History

Is America Unconservative?

June 02, 2009

Multiple Pages

In contribution to Takimag from last summer, Austin Bramwell asked “Why are movement conservative intellectuals so obsessed with refuting positions (e.g., that the United States is an inherently “liberal” regime) that nobody has actually believed in fifty years?” Those few, we band of brothers, who read the piece sighed and muttered to ourselves, “Well, because so many people keep on asserting that the United States is an inherently liberal regime.” It is the standard excuse for ignoring traditionalist viewpoints in academia and the media, and it turns up again in Kevin Gutzman’s recent post, “There is no Authentic American Right—and a Good Thing, Too.”

Gutzman is a libertarian Bourbon, who has “learned nothing and forgotten nothing.” For him “Louis Hartz posited long ago … that America is dominated by a broad Lockean consensus … Hartz was right: there’s one wing in American politics. The question is almost always what kind of Left it will be.”

Gutzman, of course, is right about one thing. As conservatives and right-wingers like Oswald Spengler, Julius Evola, Whittaker Chambers and many others have pointed out for over a century, free marketeers (19th century liberals or modern libertarians) differ from Marxists and democratic socialists (20th century liberals) only superficially, while sharing fundamental traits that range from a commitment to economic reductionism (what Albert Jay Nock and Wilhelm Röpke called “economism”) to a pervasive obsession with globalism. Gutzman is right about himself and his fellow libertarians.  They are left-wingers and do not differ in fundamentals from other left-wingers.

Gutzman is wrong, however, about the United States and the people who created this nation. He asserts that “our visceral outrage” at the treatment of the New Haven firemen “springs from our feeling that their city government has violated our Lockean precept,” not from outrage at the regime’s continuing policy of unfair and prejudicial treatment of white men. There have been a number of contributions to Takimag on this topic and from the first one, by Jared Taylor, the ethnicity of the fireman has been front and center as a concern, the same concern expressed over Judge Sotomayor’s assertion of the ethnic superiority of a “wise Latina woman’s rich experience” over the actual knowledge of our complex legal system possessed by putative white men.

Gutzman notes that the two major parties do not identify themselves racially, but one of the few differences between them is their appeal to different ethnicities. They rarely differ ideologically. Both parties nominated left-wingers for President in the last election and the Republican candidate spent a great deal of the relative pittance allotted to him under McCain-Feingold on sycophantic ads in Spanish addressed to the Latino population. It did him no good.

I find Gutzman misleading when he writes, “Classically, defenders of slavery (Rightists par excellence) favored highly limited federal government (a classical Left attitude).” Neither the French nor the American Left has consistently favored limited government. Slavery is a cultural universal, found in every society, and has no distinctive association with the political movements of Europe and the United States.

Gutzman was talking about the ante bellum American South. I would be interested to hear Gutzman confront directly the relationship of slavery and support for the free market there. The major policy issue that divided the United States in the 19th century was the tariff. As Karl Marx noted in 1848, “the protective system is conservative; the free trade system is destructive.” Whigs and later Republicans, like Henry Clay and Abraham Lincoln, agreed with Marx’s analysis and tended to favor the tariff. Southern slave-owners did not. They were, in contemporary terms, classical liberals. This is why English liberals favored the South during the Civil War. The Liberal Lord Acton wrote Robert E. Lee after the war assuring him that for Liberals the Southern cause was the cause of freedom. There is absolutely no historical reason to disassociate the defense of slavery from support for free trade. Some libertarians still defend the ante bellum South.

The real difference, in my opinion, between openly professed left-wingers like Gutzman and mainstream conservatives is the role of tradition in their lives and thought. Was America founded as a traditionalist society or was it founded on liberal principles derived from the writings of John Locke?

Gutzman, of course, thinks the later is the case; indeed, he reasserted the old leftist faith in the distinctively liberal character of the United States: “Louis Hartz posited long ago…that America is dominated by a broad Lockean consensus…Hartz was right: there’s one wing in American politics. The question is almost always what kind of Left it will be.”

There had been similar views expressed before Hartz, most clearly in Lionel Trilling’s great work of cultural genocide, The Liberal Imagination (1950), where Trilling proclaimed, “In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. For it is the plain fact that nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation. … The conservative impulse and the reactionary impulse do not, with some isolated and ecclesiastical exceptions, express themselves in ideas but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” This comment was published a few years after Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences (1948) and C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man (1947). Despite its language of merely describing “the plain fact,” its result was to legitimize an intellectual purge of conservative and traditionalist teachers and scholars because their research and thinking were only “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” The result is today’s PC university, with its oppressive climate of intellectual conformity and reign of terror against any and every dissent, no matter how mild or faint-hearted. Michael P. Zucker of the flagship Catholic university Notre Dame continues to defend the Lockean character of the United States in Natural Rights and the New Republicanism (1994) and other books. Whatever Trilling’s and Zucker’s intentions, academics took away a fearsome lesson from their writings. If America has never had any other political basis than Lockean natural rights, there is no point in wasting time debating traditionalists. There is nothing wrong in firing or refusing to hire people who do not exist, or whose intellectual position, if they did exist, consists of “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.”

The evidence on the other side is massive and impressive, even if we limit ourselves to works published after Hartz. Willmoore Kendall and George Carey in The Basic Symbols of the American Political Tradition (1970) traced the American political tradition back to the Mayflower Compact of 1620 and other important documents that pre-date John Locke and could not have been influenced by him, like the Fundamental Order of Connecticut (1638-39) and the Massachusetts Body of Liberties (1641). Kendall and Carey argue that the American political tradition was not “derailed” until Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (1863). Barry Shain’s The Myth of American Individualism (1994) shows the centrality of Protestant Christianity and its communal character, founded in congregationalism. The importance of pre- and non-Lockean religious elements in the American Founding and their continuing importance is developed by Samuel Huntington in Who Are We?(2004):

America was created as a Protestant society just as and for some of the same reasons Pakistan and Israel were created as Muslim and Jewish societies in the twentieth century. Its Protestant origins make America unique among nations and help explain why even in the twentieth century religion is central to American identity. ... America, said Tocqueville in an oft-quoted phrase, ‘was born equal and hence did not have to become so.’ More significantly, America was born Protestant and did not have to become so. America was thus not founded, as Louis Hartz argued, as a ‘liberal,’ ‘Lockean,’ or ‘Enlightenment’ fragment of Europe. It was founded as a succession of Protestant fragments, a process under way in 1632 when Locke was born.

The importance of pre-Lockean traditions, British, Christian and Classical, has been made over and over again for generations after Hartz by scholars including P. G. A. Pocock, Bernard Bailyn, Gordon Wood, Carl Richard and many others.  The importance of the Classical Tradition for the Constitution has been documented just last year by David J. Bederman, The Classical Foundations of the American Constitution (2008). Catherine Winterer’s The Culture of Classicism: Ancient Greece and Rome in American Intellectual Life, 1780-1910 (2002) has shown that the classical tradition continued to be influential for generations after the founding. The living significance of non-Lockean Christian and British traditions is part of the daily experience of most Americans.

The true atrocity of the leftist regime is not so much this policy or that, but its insistence that the traditions and traditionalists who founded the United States and have kept it as free and creative as it has been do not even exist. The United States was settled by traditionalists and its constitutional regime was molded by traditionalists. The American majority is still deeply traditionalist, and we are not handing our country over to Kevin Gutzman and his libertarian, neocon, and liberal peers without a fight.

UPDATE: Grant Havers, Richard Spencer, Tom Piatak, and Kevin Gutzman have responded to Christian Kopff’s question about America’s unconservativeness.  

SUBSCRIBE
For Email Updates


Comments


The opinions of our commenters do not necessarily represent the opinions of Taki's Magazine or its contributors.