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Winter 2014

The Stories We Tell—The People We Become (Part 2)

Ted McAllister

Read Part One here.

While both the Liberal Story and the Radical Story focus on equality as a good (however differently defined), the Conservative Story is about the danger of equality. Also unlike the two stories we’ve explored, which focus on abstract universals, the Conservative Story is about contextualized goods. In particular, the Conservative Story seeks to preserve two interrelated things: 1) local liberties and 2) Constitutional order. The Conservative Story is about a patchwork of peoples wedded together by a common history and by the cords of affection that come from generations of reciprocity. This story does not emphasize, as a result, the rights of an abstract individual—nor does it recognize an abstract human freedom.

Conservatives reject all constructions of human identity that spring from speculations about a “state of nature.” They recognize, by contrast, a person who has been shaped by culture, by family, by experience, into a distinctive and yet bound personality. This person has rights insofar as she has obligations; she has liberties in order to do good. With this understanding of human nature, the Conservative Story begins with Englishmen bringing one culture (or, really, a variety of sub-cultures) to a new environment. The resulting social and cultural order represents the adaptation of old forms to new circumstances. Throughout the colonies these Englishmen found different accommodations to their new environment, but each group had a great deal of liberty from any central authority to order their own societies. The main thing they preserved were the rights of Englishmen—the rights that they understood had come to them out of the long history of their people and for which their culture had fitted them to exercise. The attempt by the King and Parliament to challenge these inherited rights forced, in due course, a “Revolution” to preserve their rights and their social order. In a great paradox, Americans had to resort to a revolution in order to conserve their existing order from an innovative centralized authority.

In this story the Declaration of Independence is really not about the Lockean abstractions with which Jefferson began the document, but rather the long list of abuses that Jefferson enumerated in the body of the document. Here was the proof that the revolution was really a reaction—a reaction against an innovative King and Parliament. However conservative the reasons for revolution, the Americans found themselves with the task of crafting a new political arrangement that would preserve their existing social and cultural order. The resulting second Constitution was a salutary balance between the needs of establishing the political means for order and protecting the liberties of states and localities. The Constitution not only created a federal system, which greatly limited the range of the power of the U.S. government, but it also supplied a number of checks on the power of the masses.

The great challenge from the beginning was to preserve liberty against the democratic screams for equality. The French Revolution supplied shocking evidence of what happens when King Demos takes over and becomes jealous of any privilege, any tradition, any custom—tyranny and equality go hand in hand. The American effort to preserve this delicate balance between liberty and order has been the most successful in world history.

As Europe has perverted its great cultural inheritance, America has saved Western civilization. Still, much has changed for the worse. The first tangible sign of decay came with the rise of the democratic West and the election of the uneducated and crude Andrew Jackson to the presidency. Moreover, America’s greatest moral conundrum, slavery, provided for America’s darkest hour. The cutting out of this malignant tumor on the body politics did much damage to the good tissue that surrounded it. The northern victory meant also the destruction of southern culture—and it was the South that provided the most important check on the grasping individualism and materialism so often part of democratic cultures. The resulting triumph of the industrialists did great cultural damage to the American order, elevating individual freedom over communal responsibility, freeing human passions like greed from their cultural restraints.

But the nation suffered at the constitutional level as well. The passage of the Fourteenth Amendment effectively destroyed federalism, binding the states to the federal government and thereby removing any effective check on the overweening power of the people as expressed by their centralized government. Subsequent changes to the Constitution, to say nothing of constitutional interpretations, further elevated the federal government, fed an ardor for greater equality, and emphasized the individual at the expense of the community. Indeed, the greatest challenge to maintaining the balance as established at the nation’s founding has been the assault—relentless in the twentieth century—on all mediating institutions. Family, church, union, voluntary associations, local community, have all suffered at the hands of a grasping federal government. By the end of the twentieth century the individual is more or less naked before the federal government, having no refuge in any institution that might resist the power of the central government.

Of particular importance to this story are the wars of the twentieth century. World War I demonstrated the efficacy of the using the federal government to solve large problems. FDR specifically cast the New Deal as a new kind of war and he asked Congress for the powers that he would have in a real war to organize the nation’s resources. World War II further centralized American life, teaching the citizens to consider the federal government as the main force for goodness in the world. The Cold War maintained a war footing in time of peace, and with it the power and reach of the federal government. Since then we’ve fought wars on poverty, on crime, on violence, on almost every major social and economic problem plaguing our nation. In sum, wars and war metaphors have served to further centralize our government and to undermine local liberties and the integrity of communities.

But the problems with our order are not simply a product of a democratic people exercising power through a centralized government. The growing power of capitalism and the resulting consumerism have fostered a culture that is aggressively forward-looking, individualistic, rights-oriented, and hostile to any binding traditions. The individual has triumphed over the person. The individual is a deracinated, abstract atom lost in mass culture. The distinctive person, by contrast, is crafted out of a complex context of institutions, habits, and customs. The fetish for rights has eliminated any concern for obligations, and the love of comfort and pleasure has removed the very means for genuine happiness.

The Conservative Story stresses the importance of rootedness, the importance of obligations, the importance of liberties that emerge out of specific contexts and that point to some larger good. If this is the story you tell of America, you are likely to emphasize the call to Return, the importance of stepping outside of one’s small life, the need to accept that one owes something to those dead and those yet unborn. This story leads one to worry about order in a society so devoted to license. One is likely to work to reanimate the institutions that both check the power of the federal government and that provide a rich cultural context for a whole human to develop. The Conservative Story calls one to gratitude rather than rebellion—to piety rather than empowerment.

Well, here are the three stories—each one a simplistic version of the narratives I hear and read. Let me conclude with a few brief comments about their significance. A mild version of the Radical Story dominates the college textbook market, and, by extension, reflects the views of the most prolific and influential historians. These historians have provided a valuable service, exposing heretofore neglected parts of our past and reminding us that power and wealth often produce unsavory motivations. But this story suffers from at least two problems. First, it offers a reductive view of both humans and history. Assuming exploitation as a necessary component of all forms of inequality, this view seems blind to other relationships and other motivations. Second, the story teaches us to question all authority and to feel the need for constant change and agitation. It allows little room for trust or even for affection, and tends to pit people against one another—group against group, class against class.

The Liberal Story has deep roots, and one finds versions of it from the earliest phileo-pietistic historians. But the most vigorous defenders of this version of history are the so-called “neo-conservatives.” The Liberal Story has great merits because it holds our nation to a set of ideals—and they are quite right to note that these ideals have attracted a great variety of peoples to create our multi-cultural nation. Out of our differences, it seems, we have long believed in these common principles. They used to be called the “American Dream” or even the “American Way,” but they really amount to a simple set of principles about natural rights and equality. The problem, from my perspective, with this story is that it reinforces the most dangerous elements of democracy—the tendency toward individualism and alienation. The story they tell is thin relative to human needs. In other words, this story of American identity does not call people out of themselves and into the communities and groups that supply humans with their sense of grounding and purpose. This history is, in the long run, too ahistorical. It focuses too much on the present, breaking the ties that bind us to generations before and after us.

As you might imagine, then, I prefer the Conservative Story. In my judgement it not only better explains our nation’s history, but it operates with a fuller and more realistic anthropology. Humans are not abstract individuals, but contextualized people, and they are better served when they live in the interstices of rich and semi-autonomous institutions. As humans we belong, and all belonging carries obligations. Our lives are not just our own—they belong to others as well. Not only should we understand that we belong to a rich and complicated culture that has deep roots, but we should understand that we belong to a story that we do not tell—a story with both mundane and divine purposes.

This does not mean that the Conservative Story is without major flaws or tensions. It lacks the resources to shape fine and distinctive ideals or moral principles, and those who tell this story find that, to be consistent, they must defend ways of living and moral habits that are almost impossible to defend well. The very complexity of the story that a conservative must tell makes the transmission of the principles that conservatives wish to affirm in their story-telling very difficult for generations trained to think in dualisms or basic moral alternatives. Moreover, the conservative story requires more myth-making than the other two—a use of historical sources in such a way as to divine the deeper message not always visible to one who looks superficially at the evidence. To tell the conservative history of America one must take a more mythopoetic view of life and then try to communicate with a people whose imagination is largely unshaped by literature, poetry, and myth.

The three stories I’ve retold here are in declining order of popularity. Because I believe that a nation’s understanding of its history will determine its choices for the future, the history battles ahead are very important. For the Conservative Story, I have hope that it will be a robust and salutary check on the other two, but I don’t believe that it can become the dominant one. If the Radical Story, taught in different versions to our children all through school, becomes dominant then we will become a very different nation and we will wake up to discover an entirely new past. The Liberal Story is the most potent, the most resonant with America’s understanding of itself. We might reasonably hope that, for all its flaws, it remains the dominant history. However, it will not remain dominant if those who tell this story do not learn something from the other two stories and develop robust ways of affirming a set of national images and ideals that suggest the danger of power (economic and political) and the need for a robust community.  

Ted McAllister holds the Edward L. Gaylord Chair and is an associate professor at the School of Public Policy at Pepperdine University. This article is adapted from a lecture delivered at Seaver College.

Posted: March 12, 2014 in Essays.

A spirit of innovation is generally the result of a selfish temper and confined views. People will not look forward to posterity who never look backward to their ancestors.

Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France

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