//The Strange Limbo of Contemporary American Conservatism
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The Strange Limbo of Contemporary American Conservatism

As a form of language, conservatism, obviously, is an abstract noun. As such, it means to imply that the many forms of conservative thought, historic and contemporary, have something in common. It is true; they do. But conservatism as a class is like snowflakes or fingerprints. All are the same in some ways, but each is different in other ways. So depending on what interests us, we focus either on what is held in common or on what is different. 

American conservatism, again both historic and contemporary, exhibits commonalities with other kinds of conservatism, and also differences owning to the particular conditions of its origins and evolution. What defines these commonalities and differences?

In principle, the answer is easy. The fact that aspects of human nature are universal defines what all forms of conservatism have in common. Human nature is something we learn about from a nexus between philosophy, literature, history, and psychology. The fact that societies and cultures differ defines what the various forms of conservatism do not share in common. Societies and cultures we learn about, respectively, from sociology and anthropology, and these disciplines reflect the fact that all human civilizations are defined by two interactive characteristics: social structure and culture. 

These are not the same, and both can change over time. So the variability of conservatism–and of course the variability also of other intellectual constructs like liberalism, anarchism and socialism–can be described among different societies at the same time and within the same society at different times. Example: Obviously, societies with patrimonial social structures–including but not restricted to tribal ones–will not define conservatism the same way that societies with modern, modular social structures will. Shame societies and honor societies, as anthropologists make the distinction between mainly other-directed and inner-directed personality-type majorities, will not define conservatism the same way either. 

On a different plane, a combination of geography and history can sometimes make a qualitative difference in the development of political culture. British and American political cultures are the only major ones that treat power as a problem to be divided, separated, and diffused lest it become a threat to organic civil society and both personal and religious freedom. Every other major civilizational node has been more concerned with how to concentrate power so as to more effectively use it. What has made the difference? Britain is an island and America is, in Halford Mackinder’s famous phrase, a “world island”; other major political cores have for ages been set next to each other cheek-by-jowl as if on a chessboard of strategic peril constantly in motion. What passes as “conservative” in foreign policy orientation is not the same in these different circumstances.

That’s all we need to know to proceed. 


American Conservatism Defined

Many observers, mostly Europeans, have argued that there can be no such thing as American conservatism. Why? Because America was born in the womb of the Enlightenment, and the Enlightenment was a revolutionary intellectual phenomenon that rejected old, hidebound ways of thinking. It follows that American attitudes toward domestic political culture and, by extension, the American way in the world, must be anti-conservative regardless of nuance-level differences among Americans. America emerged as an anti-aristocratic, anti-monarchical, anti-imperial and anti-mercantilist state. So what could possibly qualify as conservative amid such an orientation?

That makes a certain sense looking at America from the Old World. When Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that among the truths held to be self-evident was that “all men are created equal”, what he actually meant in the context of the times was that Americans recognize no natural hierarchy separating people into “blue bloods” and common people. That was part and parcel of the rejection of monarchy, for monarchy was the top of the pecking order that presumed a natural hierarchy among men and women.  Current confusions notwithstanding, Jefferson never meant to imply that no form of natural inequality existed. Indeed, in an extended correspondence with John Adams that continued until both men died on the same day–July 4, 1824–Jefferson famously wrote of the “natural aristocracy of talent and virtue.” Since ancient Greece and Rome, and notwithstanding Cromwell and the short-lived Dutch republic, the United States, born as a republic, was indeed something new under the sun. It was revolutionary in that sense, and felt itself so. That is why the Latin slogan “Novus Ordo Seclorum” appears on the back of a dollar bill, and it is why American elites usually take pains not to act ostentatiously like elites. There have never been serious movements calling for the abolition of the American republic and the installation of a monarch or dictator. 

Contrarily, in Europe the legacy of monarchy vied with republican values for more than a century and a half after 1789. Even in Britain, and certainly in France and Germany, genuine parliamentary democracy that replaced ruling monarchies involved a struggle that took many decades and witnessed several intermediate stages. That struggle did not reach a concluding moment in Iberia until the 1970s. The ceremonial head-of-state and head-of-church monarchies that remain today in Great Britain, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, and in a few of Europe’s micro-states are vestigial reminders of this history. 

In the Middle East, the end of monarchy has yet to occur in full. Aside from Swaziland, no other place on earth features actually ruling kings as exists in part of the Arab world. The end of monarchy in Turkey dates only from 1924, and in Iran from 1979. Conservatism in such cases is easy to define in broad terms: Conservatives are pro-monarchical.  That, as already noted, was never in cards in the United States, an immigrant country with no feudal past, and less deep-rooted historical baggage than any country in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.

So it is true that, in a comparative global-historical sense, there is no American conservatism. But as a facet of human nature, as a matter of temperament, there have been and still are American conservatives. After all, some Americans refer to themselves as conservatives, and those who are not conservatives take them meaningfully at their word. There is also a classical, self-conscious conservative intellectual tradition and literature. It once relied on British writers old and new, from Edmund Burke to Friedrich Hayek and Michael Oakeshott, but today it features it own luminaries such as Russell Kirk, William F. Buckley, Robert Nisbet, Leo Strauss, Thomas Sowell, and many others.

So American conservatism is real, and is distinguished from other approaches to political life, even within an egalitarian republican framework. The proof of this reality is that the conservative temperament does bear clear implications for how conservatives orient themselves, differently from others, with regard to U.S. foreign policy as well as within domestic politics. 


The Conservative Temperament

What defines the conservative temperament? It is the belief, drawn from experience, that unchanging perfection in social relations is impossible, but that progress is possible even on the most difficult issues if one grasps four basic insights of historical wisdom.


(1) It is much harder to create than to destroy something fine.


(2) Not all values that are good in themselves are either commensurate with each other or lead in the same direction (consider: freedom/order, liberty/equality, pragmatism/justice, diversity/social cohesion, power/friendship, investment/consumption, creativity/diligence, innovation/continuity, tradition/experimentation.) Those who fail to grasp this elemental point subject themselves to the derangements of the utopian temptation.


(3) The road to hell is paved by the same contractor who paves all the other roads: In other words, consequences matter more than intentions.


(4) National and ethnic cultures do change, but few can do so easily or readily without risk to identity and stability.


The gist here is that temperamental conservatism values tradition and respects the cumulative wisdom of experience. The assumption is that good reasons likely explain why culture has embodied certain principles and ways of managing the dilemma of tradeoffs among incommensurate values. Such a disposition has obvious implications for the role of religion in social life, for example, and for its views on critical social institutions such as the sanctity of marriage as regards procreation and the emotionally stable rearing of children. 

Temperamental conservatism tries to be patient rather than impulsive. But, alas, as Martin Luther King’s famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” illustrates, patience is not a virtue when injustice is allowed to linger for no sufficient reason. So it follows that temperamental conservatism sometimes leans too far and too uncritically toward tradition, because sometimes tradition involves making the same mistakes over and over again, and not realizing it on account of the gauzy comforts of intergenerational continuity. That has been the case in the America context when it comes to the nation’s racialized politics. 

It is not true, however, that conservatism in the American context is tantamount to the defense of bigotry, or that it has been and still is a Republican monopoly. Abraham Lincoln was a conservative by current standards, and of course he was a Republican after he began political life as a Whig. But it’s rarely obvious in the moment when temperamental conservatism leans too far or not far enough toward stability and away from new experimentation, when it is too rise averse or not risk averse enough. Those are judgements, about temperamental liberalism as well as temperamental conservatism of course, that must be left to posterity. 

Temperamental conservatism does not automatically grant pride of place, morally or otherwise, to what is new–what C.S. Lewis referred to as “chronological snobbery”. Charles Frazier put the point beautifully in his 2007 novel Thirteen Moons: “We are mistaken to gouge such a deep rift in history that the things old men and old women know have become so useless as to be not worth passing on to grandchildren.” 

Temperamental conservatism, as well, does not readily buy into technological determinism, the laziness of the notion that “you can’t stop progress”. “Progress” can be stopped by collective human agency if it turns out not to be genuine progress at all. A trivial example is that we no longer fly supersonic jet transports (SSTs) like the Concorde because of the noise and pollution they caused. Less trivial examples having to do with other machines may be in our future, 

So all told, temperamental conservatism is a disposition, a hunch about human nature, a feeling in the gut–political intuition, in other words. It is not an explicit policy framework or anything as rigorous as a formal ideology.

As far as America’s role in the world is concerned, these principles and insights, taken together at their best, do offer basic guidelines. They imply that the only reliable way to spread Western social and political values is by example. Most temperamental conservatives involved in foreign policy questions reason that only when asked by others for assistance in such tasks should the U.S. Government step forward, and then only with patience and humility. U.S. policy with respect to aiding economic development, alleviating poverty and encouraging liberal institutions abroad should be focused on the goal of strengthening state capabilities and state sovereignty, not on spreading democracy as such, particularly against the will of clear majorities, or at the point of a bayonet. Artificially and prematurely imposed democratic forms can weaken states, ethnically heterogeneous ones in particular, undermining both international security and the long-term prospect for the sustainable growth of liberal institutions. The “forward strategy for freedom” policies of the George W. Bush Administration were thus highly out of character for a Republican Administration: They were not conservative by any reasonable definition. 

This illustrates that self-described American conservatives, when they allow their values to get out of balance, can pursue courses of action that put avowed conservative principles in a very bad light. At their worst, they can produce hubris, arrogance, self-absorption, denial, delusion, and tragedy for Americans and others. I trust that enumerating examples is not necessary, for mistakes of great moment emblazon themselves in memory in ways that quiet successes do not.

Conservatives can be optimistic, even idealist gradualists within a basically realist framework. They do not always stand “athwart the flow of history yelling ‘Stop!’”, in William F. Buckley’s famous phrase. Seven rules for thinking about strategy and policy help us understand how temperamental conservatives approach any major policy proposal. 


First, they ask, “What’s the downside?” What unanticipated consequences can actually be anticipated if we try hard enough?


Second, can it be done? Have capabilities been realistically matched against intentions?


Third, is the payoff worth the risks, for all policy initiatives carry risks as well as anticipated rewards? Just because something is possible doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.


Fourth, what’s the weakest link in the plan, and why? Specifically, what other actors have to support, or at least not oppose, the plan for it to work—and will they?


Fifth, have costs to third parties, and their likely reactions, been realistically estimated? In the longer run, and sometimes the shorter run too, they often matter.


Sixth, where is Plan B, just in case? In other words, what do we do if our plan doesn’t work—for at that point we will not be where we started, but someplace else for having exerted ourselves?


Seventh, if anyone says, “we have nothing to lose” or “things cannot get worse”, escort that person from the room: He or she has no business being anywhere near a consequential policy decision.


Imploding Parties

Most observers of American politics and foreign policy assume that the natural home of America’s self-described conservatives has been and remains the Republican Party, and the natural home of its self-described liberals and progressives is the Democratic Party. Alas, the terms “liberal” and “Progressive” are just as slippery as the term conservative–the term “liberal” actually more so. Things are perhaps not as simple as they seem from across an ocean.

Whole books could be and have been written about American politics, but for our purposes, a very short historical sketch of conservatism can clarify a lot of confusion. 

First of all, there are different kinds of conservatives, and people often specify the differences with adjectives. There are fiscal conservatives who are not necessarily conservative about other aspects of policy. There are self-described social conservatives, who are not necessarily fiscal or any other kind of conservative. There are foreign policy/national security conservatives, which depending on context can sometimes indicate realists and sometimes neo-isolationists. Sometimes conservatism takes the form of opposing excessive presidentialism at the expense of the Legislative Branch, and sometimes it takes the very opposite form: support for a so-called unitary executive opposed to Legislative Branch meddling in national security issues–an obviously confusing situation for those looking on from a distance.  Sometimes conservatism refers to judicial restraint, sometimes eliding with what is called “originalism” as regards the reading of the Constitution. 

These different kinds of conservatism sometimes overlap, and it’s fair to say that more often than not they bundle together. But they don’t always do so, and, moreover, many who associate with the Democratic Party–sometimes called “blue dog” Democrats–hold some similar views. There are fewer self-described conservative Democrats nowadays than there once were, just as there are fewer self-described “liberal Republicans”; since the mid-1960s the two major U.S. parties have self-sorted into more ideologically coherent groups. But they do still exist, if barely. 

Political scientists agree that two basic clusters of issue areas exist in American politics:  economic and cultural. The data show that the American electorate is slightly left-of-center on economic issues and slightly right-of-center on social issues. One might think that any party which combined these tendencies would easily win most national elections, and that’s right. But they don’t because of the coalitions that define the parties. 

In parliamentary democracies, voters vote for parties–and there are usually more than two of them–and the parties form governing coalitions after the voting is over. In presidential systems, especially one like the American federal system where it takes an Electoral College majority to elect a president, coalitions form within the two major parties before the voting. Since these coalitions are always diverse, the winning combination of economic and cultural policies remains ever elusive, which basically means that each party tries to define what the election is about in terms that advantage them. Democrats try to stress economic issues, and Republicans try to stress cultural ones. But neither party is particularly well disciplined. So Democrats do wade into culture war issues frequently, and foolishly, because their views here are on the wrong side of public opinion. Similarly, Republicans make noises about economic issues, like for example opposition to a higher minimum wage, that likewise put them at odds with public opinion. National elections therefore sometimes come down to which party does fewer stupid things during the campaign season.

Because of the need to achieve an Electoral College majority to elect a president, the U.S. political system necessarily requires a two-party arrangement. It is amazing that so many Americans regularly mumble about their desire for a multiparty system–because they’re justifiably fed up with the failures of both the Republicans and the Democrats in recent years–without seeming to realize that this cannot work without a fundamental change in the Constitution, which is both foolish to hope for in this case and anyway nowhere near politically plausible. 

There is yet another way to describe conservatism in the United States. Since in recent years the clustering of conservative types has gone on mainly in the Republican Party, there is such a thing as a programmatic conservative. That just means someone with an affinity for the Republican brand. These affinities run within families sometimes. They run within certain areas of the country geographically. They tend to be true more of rural and small-town America than of urban America. Those who are social conservatives more often than not can “live with” fiscal conservatives and vice versa. The result is that the different kinds of conservatism have been able to coexist in the same party and with the same program. 

So it is not false to think of Republicans as being conservatives, but even here in recent years–but before the post-2008 emergence of a major populist surge–the Republican conservative coalition has consisted of three definably separate parts: corporate conservatives who have liked Republican attitudes toward less regulation, lower corporate taxes, and less trade union clout; “moral majority” conservatives who have liked the Party’s attitude toward religion, specifically evangelical Christianity and the social policy desiderata flowing from it; and libertarian conservatives who like the “small government” noises that have come from the Party leadership, even when in practice Republican Administrations have been inconsistent in this regard. The Bush 43 Administration’s creation of a new entitlement for Medicare prescription medicine benefits, for example, displeased libertarians. 

When it has come to foreign policy, the traditional isolationist attitude of the Party gave way during the Cold War to support for a vigorous and well-armed internationalism. Since the end of the Cold War party divisions on this score have increasingly emerged. A neo-isolationism has been gaining steady ground in recent years, thanks largely to the frustrations related to the post-911 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but plenty of Republicans remain strong advocates for international engagement, even if reasons differ. Corporate Republicans care about American competitiveness in international commerce; nationalist Republicans care about the retention of American military superiority and honor. Because of these differences, Presidents of either party since 1992 have been able to appeal to members of both parties for support, and have often succeeded in getting it.

But that was then, before the Great Recession of 2007-8, before the populist surge that has borne both leftwing and rightwing expressions. The rightwing variety, known originally as the Tea Party movement, has largely redefined the Republican Party, particularly so during the Trump Administration. The Tea Party and the Trump Administration are fairly described as anti-status quo, anti-elitist insurgencies. Establishment conservatives, whether corporate, “moral majority” or libertarian, all came under attack after 2008. 

The attack waxed in power during the two Obama Administrations, and it hollowed out the coherence of the Republican Party. The GOP failed to agree internally on any broad policy program between 2008 and 2016, so all it could muster was a “just say no” approach to the Obama Administration. 

Then, when Donald Trump won the Republican nomination in 2016, the representatives of the populist political insurgency sought to destroy the power of the establishment GOP elite. Those elite tried to hold onto office by deflecting or as necessary deferring to the populist power behind Trump’s support. Now, in the wake of Trump’s defeat and a humiliating departure from Washington, a battle is forming between elite/institutional Republican power and populist Republican power. Those like Senator Mitch McConnell are betting that, with Trump gone and his social media presence silenced at least for the time being, the elite/institutional Republicans will inherit the Party. Opportunists like Senator Josh Hawley are betting the opposite. We will see in due course who wins the bet, and whether the struggle will destroy the party via a major split or not. 

In the meantime, there is now no coherent definition of what it means to be a conservative Republican. Trump destroyed any notion of fiscal conservatism, and those who want to pick up his mantle never speak of it. Trump destroyed the GOP’s long time fealty to free trade, too. Trump mouthed support for so-called pro-life policies, although anyone could see that he cared less about the issue one way or another. Same with “gay rights”: Republican social conservatives still oppose homosexual marriage, but Trump, again, clearly could not have cared less about it one way or another. Trump cared only about himself and his personal political and financial interests. The result was to disorganize whatever policy coherence the Republican Party had. 

Trump’s main innovation was to try to fabricate a “dirty white” shade of ethno-nationalism to substitute for the depleted civic nationalism that has been America’s main brand since the beginning of the Republic. Sad to say, he made a lot of progress in that regard; the Republican Party, however, is divided on that score as well. Trump’s racialized politics has added significant numbers to Republican ranks, and even Republicans who do not cheer that direction are hesitant to alienate these new party members. They can see that in a very roughly measured demographic split between “white” and “non-white” Americans, about 60 to 40 in broad terms, a significant and absolute majority of white Americans, and of white women too, voted for Trump in November 2020. Demography is not really destiny in American politics; “Hispanics”, a ridiculously broad-brushed category, are considered “non-white” by Republican consultants. The problem here is that large percentages of “Hispanics” don’t agree, and their voting behavior does not conform to the categorization. But most Republicans still cannot see reality on the other side of their labels.

There are still plenty of conservatives in the United States:  social conservatives, some of whom are also religious conservatives but many of whom are not; fiscal conservatives; foreign policy/national security conservatives; generally temperamental conservatives, and others. Many are not, or not any more Republicans. Many are independents, and some are still Democrats. Indeed, for reasons too intricate to distract us here, a new Democratic-business alliance of sorts may be developing, in which case many corporate conservatives may end up in due course associating with the Democrats. 

That, however, is no sure thing. The Democrats are in some ways even more internally fissiparous than the Republicans. Their coalition clusters together less readily than the Republican one used to. Their internal arguments are bitter and, now being pushed hard from the “woke” left they are becoming more embittered by the day. Just as it is not beyond imagination that the GOP might actually split, so the same holds for the Democrats in the months and years ahead. If both do, we will behold a fourth major political party realignment in American history.

That would not necessarily be a bad thing, however messy it might be. Before the two major U.S. political parties sorted themselves ideologically starting in the mid 1960s, we had a de facto a four-party system. There were standard-issue liberal Democrats but also conservative Democrats and Dixiecrats from the South, featuring a somewhat different but stable kind of conservatism. We had standard-issue conservative Republicans but also liberal and “Rockefeller” Republicans from New England, New York, and the West Coast. Politics was more local then, and the parties only coalesced into programmatically defined national coalitions every four years in the run-up to a presidential election. 

This form of complex majoritarianism, as political scientists sometimes call it, worked pretty well into the late 1980s. It allowed much crossover voting that prevented gridlock and enabled some problem solving in many public policy domains. It facilitated bipartisan agreement on most foreign and national security policy issues. The sorting of the parties into a de facto two-party system and their relative nationalization–meaning here the preeminence of the Federal over state and local levels–along with the continuing flow of power to the presidency at the expense of the Congress, made the system more rigid, more polarized, less civil, and hence less competent as a problem-solving system. That, along with some high-profile screw-ups–the Great Recession and the mishandling of the Iraq War serve as prime examples–is what opened the floodgates to the populist upsurge that has deranged American politics and left it prey to invasion by a host of truly preposterous conspiracy theories. 

As things stand, at this unstuck moment in American politics, the Democrats represented by President Biden are trying to hold their party together against the assault being mounted from its self-described “progressive” left, and the Republicans are picking through the wreckage of the Trump era wondering which kinds of self-described Republicans will inherit the party: Republicans like Benjamin Sasse, Mitt Romney, and Rob Portman, or Republicans like Josh Hawley, Ted Cruz, or even Marjorie Taylor Greene–whom fellow-Republican Senator Sasse has described as “a cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs”, in other words, for those unfamiliar with American vernacular language, a nutjob. Either party or both may disintegrate; neither might disintegrate. But both will surely be agitated and tumultuous within for some years to come. 

What pretends to be conservatism amid real existing Republicans right now expresses itself in so many contradictory ways that any semblance of coherence has vanished into the air. When self-described conservative politicians threaten to treat private tech companies as “public utilities” if they won’t bow to their demands–say, to lift restrictions on Donald Trump’s social media accounts–you know that conservatism has been reduced to a label for naked power ploys. There is nothing principled about it left in those precincts of American life. 

So actual principled American conservatives, temperamental conservatives whose views fit within the Enlightenment-origin framework of the republic–what it is also fair to call “classical” 19th-century liberals as the word liberal was used then especially in the British context–have no political home. The problem isn’t about ideals, ideas or even broad policy directions. Principled conservatives can readily lay out policy programs for both domestic and foreign policy that are coherent and some of them possibly even wise. But they have no political platform right now with which to pursue them. When and how will that change? There is no point pretending about this: No one knows.


Adam Garfinkle, a regular contributor to al-Mesbar, is a non-resident Distinguished Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. 

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