What is the essence of conservatism in America?

There is an outstanding “reprint” at the Imaginative Conservative, Mark C. Henrie’s The Conservative Reformation. You could do worse than chew on it for an hour or two.

Isn’t imaginative conservatism an oxymoron? Glad you asked!

Contrary to popular belief, conservatism always requires creativity, for it only arises when customs are already under attack and can thus no longer be maintained unself­consciously.

(All block quotes except as indicated are from Henrie)

Henrie begins with the need for reformation.

Two decades ago, George Nash, in his The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945, told the story of how American conservatism was forged rather uneasily as a political movement from three intellectual groupings: traditionalists, lib­ertarians, and anti-communists. Today [apparently, the early 1990s] on the conventional “Right,” however, we find many libertarians who argue as vigorously against the opponents of abortion as they do against economic central planners while we also find some religious traditionalists who see no particularly compelling reason not to support fairly activist regulation of both economic and social life. These dis­agreements are nothing new, of course, and, as conservatives are nothing if they are not historically informed, it would be wise to return to Nash’s book to learn from the older disputes which took place on the way to political victory in the 1980s.

A re-reading of Nash’s book raises a more important question: Was there a logic to American conservatism, or was the move­ment merely a marriage of political conve­nience? My belief is that there was and is a general logic to conservatism, to which Ameri­can conservatism is no exception; but this conservative logic has heretofore often been misunderstood in America. Thus, our central theoretical question is: What is, and should be, the essence of conservatism in America? If we can determine the nature of authentic conser­vatism, then perhaps we can come to under­stand better the political and social challenges that confront us in our new historical circum­stances. What will conservatism have to say to America in the 1990s and beyond?

(Emphasis added)

With Communism out of the way as a common enemy, what counts as true conservatism’s common friend? (If we must unite against a common enemy again, I’m outta here.)

To answer this, we must try to understand what it was about communism that galvanized us against it. The Soviet communists claimed the mantle of the French Revolution of course, the first incar­nation of the conservatives’ perennially re­curring adversary. What is it then that con­servatives have repeatedly opposed for the past two centuries?

… [T]he only consistent theme in European conservative thought, both in England and on the continent, is opposition to … that claim by the centralized, “rationalized,” and liberal democratic political state to a monopoly on the “legitimate” use of coercion, a claim which expanded imperceptibly to a tacitly presumed monopoly of social authority … This presumptuous expansion of the sphere of the political sovereign acted to delegitimize other social authorities and inter­mediate institutions to which conservatives felt themselves bound, and which conser­vatives believed were integral to a good life.

(Emphasis added) Here enters civil society as a common denominator of conservatism. But how does the state threaten civil society?

What is centrally important about this rise of sovereignty is that it proceeded in large part through theories of natural rights and the social contract: Individual liberties, therefore, have only abetted the growth of Leviathan. Robert Nisbet highlights this hidden dynamic in the best short study of conservatism in English, Conservatism: Dream and Reality. Nisbet observes what would seem to Americans to be an historical paradox: The power of the state in our lives has risen hand in hand with the rise of the individual “rights” about which we are so proud … Nisbet argues that these two movements—increasing political power and increasing individual “freedom”—are directly related. For the rights that have been “recognized” by the modern liberal state are not so much rights against the state as they are rights against other social bodies that used to have some mea­sure of authority in the lives of men and women.

Nisbet traces the rise of the sovereign liberal state at the expense of the Church, the guilds, universities, social classes, the extended family, and now at long last, even the nuclear family—everything except “the individual.”

(Emphasis added)

The attack on the institutions of civil society is far more pernicious today than when Henrie wrote.

First, it seemingly has become a Democrat party cliché that “Government is simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together,” but the cliché is obviously a half-truth, for we do many other things together, too. Or maybe the Democrats have in mind Government being the only thing we do together, or homogenizing civil society to where it’s no more that the ladies’ auxiliary to government.

But we have far worse to fear that subversive cliché. The latest of which I’m aware doesn’t even come from government, but from neo-McCarthyite homophiles seeking to enlist the aid of big business to crush colleges and universities that resist (by asking for Title IX waivers or allowing free speech) homogeneously diversifying:

The business case for equality is clear. If companies take pride in “being inclusive and welcoming to all” and say that “discrimination is wrong,” these same corporations must consider their associations with these 102 anti-LGBTQ campuses. Discrimination under the guise of religion is still discrimination. It is the most oppressive and hurtful kind of bias and prejudice to LGBTQ people, who have been victimized by religion-based bigotry for many years.

… Don’t donate to these campuses. Don’t recruit or hire at these colleges. Simply choose not to do business with those who choose discrimination over inclusion and diversity.

Thus did Shane Windmeyer, M.S., ED., McCarthyite creep, call for discrimination over inclusion and diversity while accusing others of doing so. Seriously: what kind of idiotic LGBT jackbootery will it take before corporate America realizes qui cum canibus concumbunt cum pulicibus surgent?

Before that, it was Iowa and Massachusetts Civil Rights Commissions beginning the progressive campaign to refashion “deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs and structural biases” by making Churches into public accommodations subject to our new raft of gender-bending pseudo-laws, rooted in nothing more substantial than a “Dear Colleague” letter from Washington. The Iowa and Massachusetts bureaucrats won’t say exactly what they mean, but one possible example would be be refusing to call Trans Jack by his preferred name of “Suzy” at evangelistic spaghetti dinner.

When the state comes around offering you more rights, you can safely wager a large amount of money that it’s offering a zero-sum game at the expense of someone other than the state.

If con­servatives wish to remain true to their his­torical concerns, they should recognize as their adversary the Universal and Homoge­neous State.

Even the pretense that we’re free is tacitly abandoned:

The homogenizing power of liberal mar­ket logic is revealed in contemporary politi­cal arguments that speak of the necessity of “competitiveness” in international markets. While it is often claimed that modern tech­nological production has freed humanity from nature or necessity, the unrestrained market has itself become the realm of neces­sity that cannot be opposed.Here, it is con­tended that we are not free to resist the demands of market efficiency. We are not free to seek such social goods as higher environmental standards. We are not free to defend settled ways of life by protecting older domestic industries. Owing to lower real wage levels brought on by a competitive labor market, women are not free to remain at home as mothers, regardless of the non-quantifiable harm to children. In short, we are not free to organize any of our social relations in a manner that will lead to pro­duction inefficiencies. Indeed, the free trade agreements of the last decade which seek to eliminate “non-tariff barriers to trade” aim to establish supra-state mechanisms that will prevent nations from freely choosing for any reason any path for their society that conflicts with the demands of the market; all peoples will be subjected to the “necessi­ties” of efficient market competition. How ironic that the liberal partisans of individual “freedom” have led us to a situation where the demands of the market itself preempt or obscure free choice.

Henrie did not fully anticipate the totalizing role of American Corporate power when he wrote, not of giant corporations, but of “the market economy.”

Most controver­sially to American conservatives, we can begin to see here that what is at issue in our confrontation with modernity is not state authority, considered an evil, against the freedom of the market, considered a good. What Kojève understood, what the older and especially the Continental conserva­tives understood, and what American con­servatives in the 1990s must come to under­stand, is that the liberal state is a cooperative venture between a certain form of political association (democracy) and a certain form of economic association (the market economy)—both founded on an atomized and atomizing individualism. Together, these act to “rationalize” society and per­sons in society. In this analysis, the market is not experienced positively as a realm of unique freedom, but instead is experienced as a realm where uniform laws of rational efficiency act to the end of homogenization and therefore dehumanization. Human goods such as community, solidarity, and indeed, even eccentricity, which are threat­ened in the process of homogenization, are what conservatives ultimately must be about “conserving.”

As demonstrated by the bullying of Indiana during its RFRA adventures and now North Carolina for politically incorrect toilet laws, corporations are a huge enemy of freedom.

So what do we do about this?

Also at the formal level of political life, conservatives should continue their critical attention to rights-discourse. For as we have seen, this is the lever by which the sover­eignty of the liberal state has progressed at the expense of the various intermediate as­sociations. There are good arguments to be made for abandoning or at least severely curtailing our use of “rights-talk.” Still, if Americans must speak in this idiom, at least for the time being, conservatives should make it their primary aim to investigate and elaborate upon the one right that is most often neglected in American political thought: the freedom of association. In legal philosophy today, this subject largely remains terra incognita, yet it may provide the first key for conservatives to roll back the homogeneous state.

Henrie proposed a possible antidote to excessive corporate power, though he saw the problem of corporate power being somewhat different than what actually has shaped up:

… Southern Agrarians might suggest how a creative logic of resistance against homog­enization can be extended into the world of business. The Agrarians believed that pri­vate property was good because of the sense of independence and responsibility it elic­ited from persons who owned property. But corporate or “abstract” property-ownership does not seem to have this effect. Thus, one conservative reform might be a reconsid­eration of the legal status of the limited liability corporation, which systematically biases the economy in favor of large and impersonal corporate property over propri­etary business concerns. Such a scheme might well be less efficient at the production of material goods, but its effect would also be profoundly humanizing. Are we willing to pay such a price?

This last question is crucial, for seeking changes in public policy so that a humane associational life may flourish will come to naught if we do not ourselves seek in our own local contexts to “live well” together, to build a common life within our families and with our neighbors that might be strong enough to resist homogenization. This may require some sacrifices; it will require us to say “no” to some of the temptations of the market and the state. Yet only if our fami­lies, churches, and other associations mean something to us, indeed become part of us, will a defense of them in public policy be plausible. Living “conservatively”—living generously within our concrete contexts—always has priority over any political or ideological project.

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“In learning as in traveling and, of course, in lovemaking, all the charm lies in not coming too quickly to the point, but in meandering around for a while.” (Eva Brann)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.