The exceptionalism of the American Right is partly a matter of its beliefs. The first two definitions of “conservative” offered by the Concise Oxford Dictionary are “adverse to rapid change” and “moderate, avoiding extremes.” Neither of these seems a particularly good description of what is going on in America at the moment. “Conservatism” – no less than its foes “liberalism” or “communitarianism” – has become one of those words that are now as imprecise as they are emotionally charged. Open a newspaper and you can find the word used to describe Jacques Chirac, Trent Lott, the Mullah Omar and Vladimir Putin. Since time immemorial, conservatives have insisted that their deeply pragmatic creed cannot be ideologically pigeonholed.
But, in philosophical terms at least, classical conservatism does mean something. The creed of Edmund Burke, its most eloquent proponent, might be crudely reduced to six principles: a deep suspicion of the power of the state; a preference for liberty over equality; patriotism; a belief in established institutions and hierarchies; skepticism about the idea of progress; and elitism. Winston Churchill happily accepted these principles: he was devoted to nation and empire, disinclined to trust the lower orders with anything, hostile to the welfare state, worried about the diminution of liberty and, as he once remarked ruefully, “preferred the past to the present and the present to the future.”
To simplify a little, the exceptionalism of modern American conservatism lies in its exaggeration of the first three of Burke’s principles and contradiction of the last three. The American Right exhibits a far deeper hostility towards the state than any other modern conservative party. . . . The American right is also more obsessed with personal liberty than any other conservative party, and prepared to tolerate an infinitely higher level of inequality. (One reason why Burke warmed to the American revolutionaries was that, unlike their dangerous French equivalents, the gentlemen rebels concentrated on freedom, not equality.) On patriotism, nobody can deny that conservatives everywhere tend to be a fairly nationalistic bunch. . . . Yet many European conservatives have accepted the idea that their nationality should be diluted in “schemes and speculations” like the European Union, and they are increasingly reconciled to dealing with national security on a multilateral basis. American conservatives clearly are not.
If the American Right was merely a more vigorous form of conservatism, then it would be a lot more predictable. In fact, the American Right takes a resolutely liberal approach to Burke’s last three principles: hierarchy, pessimism and elitism. The heroes of modern American conservatism are not paternalist squires but rugged individualists who don’t know their place: entrepeneurs who build mighty businesses out of nothing, settlers who move out West, and, of course, the cowboy. There is a frontier spirit to the Right – unsurprisingly, since so much of its heartland is made up of new towns of one sort of another.
The geography of conservatism also helps to explain its optimism rather than pessimism. In the war between the Dynamo and the Virgin, as Henry Adams characterized the battle between progress and tradition, most American conservatives are on the side of the Dynamo. They think that the world offers all sorts of wonderful possibilities. And they feel that the only thing that is preventing people from attaining these possibilities is the dead liberal hand of the past. By contrast, Burke has been described flatteringly by European conservatives as a “prophet of the past.” Spend any time with a group of Republicans, and their enthusiasm for the future can be positively exhausting.
As for elitism, rather than dreaming about creating an educated “clerisy” of clever rulers (as Coleridge and T.S. Eliot did), the Republicans ever since the 1960s have played the populist card. Richard Nixon saw himself as the champion of the “silent majority.” In 1988 the aristocratic George H.W. Bush presented himself as a defender of all-American values against the Harvard Yard liberalism of Michael Dukakis. In 2000, George W. Bush, a president’s son who was educated at Andover, Yale and Harvard Business School, played up his role as a down-to-earth Texan taking on the might of Washington. As a result, modern American conservatism has flourished not just in country clubs and boardrooms, but at the grass roots – on talk radio and at precinct meetings, and in revolts against high taxes, the regulation of firearms and other invidious attempts by liberal do-gooders to force honest Americans into some predetermined mold.