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Does Tradition Belong in American Politics?
In many ways, tradition lies at the heart of the conservative political and philosophical understanding.
The right’s conception of society is characterized by what Edmund Burke famously described as a partnership between the dead, the living, and the unborn—and our sense of duty and obligation to one another is rooted in a heightened awareness of our collective participation in this generational endeavor. Our civilization, in this view, is an inheritance passed down through the generations rather than a blank slate from which we can forever start anew. And the conservative is therefore possessed by a gratitude to our ancestors for having imparted us the privileges and rights we currently enjoy—paired with a sense of responsibility to do the same for posterity.
As Avi Woolf articulates in an excellent recent essay for the Intercollegiate Review, a conservative approach to social and cultural renewal will see a recommitment to our inherited traditions as of preeminent importance. A respect for tradition softens our sensibilities, imbues us with fellow-feeling and a sense of mutual obligation, and—at its best—teaches us wisdom and moral truths, accumulated through the passage of time. In doing so, it ties us to one another: “A tradition, broadly understood, should be binding on your behavior . . . there are things you do and do not do, simply because of your traditional commitments,” Woolf writes. “To be a traditional person . . . is to realize that you are not an outsider but an active partner in whatever endeavor you have chosen.”
But important questions regarding exactly what a traditionalist politics should look like remain unresolved, and influential conservative thinkers have often offered divergent opinions on this question.
The idea of traditionalism is particularly challenging in the context of American politics, owing to our unique position in world history as a nation comprised of immigrants, renewed and reborn in every generation of new arrivals. In this sense, we are not a people with a shared history and culture in the same way that European nation-states are—though there are, of course, identifiable aspects of the American character that define us as a coherent national community.
Instead, ours is a country dedicated to an idea—a radical belief in the universality of human dignity—and is thus composed of a patchwork of peoples who have flocked to our shores, united not by any common past but by a shared desire to be a participant in the great American story.
The Problem of Tradition
Russell Kirk, who for many is the patron saint of the traditionalist strain of American conservatism, wrote at length on the unique challenge of tradition in America.
“America originated very few of her own traditions,” he admitted in his aptly titled essay What Are American Traditions?. But, he maintained, “despite its late growth, tradition in America has far greater influence than many Americans admit.” He went on to explain:
When we speak of tradition in America, then, generally we mean prescriptive social habits, prejudices, customs, and political usages which most people accept with little question, as an intellectual legacy from their ancestors. They take these customs and opinions to be good because they have long been accepted as good, and they inquire very little into the origins or sanctions for these traditions. These traditions are very numerous, and some are in conflict with others; yet, provisionally, we may take for examples of American traditions such received opinions as the following: belief in a spiritual order which in some fashion governs our mundane order; belief in political self government; belief in the importance to human persons of certain natural private rights; belief in the value of marriage and the family.
For Kirk, adherence to these foundational traditions was a crucial prerequisite to a healthy, virtuous society. Without the inherited wisdom of accumulated generations, Kirk argued, man is lost—unmoored and atomized.
And yet questions still remain about how you might put these insights into practice in the modern world. In his Ten Conservative Principles, Kirk famously wrote that “it is old custom that enables people to live together peaceably” and “through convention . . . that we contrive to avoid perpetual disputes about rights and duties.” But in a dynamic and diversely complex society such as ours, wherein a globalizing modern world has been accompanied by a rapid decline in many of the traditional commitments that Kirk described, an unthinking commitment to convention and continuity is no longer enough to ensure human flourishing.
While social traditions do serve a foundational purpose in holding a polity together and mediating its inevitable fissures, they no longer are capable of offering a final solution to the inescapable problems of contemporary politics.
For a certain genre of eager young conservative, speaking approvingly of the importance of “tradition” is a sufficient approach to politics. But “tradition,” when deployed as a totalizing abstraction, is incoherent. The Western tradition contains multitudes; taken on its face, as a vague word used in political discourse rather than a specifically identifiable phenomenon, tradition is neither a recognizable political agenda nor a cultural philosophy.
There are a host of traditions within our inheritance that contemporary traditionalists would likely abhor: Slavery is a tradition—long extinct in the West but still present in some of the more brutally uncivilized corners of the world. Atheism is a tradition, as is Marxism. This is the case with any number of forms of political radicalism: you need only look to the state of our universities to recognize that opposition to tradition is, ironically, now a tradition in and of itself.
So tradition’s invocation does not solve the perpetual necessity of deliberation over the question of which traditions to emphasize and how such an emphasis should be manifested in the context of ever-changing contingent circumstances. Said another way, the challenge of contemporary conservative politics is discerning what traditions to defer to and how such deference manifests in practice.
Tradition as Conversation
In our fragmented moment, American society is a sort of constant interplay between different mingling traditions. It is a symphony—or more recently, a cacophony—in which some instruments are heard more prominently at one time and other instruments are heard more prominently at another. The role of a successful conservative politics is that of the conductor, guiding the orchestra along and hoping to effectively keep rhythm.
Michael Oakeshott described this phenomenon as a conversation. In his essay The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind, he wrote:
As civilized human beings, we are the inheritors, neither of an inquiry about ourselves and the world, nor of an accumulating body of information, but of a conversation, begun in the primeval forests and extended and made more articulate in the course of centuries. It is a conversation that goes on both in public and within each of ourselves. Of course there is argument and inquiry and information, but wherever these are profitable they are to be recognized as passages in this conversation, and perhaps they are not the most captivating of the passages. It is the ability to participate in this conversation, and not the ability to reason cogently, to make discoveries about the world, or to contrive a better world, which distinguishes the human being from the animal and the civilized man from the barbarian.
I think this is the best way to think about tradition in the context of our current cultural and political challenges. Traditionalism is a start—but it does not provide us with a complete framework within which we might conduct the necessary business of political decision making. Those reform-minded conservatives seeking an effective political program should look to the customs, conventions, and cultural imperatives sown into the fabric of our heritage for guidance, but they must simultaneously be capable of using reasoned judgment to discern which specific voices in this conversation are most useful to their particular interests.
For Oakeshott, politics—understood as, in his words, “a practical activity concerned with making a response to . . . political situations”—was a perpetually necessary activity that arises from the inevitable uncertainty of life. As life is characterized by the continual presentation of new and uncertain circumstances, Oakeshott argued, politics should be understood as the activity through which we collectively deliberate about how best to address such circumstances as they present themselves.
In the opening pages of his essay Political Discourse, he described this process:
Every political decision is designed to achieve or to avoid some more or less specific condition of things; and before it is chosen, its merits as a response to the particular situation must, in some manner or other, have been considered. The question to be answered is: will a decision to do this now achieve what I want to achieve or avoid what I want to avoid?
Traditions are an important force in the mediation of this decision-making process, but they do not allow us to escape the perpetual necessity of political deliberation altogether. And the invocation of “tradition,” while foundational to a conservative politics, simultaneously presents new questions—and therefore new decisions that need to be made regarding the answers to such questions—about which traditions should be seen as worth adhering to. (Oakeshott, though a conservative of a sort, preferred to use terms like “practices” or “arrangements” to “tradition,” understanding the challenges posed by the latter’s essential ambiguity.)
We moderns face the challenge of choosing, continually, from the wide range of voices, modes, experiences, and ways of living that we are confronted with in our modern world. The role of tradition is an important consideration in this challenge; but the role of which tradition, it could be argued, is even more so.
About the Author
Nate Hochman (@njhochman) is a rising senior at Colorado College and a former editorial intern at National Review and The Dispatch. His writing has appeared in National Review, The Dispatch, City Journal, Quillette, Spectator USA, The American Conservative, and elsewhere.
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