What Is 'Conservatism'?

Searching for a definition that is as elusive as it is inspiring.

I just discovered Doug Jeffrey’s review of my book on conservatism four and a half years after it appeared in Frontpage. Although Professor Jeffrey finds my analysis to be full of “vitriol” and inconsistency, I am nonetheless pleased that he found the text “interesting” enough to discuss. I should begin by noting those points he got right. I do indeed argue that the American “conservative movement” was a post-World War Two invention and that Bill Buckley and a circle of companions put it together in the 1950s out of anti-Communism and whatever else they thought would go together with their paramount concern, which was rolling back the Iron Curtain. Free market economics, Catholic social theory, and strict constitutionalism all worked as secondary themes, unless they came into conflict, at which point it became necessary for Buckley or some deputy at National Review to keep the movement together by mediating differences or expelling heretics.

My fondness for German historical methods has nothing to do with substituting “America’s founding principles.” In my book I stress the need for historical perspective when I praise those who in the past, including German thinkers, applied such an approach. I try to think historically, when I contrast a contrived, journalistic attempt to create an American “conservatism” to what that term meant at an earlier time, as a counterrevolutionary movement. Today’s official conservatives are certainly not defending an inherited class system and historical liberties over written constitutions and taking other characteristic positions of the traditional Right. Favoring civil unions for gays but not quite marriage for them, or Medicare but not Obamacare, simply won’t do it.

We have had American thinkers on the Right in the past, like Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver and Robert Nisbet, who had some conception of what classical conservatism was. But their influence on the current conservative movement has been nil, and even the occasional homage to them found in conservative publications, as I show in my work, has become weaker and weaker over time. In comparison with Karl Rove, Bill Kristol, Sarah Palin or even Jed Bush, these echoes of the classical Right now count for nothing. The current “conservatism” is also not rooted in any historic class, unlike those past European models and even the anti-New Deal Republicanism that I treat in my work. Not surprisingly, because of its rootlessness and because it is now shaped by the neocon-GOP media, the American model has become an “adjunct of the Republican Party,” while conservative programs and slogans are invented with an eye toward picking up Republican votes.

Contrary to what Jeffrey insists, I am not disparaging the American founding.  There is nothing in my book that would suggest that I’m against what the US started out as being, namely, an eighteenth century liberal Republic with a strong Protestant tradition. But that is not the same as European conservatism (which I suggest is the real article); and it has zip to do with our present state as a social democracy cum feminism and gay rights. Today’s American “conservatives” are defending as their “tradition” a mass democracy with a highly centralized administration. To each his own, but there’s only so far I’m willing to go in stretching definitions. I’ve no idea how voting for that timid centrist Mitt Romney last November was an affirmation of conservatism, as Fox-news and Ann Coulter told me it was. The last election was a vote between a moderate leftist and a more extreme one. Neither candidate was even as far to the Right as John F. Kennedy, who by present standards would seem to be an off-the-chart rightist. (In Kennedy’s time not even “liberal” Democrats were required to support such currently moderate positions as anti-discrimination laws regarding the hiring of women and minorities and spousal benefits for gay couples.)

In my book I argue for a less dishonest way of packaging political positions and against hiding our adaptations to leftist politics by dressing them up with antiquated labels. Contrary to Jeffrey’s contention, I do not lavish praise on Ron Paul, although I do think this cranky, now retired congressman would have been at least recognizable to the Republican Right into the 1950s. Paul may be the only presidential candidate from either political party who is not well to the left of Lyndon Johnson. For the record, I am not a libertarian, but an admirer of such truly principled constitutionalist presidents as Grover Cleveland and Calvin Coolidge. Unfortunately, the era that produced such outstanding authentic liberals is now over.

In my book on American conservatism I do suggest there is a rightist course that may still work for us. A rightist solution would not seek accommodation with the other side, which given certain demographic changes and the by now unavoidable media spin, has come to run our national political system. An inventive right would look for ways to devolve power on regional and local governments. It must face the fact that it can no longer compete in the present democratic political culture and electoral system against the social Left for control over the federal government. What the Right (which is certainly not identical with GOP office-seekers) must work to do is ensure the survival of culturally and socially traditional elements in an adverse political situation.

This Right, to whatever extent it exists, must scorn empty talk about past success that I’ve heard from GOP policy institutes, when they claim that between Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980 and Obama’s election in 2008, the US was enjoying a “conservative” renaissance. Our country was moving decidedly to the left throughout that period, particularly as a result of lost “culture wars” and because of the extension of bureaucratic social engineering. As I tell those who don’t like my grim messages, it is best to recognize the desperation of one’s circumstances as a precondition for improving them. Personally I like the spirit of what I heard Marc Levin say in response to a question from the GOP talk show host Sean Hannity: When asked what he would tell John Boehner to say in his next conversation with Obama, Levin responded “nothing at all. I would replace Boehner with someone on the Right.” This suggests politics in a new key, as opposed to the usual stuff about bipartisanship, having dinner with Barack and Michelle, and making the “system” work.

Allow me to correct two other misimpressions that Jeffrey associates with my book. Harry V. Jaffa is hardly the first of “the many villains” on my hate list. Indeed next to those well-heeled journalists and fundraisers masquerading as “conservative scholars,” Jaffa is a paragon of learning, who lives rather modestly. Unfortunately, he also personifies the utter confusion into which the establishment Right has fallen when he tells us that “equality is a conservative principle.” Jaffa’s preferred principle is a quintessentially leftist one; in the same way freedom and legality are liberal principles and a defense of hierarchy and particularity are conservative principles.

One is entitled to embrace any of these positions but I would no more define equality as a conservative principle than I would designate aristocracy as a leftist one.  As Jeffrey might have guessed, I respect what I understand to be true liberals and true conservatives, but I’ll withhold my praise for the ideal of democratic equality until I see where this bumpy ride is going to take us.  By the way, I doubt that all that Jaffa means by equality is what Jeffrey tells us, namely that no man should “rule another as if he were a pig or a cow.” Prince Metternich and Joseph de Maistre, to name just two conservatives, would have agreed with that rule, but unlike Jaffa, neither would have felt obliged to support anything as radical as the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Jeffrey thinks that beside my inability to “reconcile German historicism with the American republic,”  I am caught on the horns of another dilemma. After going after those involved in the “value game” I proceed to “fall back on the language of values.” Apparently there is nowhere I can go with my dead-end argument but play my own value-game, by trying to impose my individual preferences on others. This is a well-stated objection, except for the fact that Jeffrey does not present my position accurately.

I never deny the “ontological status” of “objective values,” like Platonic ideals or those moral imperatives that are found in the Ten Commandments and which seem to be the conditions for a civilized human existence. What I question is the practice of raising certain political preferences to the status of religious revelation, for example, by picking out a particular political value, like freedom or equality, and trying to reconfigure existing political institutions around it. The Jaffaites and the libertarians both play this “value game” by trying to establish as the founding principle of the American republic something they happen to like. One group privileges equality and the other individual liberty. Given the way things are going, I feel slightly less threatened by Rand Paul’s value preference than Doug Jeffrey’s.

Incidentally, a vast historiographical literature exists that disputes the foundational importance that Jaffa and his disciples assign to certain phrases in the Declaration. One historian, Barry Shain, shows the continued monarchical sentiment among members of the pre-revolutionary continental congress and notes the widespread annoyance with Jefferson’s invocation of natural right among the congress’s participants. Barry also complains that “the Jaffaites won’t listen. Their belief system requires them to reinvent the founding.” I examine this problem of non-receptiveness to countervailing evidence more deeply in my work "Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America" (Cambridge, 2012), which takes up Jaffa’s underdetermined interpretation of the American founding.

There is a far sillier use of values that I find in Republican politics. It is the bombastic practice of claiming that the Right side has values but its competitors don’t. There is no indication this is the case. If anything, I am far more impressed by the Left’s struggle for its values than by the “conservative” game of dressing up often expediential policies with moralizing rhetoric. In fact I’ve never seen a president who is more value-driven than our current leftist one. I just hope his value-implementation doesn’t wreck this country irreversibly. President Obama’s transformative project of bringing self-actualization to gays, and black and Latino nationalists, and moving the US further on the road to socialism is a resounding affirmation of values. His values just don’t happen to be good for what is left of our constitutional republic.

In my book I quote an anthology of essays by the “third generation” of American conservatives (published in 1987) about how the authors were bringing “values and programs” to the Reagan presidency.  These youngsters claimed to be resisting “the value-free quality of American life,” by doing whatever they were doing. If only these anthology-contributors had something useful to say. I would have been with them if they called for dumping several departments of government and then repealing anti-discrimination laws aimed at controlling my thought and social attitudes. But alas they were too busy celebrating the “victory of conservatism” to worry about such issues. As for their value verbiage, I’d be glad to dump it with my waste.

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