What American Conservatism Is, and What It Is Not

George Bush and Donald Trump

It has long been suggested that America is, at its base, a liberal nation. If this is so, then to claim association with American conservatism would be oxymoronic if the only political tradition in America is one fixated on dislocating traditional forms of life and association that unduly burden the unencumbered choice and autonomy of the sovereign liberal individual. Since it was introduced in the 1960s by National Review editor Frank Meyer, conservatism in America has often taken the form of fusionism — a synthesis between traditionalist and libertarian strains of conservatism. Fusionism sought to combine three legs of the tradition of American political life to form the “three-legged stool” of the American Right — coined by former President Ronald Reagan. This stool was undergirded by three irreplaceable legs: economic libertarians, neoconservatives, and religious conservatives. While all three were continuous in their fierce opposition to communism, they were not all inherently conservative. The former two coalitions contained their own distinct set of ideological commitments — and liberal commitments at that. These differences were obfuscated while the rise of communism was seen as paramount, but they have nevertheless evinced themselves as time goes on.

There is a heated dispute in the modern GOP among those who view market enterprise as an end and those who view it as a means to an end — captured perhaps most clearly by a debate among Republicans and conservatives regarding whether the GOP should entertain the idea of increasing the federal minimum wage. Those for whom the free-market is an end are heirs to the paradigm of thought associated with libertarianism — the first of the three legs of the stool. As a philosophy, libertarianism suggests that in economics, the calculus of the individual is supreme. The free-market is the accumulation of individual choices and should be left unfettered and untouched by government intervention; for this reason, libertarianism tends toward a global dimension.

Already, there are some inconsistencies with conservatism. For one, conservatism takes its character from local questions; for the conservative, the root of politics is settlement — the motive that binds people to that which is theirs. A dogmatic belief in a free economy and global free trade inexorably clashes with local attachments and community protection. Moreover, libertarianism is relativistic. There are no given preferences in a market — the individual consumer is king. Libertarianism is ideological, and when it unfurls, it cannot be contained simply within the realm of economics. Libertarianism seeks to redefine every aspect of life, led perhaps above all by belief in free choice. But as conservative philosopher Edmund Burke forewarned, certain things ought to be withheld from the logic of market exchange. These things are just as important but much harder to defend, protect, and preserve.

Only things from which positive utility can be extracted persist in the rapacious sphere of utilitarian exchange inaugurated by the libertarian philosophy. But with this considered, what is the utility of friendship, love, and faith? None whatsoever. Friendship, love, and faith are not means but ends in themselves — because they require input and cultivation to bear fruit — and they work to eventually satiate our spiritual desires. To treat such things as anything other than ends is a failure to do them justice. As Aristotle points out in The Nicomachean Ethics, there are three different kinds of friendships: friendships based on utility, pleasure, and virtue. The former are incidental and ephemeral and undergo oscillation for the moment one partner desists to provide adequate utility or pleasure, the friendship ceases to be. By contrast, friendships of virtue are sustainable and healthy and form between people who are friends without qualification and refer to one another with the utmost respect and dignity. These kinds of friends treat one another “never merely as a means to an end,” as philosopher Immanuel Kant put it in his second articulation of the categorical imperative, “but always at the same time as an end.” However, this nature of relation is precisely what the libertarian philosophy undermines in its pursuit of economic dynamism. It infiltrates all aspects of life and reshapes them in the direction of competitive advantage and self-interest. Indeed, genuine friendships are all the more seldom today. The most frequent relations are depersonalized and frigid encounters between bosses and their employees. Love has arguably been the worst victim of this restructuring. Nowadays, there is a widespread and highly profitable market for sex trafficking and prostitution. It is a sphere of untrammeled and autonomous individuals, liberated from ancient norms of courtship and mannered interaction between the sexes, but has become increasingly precarious and anarchistic. Religious faith has experienced reshaping to a considerable degree, too. Nowadays, people are much more inclined to change religious denominations or convert — or leave religion entirely — on the basis of their self-interest. In all three cases, individual choice and the pursuit of self-interest are prioritized above all else.

On a slightly different note, I wish to examine the second leg of the “three-legged stool,” that is, neoconservatives. Opposition to the Cold War was not an ideological stance; however, those who claimed association with the cause were indeed former ideologues — many of them ex-communists — and became, in some ways, liberal ideologues. It wasn’t opposition to communism that imbued America’s ongoing military campaign in the Middle East — starting with the invasion of Iraq — but a stern belief in the universal maxim of liberal democracy as the only legitimate form of government. As former President Bush clarified in his Second Inaugural Address on January 21st, 2005, the underlying hope and ambition of neoconservatives in their pursuits was “ending tyranny in our world.” With this goal in sight, America would become a very distinctive empire in the world that, unlike empires of the past, did not seek to impose itself upon recalcitrant peoples and nations while still allowing for the perpetuation of particular cultures but instead demanded conformity to a single liberal model.

The final leg of the “three-legged stool” of the American Right — religious conservatives — is perhaps the only sufficiently conservative support of the three. It has nevertheless been compromised to a considerable degree in large part by the catastrophic upheavals of the former two. Notwithstanding, there is reason to hope for a better and more authentic rendition of American conservatism. The 2016 election of Donald Trump symbolized a modest revolution — and one, moreover, that we see unraveling across the industrialized world today with the rise of so-called populist factions across Europe and the Brexit referendum in England. This wave of populism across the world is a repudiation of both left and right liberalism, in preference to a society that conserves. A new strain of populist conservatism is proposing a new set of legs to the stool of the American Right: an economy that serves the citizenry, and not the elites who themselves benefit by the increasing globalization and financialization of the economy; a foreign policy that is conservative, and appeals to a long-standing disposition in the American tradition of reluctance to engage in the kinds of foreign entanglements that, according to George Washington in his 1796 Farewell Address, is “one of the most baneful foes of republican government;” and lastly, an emphasis on the importance of organized religion, civil association, and the patchwork of intermediary institutions. This is genuine American conservatism. It draws on deep-seated traditions within the American republic: the tendency towards neutrality and isolationism in foreign affairs exalted by the Founding Fathers; the Jeffersonian insistence that an economy needs to be composed above all by small-scale producers, aimed at the preservation and strengthening of the family and oriented toward the cultivation of good habits and neighborliness; and healthy suspicion for centralized government and the consolidation of private power.

Patriot Politics is a 16-year-old paleoconservative activist, content creator, and freelance writer. He recently co-founded the advocacy organization “ConserveGenZ.”