In his essay in the 2006 issue of The Political Science Reviewer our good friend Bruce Frohnen addresses fundamental questions regarding the conservative roots of America’s political culture. I publish this partially in response to Brad Birzer’s “Under Montana Skies” essay today. In this essay Brad defends alliances between conservatives and libertarians for the purpose of reining in our Leviathan government. I think we could include Tea Partiers, Constitutionalists and Libertarians in the “Pan Right Alliance” as Brad suggests.
However, my primary concern is for principled conservatism to be explained at every possible opportunity. We must be focused on efforts which are consistent with our intellectual and spiritual roots. If traditional conservatism becomes just an appendage of the anti-big government political alliance then we are lost. We must put the political and economic questions in their proper place: subordinate to culture, faith, family and local community. Politics and economics are subsets of the cultural big picture. Let us do our part in the necessary political work but be ever mindful of our true calling.
Below is an excerpt from Bruce’s essay. The full piece can be found here. Thanks to ISI for making back issues of The Political Science Reviewer available online.
Is the United States a revolutionary nation? Was it founded in 1776 out of whole cloth by men determined to construct a government and a people committed to radically new ideas of political equality and individual liberty? Or is American public life best understood as the outgrowth of a political culture—governmental structures and an unwritten constitution consisting of people’s habits, attitudes toward government and general ways of life—rooted in British and earlier traditions in the west? Were the founders politically innovating liberals or culturally and historically grounded conservatives?
Much hinges on the answer to this question because it indicates the nature and tendency of our founding documents and our nation’s intended path. If America is at its core a set of ideological beliefs we all must accept and serve, then we must constantly reshape ourselves and our way of life to fit these ideas. But if our nation was founded to preserve a pre-existing way of life that the founders valued deeply, then it is this concrete way of life—the institutions, beliefs, and practices central to the local communities in which we live—that we must work to conserve, rather than any abstract notion of the best political regime.
Russell Kirk left no doubt on which side of this debate he stood. At a time when the liberal interpretation of America’s past and destiny reigned all but unchallenged he forged, from dispirited and isolated pockets of resistance, a tradition of cultural valuation and analysis. And this tradition connected “modern” America to its cultural roots in Great Britain, medieval Europe and the classical world. From The Conservative Mind through The Roots of American Order and America’s British Culture Kirk insisted that American constitutional government—our system of ordered liberty—rests on customs, beliefs, and habits developed during 150 years of relative self-government in the colonies and by centuries of formation within Western civilization.
Kirk argued that our “new order of the ages” was not intended to be a political utopia founded on abstract theories. Rather, it was to be an experiment in republican self-government firmly grounded in traditions of common law, local control, and adherence to Christian and western standards of virtue. Thus the American founders drafted a Constitution that balanced and limited the powers of the central government, thereby protecting rather than threatening the cultural habits or unwritten constitution onto which it was grafted. Conservatives at the time—John Adams chief among them—sought to maintain the historical continuity of Americans’ traditions and ways of life within their new nation. Of course, Jefferson and his followers took a different path; they sought to reform society on the basis of abstract principles borrowed from the French revolutionary Jacobins. And so was born the fundamental tension in America between defenders of tradition and ideologues committed to the notion of progress and its corollary values of equality and material wealth.
…Yet Kirk’s cultural understanding of the nature and proper ends of politics is hardly eccentric. It belongs to a tradition of sociological understandings of public life represented by prominent figures such as Alexis de Tocqueville, Otto von Gierke and Robert Nisbet. As a method of political analysis it is alive and well and shared by a worthy group of successors. Traditional conservative scholars continue to expand our knowledge of the social institutions and customs at the heart of the American way of life. And it is to our way of life rather than to any set of abstract political precepts that conservatives would have us look in judging the worth of political or any other institutions.
Books mentioned on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
Bruce P. Frohnen is a Senior Contributor to The Imaginative Conservative and Professor of Law at the Ohio Northern University College of Law. He is the author of Virtue and the Promise of Conservatism: The Legacy of Burke and Tocqueville, The New Communitarians: The Crisis of Modern Liberalism, and editor (with George Carey) of Community and Tradition: Conservative Perspectives on the American Experience. He is also the editor of The American Republic: Primary Sources and The American Nation: Primary Sources.