Tribalism or Individualism?

The Better Conservative Conversation

Teresa R. Manning

Editor's Note: This article was originally published by American Greatness on February 02, 2024 and is cross-posted here with permission.


Conservatives Christopher Rufo and Scott Yenor began the year with articles on the state of America and especially on the state of American education. Rufo called his essay a manifesto for conservativism similar to “Out with the old, in with the new!”

Rufo has authority to advise this way, as he recently helped oust from office Harvard’s President Claudine Gay and Board member Penny Pritzker for Gay’s disastrous Congressional testimony failing to condemn campus anti-Semitism as well as her serial plagiarism. Supposedly, Harvard missed this misconduct when hiring her. Gay has actually expelled Harvard students for lesser offenses, prompting the school newspaper to say out loud what everyone knows: Gay got hired because of her political correctness, not least her “diversity” mania.

Yenor also has conservative bona fides as an Idaho professor targeted for condemning feminism as a threat to Western civilization, pointing out that encouraging women toward college and careers discourages them from motherhood and family life, causing population decline and then cultural collapse.

So what do the essays by Rufo and Yenor say?

Rufo excoriates establishment conservatives as lacking “hunger and grit” and having minimal political effect as they only mouth “tired platitudes:” For fifty years, conservatives “have been retreating from the great political tradition of the West—republican self-government, shared moral standards and the pursuit of eudaimonia or human flourishing—in favor of half measures and cheap substitutes,” the most destructive of which is the lie of neutrality for public institutions such as schools and government. In reality, schools, businesses, and the arts are all government-run monopolies (run by the Left). Similarly, “the marketplace of ideas” is a scam, as is the notion of an invisible hand that will solve economic, political, and cultural problems. He wants no more research “white” papers or failed laissez-faire approaches. Instead, conservatives need a new spirit of activism [for] “reform and even revolt” to go “beyond procedural values, pointing toward higher principles.”

Yenor sounds a similar impatient note, denouncing the myth of “viewpoint neutrality” for university teaching. The University of California President recently called for just that, specifically in politically charged subject areas such as Middle East studies. Almost immediately, however, 150 professors signed a protest letter that claimed any such mandate, or even aspiration, threatened academic freedom. “A big part of what we do [in research and publishing] is argue for positions; so we’re not neutral,” said one signatory.

Yenor adds that the university itself is not neutral, nor should it be; the institution is a political enterprise in the broad sense. It teaches a certain content, already arguably a political decision on what is worth reading and thinking about. And it teaches with words and concepts that guide students in how to think about these subjects. All this involves value judgments that could be characterized not only as cultural but as political. Why pretend otherwise?

Ironically, however, neither Rufo nor Yenor offer much substance to replace the tired platitudes or the mythical neutrality, which is more than an amusing oversight. Rufo should know that no one gets motivated for change, much less revolt or revolution, without first feeling the change is real and worth a fight. He does mention language, ends, political force, and the visual arts—that is, general culture. But this list seems no clearer than the list for establishment conservatives whom he’s criticizing. What’s more, Rufo says we should go beyond procedure, but he himself seems stuck on methods more than content. What method? He reminds us that “life moves on narrative, emotion, scandal, anger…” and therefore calls for passion to rule reason, seemingly unaware that this approach inverts conservatism, which is, by definition, restrained, cautious, and deliberative. This should not amount to inaction or stagnation, of course. But conservatives can’t—shouldn’t—act just for the sake of action or even topple an existing order without a restoration plan since that would only pave the way for chaos. Witness the French Revolution’s reign of terror; that was the work of the political left, not the right.

More to the point, Rufo’s call for passion still leaves unanswered the question of the ends, or telos, that he’s supposedly advocating (“higher principles”).  Likewise for Yenor. Fair enough for Yenor to say that viewpoint diversity is better than viewpoint neutrality. But to what end?

Here, the legal system provides a clue. It always has viewpoint diversity—two parties in dispute. But litigants get to argue for the same reason professors and students get to debate: the goal is to get to the truth of the matter. In court, the goal is a correct verdict; in class, the goal is increased understanding. So viewpoint diversity is not an end in itself but the means to an end—to the truth.

Ultimately, Rufo and Yenor readers are left wondering: Yes, we need a better America and better higher education. But what does that look like? And is it worth fighting for? And conservative leaders should remember that the conservative way is not “Jump first, look later,” but “Thought, word, deed.”

So, for starters on thought and word: What is the America worth saving?

Well, America is a child of the West, of course—of Great Britain and Europe. Interestingly, Europe boasts 44 distinct peoples and even more languages. But Europe and the United Kingdom were historically united by their Christian heritage. Indeed, until very recently, the West was called “the Christian West,” and before that, Christendom.

If the West is to survive—if it is to be worth saving as “the West”—it must, therefore, first recognize what it is—and was—and give credit where credit is due. The civilization born of Christianity had Christian norms and precepts, the foundation of the West’s social order. Those norms and their Christian origin are not only glossed over today but increasingly seem either lost to ignorance or subject to ignorant derision (demoted as mere “family values”). But if a foundation fails, so does the edifice. And this particular collapse—the collapse of Christian civilization—is not only bad for those in the West but bad for all humanity, since Christianity managed to transcend the tribe—to unite Europe, for example—and, most importantly, is the most pro-human moral order, since it teaches not only that God deigned to become man but that man is also made in His image. In short, individuals matter more than tribes.

Tragically, the West is now descending into a warring tribalism not only because of extreme migration but also because of top-down ideologies intended to divide and conquer populations along ethnic lines, aka “diversity” campaigns. Thus, the most immediate work of conservatives must be the rejection of tribalism and a refocus on the individual—individual character, industry, and aptitude. That is a telos worth fighting for. America must again be the land of opportunity for individuals, not tribes, castes, or preferred groups, in a never-ending escalation of identity politics. While Americans, of course, live in families, neighborhoods, and states, those associations are only as good as the individuals in them.

This restoration should not be caricatured as mandating religion or imposing morals. Just as all human beings have language, so all societies have a moral order, and that moral order gives rise to and supports the economic, legal, and political order. In the West, that moral order derives from Christianity and the primacy of the individual over the tribe. That’s a reality, not an imposition, and makes the West the West. So-called “multiculturalism” or “diversity,” which suggests that multiple moral orders can co-exist without problems, is a deceit.  One moral order, like one language, becomes the default. Today’s “diversity” actually prescribes a Tower of Babel for most, enabling governance by an organized few.

So if Yenor and Rufo want conservatives on campus and in the public square to be more ambitious and effective, their telos should be more clear and compelling. America can be either the land of individual opportunity or the land of warring tribes.

That’s a better conservative conversation.


Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash

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