The End of American Conservatism?
American conservatives, as we have come to be called, have been blessed by inheriting one of the greatest nations on earth. But we have been cursed by limitations, in both our language and our manner of thinking, that have doomed us to a perpetual rearguard struggle against a determined and even fanatical adversary – the American progressive, an indigenous variety of socialist.
Unlike in warfare, where one can hold the line against barbarians until the hordes expire, ideas have an eternal life of their own, and are thus immune to the earthly tactics of hand-to-hand combat among flesh-and-blood foot soldiers. If one seeks to defend one’s ideals against an opponent, rather than advance them, one is already politically dead.
The intransigence of socialist thinking is familiar to all those who have engaged in serious discussions on the merits and flaws of socialism with a dedicated adherent. The peculiar manner of thinking typical of the fully indoctrinated, or in more generous terms, committed socialist can best be described as opaque; it is closed to the particular counter-factuals one might offer up to erode his unwavering faith. The socialist beats down all objections to his ideology that are based on facts, reason, evidence, and history; he is what one might call a true believer, because he is avowedly pursuing a vision of the future, and as such, is rejecting the entire past. To refute a socialist based on particular facts is futile; it would be like arguing with a Christian about the imperfections of earth to demonstrate the flaws of heaven and God‘s divine plan.
There is one single best explanation for the intractable nature of the socialist, whether one is speaking of the Marxist or the more Hegelian-influenced Neomarxist: his faith in the ultimate triumph of socialism. Though Kant played a key role in forming the consciousness of the modern radical by way of dislodging reason from reality and enunciating his ethic of the categorical imperative, it is Hegel who gave religious expression to the dialectical-historical process of change. Hegel imbued teleology into his explanation of historical change, exalting the god he named Reason; and he thereby gave social science the aura of prophecy, and social scientists adopted the sub-culture of a hermetical caste. The important point is that self-described progressives always perceive themselves as advancing forward in history, while conservatives are always trying to defend the past from their supposed “advance.”
The parlance of American politics is fraught with the lexicon of the eventual triumph of progressivism, and if we are to read Hegel rather than Marx, the victory of the State over the Individual (or at least their non-differentiation). Those Americans who believe in the vision of individual liberty are ubiquitously referred to as “conservatives,” as if their ideological victory had been won with the vanquishing of the British.
Thus, the inherently emancipatory doctrines of the nation’s founders are stripped of their weight, and denied subsequent victories in the liberation of the citizenry. Conservatives are charged by virtue of their own lexicon with being rearguards of a mythologized past, one inherently more enlightened than the real-world, and thus decadent, present day. At times, conservatives may be said to be fighting to preserve their garden of Eden from corruption, while progressives are fighting to usher in a new one.
Therefore, for the “progressive,” all evidence of the imperfections of America are damning evidence that the nation was not a utopia, as conservatives are perceived to imagine, and indeed, was corrupt from the onset. According to the progressive narrative, therefore, women and minorities were liberated by progressive-minded Americans from the patriarchal and bigoted society of the founding, rather than the founding being the launching of a new adventure, whose fundamental underpinning of individual liberty would drive out iniquity and oppression if pursued, and not merely preserved, by the citizenry.
Further exacerbating the linguistic veiling of the significance of America’s founding are the religious overtones generally ascribed to the event by self-described conservatives. America was founded in religious freedom, and thus it accorded all Christians, and non-Christians, the right to worship as their consciences saw fit. This point must be acknowledged by Christians or there is no point in proceeding with the American experiment. The reason is simple, but extremely important: America’s founding is a political plan to bring about liberation in this world, and not in the next.
In no way is this arguing that the American founding is not compatible with Christianity; it most certainly is. For as Thomas Aquinas pointed out, God gave man free will, and therefore, each man is accountable to God for what he does with that free will. But the truth of this natural liberty neither sets man above the law of the world, nor the state above man, nor the state above God.
The reason for the religious digression is to illuminate how the progressives have the force of fervor on their side. American progressives have a vision of a future they desperately crave to bring about, the mindset of missionaries whose adversaries are inherently corrupt and mentally trapped in a decaying, oppressive past; and an atheistic or nihilistic vacuum in their hearts that is filled up by a personal mission “greater than themselves.” This mission trumps all, and they are the servants of it. Individual liberty is therefore anathema to everything they stand for; indeed, it is a threat to their mental integrity, as well as their identity.
The rise of the state is fueled by selfless individuals like a furnace in hell is fed with souls. It is no accident of history that metaphysical sacrifice is soon followed by actual sacrifice – as Ayn Rand brilliantly expounds upon in her works. Once one abandons oneself to alien or external forces, whether leaders of cult status, impersonal forces of history, religious sects, or collectivist mass movements like radical environmentalism, one’s mind is malleable, and susceptible to falling in with a mob mentality.
Crucial to dissipating this triumphalism of American progressivism, and thus depriving it of its infernal force in the minds of true believers, is to demonstrate that the ideals that animate it are far from new; and in fact, are neither liberating, nor egalitarian. This is not the same as refuting their ideal world with real-world facts. It is refuting their ideal world with ideology.
To argue with a communist about the flaws of Stalinism, for example, will simply provoke the response that the tyrant did not “do it right,” was not a true Marxist, or that Trotsky was right, and so forth. What is more effective is to show the ideological underpinnings of modern American progressivism and expose their roots in primitive societies, the ancient world, the Dark Ages, Christian culture, or otherwise, the pre-modern world. In order to be effective, this must be done explicitly, as Igor Shafarevich does in The Socialist Phenomenon. Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Politics are excellent sources for examining the ancient sources of modern progressive ideals, and their refutations.
What we are concerned with is to deprive the particular manifestation of American progressivism of its mantle of “progress.” This would be akin to sucking the oxygen out of a raging fire. Some attempts have been made by conservatives to do this by labeling progressives as “regressives,” or by showing how such illustrative values as environmentalism lead to an eroding of civilization. Ayn Rand, for one, demonstrates the primeval essence of American progressivism in her collection of essays entitled, The Return of the Primitive.
What is crucial is to show that history teaches that nothing is inevitable, and there is no final triumph of one belief-system over another. What we have on earth are human beings – flawed, self-interested, possessing free will. Indeed, both Marxist-Leninism, and various strains of Neomarxism, betray as much by making it incumbent to “take action” to bring about the revolution that Marxists had once claimed was “inevitable.” And if a cadre of politicians appear on the scene speaking the language of “inevitability,” we must immediately be alerted that they are making an inherently fanatical argument designed to prevent people from challenging their ideology’s fundamental assumptions.
The values and methodology of the American left, and its vanguard, the Democrat Party, are such that their close parallels to known causes of revolution make them immediately fall under suspicion that they are deliberately fomenting revolution for the sake of revolution; and as such are not a legitimate political party or mass movement pursuing the best interests of the country, but rather are subverters seeking to enthrone themselves atop a new and more oppressive political order.
So when we speak of the fervor of American progressives, we are addressing the movement’s foot soldiers, and not its grand architects, who may be motivated by extremely cynical points of view like Saul Alinsky’s “radical pragmatism.” In order to radicalize the left’s next generation of leaders, Alinsky indeed chides them of their utopian, millenarian visions by stating, “Remember we are talking about revolution, not revelation.” For Alinsky, the means and ends of political action appear to be power; and the current American president considers himself a devotee of this diabolical thinker.
Thus, our summary conclusions are two-fold. In our own regard, as those who value individual liberty, and who seek to implement it as our government’s animating philosophy, we must self-consciously cease the passivity of believing we are the “preservers,” “defenders,” “conservers,” or “consecrators” of the past, and we are rather the living, acting banner-holders and wielders of our founders’ vision, yet to be instilled on earth, and leading a charge towards our political adversaries. We are not defending anything, we are attacking the flawed bases of our opponents’ ideology with reason, facts, evidence, history and truth, yes, but also with philosophy. Implemental in this endeavor is to cease appeal to religious argument in order to justify our views; we need only appeal to religious freedom, which follows from the value of individual liberty. In addition, we are seeking a real-world political system, not a paradisical afterlife.
Secondly, we must deprive our enemies of the succor that their immoral actions are in the interest of pursuing some inevitable “greater good”; their immorality is just that. What is moral to do to human beings in the particular, is moral in the universal. If we want to eliminate human suffering in the universal, we must refrain from causing human suffering in the particular. Causing destruction and harm are not guarantors of sweeping away “an old system,” and replacing it with a new, better system.
Indeed, the replacement of one set of flawed human beings with another set of flawed human beings is no guarantor of progress, and no permanent safeguard of any imagined utopia. The United States Constitution was drafted with an understanding of both the inherently flawed nature of man and the delicacy of ordered liberty; and though reverence for the document may have bought the American people time, its underlying values will wither on the vine without ample watering, and the fruits of liberty will be lost. Only by exercising our free will and taking action to advance our common cause will we be able to shape the malleable and unsettled future.
The Founders are dead, but their ideals live on. But if we do not propagate their ideals with the same force and urgency as they did, the values of individual liberty and free market capitalism will die, and the American experiment along with it. We do not merely exist for the benefit of the state. We are alive, and our liberty is our lives!