November 21, 1987 | Lecture on Political Thought
George H. Nash is author of 77se Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945.
He spoke at The Heritage Foundation on September 29, 1987. Portions of his lecture appeared in the May 1983 issue of Imprimis.
ISSN 0272-1155. Copyright 1987 by The Heritage Foundation.2 Now, however, the wheel seems to be turning, as the battle over Bork makes clear. For what the judge's opponents are really asserting is that Bork and by implication the entire conservative intellectual movement are marginal, eccentric, and dangerous--n ot part of the "mainstream" at all. To the opponents of this nomination, the American political tradition evidently consists of only two legitimate forces: "progressive" liberalism, entrenched in the courts and elsewhere since 1933, and the "pragmatic," a c commodating Center, willing to ratify liberalism's victories with the doctrine of stare decisis. Aware that he who controls the past controls the future, some American liberals now seem intent on constructing an image of the past that equates conservatism with racism and reaction. If they succeed, tomorrow will be theirs. Core ValueL For all these reasons, then, it seems appropriate today to reexamine the American experience and contemporary conservansm!s relationship to it. More particularly, I wish to id entify some of the core values of our past--values that American conservatism ought to stand for. Perhaps by stepping back from the current tumult and reflecting anew upon what America has meant, today's conservatives can regain both perspective and purpo s e. From the days of the Puritans to the Age of Ronald Reagan, a sense of uniqueness and of destiny has infused the American character. On board the ship Arbella as it sailed for New England in 1630, John Winthrop admonished his Puritan brethren: "...we mu s t consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us." A century and a half later, Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, a Frenchman who had settled in New York, pronounced in a classic little book a famous question: What then is the American, this new man?" And he prophesied: "Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labors and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world." New Order. I wonder whether any of you have ever examined the de sign of our one dollar bill. On the back of it you will find a replication of the Great Seal of the United States. One side of the seal features a majestic bald eagle holding arrows and an olive branch in its talons. The reverse side of the seal, however, is less familiar--and, I think, more reveaI@ng. It shows a pyramid--an unfinished pyramid--with the date 1776 engraved in Roman numerals on its base. Below the pyramid is a motto: Novus ordo seclorum--"A New Order of the Ages." Adopted by the Continental Congress in 1782, the Great Seal of the United States symbolized America's self-image as it embarked upon nationhood. America, the seal suggested, was not simply another nation-state; it represented something novel in history. Moreover, it portended the f u ture--"a new order of the ages," a break with the past. The Old World, with its kings, oligarchies, and regimes of oppression, was to be left behind forever. Now, in a vast and nearly empty land, there would be constructed a republic-2concelved in liberty ," as Uncoln later put, and dedicated to--to what? To a proposition, a creed, a set of truths held to be self-evident. America was to be a polity created by conscious design, an unprecedented experiment in self-government on a continental scale. From its inception in 1776, the American republic has been identified with the hopes and future of mankind. The United States, to borrow a phrase from
Seymour Martin Lipset, was "the first new nation," and Americans and Europeans alike have probed the implications of this event. Said Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy bz America in the 1830s, "I confess that in America I saw more than America; I sought t he image of democracy itself ..... For Tocqueville, as for so many observers, America exemplified the contours of the future. In other ways than the political, America has long been perceived as an untraditional society. To millions upon millions of immig r ants through decade after decade of our history, America has been a land of opportunity, a re ge from the constricted, decadent, stratified, class-bound, traditional societies of E Trope, Is it surprising that during our Civil War the British aristocracy was sympatheti to the "feudal" South, while the British working class favored the more "modem" North? And America has beckoned precisely because it appeared to be different from the Old World.
Vahms of Modernity. What has it promised? It has promised freed om: free land, upward mobility, eRuality of opportunity, a chance to start over. It has been a land of stupendous social energy, a land wherein has flourished, as in no other society before or since, the social type known as the self-made man. Benjamin Fr a nklin is said to have remarked that America is country where we ask of a person not "Who is he?" but "What can he do?" Think about that; it is a profound observation. In our commitment to a society based on individual merit and equality of opportunity, we Americans have adopted two of the core values of modernity.
Still another way in which America has exhibited its modernity is in its dedication as a society to progress--or, to use a better word, to "improvement." Implanted deep in the American psyche is a conviction that social conditions around us do not have to be that way--that if evils exist we can eradicate them, that if, for example, corrupt politicians hold office we can throw the rascals out, that we are the masters of our fate and the captains o f our souls. Passivity and fatalism are not a part of our national character. If we encountdr obtacles that seem insuperable, well, our creed tells us, we can move on. This is one reason, I suspect, why California and more recently Alaska have held so much allure for the American imagination: they are states where, all else failing, we can go and start over. We are a restless people; half of us (think of it--half of us) change residences every five years. Has there ever been a society so mobile, as kinetic, as our own?
Constant Reforndq& This relentless American impulse for "improvement"--of society and of oneself--has taken the most various forms. Think of the extraordinary edifice of higher education that Americans in two centuries have established: from s mall liberal colleges to behemoth universities. Think of the assumptions about human nature behind this commitment, and think also about its expansiveness: Americans increasingly seek education not just for a privileged elite but for ever broader segments of the population. A far higher percentage of Americans attend college, for example, than in any other country n the world. And consider this: has there ever been a society as incessantly productive of reform movements as our own? I refer not only to such ent crusades as those for io pr;mm em'Tc1pation of the slaves, universal suffrage, and re at n of the "trusts," but also of s ch causes as temperance, prison reform, aid to the Indians, the creation of-4 orphanages, abolition of child labor, even the health food movement. "What is man bom for but to be a Reformer ... T' wrote that enormously popular American philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson. We are, I repeat, a restless people, and many of us believe that even our inner selves can be re-formed. It is a remarkable, and remarkably modem, notion. Let me offer another example. As a nation Americans have long been enamored of entrepreneurship, invention, and technology. From Eli Whitney to Thomas Edison, from Henry Ford to Charles Lindbergh, from the Wright brothers to the astronauts, from the automobile to the home computer and VCR: no other society, to my knowledge, has honored science--above all, applied science--as lavishly as has ours. I do not know how many inventions have been patented in the United S tates in the past two hundred years, but I would not be surprised if the total exceeded that of all other industrial nations combined. The Amedcan DreanL This interest in technology, in gadgetry, in shaping and reshaping our environment reflects another as pect of the American temperament. We Americans like to think of ourselves as an optimistic, problem-solving people. During the election campaign of 1980, Ronald Reagan repeatedly denounced the drab, defeatist notion that America's challenges were insupera b le, that our expectations must be lowered forever, that the "era of limits" had arrived. It was a theme that was persuasive with millions. In his inaugural address, Reagan declared: The crisis we are f@cing today [requires] our willingness to believe in o urselves and to believe in our capacity to perform great deeds; to believe that together with God's help we can and will resolve the problems which now confront us. And after all, why shouldn't we believe that? We are Americans. Surely it is a significant datum that in our discourse we speak of something called the American Dream. No one ever talks about the British Dream, the Russian Dream, or the Japanese Dream. But the American Dream--that is something else. Instinctively, we comprehend what it means: i t means opportunity-- opportunity to achieve, to ascend the ladder, to transcend our origins, however humble. We sense that this is distinctively an American dream, that it is inextricably interwoven with our self-definition as a people. We sense further t hat ours is a land where dreams, often enough, find fulfillment, and that our society is unusual because of it. This belief in American uniqueness and destiny, then--of America as a trailblazing society--has been deeply embedded in our historical consciousness. It is not the sole property of the Uft. Consider this quotation: It was not because it was proposed to establish a nation, but because it was proposed to establish a nation on new principles, that July 4, 1776 has come to be regarded as one of the g reatest days in history [emphasis added]. Who said this? Tom Paine? William 0. Douglas? No; it was Calvin Coolidge in 1926. Now consider these words:
By a classless America our forefathers meant far more than a sociological egression. There were to be no stratifications in life that handicapped the rise of any boy from the bottom to the top. The human particles should move freely in the social solution .... This idea of a fluid classless society was unique in the world. It was the point at which our society structure departed from all others
Who wrote this paean to a classless America? Hubert Humphrey? Eugene Debs? Jane Fonda? No: it was Herbert Hoover in 1940.
Or consider the following poem, written many years ago and delivered significantly enough, at the Republican national convention in 1980:
'Tis great to see the old world and wander up and down Among historic palaces and the cities of renown And admire crumbly castles, and the statues of the kings, But now I think I've had enough of antiquated things, So now it's home again and home again-- America for me.
My heart is turning home again and there I long to be, In the land of youth and freedom beyond the ocean bars Where the air is full of sunlight and that flag is full of stars.............................................. I know that Europe's wonderful, yet something seems to lack, The past is too much with her, the people looking back. But t he glory of the present is to set the future free. We love our land Lor what she is and what she is to be. So ifs, home again and home again-- America for me. [emphasis added] America is different: it represents youth, freedom, energy, a better future: th is is a vision that has been central to our national identity. A few years @go, I participated in a conference of German and American conservatives held in Bad Godesberg, West Germany. The subject as the "Reagan Revolution!' and its implications for the A tlantic alliance. I was fascinated, during
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those four days, by the differences in outlook and temperament between the American delegation and its European hosts. The Americans tended to be ebullient and practical, filled with specific suggestions for getting things done, Do we want to advance the cause of conservatism? Then, the Americans would say, let us organize: set up conferences, establish "think tanks," found journals and newspapers, work at the grassroots. The Germans, in contrast, seemed much less "activist," more constained by a sense of limitation, and elitist rather than populist in their approach to institutions and the mechanisms of social change.
E[istory a Burden. Above all, I was struck by the differences in attitudes toward histor y among the conferees. For most Americans at the meeting, history seemed to begin with the Carter Administration, and when answering questions, Americans focused quickly on the present. When the Germans answered questions, their remarks might begin with l e arned references to the revolution of 1848 and work down gradually (sometimes very gradually) toward the present. For the Americans, the past was prologue; for the Germans, it was a weight. As one German intellectual said to me during the conference, "Our [German] history is a burden and a curse." I returned home with a deeper appreciation of the distinctiveness of the American experience. Perhaps by now you discern the point I am making. If, as the social scientists tell us, the process of modernization e n tails social mobility, economic freedom, and the breakdown of class barriers; if it means equality of opportunity, increased popular participation in politics, and equal justice under the law; if it means a social order that is not static and hierarchial but dynamic and future-oriented;. if it means technological innovation and a spirit of improvement; then America for two hundred years--at least in its own self-understanding--has been a modernizing, not a traditional society.
Modernizers vs. Traditionalis ts. There have been dissenters from these trends, to be sure, and sometimes the dissenters have been eloquent. In his bicentennial history of Illinois, Professor Richard Jensen has even reinterpreted American history as in substantial measure a conflict b e tween "modernizers" and "traditionalists." Mark Twain, for instance, scomed the American penchant for uplift. 'To do good is noble," Twain observed. 'To instruct others in doing good is just as noble iind much easier." Among twentieth century American cri t ics of the modernizing ethos, one thinks above all of Albert Jay Nock, H. L Mencken, and the Southern Agrarians, who published I'll Take My Stand in 1930: "superfluous men," Robert Crunden has called them, brilliant men, but men whose dissent only undersc o red the prevailing orthodoxy of their time. Most Americans--at least most Americans who got things done in the society--saw themselves as creators of a modem, progressive civilization. The quintessential American, a British visitor shrewdly remarked in 18 98, is "a highly electric Anglo-Saxon." Until well into the twentieth century, America was predominantly, in more than one sense of the term, a Yankee nation.
Now I am generalizing broadly, of course. And you will note that I am dealing with perceptions and ideals. But the "most potent force in society," Herbert Hoover once reminded us, "is its ideals." From the late eighteenth century to the early twentieth, t he dominant American idea has been (to use a current term)7 "democratic capitalism." And in the long perspective of Western history, democratic capitalism has been a virtual synonym for modernization. Yet if America in many respects is a modem society (as I have used the term thus far), we must now examine an unsettling fact: that for more than half a century the identification of America with the future of mankind has been declining. No longer, it seems, is America perceived as the harbinger of the n e w order of the ages.. Instead today, over much of the earth, the inspiriting ideals of the American experiment--the ideals of political equality and participation, of entrepreneurial freedom and economic growth, of social fluidity and equality of opportun ity--are scorned, despised, and mocked. Why has the American system lost its idealistic appeal as a model for other new nations? Some, I suppose, would claim that this was inevitable: That America, the nation of youth, has finally become middle-aged. Some would argue that America's sense of uniqueness was always a function of geographical isolation and that as America's isolation has disappeared, it has lost its immunity from the Old World and its ills. No longer, they would say, is America exempt from the disillusionments of history. Still other observers would point to our racial problems, political corruption, unemployment, or environmental pollution and claim that the United States is no longer a success story, hence not a model for anybody. 'Plotitical Fflgrinn.7 These explanations have some plausibility, but they are not sufficient. For what has occurred in the past fifty or sixty years is not simply the discovery of an alleged gap between American ideals and American reality but a growing and massive r ebellion against the ideals themselves. To an influential number of American and European intellectuals in this century, other societies have supplanted America as the repositories of progress and modernity. Just after World War I, the eminent muckraking j ournalist Lincoln Steffens declared, "I have been over into the future--and it works." He was not referring to his own United States but to Russia. For him and so many others, Communist Russia had come to portend the beneficent next phase in the evolution of mankind. Lincoln Steffens was but an early example of one of the most extraordinary phenomena of the twentieth century: the rise of what Paul Hollander has called "political pfigrims"--deeply alienated Western intellectuals, many of them quite famous, who have repudiated their own societies, traveled to horribly repressive totalitarian regimes, and found therein the dawnings of utopia. Over the years, the particular earthly avatar of the new age has varied. In the 1920s and 1930s, it was Soviet Russia; later it was Cuba and Maoist China, Vietnam under Ho Chi Minh and Chile under Salvador Allende. But alway@ it was somewhere else--never America. And always it was a totalitarian regime. New Modemity. This profound inner defection of many of the West's mos t distinguished intellectuals from the American ethos of democratic capitalism is one of the most stunning and disturbing features of our time. It is a phenomenon, of course, that has many roots--far more than I can analyze here. But clearly it is linked to the rise, within the last century or so, of a new conception of modernity. Unlike the modernizing principles to which I have referred earlier, this "new modernity" (as I shall call it) has not been primarily political or economic in its
orientation . It has been, at bottom, literary, aesthetic, and, in a way, spiritual. The pioneers of this new consciousness are familiar enough to us all: names like Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and Sartre; Ibsen, Gide, and Baudelaire; Pound, Picasso, and the early Albert Camus. Again, I must generalize and simplify, but few, I think, will deny that at the heart of this "new modernity" was a sense of relativism, negation, and despair. Where the "old modernity" asserted that certain truths were self-evident, the "new modern i ty" denied that universal truths exist. Where the "old modernity" was bourgeois, the "new modernity' was bohemian, contemptuous of bourgeois culture. Where the "old modernity" tended to be optimistic (after all, would not tomorrow be better than today?), t he "new modernity" was not. Where the "old modernity" tended to be rationalistic, the "new modernity" explored the irrational and the absurd. Where the "old modernity" offered liberation from external constraints--from the barriers of class, race, nationa l origin, and arbitrary government--the "new modernity" preached liberation from inner constraints--from traditional morality, from artistic convention, from rationality itself. Where the "old modernity" concentrated on getting ahead in the world and was r elatively indifferent to questions of ultimate meaning, the "new modernity" was haunted by the conviction that life has no ultimate meaning, that God (as Nietzsche put it) is dead.
There is little doubt that this "new modernity"--or modernism, as some have labeled it--has penetrated very deeply into our civilization. How is it that this counterculture has become so pervasive? Writing more than fifteen years ago, Jeffrey Hart offered one answer. America in the past generation, he wrote, has witnessed a "cul t ural explosion!': paperbacks, Eliot reading his poems to fifty thousand students in a Midwestern football stadium, LP records, Mailer and Genet and de Sade appearing in mass circulation journals, the op-art and pop-art and porno phenomena. All of these th i ngs, along with affluence, the GI Bill and the assumption, implicit in democratic theory and increasingly the premise of government action, that absolutely everyone must go to college, has now given rise to a vast student proletariat. Twenty-five years ag o , about 10 percent of the college-age population attended college; today the percentage approaches 50 and it will continue to climb. Much of this proletariat absorbs the attitudes of the adversary culture.... Fxistential Ideas. Looking back on my own educ a tion, I can attest to the acuity of Professor Hart's remark. Attending college in the 1960s, I was exposed to books like Paul Goodman's Growing Up Absurd and Norman 0. Brown7s Life Against Death, to plays like Waiting for Godot and the MaratlSade. Teachin g at Harvard in the early 1970s, I had a student tell me one day that all values are without rational foundation, that one can only choose arbitrarily among them. This was pure existentialism, of course, but where had he acquired such ideas? And as the "ne w modernity" has percolated down through our culture, the values of the "old modernity" have come increasingly to seem old-fashioned. Listen to the voices that dominate our public discourse (and I do not mean Mr. Reagan's). Listen carefully the next time s omeone uses the term "Protestant ethid' or "middle- class values" or "equality of opportunity" and see whether you do not detect a note9 of irony or condescension. Surely it is significant that the political embodiment of these values in the United Sta tes at present is the Republican party, the conservative party. It is in the Republican party and among people called conservatives and neoconservatives that one still hears the rhetoric of upward mobility and achievement, of liberty and free market capit alism as the hope of all nations. The ideals of modernity--of the old modernity, that is--have become the property of the conservatives. Something to Believe In. Now does this clash of "modernities" really matter? Does it matter that the ideology of modernism has become a vital orthodoxy among the secular intelligentsia? Does it matter that, as Midge Decter observed in a brilliant speech a few years ago, there is spreading through our society a conviction that "nothing is worth dying for"? Yes, it does matter, for two reasons. First, few men and women can live in a spiritual vacuum for long. If their society seems meai@ngless, they will in r age and frustration find or create meaning somewhere, even in violence, decadence, and revolution. Second, no society can survive without some sense of its own goodness. If many Americans no longer believe in our system, there are others in the world who believe in theirs--and are willing to enforce their beliefs at gunpoint. Now is there a historical relationship between the "two modernities?" I have presented them as antagonists, but could there be some dialectical process by which the one inexorably gav e birth to the other? Is there, in other words, an inevitable declension from democratic capitalism to socialist nihilism? There is a verse by Goldsmith that my New England ancestors used to recite: III fares the land To hastening ills a prey Where wealth accumulates And men decay. More recently, Joseph Schumpeter, Daniel Bell, and others have suggested that capitalism creates the intellectual class that will ultimately destroy it--indeed, that capitalism generates its own fatal "cultural contradictions": that capitalism, with its ceaseless incitements to instant gratification of every taste, no matter how debased, eventually destroys the cultural matrix of decency, sobriety, and self-restraint upon which it--and republican self-government--depend. Is this thesis true? Is the "new modernity" the necessary offspring of the old? In short, is the American way of life inherently and irremediably flawed? Religious Roots, I do not believe that it is. But if I am correct, it is because of a fundamental constitut ive element of the American ethos that I have not yet mentioned. Consider again the Great Seal of the United States. It contains, as I have said, the motto Novus ordo seclorum and the image of an unfinished pyramid. But hovering above the pyramid is a sym b olic unblinking eye: the eye of God. And placed above that is another Latin motto, Annuit Coeptis, meaning "He has favored [our] undertaking." Americans, I said earlier, are a restless people, but as Tocqueville Ion . ed, we have not been restless in ; ag o recogniz everything, particularly in the realm of our formative philosophic and moral beliefs.
And a powerful reason for this remarkable constancy amidst so much flux is that America, from the beginning, has evolved within a context of Christian religious belief.
I am not saying that the Founding Fathers sought to establish a Christian Commonwealth or that America's public institutions have been explicitly religious in character. I am saying that the impulses described earlier in this essay--the im pulses that I have called the "old modemity"--have operated, at least until recently, within a predominantly and persistently religious culture. If the "new modernity" has not yet triumphed among us, it is because American culture has been molded and guid e d by the non-modem and profoundly civilizing force of our Judeo-Christian religious heritage. In short, if the American polity and economy are in some sense modem, American culture--at the level of ultimate beliefs about God and man--has been and perhaps remains primarily conservative.
The United States of America, then, is a modern nation. But it is not only a modem nation, and in this fact may lie the fate of the American experiment. Liberty, said Alexis de Tocqueville, "cannot be established without mor ality, nor morality without faith." If America is to survive, its indisputably modern elements, it seems to me, must be conjoined with what Russell Kirk has called the "permanent things," spiritual thi@gs, and the institutions that sustain them. Without t h is fusion, the American experiment may fail--not because it is a 'regime of liberty but because liberty alone cannot instruct our own and our countrys future, and for that guidance we must turn outside the marketplace and the polling booth. If the old mod ernity is not to succumb to the relativism and anti-religious nihilism of the new, it will have to draw on transcendent, pre-modem sources--on religious faith--to infuse our lives with meaning.
Edmund Burke said it well:
Society cannot exist unless a cont rolling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fe tters.
It is the duty of conservatives--even while accepting and celebrating the ideals of the "old" modernity--to forge the internal checks and balances that will channel those ideals toward the "permanent things" and thus give spiritual substance to the floppo rtunity society."
How, then, shall we conclude? Is the American experience conservative? The answer, I think, is simple: the American experience is what it is. So let me rephrase the question. Is the American experience worth conserving? My answer-- and I trust yours--is: yes. Blemiqp of ]Uiberty. It is not, perhaps, commonplace for you to hear a conservative scholar celebrate the ideals of the "old modernity" and invoke it as a paradigm of value against its detractors. Still, if any of you are tempted to say that democratic capitalism is not worth purifying and preserving, or to conclude that the American experiment is too "modern" for your taste, I would ask you to indulge inI
a little act of imagination. Imaged that when you leave this room you will be arrested and perhaps tortured for unlawful assembly; in large portions of the world' at this very moment, this would be your fate. Imagine that you could not obtain employment because of a government whim; it has happened to Lech Walesa. Imagine that i f you could not find a job, you would be expelled from the city where you are now living; this is the case in the Soviet Union every day. Imagine that if you tried to practice your religious faith, you were prohibited from going to college or pursuing any but the most menial career. It is happening in the USSR today. The American heritage of which we are the heirs has bequeathed to us the 'blessings of liberty." Freedom--to worship, to travel, to select and change careers. Freedom--to write, to publish, to attend meetings like this. 1&t us not lightly disparage these blessings. Free societies are a rarity in human history, and as the Vietnamese and Cuban boat people can tell you, they have their merits still. American conservatives, then, unless they wish t o live lives of reclusive despondency, must defend and civilize, not repudiate, the free society they have inherited. It will not, I believe, be easy; at times it will entail, in Whittaker Chambers's unforgettable metaphor, "a dance along a precipice." But in the world of spreading nihilism and tyranny, American conservatives must cherish their roots and perceive their true enemies with clarity. Against the disparagements and competing mythologies of the Left, they must affirm the vitality and validity of t he American Dream.}}