A Troubling Chorus of ‘Conservatives’

Over at the American Spectator, Robert Stacy McCain takes on the “1619 Project.” Here is how his column begins:

History has been hijacked recently by self-styled “progressives” who would have us believe our nation was founded on injustice and oppression. The so-called “1619 Project” must be viewed as political propaganda intended to incite racial hatred, and every honest and intelligent citizen of the United States ought to oppose this propaganda.

So far, so good. But McCain does not stay on track for long. In the very next sentence, he writes:

Unfortunately, much of the opposition to the 1619 Project has been misguided; the “1776 Project” errs by focusing too much on the Declaration of Independence as the charter of American liberty.

Really? It is an error for Americans to focus “too much” on the Declaration of Independence as the charter of American liberty? Why in the world would McCain make such a claim?

Could it possibly be that he does not place much credence in the Declaration? Naturally, a person who does not rely on the Declaration might want to warn us against placing too much reliance on it—and that certainly does seem to be McCain’s reason for his warning:

It is a dangerous error to take the lofty rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence out of context, as if the ‘unalienable rights’ of which that document speaks were really as ‘self-evident’ as Thomas Jefferson’s preamble famously claimed.

This is truly astonishing. Those are not quotation marks of attribution. McCain is using quotation marks to scoff at the idea of unalienable rights (as if  the “unalienable rights”) and to scoff at the idea of the self-evidence of unalienable rights (were really as “self-evident”). The quotation marks are there in the special “quote-unquote-roll-your-eyes” sense that lets McCain mention them while unmistakably keeping his distance from the ideas he is mentioning. 

According to McCain, Americans are making an error by making our stand against the “1619 Project” on the basis of the Declaration of Independence. Where, then, should we make our stand? McCain is clear about that too: 

Patrick Henry’s bold defense of Virginians as possessing all the ‘liberties, privileges, franchises, and immunities’ their English ancestors had fought to gain in generations of struggle against royal power was an inspiration to American patriots everywhere. It should still inspire us today.

McCain’s advice for Americans: out with the founders’ so-called “unalienable rights,” and in with the liberties, privileges, franchises, and immunities of the founders’ English ancestors. 

Incredible as it may seem, looking to the British tradition instead of the new thinking of the American founders is the recurring theme of this “American conservative.” (Here I use quotation marks in the special way McCain does above, allowing me to keep my distance from the term I am mentioning.) You can find another example here.

In fairness to McCain, Americans who claim the mantle of “conservative” and yet reject the ideas of the American founders are all too common. (I discuss a number of them here.) Consequently, at the risk of appearing to pick on McCain, I suggest you read his column closely to better understand how this chorus of writers do what they do. McCain’s column is an excellent example, offering us the chance to study his method. 

1) Typically, there is a rejection of the American idea or a threat to the American idea brought up for discussion.

2) The writer declares against this rejection or this threat, thereby winning us over.

3) Then the writer leads us away from the American idea, very often to the British tradition, and sometimes, as in the case of Sohrab Ahmari or Patrick Deneen, to traditions that are even more remote.

I believe it is worth taking the time to study and ponder McCain’s column because writing of this kind is all too common on the American Right. 

Since there are so many of them, it would be helpful if we had a term to designate this chorus of American voices that claims to be against the Progressives and yet, like the Progressives, rejects the founders’ idea of America. We could call them the “un-American American conservatives” to distinguish them from American conservatives who take their stand on the founders’ idea of America.


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