Debating American conservatism

There have been some very nice essays lately on the web on the nature of American conservatism.  The meaning of conservatism being a major theme on this blog, of course I’m going to jump in.

Patrick Deneen presents a strong case that America has never had a genuine conservative tradition.  Our founding documents–the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, are both liberal.  The Founders were Lockean liberals.  The Constitution naturally leads to the modern centralized liberal state, as the anti-federalists correctly understood.  In a crucial part of his argument, Deneen refutes the idea that conservatism can rest on a benign moderated form of liberalism, because moderate liberalism inevitably leads to extreme liberalism.  Stephen ably summarizes Deneen’s points and then suggests communitarianism as the political doctrine worthy of conservatives’ allegiance.  By this, he means communitarianism as it should be…

“What distinguishes communitarianism is that it recognizes that the bonds that tie individuals together–religion, family, and local commitments–are good. People need limits, such as hierarchical structures and authority, in order to flourish as individuals, not lifestyle freedom.”

rather than what its proponents generally make of it.  As Christopher Lasch has pointed out, most academic communitarians abandon their own principles to support lifestyle liberalism.

Meanwhile, Maximos sympathetically reviews Leftist intellectual George Scialabba’s thoughts on conservatism.  Scialabba concludes that conservatives’ claim to defend tradition and morality are not credible, and conservatism in America is really just a defense of “privilege”.  Maximos thinks this far to simple (and not even terribly meaningful–he notes that privilege is not so univocal a thing as Scialabba assumes) and suggests that anti-communism was the driving force of the American Right.  With the Cold War over, American conservatism is in a state of confusion and drift.  This provoked a long discussion at What’s Wrong With the World, in which I contributed slightly.  In a follow-up post, Paul Cella identifies American conservatives in a Schmittian way:  they are the Americans who identify certain groups as enemies of their country, and who think that in a fight we should stick by our own.

On the other hand, Paul Gottfried, perhaps the most knowledgeable and intelligent commentator one is likely to find on the topic of the American Right, takes a possition directly opposite to Scialabba’s.  In his books on conservatism (see Jim Kalb’s review here and mine here), he argues that the problem with American conservatism is precisely that it doesn’t defend privileges.  That is, there is no class whose interests it exists to represent.  This makes it vulnerable to ideological drift, a process he has lately been reviewing in his articles on Alternative Right.  The Leftward drift has proceeded so far that Gottfried denies that the contemporary American Right, even its “extreme” forms can be called “conservative” in any historically meaningful sense at all.  As he points out

And even more outrageously, such faux conservatives accuse long-dead Democratic presidents, who were well to the right of the current conservative movement, of being more radical than they actually were. It would be no exaggeration to say that Wilson and FDR were far more reactionary than any celebrity in the Tea Party movement. One could only imagine what such antediluvian Democrats would have said if they had heard last year’s “Conservative of the Year,” chosen by Human Events, Dick Cheney, weeping all over the floor about not allowing gays to marry each other. And what would that stern Presbyterian and Southern segregationist Wilson have thought about the cult of King or the attempts by Tea Party leaders Palin and McDonnell to impose feminist codes of behavior on business and educational establishments. Wilson had to be dragged even into supporting the extension of the franchise to women.

The Tea Party sounds so often like the Left because it is for the most part a product of the Left. Its people were educated in public schools, watch mass entertainment, and have absorbed most of the leftist values of the elite class, to whose rule they object only quite selectively. From the demonstrators’ perspective, that elite isn’t patriotic enough in backing America’s crusades for human rights and in looking after the marvelous welfare state we’ve already built.

In Gottfried’s view, the main culprits of conservatism’s corruption are the neoconservatives.

The neoconservatives not only neutralized any real Right but also managed to infantilize what they took over. An entire generation of serious conservative thinkers were bounced out and replaced by either lackeys or by those who were essentially recycled liberal Democrats. The latter had recoiled from the anti-Zionist stands of the leftwing of the Democratic Party and then were given as a consolation prize carte blanche to swallow up the conservative movement.

In his attack on Red Toryism the (libertarian?) writer Jacob Levy also appeals to class ideas to define conservatism.

Liberalism (and here I include both its welfarist and libertarian variants) has been the party-idea of the rule of law, religious toleration, careers open to the talents, and markets. It represented the interests and ideas of agricultural smallholders, lawyers, religious dissenters, entrepreneurs, urban traders, merchants, and artisans, as well as the interests and ideas of a portion of the wealthier classes — particularly those involved in finance and trade, and those who were “new money.” It has also, I think, often been associated with the young and single.

Socialism has been, of course, the party-idea of economic equality within industrial society, and an equalization of power over economic decisionmaking. It quintessentially represented the interests of the organized industrial working class, and disproportionately represented the ideas of professional intellectuals and urban artists.

Conservatism is the party-idea of slowing the pace of change, of preserving order and returning to real or imagined lost virtues and communal ways of life. One part of conservatism’s base has traditionally been the armed agents of the state — the military and police. But the rest of its social base has an odd character. It is the alliance of the rural landlord and the rural peasant, of the established-church priest and his relatively poor flock. It is the party idea of resisting the changes associated with the urban middle class and working class alike, of protecting traditional ways of life (including, importantly, traditional hierarchies) against the disruptions associated with both markets and politics.

Socialism is famously ambivalent about what came to be known as capitalism, appreciating its tremendous productive capacity and disruption of old power relations, while indicting the new power relations it creates. Liberalism is committed to capitalism, in more or less restrained forms. But conservatism is bitterly anticapitalist, much as it is anti-urban and for much the same reasons.

Levy evidently despises conservatives for their concerns, thinking that the material prosperity of the 21st century completely vindicates the modern project.  Interestingly, he understands communitarianism in a way opposite to that of Stephen, namely as a project within liberalism to “round sharp corners, soften rough edges, and slow rather than reverse changes.”  Those who take ideas seriously will hope Stephen’s view gains ground.

In my essay “Can there be an American Conservatism?” I ask what about the American way of life conservatives can legitimately strive to preserve.  Is our society really liberal to the core?  I argue that, in fact, every society relies on illiberal ideas about legitimate authority and particularist loyalty, and America is no different.  I grant that there is hardly any articulated conservative tradition to speak of in America.  However, Americans abide (as they could not help but do so without losing coherence as a society) by a number of practices that imply unstated conservative principles.  Our goal as American conservatives is to defend these practices and to help our countrymen to come to a conscious appreciation of their own ultimate principles.

5 Responses

  1. Hmm…Now that I think over Deneen’s article a little more, perhaps a more accurate statement would not be “there is no conservative tradition in America except that of conservative liberalism,” but something more like “the conservative tradition has always existed on the margins of American thought and American life.” It takes a lot of work to draw conservative principles out of most American political philosophy.

    Of course, the inevitable question for Deneen, which a commenter at Front Porch Republic did ask, was: What about Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind? Didn’t Kirk prove there was a conservative tradition in America? As I’ve said before, Kirk had excellent intentions, but I’m not convinced that his history was entirely accurate.

    That’s also an interesting argument Gottfried makes about privilege and class. I’ll do the inevitable and quote Gómez Dávila once more: “Wealth is hopelessly demoralizing when no political function is attached to it. Even plutocracy is preferable to irresponsible riches.” All I would add is that we need to couple privileges to political functions and duties. Today’s meritocracy is an example of an irresponsible privileged class.

  2. Real conservatism is very marginal in the American intellectual tradition, which is why Kirk had to stretch and dilute the definition of conservatism to find one in our land. I think it a waste of time to go looking for conservative wisdom in the writings of our Founding Rebels, although I suppose it’s a laudable patriotic impulse that drives some people to look.

    I hope you will have a chance to expand on your thoughts about wealth and function one of these days.

  3. If only I had time. But, you’ve done a pretty good job already of giving the reasons why we must “moralize wealth.” Besides, there’s not much I could add to what Christopher Lasch has to say in Revolt of the Elites (which I just read for the first time) or what Patrick Deneen has to say here.

  4. If you want to read more about conservatism and class, I would recommend this essay by Adam Webb on “class and clerisy.”

  5. Thanks

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