If Conservatism Doesn’t Stand for Home Then it Stands for Nothing
The movement was poisoned at its root---or rootlessness---but it can be revived.
I have long believed that the word conservative is sullied beyond reclamation, so my immediate answer to the question “What is American conservatism?” is “a Beltway-based racket exploiting the healthy instincts of decent Americans on behalf of the military-industrial complex, Wall Street, and the Republican Party.” But that answer is confuted by this very magazine, founded as it was in opposition to the criminal Iraq war and animated and inspirited, then and now, by principles and precious things that had long been forgotten or repudiated by most of the American Right: peace, place, humility, community, federalism, the Bill of Rights.
The conservative movement was poisoned at its roots—or, should I say, its rootlessness. After the death of the noble Senator Robert Taft (R-OH) in 1953, “conservatism” at the national level came to be defined, to a grossly disproportionate degree, by ex-communists avid to slay the god that failed them. The resultant movement subordinated domestic felicity and the gloriously idiosyncratic Little America to the frenzied promotion of what William F. Buckley Jr. described as an “instrument of totalitarian bureaucracy within our shores,” which he said we must accept “for the duration” of the Cold War. But when the Soviet Union dissolved, we did not return to being a “normal country,” as Jeane Kirkpatrick, Reagan’s UN ambassador, had recommended, but instead sought out a dreary concatenation of new enemies to justify the warfare state. (Even now, bellicose opportunists have their eye on China, as the scare-by date of shoe-bomb jihadis is about up.)
The wisest, most insightful, most independent-minded men who passed through the late and unlamented conservative movement—Robert Nisbet, Karl Hess, Russell Kirk, Murray Rothbard, Felix Morley—became disaffected and out of step. They understood that a grotesque empire had suffocated and supplanted the erstwhile republic, and that an America that is true to itself and worthy of respect must be decentralist, anti-interventionist, neighborly.
There is a healthy tradition in American political life that breathes this spirit, and that is, in parts and in sum, gentle, rambunctious, lyrical, just, and deeply, deeply American. Its first bloom was the Anti-Federalists, those prophetic backcountry critics of our misbegotten Constitution and champions of a decentralized nation. The tradition stretches on through the Loco Focos, the Populists, the Southern Agrarians, the Catholic Workers, the Old Right, the “freewheeling participatory democracy” wing of the New Left, the Perot-Buchanan-Paul Middle American revolutionaries, the hippie localists….This is the soul, the numen, of political America.
This is not just a literary conceit, or a gallery of lovable romantic losers. I see its expression, in variegated forms, all around us. It’s in farmers markets, grocery co-ops, community-supported-agriculture farms, local theater, and homeschool groups. It’s there wherever Americans gather in defense of the first Ten Amendments (dig all those Ninth Amendment rallies!), or every time a young girl puts up a birdhouse or kids gather for a pickup baseball game. Politically, it takes the form of split-state movements in New York, California, Illinois, and elsewhere; it’s in the Bring the (National) Guard Home campaign and the inchoate yearnings for peace that both parties do their best to snuff out; it’s in the distributist proposals to encourage small shops and home production and in the anarchist calls to expropriate the expropriators; it’s in the libertarian rejection of the surveillance state and in the refusal of those whom Robert Frost affectionately termed “insubordinate Americans” to say hooray for Hollywood. It’s in things hipster (small craft breweries, little libraries, DIY music) and square (Kiwanis, Knights of Columbus, volunteer fire departments).
America is not an idea, an abstraction, or a marketing slogan. It is our home, and the land we love above all others.
At church, or public gatherings in my town, a prayer for the young people in the armed services will usually end with “bring them home safely.” I never have the heart to tell the minister that the architects of U.S. foreign policy do not intend for these soldiers to ever come home en masse. They will be over there—the exact location of there changing every few years—forever. It’s no coincidence that the foreign policy slogan most reviled by the foreign policy establishment—after “America First,” of course—was “Come Home, America,” the patriot George McGovern’s beautiful, even poetic plea in 1972. Because America ain’t ever supposed to come home.
It’s striking how seldom the word home is used in American political discourse. It packs a visceral punch, it can trigger the tear ducts—“Bring the Boys Home,” to echo the great anti-Vietnam War anthem by Freda Payne—but while home touches something in ordinary Americans, it means nothing to those who stride purposefully through corridors of power.
Well, if conservatism doesn’t stand for home then it stands for nothing, and to hell with it.
We owe the carnival barker in the White House profuse thanks on two counts: first, for driving a stake through the heart of the Bush and Clinton dynasties, and second, for bulldozing the barbed-wire fences that confined political discussion to the turbid channel separating Mitch McConnell from Nancy Pelosi.
Alas, Donald Trump is in love with grandiosity, with hugeness, with a bigger-is-better philosophy that is the antithesis of the humane and human-scale Little America whose million and one civic embodiments are the best thing about this country.
Don’t make America great. Make her good by reinvigorating the dormant traditions of local self-government, of confident liberty, of charity and love, and of that wonderful indigenous blend of don’t-tread-on-me defiance of remote arrogant rule with I’ll-give-you-the-shirt-off-my-back communitarianism.
Is that conservatism? I dunno. But it’s American, and it’s good enough for me.
Bill Kauffman is the author of 11 books, among them Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette and Ain’t My America.
See all the articles published in the symposium, here.