I want to speak about America’s founding myth and the resulting difficulty in establishing a large faction of Burkean conservatism within American politics.
One of the stories that people tell each other most often are their own origin myths. They are told to children (frequently as “history lessons”), but also adults tell and retell them to each other to reinforce the myth and signal the teller’s membership within the tribe.
These myths aren’t inherently bad. I think they play an important part in allowing human nations to vastly exceed Dunbar’s number in a peaceful and cooperative manner. But it must be recognized that the origin myth can become a limiting factor under certain circumstances. If an origin myth says that Tribe A is defined by its participation in X, then it’s very difficult for members of Tribe A to switch to institution Y without also rejecting their identity as A’s.
Let’s get specific – the American origin myth is the establishment of the Thirteen Colonies in pursuit of religious freedom, followed by the American Revolution. Americans have built massive shrines and obelisks for the men involved, monuments to ancestor worship, and gaze upon its founding documents as holy objects. There are also satirical versions, but that’s how the legends of Hercules probably started too.
The point is, America is about freedom, and kicking the ass of tyrants if necessary to make it happen. (and similarities between that sentence and recent foreign policy is entirely non-coincidental)
And this is why it’s so damned hard to form a faction within American politics that takes genuine conservatism (the sort of conservatism that Edmund Burke or Robert Peel might recognize) seriously. America is defined by its Revolution, and its Revolution was a very un-conservative thing to do. For an American to really accept conservative principles, and apply them consistently, he must admit that the American Revolution was a very bad idea in the outset, benefited greatly from luck in its outcomes not being terrible, and at best was probably “harmless” to the long run of history.
Let’s break down that previous sentence a bit.
The American Revolution was a bad idea: Revolutions usually don’t go well. The French Revolution led to the terror, the Russian Revolution led to Lenism and later Stalinism, and the German revolution (as I think of Hitler’s rise to power) led to Nazism. All three of these revolutions led to much bloodshed and loss within their nations, and in some cases it spilled outward quite messily. Also, the English Civil War and rule of Oliver Cromwell we no picnic either. Frankly, the list of revolutions that lead to genuine improvement for the people in revolt is fairly short. The Founders took a terrible gamble with America’s future by initiating a break from an imperfect but not terrible regime.
The American Revolution was lucky: This is tied to the previous one, but it was luck that America’s greatest General was also an incredibly enlightened and effective President. Let’s remember that Washington was offered the chance to be King, and also could have kept running for President after his second term. In both cases he turned away from power. How many men in history would have done that? If Washington had made himself King, or held onto the Presidency for as long as possible (setting a more FDR-like precedent), America would have been worse off than it was.
The American Revolution was probably pointless: Just look at Canada, Australia, and even Bermuda. Seriously, it’s hard to say how Americans today (at least in the thirteen original colonies) would be materially worse off as a member of the Commonwealth. The only argument that the Revolution was beneficial is if you believe that the Westward expansion under America’s “manifest destiny” was both good for history and wouldn’t have been largely the same under British rule.
Are you an American? Are you bristling at the above description? I bet Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh (two leading opinion-makers in American “conservatism”) would answer “Yes” to both questions.
At the heart of American “conservatism” is a very un-conservative thing, and this origin myth both attracts the radical-minded and repels the conservative-minded. Which is why America doesn’t really have a Conservative Party in the same manner than Canada and England have their Tories. America just has post-Christian secular radicals and Christian radicals. Yay.