We’ve been silent for some time now, providing only an update or link in the past month. Grad school demands force the silence to continue. However, we continue to read widely and constantly and occasionally come across particularly good articles. In lieu of original writing, we’ll tempt the intellectual property rights powers and post some of the better articles here for your review. Enjoy.
Is conservatism finished?
By Wilfred M. McClay
Even before November’s midterm elections and the Republican party’s loss of its congressional majorities, there was widespread talk of the exhaustion, even death, of conservatism in America. Over the past year or so, indeed, every new day has seemed to bring another article or book on the subject. Gathering steam as the election approached, such inquests became as popular among conservatives themselves as among liberals. Each offered a distinctive thesis or complaint relating to a perceived malfeasance of the Bush administration, whether in foreign policy, social policy, homeland security, domestic spending, corruption, or any number of other areas.
One particularly notable gesture of disaffection appeared on the very eve of the election, when, in a symposium titled “Time for Us to Go,” a group of seven self-identified conservative writers were moved to publish, in the liberal Washington Monthly, their reasons why the Republicans deserved to lose. While not exactly the “A” list of conservative minds, these writers, ranging from Christopher Buckley to Joe Scarborough (the former Florida Congressman turned talk-TV host), urged the defeat of their party for the sake, precisely, of the future health of conservatism itself. But their words contributed mightily to a growing general impression: that after a run of two decades or so, conservatism’s day in the American political sun was drawing to a close.
For liberal Democrats, this was a termination devoutly to be wished. So intense, indeed, was the pent-up need of the Democratic party and its media allies for a victory dance in the end zone that the high-stepping began long before any touchdowns had actually been scored. The columnist Joe Klein’s exultant observation in Time just prior to the elections–“2006 may be remembered as the year that the Reagan Revolution finally crested and began to recede”–was just one of hundreds of such gun-jumping predictions.
Yet it is now clear that the results of the vote, while a solid reversal not seen since the more epochal mid-term Republican victories of 1994, hardly justified this extravagance. In comparison with similar historical circumstances, the GOP’s losses were quite modest, leaving the Democrats with only relatively thin majorities in both houses of Congress. This was all the more impressive given the pervasive national mood of discouragement over the war in Iraq. Nor did anything about the GOP losses justify the claim that conservatism lost, or that the slow movement of the American electorate to the center-Right of the political spectrum has stopped or even diminished, let alone reversed.
Some Republican defeats, for example, including that of the liberal Republican Senator Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, effected no change in the ideological balance and can hardly be seen as a setback for conservatism. On the Democratic side, meanwhile, the remarkably easy triumph of the highly-targeted, much-reviled Senator Joseph Lieberman over his more liberal anti-war challenger was a bellwether. So too were the Senate victories of such relatively conservative Democrats as James Webb in Virginia and Robert Casey, Jr. in Pennsylvania. There was also the surprisingly strong showing of Harold Ford, Jr., the Democratic Congressman who promised Tennesseans that if they elected him to the Senate, they would get “a gun-loving, Jesus-loving American who thinks that taxes ought to be lower and America ought to be stronger.” In the event, most Tennesseans were not quite willing to buy that assertion, but there can be no doubt that they took Ford seriously in offering it.
In short, it is still unclear that the achievement of a majority of congressional members with the letter “D” after their names means a shift in the ideological balance of the nation. The internal Democratic fissures that opened up immediately after the election–as in the struggle between Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer over leadership of the House, and the patent discomfiture within the party over certain likely appointments to key committee chairmanships–suggest that electoral victory has not automatically conferred a durable majority, let alone a governing vision.
As the liberal journalist Michael Tomasky observed in an acute analysis penned in April 2006: “What the Democrats still don’t have is a philosophy, a big idea that unites their proposals and converts them from a hodgepodge of narrow and specific fixes into a vision for society.” The Democratic party won its new majorities largely on the basis of general discontent. It will take a Democratic party that actually stands for something other than the obstruction and investigation of George W. Bush to achieve more than temporary electoral reversals.
It would be foolish to deny the importance, or the usefulness, of closely examining the performance of the Bush administration with regard to the entire range of government policy and actions. Precisely by having made such an act of reconsideration imperative, the 2006 election results may even turn out to be a blessing in disguise for Republicans in particular and conservatives in general. This is how democracies are supposed to operate. Moreover, the ability of conservatives to engage in self-criticism is surely a salutary thing–so long as the self-criticism is both honest and accurate.
Is that the case in this instance? Before turning to the substantive points raised by Bush’s conservative critics, one is bound to note the startling weakness for hyperbole and the bitter invective in their writings, often the signs of unrealistic expectations and narrow or sectarian agendas. In addition, almost all of them judge Bush, and find him woefully wanting, by the standard of Ronald Reagan, thereby demonstrating a limited ability to recall what the now-sainted Reagan administration was actually like, let alone what sorts of criticisms it had to bear during its time–and where those criticisms came from. None seems to remember Reagan’s famous embrace of an Eleventh Commandment–“Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican”–let alone the context in which it arose: namely, the bitter intra-party struggles of the early 1960s in which liberal Republicans sought to block the rising Goldwater movement in their midst.
Americans in general too easily forget such times of struggle and division, making them over into placid and uncomplicated memories. A bipartisan example of this creative amnesia occurred at the time of Reagan’s death in June 2004 and spilled over into that year’s presidential campaign. Television journalists and Democratic candidates alike repeatedly contrasted the idyllic spirit of unity at home and cooperation abroad that allegedly prevailed during the cold-war years under Reagan with the national disunity prevailing over the Iraq issue under Bush. Many Americans, even some old enough to know better, seem actually to have credited such ridiculous assertions.
We forget, too, that predictions like Joe Klein’s have been made again and again since 1981. We forget that the current charges of “theocracy” were thoroughly rehearsed in the Reagan years, when Reagan’s open support for the beliefs of evangelicals was passionately decried, and his affirmation of the veracity of the Bible was used against him (notably in the 1984 campaign) to suggest that he would recklessly seek to bring on Armageddon. And we forget that not only Reagan but every Republican President since Eisenhower has been solemnly adjudged a cretin by the national press during his time in office, only–even unto the supposedly irredeemable Richard Nixon–to be turned into a wise leader after his departure from power.
We also forget that the Reagan administration itself, far from being happily unified, was driven by internal battles between “pragmatists” and “ideologues,” conflicts that prefigured many of the policy battles of the present. And we forget that, outside the administration, Reagan got plenty of grief from his own Right as well.
The querulous Richard Viguerie, for example, an influential but notably unhappy camper in those halcyon days, began hectoring the Reagan presidency almost from the beginning, complaining to the Associated Press in January 1981 that with his cabinet appointments Reagan had given conservatives “the back of his hand.” A July 1981 op-ed by Viguerie in the Washington Post, entitled “For Reagan and the New Right, the Honeymoon Is Over,” was thoughtfully timed less than four months after the President had nearly been killed by an assassin’s bullet. By December 1987, Viguerie was declaring that Reagan had actually “changed sides” and was “now allied with his former adversaries, the liberals, the Democrats, and the Soviets.” A year later, in the final months of his presidency, when it was clear to all that Reagan had fundamentally changed the terms of debate in American politics, Viguerie announced that, thanks to his tenure in office, “the conservative movement is directionless.”
It is especially pertinent to recall such statements when one opens Viguerie’s current book, a catalog of Bush-administration horrors whose pages are replete with inspirational Reagan quotations and the highest praise for Reagan and his appointees. For a movement that claims to rest upon long perspectives and deep cultural sources, American conservatism can be remarkably short-sighted, impatient, brittle, fractious, and downright petulant. Indeed, conservatism has been found by its adherents to have “cracked up” or “lost its soul” more times than are worth counting in the years since 1980 (at least as many times as America has “lost its innocence”).
But these crack-ups have been mainly in the eyes of their beholders. The simple fact, to repeat, is that the American electorate has, by most measures, moved slowly but steadily in a conservative direction since 1968, in a pattern that the two moderate, Southern Democratic presidencies of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton did more to confirm than to interrupt. The adjustments brought about by the 2006 midterm elections have done little to alter this pattern.
Hart finds two principal and related failings in Bush. First, in the Iraq war, and in seeking to “cure” the problems of the Middle East by imposing a regime of “modernization and democratization,” Bush has demonstrated that he is at heart a “hard Wilsonian”–that is, a utopian thinker who has wedded the use of “concerted military force” to Woodrow Wilson’s very unconservative brand of “optimistic universalism.” Second, Bush’s determination to allow his own evangelical Christianity to influence his thinking and actions, particularly in his zeal for large-scale social and moral reform, departs from “the accepted convention in America . . . that religious beliefs are a private matter.” It also runs counter to the strong conservative preference for “magisterial” and “traditional” forms of religion that, unlike evangelicalism, do not so much challenge a culture as stabilize it.
Hart’s criticisms, stated relatively mildly in his book, took on much more strident expression in his contribution to the pre-electoral Washington Monthly symposium. There, Hart described Bush as “a man who has taken the positions of an unshakable ideologue” on issues ranging from the Terri Schiavo case to supply-side economics. If conservatism is a “politics of reality,” this President, wrote Hart, lives sheltered in delusion. No longer is the adjective “Wilsonian” sufficient to describe his disconnectedness from reality. Indeed, Bush’s naÃ¯ve belief in the universality of the human preference for freedom over tyranny makes “Woodrow Wilson look like Machiavelli” by comparison.
In the end, Hart finds that “Bushism” has so subverted the principles of conservatism as to have “poisoned the very word.” Others are of the same opinion. In particular, the vexed question of religion, and of religiosity, has given rise to its own avalanche of conservative anti-Bushians, including not only Hart but Kevin Phillips in his over-the-top “American Theocracy,” Damon Linker in “The Theocons,” and especially Andrew Sullivan in “The Conservative Soul.”
Although all of these authors complain about the excessive influence of religious faith in present-day conservative politics, the specifics of their indictment vary. Where Hart focuses on the emotionalism of evangelical Protestants, Linker concentrates on the influence of a small cell of conservative Catholics around the journal First Things while Sullivan, who paints with a broad brush, denounces “Christianists” (his analogue to “Islamists”) of all persuasions.
“The defining characteristic of the conservative,” Sullivan asserts, “is that he knows what he doesn’t know.” This stance of systematic modesty, or principled unprincipledness, undergirds the way Sullivan himself, an avowed if unorthodox Catholic, proposes to understand politics, culture, society, and religion itself. His own, properly “conservative” perspective, he writes, stands as a bulwark between two antithetically dangerous forces: “fundamentalism,” which fraudulently claims to be in full possession of the truth, and “nihilism,” which fraudulently denies that truth exists. But, for Sullivan, the former is a much greater enemy than the latter. Fundamentalism, he asserts, turns religion into a “mechanism for social order” or “a regulatory scheme to keep human beings in line.” By thus denying the essentially individual and mystical character of religious experience, it amounts to nothing less than a “profound blasphemy.” Judged according to this standard, it would appear, George W. Bush is the blasphemer-in-chief.
One such principle, according to some conservatives, is the limitation of executive power. But Thomas Jefferson, who himself held a strict-constructionist view of executive authority, violated that view in order to undertake the Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the size of the nation and made it a continental power. Abraham Lincoln made extensive use of executive authority, including the suspension of basic civil liberties, in order to prosecute the Civil War and save the Union. During the Eisenhower administration, the exercise of federal authority to enforce basic civil rights for blacks in the Jim Crow South righted a historical wrong that seems unlikely to have been righted in any other way.
It is in fact a perfectly respectable conservative principle that leadership sometimes demands bold actions undertaken with the right ends in view. This, indeed, is the situation in which we find ourselves today, in what is likely to be a prolonged conflict with determined, well-organized, and well-funded transnational Islamic terrorists. It was one thing to assert, with John Quincy Adams in 1821, that the United States does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy; at the time, in any case, there was hardly much choice about the matter. It is quite another thing to stand on such a dictum in 2006, in the name of limited government, while remaining oblivious to the nature of the challenges before us.
The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, along with the incapacity or unwillingness of international and multilateral organizations to contain or control them and our own growing vulnerability to their use by shadowy proxies or groups accountable to no one, leaves the United States no responsible choice but to act vigorously and even pre-emptively in ways that an older conservatism could never have envisioned and would not have approved. That fact does not make such action imprudent; on the contrary, a failure to act, because of prior ideological commitments to a particular understanding of conservatism, would represent a lapse of prudence, and a betrayal of the core conservative imperative to defend and protect what is one’s own.
Nor is Bush’s insistence on the universal appeal of free institutions out of line with a sensibility that since the American Revolution has envisioned the United States as a carrier of universal values and a beacon to the rest of the world. Hart decries this “Wilsonian” aspect of Bush’s presidency as a form of Jacobinism, promising the forced conversion of the world to American values and practices. But what has Bush said that is not a restatement of what Ronald Reagan said so often and with such conviction? Consider Reagan’s address to the British parliament on June 8, 1982, a self-conscious echo of Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech 36 years earlier:
We must be staunch in our conviction that freedom is not the sole prerogative of a lucky few, but the inalienable and universal right of all human beings. . . . The objective I propose is quite simple to state: to foster the infrastructure of democracy, the system of a free press, unions, political parties, universities, which allows a people to choose their own way to develop their own culture, to reconcile their own differences through peaceful means. This is not cultural imperialism, it is providing the means for genuine self-determination and protection for diversity. Democracy already flourishes in countries with very different cultures and historical experiences. It would be cultural condescension, or worse, to say that any people prefer dictatorship to democracy.
If Bush has abandoned conservatism in saying such things and acting upon them, then what are we to make of Reagan?
As for the inherent tension between religion and conservatism in America, that is real enough, and we hardly need the latest tomes on the subject to tell us about it. As I have pointed out in Commentary, the evangelical Protestantism that gives American religion much of its distinctive form and energy, and that fuels George W. Bush’s own commitments, is a faith of personal and social transformation, constantly seeking to challenge the status quo. Thus, although evangelicalism can be a force of moral conservatism, it can also be a force of moral radicalism, calling into question the justice and equity of the most basic structures of social life. As Hart recognizes, it does not share traditional conservatism’s preference for stasis, prejudice, and custom.
This is no doubt why Bush’s evangelicalism, itself as American as apple pie, makes him so unpopular among many conservatives. They see it, rightly enough, as the source of his involvement of the federal government in promoting educational reform, his faith-based initiative, his African AIDS initiative, and the like–in short, of that “compassionate conservatism” which to them reeks equally of do-goodism and unlimited government. And if that is the case with conservatives who, like Jeffrey Hart, prefer a gentlemanly privatization of faith, it is all the more the case with those who prefer their conservatism without any element of religious faith at all.
The intellectual historian Jerry Z. Muller has argued in the past that a distinction needs to be made between conservatism and religious orthodoxy of any kind, on the grounds that too much admixture of religion may interfere with the “epistemological modesty” and empiricism that Muller regards as essential to conservative thought. Such an idea seems to have taken up residence in the thinking of Andrew Sullivan, who places the principle of “doubt” in the center of his own understanding of conservatism and who regards deviations from it as blasphemous. By this standard, however, nearly all the religious activity of human history has been blasphemous.
A more honest account of that history, as well as of the history of American conservatism, would reflect instead the dictum of Russell Kirk that “conservatives generally believe that there exists a transcendent moral order, to which we ought to try to conform the ways of society.” Religion, after all, is a social and not merely an individual institution–one presumably cannot be a Methodist or Baptist all by oneself–and in the formation of social institutions the past is our indispensable teacher. Conservatives revere tradition not merely because it is, in Sullivan’s bland words, “where you start from,” but because they regard what past generations have discovered and passed along to us as precious. No part of a culture’s traditions is more central than its religious institutions, and none more inseparable from its political and social health.
Here, too, one turns with profit to Reagan. Consider, to pick just one among scores of examples, this portion of his 1983 speech to the National Association of Evangelicals, a speech best known for his naming the Soviet Union as “the focus of evil in the modern world”:
While America’s military strength is important, let me add here that I’ve always maintained that the struggle now going on for the world will never be decided by bombs or rockets, by armies or military might. The real crisis we face today is a spiritual one; at root, it is a test of moral will and faith.
Whittaker Chambers, the man whose own religious conversion made him a witness to one of the terrible traumas of our time, the Hiss-Chambers case, wrote that the crisis of the Western world exists to the degree in which the West is indifferent to God, the degree to which it collaborates in Communism’s attempt to make man stand alone without God. And then he said, for Marxism-Leninism is actually the second-oldest faith, first proclaimed in the Garden of Eden with the words of temptation, “Ye shall be as gods.”
I believe we shall rise to the challenge. I believe that Communism is another sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last–last–pages even now are being written. I believe this because the source of our strength in the quest for human freedom is not material, but spiritual. And because it knows no limitation, it must terrify and ultimately triumph over those who would enslave their fellow man. For in the words of Isaiah: “He giveth power to the faint; and to them that have no might He increaseth strength. But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary.”
Much has been made of the fact that there are Bible studies and prayer meetings going on in the Bush White House. One wonders why this fact is more sinister in the eyes of Bush’s detractors than what Reagan said to the nation and the world in his First Inaugural Address:
I am told that tens of thousands of prayer meetings are being held on this day, and for that I am deeply grateful. We are a nation under God, and I believe God intended for us to be free. It would be fitting and good, I think, if on each Inauguration Day in future years it should be declared a day of prayer.
Evidently Reagan did not think this amounted to the proposing of a Christian theocracy, and neither need we.
Paradoxically, the profusion of books about the death-rattle of conservatism might be better understood as a sign of conservatism’s continuing importance. It is no small matter when writers as diverse as Jeffrey Hart and Andrew Sullivan want to contend for the ownership of, or at least identification with, the label “conservative”–especially when the Democratic party’s most promising younger candidates still run like the wind away from the label “liberal,” or when those of us who teach in colleges and universities observe that our students are nearly always much more conservative than their professors.
But the survival of a political idea depends upon its adaptability, and conservatism has the advantage of a certain flexibility built into its nature. In his great novel “The Leopard” (1958), Giuseppe de Lampedusa places this insight in the mouth of his protagonist Don Fabrizio, a proud and large-gestured Sicilian aristocrat who was fated to live through the abrupt transition from traditional society to the modern democratic order in the late 19th century. “Things must change,” Don Fabrizio reflects, “if they are to remain the same,” and the novel relates his agonizing efforts to accommodate a new world without becoming a slave to it. A similar task lay behind the conservatism of Alexis de Tocqueville, another aristocrat (and would-be statesman) who was fated to live on the cusp of vast historical change, and who sought to preserve what was best about the old order while accepting the inevitability of the new.
American conservatism has these features, too, but also some of its own. For Americans, as for others, a conservative sense of the past is expressed partly through shared stories and sufferings and customs, the mystic chords of memory. But that is only part of the story. In the United States, national identity is expressed as well through loyalty to the country’s founding principles and propositions, and to quasi-scriptural documents, like the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, which seek to express them.
Many of these principles, including the “self-evident” assertion that “all men are created equal” and possess “inalienable rights,” have always been put forward as statements of universal scope, and not merely particular or local values. Their universalistic implications have a tendency, indeed, to cut against the equally vital elements in the conservative tradition that argue for the primacy of the local, the settled, and the particular. The same is true of the culturally dominant Protestant emphasis on the primacy of the individual conscience, which also takes on a universalistic character, putting loyalty to principle above loyalty to settled traditions.
To revere America without honoring these principles would mean revering a different country from the one we actually inhabit. But it is true that the principles are not always themselves conservative, either in their applications or their effects. Hence the inherent tendency of American conservatism to show, as the political scientist Walter Berns has pointed out, a dual aspect, combining the customary and the propositional, the affective and the rational, the particular and the general. One should love one’s country both for what it is and for what it stands for; both because it is one’s own and because it embodies or aspires to the highest and finest ideals.
In the conservative view, love for America cannot mean merely a love for disembodied abstract ideals yet to be achieved, as Richard Rorty and other leftists would have it. But neither can it be merely a primal love for the “fatherland,” a term that has never had much of a place in American discourse. It is in fact both, and the two are inseparable.
If conservatism as a philosophy, or an ideology, is a more various thing in the American context than Bush’s conservative critics allow, conservatism in American politics is less an ideology than a coalition. It has many different flavors and strands, and there is no sense in pretending that they do not occasionally conflict with one another, or tug at the fabric of the whole. As in any coalition, not all of the pieces fit together coherently. Rather, they resemble in some respects the structure of a crossword puzzle, in which not all lines intersect, but all are nonetheless connected.
This is always frustrating to those who want their ideology neat and pure. But show me a political movement that has a clear, crisp, unambiguous, and systematic philosophy and I will show you a movement that will lose, and will deserve to lose. The most successful coalition in modern American political history, the New Deal coalition wrought by Franklin Roosevelt, lasted for nearly four decades. It was a political philosopher’s nightmare but a political scientist’s joy, a hodgepodge of conflicting political principles and starkly opposed regional coalitions, the most notable of which was the now nearly incomprehensible alliance of Northern liberals and Southern segregationists.
In any event, a coalition’s strength is partly a function of the force and quality of its opposition. The fissures and conflicts within conservatism are getting so much attention now because conservatism is still, intellectually speaking, where the principal action remains. So long as the Democratic party continues down the road it has been following, led by its aging left-wing lions and lionesses, funded and directed by the most extreme and irresponsible elements in its ranks, and finding clarity only in discrediting George W. Bush and regaining office, conservatives will always have plenty to unify around. For their own part, so long as conservatives are able to remember Ronald Reagan as a leader who not only embodied the distinctive characteristics of American conservatism but who finessed its antinomies and persevered against the contempt and condescension of his own era–including among some of his allies–they can yet regain their bearings and prevail.
Mr. McClay, who holds the SunTrust Chair of Excellence in the Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, will be spending the spring 2007 semester as senior Fulbright lecturer in American history at the University of Rome. His most recent book is Figures in the Carpet: Finding the Human Person in the American Past (Eerdmans).
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