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An Emersonian Guide to American Politics

The essayist’s thoughts on the value of conservatism offer wisdom for our divided age

Kerry Ellard
October 13, 2021
Original photo: Library of Congress
Original photo: Library of Congress
Original photo: Library of Congress
Original photo: Library of Congress

In 1841, at least a century before the rise of the American conservative movement, Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered a lecture on “The Conservative.” He began by defining the “party of Conservatism” as the rival of the “[party] of Innovation.” If you don’t recall learning about the “Innovation Party” in history class, this is because he wasn’t talking about literal political parties, or even recognized schools of thought. To him, “the two parties which divide the state” were mere reflections of tendencies that “agitate every man’s bosom with opposing advantages every hour.”

Still, his definition of political conservatism was clearer than any other one I’ve seen lately: “The conservative party established the reverend hierarchies and monarchies of the most ancient world,” and represented the interests of the “patrician,” the “parent state,” tradition, and “the rich,” against those of the “plebeian,” the “colony,” innovation (“accommodation to new facts”), and “the poor.”

Here we see why American conservatives struggle to articulate what exactly they are trying to conserve. Given that the answer could never be “our Old World-style monarchy,” it was inevitable that some would begin to doubt whether Edmund Burke was the most appropriate guide to our politics. Perhaps Emerson may offer some insights more applicable to America? As his friend and admirer Thomas Carlyle once wrote from his Scottish home, “You are a new era, my man, in your new huge country.”

America was “new” in the sense that the “New World” represented a clear break with the feudal and monarchical traditions of Europe. The entrenched aristocracies that historically underwrote “men of ideas” were conspicuously absent, causing Carlyle to lament that America was a poor country “where all men are sold to Mammon, and can make nothing but Railways, and Bursts of Parliamentary Eloquence.” Americans with intellectual aspirations could only achieve recognition through eloquent participation in public life, typically as a preacher, politician, or newspaperman. Yet Carlyle conceded that “Old England” was just as “sold to Mammon” as New England, and had gotten only a potato famine in return.

Accordingly, the 19th-century “Innovation Parties”—broadly made up of those seeking upward mobility by overturning exclusive hierarchies—looked very different in Europe than they did in America. In the same lecture, Emerson defined conservatism in opposition to radicalism, the future, hope, liberalism, “the reformer”, “the partisan,” and even “Reason itself! But the logic of his argument makes it plain that he is equating all of these things with idealism, and that he equates conservatism with so-called Burkean pragmatism. “Each theory has a natural support,” and the clash between them is “the primal antagonism, the appearance ... of the two poles of nature.”

In other words, in Emerson’s view politics is not a battle of the correct side winning out, but “the counteraction of the centripetal and the centrifugal forces.” It requires understanding to see that each makes “a good half, but an impossible whole,” and this is the sentiment that drives the American public toward a divided government. They understand intuitively, as Emerson did, that conservatives and reformers “expose the abuses of [each] other,” and that “in a true society, in a true man, both must combine.”

By “true man”, he meant something like “in touch with reality.” Speaking from personal experience, he warned Boston’s conservatives that, by denying ambitious young men meaningful participation in society, established institutions would breed radicalism and revolt. “The country is full of rebellion,” he noted, “full of kings” vying for control of the emerging order. He hoped that the authorities would meet this challenge with understanding, reason, and pragmatism—a wish that is very much relevant to the state of political affairs today.

Yet it is difficult to directly translate Emerson’s wisdom into our modern political climate, in part because it is hard to think outside of the “culture war narrative” that most Americans have known for decades. In the 1960s, as the Cold War battle against communism shaped the American political scene, the left/right spectrum, coined to describe the dynamics of European revolutions, was awkwardly imposed upon what had been once coalitional rather than ideological parties. Efforts to manufacture ideological consistency followed, and while these narratives lacked any context of pre-1960 American history, they still held up for the duration of the future-focused End of History era.

Then, at the turn of the century, the old regional/demographic divisions seemed to reassert themselves, and the now-inescapable “red state/blue state” paradigm was born. With the Soviet Union gone, we were back to the American pastime of defining our political identities in opposition to each other, aggravated by the existential framing built into by the left/right spectrum. In 2000, our elites had enough sense to avoid talk of a second Civil War. But the dynamics of our culture, fueled by increased historical ignorance, have predictably left some Americans casually equating “red” areas and “the former Confederacy.” With the issue of class-based cultural differences thus obscured, highly educated Northerners convince themselves they are surrounded by Southerners. Last year, while some young people wondered why “blue” Virginia was classified as a Southern state, then-President Trump was left awkwardly explaining that, “[The Confederacy] was my opponent. I was born in New York ... I am a Yankee.”

That this had to be said indicates the depth of the confusion caused by our current political and historical categories. I suspect this has only been possible due to the adoption of the left/right spectrum, with the superficial similarities between “country club Republicans” and European aristocrats distracting from the fact that these same Republicans were the historical enemy of Jacksonian populists, states’ rights advocates, Catholic immigrants, anti-capitalists, and Southern racists. Since the throne-and-altar conservatism that defines “the right” never existed in America, the so-called “American right” becomes an imaginary fusion of European and American horrors, one that blinds the “American left” (and many of those who oppose it) to the fact that the oppressors in one situation may be the sworn enemies of those in another. The intellectual corruption caused by this error now runs so deep that a historian recently described the Civil War as “when southern white men went to war to guarantee that Black Americans, Indigenous Americans, Chinese, Mexicans, and Irish would be permanently locked into a lower status than whites.”

America has never been monolithic, and its politics have never been ideologically coherent—regional cultures have long formed coalitions to advance their interests at a given moment. Modern narratives have obscured the obvious to an astonishing degree: The “North” in the North-South divide refers to the victorious Republicans who dominated the national political scene post-Civil War. Naturally, they were from the North and Midwest, and not the states that made up the former Confederacy. And, as Michael Lind explains, the New Deal, which overthrew this arrangement in 1933, can only be “badly misunderstood … when it is treated as a left-wing rebellion against right-wing capitalism,” (an assertion that a young Bob Dylan found so suspicious that he ended up investigating the matter in the New York Public Library’s newspaper archives).

These days, such archives are easier than ever to search and share on Twitter, and their contents cause a lot of double-takes. “Head exploding reminder I know nothing about American history,” wrote one user in response to Lind’s description. “Jeez,” wrote another, upon learning that John McCain described the pre-Goldwater GOP as “an Eastern elitist organization.”

But if you step back and reflect on American history, how could the Republican party have been anything but an Eastern elitist organization? The “culture war” version of history encourages an almost inverted impression of political reality. As Lind explains, “The Democratic Party that dominated … between the 1930s and the 1980s … was essentially the old Jacksonian alliance of white Southerners and non-British ‘white ethnics’ in the North” attempting to overthrow the “Lincoln coalition of Northern industrialists and Yankee Protestants.” The so-called “country club Republicans”—mostly upper-class Northeastern men—led the latter coalition until the 1970s. Both groups were considered “conservative,” in the sense of clinging to old social arrangements, by the progressive elites in both parties, who were eager to complete America’s transition into a modern nation-state. And both were also considered “liberal” by European conservatives, who agreed that America was not yet a modern nation-state but thought it obvious that Americans had no traditional power structures to conserve.

Writing a century prior to the New Deal, Emerson agreed. Local aristocracies were failing to lead effectively, and popular reform movements were ascendant. Even worse, in Emerson’s eyes, the expansion of slavery threatened to destabilize the country. “In Massachusetts, as we all know, there has always existed a predominant conservative spirit,” explained by the fact that “we have more money and value of every kind than other people, and wish to keep them.” But when he asked the Whig politicians who represented the Boston elites why they’d voted for the Fugitive Slave Act, it became clear that they no longer believed their privileges translated into political power: “They stood stiffly on conservatism, and as near to monarchy as they could, only to moderate the velocity with which the car was running down the precipice.”

Emerson saw that traditional Yankees like himself could only counter the Democratic coalition by putting aside concerns of “respectability,” adding a dose of democratic energy to their conservatism, and allying with “rough riders” from the West. One of Emerson’s most telling remarks about American politics reflects his bitter disillusionment with Daniel Webster, who he considered responsible for the Fugitive Slave Act, and the Massachusetts political establishment he’d once revered: “The senators who dissented from Mr. Polk’s Mexican war, were not those who knew better, but those who, from political position, could afford it; not Webster, but Benton and Calhoun.”

In Emerson’s view, politics was practical and self-correcting; old New England elites could take refuge in high-minded ideology, but, as the south’s plan to pursue the expansion of slavery came into view and the Whig Party collapsed, his generation could only hope to survive by allying with the democratic masses of the north and west. The result of this alliance was the formation of the Republican Party. As Emerson said in his eulogy of Lincoln, while elites in “the Eastern States” had viewed the latter’s nomination with “surprise and disappointment,” “this middle-class country had got a middle-class President at last.”

We’re not very far into the 21st century, but it seems like we’re in for another course correction, complicated by the fact that the Democratic Party has been transforming itself into a version of the older Republican Party. Few would say that the change has been for the better. Elites are now concentrated in cities, especially on the coasts, which has taken the form of an urban/rural divide. But the game has not changed all that much: Historically, most of the urban power centers have always been in the North and West, whereas the South was largely rural. Intrastate cultural conflict has also always been common, especially in the “border states.”

Given the dominance of an insular national elite pursuing a progressive and technocratic agenda, it’s not clear whether the old categories will continue to apply. their persistence in the face of our political and historical confusion suggests they shouldn’t be counted out just yet. Indeed, there are already signs of an overcorrection, with attempts to shove the current political situation into a simplistic North/South binary that classifies all rural white Americans as “Southerners.” There are two major problems with this. The first is that the abolition of slavery and Jim Crow massively changed the nature of American politics, because those issues demanded very specific coalitions and overriding moral concerns that transcended simple regional dichotomies. The second is that it leaves out Westerners, who have played a pivotal role in American politics, largely because they could operate outside the terms of established Northern and Southern power structures. Jackson, Lincoln, Truman, Goldwater, Nixon, and Reagan represented different varieties of an element that is neither the “Old South” nor the “country club.” The “populists v. elites” narrative tries to convince Americans that these are the only two options on the table, using an almost inverted historical narrative. (Lind: “Until the last generation, college-educated professionals and executives in America tended to vote Republican, while Democrats received most of the votes of the high school-educated working class.”)

These truths suggest that we have significant potential for cross-regional unity and historically unfeasible demographic alliances. It may not be a coincidence that we’ve seen so many bizarre divide-and-conquer narratives, such as “multiracial whiteness,” over the last few years. The historical illiteracy encouraged by the left-wing spectrum is easily manipulated for this purpose. As Emerson said, “if we read the world historically, we shall say … this is the best throw of the dice … that is yet possible,” but if we read it in relation to an ideal state, “we shall accuse the Past and the Present, and require the impossible of the Future.” Sound familiar?

With so many people dissatisfied and asking questions, we may lose the late-20th-century comfort of neat morality tales, with clear good guys and bad guys and total victories, but this was always a recipe for irresponsible escapism. As president, Lincoln adorned his office with a portrait not of his “beau ideal” Henry Clay, but of Andrew Jackson. The reason for this is likely found in his replay to Baltimoreans demanding peace following the bombardment of Fort Sumter: “there would be no Washington in that, no Jackson in that, no spunk in that!” Like Emerson, Lincoln recognized that only a fusion of “rough riders” and “respectable” types could provide the necessary political stability to navigate the volatile realignment.

To navigate our own volatile realignment, it may help to ponder Emerson’s 1854 remarks:

“We are all conservatives, half Whig, half Democrat. … [these parties represent] two forces in Nature … Let us know that, over and above all the musts of poverty and appetite, is the instinct of man to rise, and the instinct to love and help his brother.”

Kerry Ellard is an independent historian and researcher.