Is America a place and a people or is it an abstraction? Or is it both?
Ideologues from both parties like to say that America is an idea, seeming to forget both the people and the place. The statement itself is an absurdity built on an abstraction so vague and mushy as to render it meaningless. But the claim has gained such currency that it is accepted unthinkingly by many intellectual and political leaders. It’s to the point that policy decisions are made using what is no more than a slogan as their basis.
Adding insult to injury is its passive-aggressive companion catchphrase: “That’s not who we are.” But the question itself assumes that there is a definable and exclusive “we”—a distinct American people, citizens of the United States living in a certain place under a particular set of laws and united by a common set of ideas.
America is clearly much more than just an idea. It is true that America was founded on the basis of the ideas expressed in the Declaration of Independence—ideas that are self-evident and universal. But America is also a real country with borders, even if we don’t enforce them very well or very often, and a people (Americans) who are bound to the country and to each other through the bonds of citizenship. And it is from the consent of the American people that the government derives its legitimacy and power.
But one gets the sense that too many conservative thinkers are more devoted to an abstraction than to the real America—that they are devoted to the “city in speech” (to use Plato’s term from The Republic) rather than to the city as it actually exists. Conservatives used to joke that liberals (before they rebranded as “progressives”) love “the people” but can’t stand people; that is, they love the abstraction more than the bumped and bruised reality. The same thing could be said of many of today’s conservatives and it explains much of the rift within conservative politics.
Many conservatives seem to identify with a theoretical conservatism much more than an American conservatism. It makes conservatism a lifestyle choice more than a political choice.
Just such thinking was on display when National Review senior editor Jonah Goldberg—a reader if not a fan of American Greatness, if the latest G-File is any indication—appeared on the Hugh Hewitt Show last week. Here is the relevant part of their exchange:
Jonah Goldberg: And there’s some people, and there are some people who are click-bait whores. And they love to just stew up controversy for its own sake. They want to destroy, [former Breitbart Media chairman Steve] Bannon believes in his heart that the GOP needs to be destroyed. And that kind of radicalism is an open invitation to have fellow travelers, because that’s what alt righters believe, too. I don’t think that Bannon is a white identitarian who believes in, you know, the genetic supremacy or superiority of white people, although he might. I just don’t know. I think he is a nationalist. He’s not a conservative. Nationalism and conservatism are different things.
Hugh Hewitt: Agree.
JG: And Bill Buckley always used to say that he’s as patriotic as anybody in America, but there’s not an ounce of nationalism in him. And these things are different, and they’ve been, these distinctions have been forgotten on the right, which is one of the reasons why we’ve allowed a lot of this nastiness to fester. [Emphasis added.]
Goldberg is suggesting a malignant distinction exists between nationalism and patriotism—that the two are somehow incompatible. But in this country it is a distinction without a difference. As the term is used today, nationalism is the functional equivalent of patriotism. It is used to denote love of country and to distinguish itself from globalism.
Whatever Bill Buckley meant, it’s clear that many of today’s conservatives are embarrassed by a distinctly American conservatism. They would prefer something “purer” and more cosmopolitan.
But America’s Founders wouldn’t be embarrassed at all. They were more modest, more realistic about what they thought government could and should accomplish and they were outspoken advocates for their country and their people.
Contrast the language of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, which both make it clear that they are speaking on behalf of the American people—and only the American people—with this from the National Interest:
“What defines neoconservatism is a largely unchallenged belief that the United States is a virtuous nation with a moral entitlement to superior power for the global good.”
I am reminded of what G.K. Chesterton said: “He admired England, but he does not love her; for we admire things with reasons, but love them without reasons. He admires England because she is strong, not because she is English.”
Where some of today’s conservatives see the United States as the last repository of moral good in the world, a position that imposes on the country a responsibility to use its “superior power for the ‘good’ of the world,” the Founders sought to form a more perfect union for the American people. It was not that they had a callous disregard for the people of other nations but that they had no authority to act on their behalf.
The Founders formed a government to establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty for themselves and their posterity—in other words, for the generations of Americans then living and those to come. These goals, stated in the preamble to the Constitution are a perfectly consonant expression of the self-evident truths enunciated in the Declaration of Independence.
The problem is, a certain strain of conservatism has taken the appropriate ends of the American government and universalized them. But when the American government must become a force for “global good” it will have exceeded its authority, and in exceeding its authority it will have sacrificed its conservatism, too.
Just government requires both the right basis in principle and the consent of the governed. When government exceeds its necessary and appropriate limitations, its obligations grow so large that they swallow the sphere of private responsibility. And we have seen the size and scope of government swell since Woodrow Wilson, the first progressive president, appealed to moral and historical right rather than the consent of the governed as a basis for action.
But any government that will be just must first recall the source of its power and legitimacy—the sovereign people acting in their constitutional majority. It is to them and them alone that government has an obligation and the possibility of securing justice. And that is why any conservatism worth its name must first be American.