American conservatism is radically distinct from its British and European counterparts. Imbued with a religious and populist sensibility, its enemy is liberalism, not socialism. Irving Kristol, one of the founders of American neo-conservatism, explains how populist conservatism has flourished in America and how it is better equipped than traditional conservatisms to correct western democracies' misguided elitesby Irving Kristol / October 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
I remember the day very well, back in 1956, when I arrived at my office at Encounter-of which I was then co-editor-and found on my desk an unsolicited manuscript by Michael Oakeshott. This, I thought, is the way every editor’s day should begin, with an over-the-transom arrival of an essay by one of the finest living political thinkers and certainly the finest stylist. The manuscript was called “On Being Conservative” and I read it with pleasure and appreciation. It was beautifully written, subtle in its argument, delicate in its perceptions, and full of sentences and paragraphs that merit the attention of anthologists for decades, perhaps even centuries, to come. Fortunately, this essay is to be found in his book, Rationalism in Politics. I say “fortunately” because, after loving every line of this essay, I sat down and wrote to Michael, rejecting it.
I forget what disingenuous circumlocutions I invented for that letter-probably something about its being both too abstract and too specifically British in its frame of reference for our journal. But the truth is that, while I admired the essay immensely, I did not really like it. Which is another way of saying that I disagreed with it. At that time, I was not sure why I disagreed with it. Today, looking back over the past 40 years, I can see why. I was American, Michael was English. I was then in the earliest stages of intellectual pregnancy with those dispositions that later emerged as neo-conservatism. And American neo-conservatism is very different from the kind of ideal English conservatism that Oakeshott was celebrating so brilliantly. It is also different from the much less ideal conservatism that still dominates the Conservative party.
Conservatism in the US today is on a different track from that of Britain and western Europe-I insist on the distinction-and it is reasonable to think that one of us may be on the better track. Oakeshott’s essay focuses on what he calls “the conservative disposition.” Let him describe that disposition in his own lovely language:
The general characteristics of this disposition… centre upon a propensity to use and enjoy what is available rather than what was or may be… What is esteemed is the present, and it is esteemed not on account of its connections with a remote antiquity, nor because it is recognised to be more admirable than any possible alternative, but on account of…