Can there be an Americanism? It’s a question I’ve been thinking more about this past week because according to two popular (and growing) groups on the Right, the answers seem to be “No” or “Sort of.”
The former camp is headed by Patrick Deneen, Rod Dreher, and others who argue that modern liberalism failed precisely because the Enlightenment project succeeded. Autonomous individualism stemming from a metaphysics of the unconstrained will rules our thinking today because the principles of Hobbes, Locke, and the American Founding have successfully hijacked our minds, leading to the slow death of civil society. According to this line of thinking, the only way we can ever hope of turning things around (gloomy doesn’t come close to capturing their pessimism on this question) is through building small communities of believers who focus their zeal on the permanent things in life: family, religion, and meaningful work.
The “Sort of” group is headed by thinkers such as Yoram Hazony and Ofir Haivry, who agree liberalism (which includes such seemingly disparate thinkers as Hobbes and Barack Obama) has caused our present disasters but seem to differ from the Deneen camp on the question of how to see our tradition. Through a study of little-known British thinkers John Selden and Sir John Fortescue and well-known minds like Burke and Swift, they argue that the American political tradition contains both liberalism and conservatism.
As the Middle East scholar Daniel Pipes recently wrote, the Declaration of Independence “is a liberal document that holds various ‘truths to be self-evident,'” while the Constitution “makes no mention of universal truths” and instead “translates key features of the English constitution for American use.”
Thus the chaff of liberalism can be sifted from the wheat of conservatism. Though Deneen doesn’t discount the “conservative” elements in the American Founding, he doesn’t seem to think there’s enough there to make a widespread appeal.
But are these ways of thinking about America consistent with our actual history? Or with thinkers such as Locke? In short: No. In a follow-up post, I’ll explain why there are some problems with these increasingly popular views