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….)