Understanding the history of ideas, and of our intellectual and religious traditions is important for understanding language and for interpreting modern movements in their historical contexts. Those who have actually studied the careers of Theodore Roosevelt and William Jennings Bryan understand that the class-populism of Bernie Sanders and the nationalist-populism of Donald Trump are nothing new in American politics.
However, it is important to understand that Nationalism carries with it historical connotations that exceed “patriotism” and that are closely tied to brutal totalitarian regimes. Hitler, Mao, Napoleon, Castro, Pol Pot, Kublai and Genghis Khan, and Alexander the Great were all “nationalists” who believed in the greatness, power, and supremacy of their empires and their peoples. Not all of them were ethnocentric in their worldview, but racism was often attached to these nationalist movements.
If we want to talk about making America great, then we need to look to our traditions and to their successful evolution to determine the right course of action.
The tradition of capitalism hasn’t always been pleasant. We’ve learned the hard way the difficulties endemic to industrialization. Oddly, the industrialized world looks down on the inequities of currently industrializing societies, as if they aren’t experiencing exactly the same conditions we experienced in our own internal evolution.
The tradition of conservatism hasn’t always been pleasant. Conservatism is the Western practice of learning from our experience and trying to slowly reform government into greater harmony with natural law and the principles of liberty. However, Conservatism has also been slow to reform at times when reform was obviously needed. That said, it is the conservative tradition that bred our Constitution and our way of life and it is a tradition not to be abandoned, but continuously pursued. We must continue to learn from our objective political experience and try to make our governments better.
Christianity is a tradition central to the evolution and history of Western Civilization. Christianity, like capitalism and conservatism, hasn’t always been pleasant. It has been the subject of civil wars. It has sat idly by in the face of evil. It lent itself to corruption. However, far more good has come from our reliance on the Christian Community (The Church) and in the individual pursuit of a personal relationship with God, than the bad that has come from corruption within Christian institutions. Western Philosophy and the Scottish Enlightenment are also core traditions that have raised our civilization to greatness, and toward greater liberty and prosperity. Also, the Magna Carta and English common law have been central to our social and moral conceptions of an ethical civilization.
These are the pillars of Western Civilization upon which we must continue to rely. As we discover our flaws and errors over time, we must make corrections and we must be willing to change. However, the greatest threat to our civilization, to our liberty, and to our prosperity is the abandonment of these pillars upon which our success and greatness depend. The Conservative Tradition could best be defined as the rational pursuit of just government – not an ideological pursuit.
When we discover a virus in a computer or in the human body, we do not replace the hard drive or the brain. No, we treat the virus. When a femur is broken, we do not amputate the entire leg. This modern desire to amputate whole pillars of Western Civilization could well be catastrophic.
Friedrich Nietzsche foresaw the dawning of nihilism and post-modernism. He saw how Europeans were beginning to abandon the pillars upon which their strength depended. He predicted that they would become weaker and weaker until, at last, a strong enough leader arose to thoroughly dominate and rule them. Nietzsche predicted the nihilism we’ve faced before and that we’re facing today; and do not be confused by the close relationship between nihilism and carte blanche utopianism.
To believe in nothing and to believe in everything aren’t so different from one another. Modern liberalism appears to be a carte blanche utopianism. We can identify as whatever we want; Be whoever we want; Believe whatever we want; Know whatever we want. The havoc of nihilism and utopianism is costly, and we are certainly paying the price.
However, the solution is to return to our traditions…not in the sense of returning to antiquated ways of living, but to the pillars of strength upon which our civilization was born. We must return to capitalism, to conservatism, to Christianity, to Western Philosophy and the Scottish Enlightenment, to Blackstone and Wilberforce, to Thomas Reid and Montesquieu. However, these are traditions no longer taught in our schools and, as time goes on, will no longer even be taught in our homes. As nihilism/utopianism spreads, we will find that Christianity itself will no longer be taught in our churches. How many of us go to churches where the pastor, in his sunglasses and skinny jeans, gives sermons on modern psychology and life, rather than on scripture and the history of our faith? It’s already begun.
We must return to our traditions – to the pillars of Western Civilization – or else our civilization will crumble and devolve into the chaos and cruelty that dominated the world before our time.