Is There a Conservative Tradition in America?

by Patrick J. Deneen on September 28, 2010 · 28 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Culture, High & Low,Politics & Power

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Here is the text of my remarks at last week’s “Conservatism on Tap” in Washington D.C. I had an additional set of concluding thoughts that were hand-written; I’ll post my conclusion when I’ve had an opportunity to type them.

“Is There a Conservative Tradition in America?

It is doubtless odd to pose as a question – “Is there a Conservative Tradition in America” – what should otherwise seem to require a declarative. For the past 30 years, reaching back to the Presidency of Ronald Reagan, if not even longer – at least since the ascent of Barry Goldwater – conservatism has been a powerful force in American politics, transforming a landscape that once seemed destined to be the domain of liberals forever. Conservatives have reshaped the Republican party and the national political scene, with its Presidents winning in five of the last eight elections in considerable part due to the conservative ascendancy in suburban and Middle America, and conservatives have held considerable sway in Congress during that time, even at a time – since 2008 – when they were no longer in the majority in either House.

Conservatives have shown themselves to be able organizers, spawning countless journals and presses, creating a new type of media form – “fair and balanced” – staking out considerable ground in journalism, setting up think tanks and institutes, even increasingly assertive on otherwise liberal college campuses while at the same time starting from scratch new academic institutions that aim to compete with the dominant liberal academic orthodoxy. We are surrounded by evidence of the Conservative Tradition in America, and in spite of premature declarations of its demise – such as that of Sam Tanenhaus in his book The Death of Conservatism – the patient seems to have revived strongly in recent months, flexing muscles in elections throughout the country through the remarkable phenomenon of the “Tea Party” movement. It seems that if we were to look with eyes that can see, it would seem obvious that the answer to the question of tonight’s talk is clearly and resoundingly YES.

Yet, by another measure the answer is anything but obvious. Americans have largely come to accept a certain definition of conservatism that largely goes without examination in the media and everyday discussion. While difficult to define, contemporary American conservatism seems to be shaped by a certain set of core commitments. While not exhaustive, among those characteristics one could confidently list: 1. Commitment to limited government as laid out by the Founders in the Constitution; 2. Support for Free Markets; 3. Strong National defense; 4. Individual responsibility and a suspicion toward collectivism; and 5. Defense of traditional values, particularly support for family. I’m sure there are many other characteristics we could agree upon, but these are several that seem to be core devotions of modern conservatism, and nearly anyone with passing knowledge of American politics could look at this list and agree that this would seem to reflect Conservative values.

Herein lies the problem and the question: with the likely exception of #5 on my list – “defense of traditional values, particularly support of the family” – every 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.

I’m hardly the first to recognize that the American tradition is dominantly a liberal tradition. Louis Hartz famously expressed this thesis in his 1955 book The Liberal Tradition in America, in which he argued that America is a unique nation in the West precisely because it was founded exclusively on a liberal basis, and most explicitly on the basis of principles laid out in the philosophy of John Locke. Hartz argued that it was this liberal tradition that explained the absence both of a feudal tradition (which he regarded as the true source of a “conservative” or “reactionary” politics) and a socialist tradition in America. While he didn’t frame his argument in these terms, his argument suggests that the main current of American politics is split along a narrow range of political views, namely conservative liberalism and progressive liberalism. Yet the dominant American worldview is liberalism, and as such there is no real “conservative” tradition in America that exists independent of a more fundamental commitment to liberalism.

We have come to accept that Conservatism in America means fidelity to the founding principles of America, particularly those embodied in our basic documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Taking each in turn, it’s most obviously the case that the Declaration is at the very least problematically in any way compatible with conservatism, and even the Constitution contains elements that were worrisome to a more conservative party in American politics at the time of its ratification. The Declaration is our nation’s work of high philosophy, a distillation of Lockean principles deriving from his Second Treatise on Government. Yet, thinkers from Edmund Burke to Russell Kirk have shown the deeply anti-conservative bases of the social contract theory of Lockean (and Hobbesian) origin, one that is premised upon a conception of human beings as naturally “free and independent,” as autonomous individuals who are thought to exist by nature detached from a web of relationships that include family, community, Church, region, and so on. The Lockean logic subjects all human relationships to radical scrutiny, valorizing choice and voluntarism as the sole basis of legitimacy in any human bond. This logic radically destabilizes all existing ties, making individual calculation the primary basis on which to assess the legitimacy and claims of any association. This logic not only places the polity under its legitimizing logic, but all traditional relations, even finally the family itself. The logic used to justify America’s break with England worked like a steady solvent throughout its history, first detaching people’s allegiances from communities, from Churches, then from the individual States, and finally today – among the vanguard, the enlightened elite – from the nation and from the family alike. Today’s conservatives in most cases see this as a step too far, yet they have generally signed on in support of the philosophy that led to this culmination of the Lockean project.

Conservatives today see the Constitution as the more conservative, even stabilizing document, giving form and shape to a limited government of enumerated powers, divided powers and the federated sharing of powers. Today conservatives assign blame to the intervention of 19th-century Progressives – thinkers like John Dewey and Herbert Croly – for the evisceration of the Founder’s 18th-century sober wisdom. They see particularly the influx of foreign contaminants – in the form of progressive German philosophy inspired by the likes of Kant and Hegel – as the source of the corruption of the Constitution. They seek its restoration to its original form, the original understanding of the Framers.

This explanation overlooks a substantial body of writing that argued that the Constitution was a document that sought a centralizing “consolidation” from the very outset. I speak of the extensive writings of the varied authors called “Anti-federalists,” – that group of men who Herbert Storing categorized as the “conservatives” in the ratification debate. It was for varied reasons that the Anti-federalists opposed ratification of the Constitution, but in many cases saw and predicted tendencies in the document that have reached full flourishing in our own day. Their witness renders problematic the view that the Constitution has been substantially misinterpreted by today’s liberals, and rather suggests that the Constitution, too, had a logic like the Declaration that has taken time to work out, but which in the end has come to realize exactly those fears expressed by the Anti-federalists in the 1780s.

I would list primary among their fears the following – first, that the Constitution had at its basic aim “consolidation” and the eventual usurpation of State power. Second, that the Constitution not only was silent on the moral requirements for human flourishing, but regarded humans in largely Hobbesian terms and thus aimed only at the management of conflict rather than an inculcation in virtue; third, that the Constitution mainly sought the ends of national glory and ambition, and would put the nation on the course of empire and entanglements with foreign power as well as lead to the creation of a “standing army” that would be solely under the command of the Central government; fourth, that its heavy emphasis upon the promotion of national and international commerce would lead to a tendency toward “luxury” or the love of profit and gain, which was regarded by many Anti-federalists as the death of republican liberty, leading to materialism, softness, and the loss of virtue; and fifth, that the new Constitutional system would attract the “great and ambitious” at the expense of the ordinary man, and put the nation on the course of being ruled by a set of self-selected elites who would govern in the name of their enlightened perspective (mainly promoting empire and commerce) at the expense of the ordinary virtues of the country’s yeomen. Without lingering on the particulars of the debate, I think it’s fair to simply state that while the Anti-federalists were often wrong in many particulars, they were stunningly correct in their overarching concerns and that, in each instance, their early fears have come to pass.

There’s a further problem in the contemporary narrative that has been developed by conservatives regarding the course of the Constitution. While the narrative of the Constitution’s corruption by Progressives has been popularized by Glenn Beck, it has largely been developed by scholars who study in the tradition established by the German émigré scholar, Leo Strauss. They largely rely on a significant essay written by Strauss entitled “The Three Waves of Modernity.” In that essay, Strauss explains that the break with antiquity – particularly classical Greek and Roman as well as Christian thought – was inaugurated by thinkers of “modern Natural Right,” in an incipient form by Machiavelli and then further by Hobbes and Locke. These thinkers argued that a new science of politics was needed, one that was not as resigned simultaneously to a vision of ideal politics based upon the inculcation of virtue, and also a theory of decline that necessarily accompanied those high aims, as that which characterized ancient thought. Building on the “low but solid ground” of self-interest, Machiavelli, Hobbes and Locke sought to channel the great source of political strife toward productive ends, particularly in the areas of commerce and expansion of human knowledge (modern science). Aided by the insights of Hobbes’s one-time boss, Francis Bacon, the new science of politics was devoted to “the relief of the human estate,” a project that relied upon the new natural sciences for the expansion of human power and mastery over nature. This “first wave” of modernity recognized the inherent imperfectability of human beings – thus, that we have a nature, and that a successful politics can be built upon that nature – and served as the philosophical basis for the American founding.

The “second wave” of modernity is called by Strauss “historicism.” Like a wave – following upon and deriving its content from the previous wave – this “second wave” took its point of departure from an instability within the first wave. The “second wave” of modernity took the basic insight of the philosophers of the first wave – that nature was subject to human control – and extended this insight to human nature itself. If external nature were subject to human dominion, why not human nature itself? Thinkers like Rousseau, Condorcet, Comte, and later, John Stuart Mill, developed the idea of human perfectibility, of the human ability to master not only external nature, but to improve human nature as well. If philosophers of the “first wave” argued that human nature was unalterable, philosophers of the “second wave” argued that human nature could be improved concurrent with an improvement in the material domain. The concept of moral progress became a central feature in second wave philosophy, a progress in historical time that was believed to culminate in man’s perfection, even ascent to a godlike condition. In America, thinkers like Dewey, Croly and later, Richard Rorty adopted the basic insights of this “second wave” of modernity.

What Strauss perceived – and what his epigones too often overlook – is that the seeds of the second wave are planted within the logic of the first wave. A theory that rejects the fundamental governance of nature (at least that nature external to humanity) – or natural law – and substitutes this ancient Aristotelian and Thomistic standard for a more utilitarian calculus of interest inevitably jeopardizes any standard and even its own effort to ground its politics on a now more limited understanding of human nature. The “second” wave is embedded in the first wave – that is, lacking a standard by which humans are to be limited, their tendency will be to develop a political philosophy that invites thorough re-creation not only of our environment, but of the human creature. According to the implicit logic of Strauss’s argument, we do better to see that Progressive liberalism is the consequence of “Classical Liberalism,” and not its wholesale betrayal, as many today would like to believe.

Strauss discerned that it is from the very individualistic basis of liberalism that arose the collectivist impulse of “progressivism,” initially in communism and fascism, but today in what we might call “progressive liberalism.” The false anthropology of liberalism – anathema to the deeper insights of a pre-liberal “conservative” tradition – spawns the perverse but inescapable progeny that it purports to despise, but which at every turn it fosters. Any conservative impulse is throttled by its more fundamental fealty to the liberal tradition.

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.

{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Peter Schellhase September 28, 2010 at 7:38 am

Thanks, Dr. Deneen! I’m passing this on to friends.

avatar HappyAcres September 28, 2010 at 8:06 am

Thanks for rehearsing this dialectic.

While likely in sympathy with your vision of the good life — rocking on the front porch as the kids water the garden, far from big box stores and tattooed sybarites — I also celebrate both the market and lifestyle autonomy.

Well, maybe “celebrate” is too strong; I accept them as expressions of free people, and would defend them from political coercion. The dialectic continues to play itself out.

While we wait for a change in the hearts of men, we’ll trust in our fellows and distrust the State.

avatar Schofield September 28, 2010 at 8:17 am

When the rich rely on the enforcement actions of two governments American and Chinese to make money conservative liberalism can hardly be labelled a coherent political philosophy merely hypocrisy and a cover for rapacity.

avatar Steve September 28, 2010 at 9:36 am

This is an excellent essay. I’m teaching the anti-federalists next week, and I think I’ll use this piece in class.

avatar D.W. Sabin September 28, 2010 at 10:00 am

Every time I hear a so-called Liberal or Conservative politician close his or her remarks with the standard beseeching for God to Bless America, almost in a demand in fact, I think to myself that they have left off the plural because as we all know, Modern Technocratic Pantheism has hit The Federal District with a vengeance. The pantheon is our beloved fiat currency and the faces of the Gods of Franklin and Grant and Jefferson and Hamilton and Washington adorn our thinking more than any other. The “Pursuit of Happiness”, what might have once been a reflective and gentlemanly thing is now interchangeable with the “Pursuit of Gratification” …something that is ultimately wed to grasping power . Gout has moved up from the big toe to the brain.

There is no Conservative, nor any Liberal, there is only the Campaign and its coffers turn money into broken promises with an almost magical alchemy. Should Saints Hobbes, Locke, Augustine, Aristotle or Burke appear out of the mists of time to survey the current political scene, they might have a good laugh over their heir’s easy and addled tongues with their respective philosophies. Success has bred a poverty of the mind that is closer to the caves of the neolithic era than to the times of any of the political thinkers whose ideas the blabbing pundits and political operators toss off like bon bons.

Watching the stock ticker or Fed quarterly report is our new chicken entrails.

avatar Brandon September 28, 2010 at 11:16 am

You tell ‘em, Patrick. Keep up the good fight! You’re words and writings are bountiful with clarity, articulation, and commitment to truth.

avatar Peter B. Nelson September 28, 2010 at 3:26 pm

I hit a mental pothole at that phrase “conservative liberal”, and I think a better term would be something like “Jeffersonian liberal”. It neatly captures the dichotomy between conservatism’s beatification of the founding fathers and its antipathy to their liberal ideals.

avatar Kevin L Hall September 28, 2010 at 3:32 pm

Of course, standing athwart liberal history yelling stop is not enough. A new path, built on ground higher than the “better than they knew” of Lawler and Strauss, must be cut. I would be interested in what, if anything, in a new American conservative project can be discerned as useful, or “good” that can be picked out of the ashes of liberalism and incorporated into the foundation of the road.

avatar Albert September 28, 2010 at 3:46 pm

HappyAcres, what if they are not “expressions of free people” but the consequence of past political coercion?

Not that griping like I am doing here is going to do much, but I’m not sure it makes sense to defend the “lifestyles” of the descendants of the exploited who don’t have a viable choice in their way of life.

It would be great if we all were completely freely choosing these lifestyles; but that’s too simplistic since the range of choices was decided by physical coercion (which we both oppose) generations ago.

avatar Jason September 28, 2010 at 10:34 pm

Professor Deneen’s argument is the Progressives corrected or completed the project begun by the American Founders. The Founders inconsistently exempted human nature from the “conquest of nature” while the Progressives thought human nature had to be conquered as well. But it seems like the Founders were right on that score. Human nature is distinct from Nature. We are not “nature fodder” or parts of a whole; we’re wholes. Pascal’s observation of our restlessness is a sign of our distinctiveness, that ultimately we’re lost in the cosmos. The Progressives do not complete the Founding, they reject it.

avatar Ted V. McAllister September 28, 2010 at 11:26 pm

Patrick,

Thank you for opening up a number of issues here. The analyses of American conservatism that I read, and the discussions about the same subject that I hear, are so unhinged from historical facts, so lacking in definitional clarity, that I find it nearly impossible to engage. You pose, without really answering, whether there is a conservative tradition in America. You identify a bundle of principles that people often associate with the “movement,” but this hardly constitutes a conservative philosophy. I like the clarity with which you outline the third generation appropriation of Strauss’s argument, but in the end we are left without a starting place to think about the question: is there an American conservative tradition?

However, your essay begins to clear some of the clutter so that we can begin to think historically about this question. I would find it very valuable to open up “settled” subjects, such as one you raise in this essay: the nature of the Declaration of Independence. Clearly a certain neo-con (drawn from Jaffa largely) reading of the document as narrowly Lockean is hard to sustain in light of the volumes of historical analyses that have emerged recently (though I think you may disagree with me here). A serious discussion on this subject–one that starts fresh and doesn’t assume that we will return to the same places from which we started–might prove very valuable.

But there are much deeper issues that you didn’t have time to explore in this essay, including the meaning of conservatism and the degree to which this way of seeing the world must be rooted in experiences and social arrangements. If we understand that conservatism is not an ideology and that conservatives develop principles that emerge from beloved institutions and social conditions, then we face a fundamental challenge as we try to trace an American conservatism that is not simply a matter of choice or taste–or ideology. However, I sense that a genuine investigation of these matters without worries about how our inquiry might support a party or policy agenda will give many of us a better means of understanding ourselves, our roots, and our relationship with emerging conditions.

Thanks again for provoking–I look forward to the next installment.

Ted

avatar Patrick J. Deneen September 29, 2010 at 6:19 am

Ted,
Thanks for your thoughtful comments – they are truly more than this brief set of reflections deserved.

It is glaringly obvious to me that I do not lay out here what “conservatism” _is_ – and thus, from the very outset, I fail to address the stated theme. The talk was delivered to a group of young D.C. conservatives for the program “Conservatism on Tap,” so – in the tradition of ancient philosophy – I began with opinion, namely the prevailing opinion of what many hold conservatism to be. You’re correct that all I aimed to do in my allotted 15 minutes in the midst of a beer hall was to raise some questions about those prevailing opinions. It was not the place for a disquisition about the nature of “conservatism” (if such an ideology even exists independent of some more substantive political and cultural reference point – which I doubt. Hence my point about “conservative liberal”).

There are other times and places for the exploration you call for here – some of which I’ve attempted from time to time – but it was enough on that day to clear some ground, as you say. What amazed me was the reception I received, which – from many quarters – was strikingly positive, accompanied by requests for further discussion. I take this as a hope-giving sign, taking place as it did in the heart of the belly of the beast itself.

I think Ted asks for something similar as that request from Mr. Kevin L. Hall – a project of construction or reconstruction. And, I fear that my all too brief response at the moment is that the first thing we must resist is the urge – all too modern – to come up with A solution, and particularly the belief that a solution lies in the right policy prescription coming from Washington (it is no small wonder to me that “conservative” radio now claims that the future of America hinges on the midterm election.). Much work that needs to be done will need to be piecemeal, working locally, including the work of raising families to resist the temptations of our cultural wasteland, and finding others who share the desire to build something fine and enduring amid the “ashes of liberalism.”

avatar John Médaille September 29, 2010 at 10:44 am

The duty of conservatism is to conserve; but the content of conservatism is what it conserves. More and more, what is conserved are the values of the Enlightenment. The practical effect is that modern conservatism, especially in its “neo” form, merely regulates the rate of surrender to liberalism, but hardly has any ideas of its own. This does liberalism a great service, because if we saw it all at once we would reject it. As it is, we are like the frog in the frying pan; the heat slowly rises, and we don’t notice anything until our goose is cooked (to mix the metaphors.) As the practical sign of this, the actual political content of Republican politics is any gov’t program older than 10 years. Thus, Obamacare is “socialism,” while Medicare is a sacred right with a big constituency.

That being said, the Constitution is profoundly conservative in one sense, and profoundly liberal in another. It is conservative because it was an attempt to implement the mixed constitution ideals of Aristotle and Aquinas. Monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy would be blended in the proper proportions to produce the best form of gov’t.

But founders made at least two mistakes, one concerning virtue and the other concerning federalism. For the ancients and the medieval theorists, gov’t was about conserving and advancing virtue. But for the founders, it was about balancing vice. Since 1714, the dominant political and economic framework was given Mandeville’s The Fable of the Bees, whose subtitle, Private Vices; Publick Benefits, tells you all you need to know about this wretched piece of doggerel. The various elements of gov’t would embody the various vices of their constituents, and this vice would be played against vice to produce virtue. Well, not really; from vice comes only more vice, and when the vicious agree, the result is not virtuous.

The second problem is that the federalists had no idea of federalism. The Constitution does not spell out the relationship between the federal union and its constituent parts, the states. The question is relegated to the much ignored 10th amendment. Thus federalism was merely a synonym for nationalism. And while this issue was in some doubt for the first four score and seven years, it would finally be resolved at a courthouse, Appomattox. The judges wore not black robes, but blue uniforms.

Since then, the constitution has gone the way it has, which is likely the only way it could.

avatar Ted V. McAllister September 29, 2010 at 10:55 am

Patrick,
I’m not at all surprised that your talk provoked a great deal of interest among young DC conservatives. I detect much interest because there is much confusion. Many of our more politically oriented young conservatives operate without any inherited memory before Reagan. However much they are animated by policy debates today, they evidence a desire to understand deeper things about themselves and their nation.

For this reason, clearing the field is a necessary task–a task underway in certain scholarly circles but not in more popular venues. What you’ve done in this essay is part of a project, to be sure, but not a project to construct a politically viable movement. The project goes deeper and requires a vocabulary that can open up ways of seeing. It requires attention to historical development. It requires that we be honest and fearless about what we might find. And so to ask whether American conservatism has a tradition is to raise, if not answer, questions about what we mean by America, by tradition, and by conservatism. We return to questions of anthropology and human nature, to what degree we can “choose” our way to tradition, to what kinds of goods are possible with current social conditions.

To my way of thinking, we are at the tail end of a very successful emancipatory process and the people we are (all of us) relates to this very success. Some people recognize, or think they recognize, that there is something lost in this modern emancipation. We are left not able to return to something anachronistic, not to indulge in nostalgia, but to ask what it means to live with this social world, itself a product of forces we barely comprehend.

In other words, Patrick, I wanted to stress how helpful I think your clearing of the field is for us as we move outside of academic circles, outside of disciplines, outside of policy debates, to know better who we are and how we got to be who we are.

Thanks again.

Ted

avatar Howard Merrell September 29, 2010 at 11:08 am

Dr. Deneen,

Thanks.

I am a guy who has considerable interest in the thoughts discussed here on the Porch, but who is lacking in the historical/political education department.
A couple of observations that are raised as questions, as much as anything. Obvioulsly, you are speaking to a more sophisticated audience. I understand if you choose not to respond to my thoughts.

I have always looked at conservatism from an etymological viewpoint. Whether being a conservative is a virtue or not depends on what one is conserving. I sense in your talk a desire to conserve what you regard as virtues that predate our founding as a nation. The conservation that popular, American conservatives are promoting has to do with “virtues” they observe in the much more recent past.

You seem to agree with some comments that I remember from Prof. Willson, a former FPR editor (I miss his curmudgeonliness. It makes me look mellow.) that today’s popular voices of “conservatism” have no right to that title. The rationale for the claim seems to me to be that what they are seeking to conserve is not old enough. Couldn’t the same be said for your brand of conservatism? All one would need to do is go further back in history and drive the stake there.

Maybe my layman’s position has jaundiced my vision, but it seems that those who position themselves as conservatives in today’s political culture are asking a question something like: “Based on our present needs, what do I see in the fairly recent past that ought to protected from change/reform/rejection? I think the five basic principles early in your talk would be at least partical answers to that question. It seems that you are coming at the issue from more of an academic viewpoint–what is the proper label for today’s so-called Conservative movement? I’m not saying that is not important. Accuracy in thinking, especially in an educational setting is important, but what we call a movement that holds those five principles in its core is of less importance to many today than the conclusion that they have made that this is what our nation/culture needs.

As one who speaks on a regular basis within a time limit, I fully sympathize with the need to radically edit and focus. You weren’t speaking about much of what I write above.

avatar Gerry T. Neal September 30, 2010 at 9:52 am

You have asked an interesting question here Dr. Deneen. I am surprised, however, that the only reference to Russell Kirk that I see in your speech is the sentence which begins: “Yet, thinkers from Edmund Burke to Russell Kirk have shown the deeply anti-conservative bases of the social contract theory of Lockean (and Hobbesian) origin…” Russell Kirk’s legendary The Conservative Mind: From Burke To Eliot, was written with the express purpose of demonstrating the existence of a classical conservative tradition in the United States.

Dr. M. E. Bradford also addressed this question, in a lecture to the Heritage Foundation in 1986. The lecture, entitled “Is the American Experience Conservative?” was later published in The Heritage Lectures (no. 77) and in Bradford’s The Reactionary Imperative. While acknowledging that the American Revolution could hardly be called a conservative event, Bradford argued that the “original American heritage was fundamentally conservative – up through about 1819″.

Both Kirk and Bradford were cultural and classical conservatives – traditionalists. While it is questionable as to what degree of real influence they ever had over the movement that has come to be called “conservatism” in America, they did provide a “yes” to the question of whether America had a conservative tradition.

I am curious, since you have raised the question anew, as to your thoughts on what Kirk and Bradford had to say on the subject?

avatar Schofield September 30, 2010 at 12:50 pm

In America conservative liberalism in the hands of the Republican Party and some Democrat politicians has now become a junk ideology in a land of junk food. It is junk because it is self-conflicting. It claims to be nutritious but causes ill health. It relies on the existence and absence of government laws for capitalism to operate whilst simultaneously and hypocritically denigrating the role of government. It claims to support the family whilst supporting the outsourcing of jobs to other countries that deliberately and unfairly rig production costs. It suppresses attempts to increase and reasonably distribute demand within society by attacking campaigns to improve wage levels and distribute resources.

So Patrick Deneen is right to point out the true nature of conservative liberalism but we would be wrong to condemn Enlightenment Liberalism as the irredeemable cause of this junk ideology. This Liberalism came into being as a reaction against forms of dominance. This dominance was in two forms; repression of the individual and repression of the majority. It was therefore right that Liberalism should evolve to protect both individualism and communalism. For example, Galileo required protecting from the ideological rigidity of the Catholic Church but the good work of that church for the poor and distressed of society required protecting from a rapacious monarchy and aristocracy. Enlightenment Liberalism is consequently always a work in progress operating on a twin front to resist the oppression of reasonable rights. Historically though it has failed to successfully grapple with the fact that capital, be it private or state controlled, could be as much a source of power and dominance as democratically cast votes if not greater. Capital allied to an individualism which lacks respect for common good needs, be this in the form of private or state capitalism, was consequently always likely to be a cause of economic instability and possible national breakdown. Indeed the American Constitution is half-formed in this regard despite the Anti-Federalist warnings.

Our way forward today is to understand that individualism and communalism are better viewed as a form of assertion of rights that can be positive or negative in its impact on a society. Enlightenment Liberalism in consequence can only ever amount to being a matter of the best informed judgment of its society with regard to those rights but it’s ensuring the institutions and mechanisms are in place to make that best informed judgment that is critical. One such mechanism is obviously the fairer distribution and control of capital. In doing this society is better placed to spot junk ideologies that promote unfair rights, or dominance by individuals or classes of individuals.

avatar Joe P September 30, 2010 at 6:30 pm

Wow, great piece. I’ve not read much Front Porch Republic stuff. I should start.

Professor Deneen, what I particularly like about your remarks is that – unlike many of the criticisms from this perspective that I hear (or in some cases, read – a perspective to which I’m sympathetic) – you leave the question about an American conservative tradition (admittedly) open-ended. As a few of the comments in response section point out, this illuminates the potential for a realistic type of conservatism that fits some type of (elastic) understanding of what conservatism is, while nevertheless being recognizable or “true” to this American political experience. Contrast this with the tendencies I witness by some self-identified ‘conservatives’ to reject whole hog “American culture” as some product of modernity (with the apparently self-evident assumption of the utter depravity of the culture, the critical rejection itself being a celebratory “badge of honor” for its wearer); one step further, to import into the discussion seemingly “conservative” principles or views (pick your obscure thinker) which are actually alien, inconsistent or otherwise in tension with (but not necessarily unrecognizable to) some common or “shared” American experience; and, the final tendency, that being to exaggerate the significance of these fundamental differences between the quarreling political camps – those differences which you so well point out originate from the same worldview – in order to legitimize the fiction that there is a “real” conservatism that transcends temporal-spatial boundaries in some type of historically-mindful primeval connection to its, to pick a completely random (or not) historical relative, European cousins.

Granted, Prof. Deneen, you end your remarks on a pessimistic note, however as Prof. McAllister points out, you clear the rubbish in order to begin the work of constructing an authentically American conservatism, regardless of the results. So, I guess I like it because you’ve written something that is positive(ly) useful. You don’t simply follow the well-worn path of the run-of-the-mill conservative (whom I, perhaps unfairly, describe above); rather, you introduce an opportunity in which to build something real. And those who want to build a viable American style of conservatism would do well to read your remarks and use them as their starting point. Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

avatar tom van dyke October 1, 2010 at 3:16 pm

But the Founders’ John Locke was not the radical modernist of Leo Strauss. Even if that’s the “true” Locke, it’s not the Founders’ Locke.

Nor are rights “endowed by their creator” the same as Hobbesian “natural rights.” Dragging in God makes those rights subject to natural law.

To wit, Alexander Hamilton in the justly famous “The Farmer Refuted, ” and what “conservatives” defend as the Founding “Lockean” worldview:

Apply yourself, without delay, to the study of the law of nature. I would recommend to your perusal, Grotius, Puffendorf, Locke, Montesquieu, and Burlemaqui. I might mention other excellent writers on this subject; but if you attend, diligently, to these, you will not require any others.

There is so strong a similitude between your political principles and those maintained by Mr. Hobb[e]s, that, in judging from them, a person might very easily mistake you for a disciple of his. His opinion was, exactly, coincident with yours, relative to man in a state of nature. He held, as you do, that he was, then, perfectly free from all restraint of law and government. Moral obligation, according to him, is derived from the introduction of civil society; and there is no virtue, but what is purely artificial, the mere contrivance of politicians, for the maintenance of social intercourse. But the reason he run into this absurd and impious doctrine, was, that he disbelieved the existence of an intelligent superintending principle, who is the governor, and will be the final judge of the universe.

Good and wise men, in all ages, have embraced a very dissimilar theory. They have supposed, that the deity, from the relations, we stand in, to himself and to each other, has constituted an eternal and immutable law, which is, indispensibly, obligatory upon all mankind, prior to any human institution whatever.

This is what is called the law of nature, “which, being coeval with mankind, and dictated by God himself, is, of course, superior in obligation to any other. It is binding over all the globe, in all countries, and at all times. No human laws are of any validity, if contrary to this; and such of them as are valid, derive all their authority, mediately, or immediately, from this original.” Blackstone.

Upon this law, depend the natural rights of mankind, the supreme being gave existence to man, together with the means of preserving and beatifying that existence.

avatar Mike Enright October 2, 2010 at 10:44 am

I am having a hard time seeing anti-federalists as conservative. Are they not part of the same “liberal conservatism” as anyone else? Are they not as or more suspicious of governmental authority as modern conservatives? Are they not heirs to lockean thought and enlightenment as well?

avatar Abelard Lindsey October 5, 2010 at 5:55 pm

Ayn Rand said similar things about “conservatism”. When viewed in the proper context of world history, “conservatism” is really a form of feudalism and that there has never been anything “conservative” about America. She also considered the Renaissance and Enlightenment to be the only real revolution in world history because it was the only intellectual revolution in history. There is considerable truth to this.

Even though those who know me personally consider me to be right-wing politically, I have never identified with or liked the label “conservative”.

I am a classical liberal, plain and simple. Always have been and always will be.

avatar J Owen October 6, 2010 at 2:37 pm

Nicely done, Patrick. I’ve been reading about the history of the European Right, from the French Revolution onward. Admittedly quite a different history — the US doesn’t really have a Right wing by European standards, and the Fed/Antifed disputes were disputes among revolutionary republicans (see Mike Enright’s question). But what struck me as similar to your overview is the massive question regarding the core of both American conservatism and the European Right, and the extent to which attempts to define a core depend on their ideological opponents. Interesting stuff.

avatar pseudepigrapha October 7, 2010 at 5:06 pm

Pauline Maier treats the topic of the Declaration’s ostensible conservatism quite well (if not altogether convincingly) in her book America Scripture. She argues against the Straussian camp’s Lockean interpretation of the founding symbols, yet perilously for a muted Whig-revivalist reading of the same as mere recapitulations of “what Englishmen had always done” in the murky tradition of Anglo-Saxon Common Law — a claim, mind you, which has got to be the closest thing to a Kirkian “elastic clause” that I can think of. Moving right along, though: while it was similar to things that “Englishmen had always done,” the Declaration of Independence, and the War for Independence were also notably different: they intended, and ultimately achieved, independence from a sovereign king, all the political, economic and cultural harmonies with the Anglo-Saxon ferment notwithstanding.

I’m curious, then, why today’s ostensible conservative feels the need to vindicate the American Founding? Not to be a deconstructionist here, but there’s just no neat category for it. The debate seems akin to the scholastic query of how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. However, if this analogy is apposite, then there is hope, as the former could at least be suitably answered. Personally, I find Mr. Deneen’s treatment of the history of the matter to be compelling, and the kerfuffled rejoinder to the same — published over at the Imaginative Conservative blog (sorry that I’m too much of a Philistine to know how to hyperlink) to be uncompelling, a bit too imaginative, and not very conservative. But who cares what I think? If you haven’t read said kerfuffled rejoinder, you should.

I personally have no interest in vindicating the American founding. It was what it was, and I accept it as a mixed thing. I would no sooner call it illegitimate than I would call it legitimate, but all that is to say that it’s like most other countries, and that our government, like all government, is faced with the tragic post-Lapsarian task of wielding the sword when men don’t act like angels. The American founding is soaked i blood; so was the founding of Cain’s city. Yet both are equally (il)legitimate. Both are part of that City of Man. Meanwhile, politicos right and left spin on, “Dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will have to be good.”

avatar pseudepigrapha October 7, 2010 at 5:10 pm

Sorry. That was positively rife with typos, probably the worst being calling Dr. Deneen “Mr. Deneen.” My sincerest apologies for the shoddiness.

avatar Paleo Retiree November 16, 2012 at 1:42 pm

Great piece, congrats.

I recall that Jeremy Shearmur (a philosophy prof in Australia) once made a semi-similar argument: that the U.S. has virtually no true conservative tradition — that what we really have are two forms of liberalism, Dems (“welfare liberals”) vs Repubs (“commercial liberals,” or something like that). Convinced me, and I’ve grown used to it … but the idea seems to come as a great surprise to many people I talk to.

avatar Theophania March 20, 2013 at 8:35 am

I do not consider myself a conservative, but a Catholic. I am, I suppose, an anarcho-aristoc-theo-crat with a fairly positive view of laissez-faire. In this, as you correctly point out, I am not a conservative. I am not, however, even remotely interested in liberalism, atomistic individualism (I am a corporatist ) or its inane mob-worship. And I agree with you that the American ‘right’ is liberal and Enlightenment.

However, you call this magazine ‘The Front Porch Republic’. Do you hold yourselves to be conservative. Because for me – it drives me INSANE to talk to people who think that Republicanism is a conservative form of government. Republicanism is another name for democracy. No one ever proposed unlimited mob-legislation, just on the level of implementation that wouldn’t be possible. Every form of democracy ever proposed, from Rousseau to Goebbels, was a representative party democracy.

The Republic/Representative democracy and the idea of ‘good government’ by a State (As opposed to GOOD RULE within the boundaries of a polycentric collection of personal demesnes) is essentially an Enlightenment/Liberal fantasy. I think your ‘Front Porch Republic’ would be suicidal, and I think the Constitution is ridiculous magical-thinking tripe because of it.

I can see arguments for European hyper-decentralism, and for anarchism, and even for “dystopian” joint-stock city states. But for republics – even front porch ones – I have nothing but scorn.

avatar Chris Travers August 17, 2013 at 11:16 am

First to Patrick;

Thanks much for this essay. You have expressed quite well many issues I have been struggling with for some time, and delivered a certain clarity with them.

I do wonder though…. If we take culture seriously, then to some extent some liberal ideas must be part of our culture and the question is how do we recast those in a more conservative light? My approach is to suggest that rights are not natural but functional, and that individuals and groups can both have functional rights. Thus I may support nearly unlimited freedom of speech because of the functions it provides, but not because free speech is good. I would be interested in your thoughts on that issue.

avatar Chris Travers August 17, 2013 at 11:20 am

Theophania:

Keep in mind that “republic” is a relatively vague term. It comes to us as a shortened form, perhaps a short hand for the Latin res publica, which is in essence the space in between households. Whether run by philosopher-kings with the aid of a senate, or whether run by a consul, a senate, and a popular assembly, or whether run by a king confirmed by local legal councils, that inter-household space is the republic.

I think the idea that it starting on the front porch, looking out, is actually a deep idea.

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