Ideology and History in American Politics

When traditional conservatives, or Burkean conservatives, or paleoconservatives talk about their conservatism, they like to emphasize its opposition to ideological thinking. Many have begun their search with some sort of typical political conservatism, and working back historically and philosophically, have discovered these ideas about society – the effect of time in weeding out bad laws and vindicating good ones, the relationship of past to present and present to future, skepticism about the reason of any individual person or even of the reason of a group at any particular moment.

But nature abhors a vacuum, and so does modern politics. It is a fact that politics has always had its polarizations, but it was not until 1789 in France, 1832 in England, perhaps after the Civil War in America – it was not until more recently that rational conceptualizations have engulfed every possible interest group into their platforms, and ideological Parties became the most important signifiers in politics. At this point it is impossible for the nonpartisan, and therefore the nonideologue, to participate politically.

However, I am using the word “ideology” loosely, where it refers to a rational conceptualization of the whole, justifying its tenets based on knowable and abstract principles. Burke himself was an epistemological skeptic, and his justification for prescriptivism was based in that skepticism. However, he ultimately had an appeal to some kind of an abstract conception of the good, of how we could measure something as good or flourishing – just as all empirical judgment has a root in the abstract, and all induction in deduction. Burke never fleshed this out, though, to my knowledge, and his desire to keep his metric for the Good unspoken of, hidden in society’s commonsense assent, is both the strength of his skepticism and ultimately his Achilles Heal to those who wish to undermine him.

Burke’s refusal to speak on such matters, to leave them shrouded, ultimately conceals the Christian assumptions of his philosophy. But more importantly politically, it is a concealment that is not a problem if we all continue to assent to common ideas of what is good and what is flourishing. This reminds me of the early Stuart kings, like James I, who requested that Parliament not debate their Prerogative. Clearly, James thought that bringing up the subject would enable Parliament to chip away at it, but Parliament generally agreed. The common consent was that the king’s extraparliamentary Prerogative was obviously needed in some situations, and as long as he didn’t seem to be overreaching with it, everyone could agree not to define the undefinable.

In American politics today, there is ultimate ideological conflict on many issues. However, our nation’s political discourse is also cloaked in references to its past. Not only the founding, but the victory over slavery, the struggle of the Depression, the seeming miracle of successful colonization before independence – all of these are not just used as prooftexts (though they are that, too), but are the inescapable words by which we tell our stories. American ideologies are limited to the salient political language of our republic, and this language is the continued reverence for our history. Only on its extremes does American liberalism reach the utter rationalization that befits truly dangerous movements. Likewise the American right wing, which has not countenanced the xenophobia of true fascism. The fact for both sides has been that our national story is told in terms anti-totalitarian, and the facts make it hard to describe otherwise.

It is true that history can be used in many ways – and it is. However, there is a definiteness to history that rationalism, and therefore true ideology, does not contain. And speaking about history entails language, which is similarly limited. Through speaking about history, which is an important part of our political language and in this case our political salvation, our ideologies have been circumscribed and even routed in a certain direction.

This is our common consent. It enables a plethora of variations and streams of reason, based on contradictory premises, to function in the same place. America’s anti-ideology is the appeal of its history. The appeal to history is always anti-rational, or perhaps supra-rational. And perhaps the best thing we can learn from history is that it is good to have a limit to our powers of reasoning.

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