Wednesday, November 16, 2005

American Conservatism today, being the seventh part of American Conservatism

Part one.  Part two.  Part three.  Part four.  Part five.  Part six.

Keith Burgess-Jackson singles out this Norman Podhoretz essay on neoconservatism, and he quips, “Note that, according to Kristol, Franklin Delano Roosevelt is one of neoconservatism's "heroes." That alone takes me out of the neoconservative camp, for Roosevelt was a constitutional disaster. Catharine MacKinnon calls her version of feminism "feminism unmodified," as opposed to, say, radical feminism. I call my version of conservatism "conservatism unmodified."

I believe that’s as good a starting point as any to begin this final installment of the American Conservatism series.

We’ve traced the disparate elements that have formed the American conservative movement.  In truth, we’ve barely scratched the surface.  But I think by now you have a good idea of the core ideas that have shaped American conservatism.  How this mish-mosh of ideas plays out in the modern world is the subject of this essay.

To me, the essential backbone of conservatism is its reluctance to embrace both sweeping reforms and sweeping theories.  Conservatism is rooted in caution.  In fact, I would go so far as to say the fundamental principle that motivated the Founding Fathers was fear.  They feared the masses, and they feared the government.  And to say that this fear is the underlying motivation for the Framers is the same as to say that is the prime motivating force for American conservatism, for our Framers were the first American conservatives.
If nothing else is fixed into you minds through these short essays, you must understand that American conservatism is a unique brand of conservatism.  It is pure folly to try to understand American conservatism through the prism of European tory conservatism.  And I use the term tory because Whig conservatism is relevant as far as America is concerned.  Whig conservatism is the conservatism of Burke and, I would suggest, Hayek.  It is a liberal conservatism rooted in appreciation for freedom, but freedom tempered by the realities of the world in which we live.

Our Framers were children of the Enlightenment, but of the Scottish and British Enlightenment and thus, unlike their French counterparts, were more suspicious of the human will.  They trusted men, but almost at an arm’s reach.  Men are decent people, but the human appetite is such that it would be unwise to suspect that individuals would always think rationally or properly.  Therefore they established a government that granted as much individual freedom as was possible, but one that also curbed the majoritarian impulse.

Flash forward and the center of the conservative debate remains a debate about human nature.  Underlying all our beliefs is our expectations of humanity.  Conservatives remain skeptical, but neither too pessimistic nor optimistic.  But other variants of conservatism diverge to one extreme or another.  But, perversely, the policies that outflow from their perspectives run counter to their thoughts on human natures.

Neoconservatives are deeply pessimistic, and yet they advance an ideology that is far more sweeping in its hopes for the future of mankind.  While traditional conservatism has always emphasized the limits of this mortal realm, with a concurrent belief that government should be limited in its outreach, the neocons are much more comfortable using the government to advance far-reaching ends.  Though at times my Professor Claes Ryn’s thesis is overstated, the core of his book, America the Virtuous, has much merit.  The neocons, or neo-Jacobins, seem swept away with a notion that they can radically reshape the human spirit and achieve the long-sought harmony we’ve been seeking since the inception of humanity.  It is though they believe they can reach into the human soul and reshape it into a design it was not meant for.  Only tinker enough and we can achieve the appropriate ends.

On the other end of the spectrum, the paleo-conservatives and crankycons seem to hate everything.  And yet they are most comfortable with populist schemes that betray the Framers’ original plans.  Their anti-elitism runs so deep that they would bequeath to the masses enormous power.  Their enemies are the ghouls in the academies with their fancy ideas.  But while they would have you believe that they are the true inheritors of the conservative mantle, their philosophy is a deep betrayal of the republican tradition.  Their ultimate designs are no less radical than the hated neocons they so regularly disparage.

But even these easy categories fail to capture the enormous diversity of American conservatism.  But the fact that they can be categorized reveals a marked departure from the ideal of a philosophic conservatism that is less an ideology than a general principal about life.  

Traditional conservatism is generally less concerned about the temporal world.  This strain of conservatism dates to Augustine, who saw utopian schemes for the foolishness that they were.  Thus, it should come as no surprise that the intellectual impetus behind this brand usually comes from the Roman Catholic Church, or its near neighbors in the Episcopalian version.  Buckley, Kirk, Ponnuru, Reagan: all thinkers who are Catholic or whose religion was close to that of Roman Catholicism.  This is no mere coincidence.  

We here a lot about religion and the conservative movement, and indeed religion has played a crucial role in all conservative parties throughout the world.  But what many fail to understand, principally because they fail to understand Christianity is that there are crucial differences in the religious outlook of Evangelicals and Catholics, and these differences play out in the political world.  The steadfast pessimism of the Catholic faith is mirrored in the political outlook of most conservative Catholics.  They see this as a fallen world.  And while we should strive to make this world as good as we can, our expectations for the temporal world should not be so high.  Consequently, we should not put much stock in government and its ability to change the world.

I am not as well-versed in Evangelical religion to speak authoritatively, but it seems to me that the Evangelicals are much more optimistic about reshaping this earthly realm.  Their fervor for conversion seeps into their political consciousness, thus they have grander visions for reform than does the Catholic conservative.  

It would be easy to simply paint as the essential demarcation in conservative thought as the interplay between Catholic and Evangelical theology.  It would be easy because it is essentially correct.  We share many of the same values, but at some point there is a rift in our fundamental vision of the government because there is a fundamental rift in our theological outlook.  That is not to say that all Catholics are all of a particular political stripe, and all Evangelicals of another.  But if one wants to understand the divergence in American conservative thought, there would be worse starting points than this examination of the difference between Catholicism and Evangelical religion.


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