Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

What Is an American Conservative?

The Anti-Federalists teach how liberal today's conservatism has become.
bush ranch
President George W. Bush drives his pickup truck at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, Friday, Aug. 9, 2002. WHITE HOUSE PHOTO BY ERIC DRAPER

Earlier this week I began a series of lectures in one of my classes on the thought of the Anti-Federalists. I began by echoing some of the conclusions of the great compiler and interpreter of the Anti-Federalist writings, Herbert Storing, whose summation of their thought is found in his compact introductory volume, What the Anti-Federalists Were For. I began with the first main conclusion of that book, that in the context of the debate over the Constitution, the Anti-Federalists were the original American conservatives. I then related a series of positions that were held by the Anti-Federalist opponents of the proposed Constitution. To wit:

They insisted on the importance of a small political scale, particularly because a large expanse of diverse citizens makes it difficult to arrive at a shared conception of the common good and an overly large scale makes direct participation in political rule entirely impracticable if not impossible. They believed that laws were and ought to be educative, and insisted upon the centrality of virtue in a citizenry. Among the virtues most prized was frugality, and they opposed an expansive, commercial economy that would draw various parts of the Union into overly close relations, thereby encouraging avarice, and particularly opposed trade with foreign nations, which they believed would lead the nation to compromise its independence for lucre. They were strongly in favor of “diversity,” particularly relatively bounded communities of relatively homogeneous people, whose views could then be represented (that is, whose views could be “re-presented”) at the national scale in very numerous (and presumably boisterous) assemblies. They believed that laws were only likely to be followed when more or less directly assented to by the citizenry, and feared that as distance between legislators and the citizenry increased, that laws would require increased force of arms to achieve compliance. For that reason, along with their fears of the attractions of international commerce and of imperial expansion, they strongly opposed the creation of a standing army and insisted instead upon state-based civilian militias. They demanded inclusion of a Bill of Rights, among which was the Second Amendment, the stress of which was not on individual rights of gun ownership, but collective rights of civilian self-defense born of fear of a standing army and the temptations to “outsource” civic virtue to paid mercenaries.

As I disclosed the positions of the Anti-Federalists, I could see puzzlement growing on the faces of a number of students, until one finally exclaimed—“this doesn’t sound like conservatism at all!” Conservatism, for these 18-to-22-year-olds, has always been associated with George W. Bush: a combination of cowboy, crony capitalism, and foreign adventurism in search of eradicating evil from the world. To hear the views of the Anti-Federalists described as “conservative” was the source of severe cognitive dissonance, a deep confusion about what, exactly, is meant by conservatism.

So I took a step back and discussed several ways by which we might understand what is meant by conservatism—first, as a set of dispositions, then as a response to the perceived threats emanating from a revolutionary (or even merely reformist) left, and then as a set of contested substantive positions. And, I suggested, only by connecting the first and third, and understanding the instability of the second, could one properly arrive at a conclusion such as that of Storing, who would describe the positions of the Anti-Federalists as “conservative.”

First, there is the conservative disposition, one articulated perhaps most brilliantly by Russell Kirk, who described conservatism above all not as a set of policy positions, but as a general view toward the world. That disposition especially finds expression in a “piety toward the wisdom of one’s ancestors,” a respect for the ancestral that only with great caution, hesitancy, and forbearance seeks to introduce or accept change into society. It is supremely wary of the only iron law of politics—the law of unintended consequences (e.g., a few conservatives predicted that the introduction of the direct primary in the early 1900’s would lead to increasingly extreme ideological divides and the increased influence of money in politics. In the zeal for reform, no one listened). It also tends toward a pessimistic view of history, more concerned to prevent the introduction of corruption in a decent regime than driven to pursue change out a belief in progress toward a better future.

Conservatism—as a conscious political philosophy, rather than simply as a way of being in the world—begins as a reaction to the revolutionary movements arising from the Enlightenment, culminating in the French Revolution. Its “founder,” of course, was Edmund Burke, whose opposition to the French Revolution was the embodiment of this conservative disposition, displaying, with rhetorical brilliance, a prophetic vision of the tendencies of this revolutionary ideology toward barbaric inhumanity in the name of progress.

Conservatism also takes a more problematic form—one of simple reaction to the opposition. As a reaction to the left, conservatism has always been prone to drift—it will tend to articulate its position in opposition to the current stances of progressives. Thus, today it is far from the positions once held by the likes of the Anti-Federalists: rather, it has assumed a series of positions that can only be described as closer to the vision of Hamilton—the most nationalist and commercial-minded of the Federalists—now aligned in opposition to a left that has since embraced the historicist philosophy of Progressivism. Where once American conservatives opposed an expansive commercial economy, today they are its champions. Where they once decried identification with the nation over localities, states, and regions, today they are the most vociferous nationalists. (Long forgotten is the fact that the Pledge of Allegiance was originally written in 1892 by the socialist Francis Bellamy, cousin of the utopian novelist, Edward Bellamy, during the high-water mark of the Progressive era.) Where they once deeply mistrusted “foreign entanglements” and insisted upon a citizen militia, fearing that a standing army would become subservient to the ambitions of a distant elite political class, today they are the close allies of the “military-industrial complex.” In each instance, they have moved to occupy the positions once occupied by the left. No wonder my students were puzzled.

Only by linking a conservative disposition with relevant substance can we avoid the tendency of conservatism simply to march a step behind the left, of becoming a ship buffeted by historicist winds with a permanently leftward drift. The Anti-Federalists were conservatives not only because they were wary of the introduction of political innovation in the form of the Constitution; they saw its basic “tendency” as one of “consolidation,” a solution born of a purported political emergency that called for the scuttling of the then-inadequate political document, the Articles of Confederation. They believed especially that emergency powers would be constantly invoked by the executive, and that these powers would never stand down—that accumulation of power to the center would increase steadily, irreversibly, and with gathering strength. They predicted that the Supreme Court would eventually invalidate laws of the states, becoming a powerful unelected star chamber that would advance the liberal agenda on a national scale. The very argument that “times” would demand a fundamental change would be used later by the Progressives to discover a “living Constitution,” an eventuality predicted by the Anti-Federalists. Like Burke, their conservativism gave them a special gift of prescience, an awareness of both unintended—but also intended—consequences.

Today’s conservatives are liberals—they favor an economy that wreaks “creative destruction,” especially on the mass of “non-winners,” increasingly controlled by a few powerful actors who secure special benefits for themselves and their heirs; a military that is constructed to be only loyal to the central authority in the capital, frequently moved about to avoid any rooted loyalty, and increasingly isolated from most fellow citizens; an increasingly utilitarian view of education aimed at creating individuals who will become able cogs in a globalized industrial system, largely without allegiance or loyalty; proponents of an increasingly homogenized society whose allegiance is to a set of ideas, especially a “more perfect union,” which Francis Bellamy expressed, was inspired by the example of the French Revolution.

One reaction to my previous article, denouncing an economic system creating a two-class society, suspected me of not being conservative at all, even of harboring Marxist inclinations. This constitutes a logical error—just because Marx was a critic of  capitalism, that does not make all critics of capitalism Marxist. To such criticisms, I can only reply—if what you seek to conserve is liberalism, then you’re right, I’m no conservative. And by today’s definition, who, except a few discredited neo-conservatives (a.k.a., paleo-liberals) trying to reignite the good old days of the Cold War, would want to be so defined?

If conservatism is broken today, we need only blame liberalism. There is only one party in America—your choice is liberalism with deliberate speed, or liberalism in a hurry. What is needed is a new, doubtless very different, American conservatism.