A Trichotomy of American Conservatism

My reading of Roger Scruton’s The Meaning of Conservatism (about which more at a later date) prompts me to dash off this trichotomization of American conservatism. Not all of the following types are truly conservative, by Scruton’s lights, but all usually carry the label “conservative” in American discourse.

True-Blue Traditionalist: This type simply loves and revels in family, community, club, church, alma mater, and the idea of America — which includes American government, with all its faults. If government enacts truly popular policies, those policies are (by and large) legitimate in the eyes of a true-blue. Thus a true-blue may be a Democrat or a Republican, though almost certainly not a libertarian. This type comes closest to Scruton’s view of what constitutes conservatism, even though most Americans would not think of it as conservative.

Libertarian of the Classical Liberal School: This type may (or may not) love and revel in most of the institutions revered by a true-blue traditionalist, but takes a different line when it comes to government. Voluntary institutions are good, but government tends to undermine them. Government’s proper role is to protect the citizenry and the citizenry’s voluntary institutions, not to dictate the terms and conditions of their existence. The classical liberal favors government only when it observes its proper role, and not for its own sake.

Rightist: The rightist differs from the true-blue traditionalist and classical liberal in three key respects. First, he is hostile toward those persons and voluntary institutions that are not in the “American tradition” of white, northern Europeanism. Second, his disdain for things outside the “American tradition” is so great that he is likely to be either an “America firster” or a reincarnation of Curtis “bomb them back to the stone age” LeMay. (That is, he would call the troops home and leave the “heathen masses” to fight it out amongst themselves, or he would simply deal with “those ragheads” by “nuking” them.) Third, he is willing to use the power of government to enforce the observance of those values that he favors, and to do other things that he (arbitrarily) sees as necessary.

I have exaggerated the characteristics of the three types to make them recognizable. Certainly, there are blends of and variations on the three types. There is, for example, the rightist who is isolationist without being racist. And I must add that it is not racist or bigoted to believe with good reason that certain cultures and “movements” contain elements that are destructive of civil society, elements which should therefore be resisted and denied legitimacy.