Thursday, November 08, 2012

After Romney, what is worth conserving?

If this election proved anything it is, first, that conservatism has lost its way, and, secondly, that ideas count for more than money. If there is reason to feel sorry for Ann Coulter (see this), imagine how Linda McMahon feels after outspending her winning opponent 8 to 1, millions out of her own pocket.

This is why it is particularly worth taking a look at conservative ideas. This is not a new exercise for me.

Back when every fellow student in my university political theory courses was writing papers about Mao, I was researching Franco and, more specifically, his political movement, the most successful continental conservatism. Reagan and Thatcher were standard bearers of the Anglo-American variant, which this election has shown has lost its way.

The problem for Romney, in my opinion, is that he was never convincing that he believed in anything other than what he thought his listeners wanted to hear. That's not conservatism.

In principle,  going back to Jacques-BĂ©nigne Bossuet and the divine right of kings, conservatism is about ordering society along authoritative ideas received from the best human tradition. This may be gilding the lily a little, but not by far if we take the self-understanding of the most cogent conservatives.

The Anglo-American variety is more closely associated to an event contemporary to Bossuet. In the British Glorious Revolution of 1688, in which Whig ideology, based on a strong parliamentary role and the preeminence of Protestantism, broke away from the Tory monarchists, deposed King James II and put in place William of Orange and his wife Mary, James' daughter.

To the English, and later American, Whigs authority was not absolutely placed in hands of a king by God, but in the hearts of men (and they did mean only men and the passing, yet odd, educated woman). The difference between Continental conservatism and Anglo conservatism is epistemological: where the truth is found.

The Continental, and the original Tory, said it is found in God and the dogmas of God's Church. The British Whig said it is found in the heart God gave you with which to discern Holy Scripture; to an extent, the Whigs were more democratic.

Tory political economy is essentially feudal, with wealth and social standing a matter of inheritance. Whigs favor capitalism and the classical economic liberalism of Adam Smith, in a society in which wealth and status is based on merit and investment.

Today, almost to a man, American conservatives are essentially Whigs. The origin of the term is instructive, because it parallels the early and foundational political development of the United States.

Whig comes from  "whiggamor." The term came from a combination of two terms. "Whiggam," was a term used to urge on livestock, including especially horses, to move. The "mor" ending is thought to derive from "mare." Whiggamors were Scottish cattle drivers; and the term was used derisively for Kirk Party Scotsmen who fought for Presbyterianism over the king's episcopal church.

Stop and think about all this.

The early European settlers of the original 13 states were predominantly what we call Scots Irish (mostly Ulster people who traced back to the Scottish supporters of Oliver Cromwell who won the Battle of the Boyne). They were not high born, or at most they were disinherited younger sons. They were Protestant and not in an Anglican Via Media way; they wanted no "popery" and relied on their Bibles.

Now look at those videos of the last Republican Convention. There they are! (OK, so there are a few Germanic Cheeseheads and there's that hook-nose Wisconsin Irish Catholic speaking from the podium.)

This describes who they are, however, not their ideas as they might apply to the 21st century. Those remain the quintessential mystery: what, precisely, does (or should, for the sake of coherence) a U.S. conservative wish to conserve?

Stay tuned. More to come on this topic.
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