Saturday, January 06, 2007

Examining Genuine American Conservatism

In my continuing attempt to define conservatism and to clarify what 'conservatism' means in an American context I am currently re-reading Clinton Rossiter's Conservatism in America (Second Edition Revised, 1962). This is a wise and important book that deserves more attention 45 years after this Second Edition appeared.

But let me remind why this whole definitional project is necessary. If one goes back to my first post, Why Pseudo-Conservatives are not "Conservative", you can see that it is essential that I carefully define what 'conservative' actually means. This is necessary preparatory to showing that most of those Americans usually referred to today as "conservatives" or "neo-conservatives" are in fact not 'conservative' at all but are radicals pressing programs of extreme change in American life which, if they continue to be successful, will probably lead to the decline and fall of what has been admirable in American life and values. To a large extent this is the brunt of Claes Ryn's identification of "the New Jacobins" in his America the Virtuous.

Let me briefly sketch some of Clinton Rossiter's main points. First, he distinguished "Conservatism" with a capital 'C' from small 'c' conservatism, and he did so for an excellent reason. Conservatism (capital 'C') is the tradition of socio-political philosophy going back to Edmund Burke (1729-97). Rossiter rightly claims that since America was founded upon a basically 'liberal' tradition that emphasized, reason, progress, individualism, democracy, liberty and equality, and since nearly all Americans subscribe to this basically 'liberal' philosophy, that Burkean Conservatism is not prominent in America's primary traditions. Remember that Burke's founding of Conservatism was a reaction to the first truly social revolution in modern history, the French Revolution. The French Revolution was a truly social revolution because it aimed at society-wide overthrow of most of the foundations of France up to that time: it aimed to overthrow the monarchy as a system of government and replace it with a republican form of government, it aimed to overthrow the higher social orders of nobility and priesthood as privileged rulers of society, with the priesthood it aimed to overthrow the existence of an Established religion and replace it with Reason as religion, and it aimed to overthrow what remained of a feudal economy with one based more on freedom of enterprise (see William Doyle, Origins of the French Revolution, Second Edition, 1988).

In comparison to the great French social revolution against which Burke inveighed, the so-called "American Revolution" is really more appropriately labeled a War for Independence; it was certainly not a social revolution. Perhaps this is why Burke was relatively sympathetic to American colonial complaints. After the War for Independence America was socially, politically, and legally nearly identical with what it had been prior to that War. Thus, America was founded upon English constitutional liberalism and, since it never had a feudal nobility, a local monarchy or an established religion, it never needed a social revolution; it has been based upon a liberal philosophy from its inception.

So American conservatism must always be seen as existing within this essentially liberal tradition. That is why I quoted Peter Viereck in a prior post so prominently: :
…romanticizing conservatives refuse to face up to the old and solid historical roots of most or much American liberalism…. In contrast, a genuinely rooted, history-minded conservative conserves the roots that are really there, exactly as Burke did…. American history is based on the resemblance between moderate liberalism and moderate conservatism…. The Burkean builds on the concrete existing historical base, not on a vacuum of abstract wishful thinking. When, as in America, that concrete base includes British liberalism of the 1680’s and New Deal reforms of the 1930’s, then the real American conserver assimilates into conservatism whatever he finds lasting and good in liberalism and in the New Deal…. [I]n America it is often the free trade unions who unconsciously are our ablest representatives of the word they hate and misunderstand: conservatism. The organic unity they restore to the atomized ‘proletariat’ is… providential…. So we come full circle in America’s political paradox; our conservatism, in the absence of medieval feudal relics, must grudgingly admit it has little real tradition to conserve except that of liberalism—which then turns out to be a relatively conservative liberalism.(last emphasis added)
Point: Rossiter, like Viereck, shows that American small 'c' conservatism has to be seen as based within an essentially liberal tradition and thus won't be precisely the same as Burkean capital 'C' Conservatism. Indeed, as Rossiter wrote on p. 96:
even in [America's] most conservative moments, when we most want to be at rest, we come to rest on a tradition--the famous Liberal tradition--that speaks out loud and clear in the language of liberty and equality, democracy and progress, adventure and opportunity. This is the reason that no one, neither the foreign observer nor the American himself, will ever quite understand what the American says and does. The American, like his tradition, is deeply liberal, deeply conservative. If this is a paradox, so, too, is America.
However, Rossiter made a point that I believe is fundamental to understanding a force within the American experience that really does come closest to meriting the label "revolutionary": the force set free by American capitalism in the latter part of the 19th century, the force of the Industrial Revolution. Although it is frequently a subordinate point in Rossiter's book, he nonetheless notes that the Industrial Revolution was probably the major revolutionary force in American history (at least, I would argue, until the 20th century). Rossiter (p. 16), when recounting "important events for the rise of conscious conservatism" mentions the French Revolution and Burke's critique of it and then adds "the Industrial Revolution, which made change rather than stability the essential style of the social process...." On pages 94-6 Rossiter enlarges on the significance of the American Industrial Revolution in a passage I consider extremely important and which I here quote at length:
we must... [make] the distinction between change, a transformation of values or institutions in which government plays no direct part, and reform, a transformation... through the conscious use of political authority. Industrialization, which puts children to work in factories, is change; child-labor legislation, which takes them out again, is reform. When men build railroads or invent assembly lines or convert atomic energy into power, thus transforming the lives of millions of people, that is change. When other men pass laws to regulate railroads or raise wages of men on assembly lines or license producers of atomic power, that is reform. Now, if we look again at our history, we find that many of our so-called conservatives, the "wise and good and rich" on the American Right, were in an important sense not conservatives at all. While they could always be counted on to oppose reform, they were casual or at best ambivalent about change. In point of fact, they had an immense stake in social change--specifically, in the transformation of this country from a predominantly agrarian-rural to a predominantly industrial-urban society.... [T]hey worked vast changes in every part of our system. They were, indeed, among the most marvelous agents of social and moral change the world has ever known, and it does them something less than historical justice to classify them simply as conservatives.

The liberals, on the other hand--the great progressives like Jefferson, Jackson, Bryan, La Follette and Wilson--were deeply troubled by the restless, untamed surge toward the Hamiltonian dream of busy factories and bustling cities. Each of these men, in his own generation, saw the order he knew and loved being weakened by the rapid advances of invention and technology. And each, in his own way, looked to reform to chasten change and mitigate its worst effects....

After the Civil War, when at last it became apparent to both sides that government was alone equal to the challenge of change, the progressives shifted their attitude toward political authority from hostility to sympathy, while the men of the Right, who were willing to use government to their own ends but not to see others use it against them, moved into a posture of determined opposition to reform. The paradoxes in the American experience had come to full flower: the agents of change were opposed to reform, the opponents of change committed to it. Small wonder that words like liberalism and conservatism lost much of their meaning for Americans, especially since both sides in the struggle were now arguing in the language of full-blooded Liberalism.
What Rossiter came close to saying here is that it is persons known as 'liberals' and 'progressives' who have been most concerned to 'conserve' the values they saw in American society at its founding and before industrilization and urbanization so profoundly changed it.

Let me just add a note to clarify what I meant above when I said that the Industrial Revolution was the most socially mutative force "at least, I would argue, until the 20th century." I suspect that there have been two forces in American history that have wrought changes coming closest to meriting the term 'revolutionary', the Industrial Revolution that began in the 19th century and the rise of American imperialism that began shortly before the end of the 19th century (see Stephen Kinzer's Overthrow). It is precisely the present-day pseudo-conservative's knee-jerk allegiance to protecting the power of those who run and benefit from huge corporations made possible by the Industraial Revolution and this same pseudo-conservative's thoroughly unbalanced and belligerent support for contemporary American imperialism and world domination that makes the pseudo-conservative the most powerful voice for extremism and radical change on the contemporary American scene. "Conservative" indeed!

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