Conservatism Lives!

The key point in Sam Tanenhaus's new essay, it seems to me, is his distinction between movement conservatism and classical conservatism. My own stab at this was the distinction between a conservatism of faith and a conservatism of doubt. Another way to look at it is the contrast between partisan Republicanism in the past forty years and the classical conservative temperament, originating in Burke, and celebrated by Kirk and Hart. In practice, few people on the American right fit entirely within one camp or the other. But the distinction still matters.

It matters because the core conservative insight is the distinction between ideology and politics, between theoretical and practical wisdom. The best short account of this in my own reading is Oakeshott's critique of Hayek (you can find it here). Oakeshott worried that Hayek had turned the benefits of the free market
into a system - and that the system had become its own rationale, unmoored from any pragmatic response to a specific time and place. And so the right was in danger of committing the core error that Burke worried about: ideology.

In contemporary America, the right is now in an almost parodic state of ideology. There isn't just a rigid set of beliefs, indifferent to any time or place (e.g. tax cuts are right in a boom and a recession, in surplus and debt); it is supported by a full-fledged organization or "movement"; this "movement" generates journals and magazines and blogs designed fundamentally to buttress the cause; and the most salient distinction discussed in these circles is between those who are for the cause and those against it (with particular scorn for any dissidents). There is, for good measure, always an enemies list, to maintain morale: the dreaded libruls! New leaders emerge because small groups of the ideological intelligentsia select them on the grounds of their conformance with the ideology - Palin and Jindal spring to mind. Or previously rational figures have to convert to full obedience to the tenets of the new faith if they are to become proper "conservatives" - McCain, Romney, two otherwise capable figures turned into hollow shells by the need to kowtow to fanatics. The final phase of this ghastly cycle is the Limbaugh-Coulter phase, in which nothing is left of the conservative cat, except a preening narcissism-as-entertainment grin.

It is precisely this ideological calcification of a set of pragmatic policies for a specific time and place - Britain and America in the late 1970s - that has killed conservatism as a coherent governing philosophy. When a primary race is dedicated to reviving the image and memory of a president elected almost thirty years ago, and when a general election campaign gets reduced to crude, identity-based appeals to a single demographic, you know classical conservatism is indeed dead.

One reason I admire Oakeshott is simply his understanding that the two deepest impulses in Western political thought - the individualist and the collectivist - need each other to keep our polities coherent. He, like me, preferred the individualist, and so my own leanings are toward smaller government, lower taxes, balanced budgets, individual freedom and prudent strength in foreign policy. But I also see when the alternative might be needed. There are times when the government does indeed need to make a big infrastructure investment or beef up its security technology or address an emergent and vital threat to a settled way of life, like climate change or Jihadist terror. Finding the best way for government to act at those times is a pragmatic and often difficult task; but I have no issues with such action. Government exists in some measure to provide a collective response to a newly felt need.

Oakeshottoutsidecaius So when I look back at FDR, a part of me recoils at what he did to the size and power of the federal government. A part of me also understands that he was acting in a particular context and his legacy has become part of the very landscape conservatives might wish to reform but do not wish to abolish. Similarly today, a conservative should have no objection to major pragmatic attempts to prevent this depression taking on a life of its own and perpetuating pain more than necessary. And - this is the tough part - it might even be the case that the vastly growing social and economic inequality of the last three decades could justify redistribution via spending or taxes. The point is to sustain social order by buttressing the middle class - a conservative objective if ever there was one - not to construct an abstract notion of a just society. Just to rile some Republicans even further, I don't see the attempt to roll back all legal abortion after forty years of Roe as a conservative move. It's a counter-revolutionary one. In that sense, yes, I did see Obama as a more conservative - because more pragmatic - option in the last election. And his temperament, his patience and his civility all appeal to the conservative not blinded by partisanship or ideology.

This super-pragmatism with a long-term preference for expanding freedom and limiting government is how I see the conservative temperament. At what point does it simply become me-tooism for liberalism? It does imply a constant long-term defeat, as cultural and social liberalism make their in-roads, or even as Christianism and Islamism wax and wane as neurotic religious responses to modernity. But conservatism's genius is to be cheerful and imaginative in managing defeat; and conservatives can always hope that the increasing complexity of modern society will make libertarian and federalist approaches more appealing, because they are the only ones capable of keeping such a multi-cultural polity in one piece. Only the market is smart enough to govern effectively in the immensely complex societies of our time (although the market itself of course requires constant regulation). And the new technologies of information have acted as a solvent to some of the more collectivist impulses of our era. There's also no reason why lovers of the past can't adapt to social change by adjusting existing institutions to coopt new social realities. This was always my goal in backing gay marriage: it was, in my view, the authentically conservative response to the emergence of open homosexuality in the West.

Can this work in America? Or is America a creedal nation, immune to Burkean management and governable only by religious or populist or utopian appeals? You can see my debate with David Brooks about this here. A nation with pragmatists like Truman and Eisenhower and even Clinton in its recent past can, I think, generate conservative leadership which is shrewd and practical - and successful. And part of the work is already done in America by the constitution itself: a document that sets up a system of government deliberately resistant to massive change or concentration of power. The very framework of this country is conservative in the Burkean sense, as Burke himself recognized. And that is why conservatives of all people should be the most upset when that constitution is unbalanced or threatened or trashed. (And, yes, I consider the executive power theories of the Bush administration and the attempt to use the constitution for social policy repellently unconservative.)

I did my best to make my case for this kind of conservatism here. My first expression of this conservatism I wrote twenty years ago, here. I should add that for all these reasons, I do not agree with the headline on Sam's piece "Conservatism Is Dead." I do agree that the current conservative movement deserves to die; and that the Republican party deserved the massive defeats it just received. But I do not believe the conservative temperament in politics can ever truly die. it is part of human nature, nurtured to a degree of sophistication in Britain and America that is too useful to lose. I see more of it in the Obama administration right now than I do either party in Congress. This is a conservatism of no party or clique. But it is conservatism.