Can American Conservatism Be Saved?

The best part of Wilfred McClay’s new essay on what Michael Oakeshott could contribute to today’s American Republicanism is a gem from George Santayana, perhaps the most under-rated conservative writer I know. In thinking of America, Santayana was struck by the vastness of its wildernesses, its gigantic mountain ranges and deserts, its inherent difference from the genteel English conservatism of what Tolkien called the Shire.

But he didn’t draw from this any sense of American exceptionalism, in which this country’s sheer might could empower it to run the world, or to unleash the animal spirits of capitalism. He saw something else in those mountains:

A Californian whom I had recently the pleasure of 428px-Michael_Oakeshott meeting observed that, if the philosophers had lived among your mountains, their systems would have been different from what they are. Certainly, I should say, very different from what those systems are which the European genteel tradition has handed down since Socrates; for these systems are egotistical; directly or indirectly they are anthropocentric, and inspired by the conceited notion that man, or human reason, or the human distinction between good and evil, is the centre and pivot of the universe. That is what the mountains and the woods should make you at last ashamed to assert…

It is the yoke of this genteel tradition itself that these primeval solitudes lift from your shoulders. They suspend your forced sense of your own importance not merely as individuals, but even as men. They allow you, in one happy moment, at once to play and to worship, to take yourselves simply, humbly, for what you are, and to salute the wild, indifferent, non-censorious infinity of nature. You are admonished that what you can do avails little materially, and in the end nothing. At the same time, through wonder and pleasure, you are taught speculation. You learn what you are really fitted to do, and where lie your natural dignity and joy, namely, in representing many things, without being them, and in letting your imagination, through sympathy, celebrate and echo their life.

There is a Whitmanesque celebration of America here – but in the service of emphasizing the limits of human activity, the insignificance of so much that rivets us day by day, and the more fruitful option of mere enjoyment of these wildernesses, a giving over to them. And this uniquely American sense of the promising yonder and awe-inspiring West will – and should – shape an indigenous conservatism. Why such an emphasis on contingent space and place? Because conservatism in its best sense is about the constant situating of the individual within a cultural and historical context. Indeed, the very idea of the individual, an Oakeshottian would insist, is a contingent and unlikely achievement of the modern European and American mind, forged first by Augustine from the moral kindling of Christianity, and elaborated ever since. Individualism can never therefore be an ideology. “I built that” is an excrescent simplification, a form of contempt for tradition and society.

McClay asks the obvious yet overlooked question in our politics today: what is it that American conservatives want to conserve? It’s a great question. I am sympathetic, for example, to some conservatives’ dismay at the decline of unifying cultural events like Christmas or Easter. I am sympathetic to conservative resistance to changes in, say, marriage law, or the cultural impact of mass Latino immigration. There is real loss for many here as well as real gain for many more in the future. But the key to a more productively conservative defense of tradition is, it seems to me, a civility in making the case and an alertness to the occasional, contingent need for genuine reform, as social problems emerge in a changing society.

Today’s Republicanism is, in contrast, absolutist, ideological, fundamentalist and angry. It has ceased to be a voice among others in a genuine conversation about our country and become a rigid, absolutist ideology fueled by the worst aspects of the right – from racism to Randian indifference to the many others who made – and make – our lives possible. A lot of the time, it is quite simply philistine. Here’s what McClay gleans from Oakeshott’s writing that could help the cause of conservative reform:

First, the idea of conversation as the model for civilized life.

Second, the need to create and preserve appropriate scale in our communities, for the sake of fostering just such conversation.

Third, the profound human need for release from the burden of purposefulness, which is perhaps another way of expressing the enduring need for transcendence, an avenue that Rationalism tends to foreclose to us.

And fourth, the irreplaceable mission of liberal learning.

To translate: civility in public discourse, maximal federalism and subsidiarity, a sense of transcendence to overcome the delusions of materialism and individualism, and a relentless defense of universities as the core places where our society learns to breathe and grow in the light of knowledge and understanding.

Is this an agenda? Not in any sense of the word. And that is the point. There is no fixed set of policies that an Oakeshottian conservative will embrace. It will all depend on the time and the place and the problem. He will question change and reform as a constant necessity – which is what makes him (and me) allergic to the bromides of progressivism. But he will also try and judge when reform is necessary to preserve the coherence of a society. So, for example, I favor immigration reform, legalized cannabis and gay marriage because they are contingent and creative responses to emergent social facts: the existence of millions of undocumented immigrants, widespread illegal use of cannabis, and the arrival of a self-conscious minority denied the dignity of equal citizenship. There are Oakeshottian conservative critiques of all three reforms, as well. The issue, in the end, is one of prudential judgment about all these questions, a skill and virtue that can never be reduced to an ideology or “ism”.

Understanding the limits of one’s own understanding makes a political conversation natural. It’s what I’ve tried to foster here on the Dish and failed to live by during the more emotional period after 9/11. It’s not just a blogging formula. It’s a way of thinking. And until we revive that manner of thinking, American conservatism will remain defined by its ugliest and dumbest protagonists.

Recent Dish on Oakeshott here. My own book on Oakeshott’s thought (my doctoral dissertation) can be bought here. My more accessible book, The Conservative Soul, deeply influenced by Oakeshott’s thought can be bought here.