A semi-tangent apropos of the thread developing below on Reagan’s is-it-or-isn’t-it conservatism: it’s true that Reagan’s public brew of conservative moralism and vigilence combined with western-libertarian free-range thought, inclusive of religion, reflects in telling or cautionary ways his hodgepodge of a private life. But this has been old news since Constant, whose long tormented relationship with Germaine de Stael surely sucked more out of a man’s marrow than Reagan had lost by the time he made President. There does seem to be an inevitable — and in quarters left and right disturbing — link between the politics of independence and a culture of incoherence. The glorious jumble of conservatism, liberalism, and libertarianism on display in America since its most hashed-out Constitutional coming of age (I’ll have to leave the Civil War out of it for now) is the political byproduct and reinvestment of a culture ever without, as Philip Rieff says Tocqueville showed us, an officer class.

Something frustrating to any defender of this long status quo must be the manner in which smart critics of the sorry things about our time follow left conservatives too far off the deep end in insisting that the wages of American freedom are, necessarily, exhaustion, bankruptcy, and a final reckoning with our apparent deep-seated need to return to the Great Herd, to fess up to our Herdiness. It’s mindboggling how Lasch, the great partisan of populist republican citizen competence, managed to get himself mixed up in our memory with Carter, who was right about the endurance of injustice but wrong about the virtue and the value of the U.S. Government stepping in as our kindler, gentler — yes, sweater-clad — Leviathan. We Americans want our Leviathan the better to be more efficiently and completely left to our own multifarious devices. To be sure, a still-growing number of us want to outsource the problems that manifest themselves politically as injustice to an omnicompetent ombudsman empowered to make us Do the Right Thing. But this allows us to translate moralism back out of politics and into private life, in the form of the right t-shirts and bumper stickers, or even the right charities, communities, and congregations.

To zero back in on the title of this post: our incoherence can be, as Tocqueville explained, a wearying and distracting thing. But it is the price paid by a free people, who presume of themselves a fortitude, and a set of resources, powerful or authoritative or rich enough to see them and at least two generations of their posterity more or less through. Country radio is practically a sermon on this subject. On the one hand, it appears from the perspective of Herdiness that the incoherence of the independent spells doom for our species flourishing. Yet it more often or apparently spells greater doom for some limited number of individuals, who, in the momentum of the general scrappiness, wind up forgotten, discounted, mythologized, or remembranced in an honest prayer, and possibly some combination of all of the above. The question we keep circling back to is simple: which resources does the American individual need to remain both independent and incoherent without destroying either himself or his country? And, I suppose, the followup: are those resources too scarce? In a way that second question is more important, and question-begging, than the first. It returns us to that almost grim question of the relation between conservatism and solidarity.

Articles by James Poulos

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