On Thursday, March 10, the University’s Matthew J. Ryan Center hosted an event on “The Future of American Conservatism.”
The event took place from 7 to 8:30 p.m. in the Driscoll Auditorium and had a panel featuring Timothy P. Carney, Sohrab Ahmari and William B. Allen.
Carney is a columnist and senior fellow at the famous public policy think tank known as the American Enterprise Institute. He is also the author of “Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse.” Ahmari is a columnist and author of “From Fire, by Water: My Journey to the Catholic Faith” and “The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos.” Allen is an Emeritus Dean and Professor at James Madison College at Michigan State University and author of “Habits of Mind: Fostering Access and Excellence in Higher Education.”
While the event was not a debate, the panelists each brought forth unique and often-conflicting perspectives on the ideal path forward for American conservatism, resulting in some civil yet substantial disagreement.
The discussion began with the panelists giving opening statements. This was followed by the panelists responding to each other’s opening statements, which progressively brought many new topics on the table and filled the entire hour of discussion. Finally, the panelists engaged in a brief Q&A with the audience.
Carney began his opening statement with a bold declaration.
“My hopes and predictions are mostly the same: the future of conservatism will be cultural, and it will be populist,” Carney said.
This assertion went mostly unchallenged that night.
However, Carney also emphasized that this populist, cultural conservatism must occur through the appropriate channels, lest it betray the traditional principles of conservatism or lend room for leftist exploitation. Carney referenced the book and film series “The Lord of the Rings” to illustrate his point. The power of the federal government is alluring, just like the Ring, but it is a power that is destructive and should be limited. For Carney, cultural battles should be fought not in Congress, but at the local level.
“A centralized culture war is a fight that the right loses,” Carney said.
Ahmari also began his opening statement with a cultural reference, this time to the legendary horror film “The Shining.” Ahmari compared the conservative movement to the film’s woman in Room 237: alluring from a distance but a horrifying monster upon closer inspection.
Ahmari sees the modern conservative movement as a holdover from the Cold War era, an amalgamation of three remarkably different camps that is now coming undone: business conservatives and libertarians, national security hawks and social conservatives and traditionalists.
Ahmari singled out the business libertarians (as distinguished from what he calls “folk libertarians”) in particular for their inability to deal with class dynamics and the “bondage of the American worker.”
For Ahmari, the way forward for American conservatism is not to maintain the conservative Cold War-era alliance, but rather to build a new alliance with folk libertarians and old-school non-woke progressives.
Unlike Carney, Ahmari expresses more willingness to use the federal government to achieve conservative ends.
“Culture is connected to power relations in society,” Ahmari said.
Allen, the final panelist, expressed uneasiness with Ahmari’s vision of conservatism. Allen spent most of his opening statement emphasizing the central principles of conservatism and their inherent conflict with big government.
“Conservatism is to keep what you have that is of value until you know you have a better replacement for it,” Allen said. “The future of conservatism is doomed unless we understand that that is its essential character.”
As the discussion continued, disagreements intensified, mostly between Carney and Allen on one side and Ahmari on the other. Allen deemed Ahmari’s political approach to be not conservative but counter-revolutionary.
“Ahmari wants a constructivist state through and through, and calls it conservatism,” Allen said.Carney weighed in with related criticisms.
“A powerful state always has to be terrifying to conservatives,” Carney said. “Centralizing power in government or corporations is inherently destructive to freedom.”
Ahmari defended his approach against these remarks by contextualizing the current state of affairs. According to Ahmari, labor, capitalism and government had long worked together to achieve a fair balance of power. However, in the 1970s and 1980s, largely due to the rise of neoconservatives, labor lost its power, and the state weighed in to create the conditions people live in today. Thus, using the federal government to achieve conservative ends would not be an overstepping of boundaries — it would set things right.
“Maybe the order that you’re preserving is itself a product of radical change,” Ahmari said. “The conservative ideal of not using the weapon in your hand is highly unrealistic.”
The remainder of the discussion, including the Q&A portion, saw the focus turn to issues such as the transgender movement (with particular reference to trans woman Lia Thomas’s controversial role on the University of Pennsylvania’s swim team), commercial arbitration, the rise of “woke ideology” at the American university and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
These issues generally saw a larger degree of agreement between the panelists.
With reference to the war in Ukraine, Ahmari warned against the public “lurching from one hysteria to the other,” as had previously occurred in rapid succession with public reaction to Russiagate, COVID-19, the Black Lives Matter movement in summer 2020 and the COVID-19 vaccine.
Allen agreed with Ahmari and placed blame for such public hysteria on modern leaders in government and media.
“Fear is being cultivated,” Allen said. “Leaders are now cultivating fear.”
After the event ended, a reception was held in the lobby of Driscoll Hall, where attendees were treated to food and refreshments.
Overall, the night was one full of fascinating insights on the modern political landscape.
One student in attendance, sophomore Genevieve Mohr, was particularly amused by Carney’s remark that “if CNN said not to swallow razor blades, Marjorie Taylor Greene would go onto the floor of the Senate and immediately swallow razor blades.”
According to Mohr, this example shows, “how conservative leaders succumb to the temptation to rebel and simultaneously fail to properly defend conservative principles.”
The event was made possible through the efforts of the Ryan Center, as well as the publication “The American Conservative,” which served as a co-sponsor.
The Ryan Center’s student President Lucas Lovekin felt that “The Future of American Conservatism” panel discussion was a major success.
The Ryan Center plans to hold more lectures and events as the semester continues, such as the public lecture “Why Thomas Sowell Matters” on Thursday, March 31.