An intellectual and political movement—sometimes called the New Right, although it shares many commitments with and draws inspiration from the Old Left—has upended American conservatism in recent years. The New Right isn’t identical with Trumpism, and it is internally diverse and to some degree conflicted; it includes strands such as so-called national conservatism, a traditionalist Red Toryism or Blue Labourism and political Catholicism. These sub-movements often disagree, but they broadly converge on the ideas that government isn’t the only possible enemy; that “private” corporate power, tech monopolies, banks engaged in ideological policing of financial access, woke universities, and other nongovernmental bodies are at least as worrisome as overweening state power; that widespread impoverishment, immiseration, family breakdown, sexual adventurism, overdosing, environmental degradation, and spiritual anomie might be problematic, and that public action can do something about these crises; and generally that public authority is right and just when devoted to the common good, the classical conception of the proper purpose of government. This last strand of thought has become so pronounced that many now refer to “common-good conservatism.”

Opposed to the New Right is the old Reaganite “conservatism”—in truth, the right wing of liberalism. The old right continues to push the agenda of free speech, free markets, and the free use of drones. This, even though much of the rising generation notices that the world has changed, that paeans to the Gipper’s birthday in National Review may not be quite to the point in America in 2022. The old right liberalism finds itself short on fresh ideas but very long on donors, dollars, second-tier publications, and institutional control. Right liberalism has thus played to its strengths, essaying two different strategies in attempting to contain the insurgents.

The first strategy has been the cordon sanitaire: the attempt to exclude the New Right generally and common-good conservatism from media platforms, conferences, and events, often behind the scenes, with a call from a furious right-liberal donor or operator who in public preaches civility, intellectual diversity, and the marketplace of ideas. This strategy, however, has conspicuously failed, in part because of sheer demand for common-good conservatism from students and young professionals, in part because New Right intellectuals have easy access to the mainstream media, indeed more access than most right liberals. It is awkward at best when some nameless writer in a minor publication tries to stamp the new ideas as fringe, even as common-good conservatives publish in The New York Times and appear on Tucker Carlson’s show.

Hence, the old right liberalism has more recently tried a second strategy: co-opting. The right liberal professes to actually be a common-good conservative but willfully and brutely defines the common good in liberal terms. One now hears talk of “common-good capitalism,” “common-good originalism,” common-good whatnot—the old wine in new bottles. In principle, this strategy is a nonstarter. The common good isn’t just whatever anyone says it is; rather, it is a real moral, political, and constitutional concept with objective content, worked out over millennia in overlapping but compatible forms in both Western and Eastern traditions. The common good is at least as well-defined as the essentially contested concepts beloved of the old right, chief among them “liberty.” Although rights derived from the common good will sometimes overlap with liberal rights in particular circumstances, the two are justified on very different grounds and can’t simply be assumed to be coextensive. Nonetheless, the rhetorical strategy is a clever one, because it succeeds in confusing those unfamiliar with the classical juristic, political, and theological traditions that have been forgotten or erased under liberalism. The resulting problem for common-good conservatives is serious. How to address it?

Get the best of Compact right in your inbox.

Sign up for our free newsletter today.

Great! Check your inbox and click the link.
Sorry, something went wrong. Please try again.