Is There a Conservative Tradition in America?

By Patrick J. Deneen for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC

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.

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