What American Conservatism is, and What it is Not:
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 components 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 distinct ideological commitments. These differences were obfuscated while the rise of Soviet communism was seen as an immediate existential threat, 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 actor is supreme. The free market is the accumulation of rational individual choices and should be left unfettered by government intervention; for this reason, libertarianism tends toward a global economic 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 natural 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, nor does the market distinguish between commodities. As such, when the market unfurls, it cannot be contained or sequestered simply within the realm of economics. In fact, the free market tends to reshape every aspect of life into market-friendly alternatives.
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 having friends, being in love, and having 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 exploited for some 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 each other never merely as a means to some selfish purpose but rather as ends in themselves (to borrow Kant's terms).
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 things 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 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, pornography, and prostitution. It is a sphere of untrammeled 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 kind of therapeutic, and not as a guide or template from which substantive truths about the human condition 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 want 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 affixed themselves to the cause were indeed former ideologues (many of them ex-communists) and became, in many key ways, liberal ideologues. It wasn’t opposition to communism that imbued America’s ongoing military campaign in the Middle East, but rather a belief in the universal truth of liberal democracy as the sole legitimate form of government. As former President George W. Bush clarified in his Second Inaugural Address on January 21st, 2005, the underlying aim and ambition of the neoconservative foreign policy 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 nicely by the following quote from John Quincy Adams' 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, people, 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. Regrettably, 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 direction 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 rooted in prudence and realism, 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, 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, drawing on deep-seated traditions within the American republic: the proclivity of the Founding Fathers toward neutrality and isolationism in foreign affairs; 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 virtue and neighborliness; and healthy suspicion for centralized government and the consolidation of private power.