Ocean Gibson


Charles Lucy, “Landing of the Pilgrims Fathers” (1848)

This paper traces the idea of America as a “city on a hill” (along with its variants of American chosenness, and America as a redeemer nation) with particular attention to its prophetic power to inspire a worldcentric dimension of morality and identity within the American imagination. In the course of this developmental narrative, I also want to argue that the variant of America as a redeemer nation is the truest to the moral calling latent in American destiny, and that it offers a viable unity in identity moving forward in our own day. 

To make this case, I begin with voices that contain the seeds of a grand moral calling even as they frame that calling within explicitly Christian terms (John Winthrop, Jonathan Edwards, and Brigham Young). Then I will turn to a mixture of voices spanning the early republic all the way to the later 19th century that give wider scope to America’s moral vocation while continuing to accent notions of American chosenness (Thomas Jefferson, Lyman Beecher, Walt Whitman, Abraham Lincoln, and Henry Ward Beecher). In conclusion, we will consider some voices from the 20th century, drawing from some eminent examples from the era of the world wars (Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Reinhold Niebuhr), and then turning to a culminating point in the idea of the redeemer nation with Martin Luther King Jr. 


John Winthrop’s “A Modell of Christian Charity” provides the typical starting point for considering themes of American chosenness, since its famous characterization of the puritan errand to be “as a city on a hill” not only provides the initial vocabulary for the theme, but also includes much of the basic genetic code that continues to be reiterated. But for contemporary Americans who hear the phrase, it might come as a surprise that Winthrop does not mention it until the end of his sermon, and at that, after an admonishing jeremiad. The promise of becoming a city on a hill involves a two-way covenant that is conditional on the fulfillment of the puritan errand to live righteously; and Winthrop acknowledges the great difficulty involved in such a responsibility and the higher stakes that come along with it:

Now the onely way to avoyde this shipwracke and to provide for our posterity is to followe the counsell of Micah, to doe Justly, to love mercy, to walke humbly with our God. For this end, wee must be knitt together in this worke as one man, wee must entertaine each other in brotherly Affeccion, wee must be willing to abridge our selves of our superfluities, for the supply of others necessities…for wee must Consider that wee shall be as a Citty upon a Hill, the eies of all people are uppon us; soe that if wee shall deale falsely with our god in this worke wee have undertaken and soe cause him to withdrawe his present help from us, wee shall shame the faces of many of gods worthy servants, and cause theire prayers to be turned into Cursses upon us till wee be consumed out of the good land whither wee are goeing…

Dated 1630, this sermon far precedes anything like an American national consciousness, and circumscribes the puritan errand in fundamentally religious terms. But its moral force is striking and anticipates later renovations of the theme of American destiny that seek to bring its course back in line with its truest moral calling. After all, Winthrop calls us to be a model of Christian charity: to be merciful, humble, affectionate, and attentive to the needs of others. In doing so we must conceive of ourselves as constituting a single body knit together in a bond of love and compact in a shared responsibility to God. And if we do not, the grace of being a chosen people will be compounded into an even harsher judgment from God and the world at large—for when the eyes of all people are upon you, the stakes of your successes and failures become all the more significant. 

Despite the spirit of humility that pervades this sermon as well as other jeremiads, it is easy looking back to dismiss the early pretension to chosenness as conceited. At the same time, the perils faced by the early settlers and the audacity required to pull off colonial ventures in the new world incentivized acknowledgement of their exceptional circumstances and affirmation of their exceptional vocation. It is therefore not surprising that leaders of these puritan communities recognized a continuity between biblical prophecy and the discovery of America. In his self-explanatory, “The Latter-Day Glory is Probably to Begin in America,” Jonathan Edwards exemplifies this view by identifying America as the place where God is to initiate a new and glorious spiritual endeavor, “so often foretold in scripture,” for the benefit of the world. As the events of the bible unfolded in the old world, and “Providence observes a kind of equal distribution of things,” Edwards figures that the new world was probably discovered so that “the new and most glorious state of God’s church on earth might commence there,” and “a new world in a spiritual respect” might be brought to fruition. While the “old continent has been the source and original of mankind,” here in New England is the promise of “the most glorious renovation of the world,” a place destined to serve “as the beginning or forerunner of something vastly great.” 

Writing later in the 19th century, and at a time when the meaning of the American Revolution and the nation’s founding were being incorporated into a recognizable civil religion, Brigham Young reaffirms the continuity between biblical prophecy and American chosenness. In a more literal sense than even Edwards, Young sees our nation as continuous with a lineage of divinely inspired events going back to the days of the prophets. For Young, the land surrounded by the Pacific and Atlantic oceans “is the land of Zion,” the “land that the Lord gave to Jacob, who bequeathed it to his son Joseph, and his posterity.” America, he continues, will be the Zion “spoken of by the prophets”—the “continent whereon the Lord has commenced his work for the last time, and whereon Jesus will make his appearance the second time, when he comes to gather and save the House of Israel.” At the same time, Young incorporates the American commitment to republican government into God’s plan and frames the major events leading up to America’s founding as divinely inspired events that God set into motion for this precise design: 

The general Constitution of our country is good, and a wholesome government could be framed upon it, for it was dictated by the invisible operations of the Almighty; he moved upon Columbus to launch forth upon the trackless deep to discover the American Continent; he moved upon the signers of the Declaration of Independence; and he moved upon Washington to fight and conquer, in the same way as he moved upon ancient and modern Prophets, each being inspired to accomplish the particular work he was called to perform in the times, seasons, and dispensations of the Almighty. God’s purposes, in raising up these men and inspiring them with daring sufficient to surmount every opposing power, was to prepare the way for the formation of a true republican government.

In making America the site of nothing less than a divine prophecy and identifying its mode of governance with a design intended by God, Young builds upon Edwards in forerunning a version of American chosenness that takes on a mission of global proportions. “This government, so formed,” he writes, “has been blessed by the Almighty until she spreads her sails in every sea, and her power is felt in every land.” 

But while we must acknowledge that this theme has been harnessed in defense of American imperial ventures and as a warrant for global intervention, it has also inspired conceptions of American destiny that accent global moral responsibility. And as we will see, this moral destiny has a way of transcending the moral scope of its original religious inspirations—of pushing beyond the confines of its initial ethnocentric formulation to take on not merely a worldwide ambition (which might involve imposition) but a truly worldcentric ethic with American ideals at its teleological center.  

Consider as transitionary examples the views of Thomas Jefferson and Lyman Beecher. In his characterization of America’s republican experiment as “the world’s best hope” and “a chosen country,” Jefferson prefigures Young by fusing American and biblical history. While his “First Inaugural Address” dials back on biblical language in favor a more secular enumeration of “the essential principles of our Government,” Jefferson had suggested that the American seal portray a representation of the Israelites in the wilderness on one side, and Anglo-Saxon chiefs on the other—thereby identifying America with the biblical Israelites and its political exigence with God’s divine plan. Like Young, he draws inspiration from biblical myth and in so doing divinizes the American political project as an example to the world. At the same time, however, Jefferson’s worldcentric morality (as crystallized in the Declaration of Independence) remains couched in its ethnocentric origins insofar as it constitutes for him an exclusively Anglo-Saxon affair. This dynamic is prevalent throughout most iterations of American chosenness and forms a central point of concern for critics who view the ideology of chosenness as an impediment on the maturation of American civilization. As it is worth explicating in broad conceptual terms and will continue to reappear in later examples, I will quote Eddie Glaude’s excellent synopsis of the matter:

The American nation, or people, were the defenders of liberty and equality, which in turn defined the contours of the nation. Thus, the use of nation in the United States stressed the equality and liberty of individuals…But…the community, or common good, was also established with the ideology of chosenness. As the common good was articulated, as disparate groups of individuals saw themselves in common cause, a stronger claim of difference was made. The colonists accounted for the true difference between them and the mother country by turning to the legacy of the Puritans and the rhetoric of errand. England represented the Old World and America the New Canaan…The ideology of chosenness also allowed the leaders of the American nation to sidestep the Enlightenment rhetoric of “the people.” White males were the chosen people. All others were merely ordinary individuals…

What we therefore have is a situation where the universal values of liberty and equality—those that animate the worldcentric aspirations of the American nation—become entangled in a narrower constellation of identity that stifles their fuller liberation in national life. In turn, each generation of Americans faces the difficult task of disentangling these competing notions and working through the felt tension between the scope of America’s moral promise and the reality of its often exclusionary and anti-democratic politics. For Glaude, this situation follows from the basic logic of chosenness, which implies that only those within the in-group possess the requisite dignity, virtue or status to serve as the vanguard of the nation’s destiny. 

Another example of this incredible envelopment of worldcentric values within ethnocentric circumscriptions can be found in the thought of Lyman Beecher, who forwards a rich and capacious conception of America’s moral calling even as he excludes Catholics from it. In “A Plea for the West,” Beecher calls for the proliferation of educational and religious institutions in the west in order to inoculate westerners from the dubious influence of settling Catholics. But while Beecher’s exclusion of Catholicism from the religious calling of America is clear in this plea, it exists alongside an incredibly hopeful and broad-minded conception of America’s moral destiny in the world at large, even if it retains an exclusively Protestant framing. For Beecher, our “experimental knowledge of free institutions” grants us the opportunity to introduce new moral advancements in world civilization that transcend the methods of violence that have prevailed in the past. “The government of force will cease, and that of intelligence and virtue will take its place; and nation after nation cheered by our example, will follow in our footsteps, till the whole earth is free.” Nevertheless, like Winthrop and Edwards, Beecher frames America’s moral calling as subsidiary to its role as a prophetic center for Protestantism; and like Young, who fuses America’s political creed with prophetic history, Beecher characterizes American political principles as means to the more important task of spreading Christianity worldwide. “But as all great eras of prosperity to the church have been aided by the civil condition of the world,” he writes, “and accomplished by the regular operation of moral causes, I consider the text as a prediction of the rapid and universal extension of civil and religious liberty, introductory to the triumphs of universal Christianity.” By leading the world towards an embrace of republican principles, America will serve the higher aim of overturning those despotic and feudal institutions that contradict the state of affairs predicted to unfold in “the peaceful reign of Jesus Christ on the earth.” 

With Walt Whitman’s poetic exaltation of American destiny we see the preservation of many Christian archetypes but at the same time a generalization of their meaning—so much so that the spiritual promise of America begins to take on an autonomy and significance beyond its initial articulation as a means towards universal Christianity. Moreover, the reality of America’s burgeoning economic, industrial, and technological power in the 19th century called for an articulation of American exceptionalism that could integrate its diverse enterprises into a compelling vision of the future. This move was admittedly anticipated by Winthrop, who integrated the economic dimensions of colonial life within a broader religious interpretation of the puritan errand. For Whitman, however, the scale of America’s proliferating culture, ingenuity and power calls for a rendering of America’s promise that is manifold and colossal in a way never before conceived:   

Yet soul be sure the first intent remains, and shall be carried out, perhaps even now the time has arrived. After the seas are all cross’d, (as they seem already cross’d,) after the great captains and engineers have accomplish’d their work, after the noble inventors, after the scientists, the chemist, the geologist, ethnologist, finally shall come the poet worthy that name, the true son of God shall come singing his songs. Then not your deeds only O voyagers, O scientists and inventors, shall be justified, all these hearts as of fretted children shall be sooth’d, all affection shall be fully responded to, the secret shall be told, all these separations and gaps shall be taken up and hook’d and link’d together, the whole earth, this cold, impassive, voiceless earth, shall be completely justified…Nature and Man shall be disjoin’d and diffused no more, the true son of God shall absolutely fuse them.

America is imbued with not only the prospect of becoming a geographically extensive and technologically formidable national power, but also with a moral and spiritual destiny befitting the grandeur of a world-historical civilization. Its promise offers nothing less than the reconciliation of the fallenness of humankind in the world and its severance from nature. All initiative hitherto, from the work of our enterprising voyagers, to the designs of our inventors and the discoveries of our scientists, has been an attempt to answer the “cold, impassive, voiceless earth” in which we dwell as unsatisfied phantoms and shades, but ultimately without success. But now we begin to outline the “rondure” whence these trials and initiatives proceed, and discern some “inscrutable purpose, some hidden prophetic intention” that could consummate these efforts and vindicate their partiality retrospectively—thus bringing the arc of the rondure full circle. This “first intent” is the liberation of a spiritual sensibility, at once young and old, through the intervention of a divine literatus, whose mediation as “the true son of God” at once taps into the millennial expectation of Christ’s return and generalizes its meaning to include the entirety of America’s cultural and religious promise. 

By the time of Whitman’s “Passage to India,” the theme of America as a redeemer nation had already come to the fore in Lincoln’s treatment of the meaning of the Civil War. In his “Second Inaugural Address,” Lincoln acknowledges that the entire nation is to blame for the carnage of the war, and sketches the task of global moral responsibility that that sacrifice now warrants. He does this by enacting what Harry Stout calls a “unique jeremiad.” In contrast to the tendency to employ the jeremiad as an assurance of one’s own righteousness and eventual victory, Lincoln insists on the inscrutability of God’s purpose and denies the presumption underlying these sorts of claims to chosenness. Since both the North and the South offended God because “both sides were implicated in the sin of slavery,” neither could claim a monopoly on God’s chosenness. Moreover, the degree of destruction and carnage raises for Lincoln the sobering possibility that some higher purpose, divined by neither side, may have been working itself out through the otherwise incomprehensible catastrophe—a purpose as mysterious as Whitman’s rondure, but potentially more inscrutable and contrary to human justice than he might imagine. “The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.” 

Couched in this deference to God’s inscrutable purpose is a compelling appeal to humility and charity, for if both sides are implicated then one should not be too quick to deal in judgement, and should cast aside any “self-righteous assurance.” “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right,” we are called “to finish the work we are in.” In outlining this work, Lincoln brings his jeremiad full circle, expanding its circumference to include a wider moral calling that elevates the meaning of America as a redeemer nation. Instead of insisting on the irrefutable rectitude of the Union cause and taking on a spirit of vengeance rooted in “pride and revenge,” Americans from this point on are to embody a responsibility of global dimensions: “to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” America remains a redeemer nation, but one whose “destiny for itself” and “burden for the world” is “an honorable peace.” By way of humility before God’s purpose, and the spirit of openness and charity consequent upon it, God’s “last best hope” redeems itself by integrating in its identity a worldcentric dimension. 

In a move that proves complementary both to Lincoln’s sense of America’s global responsibility and to Whitman’s embrace of diverse initiatives within America’s spiritual vocation, Henry Ward Beecher’s sermon, “The Tendencies of American Progress,” forwards the view that an ethic of individual wealth accumulation can be congruent with the fulfillment of America’s worldcentric responsibilities. He identifies the accumulation of wealth as a necessary support for the development of America’s morality, intelligence, religion, and manners; and thereby finds a place for material advancement within the spiritual teleology adumbrated by Young. For “it is impossible,” he exclaims, 

to civilize a community without riches. I boldly affirm that no nation ever yet rose from a barbarous state except through the mediation of wealth earned. I affirm that the preaching of the Gospel to the heathen will be invalid and void if it does not make them active workmen, and teach them how to make money. And although the evidences of the conversion of the individual are not that he knows how to make money; yet in a nation no religion is a good religion that does not teach industry, and the thrift which comes from industry.

Beecher is careful not to reduce religious liberation to economic facility, but he does forward two essential principles that have arguably had a decisive, and perhaps controversial, effect on the formation of American values. First, he establishes a developmental narrative in which wealth is affirmed as a necessary, if not sufficient, condition of civilization and evangelical progress. Second, he intertwines the value of religion with its ability to cultivate economic virtue by making the latter both a partial indicator and a measure of the former. In consequence, while religion and economics remain formally distinct, their inseparability implies that religion is to a certain extent dependent on its economic fruits, both as a condition for its fruition and as a mark of its value.  

Like his predecessors, Henry Beecher’s vision of Christian evangelism retains a large measure of ethnocentric exclusivity insofar as it presumes that the in-group possesses the one-true gospel and must therefore impart it on barbarous heathens in order to civilize them. Even so, his “Tendencies of American Progress” evinces a broadening of religious outlook in a less literalist and more cosmopolitan direction, perhaps in response to the increasingly multi-religious canvas of 19th century American life. My “faith in religion,” he owns, “is not in the church, and not in doctrines, and not in books, and not in ministers, nor in anything external to man, but in that nature which God created, and which makes religion indispensable to man.” Furthermore, “it is very noticeable that the different sects of religion are softening, and that men are coming together in conference who only a few years ago thought it their duty to hate and club one another. This growing spirit of love and fellowship in differing churches is one of the signs of the growth of religion”—not its decline. 

For Henry Beecher, wealth accumulation can be conducive to this broadening of sympathy and spiritual magnanimity as long as it continues to play its proper formative role in the hierarchy of human needs and priorities. “For material welfare, although it be an indispensable element of national prosperity, is the lowest, and is to be subordinated to all the others.” It remains productive insofar as it “is working toward the social and toward the spiritual,” and “lies in the line of intelligence, of real virtue” and “moral principle.” And as our prosperity grows we are meant to remember the global significance of America’s calling as a beacon of hope for all of the world’s poor, who would also seek a better life. In his closing passages, Beecher (echoing Young, Whitman, and his father Lyman) acknowledges a unique American destiny to be a vessel for the liberation of new principles, yet in a spirit of charity that recalls Winthrop’s moving sincerity and magnanimity even as it extends the circle of consideration to a much wider burden of humanity: 

And now, I have but one word to say more: as we have been put in the van among nations to develop principles in their practical forms that were only known as seed-corn in other lands, my heart’s ambition is, first, for the welfare of this whole land, for the sake of the burden of the population which it carries. God bless America. Not because I was born in it…but because the continent carries such a burden of humanity that its weal or woe will be like an eternal weal or woe, infinite, endless. May God, for the sake of neighboring peoples, bless this land…that we may stand frowning on our shores against no foreign people; that we may be no band of robbers to filch and to steal from the feeble and the poor. May God gives us magnanimity and power and riches, that we may throw the shadow of our example upon the poor, the perishing, and the ready-to-be-destroyed, for their protection…Let kings war; let aristocrats war; but the common people of a great republic should own the brotherhood of man. 

The stakes of America’s global example and mission intensify in the periods surrounding the world wars, when global conflict puts ideals of American responsibility to the test. Initially in World War I, talk of American chosenness retains much of the idealism that was seen in many of the voices from the 19th century. As Cherry points out, “American engagement in war could be for no paltry purpose of merely defending American interests. It had to be a war to end war, a war to make the whole world safe for democracy.” We see this, for example, in the view of Woodrow Wilson, who argues in a 1919 address to the Senate that “America has entered the war to promote no private or peculiar interest of her own but only as the champion of rights which she was glad to share with free men and lovers of justice everywhere.” That America is a friend to fellow nations and their rights had been demonstrated by the example of our troops, who “made America and all that she stood for a living reality in the thoughts not only of the people of France but also of tens of millions of men and women throughout all the toiling nations of the world”—a world “standing everywhere in peril of its freedom and the loss of everything it held dear.” And moreover, America was to continue defending the rights and freedoms of the world’s peoples after the war and wield its new global power responsibly by taking on a more robust commitment to international moral leadership. Towards this end, Wilson points to the League of Nations as an opportunity for America to accept “the confidence of the world” and the “moral leadership that is offered us.” We have only to carry forward what we have already committed ourselves to, and follow “the hand of God:”

Our participation in the war established our position among the nations and nothing but our mistaken action can alter it…We answered to the call of duty in a way so spirited…that the whole world saw at last, in the flesh, in noble action, a great ideal asserted and vindicated, by a Nation they had deemed material and now found to be compact of the spiritual forces that must free men of every nation from every unworthy bondage. It is thus that a new role and a new responsibility have come to this great Nation…The stage is set, the destiny disclosed. It has come about by no plan of our conceiving, but by the hand of God, who led us into this way.

While Wilson does speak of “the hand of God,” his image of incarnating a liberating ideal crystallizes in less overtly religious terms what figures like Edwards and Young are on about when they speak of America as a manifestation of a latent spiritual possibility. And like Lincoln, Whitman, and both Lyman and Henry Ward Beecher, this possibility involves not only a glorious display of power and wealth, but also a heightened register of moral imagination whose future bears the mark of a divine inevitability. “The stage is set, the destiny disclosed,” and we have only to go forward confident in the favor that God has placed upon us. 

This hopeful idealism about America’s global mission would to a certain extent get tempered by the disillusionment that followed World War I, as well as the unprecedented violence that would ensue during World War II—so much so that while patriotic energy still affirmed America’s role as a bulwark against political oppression, it no longer retained the air of confidence and moral redemption that was prevalent during the Great War. This shift appears in the rhetoric of Franklin Roosevelt, who in the midst of war in 1942 articulates familiar religious themes even as he forwards a sobering account of the war’s aims. To be sure, these aims are not entirely devoid of an idealistic and reconstructive element. Roosevelt reminds us that we “are not making all this sacrifice of human effort and human lives to return to the kind of world we had after the last world war.” Rather, we “are fighting to cleanse the world of ancient evils, ancient ills.” And furthermore, we retain in our efforts a living link to both our founding religious creeds and our role as a global exemplar of republican and democratic values. “Our enemies are guided by a brutal cynicism,” whereas we are “inspired by a faith which goes back through all the years to the first chapter of the Book of Genesis: “God created man in His own image.” “We on our side are striving to be true to that divine heritage,” and insofar as we do good on that task, we remain on the side of freedom, democracy, and religion. 

Nevertheless, there is in Roosevelt’s message more of the gravitas of a wartime general than there is in Wilson’s, whose expressive moral teleology rings more in the key of a gracious and scholarly diplomat. For Roosevelt, our involvement is not so much necessitated by a unique calling to end all war as it is to neutralize a particular enemy that cannot be compromised with. His attitude is animated more by a sense of military necessity than by a belief in the inevitable victory of God’s chosen; and while he entertains little doubt that the Allies fight for the morally just cause, he does not invoke the hand of God as a guarantee of divine favor that can be counted on—for whatever the status of American chosenness might mean, it is clear that such extreme circumstances compel us to fully own the burdens of war. Speaking of the threat of suicide planes, for instance, Roosevelt stands firm in the insistence that our “people are not afraid,” and acknowledges “that we may have to pay a heavy price for freedom.” “We will pay this price with a will,” and no matter “what our enemies in their desperation may attempt to do to us, we will say as the people of London have said, “We can take it.” And what’s more, we can give it back—and we will give it back—with compound interest.”   

Writing in the midst of World War II, and aware that the dangers associated with America’s growing economic and military prowess necessitated a reevaluation of its moral vocation, Reinhold Niebuhr articulated a position of “Christian realism” that both affirmed American chosenness while tempering it with a due dose of moral humility and responsibility. America is in “a position of destiny” that “carries with it tremendous responsibilities”— responsibilities that, for Niebuhr, require a religious interpretation if they are to avoid the corruptions of “pride and the lust of power.” America’s exceptional status proceeds from grace, from the circumstances of its history and the real opportunities that have been proffered to it as a potential vehicle for international justice, and not by virtue of our own moral righteousness. It must therefore be careful to avoid the conceit that it can do no wrong or that its chosenness is perpetual and inviolable, keeping its own capacity for failure and hegemonic domination clear in view. “This partnership between the English-speaking peoples can of course,” he writes, “become a new menace to international justice and peace if it stands alone. The world cannot be organized by an Anglo-Saxon hegemony.” “The democratic traditions of the Anglo-Saxon world” may indeed serve as “the potential basis of a just world order,” but to do good on this possibility it must acknowledge that “the historical achievements of this world are full of violations and contradictions of these principles.” We like any other people are liable to the persuasions of Thrasymachus in The Republic: that power “is the sole source of eminence,” and carries its own “amoral sense of destiny.” To counteract this tendency and defend a moral sense of destiny, Niebuhr revives the admonishment inherent in the jeremiad by insisting on the responsibility that comes along with a destiny of religious import:

If we know that we have been chosen beyond our deserts, we must also begin to realize that we have not been chosen for our particular task in order that our own life may be aggrandized. We ought not derive either special security or special advantages from our high historical mission. The real fact is that we are placed in a precarious moral and historical position by our special mission. It can be justified only if it results in good for the whole community of mankind. Woe unto us if we fail. For our failure will bring judgment upon both us and the world. 

Up until this point we have been considering voices for whom there was no question regarding their inclusion in the circle of American destiny. But the limits of that circle throughout our history have afforded occasions for perceived outsiders to negotiate their own responses to American chosenness, and often by leveraging its own logic. Some, like David Walker, Maria Stewart, and Frances Willard, forward jeremiads that at once critique the American project while framing it within an underlying affirmation of its promise. Others, like Henry Highland Garnet and Malcolm X, seem more cynical about the ultimate feasibility of America and level their critiques from more of an outsider’s position over and against it. This dichotomy raises an essential question for would-be reformers of America’s future: whether to embrace Bercovitch’s all-encompassing American consensus, and permit it to transmute one’s revolutionary fervor; or, to attempt a stand outside of that consensus and address the malaises of America from the outside. For some, this can seem like a choice between stultifying conformity and ineffective isolation. 

So far I have been trying to convey the uncontainable power inherent in the ideals that animate America’s sense of destiny, and their capacity to liberate worldcentric insights that, at their noblest, transcend their ethnocentric enframings. It should therefore come as no surprise that I endorse the former alternative of affirming the American consensus, and view it less as a stultifying ubiquity and more as a liberatory imaginary that channels and enhances the revolutionary spirit by mediating it through an element of conservatism. Defending this view thoroughly would of course necessitate further consideration of the many critics of American chosenness. But for now I will offer in closing Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” as a counterexample to those skeptics who might see in the American consensus a suffocating reality that denies the possibility of genuine reform. 

King’s letter is striking in its rhetorical force and high degree of erudition. Finding occasion to invoke the Apostle Paul, Socrates, Aquinas, Augustine, Tillich, Buber, and Martin Luther, and weaving them into the spirit of America’s founding documents, King impresses on the reader a compelling moral consensus that carries the weight of the Greek and Christian traditions while affirming the moral promise of America. In articulating his defense of nonviolent protest and his indictment of the white southern clergy within the matrix of the America errand, King’s intervention proves far more effective than it would have been had it been articulated in opposition to the national consensus—for it attains through this consensus the gravitas of a long and meaningful historical development, and can no longer be dismissed as a recalcitrant call for agitation. Consider for example King’s response to the charge of being an extremist, which he takes as an opportunity to remind us of some eminent examples of conviction, passion and fortitude that animate our heritage. “Was not Jesus,” he asks, 

an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.”…Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.”…And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal….” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love?

Furthermore, King’s exigence of speaking for a people that have long been kept outside of the circle of American identity, as well as his call for a recognition of our intertwining destinies, succeeds in wedding subversion and redemption. He subverts the moral order by invoking a more fundamental moral order that forms the philosophical and religious foundations of the American project as a whole. It is both truly progressive and truly conservative; simultaneously provocative in its affirmation, and affirmative in its provocation. Mirroring his own formulation of civil disobedience, King’s subversive intervention on behalf of America’s promise takes a step forward in redeeming that promise even as it challenges it:

One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.  

This at once subversive and unifying gesture hinges on the primacy of conscience as the ennobling center of the free human being. Though embedded in the opacities of history, wherein the will of God is uncertain and often inscrutable, our conscience provides a window into that underlying law that requires occasional subversion for its own redemption. Those who abide by the law must, when called by conscience, become law-breakers. But by willingly facing the consequences for such disobedience, one accepts the opacity of the present and in turn acknowledges the transcendent nature of this law—that one cannot fully discern the trajectory of its rondure,and must work within the limitations of the historical present, leaving ultimate judgment to God. 

By affirming individual conscience as a vehicle of redemption when directed in a spirit of love, King culminates the idea of America as a redeemer nation in a way that crystallizes the worldcentric aspirations of his predecessors while integrating an element of self-reflection and moral humility. Its circle of consideration is universal, yet fueled by the power of a particular array of national traditions. Its aims are fundamentally American in their formulation, yet point to a moral register beyond this particular national scope. Its view is teleological and hopeful, yet aware of the opacities of our historical condition, both within ourselves and without in the world of social relations. 

For someone like Bercovitch, this development is a case in point for the dynamics of the American consensus. In his view, America offers “a civic identity rooted in a prophetic view of history,” and at that, one which unites “nationality and universality, civic and spiritual selfhood, secular and redemptive history, the country’s past and paradise to be, in a single synthetic ideal.” It does this in part by mediating individual and collective values through a third term—the national errand—and by permitting each to thrive vicariously through the other. Beneath the bedrock of the self lives the national spirit; and in the advancements of the community, the self attains its due enlargement. In consequence, the radical energies of the individual become subsumed in such a way that their subversive power gets channeled back into an affirmation of the national spirit. And as American destiny unfolds, it continues to inspire a revolutionary fervor that proves at once subversive and affirmative— “because individualism, the people, and revolution, considered in their highest aspect, political and spiritual, correspond to America.” Speaking of our classic writers, Bercovitch concludes that to be an American    

was by definition to be radical—to turn against the past, to defy the status quo and become an agent of change. And at the same time to be radical as an American was to transmute the revolutionary impulse in some basic sense: by spiritualizing it (as in Walden), by diffusing or deflecting it (as in Leaves of Grass), by translating it into a choice between blasphemy and regeneration (as in Moby-Dick), or most generally by accommodating it to society (as in “Fortune of the Republic”). In every case, “America” resolved a conflict of values by reconciling personal, national, and cultural ideals.

In the idea of America as a redeemer nation, best exemplified by King’s challenge, we see precisely this spiritualizing process at work. It involves a destiny that calls on the liberation of the individual for the redemption of its transgenerational promise, and insists on the inseparability of the two. It is animated by a law that calls for its own disruption in order to be renewed, and a unity in identity that stakes its highest moral aspirations on the depths of individual conscience and the creative buoyancy of its citizens. If a worldcentric possibility is to be cultivated in a way that draws on the moral distinctions of national peoples, I have yet to find a more viable ideal that can carry it forward sustainably in an uncertain future.

Works Cited

Beecher, Henry Ward, “The Tendencies of American Progress,”in Cherry, God’s New Israel. 

Beecher, Lyman, “A Plea for the West,” in Cherry, God’s New Israel. 

Bercovitch, Sacvan, The American Jeremiad

Edwards, Jonathan, “The Latter-Day Glory is Probably to Begin in America,” in Cherry, God’s 

New Israel. 

Glaude, Eddie, Exodus! Religion, Race, and Nation in Early Nineteenth-Century Black America

Jefferson, Thomas, “First Inaugural Address,” in Cherry, God’s New Israel. 

King Jr., Martin Luther, “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in Cherry, God’s New Israel.

Lincoln, Abraham, “Second Inaugural Address,” in Cherry, God’s New Israel. 

Niebuhr, Reinhold, “Anglo-Saxon Destiny and Responsibility,” in Cherry, God’s New Israel

Roosevelt, Franklin, “Annual Message to Congress,” in Cherry, God’s New Israel

Stout, Harry, Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War

Whitman, Walt, “Passage to India,” in Cherry, God’s New Israel. 

Wilson, Woodrow, “Presenting the Treaty for Ratification,” in Cherry, God’s New Israel.

Winthrop, John, “A Modell of Christian Charity,” in Cherry, God’s New Israel. 

Young, Brigham, “Discourses,” in Cherry, God’s New Israel. 

Left: William F. Buckley Jr., Right: Milton Friedman

I. Introduction

The following meditation concerns the meaning of American conservatism on the level of its core animating ideas, with a particular bent toward their constructive possibilities. In the course of its engagement with some of the major philosophical sources of Anglo-American conservative thought, it attempts to articulate a prospectus for what conservatism’s self-understanding and vocation could be in the future. 

In forwarding this enterprise I take on three bedrock commitments. First, I agree with Russell Kirk and Corey Robin that, for all its adaptability and the wide range of diverse views that consider themselves “conservative,” there is a coherent tradition of conservative thought, beginning with Edmund Burke, that persists through its various historical iterations. Second, I treat conservatism with the spirit of critical reverence that is owed to any great tradition. Like other lineages that wed high reflection with concern for the political issues of the day, its history is fraught and complicated, marked by moments of great insight as well as tactical and moral failures. If, therefore, conservatism is to evolve so as to remain essential to the issues of our day, it must see the revision of its parameters and the redemption of its heritage as part of the same task. Third, I believe that a future cast of conservative imagination, redeemed through reconstruction, could serve as a productive and even indispensable viewpoint within the greater ecosystem of American democracy. 

As already intimated, historically speaking the conservative mind is vast and variegated, and unsurprisingly it means different things to different people. Moreover, the constructive ambition of this paper implies that its philosophical bent can and ought to change for the better—albeit in a way that redeems the best of its own heritage. But we have to start somewhere, and I propose beginning with its most recent iteration as a coherent movement: the conservative renaissance in the decades after World War II. While recent conditions have begun to obscure this consensus, it remains the basic framework for many self-conscious conservatives and still captures a wide range of conservative intuition. 

According to George Nash, the conservative movement that emerged in the post-war decades was built out of three main pillars: traditionalism, free-market libertarianism, and anti-communism. All three set themselves in opposition to the spectre of “liberalism,” albeit for different reasons. The traditionalist wing came out of the work of Russell Kirk, whose book The Conservative Mind gave credence to the idea of a continuous and intellectually formidable conservative tradition going back to Edmund Burke. For Kirk and like-minded conservatives, the true spirit of conservatism centers around minimal deviation, prudent statesmanship, and the preservation of the institutions, customs and wisdom traditions which are necessary for an ordered and virtuous society. They saw the catastrophes of the world wars as indicative of  worsening moral anomie and rootlessness, further exacerbated by the secular creed of “liberalism.” 

The free-market libertarian wing had precursors in conservative opposition to the New Deal in the 1930s, but became more articulate in the postwar period. Taking inspiration from the work of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, this camp defended free market economics against central planning and socialism. It emphasized the fragility of free society, the limits of government regulation, and the dangers of government expansion, extolling freedom as the highest political value. And while Hayek and Friedman considered themselves old-school liberals of the 19th century sort, the proponents of free-market libertarianism (as well as American liberals themselves) came to view “liberalism” as synonymous with the bureaucratic welfare state exemplified by the New Deal. For these libertarians, this sort of liberalism posed a threat to the promise of freedom. 

Even at the time, conservatives were aware that the contrasting preferences of the traditionalist and free-market wings made for a tenuous unity, and this tension naturally gave rise to the “freedom-virtue debate.” This is where the introduction of “a militant, evangelistic anti-Communism” played a crucial role, for it identified in the Soviet Union a common enemy that both the traditionalist and the libertarians could stand against. As Nash points out, the “Soviet Union, the mortal foe of liberty and virtue, of freedom and faith—was a crucial, unifying cement for the nascent conservative movement.” And like the traditionalists and libertarians, the anti-communist perspective saw “liberalism” as an insufficient defense against communism and in turn part of the dubious left. 

With this adhesive at hand, the three elements of the conservative movement were effectively synthesized in the work of William F. Buckley Jr., and eventually canonized in the conservative imagination by Reagan’s presidency. Even decades later in our own day, when the threat of communism has waned considerably and anti-communism no longer plays the unificatory role that it initially did, the unique imprint of these three elements persists, most acutely in the conservative aversion to anything considered “socialist.” If deemed “socialist,” a proposal is denounced as antithetical to both the American tradition and the preservation of a free society.  

Moving forward, I assume this rough collection of ideas to be representative of American conservatism in our day. This no doubt raises questions about the exclusion of the Christian Right, whose particular social conservatism, evangelicalism, and Christian nationalism have defined much of the conservative agenda and image. I omit focused consideration of the Christian Right for a couple of reasons. The first has to do with my general ignorance of the subject-matter, as I am only cursorily acquainted with its history and theology and would be better off deferring to others on the matter. Second, from the little that I have gathered about it, I see little that would be amenable to the reconstructive enterprise I have in mind. Third, and most importantly, my guiding intuition is that the future of conservatism will depend on its ability to address the problems of the day without circumscribing its vocation around the rather narrow moral agenda that the Christian Right has put forward. This is not to say that conservatism should become anti-religious; on the contrary, latent in the very best of conservative thought is an essentially religious element. But we must find a way of establishing this religious element upon a more capacious set of premises that reflect the spirit of the upcoming generations and the future of American democracy. It is for this latent, and largely unconscious, conservative possibility that I offer this preliminary mediation. 

II. Conservatism’s Philosophical Thread of Continuity

Faced with the amalgam of ideas that came to define conservatism in the postwar period, it is difficult to discern a philosophical thread of continuity beyond a concerted aversion to “liberalism.” But even here the issue remains ambiguous. Liberalism meant existential uprootedness and moral anomie to the traditionalist, whereas it meant central planning and the continuation of the New Deal to free-market libertarians. Was their coming together more a matter of political expediency than a genuine synthesis of ideas rooted in a common origin—and thus merely a necessary alliance against the foe of communism? Is their cohabitation in the conservative mind at best an array of unrelated intuitions or, at worst, a tension between contradictory convictions that render psychic dissonance inevitable? To get an initial grip on this dilemma, let us begin by considering Buckley’s characterization of the problem posed by “Liberalism:” 

Our most serious challenge is to restore principles—the right principles; the principles Liberalism has abused, forsaken, and replaced with “principles” that have merely a methodological content—our challenge is to restore principles to public affairs…I mentioned in the opening pages of this book that what was once a healthy American pragmatism has deteriorated into a wayward relativism. 

Buckley’s point about the loss of principles and the rise of relativism echoes one of Kirk’s core arguments: that a combination of secularism, naturalism, egalitarian levelling, and experimentalist reform—all of which are most thoroughly crystallized in Dewey’s pragmatism—has undermined the moral fabric of society. Uprooted from the wisdom traditions of the past, our conceited belief in our own reason and virtue has reinforced the idea that we can do away with the teachings of tradition and remake the world according to our own impulses. We deny the predominance of transcendent principles and reduce governance to a techno-democratic “method” that somehow retains within itself self-corrective mechanisms of improvement. 

In opposition to these maladies, the Burkean conservative is called to defend the prudent application of principles that have stood the test of time; to conserve a living link to the traditions that have helped make society possible; and to offer a sober reminder of human fallibility—especially when left to navigate the world with only the paltry guidance of individual reason and desire. His is an organic society held together by a partnership committed to the transgenerational tasks of civilization—inclusive of all manner of scientific, artistic, and moral flourishing—“not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” Meaningful progress towards these ends takes time, for it must develop organically within the manifold layers of a complex society. “Every sort of moral, every sort of civil, every sort of politic institution, aiding in the rational and natural ties that connect the human understanding and affections to the divine, are not more than necessary, in order to build up that wonderful structure; Man.” Hasty reform and attempts to level society according to the designs of abstractions misunderstand the organic nature of this development and overestimate the intelligence of the individual or even the present generation, and may very well lead to more harm than good. To be a conservative is to attribute primacy to great lengths of time over the capricious desires of the present, to the permanent things as opposed to the whims and designs of the hour. Wary of the ambition and short-sightedness of the spirit of innovation, conservatism stakes its faith in the wisdom of the species, as instantiated in the living traditions and customs bequeathed to us from the past. 

Where do the free-market libertarians, with their faith in the productive power of free enterprise and fundamental appeal to the freedom of the individual, fit into this mix? Do they fit together coherently, and if so, what is the thread they share? At a first pass, one might propose that the traditionalist and the libertarian share an opposition to large concentrations of government power. Traditionalists would oppose large government on the grounds that it could usurp the functions of extragovernmental institutions, which preserve traditions and mores while mediating the complex forces of social life. Libertarians would oppose it because of its inherent tendency to limit free enterprise and overregulate our lives. Anti-communists would agree on both fronts. 

But while both of these positions have precedent in the conservative lineage, and have resonated strongly since Reagan’s denouncement of government as the problem and not the solution, the matter is too contingent to provide a solid unificatory basis. For the traditionalist the issue is not so much big government as the balance of powers that exist in any given context. Provided the hierarchical orders of society remain in a viable equilibrium and wield the appropriate amount of relative power, the rule of law is preserved, and the constitution ensures a separation of powers, government may indeed become a site of monumental power and enterprising ambition. And even though the libertarian wing often defines itself in opposition to big government, that opposition is a remnant of the conditions of its nascence, in which the main barriers to free enterprise were government control. Insofar as its true philosophical core resides in the old-school liberalism of Hayek and Friedman, its fundamental appeal to the uncoerced freedom of the individual need not imply a consistent defense of laissez-faire—for this fundamental conviction is “capable of an infinite variety of applications.” The premises that animated old-school liberalism could just as easily manifest a wariness of big business as a potential center of disproportionate power.  

A psychological or religious reading might lead us to conclude that the common thread uniting conservatism is a view of human nature as inherently fallen (and therefore weak-willed, impotent in its capacity to reason, and capable of great evil). Traditionalists in the line of Edmund Burke and John Adams do indeed take on this sober view, as is evident in their arguments for prudent governance and the necessity of complex legal and cultural structures that can mediate the constants of human nature (e.g. ambition, greed, envy, and volatile desire). On the other hand, advocates for capitalism have also expressed a comparable view of human nature and incorporated it into their arguments. Religious proponents of free enterprise like Michael Novak and Richard Neuhaus defend the view that democratic capitalism integrates a view of original sin into its guiding matrix. Its emphasis on the rule of law and the diffusion of power in a free market economy, they argue, tacitly assumes the depravity and short-sightedness of the human being. The solution of democratic capitalism assumes these constants and seeks to accommodate them in a system that harnesses the productive creativity and ambition of individuals while dispersing their power in the diffuse networks of the market economy and democratic politics. 

I think that this shared insight into human nature is compelling, but its negative bent—and at that, on the highest level of generality—prevents it from galvanizing the constructive power needed to re-imagine a conservative ethos of the future. It is a great insight of enduring religious, psychological and historical gravitas, and one that the conservative mind should preserve as a live variable for consideration. But it seems unlikely that an intuition of something like original sin could provide the affirmative principle needed to embody a livable conservative temperament.  

While each of these proposals has its merits, I think there is a more promising philosophical thread that not only sustains the union among traditionalism, libertarianism and the obscure residuals of anti-communism, but that also charts a path forward for the conservative imagination. This is the widely shared preference for what Hayek calls “the spontaneous forces of society,” and the belief that we should rely on these forces to order our lives as much as possible without coercion. On the traditionalist side, this conviction finds expression through a protectiveness over traditions and customs, as well as a view of society that is complex, organic, and made up of diverse hierarchical orders that should not be meddled with lightly. The entities and mores that animate civil society are natural outgrowths of a long arc of social experience; and when allowed to flourish uninterrupted, they come to reflect the accumulated wisdom of collective experience. Furthermore, conditions of inequality may very well reflect natural dynamics, and not the subjugation of an oppressed group by a powerful oppressor. Human beings are morally and legally equal, but their inherent differences generate natural inequalities which only a power equal to nature or God could overturn. Hierarchical relations are manifold in both human and non-human relations, and provide the conditions for stability and individual self-expression. 

For the libertarian, affinity for the spontaneous forces of society takes the form of an appeal to the regulatory and productive superiority of a free enterprise system. Its key addition is to incorporate the individual’s pursuit of his own objectives to the spontaneous forces of society, and to call attention to the stability that can arise out of the decentralized relations of a free economy. Like old-school liberalism, libertarian conservatism defends the dignity of the uncoerced individual as a center for open creativity and self-determination (that is, as long as it keeps itself free from a fixed dogma of laissez-faire). Provided our legal and cultural systems remain conducive to the preservation of an orderly and moral citizenry, we ought to leave people free to make their own lives according to their own values and interests. For in doing so we allow wider scope to the self-expression of humanity and compel artificial inequalities to give way to true natural differences.    

On this view, the conservative might be likened to a gardener of civilization, or a guardian of society’s transgenerational integrity. She conserves the balance of the ecosystem so that its rich proliferation of expression can proceed naturally and without coercion. As a guardian of this balance, the conservative temperament seeks to create conditions favorable to the growth of society’s elements, not through the imposition of a uniform standard, which generates eutrophic stagnation, but through knowledge of their respective structures and functions as elements capable of open-ended growth. Change must be gradual so as to not shock the ecosystemic balance, and power must remain diffused so that each element of society can continue to develop itself while nourishing the others. Aversion to large concentrations of government power and awareness of human weakness and depravity are contextual derivatives that follow from this more fundamental attunement to the power and complexity of the spontaneous forces of society. The conservative’s faith in the collective wisdom of the species is noble and marked by a deep historical intuition. But it is also diligent and sober—ever aware of the will to power inherent in each constituent element of society, and determined to prevent any would-be rabble-rouser, narrow faction, or levelling force from disrupting its hard-won harmony. 

At this point, someone like Corey Robin might counter by insisting that conservatism has a will to power of its own. Mirroring the title of Kirk’s The Conservative Mind, Robin’s book The Reactionary Mind also argues for a coherent conservative intellectual tradition, but attributes to it a very different unity in identity. Where Kirk saw in the conservative mind an honorable commitment to “keep to the old ways,” Robin maintains that conservatism’s animating theme has been reactionary resistance to emancipatory movements. Wherever those with less power have called for “freedom, equality, rights, democracy,” or “revolution,” conservatives have sought to preserve the superiority of those in power. “For that is what conservatism is,” says Robin: “a meditation on—and the theoretical rendition of—the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back.” In their opposition to efforts as diverse as abolitionism, the New Deal, and the Civil Rights and Women’s Rights movements, conservatives have consistently resisted “the agency of the subordinate classes,” deeming it a threat to the hierarchies which ought to prevail in the public and especially the private realms. 

In calling conservatism reactionary, Robin does not imply that it lacks principles and merely attempts to thwart the ambitions of its progressive adversaries. Like Kirk, he thinks conservatism is “an idea-driven praxis” that has enduring principles; but unlike Kirk, he casts that praxis in a profoundly Nietzschean light:

Conservatives will likely be put off by this argument for a different reason: it threatens the purity and profundity of conservative ideas. For many, the word “reaction connotes an unthinking, lowly grab for power. But reaction is not reflex. It begins from a position of principle—that some are fit, and thus ought, to rule others—and then recalibrates that principle in light of a democratic challenge from below.

Robin’s argument is challenging and would require a separate statement to engage fairly and thoroughly. But as a standing possibility its implications for our constructive enterprise are considerable. Suppose we are both right, and conservatism is committed to both the protection of the spontaneous forces of society and the preservation of elite power and privilege. Would this confluence of principles prove inherently self-destructive? Or is the elitist dimension but the shadow of the gardener—an impetus of the unconscious that could play a positive role if properly integrated? Could the conservative mind integrate both the gardening and the elitist aspects, and in doing so remain a viable component of American political culture? 

III. Conservatism’s Vocation

We can make some headway on this dilemma if we take a step back and consider conservatism’s relationship to the faith of democracy, which affirms the capacity of men and women from all orders to govern their own lives and contribute to the constructive genius of political life. Uplifted by the innovative capabilities of capitalist free enterprise and the political revolutions that gave rise to constitutional republicanism, the democratic promise has come to animate the aspirations of peoples the world over and has established itself as a foundational creed, despite considerable constraints on its liberation. In consequence, we have ushered in precisely what Burke and Tocqueville foresaw in their own day: a fluid, dynamic world in which the fixed orders of the past give way to the flux of an open society, and preordained design gives way to a world of intelligent reconstruction and emergent probability. As Robin points out, however, this transformation has presented a veritable challenge to the conservative vocation: 

The conservative faces an additional hurdle: How to defend a principle of rule in a world where nothing is solid, all is in flux? From the moment conservatism came onto the scene, it has had to contend with the decline of ancient and medieval ideas of an orderly universe, in which permanent hierarchies of power reflected the eternal structure of the cosmos…Reconstructing the old regime in the face of a declining faith in permanent hierarchies has proven to be a difficult feat. Not surprisingly, it also has produced some of the most remarkable works of modern thought. 

On this reading, conservatism is profoundly anti-democratic at its core and perhaps even anachronistic in a world marked by flux and greater social mobility. If, as Robin argues, the conservatives represent the camp that tends to resist the agency of the subordinate classes, do they have a place in the ecosystem of an aspiring democratic society that is not merely negative but positively connected to its promise? When pushed to reveal their deepest convictions, would they really follow someone like Lincoln when he asks, “Why should there not be patient confidence in the ultimate justice of the people?”  

I think the conservative mind has already integrated the faith of our democratic prophets, if by a process of gradual osmosis. As representative democracy and capitalism have proven their worth as superior alternatives to the aristocratic and mercantilist systems of the past, conservatism has evolved to accommodate a world marked by dynamism, continuous enterprise, sustained growth, and social mobility. It has expanded the scope of the spontaneous forces of society to include the liberal doctrine of the free individual as the primary locus of dignity and spontaneous activity. However, this osmosis has not occurred directly, but circuitously through the rise of capitalism. This should come as no surprise in light of what Robin has suggested about the conservative temperament, for the conservative reactionary is not only concerned about the loss of individual or class advantages, but the disintegration of the values that hierarchies embody: distinction, competition, excellence, greatness, power, and refinement. The conservative accepts the natural inequalities that mark our condition, and dreams of a world where genuine “excellence is revealed and rewarded” and “true nobility is secured.” Thus these conservative energies found in the competitive world of capitalism a replacement for the aristocratic and warlike virtues that they embodied in the past, and were redirected into an arena that, perhaps unbeknownst to them, would in the long run prove more democratic. From a democratic standpoint, we might say that capitalism has drawn conservatism out of the medieval world and made it amenable to the currents of the era—and so effectively that now in our own day, it is the conservatives who insist on the intimate link between capitalism and democracy. 

For someone like Michael Novak, this development is no accident. In his view, democracy and capitalism in the United States are animated by a unified ethos of democratic capitalism. In the course of his exploration of the moral, philosophical and theological ideas that animate democratic capitalism, one is struck by how it seamlessly integrates both conservative and progressive ideas, weaving them into a livable and demonstrably powerful cultural ethos. On the one hand, democratic capitalism is experimental, dynamic, enterprising, and committed to sustained growth through the application of practical intelligence. In a deep sense its underlying metaphysic is pragmatic (which Kirk deems the culmination of the radical impulse), and its view of the world is one in which open possibility and emergent probability abound. On the other hand, it is informed by plenty of emphatically conservative ideas, particularly its views on the human capacity for sin, the limits of human reason, the importance of rule of law, the dangers of concentrated power, and its proclivity to defer to the spontaneous forces of society whenever possible. Thus, to the degree that Novak’s account maps onto our culture, we already inhabit a livable unification of progressive and conservative ideas. 

The conservative of today is as much an exemplar of the spirit of democratic capitalism as the progressive, for he has come to recognize that order may be preserved through diffuse networks of individual activity, and that excellence and distinction may be achieved in the world of market competition without the edifice of fixed social orders. Even though he has often pitted himself against the democratic impulse and may very well continue to play the important role of defending hierarchical order,  he has learned to embrace the underlying faith of his adversaries. Not as the conservator of the aristocratic hierarchies that prevailed in previous eras, but of the forms of hierarchy appropriate to democratic capitalism (e.g. hierarchies of competence), the conservative affinity for elitism and the calling to be a guardian of the spontaneous forces of society can come together. A conservatism that owned both of these characteristics of its identity in a spirit of self-reflection and magnanimity could serve a much needed role in our democracy: namely, that of the preserver of those conditions that both channel and constrain our creative will to power, as well as those conditions that make our nation not only more fair, equal, and compassionate, but also illustrious and formidable—affirmative of power, excellence, self-reliance, reverence, and a national continuity worthy of them. As Burke put it so long ago:

These public affections, combined with manners, are required sometimes as supplements, sometimes as correctives, always as aids to law…There ought to be a system of manners in every nation which a well-formed mind would be disposed to relish. To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely.

Works Cited

Buckley, William. Up from Liberalism. (1959)

Burke, Edmund, Reflections on the Revolution in France. (1790) 

Hayek, Friedrich, The Road to Serfdom. (1944)

Lincoln, Abraham, “First Inaugural Address.” (1861) 

Nash, George, “The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America: Then and Now.” (2016) 

Robin, Corey. The Reactionary Mind. (2017) 

Left: Robert George, Right: Cornel West


The following essay engages some of the key proposals of an American progressive alternative conceived out of a dialectical exchange between Roberto Unger and Cornel West. In particular, it aims to offer two promising platforms for establishing common ground with conservatives, with the hope of building a new national consensus. These are: 1) its call for a new nationalism, and 2) its reformulation of the meaning of American self-construction. 

In attempting to articulate areas of possible common ground, the aim will not be to erase Unger and West’s meaningful divergences from conservative thinking (and in turn, from competing progressive outlooks that have been subsumed by the conservative agenda). Nor do I intend to dilute the radical implications of their vision. Rather, I want to point out areas that might provide occasions not only for building coalitions across the aisle, but also for cultivating the mutual understanding needed to unite a transracial working-class majority. 

Some radical visions are striking because of the extreme position they occupy within a given polar framework. Others derive their power from their latent capacity to transcend the limits of a polarity and give rise to a new world entirely. I think the progressive alternative articulated by Unger and West is of the latter type, and that it anticipates a world in which the dividing lines between Left and Right as we now understand them will shift—giving way to a new range of categories or, at the very least, new self-conceptions for the old ones. It is for this reason that, in spite of all of the apparent difficulties involved in mobilizing this progressive alternative as a launching point for building connections with the conservative mind, I remain hopeful that attempts to reach across the aisle and illuminate common ground could help to bring a new national consciousness to fruition. 

The essay will begin with a recapitulation of the broad philosophical contours of this progressive alternative. Then, so as to avoid unnecessarily diluting its message, it will address some of the initial difficulties involved in making that alternative workable, if not entirely convincing, from a conservative perspective. With these difficulties acknowledged, it will assess some key advantages that this alternative offers, whilst also acknowledging some of the indispensable alterations that must be made in the conservative imagination in order to cash out on those advantages. This part of the argument will involve explicating an important conceptual link between the progressive alternative and the conservative mind: namely the link between the progressive call for institutional experimentalism and the conservative affinity for free enterprise. Finally, it will briefly outline those elements of the proposal (nationalism and self-construction) that seem to offer good starting points for building coalitions with a broader range of fellow conservative citizens, with whom we share the future of our nation.  

The Progressive Alternative 

The progressive alternative we are now considering seeks to liberate the constructive genius of men and women by lifting the exemption from experimental alteration we Americans have placed on our institutions. Rejecting the neoliberal consensus which precludes meaningful structural change in our political institutions and market economy, and the deeper presupposition that we discovered the singular formula for a free society at the founding (to be altered only during periodic moments of crisis), it would work to democratize the market economy and increase the temperature of politics so that alternative structural regimes might emerge. In order to unleash this experimental impulse, it favors neither centralized bureaucratic regulation nor the unfettered dynamics of free enterprise exclusively, but rather forms of cooperation that combine government initiative with free market dynamics. “It rejects the simple contrast between government activism and free enterprise, not because it wants to have a little of each, but because it insists upon having more of both. To this end,” it “offers to renovate the institutional machinery for decentralized and experimental partnership between government and business.” 

By incrementally upgrading the institutional setting so that it becomes more conducive to experimental partnerships between government and business (and in so doing, permitting the innovations of the partnerships to alter the institutional setting), the idea is to expand the capacity of men and women to transform the environmental arrangements that shape their lives. This would be accomplished by integrating opportunities for reconstructive initiative in a wider range of market choices as well as through opportunities for social solidarity, thereby liberating channels of structural change that do not rely on the shock of crisis. That is to say, it would narrow the gap between our “context-preserving acts and our exceptional context-transforming moves,” “facilitating the piecemeal transformation of our contexts as a normal outgrowth of our everyday pursuits.”

Not content with the dichotomy between gradual but trivial reform on the one hand, and revolutionary but total change on the other, this progressive alternative calls for gradual reform in a revolutionary direction. It recognizes that with proper direction, incremental change can over time produce radical results, provided it continuously readapts itself to the trials and errors of its experiments. 

The economic aims fall under four main categories. First, to narrow the gap between the backward sectors of the economy and the insular, experimental fringe of the knowledge economy, so that the innovative capacities of the fringe become disseminated throughout the economy as a whole. Second, to tighten the link between finance and production, so that the former serves the latter. Third, to reinstate a balance of power between capital and labor, so that working people capture a higher percentage of the wealth they help to produce, find reprieve from financial precarity, and leverage more bargaining power in order to check the managerial class. Fourth, to go beyond redistributive schemes of tax and transfer in order to change the deeper structures of opportunity that exacerbate inequality. 

This progressive alternative also forwards bold proposals for educational reform. As indispensable centers for the cultivation of free, self-determining citizens capable of adapting themselves to changing circumstances and market opportunities, centers of learning should cultivate students’ analytic and synthetic capacities of the imagination. Instead of prioritizing rote memorization, they should imitate the cooperative problem-oriented approach of the advanced sciences, and develop critical skills with a dialectical pedagogy that teaches subjects from multiple perspectives. National standards should prevail, but local management should take the lead in implementation. State initiatives should support programs or schools that can help people reinvent themselves throughout life. Reform of this kind would seek to liberate people from the constraints of the socioeconomic conditions they find themselves in, not only by developing the skills needed for economic mobility, but also by broadening their conceptual horizons and deepening their connection to history. It would help sustain the kind of engaged and critical citizenry needed for a flourishing democracy. 

In pursuing these ends, this progressive alternative would try to do good on the dreams of the American prophets: That through individual initiative and collective action, we can elevate the intensity, vitality and scope of experience, permit the cultivation of various and distinct personalities, and liberate our capacity as transcendent beings to alter our life-contexts for the better. It would seek to redeem our latent faith in the divinity of human being: a faith that upholds our capacity to transcend the scope of any particular social universe, and affirms the open future that such a divine capacity proffers for the taking. 

Initial Difficulties Preventing Mutual Understanding and Collaboration

There is much in this proposal that is bound to induce anxiety in conservatives of various temperaments. This is apparent on four levels. First, the insistence that we eradicate the tendency of “institutional idolatry” and apply the logic of experimental tinkering to institutions directly challenges the conservative preference for minimal deviation. “Conservatism” as conceived in Britain and the United States since Edmund Burke has been wary of “the spirit of innovation” and its designs for social reform. Aware of the fragility of human civilization and haunted by the devastating consequences that have followed from emancipatory movements, they tend to view programs for institutional change as forces of destabilization that could, in the worst case scenario, precipitate chaos and anarchy, and in the more moderate case, disrupt the scheme of the given social hierarchy. 

For both conservatives in the line of Burke and religious conservatives informed by the doctrine of original sin, the fragility of civilization and the practical limits of institutional innovation follow from the inept rashness of reason and the corruptibility of the will. Their view of the human condition tends toward the tragic, granting a degree of skepticism about the power of human agency to change things for the better. This holds especially for the mechanism of government, where individual impotence can become magnified by collective depravity. This leads them to favor the preservation of systems that work passably well and stand the test of time, despite our worst proclivities. Thus, with regard to the progressive alternative, conservatives would probably perceive a slippery slope between lifting the protective exemption of our institutions from experimental tinkering and the eventual unravelling of those constitutional structures that protect life, liberty and property. It would be heard as a call to revolution—and moreover, an affront to the exceptional character of the American founding. 

Second, the programmatic ambition of the progressive alternative may very well galvanize conservative opposition to perceived government expansion. Even when progressives entertain no interest in revolutionary change, but still call for bold government initiatives (e.g. the New Deal) that imply a restructuring of institutional settings, conservatives fear that such initiatives will restrict our freedom in the long run by concentrating too much power in the government. For many conservatives in America at least, this aversion is not reducible to a mere technical disagreement about the proper functioning of our political economy, but relates back to their tacit sense of what it means to be an American. Theirs is a self-reliant, industrious citizen that sees behind the helping hand of government the shadow of a future codependency. By allowing government to become an unnecessary crutch, they fear that we will lose the spirit of independence and initiative that has been the source of our prosperity. 

Third, the call for higher temperature politics unsettles the conservative proclivity towards slow, low temperature politics. Since human reason easily overestimates its own prowess and tends to construct schemes that abstract values (e.g. equality) from their interconnected relations in a complex world, it can lose sight of the organic character of society and the gradual nature of meaningful change. The conservative seeks to counter this tendency by slowing down politics so that it does not trample on the mediating institutions and customs that bind society together. 

As Unger points out, the preference for low temperature politics is even more entrenched in the American context since it has roots in the nation’s constitutional logic. Alongside the liberal principle of separation of powers, the founders instantiated a conservative principle meant to slow reform efforts in a manner proportional to the scope of their ambition. “The conservative principle,” he writes, “is that a table of correspondences be established between the transformative reach of a political project and the severity of the constitutional obstacles its execution must overcome. The point of the conservative principle is to slow politics down, and to tighten the dependence of change upon crisis.” Although Unger correctly asserts that we could do away with the conservative principle of the Constitution while keeping the liberal one, we would still have to ensure that these conservative worries were adequately addressed by some combination of the liberal principle of fragmented power, one the one hand, and a procedure of institutional change that would not subvert it, one the other. 

Fourth, one must admit that conservatism does not always side with the democratic impulse. Unger and West embrace a democratic faith in the constructive genius of ordinary men and women to reshape their social contexts if given a greater share of political power. Given the cultural climate today, it would be precarious to explicitly contradict this faith by proclaiming, as conservatives from past eras have done, that people are generally incapable of just governance and depend upon the preservation of natural hierarchies for their own good. But even if many conservatives have come to embrace a robust faith in democracy, it is doubtful that the anti-democratic intuition has really departed from the conservative mind. Corey Robin argues, for example, that the conservative mind may also be called the reactionary mind, for it constitutes a continual defense of power and privilege in resistance to emancipatory movements that threaten an expansion of democracy and a loss of elite advantages. “For that is what conservatism is,” says Robin: “a meditation on—and the theoretical rendition of—the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back.” It resists “the agency of the subordinate classes,” deeming it a threat to the hierarchical order that ought to prevail in the public and especially the private realms. While neither I nor Robin think that this agenda exhausts the philosophical richness of the conservative imagination, it is an impulse that we should remain aware of, and perhaps even learn to channel.

I mention these contentious areas in order to highlight some of the initial challenges that progressives would face in carrying this project forward on a bipartisan basis. For those who see little hope in this bipartisan ambition, the exercise will of course seem superfluous. But for those who see in this progressive alternative a platform for reshaping the contours of the political landscape, the opportunity to jumble up categories and forge new alliances will come as a welcome prospect. As we will see, however, meeting some of these initial roadblocks may not be as philosophically fraught as one might expect. 

Progressive Improvements, Conservative Adjustments 

One of the great virtues of this progressive alternative is that it effectively addresses the aforementioned concerns without sacrificing its basic commitments to progressive reconstruction. Serious as these conservative objections might be to other types of progressive designs, they are for the most part already accounted for in the basic program put forward by Unger and West. On this point their success comes down to one crucial feature: namely, their departure from Marxist revolutionary politics in favor of the incremental experimentalism of American pragmatism. By moving in this direction they are able to distinguish themselves from the kind of all-encompassing revolutionary gestures typified by the French Revolution and the communist usurpations of the 20th century, as well as from programs that would call for central economic planning and a multiplication of bureaucratic programs.  

Consider for example the first worry mentioned in the previous section: that continual experimentation with institutional machinery amounts to a revolutionary subversion that could dismantle our system’s structural integrity and undo the safeguards that protect our liberties and rights. Were we in Burke’s position vis-à-vis the French Revolution this objection would be salient, for in that case the aim was to do away with an old order entirely and replace it with a new one. Much the same holds for the communist revolutions that unfolded in the 20th century. That being said, Unger and West’s progressive alternative is not predicated on the necessity of radical revolution all at once, but on the liberation of experimental energy as an everyday extension of our ordinary, “context-preserving” activities. The whole point is to do away with our dependence on crisis for structural change by assimilating the mechanisms of experimentation into the diffused activities of a wide and various citizenry—much like the way diffused individual decisions shape the larger dynamics of free enterprise markets. 

That experimentation would be piecemeal is crucial because it limits the immediate force of the reformist impulse and compels it to be prudent in its application. Like Dewey, Unger and West seem to think that reconstructive reform along the lines of scientific trial and error is necessary. But this still leaves open the question of how we could ensure that the diffused activities of our citizens do not end up dismantling the very system that protects them. Unger and West readily admit that even incremental change guided by a sustained programmatic effort could lead to revolutionary outcomes. Do we have any reason to suppose that ordinary people would exercise their power prudently? One might conclude that this question is bound to compel the progressive and the conservative to part ways, since it touches on the bedrock question of whether one embraces a democratic faith in the constructive capacities of ordinary men and women. If, as Robin argues, the conservatives represent the camp that tends to resist the agency of the subordinate classes, could they really follow someone like Lincoln when he asks, “Why should there not be patient confidence in the ultimate justice of the people?”  

I think the conservative mind has already integrated the faith of our democratic prophets, if by a process of gradual osmosis. Latent in the conservative appeal to free enterprise and individual freedom is a tacit faith in what Friedrich Hayek calls the “spontaneous forces of society”—those uncoerced activities of free individuals that animate the spirit of capitalism and generate creative order out of decentralized activity, provided a viable rule of law prevails. As representative democracy and capitalism have proven their worth as superior alternatives to the aristocratic and mercantilist systems of the past, conservatism has evolved to accommodate a world marked by dynamism, continuous enterprise, sustained growth, and social mobility. The conservative of today is as much an exemplar of the spirit of democratic capitalism as the progressive, for he has come to recognize that order may be preserved through diffuse networks of individual activity, and that excellence and distinction may be achieved in the world of market competition without the edifice of fixed social orders. Even though he has often pitted himself against the democratic impulse, and may very well continue to play the important role of defending hierarchical order, he has learned to embrace the underlying faith of his adversaries. Thus, Unger’s call for “decentralized and experimental partnership between government and business” should strike conservatives as but an extension of the market logic of free cooperation and diffused activity. It is a call to liberate the spontaneous forces of society. 

The same principle holds regarding the danger of concentrated power in government. Since these experimental partnerships would be subject to market competition, they would not wield the kind of concentrated regulatory power that a large bureaucratic apparatus would, mutatis mutandis. On the contrary, they would multiply the variety of available markets and alter the institutional setting of the market economies themselves. As Unger puts it: 

The agent of this institutional reshaping of the market economy cannot be a central bureaucracy guiding from on high. It must be a range of governmentally established and funded social and economic organizations that emulate the market, in competition with one another as well as with standard private businesses…Their mission is not to regulate or to compensate. It is to create markets for more people in more ways. It is from the variety of their relations to the people and the firms with which they deal that one can hope for the eventual emergence of alternative regimes of property and contract. The market-oriented idea of free recombination will thus be generalized and radicalized by being imported into the institutional framework of the market itself.

Provided it were willing to undergo philosophical reconstruction on its own accord, conservatism could assimilate a great deal of this progressive vision and make itself a more formidable adversary by doing so. In reacting to this new progressive formulation preemptively, it could emerge out of the darkness of its current confusions and into the light of a new conservative vision that redeems the best of its own heritage by ascending to a truer version of itself. But to do this it would have to make some difficult choices. First, it would have to concede to the progressives that the institutional exemption from experimentation is unnecessary and stultifying. In other words, it must let go of what Unger calls “institutional idolatry,” and begin to shift its center of gravity away from American exceptionalism towards an embrace of American experimentalism. Second, it ought to recognize continuity between the progressive aim of democratizing the market economy and its own aim of preserving a society where individuals remain free to pursue their own objectives. From the perspective of maximizing people’s freedom to live self-determining lives, the prospect of generating more types of market arrangements for people to participate in, while simultaneously opening up experimental regimes in institutional machinery, should be welcomed. Third, it must sort out its relationship to the faith of democracy: on the one hand affirming its connection to the spirit of democratic capitalism, and on the other hand integrating a viable conservative vocation that owns its defense of power and hierarchy while also acting as a guardian of American democracy. 

In closing let us briefly outline some core areas where a workable, if not complete, consensus might be cultivated. 

First Point of Connection: A New Nationalism

The nationalist element of this progressive alternative offers perhaps the most compelling prospect for forging allegiances with conservatives. Even though it proved to be one of the more controversial proposals in the course, it inspired wide support from our visitors, including Michael Lind, who has been a leading advocate for “liberal nationalism,” as well as Julius Krein and Francis Fukuyama, both of whom have neoconservative roots. 

Unger’s nationalism follows from his deeper commitment to experimental pluralism, as well as his recognition that in our day the nation-state remains the predominant center of power on the world stage. His “reconstructive Left” would work to redirect “the course of globalization to make the world safe for a plurality of power and of vision and for the national experiments on which our success in achieving greater inclusion, opportunity, and capability largely depends.” As nation-states remain “the favored ground for the development of collective differences as well as for the conduct of collective rivalries,” we should seek to differentiate our national project while encouraging fellow nations to draw from their own unique differences and pursue alternative variations of the free democratic society. This approach seeks to ameliorate the stagnating institutional homogeneity that has prevailed in the era of globalization and American hegemony, while also channeling the natural human desire for differentiated group identities: 

The nation-state wants to be different, without knowing how. Its people want to see characteristic images of possible and desirable association embodied in distinct national practices and institutions. The nation is a form of moral specialization within humanity, justified, in a world of democracies, by the belief that humanity can develop its powers and potential only by developing them in divergent directions.

This kind of nationalism implies “the substitution of institutional and moral distinction—shared engagement in building a shared future—for generational succession as the basis of what a nation is.” Its derives its unificatory power from neither ethnic group identity nor the claim of a particular religion, but from the cooperative pursuit of projects. We come together by doing things together.

The shift from American exceptionalism (which tends to express itself in unconditional terms and to assume the superiority of American institutions) to American experimentalism (which is contingent on our construction of the future) implies abandoning “institutional idolatry.” Once freed from this constraint we would be able to begin harnessing nationalistic energy around the projects of the state without so easily succumbing to the pitfalls of isolationism, xenophobia, and chauvinism. When the field of our identity undergoes a conversion from the domain of rigid fixities from the past to the open horizon of the future, it becomes less absolutist and more prospective in character. What might have been a source of solipsistic self-defensiveness becomes the field of a grand destiny unfolding through time: a destiny tinged by the past, but pulled by the future. 

This is not to say that the American national identity would become merely creedal, or that it would lack any living content in the present. As Lind argues in The Next American Nation, we need a “liberal nationalism” that can sustain a rich cultural thickness while steering clear of the nativistic tendencies which are on the rise. This type of nationalism would reject the creedal view that America is not a true nation but an amalgam of people unified by democratic ideals, as well as the multicultural view that we are really separate peoples that happen to inhabit the same territory. In their stead, Lind advocates for a “transracial nation united by American English, the slowly changing but identifiable American national culture, and a common ethic of civic familism.” Such a nationalism would revitalize a notion of America as a melting pot and forge “a new union of cultural and economic nationalism in the interest of the transcracial middle class.” 

The central enterprise galvanizing national unity would be a strengthened state: one “powerful and competent enough to address problems that can only be addressed at the level of the nation as a whole.” To embrace this prospect, we have to abandon the cynical attitude that government is the inherent problem, and get behind an activist national government reminiscent of Hamilton’s “energetic” federalism. The Right also has to loosen its anti-statism. Following Krein, it needs to recognize that not “only do many of the most pressing problems require more state intervention, but the entire free market framework, in which business is imagined to be in diametric opposition to central planning, misses the reality of today’s economy.”

This move would of course be difficult for some conservatives to make. As Krein points out, the “entire conservative movement has been built upon the fiction that a traditional sense of collective duty can be renewed by maximizing individual freedom.” “Despite promoting a kitschy patriotism,” he continues, “it is constantly devaluing the bonds of common citizenship by eliminating or privatizing the functions of the state.” In allowing its libertarian preference for the spontaneous forces of society to devolve into an unqualified preference for privatization, it has lost touch with the organic ties that hold those forces together, and thus repressed the best of its own characteristic traditionalism: a capacity for national connection and spiritual magnanimity. To regain an authentic relation to its traditionalist roots, conservatism should heed the teachings of its Burkean lineage, which has tended to view society as an organic whole in which the institutions of civil society and the state work together to preserve the integrity of the national community. At their noblest, conservatives of this sort have synergized their reverence for the past with a robust love of country, and seen it as their duty to protect the transgenerational continuity of the body politic so that the transmission of its heritage might be preserved for the benefit of posterity. They have been especially attuned to the organic relationship between the constitution of the nation and the lived spirit of its people, and emphasized the importance of mediating institutions like the family and the church for sustaining bonds of common citizenship.

But this repression is already breaking down. Though misguided, the turn by many on the Right to nativist forms of nationalism seems to indicate that they are ready for a national conception that can unify us as a living, patriotic people—a people with a discernible culture and a formidable state that inspires loyalty and concretizes citizenship. If properly articulated, I think that conservatives would be the first in line to get behind a more robust statism, provided it affirmed a common national identity worthy of reverence and pride. They would readily agree with Lind’s view that “American culture, defined as language, customs, and holidays, is extraordinarily widely shared, well defined, stable, and venerable.” 

Second Point of Connection: American Self-Construction 

As the microscopic parallel to nationalism, the theme of American self-construction also offers a viable platform for cultivating a common set of interests between the left alternative and a future version of the right, if on a more philosophical level. That being said, the philosophical nature of this theme should not be taken as an indication of its irrelevance to the programmatic project. In order to imagine an alternative, we have to keep in mind the livable human possibility we are aiming toward, with its attendant interior and exterior dimensions. Furthermore, if we are successful in illuminating threads of continuity between the fundamental religious aspirations of the progressive alternative and the conservative mind, that could prove indispensable not only to the reconstruction of a workable consensus, but also to the emergence of a heightened register of democratic consciousness. 

Unger and West’s basic critique of American self-construction is that it has exaggerated the element of self-reliance at the cost of devaluing the role of solidarity in the formation of the self and its possibilities. In this regard, they might say, we are sons and daughters of Emerson to a fault: always trying to pull ourselves up by the bootstraps and shoulder the responsibility of inventing ourselves without acknowledging our fundamental reliance on others. We therefore cut ourselves off from a more capacious sense of self that recognizes the centrality of relationships in the formation of who we are. The effect of this exaggerated self-reliance is to atrophy the capacity for both genuine solitude and authentic connection with others, since in constricting the  scope of the self, we effectively sunder its structural integrity. “If,” as Unger puts the matter in The Left Alternative,

the predominant tendencies of consciousness in American life have understated the extent to which society can be reorganized, they have also exaggerated the degree to which the individual can save himself without needing to be saved by the grace of other people…To this mirage of self-reliance turning into self-salvation Americans owe their common oscillation between an extreme individualism and an equal extreme collectivism…their attraction to the middle distance of pseudo-intimacy and cheerful impersonal friendliness in social relations. 

Tocqueville echoes this point about “the middle distance,” but diagnoses it as a symptom of a democratic society without clear class divisions. In aristocratic societies, he argues, “citizens have fixed positions one above another” and thus have more clearly delimited relations with one another. When clearly established relations prevail, “each man perceives above him someone whose protection is necessary to him and below him someone else whose cooperation he may claim.” The established relations therefore “achieve the effect of binding each man closely to several of his fellow citizens” and curbing egoism, at least within a small circle of relations. “In democratic times, on the other hand, when the obligations of every person toward the race are much clearer, devotion to one man in particular becomes much rarer. The bond of human affection is wide and relaxed.” This does not have the effect of strengthening solidarity, but of disintegrating it. It suspends people in a state of social indeterminacy, wherein “new families constantly emerge from oblivion, while others fall away,” and “each class closes up to the others and merges with them,” making its members “indifferent to each other.” And as “the thread of time is ever ruptured and the track of generations is blotted out,” we become people who “owe nothing to anyone and, as it were, expect nothing from anyone,” imagining our destinies to be isolated and entirely in our own hands. I daresay that Burke would have little to quarrel with in this analysis. 

It is worth mentioning Tocqueville’s view on this matter because it bears on the fundamental agreement between traditionalist conservatism and the progressive alternative regarding the importance of solidarity to self-construction. On the side of experimental pragmatism, Unger and West answer Tocqueville’s dilemma by calling for the diffusion of new regimes of cooperation that would permit the creation of new social relations—ones that allow individuals to distinguish themselves by participating in creative enterprise with others. Theirs is an appeal to “the cause of the constructive imagination: everyone’s power to share in the creation of the new” and transcend the drudgery of their self-confined condition. Precisely through their cooperative pursuit of the new, men and women could enjoy a deeper kind of freedom that trades in self-isolation for true self-possession:

Faith in the power of the individual to better his or her life is the most prominent element in the American religion of possibility, but it is not the only or even the most important one. That religion also includes something more basic and something more ambitious: a belief in the unlimited potential of practical problem solving and a faith in democracy as a terrain on which ordinary men and women can become strongly defined personalities, in full possession of themselves.

On the conservative side, acknowledgement of the importance of solidarity takes the form of a defense of society’s extragovernmental mediating institutions, most importantly the family and the church. Their answer to Tocqueville’s dilemma is to keep these institutions strong so that our children grow up with a sense of responsibility and with habituated virtues—both of which are needed to free us from the isolated world of the middle distance. Rightly or wrongly, conservatives often find themselves at odds with egalitarian movements because they detect in them a levelling impulse that would flatten social distinctions or break down the customs and mores that make solidarity among people possible. But their fight to preserve these ordered relations and the progressive impulse to create new ones are flip sides of the same coin. Both seek to free us from ourselves, to divinize humanity, or just help us become human in the truest sense, which amounts to the same thing. Along these lines, I hope that in due time we shall find the wisdom and magnanimity needed to forge alliances worthy of the tasks before us. The future of American democracy depends on it. 

Works Cited

Abraham Lincoln, “First Inaugural Address.” 1861. 

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America. 1835. Penguin Classics.

Corey Robin, The Reactionary Mind. 2013. Second Edition Reprint. 

Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France. 1790. Oxford World Classics. Pg. 132. 

Friedrich Hayek, The Road to Serfdom. Pg 71. 

Julius Krein, “The Three Fusions,” in American Affairs. 2018. 

Michael Lind, “Classless Utopia versus Class Compromise,” in American Affairs. 2018. 

Michael Lind, “The New Class War,” in American Affairs. 2017. 

Michael Lind, The Next American Nation. 1995. 

Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism. 1982. 

Roberto Unger, The Left Alternative. 2009. 

Roberto Unger and Cornel West, The Future of American Progressivism. 1999.