Reading Conservative History 1.0 - Is Conservatism Un-American?
In his influential 1955 book, The Liberal Tradition in America
, sociologist Louis Hartz argued that classical conservatism, like socialism, had never existed as a significant force in American political history. "The American community is a liberal community," Hartz said (p. 3).
By this, Hartz did not mean to deny the conflict in the United States between factions calling themselves "liberal" and "conservative," but to argue that both of these factions were in fact wholly contained within a context that, compared to the European experience, was liberal "in the classic Lockian sense" (p. 4). Lacking a feudal tradition, the U.S. therefore also lacked the ancien regime
that would constitute the basic conservative faction. The absence of feudalism in America also meant the absence of the kind of radicalism that opposition to the old structures would fuel in Europe, which in turn would play such an important role in the formation of European conservatism:
One of the central characteristics of a nonfeudal society is that it lacks a genuine revolutionary tradition, the tradition which in Europe has been linked with the Puritan and French revolutions: that it is "born equal," as Tocqueville said. And this being the case, it lacks also a tradition of reaction: lacking Robespierre it lacks Maistre, lacking Sydney it lacks Charles II (p.5).
In the American experience, there is only Locke. The other side of this coin is a rather paradoxical inability to see or to express this all-encompassing liberalism, since, without competing traditions, Americans lack the context:
There has never been a "liberal movement" or a real "liberal party" in America: we have only had the American Way of Life, a nationalist articulation of Locke which usually does not know that Locke himself is involved (p. 11).
This "Americanism" comprises a politics in which all parties are rooted in a fundamental liberal consensus: on capitalism, for example, and on a written constitution based on a priori
It's in this context that Tom Wicker, in his Introduction to the 1991 edition of Hartz's book, can argue that, "in the historical perspective of this book, the so-called conservative revolution that first brought Barry Goldwater to national prominence, and Ronald Reagan to national power, appears to have been a particularly virulent reassertion of the liberal tradition Dr. Hartz identifies (p. x)."
The ultimate point of this blog is to better understand the modern American conservative movement - the present phase of that same 'conservative revolution.' As such, I'm interested in Wicker's claim. Is it accurate or not? And what are the implications either way?
One of the problems here is in defining what is "conservative" to begin with. The classical usage is often in conflict with the current one, and each also faces its own internal tensions. Is conservatism an ideology or is it anti-ideological? Is it primarily about resistance to political action, or about political action in the interest of its various constituencies? And how can constituencies with such often-divergent interests coexist under the same banner?
Going forward, I'll try to examine conservatism as it operates in three different 'modes' - though this analytical scheme may itself evolve as seems appropriate:
1. Situational conservatism
. By this I mean conservatism as a sort of mood, a general resistance to social and political change in every era. Probably this is the most superficial aspect of conservatism, but I expect that it is often the aspect that best accounts for its periods of widespread popularity.
2. Instrumental conservatism
. This refers to the policies pursued by the various interest groups linked under the conservative banner. Obviously such policies can vary widely by group, by location, and over time.
3. Ideological conservatism
. This is conservatism expressed as rooted in certain fundamental, enduring principles, whether classical - the negative view of human nature, the privileging of the social over the individual, respect for longstanding heirarchies and caste distinctions - or more contemporary: low taxes, small government, strong defense, 'family values'.
In and among these three modes there are patterns both of synchronicity and of contradiction. Moreover, we can clearly see some aspects of these modes at work in what is called American conservatism, while others are much harder to discern.
The one historical context in which all three of these elements clearly coincided was in Europe, in the wake of the French revolution. Indeed, "classical" conservatism is in fact a modern phenomenon - it is of course the reaction of the ancien regime
to the transformative radicalism of that definitively modern event.
And here we return to Hartz, because for Hartz this is precisely what places conservatism outside of the American experience. According to Hartz, a rough sketch of the European political context would include the following factions:
- Tories: the political representatives of the ancien regime.
- Whigs: the propertied liberal right.
- democrats: the "petit-bourgeois" liberal left
- revolutionaries: the radical anti-feudalists who would eventually develop into the socialists.
Without either Tories or revolutionaries, the two wings of political liberalism in America would evolve strategies different from those of their counterparts in Europe. The democrats would incorporate not just the petit-bourgeois element, but also the proletariat and the peasants (or yeoman farmers in the American context), making them the generally "unbeatable" natural majority. The Whiggish faction, meanwhile, were unable to pursue the European strategy of "divide et impera
... playing the mass against the ancien regime
, the ancien regime
against the mass, and the mass against itself (p. 19)." As a result, they were forced after 1840 to abandon their Hamiltonian elitism in favor of a strategy that alternated between the Horatio Alger "mechanism of enchanting the American democrat and the 'Americanistic' mechanism of terrifying him (p. 20)."
This analysis of American history accounts for the political conflict between left and right in the United States, while framing the American right as entirely outside the tradition of what has come to be known as conservatism in the classical sense. But is it convincing? Intellectuals of the modern American conservative movement have certainly self-consciously attempted to articulate links to classical English (and, to a lesser extent, European) conservatism. American conservative writing is riddled with references to Burke, Disraeli, Oakeshott, Hayek.
Some American conservatives have acknowledged the complexities of making these connections from an American context. Writing in Commentary
recently, Wilfred McClay discussed
some of these tensions:
For Americans, as for others, a conservative sense of the past is expressed partly through shared stories and sufferings and customs, the mystic chords of memory. But that is only part of the story. In the United States, national identity is expressed as well through loyalty to the country’s founding principles and propositions, and to quasi-scriptural documents, like the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, which seek to express them.
Many of these principles, including the “self-evident” assertion that “all men are created equal” and possess “inalienable rights,” have always been put forward as statements of universal scope, and not merely particular or local values. Their universalistic implications have a tendency, indeed, to cut against the equally vital elements in the conservative tradition that argue for the primacy of the local, the settled, and the particular. [...]
To revere America without honoring these principles would mean revering a different country from the one we actually inhabit. But it is true that the principles are not always themselves conservative, either in their applications or their effects. Hence the inherent tendency of American conservatism to show, as the political scientist Walter Berns has pointed out, a dual aspect, combining the customary and the propositional, the affective and the rational, the particular and the general. One should love one’s country both for what it is and for what it stands for; both because it is one’s own and because it embodies or aspires to the highest and finest ideals.
McClay's article is concerned with current conflicts within American conservatism, some of which seem to involve disputes over the implications of some American conservatives' efforts to more vigorously assert what might be seen as "classically" conservative ideas: for instance, on the establishment of religion, or prerogative power.
It does seem that, if the post-Goldwater American right has not generally been conservative in a classical sense, it has lately been developing certain classically conservative tendencies. Returning to the analysis framed by Hartz, then, we can try to understand this development by selecting among a few different propositions:
1. There has never been a classically conservative tradition in America, and post-Goldwater movement conservatism only represents "a particularly virulent reassertion of the liberal tradition Dr. Hartz identifies;" or
2. There has never been a classically conservative tradition in America, until post-Goldwater movement conservatism, which represents a new development; or
3. There has
been a classically conservative tradition in America, and post-Goldwater movement conservatism is only the latest expression of it.
In the next installments of Reading Conservative History, we'll examine what aspects of conservatism - whether situational, instrumental, or ideological - we can find in the political processes that gave birth to the American republic.
Next: The Shadow of the Stuarts
Previous: 1974: The Wave on the Horizon
Labels: conservatism, Reading Conservative History, Wilfred McClay