What American Conservatism is, and What it is Not:

It has long been suggested that America is, at her core, a liberal nation. If this is so, then to claim association with American conservatism would be oxymoronic if the only political tradition in America is one fixated on dislocating traditional forms of life and association that unduly burden the unencumbered choice and autonomy of the sovereign liberal individual. Since it was introduced in the 1960s by National Review editor Frank Meyer, conservatism in America has often taken the form of fusionism a synthesis between traditionalist and libertarian strains of conservatism. Fusionism sought to combine three legs of the tradition of American political life to form the “three-legged stool” of the American Right, coined by former President Ronald Reagan. This stool was undergirded by three irreplaceable legs: economic libertarians, neoconservatives, and religious conservatives. While all three were continuous in their fierce and unwavering opposition to communism, they were not all inherently conservative. The former two coalitions in particular contained their own sets of ideological commitments — and liberal commitments at that. These differences were obfuscated while the rise of communism was seen as paramount, but they have nevertheless evinced themselves as time goes on.

There is a rift in the modern Republican Party between those who view market enterprise as an end and those who view it as a means to an end, captured perhaps most clearly by a heated debate among Republicans and conservatives regarding whether the GOP should entertain the idea of increasing the federal minimum wage. Those for whom the free-market is an end are heirs to the paradigm of thought associated with libertarianism the first of the three legs of the stool. As a philosophy, libertarianism suggests that in economics, the calculus of the individual is supreme. The free-market is the accumulation of individual choices and should be left unfettered and untouched by government intervention; for this reason, libertarianism tends toward a global dimension. Already, there are some inconsistencies with conservatism. For one, conservatism takes its character from local questions. The conservative believes that the root of politics is settlement the motive that binds people to the people, history, and customs that are theirs. A dogmatic belief in a free economy and global free trade inexorably clashes with local attachments and community protection. Moreover, libertarianism is relativistic. There are no given preferences in a market the individual consumer is king. Accordingly, when libertarianism unfurls, it cannot be contained simply within the realm of economics. In fact, the free-market tends to reshape and redefine every aspect of life into market-friendly alternatives. But as Irish parliamentarian Edmund Burke forewarned — who was himself generally a fan of free enterprise — there are certain things that ought to be withheld from the logic of market exchange. These things — what Burke called “little platoons” — are just as important but much harder to defend, safeguard, and preserve.

Only things from which positive utility can be extracted triumph in the free-market. But with this considered, what is the utility of friendship, love, and faith? None whatsoever. This is not to suggest that friendship, love, and faith are not at times useful. But they are useful for what they are; this is to say, friendship, love, and faith are not means to be used for some ulterior purpose but ends in themselves, and they work to eventually satiate our truly human desires. To treat such things as anything other than ends is a failure to do them justice. As Aristotle points out in The Nicomachean Ethics, there are three different kinds of friendships: friendships based on utility, pleasure, and virtue. The former are incidental and ephemeral and undergo oscillation and uncertainty for the moment one partner ceases to provide adequate utility or pleasure, the friendship ceases to be. By contrast, friendships of virtue are sustainable and healthy and form between people who are friends without qualification and refer to one another with the utmost respect and dignity. These kinds of friends treat one another “never merely as a means to an end,” as philosopher Immanuel Kant put it in his second formulation of the categorical imperative, “but always at the same time as an end.”

However, this nature of relation is precisely what the libertarian philosophy undermines as the logic of market exchange broadens and expands its influence. More and more emphasis is placed on the utility to be found in particular associations and activities. Those forms of association with little or no utility to provide are resultantly abandoned or accept renovation to accord with the imperatives of the market. The effects of this are accumulating everywhere we look. Genuine friendships are all the more seldom today. The most frequent relations are depersonalized and frigid encounters between bosses and their employees — and this is a quintessential example of a friendship of utility. Love and sexual relations have perhaps been the worst victims of this restructuring. Nowadays, there is a widespread and highly profitable market for sex trafficking and prostitution. It is a sphere of untrammeled and autonomous individuals, liberated from ancient norms of courtship and mannered interaction between the sexes, but has become increasingly precarious and anarchistic. Religious faith has experienced market reshaping to a considerable degree, too. Nowadays, people are much more inclined to change religious denominations or convert — or leave religion entirely — on the basis of their self-interest. Religion is subordinate to our desires and acts primarily as a therapeutic for the enlightened, and not as a guide or template from which substantive truths about human existence are gleaned. In all three cases, individual choice and the pursuit of self-interest are prioritized above all else. In all three cases, traditions that are not characterized by free enterprise were colonized by the logic of the free-market.

On a slightly different note, I wish to examine the second leg of the “three-legged stool,” that is, neoconservatives. Opposition to the Cold War was not an ideological stance; however, those who claimed association with the cause were indeed former ideologues (many of them ex-communists) and became, in many important ways, liberal ideologues. It wasn’t opposition to communism that imbued America’s ongoing military campaign in the Middle East — starting with the invasion of Iraq — but rather a stern belief in the universal maxim of liberal democracy as the only legitimate form of government. As former President Bush clarified in his Second Inaugural Address on January 21st, 2005, the underlying hope and ambition of neoconservatives in their pursuits was “ending tyranny in our world.” With this goal in sight, America would become a very distinctive empire in the world that, unlike empires of the past, did not seek to impose itself upon recalcitrant peoples and nations while still allowing for the perpetuation of particular cultures but instead demanded conformity to a single liberal model. Liberalization of the whole of the world was imperative. This disposition in the realm of American foreign affairs has always wrestled with an opposing disposition, summarized by the following quote from John Quincy Adam's 1821 oration to the U.S. House of Representatives: “(America) goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy... She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.“ Here, Adams expresses the belief that America is a particular nation with a particular identity, culture, and history, and cannot, therefore, be exported to the rest of the world. Instead, America can operate, at best, as an exemplary model for the global community. The first of these conflicting dispositions — that of neoconservatives — has today become ascendant, epitomized by the popular conceit that America is an “idea.“ For all their differences, both major political parties in America share a belief in the necessity for sustained American involvement in international affairs in the hopes of worldwide liberalization.

The final leg of the “three-legged stool” of the American Right religious conservatives is perhaps the only sufficiently conservative support of the three. It has nevertheless been largely compromised due in significant part to the upheavals of the former two. In spite of this, there is reason to hope for a better and more authentic rendition of American conservatism. The 2016 election of Donald Trump symbolized a modest revolution and one, moreover, that we see unraveling across the industrialized world today with the rise of so-called populist factions across Europe and the Brexit referendum in England. This wave of populism across the world is a repudiation of both left and right liberalism, in preference to a society that conserves. A new strain of populist conservatism is proposing a new set of legs to the stool of the American Right: an economy that serves the citizenry, and not the elites who themselves benefit by the increasing globalization and financialization of the economy; a foreign policy that is conservative, and appeals to a long-standing disposition in the American tradition of reluctance to engage in the kinds of foreign entanglements that, according to George Washington in his 1796 Farewell Address, are some ”of the most baneful foes of republican government;” and lastly, an emphasis on the importance of organized religion, civil association, and the patchwork of intermediary institutions. This is genuine American conservatism. It draws on deep-seated traditions within the American republic: the tendency towards neutrality and isolationism in foreign affairs exalted by the Founding Fathers; the Jeffersonian insistence that an economy needs to be composed above all by small-scale producers, aimed at the preservation and strengthening of the family and oriented toward the cultivation of good habits and neighborliness; and healthy suspicion for centralized government and the consolidation of private power.


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