In my recent essay on the place of American conservatism, I mentioned one wrong answer to the question, “What is it that American conservatives are trying to conserve?” That wrong answer is freedom, i.e. the goal of conservatism in America is to preserve liberalism, because that’s all there is to American common life. As I argued, it can’t really be true that a nation’s order is built on an anarchical principle, and it’s antithetical to the nature of conservatism to play the enemy of authority. I claimed that this intellectual blunder is common on the mainstream Right. Now, as if to prove my point, National Review has published a long article by Richard Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru embracing this very position. You should read it to see just how bad it is. It’s quite disheartening to see the most famous magazine of the American conservative movement boast about the lack of hierarchy in American society. Then there’s this particularly ghastly bit:
Americans took inherited English liberties, extended them, and made them into a creed open to all. Exact renderings of the creed differ, but the basic outlines are clear enough. The late Seymour Martin Lipset defined it as liberty, equality (of opportunity and respect), individualism, populism, and laissez-faire economics. The creed combines with other aspects of the American character — especially our religiousness and our willingness to defend ourselves by force — to form the core of American exceptionalism.
So it seems that being an American means holding a “creed” consisting in a particularly anarchical form of liberalism. The “creed” is open to all, so there would seem to be no place for loyalty to a particular people or place. The “creed” also displaces the place of an established real religion in the public order (something about which the writers are especially pleased). Only the most liberal aspects of America are to be conserved by these conservatives. They explicitly ridicule the Federalist defense of natural aristocracy and the Jeffersonian defense of rootedness to place.
The brunt of the article is a criticism of President Obama for failing to embrace a moronic idea they call “American exceptionalism”. What this idea means is not precisely spelled out, but it seems to have something to do with America being better than other countries because our taxes are lower.
Asked whether he believed in American exceptionalism during a European trip last spring, Obama said, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”
The authors are horrified by this, but it seems perfectly reasonable to me. It seems that the President has taken “exceptionalism” to mean something like “loyalty and patriotism”, which would make it unobjectionable; it would also make it something we would expect other peoples to feel for their homelands. Surprisingly, it’s the extreme leftist President who’s implicitly defending the principle of particular loyalties against two self-professed “conservatives”.
Lowry and Ponnuru seem totally oblivious to the fact that they’ve just repudiated all the fundamental principles of conservatism. How can such confusion come about? I never hear about liberals rejecting liberalism and embracing traditionalism, all without even realizing it. It would seem that, intellectually speaking, the enemy has his house much more in order.
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