Friday, December 31, 2010

American Conservativism: Intellectual, Cohesive, Anti-establishment, Exceptional (Part II)

James Piereson is president of the William E. Simon Foundation and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. He has written an important essay that proclaims American conservativism to be the country’s most vibrant political philosophy; the very essence of American exceptionalism.

Piereson’s argument continues, in his own words, in Part II:

conservatives will have to craft a new governing consensus out of the loose strands of their movement—but . . . conservatism will continue to operate as a political force in the years and decades ahead because it has turned itself into a popular, even a populist, movement—something few thought possible when conservatism first took shape. . . Yet in a democratic polity such as exists in the United States, conservatism could not have thrived . . . without also channeling its ideas into a popular force.

Critics, from Richard Hofstadter in the 1950s to Sam Tanenhaus more recently, have denied that a popular conservatism can exist because, in their view, conservatism must sacrifice its distinctive elements in the process of winning a mass following. . . Edmund Burke’s ever-famous writings on the French Revolution [endorsed] governance by the talented, supported the status quo, and preferred prudence and realism as guides to political action over abstract theories and principles. American conservatism, on the other hand. . . has exploited popular appeals, attacked the status quo and “the establishment,” used terms like “the conservative revolution,” and, especially in foreign policy, proposed an “idealistic” rather than a “realistic” approach to dealing with foreign threats.

American conservatism [is anti-establishment] because it originated outside the political mainstream and. . . has never really functioned comfortably within it. . . As an opposition movement in a democratic system, American conservatives can only gain power by taking their case to the public in order to win converts to their cause and, incidentally, to discredit the . . . status quo.

Because it developed as a challenge to . . . the New Deal and its successive iterations, American conservatism embodies many of the features of an insurgent or oppositional group. Conservatives [describe] their enterprise as a “movement,” . . . an active and dedicated membership moving toward some definite destination. . . most conservatives still think of themselves as an embattled minority fighting a proud and insulated establishment.

Shut out of liberal institutions, such as elite-college faculties and the national press, along with mainline churches and even government itself, conservatives have set up their own . . . think tanks, radio and television networks, magazines, book publishers, citizen associations, charitable foundations, newspapers, and even a few colleges . . . conservatives attend meetings and conferences, form friendships and associations, and develop and exchange ideas without ever having to [contact] liberals. From these redoubts, they rally the public against the liberal establishment, often with impressive success and much to the alarm of liberal critics who . . . view them as dangerous radicals.

Conservatives have in this way created their own “nation” within the nation, replete with its own culture, institutions and prominent personalities. . . As a political insurgency, American conservatives also have naturally adopted the language of opposition, speaking of “revolution” . . . and attacking “elites,” “the establishment” and an “out-of-control government.”

The movement is distinguishable from a political party by its emphasis on principles and philosophy, its interest in recruiting only like-minded members and its focus upon large goals rather than incremental changes in policy. Because of this character, the conservative movement is not much interested in “the politics of compromise” or in accommodations with liberalism and liberal politics. Conservatism thus remains even now a movement of ideas and philosophy rather than . . . a collection or coalition of interests.

movements can continue intact in the face of persistent defeats until their goals have been reached or they have been absorbed into the mainstream operations of government. In fact. . . in opposition. . . principles can be advocated in pure form, [while] in power. . . those principles are inevitably adulterated by compromise.

Several years ago, [the Economist’s] John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge. . . pointed out that the influence of the American conservative movement . . . provides the nation with its unique and exceptional identity in the world. . . it is American conservatism that has opened up the chasm between the politics of the United States and that found in other industrial nations of the world. . . the American Left, with its industrial unions, government workers and liberal intellectuals, has its obvious counterparts in Great Britain, France, Germany and much of the rest of Europe. The Democratic Party [isn’t] out of place within the European context. It [isn’t] the American Left that makes the United States an exceptional nation.

American conservatism, on the other hand, is a unique and unusual movement in the modern world. Its various affiliated groups promoting liberty and free markets, lower taxes, religion and traditional morality, or patriotism and national strength, are largely unknown elsewhere. There exists no political institution in Europe that resembles the various components of the conservative movement, such as . . . the various tax-limitation and patriotic groups now active, or the Tea Party movement. And conservatism’s . . . Sarah Palin [or] Newt Gingrich would make little headway in other countries. [Thus,] the conservative movement increasingly defines American exceptionalism in the contemporary world.

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