the most popular was Downton Abbey, a show about wealthy aristocrats and their servants in Edwardian England.

Sons of Anarchy hits on that deep vein of the American spirit that revels in the Revolution, the long-hunter pioneers, Westerns, and the superhero who operates outside the law. It’s a built-in feature of the American psyche.

It’s not always been viewed that way. Leftist progressives, in particular, have always wanted to rid America of this feature because they desire more technocratic control.

Case in point: Woodrow Wilson, before he became president, argued for a new administrative state to lead the United States forward in 1901. He looked around at America — comparing it to all countries around it, comparing it to the economic creativity blooming around the country — and called for such changes. He said of America in 1901 article for The Atlantic, “The question of efficiency is the same for it as for any other kind of polity.”

Wilson specifically wanted an expert class to rule, instead of blindly electing people democratically.

“[L]eadership must be single, open, responsible, and of the whole,” he wrote. “Leadership and expert organization have become imperative, and our practical sense, never daunted hitherto, must be applied to the task of developing them at once and with a will.” He also called for these new technocrats to replace the old American order:

We may ourselves get responsible leadership instead of government by mass meeting; a trained and thoroughly organized administrative service instead of administration by men privately nominated and blindly elected…

Instead of seeing “the people” as the group that grants legitimacy and authority to the government, Wilson and his progressive cohort saw the people as those who needed to be ruled by technocratic expertise. The problem with this mindset is that it runs completely contrary to the American DNA, which was founded, literally, by rebels.

Jonah Goldberg tells a story by Seymour Martin Lipset, comparing Americans and Canadians in this respect. He writes:

The Canadians descend from loyalists and royalists, the Americans descend, literally and figuratively, from rebels. In the 1970s, when both of our governments told the public we were switching to the metric system, the Canadians said “Okay, eh.” The Americans shrugged and kept clinging to their inches and pounds.

It’s this last part — the Americans rejecting a command from their government — that’s at play right now over wearing things like masks. Governments can demand people to wear face masks, but people can and will reject that order. It’s part of that American warning system of any tyranny around the corner.

That doesn’t mean the rejection of wearing masks is inherently right, but there is a reason that rejection has appeared. It’s not overtly a tribal thing either; after all, a Republican is in the White House. The rejection of masks is coming mostly from the president’s own party. And people want to disobey orders to stay off beaches in places like California, too.

The rejection of wearing masks is a sign that there’s an air of illegitimacy in the request. The government is demanding something without providing appropriate checks and balances that people would typically expect in these situations.

Americans have shown great patience by sheltering in place for around two months now, far beyond the orders by governors and mayors, and beyond even what the CDC required. They acted early then because they didn’t trust the message from their government. They’re reopening now because they still don’t fully trust their government.

That impulse is the thing conservatives work to preserve. It’s not always right, and it’s not always pretty, but it is uniquely American. And when it is correct, it’s the most crucial warning system that exists in pushing back against a growing government.

Preserving a rebellious instinct is tricky business, but it has to be done because the progressive desire to rule by technocratic expertise over any democratic order is still strong.

In the middle of a pandemic, challenging a mask order isn’t the wisest of choices. But that impulse will be needed later on. Conservatives must help guide that impulse accordingly, because not all nations have that cultural red-flag in their system. We do, and we need conservatives to conserve America’s rebellious spirit.