In 2016 Americans are feeling anxious. It’s not that we are experiencing crises—we are neither in total war nor economic depression. Yet 2016 has forced us to rethink all we thought we knew. A Socialist made a credible run for the Democratic nomination and succeeded in moving the Democratic Party platform farther left than it has ever been. A maverick businessman and reality TV star who has shown no loyalty to the GOP or conservative principles succeeded in winning the Republican nomination. Whole new factions of Americans who have been left out in the economic cold are supercharged for change. As a result, the establishments of both parties have been taking a thrashing. One billion dollars are being spent on this presidential contest, and millions of those dollars are being used on television buys—to no effect. Meanwhile, tweets are moving mountains. All this was unthinkable just eighteen months ago. No one saw it coming. What has not changed is that the center does not hold: Anomic forces continue to coarsen and cleave our culture.
In this exploding landscape, in this Waste Land of the Kardashians, we find ourselves in an Age of Anxiety. There’s been anxiety about the left, with its open declarations of victory in the culture wars. There’s been anxiety about the right, with its lurch toward populism, nativism, and protectionism. Now there’s anxiety in everyone about what comes next. Moments ago in his paper, Lee Edwards outlined five necessary conditions for a political realignment to occur: (1) crisis, (2) demographic change, (3) the serious weakening of a party, (4) a strong third party rising, and (5) new leadership and ideas. Since Dr. Edwards did such a good job, I’d like to veer in a different direction and ask that you consider two cultural points—one of which looks back, the other of which looks forward.
Looking back, let’s remember the achievement of postwar conservatism. America was fortunate to have men and women of imagination who knew what it would take to counter the excesses of the New Deal in our political economy and of the sixties revolution in our culture. It began with the vision of a prophet—a leader of a remnant who could keep the embers of freedom glowing (Albert Jay Nock). It grew to include the intellectual leaders of various little platoons (Russell Kirk among the traditionalists, Milton Friedman among the libertarians, and Whittaker Chambers among the anti-communists). It then relied on the fusionists who could forge a movement (William F. Buckley Jr. and Frank Meyer). Next came the politician who could stitch together an electoral majority that included Republicans, Independents, and Democrats (Ronald Reagan). Finally came the statesman who could actually govern the nation (again, Ronald Reagan, who had the ability to work not just with Republicans but also with Democrats and Independents). Each step of the way, the ever-enlarging scale required greater and greater skill at forging common ground. It is how realignments on the scale of 1860 or 1980 take place.
But—in the process of enlarging their sphere of influence, conservatives began to have second thoughts, the same second thoughts that occur to people the morning after an exciting liaison. Maybe the conservative hookup with the GOP wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. In fact, a lot of conservatives began to realize they had gotten left out in the cold. Russell Kirk, Friedrich von Hayek, Richard Weaver—they were quoted in set pieces yet, truth be told, most all their books were relegated to the status of historic curios.
That’s why we sense anxiety among our conservative friends about even a favorable political realignment. As noted above, we’ve seen a favorable realignment before, with less than satisfactory results. A distinguished member of the Philadelphia Society now deceased, Stephen Tonsor, put it to me this way some three decades ago, back in the heyday of the Reagan era: “Mr. Whitney,” he intoned, “Do not become corrupted by the Imperial City. It’s where scholars go to die. As for the conservative movement—well, it died when it put on a blue suit and went to Washington.”
(This led the inimitable Stan Evans to formulate the Law of Perfidy: “When our people get to a place where they can do some good, they quit being our people!”)
To his students and to previous audiences of the Philadelphia Society, Dr. Tonsor’s drumbeat was: Don’t be seduced by power. Don’t neglect the culture. Keep doing the necessary work of building up the culture.
Dr. Tonsor’s message was similar to that of the controversial activist Paul Weyrich, who wrote a now-famous letter to conservatives in 1999 that stirred up considerable discussion in this Society. Mr. Weyrich believed that conservatives had made a Faustian bargain: They were winning political battles but losing the cultural war. Permit me to quote from that lightning rod of a letter:
In looking at the long history of conservative politics, from the defeat of Robert Taft in 1952, to the nomination of Barry Goldwater, to the takeover of the Republican Party in 1994, I think it is fair to say that conservatives have learned to succeed in politics. That is, we got our people elected.
But that did not result in the adoption of our agenda. The reason, I think, is that politics… failed because of the collapse of the culture…. In truth, I think we are caught up in a cultural collapse of historic proportions, a collapse so great that it simply overwhelms politics.
That’s why I am in the process of rethinking what it is that we, who still believe in our traditional, Western, Judeo-Christian culture, can and should do under the circumstances. Please understand that I am not quarreling with anybody who pursues politics, because it is important to pursue politics, to be involved in government. It is also important to try, as many people have, to re-take the cultural institutions that have been captured by the other side.
I think Dr. Tonsor, Mr. Weyrich, and others made a profoundly important argument, even more penetrating today than it was two, three decades ago. They remind us that even a good political realignment must be accompanied by a better cultural realignment if favorable political change is to stick, if our pursuit of happiness is to have real meaning.
My second point looks forward, to a revolution that is proving to be every bit as far reaching as the French and Industrial revolutions. And it’s not finished, and we are starting to see it as a driver of realignment.
We cannot even wrap our minds around this upheaval that, for convenience, we shall call the “digital revolution.” Johns Hopkins fellow Alec Ross points to a stunning fact: Every two days as much data has been produced as all the information humans produced between the cave paintings and 2003. The applications of a world coded in zeros and ones are dizzying—driverless cars, precision agriculture, artificial intelligence, robotics, the digital transfer of entire libraries. Did you know that every six hours, the National Security Agency (NSA) is gathering as much information as is stored in the entire Library of Congress? And that it can fit in an object smaller than a key fob? I should think that fact alone would make everybody anti-statist!
Mr. Ross also notes that you can divide the digital revolution into two phases: the world’s last trillion-dollar industry that arose from digital coding, and the world’s next trillion-dollar industry that is coming from genetic coding; the genomic therapies that are being developed now will soon be eliminating diseases and extending life by three to five years.
The digital revolution is breathtaking to those who have the education and skills to access and manipulate it; and it is heartbreaking to those who do not. While many industries and communities are making the digital pivot, not all will. Those that successfully pivot and embrace the digital revolution will prosper. Those that don’t will become slums of despair. The people in the slums of despair will be susceptible to radicalization by the far left and the far right. The truck drivers, the janitors, the hotel maids, the people who fold clothes—if they are not part of the digital revolution, they might become part of a counter-revolution, and tear down what they cannot build up.
Mr. Ross illustrates what is happening with a powerful anecdote. There is a businessman in China who owns factories that used to employ almost one million people on assembly lines. He made the digital pivot and brought in robots to work the assembly line. As he said, robots don’t ask for raises, they don’t steal from the company, they don’t get sick, they don’t get tired—they work 24/7 with nary an HR issue. The robots were so successful that this factory owner let go 600,000 people. Ladies and gentlemen, scaled to America, such layoffs could generate a lot of realignment.
As my friend Joe Lehman, president of the Mackinac Center, likes to say: “Here come the robots and the pitchforks aren’t far behind.”
When thinking about the consequences of the digital revolution, it’s not a failure of understanding that worries me; it’s a failure of imagination. To visualize what a digital dystopia might look like, I’d recommend you read Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel, Player Piano. It was written in 1952 and describes a world in which physical labor is eliminated, a world in which people whose vocation it is to work with their hands are left out in the cold.
Kurt Vonnegut understood—conservatives understand—that in the face of any revolution, the digital one included, there is the need for a party of conservation to push back against the party of innovation. Push back how? For starters, by serving as the collective cultural memory of those things that are needed to be fully human.
In an age of change, it is the conservatives who remind us of continuity.
In an age of matter, it is the conservatives who remind us of spirit.
In an age of becoming, it is the conservatives who remind us of being.
In an age of science, it is the conservatives who remind us of letters.
In an age of liberty, it is the conservatives who remind us of virtue.
In an age of equality, it is the conservatives who remind us of natural aristocracy.
In an age of conformity, it is the conservatives who remind us to be a contradiction.
In an age of strident tribal identities, it is the conservatives who remind us of our universal bonds of dignity.
In conclusion, while there is a lot of anxiety about the state of our politics and culture, it would not hurt to follow Russell Kirk’s lead and let a little cheerfulness break in. In the first place, conservatives should not look upon political and cultural realignment passively, as if we were victims powerless to bring about change. We are volitional. We are intentional.
I’m looking at Winston Elliott who is doing great things at The Imaginative Conservative. I’m looking at Annette Kirk who lengthens the legacy of a towering conservative at the Russell Kirk Center. I’m looking at Glenn Arbery who is inspiring the rising generation at Wyoming Catholic College. I’m thinking of Brad Birzer whose prize-winning biography of Russell Kirk we will celebrate later this evening.
These leaders are men and women of imagination. Each in his or her own way is anchoring their good work to the permanent things—to the true, the good, and the beautiful. They are a contradiction to our age. They are tending to the cultural realignment that must occur for a favorable political realignment to come about.
As for conservatives who are allied to the Republican “brand”: Whatever the status of the party at the national level, at the local and state levels the GOP is fielding outstanding men and women who are fiscally conservative problem solvers. They are tapping into the energy for change across the land and channeling that energy into good policies. They are winning many of the elections in local and state races. That’s why Republicans hold a solid majority of governorships and state houses. We must remain on the lookout and cultivate these outstanding young leaders.
So in a spirit of cheerfulness, I conclude with the words of Alexis de Tocqueville who, in Democracy in America, argued that “A new political science is needed for a world altogether new.” Indeed:
To instruct democracy, if possible to reanimate its beliefs, to purify its mores, to moderate its movements, to substitute little by little an understanding of affairs for its inexperience, and knowledge of its true interests for its blind instincts; to adapt its government to time and place; to modify it according to circumstances and men—such is the first duty imposed on those who would guide society in our day.
I’m looking out at a lot of great guides, and that gives me hope.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay was delivered at the 2016 fall meeting of the Philadelphia Society.
 Lee Edwards, “Is 2016 a ‘Critical Election’?” remarks to the panel, “Democrats and Republicans Today: Chances of Realignment Looking Forward,” Philadelphia Society 2016 Fall Meeting, Philadelphia, PA, October 1, 2016.
 Gleaves Whitney “Tonsor #5—Where Scholars Go to Die.” History Gadfly: September 22, 2016.
 M. Stanton Evans, quoted by George H. Nash, Philadelphia Society luncheon Address, Philadelphia, PA, October 1, 2016.
 Paul M. Weyrich, “Letter to Conservatives.” National Center for Public Policy Research: February 16, 1999.
 Alec Ross, “A Look at Industries of the Future and the Disruptive Trends and Changes Happening in Business,” speech presented to the West Michigan Policy Forum and Economic Club of Grand Rapids, September 26, 2016.
 Dan Nosowitz, “Every Six Hours, the NSA Gathers as Much Data as Is Stored in the Library of Congress.” Popular Science: May 10, 2011.
 Tom Hickey, “Entire Library of Congress.” Outgoing: June 21, 2015.