Alan Wolfe on American conservatives’ inability to govern

Alan Wolfe argues here in the The Washington Monthly that conservatives have a dismal record in as political leaders.

What I found most interesting was his argument that, contrary to its constant invocation of the Founding Fathers, today’s American Conservative movement is out of sync with American history and political culture.

"Why Conservatives Can’t Govern" by Alan Wolfe

The United States, as the political scientist Louis Hartz argued in the 1950s, was born liberal. We fought for our independence against Great Britain and the conservatism that flourished there. In Europe, a conservative was someone who defended the traditions of the monarchy, justified the privileges of the nobility, and welcomed the intervention of a state-affiliated clergy in politics. But all those things would be tossed out by the revolutionaries who led the war for independence and then wrote the Constitution. We chose to have an elected president, not an anointed monarch. Our Constitution prohibited the granting of titles of nobility. We separated church and state. 

Of course, we had more than our share of thinkers who distrusted national authority; conservative political philosophy may not come naturally to Americans, but a fear of centralized power and an unwillingness to pay heavy taxes does. Beneath the broad political liberalism embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution was a frequently unexamined conservatism that questioned the very idea of the vibrant, expansive society that America promised to be. 

Odd men out in America’s liberal political culture, America’s conservatives were never very unified. Alexander Hamilton and John Marshall wanted to see a strong national government created to improve America’s economic prospects, even if they retained an aristocratic sense that only social superiors should control that government. (John Adams outdid them on behalf of a strong executive; he thought our first president should be addressed as a monarch). But this kind of New England Federalism would go into abeyance once America’s democratizing forces were unleashed. Others insisted that this country should embody timeless Christian principles; they, however, soon ran up against the skepticism of the Founding Fathers and conceptions of religious liberty associated with dissenting Protestantism. With the decline of both, the only significant conservatism left would come from defenders of slavery such as John C. Calhoun. Once the advocate of a strong national government, Calhoun, putting the rights of slaveholders first, viewed this country as a compact among states, not as a unified society. His ideas would live on in the voices of those thinkers, primarily Southern, who objected to relying on national power to promote equal rights for all.

As this litany of lost causes suggests, our conservatives, while representing different regions and economic interests, were united by their irrelevance in the face of history. If the term reactionary is too pejorative, let’s call them reactive. In this entrepreneurial, mobile, innovative, and individualistic country, conservatism was constantly on the defensive, aiming to preserve things–deference, reverence, and diffidence, to name three–that most Americans were anxious to shed. Deprived of both a church and state to defend, American conservatives became advocates for privileges determined by birth, suffrage restricted to an elite, and rural virtues over urban realities.

And so conservatives faced a dilemma from the moment the first shots were heard around the world. They could be true to their ideals and stand on the sidelines of political power. Or they could adjust their principles in the interests of political realism and thus negate the essential conservative teaching that principles are meant to be timeless. All the conservatives that played any role in America’s history since the age of Jackson chose political relevance over ideological purity. The Whigs abandoned aristocracy to nominate a popular military leader in the 1840s, hoping thereby to out-democratize the Jacksonians. An emerging business elite defended the free market–an 18th-century liberal innovation detested by agrarian-oriented conservatives–to protect the very kind of privileges that Adam Smith hoped the free market would curtail. Isolationists abandoned the cosmopolitanism of Hamilton, perhaps America’s greatest conservative, for a populistic nativism suspicious of worldly grandeur. Clergy from evangelical churches played down such depressing doctrines as original sin and predestination in favor of the wonders of salvation for all. European conservatism had defended authority against liberty and social standing against equality. American conservatives used the language of liberty to justify inequality and promoted democracy to stand against change.

Read the whole thing.