The current generation may always consider itself to be the wisest of all, but High Tory politics strives to avoid the perennial folly of this prejudice…
“The next wave of American ‘conservatism’ is not likely to base its appeal on such unsuccessful slogans as the Constitution and free enterprise. Its leader will not be a gentleman who truly cares about his country’s past. It will concentrate directly on such questions as ‘order in the streets’ which are likely to become crucial in the years ahead. The battle will be between democratic tyrants and the authoritarians of the right. If the past is a teacher to the present, it surely says that democratic Caesarism is likely to be successful. In the fight between Sulla and Marius, it was the descendants of the latter who established the Julian line of emperors.”
—George Grant, Lament for a Nation
(Collected Works of George Grant, Volume 3, page 325)
More than fifty years ago, the Canadian political philosopher George Grant (1918–1988) predicted the future of American politics in his masterpiece, Lament for a Nation: The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism, which is, ironically enough, one of the most famous works of Canadian political philosophy ever published. The passage quoted above comes in footnote 23, at the very end of Chapter Five. Grant’s book was “lamenting” the death of Canadian nationalism as a viable political alternative to the two dominant trends that he saw unfolding in America.
Were Grant still alive today, no doubt he would have recognized them both in the two hated alternatives that most recently confronted voters in the 2016 U.S. election: Hillary Clinton’s Democratic Party (the “democratic tyrants”) and Donald Trump’s alt-right G.O.P. (“the authoritarians of the right”). Perhaps Grant would have been sagacious enough to predict the electoral triumph of Mr. Trump, simply by recognizing him as the potential forerunner to a new “Julian line” for tomorrow’s America.
It is uncertain whether Mr. Trump will be seen by history only as today’s version of Marius, a Marius who may soon inspire vengeful opposition from a new Sulla arising from within the ranks of today’s “democratic tyrants.” But for those citizens who are worried about the transformations ahead, soon to be wrought by this new Marius (alas, a Marius with a Twitter account), perhaps consolation may be found in the alternative political tradition lamented by George Grant—namely, the North American High Tory tradition.
Grant saw this philosophy running through the best elements of Canadian political tradition. Oddly enough, its political future may lie as something necessary for Americans to look towards, at least as a way to avoid slouching towards a new Caesarism. If a new Julius, and then a new Augustus, seems destined to come after today’s Marius, perhaps there is still time for American citizens to change course. Otherwise the civil war between the “democratic tyrants” and “authoritarians of the right” (the war over who will get to preside over America’s crony capitalist future) will eventually lead to a power-politics triumph of the authoritarian faction, at least if we may take the history of Rome as a classic example of the perennial tendencies of fallen human nature.
In his new book published this year, The North American High Tory Tradition, Professor Ron Dart presents this largely forgotten political tradition, by drawing upon his expertise in Canadian history. Prof. Dart argues that this historical influence in the Canadian tradition actually offers everybody in North America a humane political philosophy worth rediscovering.
Ron Dart has taught in the Department of Political Science, Philosophy, and Religious Studies at the University of the Fraser Valley in Abbotsford, British Columbia since 1990. In the 1980s, he was on staff with Amnesty International. Prof. Dart himself looks for inspiration to 1965, when Grant wrote Lament for a Nation as a rescue attempt for the distinctively Canadian Tory tradition that U.S. politics was then eclipsing in Canada.
The High Tory tradition is also sometimes called the “Red Tory” tradition, of which Canada’s Conservative prime minister, John Diefenbaker (1895-1979), was perhaps the most famous proponent. This tradition distinctively looks more to Canada’s British heritage than to the American regime’s way of life. When Diefenbaker opposed automatically allowing American nuclear missiles on Canadian soil, by arguing such cooperation would erode Canadian national sovereignty, Diefenbaker was defeated in 1963 by the Liberal Party’s Lester Pearson.
Pearson garnered popular support for advocating the sort of Cold War military alliance with America that was less deliberative than Diefenbaker’s approach. It was easy enough to demagogue Diefenbaker into defeat over this. Almost immediately, the Liberals then went on to change Canada’s national flag from the Red Ensign (which incorporated the Union Jack into its design) into the Maple Leaf design that the world is familiar with today.
Many Canadians, including George Grant, lamented this reinvention of Canadian identity. Diefenbaker himself responded by insisting that he wanted his coffin draped with the Red Ensign for the occasion of his own state funeral. Over the past fifty years, this old “Red Tory” tradition has mostly been marginalized in Canada. The Canadian conservatives opted instead to become a “Blue Tory” party, meaning that they automatically allied with America and the economic concerns of big business.
Canada thus has to bid goodbye to the “Red Tory” way of politics, and Grant was thereby moved to write his lament. It was an epochal shift in Canadian politics, similar to Mr. Trump riding in to power today. Anyone wishing to lament the present American development should look to the thoughts Grant offered at the time of the grand transformation up north in Canada almost fifty years ago.
Of course, Mr. Trump’s “economic nationalism,” at least as far as it is discernible from the mind of his strategist Stephen K. Bannon, is a much different sort of political approach than North America’s venerable High Tory tradition. But that is precisely why American citizens should become familiar with this tradition. Because if (and when) Trump fails to “make America great again,” they may need to have its tenets ready at hand. For these political ideas may yet supply the best “Plan B” action plan to save the American republic from any descent into a new Caesarism (which may be foreseen as eventually emerging from the new American civil war between “democratic tyrants” and “the authoritarians of the right”).
Prof. Dart’s new book offers an excellent introduction to the venerable conservative principles of the North American High Tory tradition. As the book starts out, Prof. Dart identifies ten characteristics that can be seen to define this High Tory tradition.
First, there is an emphasis on the wisdom of tradition as an antidote to the danger of “chronological snobbery.” The current generation may always consider itself to be the wisest of all, but High Tory politics strives to avoid the perennial folly of this prejudice.
Second, the High Tory maintains a resolute focus on the common good, instead of on inflexible ideological programs. Political prudence keeps in mind the difficulty of politics, steering a middle course between the extremes of unprincipled pragmatism, on the one hand, and the geometric certainties of ideological action plans, on the other.
Third, ethics is considered more important than economics. A politics that reduces everything to jobs and economic concerns must be rejected. Politics has a higher calling, to address the full human person.
Fourth, the environment cannot be sacrificed to economics. This is a corollary to the previous point, which aims to avoid economic reductionism, because “economic nationalism” is simply too reductive a notion for a nation ever to base itself upon. Moreover, any nation shares the same planet with other nations.
Fifth, state and society must work together, which is unlike the approach of either the usual conservative politics (which distrusts the state and exalts a society of individuals) or the usual liberal politics (which uses state power to reengineer society).
Sixth, public spaces and commons can serve the commonweal, in ways that complement private property. Private property is not the only way that citizens can attain the good life. Communal spaces are also essential to nourish the human spirit in ways conducive to its full flourishing.
Seventh, education needs to focus on the classics. This may also be seen as a corollary to the first point above, which seeks always to keep the wisdom of the ancients in mind.
Eighth, too much power should not be concentrated in one place. This is because of the fallibility of human nature. Unfortunately, the “authoritarians of the right” seem destined to learn this lesson the hard way in America’s near future. The ancient Greek appellation of “tyrant”, for the strongman who promises a quick fix, soon became a historically pejorative term, because human experience always shows that such a ruler will end up doing more harm than good, at least in the long run.
Ninth, religious traditions spanning the centuries are what will bring true vitality to political life. Religious diversity is thus a net benefit to political life, because it affords the wisdom of the ages many opportunities to find its way into public life, as people of all traditions bring their respective gifts to bear upon the most difficult problems of political life.
Tenth, we must admit there are things beyond politics, higher things to which we all must aspire. The High Tory tradition recognizes that, if we don’t admit this, then politics ends up endorsing relativism, which disastrously lowers our sights. In short, the High Tory is best known by his or her affirmation of their tradition’s judiciously high aspirations.
Ron Dart’s elegant new book thus offers a provocative alternative to the current trajectory of U.S. politics. If American citizens find themselves unhappy with any deleterious trends they discern unfolding in their republic in the years ahead, they may want to investigate the political philosophy that a few of us in Canada strive to keep alive: The North American High Tory Tradition.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.