Saturday, February 25, 2006

The Crunchy Con Debate Translated into Americanese

A sad result of Americans' intellectual dependency on Europe is that we don't really understand ourselves. In school we learn about terms and ideas like socialism, communism, fascism, monarchy, aristocracy -- all concepts that have little or no relevance to American life. In college smart students study Aquinas, Aristotle, Hobbes, and Rousseau: again all thinkers who have very little relevance to how American life works. I think I see this dynamic at work in the Crunchy Con debate where irrelevant lecture room terms and doctrines like "Catholic social teaching," "traditionalism," "nominalism," "communitarianism," "libertarianism," etc., get thrown around as if they have some connection to American life. Like Eastern Orthodox theologians thinking in Western, Latin categories, we are most of us victims of pseudomorphosis (false categories), trying to argue out positions and experiences shaped by our everyday experience in categories alien to us.

Kudos then to Caleb Stegall, who finally cites a writer (Bill Kaufmann) with a sense of the American background of his thought.

I am an American patriot. A Jeffersonian decentralist. A fanatical localist. And I am an anarchist. Not a sallow garret-rat translating Proudhon by pirated kilowatt, nor a militiaman catechized by the Classic Comics version of The Turner Diaries; rather, I am the love child of Henry Thoreau and Dorothy Day, conceived amidst the asters and goldenrod of an Upstate New York autumn.

This is getting us somewhere. It makes a lot of sense to see the Crunchy Con movement as the revival of the old Jeffersonian tradition, going back through the Agrarians and Calhoun, through Jefferson to the Anti-Federalists and the old Revolutionaries of 1776. They are anti-growth and anti-profits, contemptuous of all morals legislation (blue laws, prohibition, drug laws, what have you) and think families can get by just fine without government-style "family policy". And as for Uncle Sam's enemies, foreign and domestic, Jeffersonians tend to feel they often have a point, and think that the feds should go easy on them. This link between Crunchy Cons and Jefferson is deep, and I don't think it's an accident that Rod Dreher's new foreign policy (about which he is hinting) seems to combine rhetorical attacks on "Islamofascism" with a distaste for foreign intervention or military buildup. Jefferson's own foreign policy was similar, verbally and diplomatically attacking the crowned heads of Europe, while eschewing any military activity. It turned out to be a disaster, but that's a different story . . .

So it would also be nice if the Jeffersonianisms would give up their old habit (again going back to Jefferson) of seeing all disagreement with themselves as the result of some recent corruption of money. There is quite another tradition of American thought, that goes back through the current mainstream conservatism through Lincoln to the Whigs, and then Hamilton, Washington, and the Founding Fathers. This stream is and always has been pro-growth and pro-profits. It sees America as composed of nuclear families who are free moral agents; the law should protect them from slavery (literal and figurative, as to drink, drugs, or dissipation) by morals legislation, but not "coddle" them with special tax benefits or payments. Finally, it is nationalistic, always ready to tackle Uncle Sam's foreign and domestic enemies head on in both word and deed. You may not much like this stream, but it is not the result of some recent corporate buyout of Jeffersonian conservatism. The two have been debating this since Jefferson and Hamilton.

Translated this way, we can ask, who are the real conservatives in America? The party of Jefferson or the party of Hamilton and Lincoln?
Of course before we answer that we have to find out who are the liberals.
The old liberals were a peculiarly American form of progressivism: the Rooseveltians (both Teddy and FDR), or roughly "big-government conservatism": pro-growth, but anti-profits, skeptical of morals legislation, but supporting the traditional nuclear family through special tax and pension policies, and quite as nationalistic against all of Uncle Sam's enemies, domestic and foreign, as the Lincolnians.

By 1972, this stream too had been overshadowed by both the resurgence of Hamiltonian-Lincolnian conservatism and the rise of the American subsidiary of the international Social Democratic movement: anti-profit enough to be actually anti-growth; not just skeptical of morals legislation but demanding "immorals" legislation, and using tax and spending policies not to support but to replace the nuclear family, and finally deeply sympathetic with any one burning an American flag. The success of the Roosevelt stream had already alienated many Jeffersonians from their natural home in the Democratic Party, and as the Social Democrats took over the Democrats, Rooseveltians like Zell Miller have been dropping out. But can they stomach the Republican Party, in which the Hamiltonian stream has long been dominant?

It is only opposition to Social Democracy that could get "movement" conservatives (the party of Lincoln), Crunchy Cons (the party of Jefferson), and even "big-government conservatives" (the party of the Roosevelts) coming together in unity -- but is this unity more than just a theoretical possibility?

And if the party of Lincoln remains the biggest component of that alliance (as I don't think anyone looking at the political scene can doubt it does), how many compromises should it make with the Jeffersonians and the Rooseveltians to buy their support?

Or should the party of Jefferson go it alone?

Or even make common cause with the Social Democrats against growth and foreign adventures?

Translated into Americanese, this is what the Crunchy Con debate is about.

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