“The establishment of a free constitution is the great achievement of America in the drama of Western civilization. The struggle for its preservation against Utopian corrosion is the continuing history of the United States since its foundation, a struggle which continues to this day and which is not yet decided.”
These lines end Frank Meyer’s little-known essay “Western Civilization: the Problem of Political Freedom.” The fight to preserve America’s unique character is a struggle the conservative movement has long fought, to varying degrees of success. In recent years, however, American conservatism has lost its way. In a recent piece for Lone Conservative, Tyler Syck detailed the flaws of the New Right and the struggles facing the conservative movement as it deals with a new, European-style right-wing politics. Though he is right to point out there are flaws in the American Right today, he mistakes these flaws as unique and ignores a broader bipartisan issue at play.
Tyler’s definition of conservative is incomplete and requires attention, but thankfully Andre Beliveau addressed that here. It is worth repeating Andre’s key point; conservatism cannot simply be a moderated approach to the politics of the left.
For a more in-depth critique of Tyler’s definition of conservatism, Andre’s piece is better than anything I could write here. My disagreement is with Tyler’s second main point; that American conservatism is veering into European right-wing statism, and that this slide is unique to the American Right.
It is true, to some extent, that American politics––and American culture broadly––has begun to take on a European tinge. The politics of one Donald Trump certainly smack more of European populism than anything to come out of the American political tradition. To say that he belongs in the same class as Marine le Pen and Viktor Orban is correct. Trump is an isolated incident in some respects, though; there are no other major GOP figures who remotely come close to Trump’s level of European mediocrity. Ron DeSantis, despite his flaws (which I’ve covered here and here) is nothing uniquely threatening, or uniquely un-American. His political tradition may not be Reaganite conservatism as we understand it, but it is certainly American in origin. He himself has claimed the mantle of Teddy Roosevelt in regards to conservation.
Moreover, it is wrong to say that these developments are unique to the American Right. The Europeanization of American politics began a century-plus ago, with the election of Woodrow Wilson and the advent of progressive technocracy, innovations Wilson openly borrowed from German bureaucrats. FDR built on this legacy with his leviathanic explosion of the administrative and welfare states. Lyndon Johnson did the same with his Great Society Programs. The utopians, as Russell Kirk and Frank Meyer called them, came not in 2016 but in 1912 (at the latest; Prussian bureaucratization of schooling, for example, began in the 1890s).
This change in political outlook can be seen not only in the size of government as a whole, but in how presidents act as well. No longer do American presidents view themselves as following Congress’ lead, or beholden to constitutional constraints; instead, many take the lead of Woodrow Wilson, who declared that the President is limited only by his capacity. This, too, has not been one-sided. Barack Obama, after accepting publicly that he lacked authority to act on immigration, unilaterally crafted DACA with no congressional authorization. Biden, despite members of his own party saying he had no authority to do so, attempted to spend half-a-trillion dollars to appease a core Democratic constituency on the eve of an election.
These are not the actions of a party that believes in self-governance and the American system. They are the actions of men who think they wield unlimited power, to be used on their subjects at will––a decidedly European mindset. The conservative reaction to this, whether it be Trump, DeSantis, or others is not rooted in fantasy. The path to today’s conservative movement was laid 100 years ago. You do not get today’s Right without yesterday’s Left. That is not to excuse the abuses of men like Donald Trump, or Ron DeSantis; it is to note that America’s slide away from her great heritage is longstanding and bipartisan in nature.
Now, America comes to a crossroads. American conservatives must reckon with the truth that, as it stands, our movement veers towards catastrophe. The American Left must reckon with its role in helping to create the conditions for this crisis. Americans of all stripes must make a choice; reclaim your birthright, that civilizational heritage that Frank Meyer celebrated and that places America alone in and above the annals of history, or continue slouching into the mediocrity of the world we left behind.
If that seems terrifying, there is cause for hope. The American story of self-governance has not ended; if it ever does, it will be because every American has forgotten how to write it. That day has not yet come.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.