American Conservatism and Liberalism Both Have Internal Contradictions

From my uncle, an historian, I borrowed “American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia,” published in 2006. It attempts to trace the intellectual history of American conservatism, and suggests possible future paths for the movement as it sought to renew itself and find its way after the 2008 debacle.

Larry Arnhart in five articles contended that Darwinian science supports conservative social thought, but as he concedes, the far more dominant view among conservatives is to scorn science (hence, the deep skepticism among conservatives toward global warming).

Peter Augustine Lawler wrote that American liberalism has been a mixture of conservatism and liberalism, and George Will made clear that his brand of American conservatism seeks to promote beneficial social change, a generally liberal idea.

The book included the libertarian atheist Ayn Rand, and the devout Christian anti-communist Whitaker Chambers, who hated each other and held diametrically opposed views. Chambers objected to Rand’s “philosophical materialism,” which he said devalued the non-materialistic sacredness of life and would lead to the needless deaths if not extermination of human beings. In “The Crisis of the West,” Chambers argued that materialism and rampant consumerism were overtaking Christian influences and leading to secular soullessness.

If both Rand and Chambers are conservatives, the book suggests that nearly everyone is — Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, author Garry Wills, Eugene McCarthy, the former Democratic senator from Minnesota and peace candidate in 1968. Even elements of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal were considered conservative. If all of these are “conservative,” I guess I am, too.

What is the one constant among conservatives? Fear of change? Commitment to the old verities? This is an internal contradiction, because conservatives generally support a free market economic system that by its nature brings about constant technological change and economic upheaval. In some ways, the tightly controlled economic system of communism produced a far more socially conservative society in Soviet Russia, while the free market beliefs of William Buckley, Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan actually erode the “traditional values” they claimed to support.

No doubt the “Encyclopedia of the American Left” (1998) also reveals that ideology’s internal contradictions. Some liberals have more of a fear of change and more of a commitment to the old verities than do some conservatives. As Dr. Lee Carlson observes, “conservative thought and liberal thought are intertwined, and to omit any influence of liberalism on conservatism (and vice versa) is to destroy both systems. One cannot view them as two separate dogmas.”

John F. Kennedy defined liberalism in a way that many conservatives would embrace: ““If by a liberal they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people—their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, their civil liberties—if that is what they mean by a “liberal” then I am proud to be a liberal.”

Truth is that both liberalism and conservatism are hard to define in the American lexicon, and I’m skeptical of those who rail against “liberals” or “conservatives” unless they first define their terms. If forced to produce details, they are likely opposed to members of their own party.

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