Below, you will find the prologue of Sara Jarman’s Brigham Young University 2012 Honors Thesis: “The Demise of Traditional Conservatism in America: A Reflection on Its Necessary Revival in the American Polity.” Elephants on the Rampage is based largely on Sara’s 113-page thesis.
You can find the full thesis in PDF version here.
Conservative Americans are now having an increasingly difficult time defining
what their ideology means. The Republican Party seems at odds with itself, in
an inner struggle to understand itself and then somehow communicate this to
the American electorate. Republicans ask themselves questions about how to
get elected, what policies and programs to adopt to appeal to segments of the
electorate lost to them. They seem willing to advocate any movement or plans
that might bolster “electability.” This is not a problem unique to conservatism,
though, but is something that American liberals also face, though to a lesser
degree and to be dealt with in ways that are quite appropriate to them,
though these same methods are supposed to be foreign to conservatives.
Thus, American conservatives are engaged in a psychological as well as a
practical struggle, leaving the Democrats only dealing with pragmatic
problems typical of them. In response to its own crises, conservatism has
increasingly become more progressive in attempts to redefine its political
ideology and maintain relevancy and legitimacy amongst the general public.
Liberals swaying more toward progressivism is not shocking; it is to some
extent expected. However, when both parties use progressive tactics to
accomplish their ends, which for both are now merely winning elections,
instability ensues within the polity. It is necessary that multiple parties within
a polity espouse different political beliefs. This essay discusses the necessity
of maintaining within any polity and particularly the American polity a
politically effective classical conservatism as defined in Chapter One below.
Without conservatism’s reliance upon traditional values, political systems
become easily hijacked by demagoguery and other extreme elements.
Similarly, though, if conservatism predominates in ways that totally outweigh
progressive elements in a society, social and political action does not respond
well to changing phenomena and citizens become restless. Maintaining
political balance between effectively different and viable alternatives is the
key to political stability and the pursuit of truly political ends, being human
happiness. This is the argument put forward in this paper.
To prevent the destabilization of politics, conservatives provide a
necessary balance to liberal and other movement-oriented actors. As a
political ideology, liberalism is to be seen in this essay as essentially
progressive, as are all ideologies by definition as they inform and inspire social
groups toward mass movement-oriented political change. Thus, true
conservatism is not an ideology, but rejects the political legitimacy of all
ideologies entirely. Their plans for change are progressive, their prescriptive
nature being an aspect of their definition and in the pace of the change they
inspire being characteristic of ideologies; ideological change is greater change
and occurs at faster rates than typical of traditional political evolution.
Ideologies—blueprints for change—enable speedy and radical overhauls of
politics and government according to prescribed patterns of mass appeal.
Thus, all ideological movements tend toward destabilized societies and politics.
In Chapter One, I discuss the definition of conservatism, providing
philosophical definitions and historical examples of illustration. After outlining
definitions, the chapter proceeds to deal with progressive elements that have
seeped into the American conservative establishment. These elements have
gradually turned parts of conservatism into movement politics, rather than
politics that conservatism originally espoused, that of gradual political and social change.
In Chapter Two I draw upon the Hegelian idea of the end of history
through Francis Fukuyama’s adoption of Hegel’s idea in defining the post
Soviet period of American history. I use Fukuyama because he popularized the
relatively unknown and complex idea and gave it an especially American
twist. Thus, the idea is most popular and well known in America as
Fukuyama’s version of Hegel’s ideal. This version of the argument holds that
the Soviet Union’s collapse revealed that the liberal conception of politics has
been proven by history to be correct and true. Liberal Democracy has
triumphed and now principles of freedom will dissipate throughout the world
without any viable competition left from out of the Western tradition of liberal
democracy. Although not all countries will immediately adhere to liberalism,
the end of history holds that liberalism will eventually triumph everywhere
that people are reasonable—which means everywhere eventually, since
reason is universal to human being. This chapter engages this argument with
true conservatism and reveals contemporary liberalism’s false sense of
security as dangerous, and the total practical accomplishment of its ideals
impossible and even undesirable. Thus, the theory is faulty, at least as
presented by Fukuyama. The significance of conservatism is, thus, developed
within a contemporary American context.
Having established in the first two chapters problematic phenomena
now characterizing American politics and explaining how we arrived in these
conditions, I turn to the writings of German thinkers, namely Hannah Arendt,
Friedrich Nietzsche, and Carl Schmitt, to illustrate how some of their ideas can
provide helpful understanding of the nature and depth of America’s political
situation. Each of these thinkers discusses the necessity of maintaining the
political distinction within the modern state, as opposed to focusing upon the
state as only a social institution that serves the demands and conflicts
emerging from social issues. Truly conservative elements within a society help
to keep the political alive and distinct from the social.
Chapter Three examines the writings of political thinker Hannah
Arendt, who is famous for her writings on precisely this issue, the necessity of
maintaining the political arena lively with the rise of modern society. The
definition between political and social affairs are discussed in this chapter,
with relative agreement given to the central argument of Arendt’s political
theory. Arendt relies upon classical political philosophy to stress the
importance of maintaining the political elements in society, giving us some
ground to which we might appeal to assess and perhaps improve the condition of American conservatism.
In Chapter Four, I build upon Arendt’s theory of the political by using
Nietzsche’s writings to assert the necessity of statesmen within a political
setting. Democracy, because it is ruled by the masses, usually prevents true
statesmen or citizens of genius from rising to leadership. Extraordinary people
usually are ostracized within democracies because they defy normalcy. If they
are not ostracized, their extraordinary abilities may be redirected through
rewards or punishments. The point is that democracies tend toward politics
and leadership that resemble themselves as the masses. “Ordinary” people, or
those who can appear ordinary, rise to power in democracies because they
insist upon being able to “relate to” their leaders. Without allowing great ones
to rise to positions of power, however, politics becomes about the ordinary
concerns of ordinary people, with leaders filling roles of management that are
intricately intertwined with bureaucracy. Those who appear to us as ‘great
men’ and leaders really are ordinary ‘men in suits’ ready to take on the
‘business’ of ‘politics’.
Chapter Five takes us into Carl Schmitt’s book The Concept of the
Political, in which he discusses more specifically how societies can go about
reviving the political for and alongside themselves. Schmitt wants human
beings to rise above the mundane aspects of ordinary democratic life, asking
them to elevate their thinking and actions a little higher. The realm of politics
is where men can engage in higher affairs. According to Schmitt, modern
societies have all but destroyed the true nature of politics, or at least our
understanding of it.
I argue that conservatism is necessary within modern
society and especially within the American polity because its founding
remains at least partially rooted in the classical past, and classical societies
believed strongly in maintaining an active political community. Mine is a
conservative appeal to the past, alongside Schmitt’s, for the sake of
conservatism in the present. But, ultimately, my conservative appeal for
conservatism is intended to serve the end of political balance—I advocate the
necessity of true conservatism within a polity not because I hold conservative
tenets to be true, or because I am a conservative, but because I maintain that
a sufficient element of society must be truly conservative for balance to be
maintained, for political stability and the health of the polity. Ultimately it is
balance or moderation that is my cause and for which I argue here.
In order to prevent the polity from becoming fiercely ideological, there
needs to exist differing political thought. Without this diversity of thought, the
polity gradually and without the awareness of its populous becomes more
authoritarian in nature. Tyranny of the majority becomes a real and lasting
phenomenon when it takes hold of the state through persistent government
domination, leaving little or no room for a pausing and assessment of our
circumstance. At present, American political science should perform such an
assessment on behalf of the American people. Government should be forced
into openness and the American people must become self-consciously aware
of their political condition for the sake of liberty and equality, both of which
rest upon the balance of political order. The American nation will soon realize
the consequences of our change if we do not pause—and think—to conserve
the traditions of the past and decidedly build upon them for the future.