All the American Tories

Daniel McCarthy has perhaps the best take on Red Toryism and its incompatibility with the realities of American politics I have seen yet. One important factor behind the success of traditional, pre-liberal Toryism in Britain, he argues, are the traditional institutions in the United Kingdom: the Church of England, the Monarchy, and most importantly the long memory of these institutions in the British people’s collective conscience. Writes McCarthy:

America does not just suffer from the absence of similar institutions to give authoritative voice to counter-values. We have national institutions, but not of the traditional, pre-liberal kind. Ours are the White House, the Pentagon, and the Federal Reserve. Everything else is the domain of wealth and private interest—including Congress and our churches. We do, however, have a national religion: the cult of American Exceptionalism that unites everyone from Pat Robertson to Christopher Hitchens. Its high priest is the president, to whom we turn in times of danger when divine help is most besought, such as after 9/11.

What happens if one injects an uncompromising critique of rights, individualism, and liberalism into this national machinery? The product may not be Red Toryism, but more executive secrecy, deficit spending, war, torture, and disempowerment of civil society. No wonder, then, that for all our national-greatness conservatives laud Benjamin Disraeli, they never sound like Tories. They are instead in the tradition of Caesar and Napoleon, of mass democracy and militarism.

Now this is a fairly strong case against anti-liberal solutions in American politics, and particularly those advocated by Blond. As McCarthy notes, “Red” conjures too many visions of communism, and the very notion of communitarianism sends shivers down American conservatives’ collective spines. That community mumbo-jumbo is for lefties – conservatives are all about family values and individualism.

McCarthy’s alternative is to trust in our decentralized institutions, and confound whenever possible the overreach of the federal government, especially in its foreign policy. Or, to put it simply:

The first task of the American Tory is Hippocratic: do no harm.

Now, I think the problems which Blond and McCarthy both lament – the civil breakdown of society, fracturing from a ‘fetishization of choice’ and the inevitable fall-back of the individual on to the crutches of the state  – are nowhere as deep-seeded or permanent a condition as plenty of traditional conservatives seem to believe. Oh, I think much of it is true to a degree, and perhaps that is where we differ – in degree only. Likewise, as much as I sympathize with Blond’s outlook here, I think generally a capitalist economy with some form of redistribution and safety nets is the best way to preserve society. All the other stuff – choice, morality, etc. – will be in flux as society changes, and society will continue its rapid change regardless of our better judgment or the folly of our politicians. We will move forward, overextend ourselves through our technologies, our social attitudes, etc. and then we will rein ourselves in. I have faith in the corrective power of common sense. Perhaps a little alarmism over cultural decay is a good and healthy thing, but so is a little cultural decay I think, if only to shake things up and prevent calcification and rust.

God may go into hiding for a bit, but there will be a resurgence of belief even in Europe when secularism has run its course, when it has reached its societal plateau(I don’t think secularism will go away any time soon, nor do I think it ought to, but I do believe that highly secularized societies will have major shifts back toward religion in the future).

Marriage may go out of style, but eventually the benefits of the family and the monogamous relationship will outweigh whatever value the freedom of an uncommitted lifestyle might provide.

And our politicians have very little effect on all of this, or at least they shouldn’t. That’s why I like McCarthy’s solution: First, do no harm.

This also reminded me of another American Tory – well, rather a British ex-patriot living in America – Henry Fairlie. Alex Knapp passed along this article in Newsweek to me the other day (you might want to print it out, just in case…). It’s a good read, and makes me wish I’d read more of Fairlie’s work.

Fairlie was anything but your typical American conservative, far more in keeping with the Tory tradition than the American one:

Fairlie didn’t assail American conservatives because he was a liberal in Burke’s clothing: he was just as quick to castigate the Democrats when they screwed up, and with just as much spiky humor. But however much they erred, he argued, the Democrats remained "the normal governing party of the most powerful and most restless free nation in the world." The vital difference between the parties lay in their views of government itself. Like many Democrats, he believed that the political realm was the only place where a free people could contend with the tyrannies of all the other realms—especially the economic one. Even after reporting on political malfeasance in more than a dozen countries on three continents, Fairlie insisted that politics was "essentially good" and politicians "the most hopeful messengers of a society’s will to improve."

Conservatives, by contrast, showed an infuriating hostility for Washington, nothing like the "gusto" brought to politics by Fairlie’s beloved FDR. "The Reaganite conservative does not trust the political system, and so is always trying to circumvent it; he does not trust the instincts of Congress, but places profound faith in the wisdom of the executive if he is in charge; he does not trust the deep religious instinct of a people, unless it is decked out in the tawdry costume of a minute of silent prayer in school. The only loyalty that eight years of Reaganite conservatism has inspired is of each to the country of his self." Extend Fairlie’s argument to the present, and Dick Cheney, with his consistent and inventive transgressions, begins to look like one of the least conservative leaders we’ve ever had.

Toryism is anything but a settled affair. Obviously from on Tory to the next you’ll have plenty of differences in philosophy. But in Blond, in David Cameron, in Fairlie – and in McCarthy, the Tory Anarchist as well – we have a conservatism that is interested, at the very least, in working toward sensible governance, not simply parroting old lines about tax cuts, not so deeply mired in animosity toward the government that it becomes nearly impossible to actually run the damn thing once they’re at the wheel.

Which means, conversely, that in America at least they would never stand a chance at the wheel in the first place (though to be fair, George H. W. Bush had a bit of the Tory sensibility in him I think. His son, however, rather lacked sensibility at all….)

Please do be so kind as to share this post.
Share

28 thoughts on “All the American Tories

  1. Really interesting read, I do agree especially about the British comparison. When it comes to the Monarchy for instance I don’t think the presidency compares favorably since we have in America the symbolic and practical leader of the country being the same person. In the UK and the various dominions the practical leader of the country is the Prime Minister but the symbolic power (and many powerful but very rarely used powers) are kept separate and away from this practical leader in the person of a Governor General standing in for the distant and unintrusive Monarch head of state.

    To the red toryism I just don’t see it happening. None of the various groups of people in the US trust each other enough to ever willingly back down from the hard core individual rights position.

      Quote  Link

    Report

    • @North, The advantage of separating the head of state and the head of government is that the monarch commands the respect due to the head of state, but no-one is obliged to respect her prime minister. This makes is much easier to disagree with the government on matters of policy without anyone plausibly being able to accuse you of a lack of patriotism, something conservative Americans do with irritating frequency when they happen to hold the presidency. Apparently this patriotic duty to agree with the president about everything disappears when a Democract holds the office.

        Quote  Link

      Report

      • @Simon K, Pretty much agree Simon. Elizabeth II has filled the role of head of state with reliable and admirable poise for decades while her PM’s were rank politicians scrabbling in the day-to-day politics and it worked quite well. Now perhaps it’s just that I am a staunch monarchist (grandmothers influence) but I’ve always considered this arrangement to be a highly valuable one. Not to mention she looks nice on the money.

          Quote  Link

        Report

  2. A minor quibble:

    Is Dan’s point necessarily best described as a “case against anti-liberal solutions in American politics”? Perhaps it’s more aptly called a case against American politics as we know them?

      Quote  Link

    Report

  3. Daniel’s point here:

    We have national institutions, but not of the traditional, pre-liberal kind.

    is, I think, pretty important, though I personally disagree with the conclusions he thinks necessarily follow. As I argued yesterday, Red Toryism (or really, any kind of Toryism, but most especially the “Red” kind) needs to have some kind of shared, conceptual, morally authoritative sphere to operate within. In a pluralistic society, “Society” by definition probably can’t do it. And the marketplace certainly can’t. What’s left? Government, of course, and yet with a government committed to liberal neutrality and proceduralism, it would seem that’s out of the question as well. But that’s the thing: it isn’t necessarily out of the question in Britain (though I think, looking at the returns, it is out of the running for the moment), and other democracy for that matter, so long as they possess pre-liberal, nationally authoritative institutions through and around which government action–including distributist, devolving, democratic action–can be taken. Those institutions have been greatly weakened in Britain, of course, which is why it’s probably just as well that a Red Tory moment is probably not in the cards; what Blond & Co. really should be talking about is a simultaneous decades-long project of civic/religious renewal, and that will require work both within and without government. As for the United States, a country almost empty of such pre-liberal, pre-individualist traditions and institutions? It makes the project even harder, obviously–though unlike Daniel, I’m not ready to give up hope.

      Quote  Link

    Report

    • @Russell Arben Fox, I thought the article linked to was very good, but like you, I had reservations about the last few paragraphs.
      I believe I discovered the part that I’m uncomfortable with, in your remarks here:
      some kind of shared, conceptual, morally authoritative sphere to operate within. In a pluralistic society, “Society” by definition probably can’t do it. And the marketplace certainly can’t. What’s left? Government, of course, and yet with a government committed to liberal neutrality and proceduralism, it would seem that’s out of the question as well.
      At issue is seeing these things out of context.
      That is, the moral authority is already there, and quite prominently.
      To be discovered, it needs to be re-phrased as:
      On what basis do we observe a pluralistic society?
      On what basis are is our marketplace governed?
      On what basis do we observe this liberal neutrality and proceduralism?
      There lies the principles and the moral authority.

        Quote  Link

      Report

      • @Will, I don’t follow how you say I’m speaking “out of context.” It is, in fact, exactly the context that I’m concerned with here. Is the context within which a government operates one that partakes of, or on some deep level is assume to be based upon, one which genuine moral authority? Whether it be the established church, the monarchy, or a dozen other old constitutional legacies, Britain arguably has one (though, pace John Gray, it needs to be seriously revivified, something that Cameron’s reforms might have arguably contributed to). In the United States, what is our similar context? I’m open to the argument that our civic religion, our basis for pluralism, etc., is actually much more substantive than it appears today, but is it substantive enough, in the form of existing traditions and institutions, to support Red Tory/localist/ communitarian style reforms? At the very least, not on the level that they potentially might have been (or might yet be) tried in Britain.

          Quote  Link

        Report

        • @Russell Arben Fox, Not you in specific, but the question itself is out of context.
          At issue is how these things are uniquely American (to some extent, at any rate).
          So, to re-phrase the issue again:
          On what basis do we observe a uniquely American pluralistic society?
          On what basis is our uniquely American marketplace governed?
          On what basis do we observe this uniquely American liberal neutrality and proceduralism?

          Or we could go about this from the other side of it.
          Consider the matter of law. If the law is an end in itself, then the only manner in which it might ever be improved is in the greater observance of it. If the law is a thing which has an aim which is its true goal, then it might be improved in any way in which that true goal is more perfectly realized.
          So, from the other side of it:
          How might our uniquely American pluralistic society be improved? Or is a pluralistic society an end in itself?
          How might our uniquely American marketplace be improved? Or is this marketplace simply an end in itself?
          How might our uniquely American liberal neutrality and proceduralism be improved? Or are these things simply ends in themselves?

            Quote  Link

          Report

  4. God may go into hiding for a bit, but there will be a resurgence of belief even in Europe when secularism has run its course, when it has reached its societal plateau(I don’t think secularism will go away any time soon, nor do I think it ought to, but I do believe that highly secularized societies will have major shifts back toward religion in the future).

    This is something I would enjoy seeing you expound on, especially as one who believes the opposite will occur.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  5. I’m rather confused by Blond’s declaration of his own anti-liberalism. A careful reading implies he’s opposed to the liberalism of the French Enlightenment (particularly Rousseau and always exemption Toqueville of course), which almost no English-speaking politician ever wanted anything to do with, but rather more ambiguous about the English/American/Scottish kind of liberalism which has always accepted that there’s a role for social institutions and that those institutions are shaped by tradition. He seems to be following in the equally ancient tradition of Burke and the recent communitarians of talking himself into believing he’s anti-liberal whilst, when push comes to shove, not actually wanting to stand by any truly illiberal views.

      Quote  Link

    Report

    • @Simon K,
      I also find the attack on liberalism not necessarily relevant.

      After all, Thomas Jefferson – who was just as, and arguably more, familiar with and enamored of all of the strains of liberalism than any of the other founding fathers, was also know for his agrarianism and champion of the ideal of the yeoman farmer, and his virtues. And Benjamin Franklin, the incredible inventor of course, who championed the simple and commonsense puritan morality in Poor Richard…

      It was the federalists, especially Hamilton, who favored cities, manufacturing, and commercial industry. He specifically distrusted the common people and believed the elite should rule. It was he who favored a strong central government, and sometimes found it difficult to hide his admiration for monarchism, saying his favorite person was Julius Ceasar (the man who turned the Roman Republic into an empire). And sent a letter inviting the king of Prussia to become king of the U.S.
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prince_Henry_of_Prussia_%281726-1802%29#Proposal_for_King_of_United_States

      I’m not sure distinctions such as liberal and pre-liberal are relevant here.

      It honestly sounds more like Blond is critiquing industrialization, as it is that, or at least society’s failure to respond to industrialization in a more decentralized, communitarian, manner, that has led many ills.

      I supposed the problem with critiquing that, is, it’s just impossible to put Pandora’s curses back in the box.

        Quote  Link

      Report

      • @Jivatman, I’m something of a materialist. I tend to think that Blond has it backwards. Liberalism is the kind of politics you get when people are rich enough to assert themselves as individuals. Wealth causes individualism which causes liberalism, which creates more wealth.

        A lot of the alienation Bond complains of has come about because of increasing freedom of movement and communication, a consequence of increasing wealth, not directly of liberalism.

          Quote  Link

        Report

  6. Here’s where you mention something that’s been going through my noodle lately:
    “I have faith in the corrective power of common sense. Perhaps a little alarmism over cultural decay is a good and healthy thing, but so is a little cultural decay I think, if only to shake things up and prevent calcification and rust.”

    I can be a bit of a curmudgeon about culture- I sometimes sound like a paleocon. For instance, I’m tired of meeting people my age and encountering a sort of… stifling glibness. It’s not a lack of seriousness, but a fear of seriousness. Maybe I’m the only one who’s seen this, but it causes me mild despair because I remember things being different when I met young people back in the 90s.

    But, I think where I differ from paleocons, is that in those areas where I think things are worse than they used to be, I don’t assume that means they’ll be even worse in the future. There are cycles in cultural life. Every era that I hear conservatives laud as a golden age of conservatism was proceeded by a golden age of liberalism and followed by another. Maybe we could just characterize this as young people not wanting to do what their parents did.

    So, even when I despair about the present, I generally assume that the future will be better.

      Quote  Link

    Report

    • @Rufus F.,

      I’m only in my mid-twenties and I’ve noticed this as well. Music is filled with nudges and winks, humor is shallow and uninvolved, and if you dare take something seriously on the internet you will be give a scarlet letter to wear so everyone knows who you are.

        Quote  Link

      Report

    • @Rufus F.,

      I can be a bit of a curmudgeon about culture- I sometimes sound like a paleocon.

      Where exactly do you sound like a neocon, I haven’t seen it yet. Of course I haven’t read enough of your comments (nothing personal, just a lot to read and very little time) and it may have something to do with the fact that I’m one of those lefties who thinks reading the rantings of racist sexist old dead white men is absolutely necessary for intellectual development.

        Quote  Link

      Report

      • @Endevour to Persevere, Heheh- no thank God I’m not a neocon! Can you imagine a post on Plato that worked in a plug for bombing Iran? I was saying I can be a bit of a “paleocon”- or, at least, when you’re pushing for reading more old dead white men and less of whatever it is we have today, you can come across as a bit of a cultural traditionalist and get lumped in with the paleocons.

        Actually, at one point, Bob Cheeks officially welcomed me aboard the Paleocon Express Line, which was nice, although I couldn’t figure out why the train was going backwards.

        But, I think in general I sympathize most with the romantics, curmudgeons and sticks-in-the-mud, who are sometimes conservatives and sometimes not.

        Also, it helps that my job requires me to be a curmudgeon. I often joke that part of being an academic in the humanities is that, when the angry mob comes and demands to know if they should burn The DaVinci Code or Don Quixote, I’m supposed to think to myself that it’s horrible to burn any book, and then tell them to burn the Dan Brown books.

          Quote  Link

        Report

    • @Rufus F.,

      I’m really tempted to haul out the PKD again in response to that line, because while I am likewise a curmudgeon, I still believe that “objects, customs, habits, and ways of life must perish so that the authentic human being can live. And it is the authentic human being who matters most, the viable, elastic organism which can bounce back, absorb, and deal with the new.”

      Yeah, okay, there, I did it.

        Quote  Link

      Report

      • @JosephFM,

        Incidentally, the issue is that instead of this happening, it’s all being replaced by fabricated nonsense, which is also one of the points of that essay:

        ” Our memories are spurious, like our memories of dreams; the blank are filled in retrospectively. And falsified. We have participated unknowingly in the creation of a spurious reality, and then we have obligingly fed it to ourselves. ”

          Quote  Link

        Report

  7. Daniel McCarthy must be having a laugh with his phrase “God-fearing Americans love the free market, and we have the freest in the world. That’s what makes us exceptional”. The truth of the matter is America has had Keynesianism for the Rich ever since the Federal Reserve was set up in 1913. The banksters who run the FED can leverage themselves up to the hilt and blow debt bubbles until they’re fit to burst, and they do. Running counter to this is the use of media and bribed politicians and astro-turfed movements like the Tea Party to persuade financially illiterate Americans that the cause of all their problems is Big Government!

      Quote  Link

    Report

    • @Schofield,

      Nearly all classical liberals felt the gold standards was necessary as a stable base for the price mechanism to work in a free market. Adam Smith strongly, but also Cantillon, Hume, Ricardo, Thornton, Mill, Cairnes, Goschen, and Bagehot.

      Locke felt it was, at the least, necessary for the stability of the world economy for international transactions to be conducted under a gold standard.

      Adam Smith and some others went further, and also supported free banking.

      It is critical to note that the problems with federal reserve go *Far Beyond* merely the fact of being a Fiat currency and strike to the very heart of how it is controlled, governed, and audited.

      Without boring you with the arcane details and history of it, let me simply quote the former head of the World Bank, and very famous and liberal economist Joseph Stiglitz

      “If we had seen a governance structure that corresponds to our Federal Reserve system, we would have been yelling and screaming and saying that country does not deserve any assistance, this is a corrupt governing structure”
      -Joseph Stiglitz

      http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/03/03/stiglitz-nobel-prize-winn_n_484943.html

      Or how about Bill Clinton, who said that after the gold standard was abandoned, capitalism has become less concerned with the production of goods and more and more overtaken by an elite financial class who have manipulated the economy to their benefit?

      http://www.realclearpolitics.com/video/2010/04/28/bill_clinton_timing_of_goldman_sachs_suit_is_suspect.html

      People tend to glaze over when I constantly harp on this issue, because it’s somewhat arcane and does’nt seem to directly related to the political philosophies we like fight over.

      This is, of course, very unfortunate. And regardless, I will continue harping.

        Quote  Link

      Report

        • @JosephFM, this is one of those things that people know because their ancestors know it.

          Our ancestors liked gold because:
          1) It’s dense. It contains a lot of value in a relatively small amount. This, when tied into number
          2) It’s malleable. Put it on your finger! Transportable wealth!
          3) It’s rare. You won’t find it just lying on the ground. Well, sometimes you will. That’s not the point. It is something that any idiot can’t replicate. There’s, more or less, a fixed amount.
          4) It’s shiny. Back before the technological revolution, everything was dull and/or covered in dung. Gold wipes off and it’s just as purdy as the day it was made… which ties into number
          5) It’s durable. Put it on a shelf in a tomb. Wait 3000 years. It’s still museum quality!

          All of these things together allow for it to be traded between folks in ways that, say, land or maize or cattle cannot.

          Yeah, it’s pretty silly.

            Quote  Link

          Report

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *