You are here

Traditionalism and the American Order

A Swedish translation of the following essay appeared in the Swedish mainstream conservative quarterly Contextus (no. 4, 1998). Bracketed language did not appear in the essay as published.

The American Founding was the first of the liberal revolutions; nonetheless, America is in many ways the most conservative of Western countries. It is the most anticommunist, the most resistant to the welfare state, the most visibly religious, the most vocally concerned with “traditional moral values.” It has also been unusually stable politically. How is such conservatism possible in a political order founded so explicitly on liberal principles, one in which it is not simply laughable when apologists for left-wing libertinism call themselves “People for the American Way?”

The stability of America has been that of liberalism. Thomas Jefferson and William Jefferson Clinton are two liberal leaders of the same political party. Whatever the differences, the consistency of fundamental principle is impressive. Liberalism understands political society as a contractual arrangement to advance the self-defined interests of equal individuals. From John Locke to John Rawls its goal has been a social order in which each can do what he wants consistent with the equal freedom of others. The enduring liberal ideals are therefore equality and the arbitrary freedom of the individual, and as long as Americans have been a people those ideals have been the ground of their political creed.

The stability of liberalism is a strange and impermanent thing. Liberalism is progress toward an idealized future that can not be clearly imagined, based on abstract standards of freedom and equality that can never be satisfied. It demands an all-embracing justification for the political order of a kind that is impossible because the social world can not be fully grasped in thought. Every political society depends on willing acceptance of things that can not be demonstrated, such as its understanding of man, the world and the Good. Such things are passed on through traditional symbols, practices and institutions. A society committed to liberalism therefore needs its members to accept the authority of tradition, even though it can not recognize that need and remain liberal. It needs an authoritative liberal tradition to define its commitments, and also inherited illiberal traditions to slow progress toward them and allow the cohesion, cooperation and self-sacrifice it needs to exist at all.

It follows that even in liberal society traditionalism—the attitudes and practices that keep tradition coherent and authoritative—is always and everywhere at work, if not openly then silently and implicitly. Disorders affecting traditionalism therefore threaten the well-being of society as a whole. Liberalism threatens such disorders because the abstract universal reason to which it aspires is too disembodied for common sense and ordinary experience. It tries to make the world a logical machine, which it is not. The strength of traditionalism is that it includes common sense, and more besides, because it accepts both ordinary human experience and the things that underlie and go beyond the everyday. It recognizes the limited competence of technological thinking, treats habit and settled feeling as ways of knowing, and is willing to let politics draw on the prerational and superrational, as well as on knowledge that can be put in more rigorous form.

In particular, traditionalism accepts the necessity of religion and particularist loyalties. A social order adequate to man’s nature and able to inspire allegiance must be based on an adequate and sufficiently concrete understanding of his good. By themselves, preference and pleasure are not enough to order life in a way men find satisfactory; in the long run we can not be Epicureans. For a man’s actions to make sense to himself and others they need an all-embracing good as their goal and standard, one that precedes human purposes, goes beyond human knowledge, and integrates actions in their moral quality with the order of the universe. Divorced from that order actions seem arbitrary, irrational, and incomprehensible.

Such an all-embracing good can be neither the creation nor completely the possession of the minds and hearts it is to guide. We do not make or measure it; it measures us and makes us what we are. It is known less through analysis and argument, useful though those things are, than through humility, devotion, and acceptance of the insight and inspiration that are accumulated and passed on through tradition. We grasp the Good less in the abstract than through the concrete forms it takes in the world around us, and thus through the traditions that form that world. There is no tradition in general, however, nor can one treat the vehicle of authority as merely a source of suggestions. Each of us must attain the good life, if at all, through love of a particular tradition accepted as authoritative.

In many ways, traditionalist conservatism is an odd position. In the name of authority it denies what are proclaimed as the basic principles of liberal society. It attempts to defend the unsayable, but the defense requires words. It argues for custom, feeling and symbol, on the grounds that argument is insufficient to grasp the living truth. It appeals to history but opposes it, and exalts natural growth but denounces what has actually grown up in the West over the past several hundred years.

Plainly, something has gone wrong when tradition becomes argumentative. The problem is not tradition, however, but the pretensions of liberal society to do without things that are difficult to say, and to justify itself solely by reference to demonstrable matters like formal consent, the necessities of dealing with conflict, and rational maximization of liberty, equality and wealth. Such pretensions are of course hollow, and must be contested. Liberal individualism and hedonism make self-sacrificing loyalty absurd, but no society can do without it. A consistently liberal society could not exist at all; consistent pursuit of Leftist dreams always leads to catastrophe. Established liberalism relies on the traditional relationships and understandings it despises, and on the way of life of the ordinary men whom it insults and attacks.

The results of the opposition between liberal aspirations and the permanent conditions of human life include liberal guilt and the slow self-destruction of liberal societies. Because social compulsion must rely on inequality and on cultural values that are not fully rationalized, liberals view their own societies as fundamentally unjust. When in control they therefore use their power to destroy the social order they dominate.

As the liberal state develops, so does its opposition to traditional arrangements. [The current attempts to eradicate “racism,” “sexism,” “homophobia,” “classism,” and] the like are attempts to destroy normal moral ties—those consisting in obligations to particular men based on specific affiliations such as family, ethnicity and religion—and replace them with abstract bureaucratic arrangements thought more rational and just. A problem with such attempts is that bureaucracy and abstract altruism simply do not have the force of concrete obligations to family and friends. The attempt to rationalize social life therefore weakens men’s sense of mutual obligation, leading to soaring crime rates and welfare costs, social ill-feeling, and other serious ills. Since the liberal state can not recognize the source of its ills without very seriously weakening its claim to legitimacy, they remain unremedied and grow worse.

Liberalism thus fails to understand itself and the world, and in the end its failure destroys it. In the meantime its disconnection from reality corrupts political language and thought, resulting in the intolerant absurdities of “political correctness.” In a country like America with no other significant political tradition it so dominates political discussion that illiberal views can not be effectively articulated. Even appeals to national symbols are at best ambiguous. America has no memory of Christendom, myth of common blood, or old regime of throne, sword and altar—only symbols like the Revolution, the Constitution, and the Statue of Liberty, to which liberals have a better right than traditionalists.

American traditionalism has therefore been especially inarticulate and antitheoretical. Lacking compelling theories and symbols, it has been hard put to defend itself effectively. Its survival has depended on the practical success of American institutions and on the national habit of avoiding systematic thought, both of which have slowed development of the implications of stated American principles.

As an explicit political view, traditionalism in America has most often taken the form of reverence for “the ideals of the Founding Fathers,” that is, for liberalism as it stood at the time of the American Founding. By suppressing the development of liberalism that reverence minimized the harm it did. The American state, especially the federal government, has primarily been a contract for material ends. Traditionalism has therefore needed arrangements that tend to make popular habits and customs independent of the state, and those arrangements were a prominent feature of the regime established by the Founders. They included limited government, decentralization, local democracy, and informal social control through a combination of nondoctrinal Protestantism, moralism, and traditional habits and prejudices.

While logically weak, this compromise between liberalism and traditionalism worked, and held up remarkably well in the face of Lincoln’s war against the South, Roosevelt’s New Deal, and the foreign wars of 20th century internationalists. Both sides gained from it; traditionalism needed liberalism for legitimacy, and liberalism needed traditionalism for survival and stability. The result was a political order that could satisfy both liberal and traditionalist impulses as long as neither went too far.

In recent decades the great compromise at the heart of American political life has fallen apart. In spite of resistance, liberal principles came to be understood and applied more and more comprehensively, until social unity could no longer be based on the moral authority of those long-dead white propertied slave-owners, the Founding Fathers. A destructively pure form of liberalism became authoritative in American public life, and ruling elites came to understand traditionalism as a threat to public order and denial of political morality. The consequences have included social and moral crisis and the appearance for the first time in America of a comprehensive broad-based conservative movement.

The issues agitating that movement have been diverse, from abortion to welfare; what has united them has been opposition to the growth of increasingly radical central government and defense of decentralized traditional institutions formerly protected by limited government and local control. Such institutions include family, local community, church, and the responsibility of ordinary people for their own well-being and the maintenance of social order. It is on the defense of such institutions that American conservatives have taken their stand.

American elites naturally favor increasing the power of formal public institutions, and therefore the influence of the liberal principles upon which they are based. Popular traditionalist movements in America have therefore been antielitist. They have been anti-intellectual as well; mainstream American political thought is mostly concerned with the development and application of the liberal principles publicly accepted as authoritative, and traditionalists must reject it. In the absence of a nobility or hierarchical Church there is no other well-developed tradition of thought; rejection of liberal thought has therefore usually brought with it rejection of organized thought generally.

The antielitism and anti-intellectualism of American conservatism have been serious weaknesses. Lacking both an inside understanding of politics and an adequate theoretical grasp of tradition and society, conservatives have been simple-minded, short-sighted, and easily manipulated by opponents and opportunists. Politicians may want conservative votes and be willing on occasion to take symbolic stands in favor of popular traditions and prejudices, but the serious business of governing is carried on by national elites, who are always liberal.

The existing system has effectively absorbed conservatives who have attained power and influence within it and quashed movements that would not play along. The Right got very little from the Reagan, Bush and Gingrich years, a period of supposed reaction that in fact was marked by large-scale third-world immigration, the strengthening of “affirmative action” and spread of political correctness, continued degradation of popular culture and sexual standards, growth in welfare expenditures and regulatory intrusiveness, reaffirmation by all respectable authorities that abortion is integral to the American regime, and aggressive construction of the New World Order. When the Buchanan candidacy, a movement aware of the abuse and betrayal of conservatism, began to gather serious support it became the target of an unprecedented campaign of vilification prosecuted by the whole of the political and journalistic establishment, including what are considered its conservative members. Since American national politics is carried on through television and the national press, the campaign was successful and mass support for Buchanan soon dissipated.

The public struggle for a self-aware American traditionalism had nonetheless begun. The struggle is a necessary one. A tolerable social order is impossible without a far stronger principle of tradition than now exists in America. Conservatives will continue to mistake the issues, and to fight and lose battles on ground chosen by their opponents, unless they become more theoretically competent. The past 50 years have seen attempts in that direction, with limited success. The most comprehensive was that of the late Russell Kirk, who, with the aid of imagination, piety and a handful of facts, discovered a “conservative mind” that had before gone unnoticed in America. He attempted to propagate that mind and give it life and substance through his writings and lectures, and through the periodicals he founded and edited, Modern Age and The University Bookman.

Kirk is still a presence on the intellectual right, but is more admired than followed. His views have had little effect on popular conservatism. They tend toward syncretism, abstraction and self-indulgent vagueness, and consequently are only weakly connected to the things men actually live and die for. Kirk’s attempt to define a traditionalism that could embrace America as a whole was somewhat novel but not altogether successful. A true traditionalist cares less for tradition in general than for his own tradition. Earlier and superior writers, such as T. S. Eliot, who moved to England to find a tradition, and the Southern Agrarians, who were faithful to the one they had inherited in the American South, had taken the particularity of tradition more to heart, and correspondingly felt a weaker connection to America as a whole. Other men Kirk recognized as predecessors, such as the outstanding critics Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More, were cosmopolitan humanists rather than particularists, and rejected liberalism and modernism more by appeal to a broader premodern conception of reason than to tradition as such.

The problem of creating an intellectual traditionalism and linking it to popular movements thus remains, and with it the problem of an intelligent, coherent and effective American conservatism. However difficult, the effort continues and to some extent progresses. The breakdown of the classic American compromise between liberalism and traditionalism has increasingly estranged traditionalists from the ruling order and forced them to clarify their position. The change has been reflected in the leadership of the popular movement. Patrick Buchanan is not originally a politician, but a well-educated journalist who is close to a number of leading traditionalist intellectuals.

Conservative thinkers have proposed a variety of theories to define the relation between traditionalism and American political life. The most common view is that a living conservatism must affirm the traditions of its own society, and American tradition includes an authoritative liberal element. An American conservatism must therefore, many believe, accept the ideals of freedom and equality while attempting to revive an accommodation between them and necessary illiberal ideals and practices. There are a variety of views on how such a renewed accommodation might arise. Conservative libertarians argue for radical restrictions on government action that would once again limit compulsory application of liberal principles to a small part of social life. Others, including a group of neo-Confederate secessionists, argue for renewed emphasis on regionalism and local control. Still others, especially neoconservative ex-liberals who consider big government inevitable, call for state support for the traditional virtues, to be publicly justified by the necessity of those virtues for a liberal political order.

Others question whether the old compromise can be restored. Many, who take the transcendental aspects of traditionalism to heart, believe that in the present crisis it is more important to deal with basic issues than accommodate dominant tendencies or restore past arrangements. Such men are uncomfortable with continued acceptance of freedom and equality as the ultimate goals of political life, and reject the notion of using “traditional values” as a means of saving the American political order from itself. They include Protestants, Catholics and a few Jews, all of whom recognize religion as the heart of politics. The popular conservatives among them tend to be Protestant and the intellectuals Roman Catholic or occasionally Anglican, but that tendency is far from uniform.

Such writers have provided much of the popular and intellectual support for traditionalist positions, but they are rarely well known outside their own circles. Conservatives whose first loyalty is to the established order of things often hold them at arm’s length. In a recent incident, for example, the neoconservative magazine First Things published a symposium emphasizing that from a religious, natural law or classical liberal standpoint the continued legitimacy of the actual American regime is by no means assured. The immediate consequence was scandal and open breaches among their fellow neoconservatives, including the resignation of three distinguished members of the magazine’s editorial board.

The various religious perspectives have contrasting strengths. Protestant traditionalism finds support in American history; many of the first American settlers were Protestant dissenters who wanted to establish a godly society in America, and up to the middle of the present century a vague nondoctrinal Protestantism remained America’s informally established religion. It also draws strength from its connection to a growing traditionalist Christian counterculture found most concretely among homeschoolers, independent schools and local churches, and supported by a network of Christian publishing houses, TV networks, and radio shows. Its weakness is the emphasis of Protestantism, especially American Protestantism, on individual interpretation and experience, which is likely in the end to lead to the same triumph of individual freedom and equality over tradition that has destroyed the classic American order.

Catholic traditionalists face difficulties that initially are more severe, since to find historical support as Americans they must appeal to the roots of American society in that of Europe, of European society in medieval Christendom, and of all institutions in natural law. They also have to respect the authority of an American Church that is more a church of immigrants than of American distinctiveness and is heavily influenced by modernism and political liberalism. Nonetheless, their position, an all-embracing understanding of the world that accepts the authority of tradition, is at bottom the most substantive and coherent of the traditionalist views. In the hard times to come that advantage is likely to tell.

Anglo-Catholicism, another tendency still occasionally found among traditionalist intellectuals, seemed at one time to provide a via media that reconciled America’s English and Protestant heritage with a strong principle of tradition and continuity with the larger world of Christendom. Whatever it may have been in England, however, Anglo-Catholicism was always a somewhat artificial growth in America; in any case, it is now dying on both sides of the Atlantic, along with the Anglican Church and the traditional English social order to which that church was tied, and is unlikely to play much of a role in the future.

In addition to those who call themselves conservatives, influential academic thinkers such as Alasdair MacIntyre have recently displayed a renewed interest in tradition. However, the traditions they are willing to contemplate as objects of loyalty tend to be overly intellectual. To embrace a living tradition governing a concrete way of life requires rejection not only of liberal theory but of liberal practice, including feminism, multiculturalism, and the other forms of radical egalitarianism that academic respectability now demands. A living tradition depends on things as illiberal as sex roles and ethnic cohesion. No one in the mainstream is ready to concede the legitimacy of such things, Professor MacIntyre least of all.

The immediate outlook for traditionalism is bad. Tradition is not organized to defend itself. It becomes self-conscious only when it is in trouble, since traditions that work as they should are not much noticed as such. Present trends—political centralization, world markets, fast and cheap travel, instantaneous broad-band electronic communications, radical state-enforced equality—are profoundly antitraditional. Further, liberals create the language and images and present the facts that are used in public debate; centralized modern communications have made their views a universal flood, and it is hard to avoid getting wet. Principled resistance is treated as extremism, and those who present it as schismatics and heretics. Resistance finds it difficult to find its footing, and too often falls back on obstinacy and refusal to think as means of defense.

The ultimate prospect is nonetheless favorable since man is social and therefore religious and particularist. Society is concrete, and it is based on things we can not master because they make us what we are. Universalism and rationalism are therefore not enough; the particular and prerational are at the heart of social life, and become civil only through tradition. Further, society depends on authority, and authority on principles preceding society to which only tradition gives adequate access. It follows that the more the present order denies tradition the more it prepares its own destruction. Since permanent features of human life require political traditionalism it will survive the particular settings in which we have known it. The forms it takes in adversity are therefore of interest. Europeans contemplating the destruction around them of all inherited distinctions and relationships by the continuing Revolution may therefore find developments in America worthy of note.

Share/Save