Scattered Thoughts on the American Experiment

America is a strange country. Whatever else you have the urge to say about it, you must concede that it is unusual. And our stories about it grasp at little pieces of what it is but never seem to add up.

I have become increasingly convinced that traditionalism for traditionalism’s sake is simply an absurd proposition, as the notion of a tradition cannot be separated from its content. One can be a royalist, or republican, or even a believer that the American republic works for contingent historic and cultural reasons—but these are arguments in their own right, not some black-box “traditionalism”.

But traditionalism in America is an even more absurd proposition than usual. America is young. If you stretch out to the most distant reaches of the colonial period—a question begging approach given the state of the early colonies—it still gets you to only about 400 years. The war of independence (which for reasons of rhetoric we call a revolution) began only 250 some years ago and ended about twenty years later. We had about 12 years under the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution was ratified less than 230 years ago. We had a protracted and bloody civil war less than a century after the ratification of the Constitution. A few decades later, reformers were building out the modern administrative state, which arguably characterizes our system of government far more than the three-branch structure we force our students to memorize in their civics classes. That character itself is hardly a century old, and many changes have been made in the meantime.

Whither traditionalism? Not two years ago I was arguing on behalf of an American traditionalism, and my opponents asked: how long must something be around before it is a tradition? Good question. Most of the time, it seems both left and right consider American traditionalism to be what we had in the immediate period following the second World War, a period I would consider highly unusual even for our unusual country.

The relationship between our form of government and philosophy is also an open question to me. I’ve taken a stab at answering it before. But it comes back to the relationship between theory and practice, something that simply eludes me. Superficially, the founders were certainly sophisticated in their philosophy and their reading of history. They wrote highly philosophical essays. But they were not philosophers; they were political practitioners in the colonial, revolutionary, and post-revolutionary governments. This is something I feel we often overlook—they were not theorists, but practitioners who were highly educated in the theory of their day.

When I see people invoking the founders, the Constitution, and our political traditions, I find that few seem to provide a picture that adds any of this up in a satisfactory way. The critics and the apologists suffer from this problem to an equal degree, at least that I have seen.

The more I examine the pieces of where we have been, the more I wonder at people who can be so confident in where we are headed. I find arguments that we are in a transition moment persuasive, but the nature of that transition appears, from my limited vantage point, entirely opaque.

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