How well the forces imposing uniformity have done their work in the political sphere may be seen by examining those Americans who are called and who call themselves conservatives. Traditional conservatism, as it originally appeared in Europe, displayed certain distinctive characteristics: a reverence for what had been inherited from the past and an aversion to changing it; a respect for authority and a reluctance to challenge it; a mood of caution, of wanting to preserve what one had rather than to strive for something new. As might be surmised, these qualities do not agree with the temperament of Americans. In fact, if one listens to those on the right who are prominent in American political life, one will hear something that is much different from conservatism in its traditional form.
in effect, more
fools and knaves
to go astray.
Ronald Reagan, their most celebrated recent leader, continually reassured his audiences that America was experiencing constant and unlimited change for the better. One of his favorite quotations came from that grand old radical and revolutionary Thomas Paine, who wanted to discard the past and put something new in its place: “We have it within our power to begin the world over again.” Other politicians on the right have taken a similar stance, bragging about improvements and innovations, especially technological ones, and promising the public a future that will give them more choices.
A traditional conservative does not want more choices (in effect, more opportunities for fools and knaves to go astray). He wants what his forefathers had already demonstrated to be good, even the best, and what subsequent generations should accept with gratitude and contentment. This does not suit Americans, including Americans who sport the conservative label, nor has it in the past. In the 1830s, a German immigrant opined that the English must be puzzled by Americans applying the word “conservative” to themselves, since they were not interested in preserving what they had but in acquiring more, and since they ignored the past in preference for hopes of the future.
If such are the attitudes and opinions of Americans on the right, one might ask what distinguishes them from Americans on the left. Both sides share an allegiance to the ideal of individualism and the ethos of egalitarianism, including an appetite for innovation and optimism, which these values involve. Where the two differ lies chiefly in what each thinks are the proper means for attaining their common objectives. Conservatives champion the free market, with as little government interference as possible. Their doctrine is economic individualism, and their hero is the independent entrepreneur, discovering new and better ways of doing things and inventing new and better products, thereby benefiting his fellow countrymen at the same time as he acquires personal wealth.
This was the dominant ideal of nineteenth-century America, and by European standards of the day it was not conservative at all but liberal, even radical. It was, after all, the ideology behind Jacksonian democracy. More than one social historian has pointed out that what is today called conservatism in the United States used to be liberalism in the world of one-and-a-half centuries ago. As such, it has much more in common with modern American liberalism than it has with traditional European conservatism
How can people who call
love their country if they
hate its government?
Tocqueville spoke of traditional societies as having forged a chain that linked the people of the present with those of the past. Because things changed slowly and children usually assumed the situations of their parents, the living could feel a continuity between themselves and the dead, extending back even to remote ancestors. The conditions of American life broke this chain and severed every link, and they continue to do so. The entrepreneur, along with his big brother the capitalist, has assisted mightily in the process. He is indifferent toward heritage, rooted communities, or anything from the past. All he cares about is developing new enterprises. If these result in change that damages old ways of living, it does not bother him. In fact, he likes to think of himself as a liberator, freeing people from the restrictions of inherited customs, rules, and hierarchies.
By celebrating capitalism in general and entrepreneurs in particular, the American conservative is promoting something that works against traditional conservatism. And this is not the only instance of such behavior on the right. The elderly would seem to be a natural constituency of conservatives. Having lost the naive idealism of youth, they are the one segment of the population least likely to succumb to the blandishments of the left or specifically to the appeal of liberals in the Democratic Party. Yet the Republican Party does little to attract them. Instead, it tries to reduce their Social Security pensions. The American conservative is not interested in a constituency of slow, sour senior citizens. Like the liberals and everyone else in the country, he wants to ally himself with youth and its dynamism, innovation, and productivity.
The same is true of environmentalism. One might think that this would naturally be a conservative cause—preserving the world as God made it and opposing changes created by modern man. But once again, it is not so. Protecting endangered wildlife and safeguarding the beauties of wilderness are not on the agenda of American conservatives or the Republican Party. They want to develop the wilderness for human use (and make millions for themselves in the process). They strenuously proclaim the cause of progress, in opposition to those whom they regard as perverse cranks and fanatics—people who would bring it all to a halt for the sake of some small, unattractive species and its habitat of sterile desert or fetid swamp.
Heritage from the past is not the only feature of traditional conservatism that fails to appeal to American conservatives. Tocqueville spoke of a chain that linked all the members of society in a line of authority “from the peasant to the king.” Each class or order in this hierarchy had its own specific rights, privileges, and duties. Each recognized and, when necessary, defended those of the others above and below it, seeing in their permanence and security the protection and guarantee of its own. Once again, the conditions of American life broke the chain and severed every link. Motivated by the hopes of social mobility and the attitudes of egalitarianism, Americans, including Americans on the right, have no reverence for and little patience with established customs and inherited status.
A favorite word
The conservatives of Europe have long allied themselves with the power, stability, and paternalism of government. American conservatives do not celebrate these things. Government is their archenemy, so much so that one or two social commentators with the temperament of traditional conservatives have spoken against the unrestrained antagonism of their comrades in arms: How can people who call themselves conservatives love their country, if they hate its government?
Like government, large corporations are attractive to the European but not to the American conservative, at least in theory. The former admires their collective strength and solidity, which is just what repels the latter, who applauds the entrepreneur as a lone individualist. In a similar way, American conservatives are suspicious of the professions. In contrast to entrepreneurs, whose success appears to have been won in the open competition of the public marketplace, professionals make their way in a world of select bodies, inscrutable influence, esoteric criteria, and recondite prestige.
Like Americans in general, American conservatives are suspicious of anything that claims to be above the understanding or taste of ordinary people, and they are quick to accuse their enemies of snobbish pretensions. In 2004, one of their advocacy groups stigmatized the supporters of the Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean as “latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New-York-Times-reading.” A favorite word of conservative condemnation is “elite.” Rush Limbaugh, the most prominent right-wing talk-show host in the United States, regularly decries elites of all kinds, not just “the liberal media elite,” but “so-called professionals and experts,” such as “the medical elites, the sociology elites, the education elites, the legal elites, the science elites.”
This stance of ferocious populism should not be surprising, since the rank and file of American conservatism is filled with parvenus and, far more numerous, would-be parvenus, who bristle with resentment at any hint of social or cultural superiority. I recall the fuss they made, including speeches on the floor of Congress, over the National Endowment for the Arts awarding $750 for a poem that contained just one word (“Lighght” (1969) by Aram Saroyan). Given the ordinary scale of government graft and waste, the mere sum of $750 does not deserve even a passing growl. But the promotion of arts and culture—a proud feature of European conservatism—is a subject that especially arouses the egalitarian ire of American conservatives and brings out their inveterate philistinism.
talking, and acting
very much like
Far from attempting to imitate the heritage, exclusivity, cautiousness, and sophistication of Europeans, American conservatism has been doing its utmost to appear typically American, celebrating the new, open, energetic, and democratic. George Gilder, a prominent author on the right and an interminable panegyrist of entrepreneurs and the free market, composed a paean to the motley crowd of workers who flocked to the high-tech opportunities of California’s Silicon Valley during the 1980s: “Immigrants and outcasts, street toughs and science wonks, nerds and boffins, the bearded and the beer-bellied, the tacky and uptight, and sometimes weird....” It reads like an updated and animated revision of the lines that were written during the 1880s and inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty (“Huddled masses yearning to breathe free...the wretched refuse of your teeming shore”). And Gilder topped it off with a sneering description of the New York Times reporter who reacted with disdain at the demotic scene.
There is, in sum, very little of the actual conservative (i.e. the preservationist) in all the things currently being called by that name in the United States. A few fastidious writers, I understand, find the phrase “American conservative” to be such a contradiction in terms that they use only the words “right-winger” or “rightist” in referring to the phenomenon. Unquestionably, anyone who goes searching for traditional conservatism in the United States is bound to end in disappointment and frustration, as did the journalist Florence King, who in 2000 wrote an entertaining account of her lifelong futile search for an “elitist conservatism.”
The important thing to understand and appreciate is the irresistible power of American uniformity. Just as it has taken over and transformed the traditional dogma of religion, so has it taken hold of something as alien and uncongenial as traditional conservatism and shaped it to serve its own purposes, with the result that America’s so-called conservatives have emerged thinking, talking, and acting very much like other Americans.