By Robert L. Capehert
In American conservative circles, especially in our post-modern political discourse, confusion in regards to traditionalism as opposed to classical liberalism, often presents itself.
Dr. Victor Davis Hanson, military historian and contributor to National Review, clarifies this “conflation,” writing,
A classical liberal was characteristically guided by disinterested logic and reason. He was open to the gradual changes in society that were frowned upon by traditionalists in lockstep adherence to custom and protocol.
The eight-hour workday, civil rights, and food-and-drug safety laws all grew out of classically liberal views. Government could press for moderate changes in the way society worked, within a conservative framework of revering the past, in order to pave the way for equality of opportunity in a safe and sane environment.
Dr. Hanson’s insights could easily be understood in light of fellow National Review contributor and former NRO editor, Jonah Goldberg, whose seminal book, Liberal Fascism clarified the American left by positing the idea that modern “liberalism” is the off-spring of twentieth-century progressivism, and progressivism sprang from similar intellectual roots as European fascism.
Still, the most valuable contribution of Mr. Goldberg’s book appeared in the paperback edition of Liberal Fascism, where Goldberg added a chapter entitled “The Tempting of Conservatism.” This game-changer of a chapter unpacked “conservatism” within its American expression, where it can easily go off the rails.
Even still, the chapter’s argument (in this author’s opinion) led to the self-reflective autopsy of the “conservative movement” in our time.
Goldberg’s warning in “The Tempting of Conservatism” defined much of what is called conservatism in our day as a type progressivism of the right – or, right-wing socialism – which cannot, and often does not, argue against government being the primal institution which “forms the habits of our hearts” as Americans.
Goldberg’s first target is nostalgia on the American right. Often plaguing shallow forms of conservative expression, like Mitt Romney’s ’12 campaign, it fundamentally conflates traditionalism with conservatism, making the mistake Dr Hanson refutes above.
The first is nostalgia, a dangerous emotion in politics. American conservatives have long cast themselves as champions of hearth and home, traditional virtues, and, of course, family values. I have no objection when conservatives champion these virtues and values in the cultural sphere. Nor do I object when such concerns translate themselves into political efforts to beat back the liberal statist Kulturkampf. But conservatives get into trouble when we try to translate these sentiments into political programs at the national level. The beauty of American conservatism has been that it is an alloy of two very different metals, cultural conservatism and (classical) political liberalism. Whenever it is willing to sacrifice its political liberalism in the name of implementing its cultural conservatism, it flirts with a right-wing socialism all its own.
Part of the problem with the G.O.P of late, is, it does sacrifice its political liberal instincts with what Hillsdale College Professor of History, D.G. Hart calls a tendency to impose cultural uniformity (cultural conservatism) on the broader nation at large.
Even still, part of the “red meat” of being truly conservative in Republican circles in our times is the intensity “conservatives” seek to impose cultural uniformity on the nation.
Those conservatives, whom question the “conservatism” of such instincts, are often wrongly called “moderates.” Moreover, Goldberg is impeccable when attacking the problem of identity politics within the conservative ranks of the G.O.P faithful.
Lastly, there is the siren song of identity politics. White people are not above tribalism. It is right and good to oppose racial quotas and Balkanising logic of multiculturalism. It is worthwhile to defend the broad outlines of American culture, which multiculturists deride as white culture in order to delegitimise and, ultimately, destroy it. But it is dangerously corrupting to fight fire with fire. It is not that “white Christian America” is a bad or oppressive thing. Far from it. Rather, it is the desire to impose a vision of white Christian America that is dangerous, for in the effort to translate such a vision into a government program, an open society must become a closed one. Rousseau was right about one thing: censorship is useful for preserving morals but useless for restoring them. A Department of Judeo-Christian Culture would only succeed in creating a parody of real culture. In Europe the churches are subsidised by the state, and the pews are empty as a result. The problems with values relativism —the notion that all cultures are equal—is that important questions get decided via a contest of political power rather than contest of ideas, and every subculture in our balkanised society becomes a constituency for some government functionary. The result is a state-sanctioned multicultural ethos where Aztecs and Athenians are equal—at least in the eyes of public school teachers and multicultural gurus. In an open society, best practices win. And the conservative case is that best practices are best not because they are white or Christian but because they are plainly best.
All this affects how political campaigns are waged, for as Goldberg contends our politics are conditioned by a progressive outlook.
In Goldberg’s words, “people understand things [politics] in progressive terms.” Thus, classical liberals, whether American conservatives or libertarians, must address voters by first challenging the assumptions of the progressive context.
This becomes no more complicated than (for example) when conservative candidates run campaigns blasting “false religion” or who believes in Jesus more than another candidate, voters get the distinct impression such a conservative candidate is probably not a big proponent of the first Amendment. Hence, whatever “conservatism” is (in the mind of the voters) it must not be all that constitutional!
Sadly, this is one reason why as Americans grow more conservative, according to Kevin D. Williamson’s recent piece, they likewise grow less Republican.
In too many Republican, slash conservatives circles, conservatism has come to mean a lot more—or less, depending on one’s point of view—than a robust view of Constitutionalism. And the statist left (Democrats and progressive Republicans) have thus had a field day taking advantage of this miscommunication by American classical liberals, lampooning conservatives as out of touch and radical for a generation.