The following is a talk delivered at the 2011 Conference of the H. L. Mencken Club.
Why has American conservatism been such a flop? It finds it impossible to define what it wants, stick with it, and defend it. The result is that it never wins and never even stands its ground.
To understand what’s happened you have to go to basics.
At bottom, conservatism is the desire to remain true to type. So American conservatism is the desire for America to remain American.
That preference is entirely normal. America is a particular human society. As such, it gives us a world to live in. We’re social animals, and it gives us a network of connections and gives life a certain form and focus. For that reason, it affects us at a very basic level: we’re Americans and it would be hard to change that.
The result is that it should be natural for us to want our country to keep going and remain the sort of place we’re used to. It’s part of us, and we want that part to be alive and healthy. So loyalty to America is natural, or at least it should be.
But what exactly is involved in that? It’s difficult to say without saying what America is and what we are as Americans. That’s a problem though. Questions like American identity and the meaning of American life don’t seem to have a good answer, and they’ve been asked so often they’ve become a bore. People hear them and roll their eyes.
Worse, when someone does give an answer it’s an obvious fraud. It’s the sort of question liberals and neoconservatives like, because the answer can be whatever they want. America is freedom, America is equality, America is a nation of immigrants, America is the land of opportunity, America is global democracy, whatever.
The problem is that a good answer to such questions would require a coherent tradition, but too many features of American life are anti-traditional. Our way of life tends toward mobility, informality, expansiveness, and enterprise. Our general philosophy alternates between pragmatism and New Age. And American ideals emphasize freedom, equality, and the universal applicability of the American model. All those features are anti-traditional. They don’t favor a stable and satisfying way of life, and they don’t leave anything alone.
At one time, the effect of those features was limited by other aspects of American life: religion, localism, family values, ethnic ties, limited government, and an emphasis on law. Those limitations have not stood up to developments like national expansion, industrialization, demographic diversification, the rise of the mass media, and industrialized mass education. The result is what we see around us.
American conservatism was a series of attempts to keep the current situation from coming about. As they once said at National Review, it was an attempt to “stand athwart history, yelling Stop.” That effort required a strong emphasis on traditional limitations, which required some sort of authority to back them up. At the popular level the authority was usually the will of the Founders as embodied in the Constitution, together with Biblical religion and a concept of America as (as Lincoln said) an “almost chosen” nation.
Conservative intellectuals tried to build on that impulse and develop a philosophical notion of America as a free, virtuous, and self-governing society. “Free” suggests antitraditional qualities, “virtuous” necessary limitations, and “self-governing” the proper balance between the two. So conservative intellectuals praised liberty, insisted on the virtue, moderation, and wisdom of the Constitution and American people, and denounced overly ideological applications of American ideals that threatened the balance of the system.
The point of the Conservative Canon was to nail all that down. It included:
- The Federalist and other writings that explained the Constitution.
- Russell Kirk, who told us that ideology is bad, ancestral custom is good, and the Left doesn’t monopolize high ideals.
- People like Friedrich Hayek, Whittaker Chambers, Robert Nisbet, and James Burnham, who explained the evils of communism, socialism, and social management.
- And also people like Richard Weaver and Eric Voegelin, who connected current disputes to grand historic and intellectual themes.
They were all interesting writers, but what they said never took hold. Our governing classes are made up of businessmen, bureaucrats, experts, and media people who have no special concern for Biblical religion, traditional virtues, or America as an almost chosen nation. Nor do they care about the views of conservative intellectuals on what makes America special. They may give lip service to the Founding Fathers, but what that means is defined by anti-traditional commentators and judges. So there was nothing to which conservatives could appeal that could give what they said special weight.
The canonical writers weren’t much help even among conservatives. Kirk’s romantic Burkeanism never had many adherents. Weaver and Voegelin, from most people’s perspective, were off in an ivory tower. And favoring the free market over socialism has gotten some traction, but it’s not enough for an overall conservative movement.
Lack of authoritative support is a big problem for conservatives, because simple conservatism is a consensus and authority-based position. It wants to be true to type, whatever the established type happens to be, so it ends by conforming to its society. That makes it hard for it to appeal to principles that arouse general opposition from well-placed men and institutions. If elites get too far ahead of the people conservatives can become populist and claim that elites have become unAmerican, but by going populist they lose the ability to articulate an intelligent and coherent position. In the long run, that makes them sure to lose.
The only authority conservatives could appeal to in opposition to the antitraditional features of American life that carried weight in national public discussions was reason. They could claim to be logical and realistic in opposition to la-di-da liberals. In the long run though that claim leads nowhere, because liberalism is entirely logical given the accepted basis for serious mainstream public discussion today.
That basis is a stripped-down and basically technocratic view that says that at bottom that there’s no God and no objective moral order that can be relied on, just atoms, the void, and free-floating human desires and sensations. As a result, nothing has an essence, natural goal, or reason for being, since there are no intrinsic natures or goods. The only meaning things can have for us is the meaning we give them. It follows that wanting to do something is what makes it worth doing, and the good is simply the satisfaction of preferences.
That view also tells us that all preferences, and all actors, are equally preferences and actors, with no higher standard to make one better than the other. It follows that each has an equal claim to satisfaction. Morality therefore becomes a system that has nothing to say about how to live but only tells us to stay out of each other’s way and support arrangements that help everyone reach whatever his goals happen to be. The uniquely rational approach to social order, it turns out, is to treat it as a sort of machine—a soulless technically-rational arrangement—for maximizing equal satisfaction of preferences.
But that’s liberalism. The basic liberal standard of equal freedom—that is, equal preference satisfaction—turns out to be simply rational given current understandings of what’s rational, real, and moral. So if someone notices that there are problems with the actual liberalism we see around us, the conclusion is always going to be that we need a freer freedom and more equal equality. A present-day movement that wants to engage public discussion on its own terms must support or reinvent liberalism if it wants to be coherent and rational.
Incoherence and irrationality aren’t very effective in the long run, so conservatism has repeatedly ended up reinventing or rebranding liberalism. There’s nothing else it can do if it goes along with the basic picture of reality that provides the setting for public discussion today. It can point out practical problems, in line with the claim it once made to be logical and realistic, but it has to accept liberal goals, and if it wants to be American it also has to adopt a can-do attitude. The result is that in the long run it has to treat the problems it points out as things it can solve. It has to give up the appeal to logic and realism in favor of an appeal to faith in America.
That is the seduction of the American right by liberal values that has led us to where we are now. Conservatism, at least to the extent it’s still a presence in mainstream discussion, has been forced to become an outlook that defines America by reference to what remains after traditional limitations are abandoned. There’s nothing else it can appeal to as authoritative. So it’s ended up defining America as freedom, equality, tolerance, and ever greater economic success. It just claims it can promote those things better than liberalism can, so that everybody—black, white, male, female, gay, straight, native, immigrant—can live the American Dream. And with respect to the rest of the world, conservatism has become the principle of promoting the extension of American values everywhere. The cause that defines America, and therefore conservatism, has become empire—America as an irresistible force that is transforming the world.
That’s the new mainstream conservatism. It distinguishes itself from liberalism mostly through its faith in America, and its emphasis on particular actions and actors rather than law and impersonal bureaucracy. That’s how it maintains the principle of loyalty and the aversion to schemes of abstract doctrine that still seem necessary for something to count as conservative. The goals are the same as liberalism, at least at the level of fundamental principle, but conservatives don’t like experts, administrators, and international lawyers, they like businessmen, entrepreneurs, soldiers, and team America on global crusade.
The problem is that the vision is not at all conservative. What usually makes people conservative is that they want a social setting that they’re used to, that connects them to other people and to their own past and future, and that makes for a way of life that seems to them worth living. Present-day conservatism offers them the chance to cheer on a campaign for a global military, commercial, and bureaucratic order that abolishes local distinctions in the interests of inclusiveness and an ever-expanding and more universal economy.
So where does that leave the people who used to be conservatives?
We’re in a political hole because we’re in an intellectual hole. If the problem is what people think makes sense, then we have to change or at least challenge accepted understandings in a very fundamental way. That’s too big a job for a 20 minute talk, but I can at least mention some things that are missing in accepted current standards for action, valuation, and belief—that is, in accepted understandings of the good, beautiful and true. We’re here to talk about the conservative canon, so it makes sense to talk about things at that basic level.
What’s most obviously missing from public understandings today are ideas of essential form and transcendent reality. Both have to do with the question of what the world and the things in it really are, how we make sense of them, and how to avoid the purely technological outlook that now dominates public life. That kind of metaphysical issue seems far-fetched to some people, but it determines what is thought reasonable, and what is thought reasonable determines what can be talked about and done. So any serious movement of opposition has to consider such questions.
I talked a little about loyalty and conservatism at the beginning of this talk. What that discussion showed, I think, is that with respect to what makes goals reasonable to pursue—that is, with respect to the good and how we understand it—we need what might be called moral essentialism. The basic issue is that rational action isn’t just a matter of means and ends. We don’t understand ourselves that way, as pure creatures of appetite looking for satisfactions. Instead, we understand what we’re doing by reference to who we are and what other things and people are in an ideal sense. To act rationally as a human being is to act in accordance with that understanding, at least if it’s a reasonable one.
Loyalty, to use my example, is rational because it’s acting in accordance with who we and others are. We’re loyal to friends, family, and country not simply because we feel like it, or because it gets us something we happen to want, but because we are social by nature, and the particular connections we have help make us the particular people we are. Turning against those connections is turning against ourselves. Unless there’s something specifically wrong with them, and we have something better in mind, that makes no sense, since we have to accept who we are, and what our setting is, to have a point of view from which rational action is possible.
So much for the good. With respect to the true, it’s evident that we need the concept of transcendence, of something that exceeds what we can say or know. The point of talking about truth is that what we say about almost anything is certainly incomplete and might be altogether wrong. That shows we need “truth” as a higher point of reference. It’s an ideal standard that we can’t altogether attain, but can’t do without.
Modern people don’t like that situation. So they try to reconstruct knowledge to put it completely in our possession, or replace truth with some lesser conception, like warranted assertability, or deflate it so it doesn’t seem to amount to much. The attempts eventually peter out, since they don’t let us talk about things we have to talk about to deal with the world as it is. They do have an effect, though. They drive us toward the technocratic view that rationality is simply a matter of figuring out how to get whatever we want, since there aren’t any truths or essences transcending that to tell us otherwise.
As to the beautiful, I don’t have time to discuss it. That’s too bad and maybe it shows something. Liberals and the left own style and the arts today. That wasn’t always so, and it’s odd because the liberal view can’t account for beauty. It ought to be a strong point for right-wingers but isn’t.
So where does all this leave us? People want solutions, and if you talk about essences and the transcendent and the good, beautiful, and true it doesn’t sound like a solution so people get impatient. The point though is that basic issues are basic. We aren’t going to do better than we’re doing now without a more adequate way of thinking.
Changing basic aspects of how people think about things is going to involve a lot of work that isn’t immediately practical. It’s also going to involve changing how we think ourselves. So when we talk about a conservative canon, we need to talk about more than immediate practicalities. We also need to talk about the writers and principles who give us what we need to turn things around at the most basic level. Without that, whatever we do will either be ineffective or turn out to be just another version of liberalism.