It is often the case that people who propose bad ideas and fail to carry them out will at least take credit for having imagination. Progressives who tout some new form of communism made possible by capitalist innovations, prophesize a future dystopia with vast clouds of smog and Christian theocrats, or dream of a borderless society where poverty and strife are eliminated can always claim the imaginative high ground. Their powerful imagination and great courage supposedly allows them to envision a brighter future.
By contrast, conservatives and those with common sense are cast as literal-minded dullards. They lack the necessary “vision” to understand the bold new ideas of their imaginative peers, and can thus only tear down and criticize. They may criticize socialism for its innumerable failures both in history and in theory, or environmentalism for its ineffectiveness and many inaccuracies, or any inclusive utopia for its complete departure from facts, but really they are just upset with themselves for not thinking of these things first.
In the past, Americans would dismiss this kind of response to criticism as immature and irresponsible, but as digital technology assumes an increasingly large role in today’s culture and economy, the apparent “lack of imagination” becomes a serious charge. No longer can a person invoke reality and bring everyone back to the table for workable solutions and ideas; he must come up with a fanciful idea of his own or be left behind.
If the 2016 and 2018 elections proved anything, it was that experience and practicality could not compete with “imagination” and personality. The 2016 GOP presidential primary featured many skilled politicians with excellent ideas that could reform the country, but Donald Trump won because of his message of bringing about a new golden age for the country. In the 2018 midterms, many Republicans and Democrat incumbents with admirable records and workable plans lost to upstart progressives who promised a kinder, less hate-filled America that would arise as a result of taking down President Trump and promoting socialist policies.
Successful though it may be to brandish the word “imagination,” people should recognize that the term is inaccurately defined. Imagination is not indulging in escapist fantasy, nor it is thinking up something new. A fanciful wish-list, whether a child makes it or a politician does, is not an act of the imagination; nor is it a relatively new idea, like presenting a urinal as a work of art or blending croissants and doughnuts to make cronuts; nor is it anything that defies logic or reality, like the Green New Deal or universal healthcare.
Rather, imagination is creating a reality in one’s mind. This reality can be mundane and simple, like a laundry room or candy wrapper, or it could be fantastic and complex, like a constitution based on natural law or a whole fictional universe. Moreover, imagination goes further than conjuring the image of an idea, but also involves faithfully understanding the means (how) and ends (why) of the idea. A strong imagination pays attention to detail, logic, and meaning; a weak one depends on simplification, fabrication, and spectacle.
Imagination distinguishes the great books from the mediocre ones. It took great imagination for Adam Smith to work out all the factors of a free market economy to write the classic Wealth of Nations; it took little imagination for Thomas Piketty to rehash socialist theory and puff it up with charts and figures in his already fading Capital in the 21st Century. It took imagination for J.R.R. Tolkien to build a whole new world populated by different races, histories, and languages in his Lord of the Rings trilogy; it took little imagination for J.K Rowling to mix and match already created worlds, character types, and storylines to write the Harry Potter series.
It also requires more imagination to read and understand the great books. They are dense with content and ideas while unimaginative books are superficial and easily consumed. People struggle with Shakespeare because he expects a strong imagination from his audience whereas they do fine with superhero movies that go easy on the imagination by recreating their reality on the screen and keeping the characters and plots light and familiar.
When this is understood, one can conclude that imagination requires cultivation and constant practice. Most people in the modern world, which prioritizes recreation over leisure and pleasure over virtue, tend to have weaker imaginations. They struggle creating realities in their mind so they depend on screens that will do this work for them. They struggle with more difficult arguments that involve many variables and definitions, so they rely on the quick simple narratives featuring a hero and a villain. Above all, they struggle with thinking for themselves, so they depend on experts, especially scientists, to think for them.
When society suffers a loss of imagination, counterfeit forms of it will start appearing. Demagogues, conmen, and false prophets who trot out bad ideas will succeed when people cannot think through the consequences—hence the newfound popularity of socialism, intersectionality, and gender theory. At the same time, great men and women who hold the world together and make their world wiser, richer, and more charitable are denigrated because of their insistence on reason and experience.
Some may attribute the current cultural decay to entitled generations that never learned the importance of gratitude. Having never engaged in any serious struggle such as a world war or great depression, these people cannot recognize their blessings. All they can recognize is the great expense of luxuries like a college education or healthcare, or the challenge of finding a high-paying job right away. Having never faced a serious challenge in their lives (even in their religion, which has dumped the gospel of the cross in place of the gospel of prosperity), they balk at the challenge of basic adulthood.
All this is true to a degree, but this problem goes even deeper. Not only have the last three-and-a-half generations (iGen, Millennials, Gen Xers, and a large portion of Boomers) never experienced serious adversity; they have lost the ability to even imagine it. Their minds cannot recreate the reality of ideas that have made their lives so wonderful. It is not that they take Christianity, capitalism, or limited government for granted; they cannot conceive how these things actually work—like a great book, there is too much to process. On the other hand, atheism, socialism, and an authoritarian state are quite simple and require little imagination.
A popular response to this crisis of imagination has been to better tailor these important ideas to an unimaginative population. If people cannot understand the life of Jesus, God’s commandments, and the importance of the Resurrection, maybe the Church should start promising heaven to people who believe and worship in their own way. If people cannot understand supply and demand, comparative advantages, and property rights, maybe business leaders should claim that capitalism makes people richer and happier without demanding anything in return. If people cannot understand the key functions of government, the need to decentralize power, and maximizing personal autonomy, maybe conservative politicians should just demonize government and glorify the individual.
However successful these tactics may be, they are ultimately lies. Reducing whole realities to black-and-white slogans only amounts to combatting one falsehood with another. It fights darkness with more darkness, and does more to destroy the good, true, and the beautiful than otherwise. Inevitably, it distorts a traditional conservativism based on “the best that has been thought and said” into an alt-right ideology based on the very worst that has been thought and said.
Therefore, it should instead be the goal of conservatives to revive society’s imagination. This would first mean rebutting the counterfeits and calling out bad ideas. They should not accept the false dichotomy of imagination and reality. They should point out that imagination is reality, and anything else is only vanity. The statesman with an articulated policy, the engineer with a blueprint, the artist with a vivid picture of human experience are the ones with imagination, not the manipulative blockheads who troll them.
Once conservatives can at least agree on what they oppose (a herculean labor in itself), they should then come together in what they support and provide the tools for people to strengthen imagination. This means supporting quality liberal arts programs at universities instead deriding them as useless. This also means taking greater interest in the fate of K-12 schooling, advocating for school choice and promoting alternatives to the imagination-killing approaches of so many schools. Finally, this means fostering a screen-free home environment so families can connect with one another instead of lazily brainwash themselves hour after hour with modern entertainment.
A well-developed imagination is the key to a richer, fuller life, not just for the individual but for the community. It allows people to connect, to see beyond themselves, to see without literally seeing. Without it, communities become mere collectives of people who lack the means to understand one another—and thereby have to connect through cruder criteria like race, class, or sexual preferences—and individuals become mere actors who merely react to various social pressures and forfeit control of their lives.
In short, imagination is what makes a person human. It is the activity that permits all other activities. And if conservatives truly intend to conserve anything, it should be this.