A year that began with hope that the chaos in American politics would subside ended with a gathering storm. In January of 2023, Republicans seemed poised to rid themselves of Donald Trump as party leader after a poor showing in three consecutive election cycles. By December 2023, however, Trump remained the GOP frontrunner, and the Supreme Court found itself in the unenviable position of possibly determining whether states could remove Trump from their ballots on the grounds that he violated the 14th Amendment’s ban on insurrectionists seeking office.
Yet, one ray of light in 2023 was the July release of the Freedom Conservative statement of principles orchestrated by John Hood, the President of the Pope Foundation, and Avik Roy, president of The Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity. The statement illuminates not just our present moment but where America can go in 2024 and beyond. I’m a signatory of the statement along with my C3 Solutions co-founder and President Drew Bond and more than 200 other thought leaders, policy experts, and elected officials ranging from Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist George Will to former Maryland Governor Larry Hogan.
While I don’t speak for any other Freedom Conservative, I would suggest the movement is making several important and timely observations about the state of our politics and culture.
First, Freedom Conservatives recognize that the American constitutional system and our national consensus around the rule of law are under assault by an Axis of Illiberalism – an increasingly illiberal and authoritarian left that seeks to impose top-down command and control policies and “woke” identity politics, and a reactionary right that is responding with its own embrace of authoritarianism. Major – if not dominant – elements of the traditional left and right, as well as the two major parties, are unmoored from their philosophical anchors and the country is dangerously united around authoritarianism. A recent Allegheny College poll found that 49 percent of Republicans and 36 percent of Democrats agree with the statement, “To protect the interests of people like you, political leaders must sometimes bend the rules to get things done.”
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Second, while Freedom Conservatism is a necessary response to the rise of the National Conservatives (NatCons) or New Right movement, it is not preoccupied with Trump per se. While many Freedom Conservatives would consider Trump to be a uniquely loathsome and dangerous figure, the movement is more After Trump than Never Trump. FreeCons would suggest it’s a mistake to assume that if Trump were to vanish tomorrow things would go back to “normal.” While I share Nikki Haley’s critique that chaos follows Trump, there is a deeper chaos FreeCons want to understand, address, and resolve. As with other leaders in history, Trump is both a product and cause of our modern pathologies and chaos.
Third, and most importantly, FreeCons are preoccupied with defining what conservatives should be for and where the country should go. As we head into the second quarter of the 21st century, older legacy institutions (i.e. flagship media outlets and political parties) will continue to buckle and decay in our post-digital era. FreeCons offer a clear vision for how new ideas, new innovations, and new associations can emerge in the post-digital era that will help build stronger communities and promote human flourishing.
What is Conservatism?
American conservatism has long suffered from not merely a paucity of strategic language but a paucity of framework as well. Conservatives struggle to find the words and frameworks to convey our intended meaning and describe the essential argument in American politics, which is why projects like the Freedom Conservative statement are helpful. On a superficial level, conservatives are at a linguistic disadvantage. Our value proposition is an indirect bank shot. Conservatives have to explain what they want to conserve and how that will help people in the real world while progressives can simply assert they want progress, which is self-evidently helpful.
When we launched this organization, we thought very carefully about our name (Conservative Coalition for Climate Solutions) knowing full well that it would be a record scratch to some ears (both left and right) and would require explanation. We decided to put the words “Conservative” and “Climate” in proximity because we relish those conversations. When we create the time and space to connect the dots through papers and conversation, listeners discover the harmony between economic freedom, individual liberty, and environmental performance. The House Conservative Climate Caucus put those loaded words even closer together and is thriving. It’s one of the largest and most impactful caucuses in the House with more than 80 members.
I believe conservatism starts with permanent skepticism of centralized power and permanent optimism about individual ingenuity and liberty. If progressives want to expand government agencies, conservatives want to expand your agency. What FreeCons want to conserve is our Constitutional framework, which enables free people to create new things, pursue happiness, and shape culture through private institutions within civil society.
I’m also partial to William F. Buckley’s definition in his 1959 classic “Up From Liberalism.” Buckley wrote:
“I will not cede more power to the state … I will hoard my power like a miser, resisting every effort to drain it away from me. I will then use my power, as I see fit. I mean to live my life an obedient man, but obedient to God, subservient to the wisdom of my ancestors; never to the authority of political truths arrived at yesterday at the voting booth. That is a program of sorts, is it not? It is certainly program enough to keep conservatives busy, and Liberals at bay. And the nation free.”
FreeCons, I suspect, would universally applaud this statement and emphasize our focus on people rather than programs. FreeCons would be suspicious of ribbon-cutting ceremonies that elevate politicians as actors to be celebrated when the real work of creativity, innovation and character formation happens in civil society, what our advisor Yuval Levin calls “the space between the individual and the state.” To FreeCons, fiscal conservatism isn’t a green-eyeshade obsession with numbers but a commitment to individual liberty. As our founders understood, when government grows, liberty diminishes. To FreeCons, every dollar saved in Washington is a dream realized somewhere in America.
George Will offers a foundational perspective on conservatism and establishes an important contrast between FreeCons and NatCons, in The Conservative Sensibility: “American conservatism has little in common with European conservatism, which is descended from, and often is still tainted by, throne-and-altar, blood-and-soil nostalgia, irrationality and tribalism. American conservatism has a clear mission: It is to conserve, by articulating and demonstrating the continuing pertinence of, the Founders’ thinking. The price of accuracy might be confusion, but this point must be made: American conservatives are the custodians of the classical liberal tradition.”
Will makes the words clearer but the framework can still be vague. Words like “left” and “right” don’t capture what people are arguing about. The character Thomas Shelby in the TV series Peaky Blinders (played by actor Cillian Murphy) explains left and right isn’t a straight line but a circle that sees the far left and right (socialism and fascism) converge. Jonah Goldberg at The Dispatch, another FreeCon signatory, describes this dynamic as a horseshoe where the extreme left and right bend toward each other like the ends of a horseshoe.
The framework becomes clearer when you rotate the horseshoe 90 degrees to the right so the “normal” left is at the top and the “normal” right is at the bottom. This gets closer to the actual debate between those who favor more coercive, top-down policies and those who are trying to protect bottom-up innovation.
The framework becomes clearer still when you step out of the political philosophy silo and consider complexity theory which looks at how “new things” and complexity emerge from biological, natural, and computer systems. In Notes on Complexity, Dr. Neil Theise uses an ant colony as an example. He explains that for a colony to become more complex, you need both enough ants and random movement (i.e. ants without a task that are free to find new food sources).
Nature is full of systems that require both balance and unpredictability. In space, the Goldilocks zone around stars that allows life to emerge is neither too hot nor too cold. In biology, organisms require homeostasis. To survive, we can’t be too hot or too cold. Thankfully, our bodies include feedback loop mechanisms that help us sweat when we get too hot and shiver when we get too cold. Feedback loops can become dangerous when they grow unchecked, like cancer, but feedback loops are an essential part of our existence.
Theise didn’t set out to make a political analogy, but he offers a reality-based and non-polarizing way of understanding what the two “sides” are talking about. Politics is really an argument about feedback loops. One side tends to be preoccupied with things not running too hot and looks for top-down fixes, while the other side fights to make sure the system doesn’t run too cold and protects activity emanating from the bottom-up. Progressives warn of another Great Depression crash due to lax regulation while conservatives highlight the need to update antiquated laws like the 50-year-old National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) that is slowing innovation. Honest people on both sides can see merit in the other side’s focus (no one is anti-government or anti-innovation) while defending their area of emphasis.
This reality and science-based way of thinking about politics is both reassuring and sobering. What’s troubling is that we become hyper-focused on politics when the body politic is sick. As C.S. Lewis said, “A sick society must think much about politics, as a sick man must think much about his digestion.” In 2024, we’re convulsing because we’re not metabolizing dissent and filtering out toxins. If the body politic were healthy we’d go through bouts of disagreement, find compromise, achieve balance, and move on. Instead, we can’t move past the addictive rituals of controversy and are still litigating an election that happened three years ago.
Still, the forces of “normal” are quite powerful in the scope of history. As we see in the Bible’s Books of Kings and Aristotle’s Politics, for more than 2,500 years human beings have grappled with the size and scope of state power within the body politic. This “normal” debate will continue. Yet, on the other hand, most of history features systems where heavy-handed authoritarians crush liberty and human creativity. Experiments like ours are the exception, not the norm and require vigilant maintenance, like a garden. There is an overwhelming pull towards authoritarian leadership when we become too distracted to carry the responsibilities that go with liberty.
How Freedom Conservatism Can Bring Ordered Liberty Amidst Chaos
As we see from authors like Charles Murray, Robert Putnam, Christopher Lasch, and many others there is no shortage of literature describing the causes of modern chaos ranging from the breakdown of families and neighborhoods to the failure of elites. Yet, when future historians look back on this era 200 years from now the most important date may be August 6, 1991. On that day, the internet went live for the public. The dawn of the internet and the digital age is the most important communication revolution since the invention of the printing press almost 600 years ago. Just as the printing press disrupted the monasteries of power in the 15th century (regular people would soon access books and interpret scripture on their own) the digital age has displaced our modern monasteries (institutions like the mainstream media and political parties).
The disruption from 1440 caused wars and schisms that continue to this day, but it also set the stage for the Renaissance and Enlightenment. How we navigate the Great Disruption of the digital age will shape our future in profound ways.
I approach this topic not as an academic but as a practitioner. For most of the years between 1997 and 2014 I worked as a Communications Director in Congress. I lived in the flow of information and could feel the currents shift away from centralized news monasteries to smaller outlets and individuals. After my boss, the late U.S. Senator Tom Coburn, lost his vote to defund the “Bridge to Nowhere” 82-15 in 2005, I remained convinced we would win because what we called the “blogosphere” – and Glenn Reynolds called the Army of Davids – was already outflanking a defenseless “establishment.” We eventually won the fight to eliminate earmarks in 2010 (until Trump encouraged Democrats to bring them back) because Coburn saw that the fundamental power dynamics had shifted before his colleagues understood what was happening.
Whether we like it or not, we now live in an attention economy in which merit, competence, and character are too often secondary. It’s therefore not surprising that a professional celebrity and pop culture savant could ascend to the presidency. Trump is the Warren Buffet of the attention economy. He has a sixth sense about where to invest his effort.
Before I critique the National Conservative response to our malaise, I’ll temper it with another lesson from science. Quantum mechanics shows us that the true nature of reality is often both/and rather than either/or. Light is both a particle and wave at the same time while particles can be in a state of superposition (by seeming to be in two states at once) and exhibit “spooky action at a distance.” This is not an argument for relativism, but for viewing objective truth more completely and honestly.
National Conservatism or the New Right (I’m skeptical of any movement that calls itself “New”) can be both constructive and corrosive. On one hand, the NatCons are Paleoconservatives or Realists 2.0 who are continuing intramural arguments about foreign policy, national sovereignty and immigration Matthew Continetti chronicles in his excellent book, The Right: The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism. NatCons are right to indict our chaotic immigration system and ask hard and fair questions about the need to prioritize foreign military interventions. NatCons are also asking timely questions about the wisdom of integrating our economy with China’s and rightly calling out the blind spots of “market fundamentalists” who mindlessly push tax cuts without cutting spending.
Yet, the NatCon movement also exists in a state of fealty and rationalization around Trump that leads it to dark and irrational places. When former conservative and now MAGA influencer Tucker Carlson asserts that We the People are in charge he really means your vote counts as long as it’s for Trump. Carlson also recently, and weirdly, accused Ben Shapiro of not caring about the country because he felt Shapiro was spending too much time talking about U.S. foreign policy toward Israel.
Meanwhile, Oren Cass at American Compass insisted the FreeCon statement was “Much Ado About Nothing” and mocked signatories as “the think-tank equivalent of ageing rockers singing ‘We Are the World’” as significant portions of the right celebrate an 80-year-old America First slogan and reframe top-down industrial policy as a new approach. For not just Cass but other leaders on the right, Trump is like a magnet or rogue black hole who is making their compasses spin. Only Trump’s presence can explain how “conservatives” can go from applauding Reagan’s decision to bleed the Soviet Union by supporting the unsavory Mujahadeen in Afghanistan to vilifying lawmakers who don’t believe it’s in America’s interest to hand Ukraine to Russia.
Even worse, many NatCons routinely offer the insufferable, self-congratulatory boast that they “know what time it is” while peddling Old World European nationalism and socialized medicine as groundbreaking innovations. The problem on the right is not 1980’s nostalgia but 1380’s nostalgia. No one is more guilty of not updating their thinking than NatCons and the New Right.
Finally, the NatCons and New Right are fixated on retread augments against the “elites” and the “establishment” based on power dynamics that no longer exist. To the extent that a Republican Establishment exists today, it is at Mar-A-Lago, which sadly has become a degenerate crack house for attention addicts and grifters.
In 2003, I wrote a book with Coburn called Breach of Trust: How Washington Turns Outsiders into Insiders. If I were to update that book today, I’d call it Breach of Trust: How Washington Turns Insiders into Fake Outsiders. The true and terrifying reality from someone who has taken on the “establishment” and won is that there is no one behind the curtain. In 2024, the digital era has made our system more open than at any point in history. The question is how we can steward that openness responsibly.
There is tactical diversity among FreeCons to be sure on important questions like how to deal with Trump and the Republican Party. I’m increasingly skeptical that the two parties can be rehabilitated and revitalized after being drained of their essential power. This is especially true if they demonstrate they’re misaligned with the electorate by nominating Trump and Biden. Until very recently, political parties understood that broadening their appeal and assembling winning coalitions required them to not only bring new people in but also to keep the crazy out. Political parties functioned as gatekeepers and purifiers that filtered out toxic ideas and charlatans. Today, that function is inverted and probably can’t be reversed. On the Republican side, Trump’s goal is to keep the crazy in, not out. He’s effectively a warlord who has taken over the ruins of the party. His aim isn’t to inspire new recruits but to intimidate people who want to leave.
FreeCons don’t have a consensus answer yet on Trump and parties. But, as a movement, FreeCons are unapologetic builders rather than nihilistic destroyers. We’re descendants of American Revolutionaries who accept the responsibilities of constant renovation and creation that are required in a pluralistic society and reject the French Revolutionary (and Trumpian) tendency to burn things to the ground.
FreeCons and classical liberals can also walk and chew gum at the same time when it comes to immigration and national identity. Our national identity is that we’re a community of people in a particular place and time committed to radical, transcendent, and universal ideas about liberty and identity. Our rights don’t come from left-wing or right-wing identity politics that are rooted in race, gender, or geography. Instead, our inalienable rights come from natural law or nature’s God. Yes, nations can’t exist without borders, and we desperately need border security and a sane immigration system. But what has made America exceptional are not our borders but our beliefs. America isn’t just a place. It’s an idea that is still being realized.
As we head into a tumultuous 2024, Freedom Conservatives aren’t going to apologize for rehabilitating the Shining City on Hill. The organizations represented by signatories have deep expertise on every major issue front including education, energy, economic opportunity, trade, immigration, foreign policy and more. That expertise, ironically, was instrumental to Trump’s successes. As large institutions buckle, smaller, more nimble institutions, will become more important. In our organization’s sphere, we view energy like oxygen. Humanity will need more of it to thrive, and we can absolutely achieve both energy abundance and environmental sustainability.
George Washington offered timeless advice for the America of 2024. In his Farewell Address he said, “You can not shield yourselves too much against the jealousies and heartburnings which spring from these misrepresentations [of parties]; they tend to render alien to each other those who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection.” This wasn’t fuzzy, misty-eyed sentimentalism but a call to unity and strength. Washington understood this new experiment was fragile and would only be held together if future generations treasured and protected its revolutionary uniqueness and dedication to liberty and the rule of law.
Washington then concluded his address with dignity, humility, grace, and strength. He said, “Though in reviewing the incidents of my Administration I am unconscious of intentional error, I am nevertheless too sensible of my defects not to think it probable that I may have committed many errors. Whatever they may be, I fervently beseech the Almighty to avert or mitigate the evils to which they may tend. I shall also carry with me the hope that my country will never cease to view them with indulgence, and that, after forty-five years of my life dedicated to its service with an upright zeal, the faults of incompetent abilities will be consigned to oblivion.”
Imagine how different our country would be if either frontrunner confessed to “defects” and “faults of incompetent abilities.” History has consigned most of Washington’s defects to oblivion. His willingness to become less than a King has enabled us to become more than he could have ever imagined.
Freedom Conservatives don’t purport to have a white paper to solve all of America’s ills, but we do have a vision for how to create the space in which any ill can be addressed by social entrepreneurs and servant leaders. Laws are important but parents, community leaders, coaches, pastors, priests, rabbis, and actual teachers make better instructors. Laws are the finishing touch, a clear coat, on hard-fought works of consensus achieved through culture and civil society, often over decades or generations. There are no quick fixes, but we refuse to despair or wave the white flag on the American dream. We believe in an America where we dare to hope, dare to dream, and through the clamor, still hear freedom’s ring.