The Case for Polarized Politics: Why America Needs Social Conservatism

By Cantirino, Matthew T. | First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, March 2012 | Go to article overview

The Case for Polarized Politics: Why America Needs Social Conservatism


Cantirino, Matthew T., First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life


The Case for Polarized Politics: Why America Needs Social Conservatism BY JEFFREY BELL ENCOUNTER, 302 PAGES, $29.95

With social conservatism now becoming anathema in even some right-wing circles, Jeffrey Bell tries to recapture a very old and a very timely narrative: namely, that American social conservatism represents a steady "alternative Enlightenment" to the various stages of "left-Enlightenment" through which Europe has processed and that the job of conservatives today is to defend their version of Enlightenment values.

Bell writes that the Enlightenment arose with "two wings." The first wing is the belief that humans are "rational beings possessing free will" and equal rights given to them by their creator. The second wing, upon which Bell hangs many ideological ills of the past four centuries, stems from a corruption beginning, he says, with Rousseau's notion of "natural man" and terminating in a perpetual drive for boundless license.

Tying American social conservatism to this strain of thought enables Bell to acquit thinkers like Locke, Montesquieu, and the Founding Fathers of charges of historical radicalism or theological novelty. This thesis also enables him to introduce another key dichotomy of the book: commoners versus elites.

For as much as he pillories Rousseau, Bell also rebuffs Hegel and his notion of progress through a dialectic driven by world-historical leaders, seeing it as a destructive paradigm precisely because of its faith in elite influence. …

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