Conservatism, Society, and the End of America

To be wary or skeptical of that which is different is not a matter of close-mindedness, hate, racism, or other such “evil” tendencies. Wariness and skepticism, rather, are deep-seated and salutary survival instincts. They are evolved psychological responses analogous to the physiological phenomenon of foreign-body reaction.

Wariness and skepticism are the basis of conservatism: the preference for ideas, methods, materials, and customs which have been repeatedly tested in the acid of use. Conservatism is the opposite of novelty for novelty’s sake, thrill-seeking, and hope-based change — from which stem many an unwanted consequence.

Society, properly understood, is conservative. A society is an enduring and cooperating social group whose members have developed organized patterns of relationships through interaction with one another. No one who gives it much thought would say that America is or ever was a society. The word is used too loosely. But America was, from the aftermath of the Civil War until the early 1960s, at least, an interlocking set of societies, bound more or less tightly by shared social norms (not the least of them being an unashamed belief in the Judeo-Christian God), a common language (most immigrants sought to assimilate), pride in what “America” stood for (remember the Pledge of Allegiance?), and a willingness to defend a nation under the Constitution and laws of which Americans enjoyed a great deal more freedom and prosperity than the denizens of most other nations.

“Liberalism” of the kind fomented by the Enlightenment, by political philosophers like J.S. Mill, and by today’s leftists (including most so-called libertarians), is insidiously destructive of society. “Liberalism” denigrates and attacks the things that bind people, most notably social norms (which include religious ones) and patriotism. (Leftists, ironically, attack identification with America and its history — much of it proud — while touting the virtues of various and sundry identity groups.)

It is no great exaggeration to say that America is no more. Where once upon a time products could be sold by appealing to “baseball, mom, hot dogs, and apple pie”, the slogan would now invite scorn and ridicule throughout much of the land, and especially on the two Left Coasts.

America (taking it as a collective for the moment) has lost its soul, like continental Europe and the British Isles before it. By soul, I mean the common beliefs and norms that bound most Americans as Americans.

There are still remnants of “Old America” where “baseball, mom, hot dogs, and apple pie” hold appeal — especially when coupled with God. But the left, with the connivance of the internet-media-academic complex, has marginalized “Old America”. Even to speak of traditional marriage, personal responsibility, limited government, color-blind justice, the importance of two-parent families, genetic inheritance, performance-based advancement, religion as a civilizing influence, science as a method (not a producer of “truth” to be worshiped), etc., is to be branded a far-right, fanatic who is unfit to hold public office and who should be publicly and vocally scolded (or worse) as a privileged white racist, sexist, homophobe, transphobe, Islamophobe, hater, and science-denier.

How did it happen? How did “Old America” spawn something that is its opposite, nay, its enemy? How did “Old America” spawn forces of suppression that daily seem to grow more powerful in their ability to ostracize, penalize, and dictate to the rest of us? How did this new dispensation come to dominate the institutions that shape culture: academia, public education, (many) churches, the media (including “news” and “entertainment”), and much of the political machinery of America?

I would say these three things, for a start:

Prosperity has separated most Americans from the “real life” and thus from the need for wariness and caution.

The decades-long dominance of leftist ideas in most public schools has fostered the emergence of the left-biased and vastly influential information-entertainment-media-academic complex.

Politicians, whose power has been elevated to undreamed of heights by the abrogation of the Constitution, have joined the leftward throng, when they haven’t been leading it. In particular, government has subverted conservative ideals (marriage before family, hard work rather than handouts and crime, etc.).

I believe that the situation is irredeemable. Many interconnected trends are at work, and they will not cease their work unless they are interrupted by a cataclysm of some kind that forces most Americans to confront “real life” and cooperate in survival.

Do We “Belong” to Government?

A video that played during the Democrat National Convention in 2012 includes this infamous line: “Government is the only thing we all belong to.” I used to reject as literal-minded the kind of interpretation offered by Chris Christie:

I watched [the video] and I didn’t find a whole lot noteworthy about it, except for this: the Democratic National Convention, this is what they said about what Democrats believe. They said, ‘Government is the only thing we all belong to.’

Now I want you to listen to that again. I’m gonna say it slowly. I want you to listen to it again. This is what the Democrats under Barack Obama believe: ‘Government is the only thing we all belong to.’…

[T]he Constitution doesn’t start by saying, ‘We the government,’ does it? It says, ‘We the people.’ All power and authority emanates from the people, and that power and authority, which through that document and our other laws we delegate to the government is the power and authority they have. They belong to us.

You see, that’s what we believed from the founding of our country, but Barack Obama believes something very, very different. He absolutely believes we belong to him. He believes that we are just pawns to be moved around his giant chessboard of government. He’s gonna pick the winners and the losers.

In my guile, I ascribed a different meaning to the statement: “We the people” belong to government in the same way that a Rotarian belongs to the Rotary Club, a Boy Scout belongs to the Boy Scouts, etc. That is, “we the people” are members of a huge club known as the government of the United States. “Our” membership in the club ensures that it works for “our” collective benefit.

Not that I agreed with that interpretation. What would happen to you if you stopped paying your “dues”, that is, your taxes? You wouldn’t be kicked out of the club, you’d be put in a special place that the club maintains for recalcitrant members: prison. It’s a crazy kind of club that admits new members who don’t pay dues, and who sponge off other members. I’m talking about illegal immigrants, of course.

But I was wrong, and Christie was right, as I will come to.

First, I must point out the vast difference between love of country and “belonging” to the apparatus that runs it.

There are patriots who love the United States and swear allegiance to it. But their love is love of country, not love of government. In particular, it’s love of “old America” — still alive (or fondly remembered) in many places:

Old America‘s core constituents, undeniably, were white, and they had much else in common: observance of the Judeo-Christian tradition; British and north-central European roots; hard work and self-reliance as badges of honor; family, church, and club as cultural transmitters, social anchors, and focal points for voluntary mutual aid. The inhabitants of Old America were against “entitlements” (charity was real and not accepted lightly); for punishment (as opposed to excuses about poverty, etc.); overtly religious or respectful of religion (and, in either case, generally respectful of the Ten Commandments, especially the last six of them); personally responsible (stuff happens, and it is rarely someone else’s fault); polite, respectful, and helpful to strangers (who are polite and respectful); patriotic (the U.S. was better than other countries and not beholden to international organizations, wars were fought to victory); and anti-statist (even if communitarian in a voluntary way). Living on the dole, weirdness for its own sake, open hostility to religion, habitual criminality, “shacking up,” and homosexuality were disgraceful aberrations, not “lifestyles” to be tolerated, celebrated, or privileged.

All of that has long been under attack by leftists of the kind who believe that we all “belong” to government in the way that Chris Christie understood. Government is leftists’ poor substitute for the social and cultural richness of real America. It is their religion-substitute, as well.

Hegel saw it coming:

The State subsumes family and civil society and fulfills them…. An individual’s “supreme duty is to be a member of the state”…. Members of a Hegelian State are happy even to sacrifice their lives for the State.

As Bertrand de Jouvenel puts it,

[Hegel’s] novel conception of society had momentous consequences. The idea of the common good now gets a completely different content from its former one. It is no longer a question simply of helping each individual to realize his own private good … but of achieving a social good of much less definite character…. [A]ll is changed when the rights that belong to individuals … give place to an ever more exalted morality which must needs be realized in society….

… There is now a collective being, which is of far greater importance than individuals: clearly, then, the right transcendent of sovereignty belongs to non other. It is the sovereignty of the nation which is, as has often been stressed, a very different thing from the sovereignty of the people…. [S]ociety fulfills itself as a whole only to the extent that partakers of it know themselves for members and see it in their end; from which it follows logically that those only who have attained to this knowledge are steering society toward its fulfillment. In them is all guidance and leadership; the general will coincides with their will only; theirs is the general will. [On Power: The Natural History of its Growth, Liberty Press edition (1993), pp. 54-55]

So, yes, it is true that in the left’s view we do “belong” to government. Not the government “of the people”, but the government of the administrative state championed by Woodrow Wilson:

Wilson insisted that “administration lies outside the proper sphere of politics” and that “general laws which direct these things to be done are as obviously outside of and above administration.” He likened administration to a machine that functions independent of the changing mood of its leaders. Such a line of demarcation is intended to focus responsibility for actions taken on the people or persons in charge. As Wilson put it, “public attention must be easily directed, in each case of good or bad administration, to just the man deserving of praise or blame. There is no danger in power, if only it be not irresponsible. If it be divided, dealt out in share to many, it is obscured”. Essentially, he contended that the items under the discretion of administration must be limited in scope, as to not block, nullify, obfuscate, or modify the implementation of governmental decree made by the executive branch.

Which suits leftists as long as the decrees are theirs, and do not inconvenience them too much. Leftists have this way of believing that they will survive the “revolution”, unlike their counterparts in the France of the 1790s and the Russia of Lenin and Stalin. The tragedy is that they will take the rest of us with them.


Related pages and posts:

Leftism
Leftism: A Bibliography

Liberty and Society
The Eclipse of “Old America”
Genetic Kinship and Society
“We the People” and Big Government
An Ideal World
James Burnham’s Misplaced Optimism