An opinion published Tuesday in the Wall Street Journal argues that there is nothing surprising about Trump era populism. It is a natural consequence of liberal democracy. This is a strange argument considering the fact that the same article portrays conservatives and their populist supporters as representatives of the liberal tradition. The argument goes something like this: In liberal democracies an ‘imperious ruling elite’ imposes laws, norms and practices that radiate disdain for the people’s beliefs and endanger their way of life. These ‘elites’ conspire across party lines against the less educated and the less wealthy. Their efforts are fostered by the mainstream press, social media, the entertainment industry and universities. Furthermore, all of these institutions are dominated by progressive elites and so they have contempt for conservatism. As a consequence, “…conservative elites and many regular voters find themselves bound together by a common political opponent.”
The solution, according to this article, is a ‘restoration’ of liberal education—by conservatives. The author actually states that the task of a liberal education is to furnish a lively appreciation for the origins of modern conservatism! How have they been able to pull this off, you ask? Are Americans completely crazy? Well, no. Americans are in a maze constructed by some very clever people. One of their tactics in the building of this maze has been pseudo-historical. They ignore everything that happened before the French Revolution. The author of this article traces conservatism back to 1790 when Anglo-Irish statesman Edmund Burke mounted a campaign against the influence of French revolutionaries, who he accused of trying to perfect politics by eradicating tradition and transforming humanity.
“Burke replied that the British people were fine. Their traditions and communities nurtured political freedom, which gave tradition and community room to develop and flourish.”
And the story moves resolutely forward from there. More than 150 years later, William F. Buckley ‘renewed’ this relationship between the Right and the people. He was a classical liberal who favored free markets and limited government; he was also a traditionalist dedication to Christian morality.
At this point we begin to suspect that this alliance between the Right and the people is a top-down arrangement, with conservative elites persuading the people that liberty and limited government advance their long-term interests. This is not propaganda invented by the writer of the Wall Street Journal article. It is a true-to-life snapshot of America’s history through the eyes of conservatives. However, the conservative timeline the article describes is revealing.
The political foundations of classical liberalism go back much further than those of conservatism. The Encyclopedia Britannica article that I cited in the previous article traces liberalism to events that took place in the 16th century.
Due to a slow process of commercialization and industrialization, the feudal stratification of society began to dissolve. This process, together with the influence of the Renaissance and the spread of Protestantism, led to social instability. A remedy was needed and that remedy was monarchical absolutism. Under this system, each ruler tried to unify his realm by enforcing conformity to Roman Catholicism or some form of Protestantism. This worked for a while, but it eventually it culminated in the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48), which destroyed much of Europe.
In countries where neither faction was victorious, there was the gradual acceptance of toleration as the lesser of two evils. In countries where one creed dominated it was widely accepted that prosperity and order were more important than the citizens’ beliefs. In this way order was reestablished. But because the economy remained highly centralized and hierarchical, prosperity was limited to the princes.
Under absolutism the economic system was controlled by the ambitions of national rulers who based their policies on mercantilism. Mercantilism was a school of thought that advocated government intervention in a country’s economy to increase state wealth and power. Because this intervention served established interests and inhibited everyone else, it led to a challenge by members of the new middle class. This challenge was a significant factor in the great revolutions that took place in the 17th and 18th centuries in both England and France, including the English Civil Wars (1642-51), the Glorious Revolution (1688), the American Revolution (1775-83), and the French Revolution (1789). Classical liberalism is a result of those revolutions.
So you see, revolutions had already transpired in Burke’s England. There were differences in the French Revolution, but they can be explained by the differences in French and English history, mainly regarding the Reformation. The point is that the English did experience violent revolutions.
In the English Civil Wars, the forces of Parliament defeated and executed Charles I. Subsequently, the Glorious Revolution led to the abdication and exile of James II and the division of power between the King, his ministers, and Parliament. Over time, this new structure of the English government became the model for liberal political movements in other countries.
The political ideas behind these revolutions were given formal expression in the work of the English philosophers Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. Locke in particular believed that revolution is justified when the sovereign fails to protect the person and property of individuals and to guarantee their natural rights to freedom of thought, speech and worship. It is likely that he began writing his major political work, Two Treatises of Government (1690), to justify the Glorious Revolution of 1688.
By 1690, the year Locke published his Treatises, politics in England had become a contest between two loosely related parties, the Whigs and the Tories. These parties were the ancestors of Britain’s modern Liberal Party and Conservative Party, respectively. (Locke was a Whig.) Locke and the early liberals worked to free individuals from two forms of social constraint—religious conformity and aristocratic privilege—which had been maintained and enforced through the powers of government.
“The aim of the early liberals was thus to limit the power of government over the individual while holding it accountable to the governed.”
This is not quite the liberty of which American conservatives speak so fondly. Their version belongs to a political ideology called liberal conservatism.
“Liberal conservatism (represented in the United States by the Republican Party) incorporates the classical liberal view of minimal government intervention in the economy, according to which individuals should be free to participate in the market and generate wealth without government interference. However, individuals cannot be thoroughly depended on to act responsibly in other spheres of life, therefore liberal conservatives believe that a strong state is necessary to ensure law and order and social institutions are needed to nurture a sense of duty and responsibility to the nation.”
This mistrust of the average individual is justified within the corresponding political philosophy. Liberal conservatives hold to the idea of natural inequality. This differs from aristocratic conservatism only in its justification. Aristocratic conservatism rejects the principle of equality as something inconsistent with human nature.
In Western Europe liberal conservatism is usually regarded as center-right, and is the dominant form of conservatism, especially in Northern Europe. It can support civil liberties along with some socially conservative positions. This took a slightly different form in the United States, where the founding fathers were among the most dramatic proponents of the liberal assault against authoritarian rule. The result of this extreme opposition to authoritarian rule seems rather counterintuitive.
“In the United States conservatives often combine the economic individualism of classical liberals with a Burkean form of conservatism that emphasizes the natural inequalities between men and the irrationality of human behavior as the basis for the human drive for order and stability, and the rejection of natural rights as the basis for government.”
Note the contradiction in the claim that natural inequalities and the irrationality of human behavior are the basis for the human drive for order and stability. It seems to refer to two classes of people—those who are naturally unequal, and those with a drive for order and stability. Perhaps it would make more sense if the second mention of the word ‘human’ was changed to ‘elite’: ‘the elite drive for order and stability’.
Progressives often wonder why conservatives vote against their own interests, but now we can see that it isn’t really that surprising. First, there is the confusion of the term ‘liberal’, enabled by the fact that conservative history ignores the events that inspired liberalism. Then there is the conservative program of convincing people that if they vote against their own interests it will be good for them in the long-term.
And there is a third tactic not yet mentioned. If all else fails fear has been proven useful, and the list of enemies is endless: liberals, immigrants, people of color, Jews….