American Conservatives Are Radical Liberals

 

Scene_at_the_Signing_of_the_Constitution_of_the_United_States2Americans — both Republicans and Democrats — often miss a key aspect of American conservatism: that it stems from classical liberalism, not European conservatism. Therefore, when we debate policies today, we should acknowledge that America’s classically liberal tradition is the basis of our founding and that America’s conservatives want to preserve that tradition.

American conservatism is a unique political philosophy. It is a strange synthesis of philosophies respecting God, human dignity, liberty, the rule of law, order, individual freedom and equality. It is, in short, a radically liberal philosophy.

No other country in the world has combined the political beliefs of men as diverse in political thought as Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington. Only in America have we had the ingredients to combine these all up to create American conservatism.

As radical liberals, the Founders believed that because men and women were created in the image of God, everyone of them had God-given human dignity. From this human dignity, all men had the right to self-government through the creation of a republic.

Many people want to link American conservatism with its European counterpart, but these people don’t truly understand American conservatism. Unlike European conservatism, American conservatism is fundamentally transformed by America’s embrace of republicanism.

This small “r” republicanism is defined by the belief that men have the right and ability to govern themselves. Our Founding Fathers liberated the western world from the notion that only aristocratic monarchs and the members of their court can rule mankind. Americans became citizens as opposed to subjects, and this transformation created a completely new flavor of conservatism: American conservatism.

While European conservatism is associated with aristocracy, American conservatism is democratic. While European conservatism emphasizes order over individual rights, American conservatism values order, but individual liberty and freedom usually trump the desire for it. While European conservatism creates classes of men, American conservatism cherishes equality, which has created an almost classless society in America.

Our conservative tradition is great, and many European conservative thinkers, like Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville, have influenced it, but republicanism forever sets American conservatism apart. This steadfastness to republicanism has created our radical American Conservatism.

The political battles in America today are fundamentally battles against moving away from this classically liberal tradition. Conservatives fear that Democrats don’t respect liberalism any more. If the political dialogue acknowledged American conservatism for what it is, our debates would be much more productive.

Image Credit: Howard Chandler Christy [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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  1. Mike H Coolidge
    Mike H
    @MikeH

    Fred Peters: It is a strange synthesis of philosophies respecting God, human dignity, liberty, the rule of law, order, individual freedom and equality. American Conservatism is a radically liberal philosophy.

    I think you’re right about the “strange synthesis” part. This is true on both the left and the right. Even being a moderate is a radical set of contradicting positions. People just assume away these inconsistencies, usually like they are a good thing, and that anyone who attempts to eliminate inconsistencies is an idealist, which is apparently obviously bad. But why should consistency be obviously wrong and a “strange synthesis” better?

    • #1
  2. Z in MT Member
    Z in MT
    @ZinMT

    Yes, and No. Yes, European Conservatives are associated with aristocracy and order, but they are also the side in Europe that is the most favorable to free market economics and opposed to communism. Additionally, in this day and age very few European Conservatives want to return to absolute monarchies.

    • #2
  3. fpeters@gmail.com Inactive
    fpeters@gmail.com
    @FredPeters

    Mike H: I guess that I don’t mean that it is “strange” today, but I believe that the synthesis was pretty novel at the time of the founding.

    Z in MT: When I use the phrase European Conservatives, I really mean those Europeans who at the time of the founding were conservative. I am not sure if I have a firm grasp of modern-day European Conservatism. Obviously there are many free market Europeans today, but I am not sure if they call themselves conservatives. In a way, that is why I think American Conservatism is so unique.

    • #3
  4. Tuck Inactive
    Tuck
    @Tuck

    Fred Peters: I am not sure if I have a firm grasp of modern-day European Conservatism.

    There are so few of them it’s hardly worth the effort…

    Nice post.

    • #4
  5. fpeters@gmail.com Inactive
    fpeters@gmail.com
    @FredPeters

    Thanks Tuck!

    • #5
  6. Boss Mongo Member
    Boss Mongo
    @BossMongo

    Good post. Thanks.

    • #6
  7. Son of Spengler Contributor
    Son of Spengler
    @SonofSpengler

    Well said. I would also note that the converse has become true — that US leftism has become completely preoccupied with group identification, which is a hallmark of old world conservatism. There, it was classes and guilds. Here, it’s become race and gender and income and union membership. Either way, it’s a view of humanity that is fixed and does not allow for mobility according to individual ability and desire.

    • #7
  8. Tom Meyer Contributor
    Tom Meyer
    @tommeyer

    Z in MT: Yes, European Conservatives are associated with aristocracy and order, but they are also the side in Europe that is the most favorable to free market economics and opposed to communism.

    Only in comparison to the European Left.

    As Sal Padula is prone to point out, one of UKIP’s major domestic proposals is expanding and preserving National Health Service. Here’s the first — the first! — item on their platform about healthcare:

    – UKIP will ensure the NHS is free at the point of delivery and time of need for all UK residents.

    UKIP is nationalist — and that’s a good thing, IMHO — but they’re not classically liberal.

    • #8
  9. Tuck Inactive
    Tuck
    @Tuck

    Tom Meyer, Ed.: UKIP is nationalist — and that’s a good thing, IMHO — but they’re not classically liberal.

    Nationalist, and socialist.

    That pretty much sums up what passes for the “right” in Europe: the spectrum goes from communists to fascists, and the entire American spectrum to the right of fascists (the classical liberals, aka Libertarians) exists in such small numbers as to be inconsequential.

    • #9
  10. Tom Meyer Contributor
    Tom Meyer
    @tommeyer

    I enjoyed this post a lot — and welcome to new member Fred! — though I wouldn’t cite our small-r republicanism as the bedrock of our classical liberalism. Rather, it’s a consequence of our belief in inalienable rights to life, liberty, and property.

    I’d have no trouble living under a monarch who respected those right; my earlier stabs at UKIP aside the UK and the other Commonwealth countries are examples of how something very much like classical liberalism can persist absent republicanism.

    Australia and Canada, to take the two most obvious examples, don’t share radical political heritage — their loss, I say — but Canada’s Tories and Australia’s Liberals are at least as far from most European conservative parties as they are from ours.

    • #10
  11. fpeters@gmail.com Inactive
    fpeters@gmail.com
    @FredPeters

    Son of Spengler:Well said. I would also note that the converse has become true — that US leftism has become completely preoccupied with group identification, which is a hallmark of old world conservatism. There, it was classes and guilds. Here, it’s become race and gender and income and union membership. Either way, it’s a view of humanity that is fixed and does not allow for mobility according to individual ability and desire.

    Great point about the leftist view not taking into account desire. I think this is a consistent problem with today’s left. They assume that everyone wants the same thing out of life. Many people say they want to make more money or have a different job, but they don’t really want to make the sacrifices necessary to do this. This leads me to believe that many really don’t want this for their own lives. Sure there are instances where they have obstacles that prevent them, but there are many more cases where people don’t really want these things. And in many cases I don’t blame them. Some people are very satisfied with their lives, and this is a good thing.

    • #11
  12. fpeters@gmail.com Inactive
    fpeters@gmail.com
    @FredPeters

    Tom Meyer, Ed.:I enjoyed this post a lot — and welcome to new member Fred! — though I wouldn’t cite our small-r republicanism as the bedrock of our classical liberalism. Rather, it’s a consequence of our belief in inalienable rights to life, liberty, and property.

    I’d have no trouble living under a monarch who respected those right; my earlier stabs at UKIP aside the UK and the other Commonwealth countries are examples of how something very much like classical liberalism can persist absent republicanism.

    Australia and Canada, to take the two most obvious examples, don’t share radical political heritage — their loss, I say — but Canada’s Tories and Australia’s Liberals are at least as far from most European conservative parties as they are from ours.

    Thanks for the compliment, Tom. I totally agree with you that that our core beliefs are inalienable rights to life, liberty, and property. But I would add republicanism to this core set of beliefs. I would not be happy living under a monarchy, and I think that the UK and Commonwealth countries have really limited that power of the monarchy. I think that modern-day Europe has embraced republicanism.

    • #12
  13. user_1938 Member
    user_1938
    @AaronMiller

    I agree more with the first half of your post than with the second.

    Yes, America was founded on ideas which were then and remain today radical. In the inevitable tension between liberty and security, early Americans chose a severe preference for liberty. It was a deliberate sacrifice. Sadly, it is a difficult preference to sustain through passing generations and we are losing it.

    It is worth remembering when we interact with foreigners that our preference is indeed a choice and not the inevitable destiny of all mankind. It is also worth remembering that freedom and rule of law provide only opportunity, and different cultures would have taken that freedom in different directions. The charitable superpower we became was not a result of freedom alone.

    My disagreement, or rather my caution, concerns the rejection of aristocratic authorities in preference of democratic government. The vital element is government’s limited scope and power, rather than its precise form. (to be continued…)

    • #13
  14. user_1938 Member
    user_1938
    @AaronMiller

    The original form of our republic did, it seems in hindsight, serve that interest of limiting government. But it is arguably less useful toward that goal now that our government has been expanded and empowered. Democratic arrangements work with small governments but not with large ones. In our modern republic, a government “of the people, for the people”, the people are easily manipulated and ignored.

    In other words, political liberty is assured by disinterest rather than voter participation. A king who generally ignored his subjects would be preferable to the totalitarian democratic republic we have today. In a small community, yes, representation enables voters to check the power of authorities. But few modern American politicians are so restrained.

    The efficiency and reliability of political systems cannot be measured apart from the particular circumstances of each government. There is no form of government which is ideal always and everywhere.

    I do not believe that any form of government provides an everlasting defense against the expansion and corruption of authority. The term “revolution” originally meant what it looks like — returning to an earlier form. That is where hope for limited government truly lies, in periodic dissolution and renewal. “Sunsetting” laws is a peaceful example. Borders and governments must change occasionally. Merely refreshing management does not end the ceaseless growth and centralization of power.

    An alliance of small states is preferable to one giant community. That is the core genius of America’s founding.

    • #14
  15. user_1938 Member
    user_1938
    @AaronMiller

    In my ideal world, political communities might branch out like families. When a child matures, he or she leaves the nest to start a new family in a new home. What better example of “revolution”? The new family begins with the wisdom and support of its parent families.

    Politics does not allow for an exact translation of that model, in part because establishing a new nation usually requires conquest of territory whereas a house can be simply purchased. But I believe hope for perpetuating limited government exists only in such a cycle of political upheaval.

    It is not in the nature of governments to shrink.

    • #15
  16. user_1003994 Inactive
    user_1003994
    @HowardSlugh

    Burkean conservatism is about preserving the best elements of society. The “best” things in society can, and do, vary based on the society. The fact that American conservatives seek to preserve a different tradition than European conservatives does not get at the heart of what makes us all conservatives.

    In America, a part of what is best in society is our classical liberal tradition. Our disposition to preserve the things that work and to respect our traditions puts us very comfortably in the camp of Burkean conservatives.

    One cannot determine if a person or a movement is conservative by merely examining their policy preferences. Rather, he must examine the methods by which the person or movement reaches those conclusions. If the person proceeds cautiously giving due respect to tradition and recognizing the limits of individual reason and human perfectibility, he is a conservative regardless of his specific policy prescriptions.

    • #16
  17. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Tom Meyer, Ed.:I enjoyed this post a lot — and welcome to new member Fred! — though I wouldn’t cite our small-r republicanism as the bedrock of our classical liberalism. Rather, it’s a consequence of our belief in inalienable rights to life, liberty, and property.

    Yabbut once you start pulling quotes like this one from our Founders,

    We claim Nothing but the Liberty & Privileges of Englishmen, in the same Degree, as if we had still continued among our Brethren in Great Britain: these Rights have not been forfeited by any Act of ours, we can not be deprived of them without our Consent, but by Violence & Injustice; We have received them from our Ancestors and, with God’s Leave, we will transmit them, unimpaired to our Posterity. – George Mason

    they don’t sound so radical, do they? ;-)

    • #17
  18. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Fred Peters: Americans — both Republicans and Democrats — often miss a key aspect of American Conservatism: that it stems from Classical Liberalism, not European Conservatism. Therefore, when we debate policies today, we should acknowledge that America’s classically liberal tradition is the basis of our founding and that America’s conservatives want to preserve that tradition.

    Radical leftists acknowledge this openly when they denounce our side as neoliberal.

    • #18
  19. virgil15marlow@yahoo.com Member
    virgil15marlow@yahoo.com
    @Manny

    I don’t think that’s completely right. Other than the aristocracy issue, I think American conservatives still fall back on Burkean traditionalism. And religion. I would say that American Libertarians are radical Liberals.

    • #19
  20. fpeters@gmail.com Inactive
    fpeters@gmail.com
    @FredPeters

    Manny:I don’t think that’s completely right. Other than the aristocracy issue, I think American conservatives still fall back on Burkean traditionalism. And religion. I would say that American Libertarians are radical Liberals.

    Manny, I believe that Burkean traditionalism forms a part of American Conservatism, but it is too narrow. American conservatives tend to have a much greater libertarian streak than Burke. Individualism defines America. I believe that Frank Meyer got it right that American Conservatism is a fusion of Burkean traditionalism and libertarianism.

    • #20

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