They don’t know who they are, or where they’re going

dont tread on me

Give me liberty, or give me death! —Patrick Henry, 1775


You would think that in America, Land of Liberty, folks would have a better idea of what liberty means. But they seem hopelessly confused.

When Americans on the Right rail against policy victories of the Left, they typically speak of the need to regain lost liberty. They use the word almost as a tribal code, signifying conservatism, e.g., Liberty University. Many, perhaps a majority, of those who vote Republican consider themselves libertarians. Some also liken themselves to the liberty-loving patriots who sparked the Revolutionary War, and call themselves Tea Partiers.

In each case, contemporary Americans are referring to individual liberty—of which the Left allegedly deprives them.

But the liberty for which George Washington, Patrick Henry, et al fought—and for which Yankee merchants earlier tossed British tea into Boston Harbor—was a collective liberty. It was the liberty of self-determination, the freedom of the American colonies to form and run a government and society independently of British rule. Yes, there was a Bill of Rights in the new American Constitution, to ensure a modicum of individual freedom vis à vis the government lest it drift towards tyranny, but that wasn’t the form of liberty for which the revolution was chiefly waged.

What conservatives these days really need is that collective liberty, that right of self-determination, in the states and counties where they dominate the population—and where they would have some political control over their lives, their culture, if their representatives had not already ceded all significant powers to liberal Washington.

In at least several such states there are small but active movements for secession, either of the entire state or of conservative counties within the state. Oddly, though, most American conservatives seem to think that having their laws dictated by an alien culture in Washington (and their cultural content dictated by the associated alien culture of Hollywood and Madison Ave.), is a problem that can be solved by other, less drastic means—such as “smaller government” (libertarians think this) or a “more Christian” national leadership (Christian social conservatives think this). Many Americans also see secession as a “bad” thing because the Southern states in the Civil War era also wanted to secede, and those states were “bad,” whereas the Northern states led by President Lincoln were “good.”

In each case their thinking is delusional.

First, no one has ever made the federal government significantly smaller, and the progressivism that now dominates Washington aims of course to snowball it ever-larger. In fact, as progressivism and its policies (e.g., mass immigration) continue to erode traditional culture and social cohesion, the Leviathan power of the central government will be needed more than ever to keep things from flying apart. If the federal government were to be made significantly smaller, it would be only as an outcome of prior, very drastic changes to the political situation.

Second, America recently had a president, George W. Bush, who was a bona fide born-again Christian, and even held prayer meetings in the White House. But did this “Christian leader” stop the tide of progressivism? No; in fact, during his tenure in office the country’s culture swung to the left probably more than it had during any previous eight-year period in US history (for demographic reasons I have discussed elsewhere). And as far as I know, none of the culturally conservative policies that Bush did manage to put in place (e.g., restrictions on embryo research) survived beyond his presidency.

Social conservatives who put their faith in “leaders” in Washington also fail to consider the zero-sum nature of the political dominance for which they yearn. In other words, even if by some miracle Congress and the White House came to be dominated, long-term, by social conservatism, that would leave the liberal, progressive half of the electorate feeling just as alienated as conservatives are now—hardly a just and sustainable outcome.

As for Lincoln and the Civil War, I think that most people nowadays continue to be blinded by the slavery issue, so that they cannot see that war as the South then saw it: a case of a tyrant, by force, depriving a people of the self-determination they wanted. Lincoln himself said, in about as many words, that his “paramount object” was to preserve the Union, not to free the South’s slaves. In the confused minds of most 21st-century Americans, however, secession seems forever tainted by its past association with slavery. Somehow Americans have forgotten that their country was born through an act of rebellion and secession–and this curious memory lapse persists despite annual (July 4) reminders of the event.

So one side of this problem is that conservatives these days fail to identify, and even shy away from, the form of liberty that would make their situation better.

The flip side of the problem is that the form of liberty they think they need is the individual liberty that actually makes their situation worse. Also called civil liberty, this includes the liberty of pornographers to ply their trade legally, the liberty of women to kill their unborn children or to join and disrupt combat units, the freedom of gay men to infiltrate the Boy Scouts, the freedom of vagrants to camp in public places, the right of lawless minorities not to be “profiled” by the police—all the stuff that makes social conservatives not just depressed but apocalyptic.

vagrants newark penn
homeless shelter, a.k.a. Newark Penn train station

Off-hand, I can point to one source of this confusion among conservatives: an imagined ideal of self-reliance and light governance in late 18th and early 19th century America, particularly out on the frontier. What that Golden Age fantasy ignores is that the people of frontier America were far more ethnically homogeneous, far more communal and tightly knit, than probably any substantial group of Americans is now (outside religious communities, e.g., Amish, Mennonites, Hasidic Jews). Francis Fukuyama has a good, if largely ignored, book about the importance of America’s strong social cohesion (“social capital”) for its rise to prosperity in the last two centuries.

Anyway, the bottom line here is that the vast majority of Americans now in 2015 seem unable to think clearly on this issue—and this fundamental failure to understand who they are and what they need probably dooms their way of life, in a world of cultures that aggressively seek dominance.