Patrick Deneen Asks A Great Question: “What Is An American Conservative?”

todayOctober 11, 2013 1

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Mandeville, LA – Exclusive Transcript – There is an essay at The American Conservative Magazine website.  [mocking] “Mike, you were hard on The American Conservative Magazine yesterday.”  Yeah, well, I was just being honest.  I don’t ask for jingoism from anyone else, so I don’t expect that anyone expects they’re going to get jingoism or Homerism from yours truly.  In any event, The American Conservative Magazine’s Patrick J. Deneen posts what I think is an article — this is not internet folly, not fantasy, not made up and comprised of a bunch of forwarded, hackneyed emails that aren’t true.  The title of the piece is “What Is an American Conservative?”  That is a great question. Check out today’s transcript for the rest…


Begin Mike Church Show Transcript

Mike:  There is an essay at The American Conservative Magazine website.  [mocking] “Mike, you were hard on The American Conservative Magazine yesterday.”  Yeah, well, I was just being honest.  I don’t ask for jingoism from anyone else, so I don’t expect that anyone expects they’re going to get jingoism or Homerism from yours truly.  In any event, The American Conservative Magazine’s Patrick J. Deneen posts what I think is an article — this is not internet folly, not fantasy, not made up and comprised of a bunch of forwarded, hackneyed emails that aren’t true.  The title of the piece is “What Is an American Conservative?”  That is a great question.  I used to ask the question almost every day here on the show: Exactly what is it you are trying to conserve?  In the past two years, as we’ve made a subtle adjustment in the way that this show is conducted, because I, along with you, continue to learn.  That’s part of the fun of being alive and of having God grant us life and blessings, to continue our learning, continue our education.

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america-secede-or-die-t-shirtAs I continue to learn and read and reflect, the more I read the more I become convinced of what Mr. Deneen writes about: What is the conservative enterprise?  Again, we arrive at the conclusion.  This is an inescapable conclusion, that the conservative enterprise is not by definition nor predominately political, it just simply isn’t.  Yet, over and over and over again, we are told today that all of conservatism is all invested in all politics all the time.  As I continue to ask the question: What exactly has that produced?  How’s that working out for you?  It’s not all about politics and government all the time.  There’s much more to life, or there should be.  Of course, now that government and the State is our God, well, there’s a lot less to the conservative endeavor and to being a conservative than one might think.

What really struck me as I was reading Deneen’s “What Is an American Conservative” post is that he leads off with a book that I have not read but will put on my life about those that were derisively called anti-federalists back in 1787, ’88 and ’89, maybe all the way through the 18th century.  Those that were called anti-federalists were actually the federalists of the day.  They were certainly the republicans of the day.  They were the answer and bulwark against the efforts by the early nationalists (Adams, Hamilton, etc.) were rebuffed.  That was a rampart that was manned and I think defended pretty well; although, the ratifying of the Constitution can be said to have been a defeat for the actual federalists and for republicans.  It’s been a rear guard defensive action ever since.  This is a mixed bag of victories or a mixed bag of positive developments.

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What Deneen writes about, he cites a book called What the Anti-Federalists Were For.  Jackson Turner Main has what I think is the best book about the anti-federalists.  I think it’s in the library at  It’s in my bag.  Let’s just deal with Deneen’s piece for a moment.  What were early American, under the Constitution or around the time of the Constitution, what would have comprised or made up an American conservative?  Deneen posits that it would have been an anti-federalist.  What were the anti-federalists for?  He writes, “I began with the first main conclusion of that book” written by Herbert Storing.  Here’s what Storing wrote.  Listen to this.  See if this describes you or does it sound like it might describe some moderate liberal that you know.  I bet many of you are going to say [mocking] “That ain’t no damn conservative.  That’s a damn lib.  You lie, Mike.  I used to like you.  You lie.”  Be prepared to be shocked and angry when I’m finished with this, some of you, especially if you’re a new listener.  This is why you’re going to need eight weeks of daily doses of the founders red pill.


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They insisted on the importance of a small political scale, particularly because a large expanse of diverse citizens makes it difficult to arrive at a shared conception of the common good and an overly large scale makes direct participation in political rule entirely impracticable if not impossible. They believed that laws were and ought to be educative, and insisted upon the centrality of virtue in a citizenry. Among the virtues most prized was frugality, and they opposed an expansive, commercial economy that would draw various parts of the Union into overly close relations, thereby encouraging avarice, and particularly opposed trade with foreign nations, which they believed would lead the nation to compromise its independence for lucre. They were strongly in favor of “diversity,” particularly relatively bounded communities of relatively homogeneous people, whose views could then be represented (that is, whose views could be “re-presented”) at the national scale in very numerous (and presumably boisterous) assemblies. They believed that laws were only likely to be followed when more or less directly assented to by the citizenry, and feared that as distance between legislators and the citizenry increased, that laws would require increased force of arms to achieve compliance. For that reason, along with their fears of the attractions of international commerce and of imperial expansion, they strongly opposed the creation of a standing army and insisted instead upon state-based civilian militias. They demanded inclusion of a Bill of Rights, among which was the Second Amendment, the stress of which was not on individual rights of gun ownership, but collective rights of civilian self-defense born of fear of a standing army and the temptations to “outsource” civic virtue to paid mercenaries.

[end reading]

Mike:  Folks, that is a very apt description of Patrick Henry, George Mason, part of the psyche and philosophy of Jefferson.  I think Jefferson was probably a little more a fan of internationalism than the guys I just mentioned.  He’s describing the fundamental, principal tenants of what an active conservatism would look like and people that practice it in their politics, what they may cling to as traditions and principles.  Remember, a tradition is a tradition because why?  Because it has proven over time that it produces desirable results for the people that practice the tradition.  That’s how it becomes a tradition.

If these traditions were part of what made up the revered generation of the founding fathers, and especially the conservative members of that generation, because there were certainly nationalists in that generation, then why don’t we hear more about this kind of stuff?  Why does it seem that there are so few of us, and I’ll count myself in that number, that have read this stuff and continue to read it and continue to try to relay it to an unresponsive, at times, conservative body?  I think that’s probably the great challenge of our day, taking conservatism back from the politicists who insist that everything conservative has to be legislative.  That’s not true, or I don’t think or believe the tradition of the endeavor suggests that as well.  Back to Deneen.

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As I disclosed the positions of the Anti-Federalists, I could see puzzlement growing on the faces of a number of students, until one finally exclaimed—”this doesn’t sound like conservatism at all!” Conservatism, for these 18-to-22-year-olds, has always been associated with George W. Bush: a combination of cowboy, crony capitalism, and foreign adventurism in search of eradicating evil from the world. To hear the views of the Anti-Federalists described as “conservative” was the source of severe cognitive dissonance, a deep confusion about what, exactly, is meant by conservatism.

So I took a step back and discussed several ways by which we might understand what is meant by conservatism—first, as a set of dispositions, then as a response to the perceived threats emanating from a revolutionary (or even merely reformist) left, and then as a set of contested substantive positions. And, I suggested, only by connecting the first and third, and understanding the instability of the second, could one properly arrive at a conclusion such as that of Storing, who would describe the positions of the Anti-Federalists as “conservative.”

First, there is the conservative disposition, one articulated perhaps most brilliantly by Russell Kirk, who described conservatism above all not as a set of policy positions, but as a general view toward the world. That disposition especially finds expression in a “piety toward the wisdom of one’s ancestors,” [Mike: That’s why the founders and the framers of the Constitution and of the Declaration and the early settlers, that’s why their opinions and writings are so revered. We have part of that right, which is a piety towards the wisdom of those men.] a respect for the ancestral that only with great caution, hesitancy, and forbearance seeks to introduce or accept change into society. It is supremely wary of the only iron law of politics—the law of unintended consequences (e.g., a few conservatives predicted that the introduction of the direct primary in the early 1900′s would lead to increasingly extreme ideological divides and the increased influence of money in politics. In the zeal for reform, no one listened). It also tends toward a pessimistic view of history, more concerned to prevent the introduction of corruption in a decent regime than driven to pursue change out a belief in progress toward a better future.

Conservatism—as a conscious political philosophy, rather than simply as a way of being in the world—begins as a reaction to the revolutionary movements arising from the Enlightenment, [Mike: This is something right here that’s going to throw almost all Libertarians for a loop. They will immediately proclaim “That’s why I’m not a conservative. You guys suck! You reject the Enlightenment.” I can hear you screaming right now, and you’re right to think that.] culminating in the French Revolution. Its “founder,” of course, was Edmund Burke, whose opposition to the French Revolution was the embodiment of this conservative disposition, displaying, with rhetorical brilliance, a prophetic vision of the tendencies of this revolutionary ideology toward barbaric inhumanity in the name of progress.

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[end reading]

Mike:  There’s more but we don’t have time for all of it.  I want to get to the conclusion from Patrick Deneen in today’s American Conservative website. I link to this with lengthy quotes and discussion on it in today’s Pile of Prep if you’re looking for it.  Don’t send me an email looking for the article because I’m not going to send it to you.  Go to today’s Pile of Prep and read it.  Are you ready for this?  If you’re standing and you fancy yourselves conservative and you’re a new listener, sit down.  If you’re driving, pull over.  This is going to floor you.  He’s talking about the Bill Kristol, Charles Krauthammer, Fox News, and mainstream right-wing media conservative.  That’s who he’s describing here.


Today’s conservatives are liberals—they favor an economy that wreaks “creative destruction,” especially on the mass of “non-winners,” increasingly controlled by a few powerful actors who secure special benefits for themselves and their heirs; a military that is constructed to be only loyal to the central authority in the capital, frequently moved about to avoid any rooted loyalty, and increasingly isolated from most fellow citizens; an increasingly utilitarian view of education aimed at creating individuals who will become able cogs in a globalized industrial system, largely without allegiance or loyalty; proponents of an increasingly homogenized society whose allegiance is to a set of ideas, especially a “more perfect union,” which Francis Bellamy expressed, was inspired by the example of the French Revolution.

One reaction to my previous article, denouncing an economic system creating a two-class society, suspected me of not being conservative at all, even of harboring Marxist inclinations. This constitutes a logical error—just because Marx was a critic of capitalism, that does not make all critics of capitalism Marxist. To such criticisms, I can only reply—if what you seek to conserve is liberalism, then you’re right, I’m no conservative. And by today’s definition, who, except a few discredited neo-conservatives (a.k.a., paleo-liberals) trying to reignite the good old days of the Cold War, would want to be so defined?

If conservatism is broken today, we need only blame liberalism. There is only one party in America—your choice is liberalism with deliberate speed, or liberalism in a hurry. What is needed is a new, doubtless very different, American conservatism.

[end reading]

End Mike Church Show Transcript



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