All American?: Conservatism Needs To Become More Thoroughly American

Charles R. Kesler

December 7, 1998

Conservatives have a ready explanation for the disappointing election: it’s the Republicans’ fault. The Republican Party could hardly have run a more issueless campaign, and even those Republicans who had some issues and stuck to them seemed hard-pressed to say why. The diagnosis, in other words, is that once again the Republicans weren’t conservative enough.

But this is an argument that proves too much. In American history, intellectual and social movements have usually become effective precisely when they have given rise to or taken over a political party, and the GOP has been dominated by conservatives since 1964. Why, after more than three decades, have conservatives not built a better Republican party?

The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in Ken Starr, nor in the GOP’s current lack of stars, but in ourselves—that is, in the conservative movement, which has always been more confident of what it is against than what it is for. During the long decades of the Cold War, this disposition was not an acute problem, and the conservative intellectual movement provided a rich political education for right-wing candidates and officeholders. With the Cold War’s end, however, it is increasingly clear that the conservative movement as we have known it is over.

More and more, conservatism lacks a common message or focus, and the education it offers citizens and politicians is splintered into myriad discussions of specific policies. Hence the conservative predicament. When faced with urgent threats from a common enemy, conservatives were strong and united; blessed with peace, prosperity, and the freedom in which to focus on their internal differences, they have grown restive and uncertain.

All the good enemies are gone, complain conservatives, because after Soviet Communism’s demise American liberalism seems much less threatening. Liberals have been chastened, at long last, by the discovery that the vectors of history do not point inevitably to the left, and in response, many have “triangulated,” that is, tacked to the center. In frustration, conservatives frequently turn on their own.

The Cold War’s end was bound to increase such infighting anyway, since the war had forced conservatism’s factions to compromise: libertarians had to accept certain aspects of the “national security state,” e.g., the draft, high defense spending, foreign alliances, an internal security apparatus; and traditionalists had to make their peace with the mass scale of modern life
and warfare, the industrial economy, and the necessities of economic and scientific innovation.

Now many conservatives are engaged in a desperate hunt for the offending or off-putting strand within the movement. This search usually corners the religious Right, but libertarians come in for their share of criticism, too. These dissensions remind us that it is possible to have conservatives without having a unified conservative movement. Indeed, this was the situation in America before the mid-1950s. If it is not quite the plight of conservatives today, it may soon be again. For so long as conservatism remains basically anti-liberalism, the weakened condition of American liberals enfeebles conservatives, too, paradoxically.

What more could American conservatism be then, other than liberalism’s nemesis? To begin with, it could be profoundly American. Yes, conservative candidates often drape themselves in the flag, but at the most basic level the conservative movement has a strained relationship with the American project. Both the movement’s major strands—traditionalism and libertarianism—clash with the principles of the American Founding, affecting practical conservative politics in ways that we may not notice.

The most striking feature of traditionalist conservatism has always been how alienated it is from the roots of its own—that is, the American—political tradition. Take Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind, a founding document of the conservative movement and still the best expression of the traditionalist school. Kirk enshrined a few Americans in his conservative pantheon—John Adams and John C. Calhoun, most prominently—but he had little room for George Washington, Thomas Jefferson (whose “a priori concepts” and “French egalitarian theories” Kirk distrusted), James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, or Abraham Lincoln, to name a few. None of these thoughtful American statesmen endorsed the quasi-Burkean love of prescription, inequality, and the Romantic-organic view of society that Kirk himself embraced. Kirk’s conservatism, therefore, was never peculiarly American. It was consciously Anglo-American; more specifically,
it took Burke’s useful fiction that the British constitution had been the
product of slow evolutionary growth and adaptation, and applied it to America, whose Revolution then became a “conservative restoration of colonial prerogatives.” So much for the shot heard ‘round the world!

Until about 1774, Americans had in fact argued in favor of various conservative adaptations of the British constitution to colonial conditions; but from 1776 on, they insisted on new, emphatically republican constitutions of their own devising, based on the unalienable or natural rights of man. To quote Kirk’s hero, John Adams, “There is no good government but what is republican,” and the “only valuable part of the British constitution” had been republican in effect, if not in intent. The British political tradition contained valuable principles, then, which were sound not because they were British or traditional, but because they were good, i.e., in accordance with human nature.

Kirk never admitted this, because he rejected freedom and equality as abstract principles and loathed revolution. Like Burke, he spoke occasionally of the real or genuine rights of man—the moral order in which prescription or tradition is a chief part of the law of nature. Unlike his great model, however, Kirk allowed prescription to define virtually all of natural justice: as the “natural” part of natural law receded under his touch, the “law” part—the legal, customary, and conventional realm—grew apace.

Hence Kirk’s “traditionalism,” the belief in the abstract principle that all abstract principles are nonsense; that justice is to be discovered at history’s margins, not in nature’s intentions; and that reason, at least moral and political reason, is always properly a child of its times. For traditionalists, revolution with a capital R, based on appeals to nature or to abstract truths like human freedom and equality, is the greatest of political evils. Indeed, Burke’s opposition to the French Revolution was the inspiration for modern conservatism—and according to Kirk, the star by which conservatives should steer in all subsequent political upheavals.

So, Kirk’s traditionalism, and the type of conservatism based on it, have never been comfortable, really, with the American Revolution. They have tried to make peace with it by treating it as something neither very American nor very revolutionary, but the result has been to miss its entire significance in American politics. Examples abound of contemporary conservatives’ wariness of the “Revolution principles,” as Adams called them, on which the Founders took their stand. In fact, conservative politicians do not have to be self-conscious traditionalists to have absorbed this aversion to the concepts—indeed to the very language—of rights, equality, and justice.

How many times, for example, has the Republican Congress ducked the chance to eliminate race and gender preferences in federal hiring, contracting, and grant-making? Republicans, including many staunch conservatives, flee the issue mostly because they do not care to wage an uphill battle on an issue on which liberals presumptively command the moral high ground. In other words, they concede, without quite admitting it (perhaps even to themselves), that equality and justice are liberal causes, to be defined by liberals, defended by liberals, and implemented by liberals.

There are honorable exceptions, to be sure, as in California, where conservative activists forced Proposition 209 onto the ballot and succeeded in laying low the state’s regime of racial and ethnic favoritism. But such examples are rare. When conservatives in political office have to accost fundamental principles, they prefer to do so indirectly, from the shadows, behind many veils. Conservatives avoid arguing about questions of justice whenever possible, which means they eschew politics (whose central term is justice) whenever possible.

On taxation, for instance, conservatives frequently defend a flat or flatter income tax on grounds that it will reduce inefficiencies in the economy, stimulate growth, increase family budgets, and produce as much tax revenue as the existing system. What of its superior justice? Few indeed are the conservative politicians who will condemn the basic unfairness of taxing extra increments of income—most often the fruits of diligence and hard work—at higher rates.

The equality of citizens under law, free employment opportunity, other aspects of tax policy—these are moral questions, too, when seen from the point of view of American principles; but the moral case for them often goes unmade by conservatives who are so depoliticized as to shun any appeal that cannot be reduced to a matter of efficiency, economy, interest, or tradition. Tradition can be a great and a good thing, of course, but it is never so merely because it is traditional; slaveholders had their ancestral ways, too. To tell right from wrong within a tradition, or among traditions, requires a moral standard that has a validity or goodness independent of the tradition: it requires an abstract principle.

Yet even in the familiar “social” disputes that currently roil our politics, conservatives seem cut off from the principles of the American Revolution. They invoke “traditional family values,” for instance, as though the phrase itself were traditional. It is in truth a very recent phrase that tries, inadequately, to characterize and defend the American tradition of republican or democratic family life, rooted of course in the precepts of the Bible and nature.

Even worse, they invoke “traditional family values” as though being traditional were enough. In practice, the new phrase often means little more than the “family values” that a majority in the past or present would like to see prevail. The populist conservatism of the last few decades converges here with Kirk’s traditionalism to produce a kind of historical majoritarianism (what Chesterton called “the democracy of the dead”).

But wanting to keep “family values” traditional—i.e., majoritarian—does not establish that these values are good. Uncomfortable with moral argument, conservatives increasingly rest their case for morals legislation on majoritarianism, precisely because it appears to relieve them of the need to make moral arguments. They assume that they do not have to show why homosexual marriage, for example, is wrong if they can show that most Americans disapprove of it. The abortion issue is the exception to this tendency, precisely because conservatives cannot point with assurance to majority support for anti-abortion policies.

On the premises of traditionalism, then, the conservative movement is ill equipped to recognize, much less to rescue, a country largely defined by its traditional allegiance to universal principles of justice. This is not to gainsay the common conservative view that America’s recent liberal revolution is akin, somehow, to the various Communist revolutions of the twentieth century; nor that all of these contemporary upheavals are descended ultimately from the French Revolution. But these later revolutions were most assuredly not extensions of the American Revolution. Returning conservatism to its American roots would in no way compromise the Right’s principled opposition to these later revolts against human nature.

Today’s libertarians, on the other hand, display another sort of wariness towards the American Founding. Although they are keen on individual rights and free markets, libertarians are divided on the moral foundation of individual rights. Most Chicago School economists (a powerful influence on modern libertarianism) believe that freedom “works,” in the sense of generating far greater social prosperity and individual utility than non-free or socialist societies; and they do not see the need or possibility of justifying individual rights on any other basis. By contrast, most libertarian philosophers and publicists insist that liberty is valuable for its own sake, and would be even if it did not lead to greater individual and social prosperity.

Now, the utilitarian argument is true, so far as it goes; but it begs the question of why (and to what extent) economic prosperity is good, and it assumes that every individual’s utility should count equally. The “rights utilitarians,” as they are sometimes called, try to explain why every person should count as one, but they disagree on the basis of this elementary equality and hence its significance. Given these difficulties, the weight of the libertarian argument is on the side of bringing rights and utility as close together as possible, grounding the notion of individual rights in self-preservation and self-interest, and reducing the political morality of the American Revolution to the protection of mere life and a low sort of liberty.

Conservative politicians of a libertarian stripe value freedom and individual rights much more highly than do their traditionalist allies, to be sure, but because the libertarian definition of liberty is almost synonymous with the pursuit of private desire, these libertarians’ public defense of liberty is much weaker than they think. Their “freedom” begins to sound suspiciously like a code word for self-interest (an imputation that many of them would endorse!). Libertarianism thus leaves citizens and politicians in much the same spot that traditionalism does: more at home with arguments about utility, efficiency, economy, and (spontaneously evolved) order than about justice.

The ascending moral connections among life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness cease to be a vital public concern for the libertarians, because for them happiness is mainly in the eye of the beholder. Even those who know better (Charles Murray, for instance), who recognize that there is some objective moral core to happiness, do not regard it as very relevant to the activities of government. Happiness is for the private sphere, whereas government is about the use of coercion to protect life, liberty, property, and the obligation of contracts. And of course, there are some sound points in this analysis.

But the fact that the law cannot know the conditions of supreme happiness in the next life does not mean it cannot know anything about the elements of happiness here and now. The separation of church and state does not imply a parallel separation of morality and politics. Although human reason cannot discern, by itself, the way to Heaven, reason can and does know much about the way to happiness.

For instance, that courage is better than cowardice; wisdom better than ignorance or false knowledge; justice better than injustice; moderation better than intemperance. These moral propositions or truths are essential to a happy life, and to a free and self-governed life, as George Washington and virtually everyone else at the time of the Founding emphasized.

Laws inevitably shape morality, but the American Founders did not believe that the laws alone could do so. In fact, they appreciated that the general laws of a distant Federal Government could play—and ought to play—only a very limited role in this task. Here their prudence agreed with today’s libertarian prejudices.

At the same time, however, they expected state and local legislation to play a much larger role in encouraging the moral habits needed for self-government, through the exemplary sanctions of civil and criminal law—especially the wide scope for states’ police power, which dealt with the details of public health, safety, and morals—and through public-supported education. The statesmen of the early Republic realized, however, that even state and local legislation could accomplish only so much without the positive assistance of the primary character-shaping associations: families and churches.

In a republic, then, there is a public need for citizens with good character; but America’s best statesmen have always understood that a public end does not necessarily have to be met solely or even partly by a public means. Before the modern welfare state, the public need to assist widows, orphans, the sick, and the elderly was met not only in various ways by local governments, but also by state laws that encouraged the incorporation of charitable hospitals, self-insurance associations, and the like.

Today, similarly, the public need for an educated citizenry may best be met by using educational vouchers and charter schools to encourage competition with, and even within, the public school system. In short, not every public need or end can be met directly by government. Nonetheless, the public may use government, not only to protect life, liberty, property, and the obligation of contracts, but to elicit the character traits that help to keep limited government limited, and that help to make liberty a blessing rather than a curse.

One might combine these criticisms of latter-day traditionalism and libertarianism by saying that a reborn American conservatism, based on the principles of the American Revolution, would teach both morality and freedom, order and liberty, not as a fusion or agglomeration of opposites, but as inferences from the same set of principles. Those principles are the rights of man under the laws of nature.

Now, one of the great achievements of the scholars (notably Leo Strauss and his students, but including many others) who helped, intentionally or not, to inspire the contemporary conservative movement was their reopening of the question of natural rights or justice. For the first time in perhaps a hundred years, it is now possible for us to return to the natural-rights doctrines of the American Founders in an intelligent way, to revive their moral and political enterprise and make it the heart and soul of a new American conservatism.

Practically speaking, this means a rediscovery of the moral basis and the moral argument for republican government. A restored Republic would entail a Federal Government that is much more limited than the present state, though energetic in pursuit of its limited objects. The inveterate conservative opposition to big government would shift in emphasis from hoarse calls to get the government out of our wallets and off our backs to a new indictment of big government as an insult to our rights, an offense against our equality, and a violation of our Constitution.

To be sure, big government has always been a reliable target of conservative denunciation. Yet often the grounds of the conservative attack on it have been sandy—a few perfunctory invocations of the Tenth Amendment, warmed-over anger at the unholy expense of it all, some boilerplate about the imperial judiciary. The modern state offends republicanism even more profoundly than it offends federalism, however, and conservatives should reformulate their attacks along more provocative Constitutional lines—for example, stressing not only the cost of entitlement programs, but the manner in which they inveigle us into thinking that all our rights flow from government.

Even as economic conservatives ought to acknowledge that morality is essential to limited government, so religious and social conservatives should recognize that America is in many ways less free than it used to be. We suffer from too much license and not enough liberty, so to speak. On the one hand, the modern state’s social programs encourage personal irresponsibility by socializing its costs. On the other hand, big government narrows personal freedoms essential to republicanism: the right to use and be secure in one’s property; to donate money to political campaigns; to count as an equal, regardless of race or ethnicity, in the eyes of the law.

So today’s manifold threats to liberty and morality stem mainly from the same source: modern liberalism’s rejection of the original American understanding of self-government. Reacting piecemeal to this affront, each faction of the existing conservative movement has seized an important part of the truth, but there is something missing that can be supplied only by a more American, and more political, conservatism. Though in some ways conservatism is now in a position to reconnect itself with the Constitutionalist doctrines of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, ultimately it is the conservatism of the Founders that we are seeking.

The conservatives of a century ago had one advantage over us, however. They saw modern liberalism in its youth, at its most theoretically audacious and before its projects had become familiar. By rediscovering America’s principles, conservatives have it in their power to encounter liberalism afresh, to see it anew and as a whole for the first time in many decades, and thus to learn how radical a departure from our old regime it actually was.

Unfortunately, many conservatives, too, have renounced the central principles of the American Founding, leaving conservatism adrift and confused. For with half of the movement alienated from American politics, and the other half scornful of all politics, what is left on which to build a political movement and a political party? If in the next century the United States is to regain its republican spirit and rescue Constitutional government, the conservative movement will first have to rediscover what about America it is trying, after all, to conserve.

Mr. Kesler is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.