Somewhere or other, sometime or other, I read that G.K. Chesterton, asked whether he was a liberal, answered that he was "the only liberal." I sometimes feel that way. I long ago acquiesced to the fact that in the American political context I'm more or less correctly classified as a conservative. But as the so-common-as-to-be-hackneyed followup to any such statement goes, what American conservatism seeks to conserve is in large part classical liberalism.
It probably doesn't need saying to people who read this blog, but in case it does: "classical liberalism" refers not to what we currently refer to as the liberal faction in contemporary politics, but to a political philosophy which is, in a nutshell, that of the United States of America. Most discussions of it emphasize its economic aspects, which I'm sure is accurate, but I'm not a political philosopher or economist and am not very interested in wrangling over the definition. For my purposes it's the political system described by the Constitution, and a corresponding culture which values self-government, liberty, the rule of law, reason, the free exchange of ideas, religious tolerance, and so on--the whole list of things which until recently were generally agreed upon, all based on what were considered in the 18th century self-evident truths about human nature. The American constitution puts that basic worldview into a system of government, and so I prefer the term "constitutional liberalism." (Also "classical liberalism" has other associations, with capitalism for instance, which I want to avoid--but that's another topic.)
But whatever I want to call the thing for my own persnickety reasons, it is undeniably under attack now. Some conservatives are giving up on it, having concluded (correctly, I think) that it is philosophically deficient in serious ways, most significantly in that it assumes a bedrock of agreement on fundamental principles among the citizenry. Moreover they say that it has its own unacknowledged principles which in time displace all others and which are inimical to what I'll very loosely refer to as Western civilization, and which are ultimately conducive, or even inevitably moving, to tyranny. I won't go into all that here: you can read Patrick Deneen or Ryzsard Legutko or Sohrab Ahmari for more.
I think there's a lot to be said for that view, and in fact made more or less the same point many years ago. And the contemporary left is in the process of demonstrating it. It seems pretty obvious that a great many on the left no longer believe in the old liberal ideals, and more specifically do not believe in our constitution, by which I mean they don't regard it as a statement of fundamental law by which we are all bound, a legal framework into which all other laws must fit. For much of the left, the constitution is a relic, at best obsolete because times have changed, at worst a scheme for oppression. Many openly denounce it. Others don't really see the implications of their impatience with it, or even sincerely, though irrationally, believe that whatever they think is good must be by definition constitutional. Their view is culturally predominant now, and seems likely to become more so. For that reason many on the right are ready to give up on the whole project.
Well, I'm not. The way in which I'm truly, inarguably conservative is my instinctive inclination to preserve the good which exists rather than to destroy it so that it can be replaced with something presumed to be better. For what I've come to think of as the "Imagine" left, that means much, much, much better, because its superficially political program is in effect a utopian religion, and in comparison to the imaginary promised world the real one always looks pretty bad. That natural tendency on my part is strongly reinforced by the fact that many of the ideas proposed by the destroyers are pretty much self-evidently terrible ones (e.g. communism).
In spite of all the wrong that's been done within and even because of it, I think our system is basically a good thing. And--looking a little bit deeper--although there are many problems with the many things that we lump together under the designation of "modernity," I want to preserve most of them. I've done my share of complaining about, for instance, the automobile and the society based around it. I'd like to see that change. But do I seriously want to return to the physical living conditions of, say, 1800? No. And neither does anyone else making these complaints. Nor do they want to live under the political and social arrangements of pre-modern times. But these things which make our lives so much easier in material ways have been around for a long time now, so we take them for granted and assume they are simply a natural part of life.
They are not, and we may have to learn that lesson, and in a pretty hard way. I don't want that to happen. I want to preserve the goods of constitutional liberalism. This is not a new position for me. I wrote about it fourteen years ago in a series of posts called "The Liberal Conservative," and thought it was important enough to include the first entry in the selection of posts from this blog that I published in book form. (Click here to read it.)
Things look pretty bleak now, not only because the forces attacking the constitutional system are very powerful, but perhaps more because it looks as if a majority of Americans no longer believe in it. No, that's giving them too much credit: they are ignorant of it and indifferent to it, and if the cultural leaders in entertainment, academia, and the media tell them it is oppressing them, they're likely to believe it. In any case they want what they want and vote for the party that promises to give it to them without demanding anything of them.
There are some reasons for hope, though. One of these is a tactical alliance between religious and social conservatives such as myself and old-school liberals who insist upon facts and reason in the face of post-modern emotionalism. It's an odd sensation to find myself sympathizing with Dawkins-style secular atheists, but I often do when they are under attack for opposing reason to the irrational bullying of identity politics.
As things stand now I believe this one question transcends all other political considerations: are we going to preserve the authority of the constitution or not? This is not about any of the specific issues on which right and left are so divided. There is, for instance, nothing in the constitution that would prevent our having a national health care system. It's about resolving those issues within the framework of the constitution, which means among other things compromise. Perhaps it's too late. There's a poignant moment in Ken Burns's Civil War documentary, when the historian Shelby Foote says "Compromise was our great gift, and it failed us." It certainly seems to be failing; whether it has failed I'm not sure.
Back in the late '70s or early '80s, I heard it some Reagan-movement conservative speaking of the economy say that it was "Time to stop worrying about dividing up the golden eggs and start worrying about the health of the goose." Something like that is true now of the constitution itself. I'm pretty sure that if constitutional liberalism disintegrates few of us are going to be happy with what comes after it.
Wikipedia, by the way, tells me that there is a difference between liberal constitutionalism and constitutional liberalism. I'm not sure which one I'm talking about, but whatever: I'm not a political theorist, and surely what I mean is clear enough.
Addendum: just to be clear, I'm not a classical liberal in the abstract philosophical sense. At that level it's really incompatible with Christianity.