Exactly what is American conservatism?

This question has been prompted by Gerard Baker’s article American Conservatives Are at Daggers Drawn in today’s Times.

“OMG, what have we done?” (Or words to that effect.)

Mr Baker himself neither answers this question nor indeed poses it, even though his cogent article makes it obvious that no clarity on the subject exists.

He merely describes the debate between old-school, which is to say anti-Trump, conservatives and the new breed, according to whom “Trump is not conservative at all: just a grotesque Neronian figure committed to his own self-aggrandisement through protectionism, tough immigration policies and isolationism.”

“Old-school conservatism,” explains Mr Baker, correctly, “which has dominated the right since the days of Ronald Reagan, was chiefly about promoting free markets and small government after the failed corporatism of the 1960s and 1970s.”

According to the new lot, however, specifically the New York Post op-ed editor, “This laissez-faire approach to society actually enabled ‘progressives’ to promote their illiberal version of liberalism… Despite the election of Republican presidents and congresses, social and legal norms have moved steadily leftwards, particularly on minority rights, and it will soon be illegal for devout Christians… to express their beliefs about sexuality or sin in public.”

One detects a terminological Babel here, so typical whenever political labels are bandied about. But Mr Baker is right: unless we sort this mess out, buried underneath will be conservatism on both sides of the Atlantic.

“Does the future of conservatism lie in continued faith in small government, and in peoples’ right to pursue their own interests free from undue state intervention? Or should conservatives man the political and cultural barricades, and fight the forces of progressivism to the bitter death?” he asks, this time less convincingly.

The two courses of action ought to be linked by ‘and’, not ‘or’. The trouble is that in America, and exceedingly in Britain, political conservatism is often defined in economic terms, converging with economic libertarianism, and leaving social and cultural conservatism to fend for itself.

Yet, though true conservatism may include aspects of libertarianism, it’s much deeper and broader than simply a preference for free markets over state corporatism.

Western conservatism is defined above all by commitment to preserve what’s left of Western civilisation, otherwise known as Christendom, of which politics is only one, perhaps least important, manifestation.

However, Christendom is impossible to preserve without Christianity acting as the dominant moral, social, cultural – and derivatively political – force.

This isn’t a theoretical postulate but merely a historical observation: ever since the secular desiderata of the Enlightenment began to rule the roost, our civilisation has been suffering a steady erosion. Traditional certitudes no longer apply, and neither does the traditional political taxonomy.

American Founders, being wiser and more moderate than their French Enlightenment brothers, tried to fashion a conservative society out of Christendom leftovers, a sort of Christendom without Christianity.

But ultimately that effort was doomed to failure: you can’t break eggs without breaking eggs. One egg broken immediately after the American Revolution was political – as opposed to cultural – conservatism.

Jefferson, Adams, Madison and Hamilton, the Revolution’s greatest minds, thought they were creating a republican version of British constitutional monarchy. For the king, read the president; for the House of Lords, read the Senate; for the Commons, read the House of Representatives.

Yet a solid structure can’t be built on a rickety and termite-eaten foundation. A secular revolutionary republic inspired by Enlightenment egalitarianism and lacking indigenous political tradition going back many centuries was bound to become an egalitarian democracy, which precludes political conservatism by definition.

Messrs Jefferson, Adams, Madison and Hamilton had miscalculated – and they lived long enough to realise that to their horror. Granted, the commonwealth they created has proved viable and successful on its own terms – as long as we accept that political conservatism isn’t one of those terms.

The politics of Christendom mirrored the structure of the Church and its key organisational aspect: subsidiarity, devolving power to the lowest sensible level. Central power attenuated as it radiated towards the periphery: the most absolute of monarchs had more power over their loftiest courtiers than over their lowliest peasants.

If we take Louis XIV as the personification of absolute monarchy, he couldn’t even dream of the powers vested in modern presidents and prime ministers.

It would never have occurred to the Sun King that he could conscript the whole population into his army, extort at least half of people’s earnings in taxes, impose the same obligatory education on all children and punish the parents who demur, dictate what the people should eat, where they should live, how they should be treated – and so on, ad infinitum.

Enlightenment, as opposed to traditional, politics ineluctably lead to centralism ousting localism – which is to say political modernism ousting political conservatism. The American Civil War did a good job of convincing those who had failed to grasp that point.

Since traditional politics can’t exist without a traditional social structure, and since both had fallen by the wayside, cultural conservatism was the only one left available to Americans. Yet when different parts of the whole go their separate ways, the whole can’t survive.

Fast-tracking a century or so forward, we see the mess Mr Baker describes. Post-war American conservatism was mainly an economic reaction to New Deal corporatism. Since then the whole debate has been reduced to big vs. small state and free vs. controlled markets.

Those who laudably supported small vs big and free vs unfree were desperately clinging on to the flotsam of a great imploded ship: Christendom. But those were only small fragments, which most people failed to realise.

A great comprehensive view of the world that included economics and politics but was infinitely greater than them was extinct. The vacuum thus formed was filled by another comprehensive view of the world, one that descended from the Enlightenment on a straight dynastic line: egalitarian socialism (whatever it’s called) in its economic, cultural, moral and political manifestations.

This view of the world springs above all from the destructive desire to drive the last nails into the coffin of Christendom. As such, it doesn’t lack cohesion and consistency – exactly the qualities that so-called American conservatism can’t possibly have.

That’s why it can counter-attack only on a small section of the front, not across the whole frontline. This section is the economy, a fact that by itself testifies to an argument lost.

Those who attempt to engage the left on other issues, such as abortion, euthanasia or legalisation of drugs, are ultimately outshouted by the well-coordinated chorus of anti-Christendom invective.

Arguing ab oeconomia is tantamount to accepting the socialist terms of debate. But socialist views on economics dovetail with the broad picture of the world painted by any mind formed by the Enlightenment.

On the other hand, the so-called conservative, in fact libertarian, take on economics is but one piece of a jigsaw, from which it’s impossible to reconstruct the whole design.

Such is the real nature of the debate described by Mr Baker, one between old-school and new-school conservatism. Students of the new school are correct in their observation that commitment to laissez-faire economics by itself (my emphasis) can’t stem the tide of socialist subversion of cultural, social and ethical mores.

Students of the old school are also right in pointing out that the big, omnipotent state is harmful to the economy and detrimental to liberty.

Yet neither of them realise that this is a ‘both… and’ argument, not ‘either… or’. The very existence of those two schools testifies to the demise of conservatism, as defined in the only logical way as the preservation of Western tradition.

One can preserve only what is still extant – not Western conservatism. Its obituaries are written every day and with equal relish by libertarians, socialists, statists, neoconservatives, free marketers, corporatists, progressives. It’s just that some of them may not realise that’s what they are writing.  

5 thoughts on “Exactly what is American conservatism?”

  1. This reminds me of Russell Kirk and Leo Strauss; I don’t for one moment think that those gentleman believed in Christ. They saw all that mumbo-jumbo as nothing more than an instrument of social cohesion. They had no enduring influence because they lacked the faith which created Christendom.

    American conservatism is an ever diminishing club of bow-tie wearing eccentrics producing one recondite book after another, endlessly attempting to reconcile scholasticism with modernity. They are honourable chaps but simply hopeless!

    1. Kirk converted to Catholicism late in life. He had no delusions that his beliefs would win in the future for he said: “I am a conservative. Quite possibly I am on the losing side; often I think so. Yet, out of a curious perversity I had rather lose with Socrates, let us say, than win with Lenin.”

      As one sees on Twitter and other places, corporations have aligned with the LGBT and produced corporate symbols with the rainbow background. Fast bucks and the bottom now rule the day. Christianity? Bah!!

      1. “out of a curious perversity I had rather lose with Socrates, let us say, than win with Lenin.”

        You are doomed to lose with such an attitude but I agree with the sentiment.

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