“Who gets to decide the common benefit?”
This obfuscating query, or any derivative thereof, I didn’t hear at a conference at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. It was not a question worth asking.
The conference, entitled “Restoring a Nation”, was organized by Sohrab Ahmari, a TAC contributor editor. It saw the majority of presenters submit to the Roman Church. They also shared a few political preconceptions. For example, the conference pamphlet took it as a given that
America’s liberal consensus has failed its nation and its people. We cannot create something new; we must instead recover the wisdom of our nation’s Christian and classical foundations.
Although the tone was reactionary, the conference was far from revolutionary. Family policy was considered a matter of dignity, economic questions were considered subsidiarity, solidarity, and cultural issues balanced localism and federalism.
The event’s unique and refreshing posture was not the only thing that was noteworthy. However, the location itself was the most important aspect of the weekend. It is a remarkable historical fact that tickets for the conference to discuss America’s common good sold out: more than 200 people chose to spend a weekend in Ohio shale. It wasn’t your typical conservative conference crowd. There was a mix of postpubescent boys and tourists who travelled on the shuttle bus to Phase II of Pines of Mar Gables. Both working-aged women and men took time off from work to attend.
Patrick Deneen seemed able to see the importance of the place ahead of anyone else. He presented side-by-side photographs of Steubenville from the past and today. He also did the same for South Bend. The contrast between the run-down streets of cities and suburban squares was stark. He said, “It doesn’t have be that way.”
The Wall Street Journaleditorial pages called the presenters “eggheads” even before they met. Ahmari described this event as an “academic conference” but it lacked the self-referential rigidity that is so characteristic of such a venue. The success of the weekend was largely due to the venue and the associated risk. A few weeks prior to the event, I heard that someone was asking “Who’s going up to Steubenville?”. It was a valid question and one I had wondered. The location was an indication for the newly formed coalition.
This coalition seeks to define the essence and attributes that make up the “perfect society.” Adrian Vermeule, for his part, concluded his remarks on em>imperium/em> by reminding the crowd that there is no such thing as a “perfect society.” Adrian Vermeule concluded his remarks about imperium by reminding everyone that
The executive and his agents serve all the people and not just the powerful and wealthy. The president will weep when the poor cry. This is a matter both of constitutional principle, and justice. This has been the evolution of our institutions.
Ahmari gave a preview of next year’s book on tyranny within the private sphere. She suggested that the market was not some mystical, self-directing being but an institution of human society subject to power and political decision. Johnny Burtka then followed with a tribute to the American System for state development capitalism. The panel then divided into three panels: one focused on family policy and another on the strategic and ideological distinctives of the “new right.” The last presentation was FDR’s New Deal, which was an administrative and social victory.
Kurt Hofer’s write up in the European Conservative is a great resource for a comprehensive review of the weekend’s priorities. These ideas are crucial: I believe that the cultural commentary as well as the policy prescriptions provided by Kurt Hofer will be a significant part of our nation’s future self-understanding, industrial, family and economic policy.
Sometimes, what happens after the sessions are over can be as important as what happens inside them. On the first Friday of every month, Fourth Street is closed to traffic for a party. This time brought out what the Germans called gemutlichkeit – a feeling of belonging and shared friendliness. A group of friends and I met up at Naples Spaghetti House on Saturday night. J.D. was there. Vance was dining with his wife, Michael Lind, his driver, and Josh Hammer. He drank a few Miller Lites and ate dinner on a paper plate before he left for his keynote.
Sign up today
Receive weekly emails to your inbox
He gave his address titled “Learning from Steubenville.” I first saw the title one week before the conference and thought it was a reference to the university, its successes and failures since 1946. Perhaps it was the conference. Vance would provide a roadmap for attendees on how to apply what they had learned. I was wrong. His passionate and unscripted speech also included a story about a campaign event.
He was a nice guy. I think he was around 70 years old. And he took me to my wife Usha. I didn’t hear it, I was talking to someone else and it was going to make me cry up. But he said that he wished he could have seen this place as a child. When Usha said it, I thought to myself: This man should be proud of the community that made him what he is.
The focus of Vance’s speech was consistent with the rest of the conference: learning from Steubenville–lessons of decline and restoration that can’t be taught in D.C., New York, or Chicago.