David Gress, a Danish classicist and historian, wrote a discussion some years back of the differences between American and European conservatism. The discussion isn’t altogether coherent (I think some lines were dropped when The World and I put it on the web) but includes some interesting material. I’m likely to take up some points it covers over the next few days.
Gress speaks of “the United States as a political society deliberately created by human action in the Declaration of Independence, the Revolutionary War, and the Constitution.” Those events obviously did not create American political society, which existed before them and continued to exist after them. They simply broke the political ties with Great Britain, which had often been rather loose, and created a federal government of limited powers to deal with national defense and interstate and foreign commerce. The intention was more to preserve than transform existing ways.
Nonetheless, the notion of a new order of things was associated with dramatic events and helped justify and explain independence. Subsequent events — war, immigration, increasing mobility and the creation of new states — further increased the importance of the union and the fundamental law and institutions that constituted it, and thus the constructed part of American political society. The 1861-1865 war decided the issue as a practical matter: America was a single nation, the union was the highest object of political loyalty, and the states were wholly subordinate divisions. What had been constructed as a limited arrangement had developed into a supreme principle.
The situation has created problems for American national feeling. Our highest political loyalty has been to institutions concerned with commercial prosperity and military strength and lacking any clear reference to higher concerns. Those institutions became the objects of our highest loyalty through territorial and economic expansion and the integration of newcomers. Does that mean that the human purposes that define what we are as social beings in America are military strength, economic prosperity, and an open-ended comprehensive process of acquisition and expansion with no stopping place short of world domination?
American public life has of course involved ideals as well as practical concerns. Those ideals have always included populism, Protestant religion, and Enlightenment ideals of clarity, rationality and freedom. The mixture isn’t altogether coherent, and there’s been a struggle between those who want to maintain the original compound as the thing that makes America what it is and those who want to push one of the elements. In the long run the Enlightenment party has won, and American society has become increasingly centralized, secularized, managed and libertine. Today it is quite radically so, in spite of alarm at attempts by the “radical religious right” to slow the rate at which they are losing ground.
The question, as always, is “what now.” Conservatives — quite correctily — think the balance has been lost, so they want to go back to some earlier state of affairs: pre-1968, pre-’60s, pre-New Deal, pre-War of Secession. The problem, of course, is that it’s hard enough to maintain a balance among conflicting principles but to restore a long lost balance simply as a balance seems hopeless. What’s needed is a more definite principle giving rise to an ideal of what social life should be like. I don’t see any alternative to a more distinct transcendent reference — to something that tells us that society and moral order are not constructed but precede us, so human will is not the final measure and the world must often be allowed to be what it fundamentally is.