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Outsider Conservatism

From Burke to Buckley, traditionalism has never meant conformism.
Irish in Britain: Edmund Burke

The problem with Republican Party outreach runs deeper than a failure to offer policies tailored to ethnic interests, such as amnesty for illegal immigrants. The core of the GOP’s demographic crisis isn’t just racial, it’s generational and cultural: as Leon Hadar has noted of the Asian vote, “younger and more educated Asian-Americans are drifting by large numbers to Obama’s party, very much like younger and more educated white Americans.”

The average Asian-American (or white) high-tech entrepreneur, software engineer, or graphic designer may have benefited professionally and economically from the free-market environment of the 1990s. But he or she feels less comfortable with a political party perceived to be dominated by white politicians that many see as being intolerant toward minorities, gays, women and, yes, immigrants.

Asian-Americans and Hispanics aren’t the only burgeoning blocs of voters eluding the GOP’s grasp: what does the party have to say to the increasing numbers of non-Christians and unmarried Americans—other than, quite literally, “go to hell”?

The common denominator among the unchurched, non-white, and unmarried, aside from party preference, is their youth. The GOP’s aging white Protestant majority has failed to reproduce itself, in spirit even more than in the flesh. Already America has become a country facing a choice at the ballot box between a Mormon and a man with a Kenyan father. Within 30 years’ time, the voting public itself will seem just as exotic. What place can conservatism have in this future?

A very large one, perhaps, if by conservatism we mean traditional conservatism.

Before it became conflated with right-wing populism, conservatism was very much a movement of outsiders. Its leading lights after World War II—the first time any significant segment of the population embraced the previously alien and un-American “conservative” label—consisted largely of Catholics, Jews, and Mitteleuropean emigres. Catholics then were as suspect as any part of the Democrats’ coalition is today. Paul Blanshard’s American Freedom and Catholic Power was published the same year as the first book to herald postwar conservatism, Peter Viereck’s Conservatism Revisited. Viereck himself was a member of a minority whose 100-percent Americanism was in doubt—he was a German-American whose father had even been an agent of the Vaterland—and while he was Protestant, he answered the anti-Catholics of his day with a line that’s still remembered: “Catholic-baiting is the anti-Semitism of the liberals.”

That’s the kind of response conservatives ought to give to Muslim-bashers today, but you won’t hear it from Rush Limbaugh. Ironically, the right now apes the identitarian attitudes that the populist theorist Sam Francis once advanced, but does so in the service of the corporate-governmental elite that Francis hoped to supplant. The result is a populism that hasn’t preserved white Protestant America but that has cast away the restraints of traditional conservatism. It’s become an inverted, right-wing liberalism.

Always mordant, Francis was accurate, if not complimentary, when he described what the pre-populist right was like in his 1991 essay “Beautiful Losers”:

National Review itself was not only Manhattanite but also Ivy League and Roman Catholic in its orientation, as well as ex-communist and ethnic in its editorial composition, and not a few of its brightest stars in the 1950s were personally eccentric, if not outright neurotic. Moreover, few of them reflected the ‘Protestant Establishment’ … . Of the twenty-five conservative intellectuals whose photographs appeared on the dust jacket of George H. Nash’s The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945, published in 1976, four are Roman Catholic, seven are Jewish, another seven (including three Jews) are foreign-born, two are southern or western in origin, and only five are in any respect representative of the historically dominant Anglo-Saxon (or at least Anglo-Celtic) Protestant strain in American history and culture (three of the five later converted to Roman Catholicism).

The Ivy League flavor of early NR can mislead: the magazine’s key figures were misfits within the academy, even when they enjoyed great success. Willmoore Kendall, an Oklahoma pastor’s son, was so often at odds with Yale colleagues and administrators that the school finally bought out his tenure—offering him cash to pick and go, anywhere. Much of William F. Buckley’s charm, meanwhile, lay in the incongruity of his rebellion: here was this upstart Catholic, this Texan, telling Yale how to be true to its traditions.

Conservatives of such conflicted backgrounds could not afford to be smug. They felt, and their work attested to, a tension in trying to conserve traditions to which they were in some senses alien—in trying, for example, to reconcile an adamant Catholicism with a democratic and Protestant culture. In general, conservatives who are conservatives and not reactionaries have had to reconcile the love of an old civilization with its protean modernity.

This clash of time and place, the mixture and divergence of identities, was nothing new for Anglo-American conservatism; it was very nearly the essence of the thing. It’s a tradition, after all, that by convention begins with an Irishman serving in the English Parliament, a man who was of the Church of England but had a Catholic mother and sister. After Burke, the 19th-century apostle of “One Nation” conservatism was an Anglican and a Jew, Benjamin Disraeli; while a century later and an ocean away, Barry Goldwater would joke that the first Jewish major-party nominee for president had to be Episcopalian.

Today, in a historical reversal, the populist right demands conformism along the lines once laid down by progressive nationalists such as Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt. The rough edges of human difference must be rubbed down. This is what conservatives from Burke to Russell Kirk would not allow. Viereck forcefully warned of where this would lead:

The Western heritage is not diversity alone nor unity alone but diversity within unity. Being a Christian-Hebraic-Roman-Hellenic amalgam, with inner contradictions sometimes reconciled but sometimes not, the Western heritage allows for a generous dose of tolerant pluralism. If you make no allowance for pluralism and and aim at too much unity, you will get no unity at all; you will only provoke the same internal strife and chaos that you condemn in those who seek too little unity.

It’s a tart irony that people who imagine themselves champions of Christian, Western, and American tradition are in fact undermining the pluralism and elasticity that characterize those traditions in practice: conservatism like that is an act of taxidermy, preserving the form while losing the life. The West can adapt to post- or non-Western elements, and traditional conservatives have long shown the way, from Irving Babbitt’s study of the parallels between Buddhism and the Western frein vital to the Sanskrit lines with which T.S. Eliot concludes The Waste Land.

If American conservatives once understood this, why do they seem to do so no longer? One answer is the primacy that partisanship has assumed over culture. To keep voters engaged in a struggle between parties with nigh identical economic and foreign policies, other differences must be heightened and presented as a clash between dualistic (and dueling) absolutes. Stark, winner-take-all political divisions must be given urgency by being read back into the culture, which on its own terms is more fluid and pluralistic. This is the task of Fox, Limbaugh, and the partisan press: you’re with us—indeed one of us—or you’re against us.

Nothing could be more inimical to the spirit of Burkean conservatism. Just how inclusive Edmund Burke’s own understanding of tradition could be is indicated by a story Robert Nisbet relates in Conservatism: Dream and Reality: “On an occasion when a group of Indians was visiting London and had been unable to win the assent of Anglican or Dissenter alike to brief use of a church for their own religious services, Burke extended the use of his house for this purpose.”

Burke rebuked the conspiracy-minded Catholic-haters of his time, who saw subversion in minority religion, even at the risk of being labeled a Catholic himself. “I could not prevail on myself to bestow on the Synagogue, the Mosque, or the Pagoda the language which your pulpits lavish on a great part of the Christian world,” he wrote to John Erskine in 1779. Of his own preferred policy, Burke said, “I would give a full civil protection, in which I include an immunity, from all disturbance of their public religious worship and a power of teaching in schools as well as temples, to Jews, Mahometans, and even pagans….”

A century later, Nisbet notes, such religious attitudes and even more radical ones, “including agnosticism and atheism, seem to have mattered surprisingly little to the Victorians” and were well attested among conservatives; in the U.S., “Robert Ingersoll, staunch conservative Republican and pillar of bar and bourse, was a militant atheist.”

Predicating conservatism on a narrow cultural or religious identity is untrue to conservatism itself, as well as strategically suicidal. As Paul Weyrich, a Melkite Catholic deacon and the man who gave Jerry Falwell the name “Moral Majority,” emphasized in his 1991 essay “Cultural Conservatism and the Conservative Movement”:

By insisting on religious beliefs as a pre-condition of membership, the Religious Right has been exclusive rather than inclusive. As military theorist Col. John Boyd points out, the essence of strategy is building connections, and the essence of strategic failure is isolation. The Religious Right has been self-isolating, and in this it has failed strategically.

… Christ Himself was careful to talk to people in language they could understand, and He went to great efforts to seek out those who had turned away, who were deemed ‘unclean.’ To say we should not work with any who do not share our religious belief smacks, frankly, of Phariseeism.

The art of politics—especially for the traditional conservative, who shuns utopian dreams of making men all alike, whether in class, creed, virtue, race, or anything else—has always been the art of integration: reconciling hoi polloi and hoi aristoi, the rich and the poor in the Greek city state; reconciling Catholic and Protestant, Scots and English in the United Kingdom; keeping intact the polyglot empire of Austria-Hungary or the racially and regionally divided United States. The challenges the U.S. faces today are not different in kind from those that other polities have confronted in the past, with various degrees of success; conservatism’s task is to serve as the pin that holds together a society in whirl.

Daniel McCarthy is editor of The American Conservative.



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