Paradox of American traditionalism

Traditionalist conservatism has an air of paradox in America. It reinterprets or rejects things often identified as American in the name of understandings people find unfamiliar. After all, many would ask, haven’t Americans always idealized science, progress, material prosperity and individual success? Aren’t we a nation of immigrants from a variety of traditions? Isn’t it freedom, equality and democracy and not ancestral ways that unite us? And if all that’s true, isn’t traditionalist conservatism a denial of everything that makes us Americans?

The tradition to which American traditionalists appeal can thus seem something more imaginary or constructed than inherited. Nonetheless, whatever paradox there may be in their position must be accepted, because rejecting the principle of traditional authority leads to worse difficulties. Tradition is necessary to human life. Human life is not only instinctual, it is also cultural. Culture exists only through tradition, however, and without it—without the habits, attitudes and beliefs that define particular ways of life—coherent thought and action would be impossible.

Reliance on tradition is therefore a brute necessity for rational thought and action. To reject tradition throws us back not on reason but on unsocialized impulses and mindless preconceptions. Even radicals have traditions, and justify them to themselves and others by reference to wider traditions shared with non-radicals. They cannot do otherwise. The radicalism that rejects tradition thus involves itself in a self-contradiction that is far greater and more hopeless than any suggested by American traditionalism.

So where does American traditionalism find the tradition to which it pledges loyalty? In America, of course—in the habits and attitudes, most often unspoken, that have given American life its goodness. Traditional morality and religion may not be adequately supported by declared American ideals—“People for the American Way” can call themselves that with a straight face. They have nonetheless been real, and we have clung to them because we have known without being able to explain why that they define the substance of our lives. To be a traditionalist in America is only to stand by them when they are attacked in the name of our proclaimed ideals, and to recognize limitations on the ideals in the interest of protecting the substantive goods of American life.

Leave a Comment