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Summer 2011

Empire and the Crisis of American Conservatism

Symposium: Conservatism and Empire

James Kalb

Conservatism is the will to remain true to type, so American conservatism is a preference for America to remain American. In most ways that makes it a conservatism like any other. America is a particular society, and as such connects men to their fellows and the past to the present and future. For that reason, Americans—like other people—have a natural loyalty to their country and interest in maintaining its integrity.

Nonetheless, conservatism is never simply generic. Every society has features that distinguish it from others and give its conservatism a particular flavor. American conservatism also has specific qualities that correspond to features of American life. Some of those features create problems for conservatism. The American character tends toward expansiveness, enterprise, and pragmatism, and American ideals emphasize freedom, equality, and the universal applicability of the American model. The effect of such features has generally been limited, however, by other aspects of American life, such as religion, localism, family values, voluntarism, limited government, and an emphasis on law.

Over time, trends such as national expansion, industrialization, and demographic diversification have eaten away at those limitations. American conservatism has been a series of attempts to stabilize the situation and maintain America as a particular sort of society fostering particular goods. That effort has been difficult because of the absence of clear guiding principles and authorities. At one time the will of the Founders as embodied in the Constitution, and Biblical religion and the concept of America as (in Lincoln's words) an “almost chosen” nation, could provide some guidance. They have generally lost that ability, due to skeptical debunking, changes in circumstances, and the uncertainties of interpretation. They hang on among the people to some extent, but are not taken seriously in intelligent mainstream discussion.

In response to such difficulties, intellectual conservatives have attempted to develop a more philosophical view of America as a free, virtuous, and self-governing society. “Free” suggests antitraditional qualities, “virtuous” necessary limitations on those qualities, and “self-governing” the balance between the two implicit in American tradition and the good sense of the American people. Intellectual conservatism has therefore emphasized liberty as a goal and equality as a standard, insisted on the virtue and moderation of the Founders and the American people, and denounced overly ideological applications of American ideals that would destroy the balance of the system.

The project has lost its hold on American life. Traditional balances and limitations do not command the universal deference accorded freedom and equality. They have no accepted interpreter, apart from a judiciary that has been captured by anti-traditional forces. Also, they have become ever more removed from the concerns of influential men and institutions. Experts, businessmen, bureaucrats, and TV talking heads have no special reason to care about traditional virtues, the vision of the Founders, or America as an almost chosen nation. They mostly want to improve their own position, and traditional restraints tend to obstruct the effort. So why not do away with them?

It is hard to base simple conservatism on principles that arouse strong opposition from authoritative institutions and well-placed people. As a factor in mainstream public discussion American conservatism has therefore become an outlook that forgets about traditional restraints and defines America by reference to what remains: its antitraditional features. The result is an odd sort of conservatism that presents America as a proposition nation dedicated to economic expansion and the indefinite extension of individual freedom and equality. Empire—America as the force that is rightfully transforming the world—has more and more become the cause that expresses what America is and so defines conservatism.

The resulting imperial conservatism distinguishes itself from liberal cosmopolitanism through its emphasis on particular actors and actions rather than law and impersonal bureaucratic structures. It prefers entrepreneurs and military men to lawyers and experts. That gives it practical advantages that have helped make it a winner. Imperial conservatismt appeals to people who run things, since it justifies them in taking decisive action to reorder the world in their own image. And it appeals to the people at large through patriotic rhetoric based on national self-assertiveness, security through strength, the universality of American ideals, and the concept of America as the winning team.

Imperial conservatism is nonetheless a paradox, since empire aims at global unification while conservatism aims at the integrity of particular practices and societies. Previous empires such as Rome and Islam resolved that paradox by uniting universality with particularity: the Ummah had a code of law that was both tribal and universal, the Roman Empire provided a general framework that accepted the validity of local gods and institutions.

Such a solution is not available in the case of American empire, since open-ended abstractions like freedom, equality, and economic expansion are fundamentally at odds with stable particularity. Nor can a conservatism based on such abstractions satisfy conservatively-minded people. Such people want a stable social world that connects them to their past and their fellows, and helps orient life toward something larger and better than particular desire. Imperial conservatism offers a campaign for a global commercial, military, and ostensibly democratic order oriented toward nothing higher than ever-broader participation in an ever-expanding economy.

That is not enough. Nonetheless, anti-imperial conservatism is hard to find in America today. To what solid feature of American life could it appeal? It lacks a clear idea of what it wants to conserve, so it has trouble presenting a positive goal. It lacks influential support, so its adherents are given little voice in public discussion. And it is morally and intellectually suspect, since it rejects the simple-minded universalism that is now considered the essence of reason and morality.

It seems, then, that American conservatism, at least in its public manifestation, has collapsed into something that is not at all conservative. So what now for conservatively-minded people? In some ways the answer seems obvious: disengage from the public philosophy now dominant, re-engage with the elements of life that are worthy of loyalty, recover in a more reliable form the qualities that once held antitraditional tendencies in check, and re-articulate what the effort is about and why it is worthwhile. In other words, rebuild a more conservative way of life and re-invent intellectual conservatism on a deeper and more solid basis.

But how can that be done? The crisis of conservatism is the crisis not only of America but the West. As such, it calls for a renewed connection to our heritage at a deeper and more authoritative level. That connection requires an integrating principle strong enough to resist the tendencies that have led to our present situation, and to stabilize a coherent way of life that is worthy of loyalty. That principle must provide an interpretive key, connect to the best of what the West has been, and allow room for local traditions, variations, and initiatives. America is part of the West, and the West has its origins in Catholic Christendom, so Catholic Christendom is the obvious principle to appeal to at least as an interpretive framework. Others may have other suggestions, but I know of nowhere else to go for those who are attached to the West but reject what it has become.  

James Kalb is a writer living in Brooklyn and author of The Tyranny of Liberalism.

Posted: September 18, 2011 in Symposia.

Mere unthinking negative opposition to the current of events, clutching in despair at what we still retain, will not suffice in this age. A conservatism of instinct must be reinforced by a conservatism of thought and imagination.

Russell Kirk

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