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Yet a funny thing has happened this primary season. Conservative voters have not followed their conservative leaders. Conservative voters are much more diverse than the image you’d get from conservative officialdom.
The intense reaction against Huckabee in particular seems to show an inability among movement leaders to accommodate the diversity of the political coalition with which they have allied themselves. Dissident conservatives from the right have long complained of the tendency to over-identify the conservative movement and the GOP, and in this election cycle we have seen a continuation of this, albeit somewhat in reverse. The identification between the party and the movement institutions has become so complete that the institutional movement leaders react against candidates in the GOP primaries as if the eventual Republican nominee were the de facto leader of the movement as well. A fairly strict, meaningful definition of conservatism would not be a problem if it were not considered an absolute requirement that every major elected Republican describe himself as a conservative. Currently the GOP voting coalition is arguably much less conservative, by the standards of what that term meant in 1980, than it was just ten years ago, and yet far more Republicans describe themselves with this term than was the case just a decade ago. This does not represent the triumph of conservative principles so much as it represents the dilution of the term’s meaning. The name has become a marker and proof of your right to belong, but it has consequently become much less significant. We are currently experiencing the confusion that inevitably follows the overuse of a term that empties it of all meaning.
Movement leaders have some significant, legitimate objections to the records of Huckabee and McCain, many of which I happen to share, but they have opted to treat them as they have treated rightist dissident conservatives in the past: they do not simply reject this or that policy position for certain reasons, but take the departure from an official line as proof that a person is not just possibly mistaken on policy but must also be excluded from the realm of conservatism all together for raising the question in the first place. At the very least, this response makes a mockery of the pretensions that Republicans and establishment conservatives entertain and value intellectual diversity. Very little creative or valuable thinking can be done if conservatives are constantly made to feel as if any unconventional proposal threatens to dynamite the entire movement and endangers the proposal’s author with exclusion. If the conservative movement is not going to be an appendage of the GOP in the future, its leaders will need to recognise that the outcome of the Republican nomination contest does not have to define the future of the movement, and that the movement’s support for a given Republican administration is not foreordained or guaranteed. That, in turn, may yield some better results on policu, since it makes it harder for the party to take movement support or acquiescence for granted.
If conservatives allow their priorities to be dictated by transient political needs of the GOP, they will find themselves increasingly dissatisfied with the direction of their movement and will also find themselves incapable of having an independent voice that will have credibility when it speaks out against Republican follies and failures. Without that independence, they will find themselves, as they do today, complicit in the errors of the party and unable to do much about them. This independence from the party cannot simply be rhetorical or a scapegoating tactic when things go wrong, but must be a consistent strategy of keeping a healthy distance from a party organisation that may have common goals in certain cases but which has its own interests that do not always align with those of conservatives. If conservatives took that path, there would be much less anxiety every four years about the dangers of “redefining conservatism” for political ends. An important step in the direction of independence would be the decentralisation of conservative movement institutions away from Washington and the East Coast. As with every kind of decentralist approach, this would make conservative institutions better aware of different conditions around the country, it would reintroduce them to local and regional perspectives and would remove them to some degree from the proximity to and influence from party leadership. Perhaps most importantly, instead of developing think tanks and institutes focused on national policy there would be a greater focus on local and regional concerns, which would of necessity eschew the sort of homogenised, uniform responses on matters of policy, and it would allow the kind of flexibility and ability to challenge assumptions. This decentralisation of the movement would then also give the movement greater incentives to pursue and defend actual political and economic decentralisation, so that they would have a practical reason to advocate devolution of power back to states and localities. When movement institutions have no concrete interest in devolution and localism, they will tend towards acquiescing in centralist policies that are ostensibly pursued for “conservative ends,” but which everything we know about consolidated power tells us will not achieve those ends and will actively subvert the natural affinities and remaining local institutions that are actually much more fundamental to realising those “conservative ends.”
Ross follows up on the debate over his latest Atlantic piece on future Democratic electoral prospects, and he explains quite clearly what he means by populism and how his reform ideas relate to it. I think Ross’ analysis of electoral trends makes sense, which is why I wrote in defense of it. However, I am actually sympathetic to those, such as Will Wilkinson, who do not like the substance of the policy proposals endorsed by economic populists, as I do not care for many of them myself. I disagree with some libertarian critics of this populism, to the extent that they even allow that it actually exists, concerning some specific areas of policy and more general assumptions about the legitimacy of the claims of national sovereignty and national interest. While I have some right-populist inclinations in matters of trade and immigration and I have a very old-fashioned Bolingbrokean-Jeffersonian hostility to concetrated wealth and power, which makes for some common anti-corporate ground with more conventional left-populists, in practice I am not that much of a populist. You will not see me voting for Edwards-style populism or “compassionate” conservatism or “Sam’s Club Republicanism” now or ever. For that matter, I neither shop at Sam’s Club, nor am I a Republican, so that makes me a pretty unlikely supporter of this sort of politics, since I rather rather regard the former as a symptom of moral and economic disorder and regard the latter as, well, not my favourite organisation. Yet I still do recognise that there are people who might just go for such reformism, and these really are the sorts of people the GOP needs to win over and keep if it wants to remain competitive going forward.
As I have made abundantly clear over the years, I am a small-government constitutionalist and a Ron Paul man, which puts me in a fairly small group. (I am also very sympathetic to corporatist ideas of solidarity and a conservationist ethic, which may put me in an even smaller subset of this group.) Despite an appreciation for some of the aspects of corporatism, the kind of economic intervention by the state on offer these days leaves me completely cold. (Non-intervention is very often the wise course, in foreign policy as in domestic affairs.) However, my preferences do not really give me the luxury to pretend that people in this country are not looking for some sort of intervention by the state in the field of health care, because they plainly are. You hear this anecdotally from friends and colleagues, and you see it backed up in polling. The desire is there, and the main dispute seems to be over whether you have a mostly state-run or a more state capitalist-run program. Mike Huckabee talks vaguely about having a solution that involves none of the above, but he is typically blissfully free of specifics when he says this. (Based on anecdotal impressions, I would say that young, educated professionals might be even more worried about health care than many other groups, but I wouldn’t press that too far.) These people are acting on the assumption that the U.S. government is “their” government (if only!) and that it exists to provide them with certain things they need, or at the very least to provide them with the “opportunity” to acquire what they need.
At this point, someone usually says something saccharine about empowerment, which is usually where they finally lose me, since it is never the government’s role to empower its citizens. This idea of government empowering people is the root of all swindles. Indeed, citizens’ power stands in an inverse relationship with that of the government,and the government never “gives back” the power it has taken. The more “empowerment” we have, the more servility we have. This is naturally not a popular view (for confirmation, see the political history of the 20th century or just the 1964 presidential election), and it is not one that is normally associated with populism, though I think a case could be made that it is the ultimate populist view, insofar as it is one that places the best interests of the people ahead of popular enthusiasms. It is the view most consonant with a decentralist understanding of political liberty, and such an arrangement would ultimately be far better for the common good, a humane, sane way of life and the flourishing of more self-supporting communities.
As George Grant observed forty years ago, though, political decentralisation without economic decentralisation is simply submission to corporate oligarchy, which I think he regarded as worse than a living Hell (in which case, he would have been too generous). Consequently, he was known as the “Red Tory” for his harsh criticism of the dissolving acid that capitalism and technology poured on social bonds. Also, the Loyalist and Anglo-Canadian Conservative tradition never knew the reflexive hostility to state action that our political tradition initially did, and strangely enough Canada now enjoys more effective decentralisation in certain respects than we do (even though it also has more in the way of government services).
All of this got me to thinking about how strange it is that the Democrats have become the party of the economic populists, since they have historically been the less nationalist of the two parties and appear to be in no danger of changing, yet this kind of populism almost always goes with a strong dose of nationalism. Most economic populist complaints today focus on a few general areas: free trade, the effects of globalisation (e.g., outsourcing, etc.), related government favouritism for corporate interests and immigration. The Washington-New York political elite is largely in agreement that free trade, globalisation, state capitalism and mass immigration are fundamentally desirable. There may be disagreements about how to manage them, but there is only minority support for rejecting or opposing any of them on a large scale. (This is still true in the current presidential fields.) You would expect the historic party of labour to be more concerned about immigration, but as chance would have it, they are also the historic party of immigrants. You would expect the more nationalist party to be more skeptical of free trade and globalisation, but they are also the party of corporations. On each issue where populists might gain traction, the party leadership has tended to reject the populist position and endorse the globalist one, because their true corporate masters desire it. This remains true. What is striking today is the extent to which Democratic candidates are willing to buck corporate America at least a little when it comes to free trade, which suggests that the populist critique of free trade and globalisation, which was smothered during the incredibly boring, issue-free 2000 election, might break through this time and cause a change in the political landscape.
To Beck, that trip to hell does not stop with our politicians. It is societal.
“Too many people are concerned about their party, too many people are concerned about their labor union, and too many people are concerned about their own business,” he says. “You see it with your own children in school, where you see a child that has been misbehaving and they’re called on the carpet, and the parent immediately says, ‘Not my child!’ It is because it’s no longer about the collective; it’s about ‘me.’ ~Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Well, actually, the abdication of parental responsibility and the cult of indulging spoiled children are entirely separate from being principally concerned with your party, your labour union or your business. The attitude behind abandoning responsibility and forsaking discipline for children is ultimately one of accepting dependency on someone or something else that will provide the constraints and discipline so sorely lacking in your own world. That attitude is self-serving, which is not quite the same as minding your own business. The former would very much like others to do things for him without his having to do anything for them. Such self-indulgence and individualism are rather products of a breakdown of strong attachments to the numerous institutions of local life, be it the company, the union, the church, etc. There is no sense of broader social responsibility because there is actually very little attachment to the institutions that form the web of relationships that maintain social solidarity. The problem is not that too many people are too concerned with “their party” or “their labour union,” but that more and more people do not attach themselves to anything beyond their own self-interest. They do this because they perceive that they have no need for these institutions, and so are indifferent to their conservation and have little interest in their renewal. What these institutions may have once provided or still do provide, such individualists are only too glad to receive from the state or a megacorp, which in turn reinforces the degrading dependency of these people on the state or the megacorp or both. The surest road to a real and destructive collectivism is this preoccupation with self-interest combined with Beck’s hostility to the attachments and loyalties people have at a more immediate, personal level.
Concern with one’s own business is normally associated with the necessary responsibility to attend to that business successfully. Normal people are concerned mainly with the things most closely related to them, and those are the things that should have priority in their lives. If everyone were preoccupied with someone else’s business, someone else’s labour union and someone else’s party, we would indeed have a “collective,” but it would be of a stifling, oppressive sort. To some extent, we are already plagued by the need to meddle and to fix the other fellow’s problems rather than tending to our own affairs. This disorder expresses itself in different forms in our society. There are the people who feel compelled to “do something” about Terri Schiavo, there are the Save Darfur folks, and there are legions and legions of people with an activist frame of mind just like them. There is a drive at the heart of it that may well be that old freethinkers’ impulse to make everyone else just as “free” as you are. This concern for others is so obsessive and overwhelming that it obliterates all concern for restraint and limits.
My copy of Joseph Pearce’s Small Is Still Beautiful: Economics As If Families Mattered arrived today, and I look forward to digging into it over the weekend (Nativity services permitting) and being prepared to join, albeit from afar, the conversation that will be beginning next Monday at the blog.
From an E.F. Schumacher quote cited at the start of Chapter I:
If an activity has been branded as uneconomic, its right to existence is not merely questioned but energetically denied. Anything that is found to be an impediment to economic growth is a shameful thing, and if people cling to it, they are thought of as either saboteurs or fools. Call a thing immoral or ugly, soul-destroying or a degradation of man, a peril to the peace of the world or to the well-being of future generations; as long as you have not shown it to be “uneconomic” you have not really questioned its right to exist, grow, and prosper.
Schumacher, along with that other great subsidiarist, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, championed the idea of self-limitation. This necessary virtue for a healthy economy, a healthy culture and a healthy environment, is enshrined in the everyday realities of family life. Families teach us to be selfless and to sacrifice ourselves for others. It is these very virtues that are necessary for the practice of the economic and political virtues so sadly absent from our ailing and deteriorating world.
The increasing atomisation of society in the direction of self-centred individualism not only undermines the family but undermines the present and future health of the economy and the environment. The elevation of so-called “rights” over responsibilities has further accentuated the rise (preceding the fall) of heedless hedonism with its rampant consumption of the world’s resources.
In short, therefore, and to conclude these opening remarks, all true economics begins with the Family and ends with the Family. Small is still beautiful because families still matter! ~Joseph Pearce
Schumacher’s greatest achievement was the fusion of ancient wisdom and modern economics in a language that encapsulated contemporary doubts and fears about the industrialized world. The wisdom of the ages, the perennial truths that have guided humanity throughout its history, serves as a constant reminder to each new generation of the limits to human ambition. But if this wisdom is a warning, it is also a battle cry. Schumacher saw that we needed to relearn the beauty of smallness, of human-scale technology and environments. It was no coincidence that his book was subtitled Economics as if People Mattered.
Joseph Pearce revisits Schumacher’s arguments and examines the multifarious ways in which Schumacher’s ideas themselves still matter. Faced though we are with fearful new technological possibilities and the continued centralization of power in large governmental and economic structures, there is still the possibility of pursuing a saner and more sustainable vision for humanity. Bigger is not always best, Pearce reminds us, and small is still beautiful. ~Description of Joseph Pearce’s Small Is Still Beautiful.
Clark Stooksbury, Jeremy Beer and (I suspect) many others familiar to us all from our Crunchy Cons and Look Homeward, America adventures earlier in the year will be assembling next month for the group blog about Mr. Pearce’s new book, whose name it bears: Small Is Still Beautiful.
The first limit we require is a geographical human limit to the interchangeability of identity. Individuals must reclaim coherent narratives of living, working, doing, and being, and master as close to a single self as may be afforded in a world which rewards parody, self-caricature, reinvention, and Protean Pelagianism. And groups of like-souled people — no, this is not a feint at predestination; I mean people who can more than stand to be around each other, can trust each others’ psyches — must be allowed to maintain geographically contiguous regions of local co-population. This is not a political program except insofar as it sets itself culturally against a political program. Probably only by the power of politics — that is, the acquisition and deployment of the monopoly on force — can cultural locality be succesfully destroyed. In so doing it applies political means to what are assuredly non-political ends: the first hallmark of the abuse of justice. ~James Poulos
The need for limits is paramount. Limits serve to provide the coherence Mr. Poulos mentions. Limits define what is our own, thus telling us what our business is that we should mind before anything else. Cultivating homonoia, that oneness of mind of the “like-souled people,” inside those limits is the beginning of introducing some modicum of good order into the relations of the community.
It is enough to make one pine for the forces of Reaction. But is John Gray right that we live in irrevocably cosmopolitan times? That diversity has penetrated too deep to be reverted? That the hope for an Old Right-style unitary civilization is as foolish as the hope for a Neocon unitary civilization, a Neolib unitary civilization, or a Commie unitary civilization? Yes, as far as it goes — but Gray seems to miss out on the central truth of paleocon thought, and really conservative thought generally in the United States, which is: national monoculturalism was never the objective, never even a desire. That impulse for cultural absolutism in America was a purely Yankee phenomenon, and New England succeeded largely in Yankifying enough of the USA to establish a powerful cultural hegemony. Southerners and Westerners, on the other hand, fit into two general groups: one wanted to be left alone at some sub-cultural level (me, my family, my township) whereas the other wanted to be left to its own devices at the cultural level (Southern imperialists, Mormons, cotton interests, etc.). It should be clear that cultural imperialism aiming outside the United States, in the Southern style, is not to be cheered for or excused instead of internal cultural imperialism in the Northern style. But the brilliant point of the American Revolution was that a regime could be gotten out from under without overturning it; secession suggested that revolutions, as they had forever been known, were unnecessary. To get what I wanted I didn’t need to install myself Head Despot in Paris. I just had to quit the country. And this was okay — because I didn’t want absolute rule over the nation. I didn’t care about commanding the political and social and cultural lives of the People. I wanted my own portion of world, with those who lived and worked as I did. ~James Poulos
Mr. Poulos joins in the ever-widening circle (okay, so there are five of us now) debating Austin Bramwell’s recent TAC article on the state of conservatism and the merits of “ancestral loyalties” and the paleo and traditional conservative appeals to such natural affinities and attachments as central elements of what we are trying to conserve. Closely related to this debate was the friendly scuffle Peter Suderman and I had a little while ago about “lifestyle conservatism”.
In the post cited above, I believe Mr. Poulos understands the paleocon position as well as any non-paleo ever has. This is encouraging in and of itself. As I understand it, this respect for regional and local diversity he mentions has been centered around two basic ideas: first, that it is far better to mind our own business and tend to the affairs of those around us, and, second, that complex and historically evolved social institutions and customs will never naturally fit a pre-determined uniform pattern or national standard and attempts to make them fit will do untold violence to the health of a society. What is euphemistically called rationalisation is, like any appeal to equality, an appeal to coercion and the forcible uniforming of the rich variety of life. Yankification (the word itself sounds painful) is such an appeal to coercion on the cultural plane, the desire to make everyone think in the same “freethinking way” that they do (as the Missouri planter in Ride With The Devil put it so well) “without regard for station, or stature, or custom, or propriety.” With the Freisinnigen and Red Republicans’ assaults on these hallmarks of civilised society, there can be no compromise. The objection here is not to coercion per se, which will and must exist to some degree in a fallen world, but to the leveling and straightening of the developer and the centralist who would reduce the fine texture and lush growth of a vibrant social world to the grey goo of homogeneity.
Before he gets to the part of his post quoted above, however, Mr. Poulos first frames the debate over ancestral loyalties with what are some of the central questions in that debate:
Basically the battle line is this: are paleoconservatives, with their God, grass, and genes position on the crucial function of religiosity and locality and family in the maintenance of social order, fools for a primitivist approach to human life that betrays enlightened (yes, loaded word) conservatism? Wouldn’t life be severely retarded if American society actually undertook the paleocon program? Haven’t the old myths of the loving-and-sacrosanct family and the loving-and-sacrosanct community been burst by decades and even centuries of internecine conflict of the most petty yet deep-seated sort? Hasn’t the noble skepticism of that other conservative tradition worked to beat back the oppressive power of clerisy and establish unitary yet benevolent national government and inspired rugged individualists to set out on their own and make what world they may?
The answer, as usual, is yes-but.
These questions reveal a fascinating, if somewhat annoying, divide among conservatives. Let us begin with the last question and move back up the list, starting with the idea of the “unitary but benevolent national government.” Benevolence is to some degree in the eye of the beholder. A despotic government can be well-intentioned and can have good desires for its subjects, which does not mean that the attempt to bring these desires to fruition will do anything good for those subjects. Besides, if we could trust that a unitary state would always remain benevolent, no one would have any reason to fear consolidation of power in a few hands; if the process of consolidation itself did not pervert and corrupt a government towards a certain unavoidable malevolence, no one would have ever complained about absolutism or usurpation.
It might also be the case that a government might be benevolent to most, but rather wickedly brutal to a minority of those it claims to be under its jurisdiction (for instance, the Ottoman treatment of Armenians and Assyrians), or it might be benevolent to a narrow minority and cruel to the bulk of the population (e.g., the favouritism of all previous Iraqi regimes shown to Sunnis at the expense of other communities). It has rarely, if ever, been the case that a government has been ”unitary” and also “benevolent” to all its charges. Many unitary governments begin as the projection of power of one polity or a group of polities over others; others represent the perversion of a confederation into a consolidated state. The kingdom or the states responsible for inaugurating the process of unification are always the overwhelming beneficiaries of that process (indeed, one of the main reasons for the struggle for unification is usually to secure such benefits), and those compelled to join or forced to remain are invariably the big losers in this process, sowing a basic structural and political injustice into the fabric of the “unitary but benevolent national government” against which the people of the losing states or kingdoms will always chafe and which they will always resent for as long as they remember something of the old arrangement.
Then there is the claim about the government being
“national.” It is difficult to have a unitary national government without nationalism, since a national government, which will allegedly embody and express the national will, is usually one of the first goals of any nationalist and where these nation-states appear nationalists are always behind them. Nationalist myths, including our own, have always played up as noble and progressive the drive for unification as the realisation and fulfillment of the national potential. This realisation is being held back and retarded, the nationalist might say, by the petty squabbles of different jurisdictions and the provincial interests of hidebound aristocrats. In our case, the myth has been a story of moral as well as political and economic progress, a very Whiggish story that reassures us that every destroyed Southern town, every obliterated Indian tribe and every wrecked Filipino village have gone down to destruction for the sake of a greater good. First the devastation, then, eventually, the benevolence. In the German case, unification was driven by the desire to finally overcome the structural and political impediments to effective cooperation and mobilisation of resources that routinely prevented German states from being able to compete effectively against foreign adversaries (and even after unification, because the Reich was mostly consolidated by coordinated war efforts against non-Germans, the federal structure of the Reich continued to make it relatively unwieldy in comparison to the more highly centralised powers of Britain and France). In the Italian case, it was the toxic mix of liberal idealism and dynastic ambition that laid southern Italy and Sicily to waste and planted a deep divide at the heart of the Kingdom, which festers in some form to this day in the Republic. These are the most familiar examples of unification, but I imagine more could be found.
Looking back to more ancient history, Chinese nationalists have admired Shih-huang-di for welding together the last seven kingdoms at the end of the Warring States period and creating the core of what they know to be Zhongguo. The Emperor and the Assassin, one of the better Chinese dramas of recent years, portrays Zheng, the king of Qin, as sympathetically as he has probably ever been represented, showing him giving an emotional speech about protecting all of the people under heaven by bringing an end to the frequent wars between the several kingdoms. He means well! In the end, after much slaughter in the conquest of Zhou, we see the pitiable tyrant abandoned by his retainers and alone. The hero of the piece, as the title would suggest, was the man sent to kill him. This is a story I think a paleocon instinctively appreciates. Ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant. (Where they make a desert, they call it peace.) Such was the old response to the Shih-huang-dis of the world, put into the mouth of the Briton Calgacus by Tacitus. Our response is much the same.
Undoubtedly myths of “loving-and-sacrosanct” family and community have been burst asunder, but this was partly because these myths were put together and then reproduced at times when family and community were coming under immense strain and were cracking under the pressure. Before both began to dissolve and break down with greater frequency, there was no need to romanticise them and treat them as ideals to which we must return. No one who has ever been in a family needs to be reminded about the petty disputes and jealousies and inane rivalries that make up family life; were more Americans exposed to their extended families more often, they would experience still more of this. No one who has ever been in a small community for very long (I hesitate to speak of “tight-knit” communities, lest I be accused of reifying myths about some harmonious Mayberry-in-Elysium) imagines that it is necessarily where everyone loves one another in some great web of interdependent communion. To make a community or family lovely and loving, one must begin by loving it, which means first accepting it as it is while also seeing it with the eyes of a lover, which is necessarily to see it with a kind of distortion, if we are speaking “objectively.” But then people in relationships do not speak objectively about their relations and acquaintances–not if they want their relationships to succeed, anyway–since it is not usually considered terribly good form to objectify one’s relations and acquaintances.
Family and community should be “loving and sacrosanct,” if you will, but because of men’s flaws and fallenness they often are not. A certain realism tells us that we cannot expect to be rid of the foibles, pettiness, gossip, social cruelties and the little imperfections that go with living with other people in something like close relationship. With some of these things, we should probably acknowledge that they are unavoidable, endure them as best we can, do what we can not to participate in the worst of them and otherwise leave them be. What we should not do is what many of us would like to do, and what all of us are tempted to do, which is to give up on something because it imposes burdens on us and requires things of us that we are not always wanting to give. What we certainly not do is be satisfied with the ersatz community of the unitary consolidated nation when that nation can only acquire its fullest meaning for us through our local, state and regional attachments. Abiding in a community and in a family means living with all of the limitations these things impose on us, and it means accepting the hassles, frustrations and disappointments that can come with these things because they are vital to a full, sane and humane life.
If I might take a slight detour, parish church life provides an example of what I think a real community can be, what it can offer and also what it requires of us that, say, a megachurch or a large nondenominational church might not necessarily offer or require. The advantage of the nondenominational church or the megachurch is that, in many ways, it caters to the individual and allows the individual sufficient “space” and anonymity to take what he wants from the experience and leave the rest if he so chooses. Whether or not this is the design or the intention of those in charge of the church, this can often be the effect. This does not rule out the possibility of becoming more involved and more integrated into the life of that church, but in these churches it is much easier to avoid taking on a larger role. It is possible avoid such a role at a parish, but especially in smaller parishes it is impossible to have anonymity for very long at all. At the best parishes, the people there want you to be there, and they want you to become involved in the life of the church and before long you find yourself committing what you might have originally thought was considerable time to the parish that now seems like no time at all. A small community, such as a parish can be, inspires this response in people, because it is an eminently natural response. Meanwhile, attending a megachurch like that of Joel Osteen in the old Summit in Houston, surrounded by tens of thousands of others watching the show on the jumbotron (rather than, say, participating in the work of the people), may leave you with some inspirational sayings and may leave you with some good feelings, but it also leaves you fundamentally disconnected from everyone else there. It does not demand very much from you; the setting of Osteen’s services suggest that the entire experience is more one of spectacle and less one of worship. It does not make a call to kenosis, and consequently cannot offer the same fullness.
Finally, as Mr. Poulos said, we don’t care, or at least we don’t care very much, whether the entire nation lives exactly as we do, much less the entire world. (We do think that rooted, small-scale community life is the most sane and sustainable way of life, and it would benefit everyone to live in such a way, and we will argue strongly for this, but in the end we want to mind our own business and be allowed to mind our own business–it would therefore be best for us if everyone else were convinced that minding one’s own business was an important part of justice.) While we are far from unaware of or indifferent to the rest of the world, we do not go out in search of “broader canvasses” to paint. This tends to give the forces of consolidation the initiative and the advantage, but I can see no way for us to imitate most of their methods without abandoning who we are. Like the Missouri planter in Ride With The Devil, we might well say:
That’s when I realized that the Yankees will surely win, because they believe everyone must live and think just like them. We don’t want to make everyone be like us. We shall surely lose because we don’t care how other people live-we just take care of ourselves.
Perhaps because of this the Yankees will always win, but I see no reason why the rest of us should accept it or yield before the invaders.
Be on the lookout for for the new The American Conservative (11/20) (not yet online). In addition to my article, The Gospel According to Bush, Austin Bramwell delivers a powerful indictment of National Review’s post-9/11 foreign policy (or, rather, the lack of one) and neoconservative influence on the conservative movement, including this simple and accurate statement:
(National Review Online, which now far outshadows the magazine in influence, has become the world’s most prolific organ of neoconservative opinion.)
And again, a devastating line:
If Americans understood that soldiers were dying not to kill the bad guys but to prevent them from killing each other, Bush’s popularity would evaporate.
The piece is filled with simple but powerful insights such as these. But no one on the right will be happy with Mr. Bramwell’s diagnosis, for in it all conservatives are gravely ill of one error or another. No real respite for the dissident conservative, the traditionalist, the paleo or crunchy; according to Bramwell, we are all more or less complicit in different aspects of the farce of conservatism today. (I can’t quite go that far, but he often makes it difficult to disagree with his withering descriptions.) More than that, Bramwell likens “the movement” to an Orwellian dystopia. One can find points where his dismissal of all conservatives of every kind overreaches in some places, but 1984 serves as a shockingly good model for how much of the movement seems to work. Consider the Two Minute (or Five Day, depending on how you want count) Hate of Kerry or the long list of dissidents set upon by the jackals.
It will be of little avail, I suppose, to note that the bulk of Mr. Bramwell’s analysis rests on the claim that conservatism is an ideology, when any conservatism worthy of the name is non-ideological. It is an anti-ideology. Prescription and prudence, if they make what someone might call an ideology, make a very ”thin” ideology indeed. Someone will presumably say that this, too, is an ideological claim, but it cannot be stressed enough that there are conservatives (perhaps not many, but they do exist) who never subscribed to the thing Mr. Bramwell describes as conservative ideology. But he is right that boundary maintenance and the perpetuation of the movement’s identity as “the conservative movement” are the movement’s priorities, not discernment or truth.
But what the movement’s Two Minute Hates accomplish is not to invent bogeymen, but to exaggerate their power and the threat they pose. ”Judicial activists” are not something that we pretend exist for the sake simply of our own boundary maintenance, just as Byzantines did not completely invent the existence of Bogomils, but the content of their ideas and extent of the danger posed by such people are often wildly exaggerated (especially around election time). But even if it has become a stock phrase to bemoan the impact of “moral relativism,” and invoking such a thing has become a replacement for serious thought, it is not the case that such a thing does not to some degree exist. The greatest problem of conservatism is that it perceives real problems, but simply starts screaming, “There is a really BIG problem over here! It is gigantic! It’s going to wipe out life as we know it!” Then it retires to the parlour for an obscure discussion of who insulted whom during the 1992 presidential campaign over drinks and cigars .
Nonetheless, it is surely true of the movement, broadly speaking, that it does not generate important or interesting ideas anymore and is almost structured not to generate such ideas. It is structured to reproduce itself and confirm its own assumptions about its intellectual vitality and diversity, when neither is really in evidence in most places. If dissidents in the conservative resistance do indulge in the claim that the movement once had solid principles and now is tossed to and fro by every wind of false doctrine, even though what those “principles” were always remained the province of the leadership (with movement chiefs thus settling on the dubious combination of international anticommunist activism, untrammeled capitalism and vague perfunctory nods towards Christianity and the Constitution, which the other two had rendered completely moot), it is at least because they espouse those principles and insist on the hope, perhaps the myth, that something worthwhile remains of conservatism because there was once something true about it. But it seems to me that if the movement lacked real principles, there were principled conservatives–some of whom gave the movement far too much credit and some of whom who have since sobered up–who saw this at each stage and gave their warnings. In the year 1984 (appropriately enough), John Lukacs derided the “narrowly nationalist and broadly Californian view of the world” held by many conservatives–”narrow enough to be ignorant, broad enough to be flat.” He had many more things to say besides that, but the point is surely that the superficiality, triviality and mind-numbing uniformity of the movement has been clear to principled conservatives (or, as Prof. Lukacs prefers to call himself, reactionaries) and they have typically dropped out or gone (or been driven) into the proverbial wilderness to the degree that they have insisted on retaining principles that they can and do defend with reasoned argument, appeals to history and precedent and a desire to preserve what they have inherited from their ancestors.
But where I really must part company with Mr. Bramwell is when he says: “At most other times, however, ancestral attachments are dangerously subversive.” Subversive of what? Well, he will tell us.
The U.S. could not have survived had it not ruthlessly extirpated the ancestral loyalties of both natives and newcomers; Great Britain suffered endless civil wars before the great constitutional oak that Burke praised took root [and? I must admit I fail to see the point here-DL]; the West itself succeeded precisely because it cut short the reach of the extended family or clan [succeeded how? to do what? the state succeeded in weakening family structures and increasing its power–is that the “success of the West,” and if it is why do we want it?-DL].
I often see conservatives say things like this whenever they want to defend modernity or “the West” (as opposed to, say, Christendom) against critics (”behold, we have gotten rid of pious veneration of ancestral customs and we show enormous disrespect towards women–be like us!”), by holding up our present state of affairs and saying, “We could never have had all this had we not curtailed the reach of the extended family and rid people of their ancestral loyalties.” To which, it seems to me, the proper conservative answer is: And this makes me want to oppose these things why exactly? Those things may be desirable because of these effects. The reactionary response is still better: Who wants the present mess? This is all the more reason to bring back the extended family and cultivate ancestral loyalties! Arranged marriages for all!
Okay, maybe not arranged marriages for all (the king gets to choose his own bride, after all), but nowehere does Mr. Bramwell’s piece better reveal the schizophrenic tendency of American conservatives to praise the worst aspects of modernisation (the weakening of the extended family, and consequently the relatively increased dependence on artificial institutions, just as the breakdown of the nuclear family further helps to empower the state today) while deriding the natural attachments that seem to me to be the stuff of what a conservative ethic has tried to protect because such attachments can be taken to excess or can become socially dysfunctional. “Ancestral loyalties are the curse of uncivilized peoples, most especially in the hypermnesiac Middle East.” Of course, to already define ancestral loyalties as uncivilised is to close the debate before it even begins. One might as well do the same thing with religious piety: “Religious piety is the curse of uncivilised peoples, most especially in the fanatical Middle East.” Would you call that a compelling argument for thoroughgoing secularism, or a rather ridiculous attack? If Omar in Iraq marries his first cousin, the argument seems to run, we must flee anything that puts too much importance on the extended family. If the Shi’ites commemorate Shoura and remember the slights to the Imam Husayn, are we therefore obliged to forget our ancestors, heroes and martyrs or risk becoming Moqtada al-Sadr? To ask the question is to reveal the alternatives as false ones and the argument as uncharacteristically weak and sloppy for someone as insightful and wise as Mr. Bramwell.
Is it true that the United States had to “extirpate” the ancestral loyalties of the natives (and here I assume he means native-born Anglo-Americans) in order to survive? In an obvious sense, the War of Independence saw a significant old attachment to Britain severed and the loyalty of Loyalists was indeed suppressed brutally, but in what other sense does this really hold? Surely it was the central point of Kirk and Bradford on the Constitution that the patriots were defending their patrimony, their ancestral rights as Englishmen, and were therefore conservative revolutionaries. Now perhaps a compelling argument could be made that this is all wrong, but it will not do to dismiss an abiding view of the War of Independence with the flick of the wrist. But, more to the point, even if true, why would a conservative-minded person look on this with equanimity, as if that example demonstrated that such loyalties were undesirable? Which, in fact, takes a higher priority: the survival of a new confederation of republics, or loyalty to kith, kin and place? The answer smacks us across the face: obviously the latter takes greater priority. Put it in more immediate, tangible terms: to whom do you owe greater loyalty, your wife or the President? This is not a trick question, and there is only one right answer.
If Westerners have sacrificed those goods to acquire a highly centralised state and what is now a deracinating economic order, it will hardly answer the critic to say, “But if we make these loyalties the priority, we might have to give up our centralised states and creative destruction!” Yes, we might. Surely that is yet another reason to give these loyalties priority, and not an argument against them.
The chief reason they might be undesirable to a confederation is that they might cause the fragmentation of that confederation, and would guarantee the weakness of a central state. I don’t think any Antifederalists would be crying over that one. Neither do their heirs–which is what some of us consider ourselves to be. I remain absolutely unconvinced on this point that there is something misguided about attachment to “ancestral loyalties.” Without these, there are scant few other loyalties worth having.
Mr. Bramwell is surely engaged in his own kind of boundary maintenance when he fires off two warnings shots to these particularists:
Most ominously, praise of local attachments now comes in the guise of multiculturalism, perhaps the most insidious threat to a just order today. Not for nothing did communitarianism become a left-wing vogue.
Yes, obviously if we place higher priority on family, kin, church and place than we do on other things we are sliding irrevocably into the maw of multiculturalist claptrap. Right. Note the reliance on the crutch of the left-wing bogey of communitarianism (no, not that!) and the scary mention of insidious multiculturalism (multiculturalism is insidious, but it is strange to hear of it from someone who is about to tell us how we all cook up bogeymen to ridicule phantasmagorical enemies). It takes one back to the crunchy con wars: “You can’t believe that! It’s just like leftism! How do I know? Because I just said it was like leftism!” It simply makes no sense to warn us that we should be wary of all localism because it can be turned into a justification, as it has started to be in David Cameron’s Britain, for implementing local-level shari’a. Obviously we can appreciate the importance of loyalty to your place and your home as depicted in The Napoleon of Notting Hill without concluding that we must yield to the demands of the rabid cleric who preaches jihad in the East End. Surely we can discern the difference and weigh the virtues of different kinds of localism and local attachments, and we would weigh them against claims of justice and what we believe to be the truth about human nature and society. The choice is not between Brave New World or Kafiristan, and if it were the choice I think the Kafiris might have the better of the argument.
But in any case we tend to find multiculturalism itself obnoxious not because it fronts for diverse cultures (which it does only superficially), which hardly trouble me in and of themselves, but because it is a clear example of Western self-loathing and a lack of confidence in our capacity to have local and regional diversity of customs and cultures without collapsing into a a heap caused by the complete abandonment of all standards and all Western norms. Decentralism does not equal moral, social or cultural chaos; only in the absence of real, living, local communities have we seen people fall back on their more elemental identities to the detriment of national cohesion because there are no communities to which such people might even theoretically adhere themselves. What option does Mr. Bramwell leave us then? A homogenous, superficial monoculture to which all pay lip service? If we must not have multiculturalism (and I agree here) and we must not have local varieties of our own culture, we are left with having a national or supranational uniformity in which there will be very little recognisable as culture.
This invocation of multiculturalism in response to calls for localism is rather like the sometimes tiresome refrains that appeals to “the common good” are code for state regulation or collectivism–what else could it possibly mean, right? It is likewise a failure of imagination to assume that all particularist appeals are the same or that by affirming the one we must enable the insidious Other. It is as if to say that you cannot talk about community without forever legitimising people who talk about setting up utopian communes, when you are doing nothing of the kind. In correctly defining and defending a thing, you exclude, delimit and reject the false or distorted notions of it. Affirming Orthodoxy, for instance, entails the rejection of heresy. If I say, “God,” I do not mean Robespierre’s Supreme Being, Bush’s “God of universal freedom” or Shiva, and by my explanation of what I mean by saying, “God,” I necessarily rule all of these others other as being something other than God Himself. Pale reflections, mockeries or travesties, perhaps, but not God. Multiculturalism is a mockery of real organic cultural diversity; it is the fraudulent show of cultural diversity, no better than a buffet line filled with different kinds of ethnic food, designed only to dissolve what little cultural consensus actually remains while doing little or nothing to defend or approve the various cultures under Tolerance’s protective shield.
However, do not let my criticisms dissuade you from reading Mr. Bramwell’s piece. It is an important and challenging article that every conservative ought to read, if he is interested in something other than bashing the other side with cheap rhetorical clubs and defining who is part of the club to the exclusion of all the actually important questions. In spite of my strong objections to one part of it, I heartily recommend it to you all as first-rate work and thought-provoking analysis.
I interviewed [Bruce] Frohnen on my radio show recently and found it more appealing still. He lamented what he called “Wal-Mart conservatives,” by which he meant people who worship at the alter [sic] of the “cheapest price,” and the utilitarian values of the market right generally. He expressed dismay with the Bush Administration on everything from foreign adventures to his imposition of federal standards on local schools and the diminution of local control.
His dismay was akin to that of many on the decentralist left when the Clinton Administration stumped for corporate globalism; and when his “liberal” appointees to the Supreme Court voted to affirm the power of local governments to use eminent domain to kick people from their homes and give the land to Wal-Mart. (That’s “public purpose”?) There is congruity here, if not outright convergence. It would be a stretch to call a Russell Kirk a commoner, or a father of them. He had too much of a patrician quality, too much distrust of the rabble.
Still, someone who is a friend of Wendell Berry and Ralph Borsodi, and hangs with the thinking of Jane Jacobs and E.F. Schumacher, is sniffing around the right tree. When was the last time we heard a Democrat in Washington invoke such people? Those of us who are concerned about reviving communities and rebuilding their social wealth [bold mine-DL], have got to stop heeding ideological stereotypes. There are allies out there. ~Jonathan Rowe
Mark Shea pointed out Mr. Rowe’s smart discussion of the important agrarian and conservationist figures who appear in American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia (ISI, 2006) and the possible points of contact between what I take to be his green/decentralist left view and an authentic conservative (which includes the decentralist right) one. Mr. Rowe also refers to his surprising discoveries at Crunchy Con, so he would probably also have an interest in the figures lauded in Bill Kauffman’s book Look Homeward, America and the related blog Reactionary Radicals. Better still, he would find a treasure trove of conservative thought on all of these important themes of local community, conservation, agrarianism and more at Chronicles, which is a superb magazine regardless of whether you agree with its politics or not. The gentlemen (and a few ladies) there have been blazing the trail on these and other vital questions for 30 years now, and I think it is fair to say (although I am biased as an occasional contributor) that they continue to get better as time goes by. Speaking of Wendell Berry, whom Mr. Rowe mentions, Chronicles had a fairly lengthy interview with him in the 30th Anniversary issue of the magazine this past summer (July 2006), where he said:
There is a kind of alliance in this country of people who want to take care of things–children, dark nights, the land, architecture, forests, ecosystems, rivers, and so on. I don’t know the degree of competence there is in this movement. I don’t feel much assurance that we know how to take care of much of anything over the long haul. But the sense that things need to be taken care of is growing, and it’s a good thing.
That description of an alliance is strongly reminiscent of the description from The End of the Modern Age of the ideas of the patriots mentioned as one part of the opposition that Prof. John Lukacs sees between nationalists and patriots (cited by Caleb Stegall at Crunchy Con):
Our “conservatives” care not for the conservation of the country, and of the American land. Yet: more than tax policy, more than education policy, more than national security policy, more even than the painful abortion issue, this is where the main division is beginning to occur. So it is in my township. It is the division between people who want to develop, to build up, to pour more concrete and cement on the land, and those who wish to protect the landscape (and the cityscape) where they live. (Landscape, not wilderness. The propagation of wilderness, the exaltation of “nature” against all human presence, is the fatal shortcoming of many American environmentalists.) Beneath that division I sometimes detect the division between a true love of one’s country and the rhetorical love of symbols such as the flag, in the name of a mythical people; between the ideals of American domesticity and those of a near-nomadic life; between privacy and publicity; between the ideals of stability and those of endless “growth.”
With respect to those divisions, it seems clear that traditional conservatives and Mr. Rowe’s folks would very likely on the same side. An ideal of stability, not of endless “growth”–surely, that is what conservatives should want to pursue. Real growth is natural and needs only good soil and wise gardeners to encourage it; it is not hastened by the unnatural hyperactivity of endless consumption and acquisition.
That idea Mr. Rowe mentioned of “reviving communities and rebuilding their social wealth” sounds excellent to me, and it sounds very much like a major part of what conservatives should be trying to do. In fact, that is what conservatives do (allow me to explain), and those who do it are conservatives, though they may not care for the label and may never have heard of Richard Weaver. Those who fail to do that but talk a lot about conserving this or that may be sympathetic to many conservative appeals and may well incline in the right directions most of the time but have yet to fully become living conservatives and conservators of a living tradition, living way of life (and I must plead guilty to being lacking in some respects in being the latter) and a specific place to which they are bound by time and fidelity. Still others who can make quips about immanentising the eschaton but either a) don’t really understand what that means in the real world or b) don’t live as if they understand what it means are in worse shape yet.
As Jeremy Beer observed in the recent American Conservative symposium, “What Is Left? What Is Right?” the localist, historic preservationist, conservationist and community values that should be hallmarks of conservatism are embodied instead in civil associations that are not self-consciously conservative and tend to align themselves with a different part of the spectrum all together. Mr. Beer outlines who these people are and he then cites the example of Kirk the local patriot as inspiration:
The conservers, preservers, savers, and protectors—conservatism once stood for such folks, and such folks were at one time conservatives. But they make bad apparatchiks. They aren’t ideologically motivated and aren’t “thinking big.” They are simply concerned, if often locally prominent, citizens. They may also be sentimental saps, but that’s understandable. As normally functioning human beings, they have formed dear attachments to their social and physical worlds. They like their communities, want to see them thrive and prosper, want to see them made or kept beautiful, want to preserve (or reinvigorate) their sense of their places as unique, and prefer to interact daily with people they know and love—or even hate.
Here is where Russell Kirk was truly exemplary. He ought to be remembered not as “the principal architect of the postwar conservative movement,” as the quasi-official adulation has it, but because he went home. There he restored an old house, planted trees, and became a justice of the peace; took a wife (and kept her) and had four children; wrote ghost stories about census-takers and other bureaucrats getting it in the neck; took in boatpeople and bums; and denounced every war in which the U.S. became involved—especially the first Gulf War, which he detested. And he also denounced abstractions because he knew they were drugs deployed to distract us from the infinitely more important work of the Brandywine Conservancies of the world.
Mr. Rowe mentioned being surprised at the inclusion of Bryan in ACE, but there is really nothing all that surprising about including a latter-day hero of the Country party in a conservatism that can proudly embrace the Antifederalists, Agrarians and Bradford in its tradition. But, then, you would never know that these people form an important (some might even say central) part of that tradition if your acquaintance with conservatism was limited to the main magazines and talking heads of the last ten years. Conservative enthusiasm for Bryan and the Populists is not necessarily universal even among traditional conservatives (though I think almost all would readily prefer him to McKinley or T.R. given the choice), but where that enthusiasm exists it is powerful indeed.
If there are tensions between patricians and commoners here, this should be less troubling than might seem necessary, because decentralists across the conventional spectrum tend to affirm many, though certainly not all, of the same basic political, social and economic goods and share many of the same assumptions. Men of backgrounds as diverse as Harrington, Bolingbroke and Chesterton understood the importance of widely distributed real property, resistance to the concentration of wealth and opposition to the consolidation of power as all being essential to the preservation not only of liberty but also, more importantly, the preservation of humane and stable community life.
Update: More Jeremy Beer (again via Caleb at Crunchy Con) on the history of conservationism among conservatives, the obstacles to the potential future green-conservative alliance and the beginnings of a possible way forward:
You might not know it from the exhibit tables at most conservative gatherings, stacked as they are with explicitly anti-environmental flyers, articles, and books, but America’s conservative movement was once intimately linked with conservation. The influential conservative thinker Russell Kirk wrote warmly about Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring when it was published in 1962 and frequently held forth on the dangers of pesticides, the protection of endangered species, and the preservation of farmland. In fact, a near-apocalyptic tone suffused the environmental writing of many conservatives during the first decades after World War II. So, how did we get from there to where we are now, with environmentalists firmly established as the favorite whipping boys of conservative intellectuals, pundits, and politicians?
… This issue is particularly important to Christians, whose faith counsels a sacramental vision of nature and opposition to the hubris underlying the modern economy and its institutionalized disregard for the care of God’s creation. “You cannot know that life is holy if you are content to live from economic practices that daily destroy life and diminish its possibility,” writes Wendell Berry.
However, the environmentalist movement itself must deal with its own confusing and contradictory alliances with the left. As John Lukacs has written, Greens are often the self-made prisoners of their leftist and anti-establishment inclinations. They are split-minded: traditionalists and anti-traditionalists at the same time. They want to conserve the land, and they are opposed to the inhuman progress of bureaucracy, automation, technology. In that respect they are conservatives, in the proper, larger-than-political sense of that word. Yet at the same time they favor abortion, feminism, unlimited immigration, nomadism—at the expense of the traditional family, of traditional patriotism, of traditional humanism, of the traditional respect for rights of property.
Who knows? Perhaps Greens would not have been driven to embrace such allegiances if conservatives had not abandoned their conservationist roots. The crowd that forms around Lukacs whenever he speaks to young audiences is an encouraging sign that someday soon, there may be a conservative movement that is dedicated to healing that schism.
Beinart points out that all the Dems need do to be full Dobbsians is to embrace Dobbs’s very strong stand (”Dobbs is downright obsessive about the issue,” says Beinart) against illegal immigration. He then produces some signs that the Dems are, in fact, doing this:
“Democratic challengers are staking out immigration positions to Bush’s right. And Democratic incumbents are doing the same thing. …In the Senate, a large majority of Democrats just voted to build a fence along the Mexican border. … Many liberals would like to pick and choose their anti-globalization politics — arguing for more regulation of international trade and investment, but resisting punitive measures to regulate the flow of international labor. Morally, that’s perfectly defensible. But politically, it is likely to fail…..”
[Derb] Immigration enforcement is the golden amulet for the Dems. If they pick that up and run with it, Republicans could be out of power for a generation. You think Democrats don’t know this? Plenty know it, and the rest will catch on.
[Amongst other things, this disposes of Stanley Kurtz’s argument for voting Republican in the midterms—that only by doing so can we be sure of good immigration-law enforcement. A better strategy for those of us who care about the National Question would be to (a) send a copy of Peter Beinart’s article to evey Democrat we know, and (b) stay home Election Day.] ~John Derbyshire
The main worry that many conservatives have had about the GOP loss of the House has been the prospect of amnesty passing in Congress once the major obstacle to that amnesty was gone. This is a real worry, because such an amnesty would be such a huge and potentially irreversible disaster should it actually pass and be signed into law. In the midst of my singing, “Ding dong the witch is dead,” with respect to the impending GOP defeat (let us hope), some readers and fellow bloggers have written or spoken to me about this rather glaring problem that I have avoided for the most part, though I have not exactly papered over it. I have tended to minimise the likelihood of this potentially disastrous turn of events, but still hadn’t really gotten into the meat of the argument. The fear of amnesty passing a Dem-controlled House is based on the assumption that a new Democratic House majority would be heavily pro-amnesty and would have a working pro-amnesty majority. Certainly a large majority of House Democrats is generally pro-immigration (it is the source of so many of their new and future voters that this is inevitable) and most are pro-amnesty or in favour of one of the guest-worker programs that is just as good as amnesty (which Mr. Bush still pretends is a radically different position!), but many in the House or those running for House seats for the first time (and Senate candidates such as Ford in Tennessee) are running strongly against illegal immigration and/or amnesty and sometimes sound as conservative or occasionally even more conservative on the question than the Red Republicans themselves. If enough Democrats adopt a Dobbsian view of the question, it could at least forestall amnesty for the time being and might (and this is far less likely, but remotely possible) lead to the Democrats adopting this issue as proof of some revived sense of visceral nationalism and patriotism, the lack of which has doomed them to minority status nationally for the past six electoral cycles. If a Sherrod Brown economic populism is a political winner on one front of reaction to globalisation, a whole raft of related populist policies, including immigration restriction and even (to be completely unrealistic) an immigration moratorium, might become legitimate topics to be debated seriously as real policy alternatives.
It could be that these Democratic candidates are all having us on (it would hardly be the first time!), and we have to assume that they are not to be trusted, but it could be that they see public discontent with GOP dithering on a vital question and have moved–for either cynical or genuine reasons–to exploit it by taking that question seriously and adopting popular hostility to illegal immigration and amnesty as their own.
The important thing to remember is that immigration is a fairly burning issue across the spectrum at the popular level, and it actually energises key Democratic constituencies who are absorbing most of the costs of unchecked immigration firsthand. It is also becoming more and more of a national issue as immigrants from Latin America and elsewhere have been reaching cities and towns far away from any border or port. If the Democrats want to return to being a national party, they will have to do it by tackling what the Derb calls the National Question and assuming a more nationalist pose. There are entrenched and powerful interests in the party that will have none of this (the major labour unions sold out years ago on this question and will not be changing anytime soon), and it could end up creating divisions as serious in their coalition as the division immigration has created among Republicans.
Neither major party is likely to be transformed from within sufficiently to satisfy fully the kinds of voters for whom immigration restriction is just one ”national question” among many. What might happen next? In my mad mind, I see the following. One party would end up being hollowed out and replaced almost entirely by another, new party organised along populist nationalist lines. At some point in the next twenty or thirty years, the “populist nationalists” that David Brooks identified could force a realignment of sorts as Democrats and conservatives, sick of the preening coastal elites of both parties, their “progressive globalism” and their disdain for the real America, form an opposition based on some mix of economic populism at home, economic nationalism on trade, immigration restriction, and realistic foreign policy less inclined to intervention (though open to ”Jacksonian” moments of power projection). It would probably be conventionally socially conservative, but would be more likely to make cultural issues a priority only to the extent that they would touch on national identity. There is no necessary reason why this populist nationalism would absolutely have to be centralist and unduly statist in character, though there is a real danger of that. However, traditional conservatives and rightist populists could push decentralist and localist solutions to national questions.
A decentralist politics coupled with a healthy opposition to the concentration of corporate power could possibly have quite broad appeal, bringing in greens, Perot-type “centrists” and many traditional conservatives. Such a party would be more of a labour party than either of the two major parties are now, but might also aspire to some kind of distributist policies to ensure the broad ownership of real property (this now verges on the delusional, I realise, but stay with me) in an attempt to reestablish small firms and small farms as the bedrock of a more economically (and thus politically) independent citizenry. (Who knows what else we might pull off! Before the end of this fantastical journey, we might overthrow bank-rule!) Throwing back many questions of economic regulation to the states (allow me to enjoy this fantasy while I can) would disquiet some of the progressives who would be drawn to the anti-corporate side of this populism, but this returning of power to the states would, I think, satisfy many of the constitutional and philosophical qualms of conservatives about such regulation (true libertarians would, of course, be horrified and have nothing to do with the project, which is yet another argument in its favour). This party would emphasise state sovereignty and a diversity of policies to suit local conditions, and political decentralism within states would be the rule in order to minimise intrusive regulation that might drive people to other states, thus recreating the nightmare of mobility that has been wrecking the formation of stable communities for half a century. (We would likely have to fight a well-entrenched and powerful Moving Lobby made up of real estate agents, trucking companies and developers, but it would be a fight worth having.)
This realignment on national questions could possibly run up against the tensions between Prof. Lukacs’ (abstract)nationalists and patriots, as this populist nationalism would appeal to people from both groups. But here again there is the possibility that those whom Lukacs identifies as patriots will also tend to be sympathetic to many, although probably not all, the policies of the “populist nationalists” and the patriotic appeal to loyalty to place and community and rootedness–and would stress the necessary aversion to the ethic of “creative destruction” and endless unsustainable development for the sake of “growth” that would go with this loyalty–could help ground this populist nationalism in real, living communities rather than the abstract, bloodless idea of a nation that many Red Republican nationalist pundits espouse. That localism and emphasis on rooted communities would likely leave the abstract nationalists cold and send them scuttling back to the Red Republicans, who at this point would represent little more than megacorps (which is different from now how exactly?).
Almost all of this is an enormous piece of speculative fantasy based on a few flickerings of sanity among a few Democratic candidates on immigration, but there is some hope of at least a small part of it coming true if enough Democratic voters follow the Dobbsian route. Mr. Derbyshire is correct that the party that gets on the right side of the immigration question and actually gets a good enforcement law passed first will be the majority party in this country for many years. That promise of power, if nothing else, should seriously motivate the pols to make some attempt at getting this vital issue right. The great Chestertonian reawakening will still be a long ways away.
In contemporary America, this presumption toward freedom may no longer be valid, as Mr. Will makes clear. The lower middle classes and nearly everyone else, for that matter, really do love Wal-Mart and are quite happy to sell their American birthright of independence and self-sufficiency for a bowl of processed – but cheap! – soup. This is the challenge facing the new populists of the right: how to advocate and promote the free and sturdy democratic qualities of the common man – qualities that made America great – when the common man has apparently turned his back on those virtues?
The genius of Wal-Mart lies in its ability to make dependence attractive to individuals and communities. The fact that independence is handed over willingly by the masses only makes the surrender that much more difficult to overcome.
If it is to be overcome, it will require an effectively conservative and populist appeal to the conscience of freedom, independence, morality and sturdy self-sufficiency that is still alive in this country. ~Caleb Stegall, Dallas Morning News
In 1930 twelve Southerners, scholars, men of letters, poets and patriots, issued their defense of a way of life and an understanding of how to live well that they had received from their arts, their fathers and their Southern patria: the book of essays in defense of the Southern agrarian tradition, I’ll Take My Stand. They were, as M.E. Bradford described them, “the natural heirs of Randolph of Roanoke, John Taylor of Caroline, and the better side of Jefferson–anti-Hamiltonian, antistatist, conservative Democrat….Community was their a priori ideal–an informally hierarchical social organism in which all Southerners (including the Negro, insofar as the survival of that community permitted) had a sense of investment and participation. In brief, a patriarchal world of families, pre- or noncapitalist because familial, located, pious, and “brotherly”; agrarian in order not to produce the alienated, atomistic individual to whom abstractly familial totalitarianism can appeal; classically republican because that system of government best allowed for the multiplicity that was the nation while at the same time permitting the agrarian culture of families to flourish unperturbed.” (Remembering Who We Are, p.86)
As Dr. Tom Landess recounted to us in a talk last month, the South to which the Southern Agrarians referred and which they defended was neither an imaginary product of nostalgia for the antebellum South nor a the fruit of longing for the days of the Southern aristocracy. The South of their hopes and loves was the South of the small farmer, the yeoman, the small businessman, the shopkeeper, the South that existed, the one which they knew, and the one which they knew was threatened and in danger of passing away under the new onslaught of industrialism and abstract notions. In that land, there was a way of life not unique to the Southern experience but one that was nonetheless peculiarly present in the region that was attuned to the “rhythm of the seasons and the uncertainties of life,” tied to nature and to the passage of time, and thus to history, in a way that, as Dr. Patrick reminded us in his talk on Allen Tate, cultivated a mind all together more historical and culturally European than the mind malnourished in the cities of the Northeast.
On account of the agrarian way of life of the smallholder and the farmer and the culture of the people who settled the South, the region’s people had a keen sense of place that itself grew from an awareness of being fixed and rooted in a place and forming part of the continuity across the years that bound ancestor and descendant. That experience could fuel the imagination of a Faulkner to tell the story of the Sartoris clan where the generations of a family together formed a character in its own right, for perhaps the most complete story and the most fully formed characters come from the experience of multiple generations bound by place and their relationship to that place.
Memory across generations ties a people to their past and lends the place where they live meanings that had been hidden by the veil of time. This sense of the past was fed by the reception of memories from their fathers in the form of simple stories told and retold, the recollecting of their people’s lives that wove together anecdote, gossip and report into the remembrance of who they were and what they were doing in the particular time and place where they were.
The Southern mind saw history as something concrete, the fruit of a series of events that does not move us onwards towards a goal but is embodied in the tangible reality of habit and memory (and Bradford tells us to love the inherited nomos of our place and people rather than rush on madly towards the telos of the teleocrat). This mind saw history as a process of growth and change that those closest to the land understand better, and it remembered that history through the telling of the stories of their kin.
Receptive to memory, the Southern mind was also submissive to nature and God. As the “Statement of Principles” in I’ll Take My Stand tells us:
Religion can hardly expect to flourish in an industrial society. Religion is our submission to the general intention of a nature that is fairly inscrutable; it is the sense of our role as creatures within it. But nature industrialized, transformed into cities and artificial habitations, manufactured into commodities, is no longer nature but a highly simplified picture of nature. We receive the illusion of having power over nature, and lose the sense of nature as something mysterious and contingent. The God of nature under these conditions is merely an amiable expression, a superfluity, and the philosophical understanding ordinarily carried in the religious experience is not there for us to have.
And in its piety the Southern mind did not, like some Eunomian heretic, scrutinise and weigh the essence of God. On the contrary, it tended to set anything that smacked of rationalism to one side in the understanding of the Faith such that the Southern religion might even be called in many respects “arational,” as Dr. Patrick explained to us, and in its spirituality potentially and dangerously prone to think of religious experience as an escape from history rather than a living out of the Word incarnate and the Word enfleshed and embodied in us in the sacraments. And yet it was this same religious spirit in the South that does instinctively recognise the createdness of things and the dependence of the being of all things on the will of the Creator, a recognition that comes and must come in no small part from the relationship to the created order of one who tends and cultivates rather than one who uproots and exploits, which is to say an agrarian relationship rather than that of an industrialist and a consumer. It is there in the tending of the “cultivated garden” that man understands his place before creation and his Creator, particularly by being in his own place where he will give praise to his God for the bounty that has been provided in God’s goodness. It is there that he remembers who he truly is, seeing his connections to his place across the generations in the fields and groves that nourished him and made him into what he is. Then, having remembered, he will tell his sons and daughters of their history on that land, so that they will know it is loved and should be loved, and to see that they must love and care for it because, in a way, the land has already loved and cared for them. As Bradford concluded his essay in defense of the Agrarians (and all agrarians), so will I conclude today, with a few lines from Donald Davidson:
Is good, but better is land, and best
A land still fought-for, even in retreat:
For how else can Aeneas find his rest
And the child hearken and dream at his grandsire’s feet?
My recounting of the sessions of the summer school will be done along certain common themes that seem to me to link different sessions, as I think this will provide a more coherent and complete picture of the entire experience than if I listed the points of each session one by one in chronological order, so I will be starting mainly with the Chesterton talks to set the tone and then move into the other lectures in the coming days and weeks.
One of the important themes of The Rockford Institute’s summer school on “The American Agrarian Tradition” that kept recurring, particularly in Fr. Boyd’s talks on Chesterton, was the supreme importance of the Incarnation for the Christian vision and, by extension, agrarian and Distributist visions of life and society. The quote that stayed with me most strongly was, I believe, from Chesterton: “The central idea of our civilisation is the doctrine of the Incarnation.” It is a doctrine that forces us to reassess the meaning and order of all things, as the Incarnation is “the radical reversal of human values.” I would add that it is also the supreme act of God entering into history, becoming embodied and dwelling amongst us in everyday life. And it is the stuff of everyday life–”daybreak, daily bread and daily labour”–that must be made “interesting in themselves” if our civilisation is to endure. Related to this, as Fr. Boyd noted in his first talk, for any social reform to be successful there must be a sense of wonder about the created order, possessing Chesterton’s sensibility as a “sacramental Christian” that, as Chesterton wrote in his riposte to Yeats, ”where there is anything, there is God.”
The title of this post is taken from St. John of Damascus, who defended the veneration of holy icons on the grounds that God had become matter for our sake and worked out salvation through matter, which is to say flesh, redeeming and remaking matter so that it was possible to venerate material images of heavenly realities. But in conjunction with the lectures on Chesterton and his application of Incarnation theology to social and economic questions, following those in the Anglo-Catholic circles in which he moved, the revaluation of the material world inherent in the reality of the Word having become flesh takes on new significance for the revaluation of the daily life and daily work of ordinary men. In the Chestertonian vision, according to Fr. Boyd, the Incarnation tells us that ordinary men are sacred. Chesterton’s conviction derived from this was that the institutions of family, property and community are essential to sustain and support them.
Of these three, all of which are steadily and constantly undermined and sapped by mobility, deracination and the concentration of power and wealth, the most undervalued and least protected today is property, as Dr. Fleming explained in the first session. Yet fundamental to any agrarian vision is the secure and widely diffused possession of real property that cannot be infringed upon. Distributism itself is, as the name implies, a commitment to the wide diffusion of land ownership as a means to sustain the dignity and freedom of ordinary men, because, as Fr. Boyd put it, “property is the sacramental solidification of liberty.” Fr. Boyd emphasised that Chesterton was not engaging in a “romanticisation” of the common man, but sought, if I recall correctly, to accord ordinary men the dignity and stature that God had already bestowed upon them in Christ and find the economic and social means to make these things secure. Chesterton’s Distributism was not systematized and abstract, and so was not really an -ism at all, but was a description about humane everyday life. Fundamentally, Distributism was (and is) concerned with the very grounded realities of earthly life, starting with the owning and cultivating of land, without which ordinary men will be (and have been) pressed together into servile masses subordinate to centralised elites of state and corporation.
Among several books I intend someday to write, one stands out: The Great Indoors: Why Going Outside Is Vastly Overrrated. Now is probably the time to pitch it—contrarian cant at its finest—given all the hugga-mugga over Crunchy Cons and the various websites supported by sundry disciples of Wendell Berry, who believe consumerism, free markets, and technological obsolescence are destroying our souls, families, and communities.
This concern is an old one. And the solution—high-tail it for the Ozarks—is also old. I believe Aristophanes was the first to give it dramatic form (while side-swiping poor old Socrates at the same time): Abandon the cities, abandon false patriotism, abandon the quack sciences and gimcrack philosophies that threaten old religion; abandon the battlefields, politics, and sausage salesmen. ~Anthony Sacramone, First Things
Surely if there was a place for cant, it would be First Things under Mr. Bottum’s esteemed guidance, and Mr. Sacramone shows himself to be right at home at the intellectual Bottum. One definition of cant, after all, is:
The use of religious phraseology without understanding or sincerity; empty, solemn speech, implying what is not felt; hypocrisy.
Check Mr. Sacramone’s sad invocation of the New Jerusalem as a justification for rancid urbanism and consumerist degradation to see whether he meets this definition. Perhaps Jeremy Lott will write a sequel to his current book that would be entitled In Defense of Cant, and Mr. Sacramone can be his chief defendant. I missed this latest wave of cant at First Things while high-tailing it to northern Illinois (the Ozarks were too far away), where, as it happens, I had some sausages for dinner at the Saturday dinner for the summer school on America’s agrarian tradition (whether they came from a salesman of sausages, or were instead homemade, was not made known to the assembled guests). Fortunately, Michael Brendan Dougherty took up my usual role of angry reactionary blogger and gave him and those like him a good hiding.
Now, as Mr. Sacramone may or may not be aware, the only problems that matter are old ones (who are we? why are we here? what is our purpose?), and the only solutions worth their salt tend to also be old and venerable ones. He may have heard something about the accumulated wisdom of generations providing us with time-tested truths that tell us about human nature, the good life, and so on. Supposedly First Things, given the name, might be expected to take these things seriously, since they pertain to the permanent things, the serious things, things of the first order of importance in human existence. It might be worth noting that the prophetic and eschatological witnesses to the Kingdom being not of this world, monastics and ascetics, typically have fled the wretchedness of the cities. But what did those monks and saints know? Besides, they’re all so very old. Nobody fashionable goes into the desert, into the country, to follow Christ anymore–you might be accosted by all manner of rustics with guns!
But who are we kidding? There is apparently nothing so serious that the semi-learned gentlemen at First Things cannot trivialise and mock it. I have rarely seen such a self-indulgent, cynical display of intellectual hooliganism–and nihilism–as Mr. Sacramone has given us. Glad to know that this is what First Things stands for–it confirms what I have assumed about that journal for many years.
Dr. Wilson’s talk and review, and particularly his reference to the Country tradition in English political thought, got me to thinking about several things, some related to TRI’s agrarianism summer school and Caleb Stegall’s recent article on populism, others to the book I started reading a few weeks back, The Age of Federalism, 1788-1800, and still another to the odd letter to the editor that appeared in the latest issue of The American Conservative.
To start with the last first, this letter, written by one Mr. Brady, perplexed me. On the one hand, it was a common sort of gripe, and one with which I sometimes sympathise: what are all these libertarians doing in a conservative magazine anyway? Of course, I don’t entirely sympathise with this sentiment, in spite of the jabs I throw at our libertarian friends, since we few, we happy few paleos are hardly in a position of such robust strength that we can begin disowning those libertarians who have stood alongside us for many years (some of whom have been taking their stand for a lot longer than I have, and have probably done more in defending our shared principles than Mr. Brady has managed so far). Disowning longtime friends and allies is something that they do at National Review, and I don’t think anyone is suggesting we imitate that model of intellectual degeneration. What was still more perplexing about this letter was its stunning demarcation between conservative and libertarian along the strangest line, that of Federalist and Antifederalist (in addition to which was the charming anachronism of referring to The Anti-Federalist Papers). In this view, we are supposed to credit Adams, Hamilton, Jay and Madison as the only real conservatives and, presumably, everything stemming from the Federalist tradition constitutes American conservatism, whereas Henry, Jefferson and Mason, among others, supposedly represent the “libertarian” side of the coin. This is very odd, and it causes me to wonder whether Mr. Brady is at all familiar with what the relationship of American conservatism to the Country tradition and the “Jeffersonian persuasion” is.
The Country opposition finds its first definite exponent in Bolingbroke, who had inherited the ideology of resistance of the Jacobites after the ‘15 rising collapsed in defeat, and who drew on the thought of Harrington to support his critiques of the Hanoverian dynasty and Whig establishment in terms of the establishment’s “corruption” (in this time the term referred specifically to the Crown’s buying of men in Parliament and more general attempts to create a network of placemen and patronage that would provide the Court with trusty lackeys). For those loyal to these ideals of widespread landownership by middling landowners, the mixed constitution of monarchy, aristocracy and republican government, and the diffusion of power, 1688 was a black year that virtually signalled the permanent exile of men with Country sentiments from positions of influence within England. This will seem counterintuitive to those used to remembering 1688, if they remember it at all, as a blow against absolutism (when it was, in fact, nothing more than the empowerment of a Whig oligarchy and the end of any possibility of Catholic revival in Britain with the abdication of James II), but there should be no doubt that the victory of William III and the party of treason simply secured the concentration of power in a different set of hands far more likely to abuse it. The colonies, for their part, were naturally predisposed to embrace the Country view, as they were as far removed from the metropole and the Court as could be and saw any greater concentration of power in London as a threat to their own rights.
First the Antifederalists and then the Jeffersonian Republicans took up the same themes in their hostility to consolidation, with the Jeffersonians particularly fearing the collusion of finance and government and the power of the “moneyed interest” during the clashes with the Federalists in the 1790s over the creation of the Bank. If we brought together the entire Country tradition under another label, my preference would be to call those who adhere to it Jeffersonian Jacobites, capturing at once a hostility to consolidation and the Whigs of the 17th and 18th centuries. There were better and worse Federalists, and Federalist skepticism of “the people” was perhaps their one concrete contribution to American political wisdom, and when the time came for Jefferson to govern some of the Federalists, such as William Plumer, discovered the virtues of the decentralism and appeals to states’ rights that the Republicans had made in the ’90s, but Federalism remained to the end a doctrine dedicated to strengthening the center, curtailing the rights of states, empowering financial and mercantile interests and allying concentrated power and concentrated wealth in the same “corrupt” manner that had taken place in England. While the Federalists themselves remained a breed apart from the later Whigs and, God help us, the Republicans, their commitment to consolidation and elitism has persisted and grown until the political strength of the American Court faction has become almost total. Understanding the Constitution as a mechanism for restraining state power, as Dr. Wilson wrote of the Populists, is one of the things that all real conservatives share–no doctrines of implication and construction for us, thank you very much. This hostility to consolidation and centralising elites has nothing to do with “libertarianism” (which has no American representatives before the 20th century and is almost entirely a transplant from central Europe) and everything to do with loyalty to family, community and the states which have been the real countries of Americans for most of our history. Separately, those who belittle the revival of this American Populism and the Country tradition in this country mark themselves out as friends of the forces of consolidation and enemies of the decentralist, agrarian and conservative traditions of this country.
But as I understand American Populism, from its beginings to the present moment, it is an expression of hostility to state power and those who exercise it or seek to exercise it. It is no surprise then that most Populists have looked to Thomas Jefferson, the great original American critic of consolidated power, as their patron saint, and that the history of Populism is closely connected to the concept of the American Constitution as a restraint on power rather than a grant of power. Populists regard state power as always corrupt and corrupting, which is an inheritance, I believe of the English “Country” ideology or opposition value system which the Americans absorbed deeply in the colonial period and which underlay the American War of Independence.
Populism in the strictest historical sense refers to the People’s Party which flourished in the later 19th century, in certain regions of the American Union. Which brings us to another part of my definition of Populism. It has always been, in this country, a regional and not a class phenomenon. I take this idea, as well as my title “Up at the Fork of the Creek,” from an early essay of the late M.E. Bradford.
The People’s Party is often spoken of as a Midwestern phenomenon. Midwestern is actually a vague term. “Heartland” is a little better perhaps. But Populism was not a phenomenon of the “Heartland.” It was a phenomenon of the far western fringes of the Heartland, and equally or more so of the rural South. (And also of the mining regions of the Far West, which gave it the peculiar counter-productive tangent of the Free Silver movement.) There were no Populists in Ohio and they were a minority in Iowa. In the Heartland one has to go west of the Mississippi to find a Populist and even all the way to the Missouri to find very many. ~Clyde Wilson, “Up at the Forks of the Creek: In Search of American Populism,” delivered December 2, 1994 at conference on “Populism and the New Politics” in From Union to Empire: Essays in the Jeffersonian Tradition (2003)
American historians have generally treated Populism in one of two ways: They have either confused it with the Progressivism that followed shortly on its heels, as a forerunner of the New Deal and modern liberalism; or, in a slightly more sophisticated and honest version, they have dismissed it as misguided rural bigotry irrelevant to the goals of enlightened urbanites.
The first interpretation is clearly wrong. It is true that there was some slight coincidence of political goals, in terms of federal legislation, arising from the Populists’ search for specific remedies. But Populists were basically rural Jeffersonians who mistrusted the remote and concentrated power of the Eastern elites who were the more obviously observable cause of their own distresses. Most of the Progressives, at least in the East, were self-consciously modern. They believed in the rule of elite urban experts (themselves) to solve all social ills by the application of science and systematization (regimentation). They were hired hands of the ruling class despised by the Populists, and still are. No Progressive that I know of was an enthusiast for free silver, and Progressives from east of the Mississippi almost all joined the homefront clamor for the War to End All Wars. Populists did not, and in fact provided the greatest core of patriotic opposition.
Ponder this wonderful reactionary and timely passage from Ignatius Donnelly’s oration a Populist National Convention:
We meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political, and material ruin. Corruption dominates the ballot box, the legislatures, the Congress, and touches even the ermine of the bench….The newspapers are subsidized or muzzled; public opinion silenced; business prostrated, our homes covered with mortgages, labor impoverished, and the land concentrated in the hands of capitalists…the fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes, unprecedented in the history of the world, while their possessors despise the republic and endanger liberty….We charge that the controlling influences dominating the old political parties have allowed the dreadful conditions to develop without serious effort to restraint or prevent them. They have agreed together to ignore in the coming campaign every issue….In this crisis of human affairs the intelligent working people and producers of the United States have come together in the name of justice, order and society, to defend liberty, prosperity and justice. ~Clyde Wilson, 1994 review of American Populism: A Social History, 1877-1898 in From Union to Empire: Essays in the Jeffersonian Tradition (2003)