Sunday, October 10, 2010

Conservatism and the American tradition

That's the topic Patrick J. Deneen's post over at Front Porch Republic:  Is There a Conservative Tradition in America?  Deneen analyzes American political culture from the time of the Founding forward and concludes that while there is a conservative element in American politics, that conservative element is rooted strongly in the liberal tradition.  As Deneen puts it after describing some of what he sees as a basic tenets of American conservatism:
[E]very characteristic that I’ve listed is actually a species of liberalism. I don’t mean that they are liberal in the way that we typically use the word to describe people like Nancy Pelosi or Michael Dukakis; rather, I mean liberal in its classical conception, that political philosophy that arose in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with its deepest origins in the Social Contract theory of Thomas Hobbes, further refined by John Locke, amended by Adam Smith and Montesquieu, and put into effect by our Founders, especially in those two founding documents The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. To be clear – there is a species of conservatism within this tradition, to be sure – about which I’ll say more – but at the outset it needs to be acknowledged that we are speaking here of the difference between conservative liberals and progressive liberals, and not typically non- or anti-liberal conservatives and liberals per se.
Deneen's point is well taken.  Unlike European conservativism, which developed out of the altar and throne alliances that were the principal political fruit of the Reformation, American conservativism evolved within a cultural and political milieu that strongly emphasized natural individual rights as they were developed during the British Enlightenment, along with some critical French thinkers like Montesquieu who reflected on the British political tradition.  This explains, for example, how someone as central to the modern American conservative tradition like Ronald Reagan could cite Thomas Paine so much (more than any other Founder, as historian John Patrick Diggins discusses in his biography of Reagan).  Modern American conservatism is not a refutation of the broader liberal tradition as much as it is a strand within that tradition.  This is one of the things that makes American conservatives stand out from their Tory counterparts in Canada and the UK, and from their Christian Democratic counterparts in countries like Germany and Italy. 

Deneen makes another point in his post, which is to identify traditional, non-liberal conservatism with the anti-federalist movement during the debate over the Constitution.  According to Deneen, it is the anti-federalists, with their aversion to centralized government and the mechanisms for national action located within the then-novel Constitution, who represent the conservative spirit in the early American context.  Modern American conservatives, Deneen contends, defend a Constitution that leads inexorably towards the kind of big-government activism that they claim to eschew.  As Deneen puts it at the close of his article:
It’s true that “conservative liberalism” is more “conservative” than “progressive liberalism,” if we mean by that it takes at least some of its cues from an older, pre-liberal understanding of human beings and human nature. Still, its dominant liberal ethic – summed up in the five points I suggested at the outset – means that in nearly every respect, its official allegiances end up eviscerating residual pre-liberal conservative allegiances. In particular, it could be argued that conservative commitments 1-4 – that end by favoring consolidation (in spite of the claim to favor “limited” government), advancing imperial power and capitalism (i.e., why consolidation is finally necessary), and stressing individual liberty, are all actively hostile to commitment number 5 – the support for family and community. It is a rump commitment without a politics to support it, and one that daily undergoes attack by the two faces of contemporary liberalism, through the promotion of the Market by the so-called Right and the promotion of lifestyle autonomy by the Left. A true conservatism has few friends in today’s America.
Deneen's thesis on this point is one worthy of some considerable discussion.  To start that discussion, I think that Deneen overlooks a critical component of conservative thought, namely that conservatism is an inherently non-ideological movement.  This understanding of conservatism, developed by theorists like the American writer Russell Kirk and the British writer Michael Oakeshott, views conservatism as primarily an approach to polity concerned about preserving custom, tradition and usage in the face of unnecessary change.  It is about depending upon the tried and the true, upon the consensus of community and culture, upon the established patterns of family, religion and voluntary associations.  While conservatism has certain common principles and practices, it still varies greatly from country to country, from time to time, from place to place.  Italian conservatism and Chinese conservatism and Chilean conservatism and Yankee conservatism should and do vary greatly.  As both Kirk and Oakeshott consistently emphasized, there is no single conservative ideology upon which to build a political program.  It varies.  Conservatism can be thought of more as a disposition than a doctrine, more of a way of approaching the world than a specific agenda that is uniform across time and space. 

From that perspective, Kirk approached the Constitution as a fundamentally conservative document, as an attempt to preserve the best elements of the English legal and political tradition, adapted to the culture and context of America, as possible, while allowing for the prudential and necessary increase in the powers of the federal government that were necessary to preserve the nation from the disaster that was brewing under our first constitution, the Articles of Confederation.  Kirk himself wrote a splendid book on the conservative nature of our Constitution, Rights and Duties.

As for the anti-federalists as conservatives, Kirk himself did not think of them as such.  Kirk had little time for the anti-federalists, viewing them as representing a radical tradition within American public life.  Like Jefferson, they were ideological fundamentalists, unable to understand that the science of statesmanship was the study, as Burke put it, of necessary change.  This means that politics cannot remain unchanging -- reform is part of the life of the body politic.  However reform should only be undertaken when necessary, not simply because revolutions, as Jefferson once said, help to "clear the atmosphere."  For Kirk, the conservatives of the early American Republic were the Federalists, particularly John Adams, and the National Republicans lead by John Randolph of Roanoake.  He wrote at length about both men in his masterwork about the conservative intellectual tradition, The Conservative Mind.

Adams and Randolph embodied, to Kirk, the kind of cautious statesmanship, attached to principle but not to ideology, that exemplifies the conservative approach to government.  Ideologues like the anti-federalists simply did not qualify. And I think that Kirk's judgment on this point was fundamentally sound.


Phil Johnson said...

Quite interesting.
But, when we think of conservatism in its present day mode, we have to see it from the practical aspects of how it is being used in the political arena. It IS involved in ideological thinking. Religious influences are being used to chart its course and to navigate it through any otherwise concepts as what Deneen seems to be promoting. Maybe his complete post takes all this into consideration?
I'll have to read it.

Anonymous said...

American conservatives are liberals in their republicanism and their disdain for established churches. American Protestants this century, in their greatest moment of unity, are incapable of maintaining the sort of theocracy feared by secularists. American radicalism in any form is seldom strong for more than a day. Our revolution was to preserve the liberties and self-government we developed as colonials, not to reinvent public polity, the state, and humanity as tried in 1789 and 1917.

When it comes to rhetoric, there is always someone trying to piggyback on a popular phrase or theme. "Conservative" was passe in 1953 yet popular after 1980. "Libertarian" is becoming mainstream. "Progressive" and "liberal" resurged in 2008.

I call myself a conservative because I studied the writings of Russell Kirk and agree with them. Others called themselves conservative, and they might be pushing the term a bit.

Mark D. said...

Yes, you should read Deneen's whole post. I disagree with him, but his ideas are provocative and worth pondering and responding to.

Any political movement will have ideological aspects -- and in any society where religion plays a prominent role, religion will have a place in the public square. That may be good or bad (I think it's good, but that's just my view), but it is inevitable.

The question isn't whether American conservatism has ideological components. It does. The question is whether the thing that makes it conservative per se is ideological. Kirk and Oakeshott insisted that it was not. Conservatism is at its core non-ideological.

Again, that isn't to say that all conservatives or even most conservatives or even any conservatives are beyond ideology. It is simply to say that the things that makes conservatism conservative is non-ideological at its core. This is what separates conservatives from other elements on the right that are expressly ideological, e.g., libertarians, reactionaries, etc.

Mark D. said...

Tertium Quid,

Welcome to American Creation! Great to have you stop by and leave a post. As always, your commentary is spot on -- I wish that I had written it myself! I particularly agree with your characterization of the aim of the Revolution. Sounds like something that Dr. Kirk or Forest MacDonald might say!


Angie Van De Merwe said...

GREAT information! Thanks, all!

King of Ireland said...

This what I was getting at with my short post on not throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Since the 1940s various popular writers have attributed to Burke the statement, "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." Burke never made that famous statement. However, he did say something vaguely similar in 1770: "when bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle."[142]Fred R. Shapiro The Yale book of Quotations 2006 pp. 115-16

It sounds from the above quote that Burke believed that our social relations "watched our backs". I reaaly like that quote, as I believe this is what the "Tea Party" believes it is doing... Burke really didn't believe in government, did he?

Phil Johnson said...

The article brings up, once again, the ideas Strauss developed.
It seems Strauss has put us in a dither.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Or we could say Strauss brings a much-needed clarity.

On the other hand, since he does not accept the idea of a "natural law," which the Founders did, he's only somewhat helpful. Strauss is [was] a Platonist, and the republic was not founded on Plato.

Jason Pappas said...

Mark, your description of Traditional Conservatism is very good. But remind me, didn't Kirk disparage natural rights as ideological abstractions and dismiss the Declaration as of little importance philosophically?

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Didn't Plato's Republic have something to do with how government was organized, with the Philosopher King? And wasn't conservatism based on a division of society, the elite (reason) and the "common person" (revelation) according to Strauss?

Problem here is, does this suggest that one determines another's place in society and limit their ability to be educated, because of what the local society "needs". Personal needs are trumped by local societal needs. This is a proble, I believe.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Didn't Strauss divide the world into ancient virtues, and modernity? And wasn't he interested in classicism? In this regard he would be an Aristotelian...problem there is, how and who is to judge another's virtue?

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Now, I think I remember something I read about Strauss.

Didn't he believe in a literalization of the text? This is dangerous indeed!!! As whenever one literalizes another's experience, one has assumed a universal where one does not necessarily exist...

Phil Johnson said...

I dunno, Angie.
I think I've probably read as much about Strauss as most people; but, haven't read much of what he believed. You can read Pangle, Smith, and Drury and get three different opinions on Strauss. And, when you read Strauss, you get the sense he's just a good teacher--even excellent.
But, I am developing an opinion of him.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Kirk was one of the classic anti-DOI, traditionalist conservatives.

According to Kirk, the DOI was Jefferson's wink to France to get their support.

Theophania said...

I am not an American natively, and I am a sort of anarcho-Catholic so...I really see nothing that great in American conservatism. It looks to me like a creepy, lame-duck sister to the dominant strain of liberalism. American conservatism is 'liberalism, last week' and most of its adherents are cretins who think cluster bombing foreigners is 'defense' and are more worried about imaginary terrorist threats than they are about the misanthropic criminals who make up the roll call of virtually every Republican official ever elected. They're trying to save an imaginary past through an unworkable system to reach an impossible goal. They're just as crazy as Robespierre, but not half as eloquent or intelligent.

I have some regard for the libertarians (mainly because they don't fall for Republican/military/police worship), but overall I think the USA - for all its accomplishments - us basically not a real country and unfixable even from a technocratic viewpoint. The United States is a propositional nation, and that proposition is a non sequitur.

America is the nation of the Enlightenment, and it deserves to die like the Enlightenment. Let a thousand nations bloom on its stinking corpse.