The elusive true conservatism
1. The present situation
“Donald Trump is not a conservative. Nor are the leaders of the Republican Party over which Trump presides. Prominent GOP figures such as Kentucky senator Mitch McConnell seem to adhere to no worldview worthy of the name.” The provocateurs in right-wing media don’t aim to promote conservative values, but to rabble-rouse. “Indeed, allowing Trump, McConnell, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham and Rush Limbaugh, et al, to present themselves as exemplary conservatives testifies to the pervasive corruption of contemporary American political discourse.” More to the point, it reveals the state of politics on the right.
Bacevich states that, in assembling the collection, he “excluded altogether anyone associated with “what in the last quarter of the twentieth century became known as neoconservatism,” because its adherents “were never genuinely conservative.” Seemingly in contradiction, American Conservatism includes a contribution by Irving Kristol. As the editorial preface to Kristol’s essay notes, he was called the “godfather of neoconservatism.”
In reaching back as far as 1899 for material, Bacevich rejects one theory of modern conservatism, that it is, or began, as a reaction to the New Deal. One of his contributors, Frank S. Meyer, writing in 1965, set forth that argument: “The crystallization in the past dozen years or so of an American conservative movement is a delayed reaction to revolutionary transformation of America that began with the election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932.” (It also is one of George Will’s theories in The Conservative Sensibility: “Contemporary conservatism was born in reaction to the New Deal and subsequent excessive enlargement of the state.”) Bacevich recognizes that reaction, although he doesn’t regard it as a new departure, let alone anything to build upon. Referring to the New Deal and to the rise of Nazi Germany, he observes: “Broadly speaking, in each case, the analysis and prescriptions offered by leading conservatives proved at least inadequate where not downright misguided.”
He adds: “What little most Americans know about conservatives after World War II does not make for a flattering or reassuring record.” He mentions Senator McCarthy’s “reckless crusade” as an example. However, that dismal record was the result of “self-described conservatives violating genuine conservative precepts.”
American Conservatism takes this position as to origins: ”The modern American conservative tradition — roughly dating from the dawn of the twentieth century — emerged as a reaction to modernity itself.”
. . . Modernity meant machines, speed, and radical change — taboos lifted, bonds loosened, and, according to Max Weber, “the disenchantment of the world.” [The last, presumably, refers to the decline in religious belief]. It induced, and perhaps required, centralization. States acquired power. Bureaucracies thickened. Banks, corporations, rail systems, and industrial enterprises grew to mammoth proportions. War became more destructive.Perhaps because of this theory of early origins, or perhaps because of the condition of recent conservative thought, of the forty-four essays only four are from this century.
Modernity promised liberation and for many did improve the quality of everyday life. Yet it subjected the individual to immense and only dimly comprehended forces. In exchange for choice, it demanded conformity. Modernity demolished tradition, or rendered it irrelevant. What remained of the past . . was drained of substantive relevance.
Whichever starting point is chosen, one might ask why we should seek to reinstate political principles so reactive and, in the case of this version, reactive to developments more than a century old.
Another attempt to define conservatism, Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind: from Burke to Eliot, goes back still further, to the eighteenth century, in finding conservatism’s roots in the writings of Edmund Burke. However, both Bacevich and Kirk present conservatism as an enduring political position, not merely a reaction, and not the object of an antiquarian study, so let’s look at their attempts to define it.
3. Principles of conservatism
Section headings in American Conservatism provide one list: “The Fundamentals: Tradition, Religion, Morality and the Individual;” ”Liberty and Power: the State and the Free Market;” “The Ties That Bind: the Local and Familiar;” and “The Exceptional Nation: America and the World.”
Bacevich offers another list in his Introduction. He acknowledges that “the thinkers featured in these pages frequently disagree with one another,” but “most American conservatives, most of the time, subscribe to a common set or propositions. . .” They “center on” the following:
* a commitment to individual liberty, tempered by the conviction that true freedom entails more than simply an absence of restraint;Whether most conservatives subscribe to that list seems to me to be doubtful. The first part of the third item is certainly a core conservative attitude, but where are the conservatives who display a “stewardship for Creation,” i.e., a concern about climate change? The fifth declares that conservatives believe in the market, which certainly is true, but where is their “wariness of the market’s corrosive impact on human values?” The inherent tendency of the market to ignore such impacts calls into question whether it should be considered a core conservative principle.
* a belief in limited government, fiscal responsibility, and the rule of law;
* veneration of our cultural inheritance combined with a sense of stewardship for Creation;
* a reluctance to discard or tamper with traditional social arrangements;
* respect for the market as the generator of wealth combined with a wariness of the market’s corrosive impact on human values;
* a deep suspicion of utopian promises, rooted in an appreciation of the recalcitrance of history and humankind’s recurring susceptibility to hubris.
Although that list refers only to “the market,” the usual reference, as reflected in one of the section headings, is to the “free market,” emphasizing absence of regulation. (The index to American Conservatism has no entries for “market” or “the market,” and none for”regulation,” but many for “free market,” reflecting the typical conservative formulation). I think we can agree that, in general, a market system works well — that is an empirical conclusion, not a political principle — but only if properly regulated.
American Conservatism includes a 1982 essay by Russell Kirk, which offers this definition of conservatism:
First, co nservatives generally believe that there exists a transcendent moral order, to which we ought to try to conform the ways of society. . .It seems odd that Kirk’s formula is included in this collection. True, American Conservatism is designed to describe a long tradition but also, presumably, is designed to persuade us that conservative thought is useful and constructive today. As Bacevich puts it, “My firm conviction is this: to understand how the United States arrived at its present confused and divided straits — and perhaps even to begin navigating back to less troubled waters — the American conservative tradition offers insights worth considering. I invite readers of this volume to consider that proposition.”
Second, conservatives uphold the principle of social continuity. . . . Order and justice and freedom, they believe, are the artificial products of a long and painful social experience, the results of centuries of trial and reflection and sacrifice. . . . Burke’s reminder of the social necessity for prudent change is in the minds of conservatives. But necessary change, they argue, ought to be gradual . .
Third, conservatives believe in what may be called the principle of prescription. . . that is, of things established by immemorial usage . . . . There exist rights of which the chief sanction is their antiquity — including rights in property, often. Similarly, morals are prescriptive in great part. . . . In politics we do well to abide by precedent and precept and even prejudice, for “the great, mysterious incorporation of the human race” has acquired habits, customs and conventions of remote origin which are woven into the fabric of our social being . . .
Fourth, conservatives are guided by their principles of prudence. . . . Any public measure ought to be judged by its probable long run consequences, not merely by temporary advantage or popularity. . . .
Fifth, conservatives pay attention to the principle of variety. They feel affection for the proliferating intricacy of long-established social institutions and modes of life, as distinguished from the narrowing uniformity and deadening egalitarianism of radical systems. For the preservation of a healthy diversity in any civilization, there must survive orders and classes, differences in material condition, and many sorts of inequality. . . .
Sixth, . . To aim for utopia is to end in disaster . . . All that we reasonably can expect is a tolerably ordered, just and free society in which some evils, maladjustments and suffering continue to lurk. . . .
Kirk’s list of characteristics was a serious attempt to define conservatism, and some of it deserves attention, but its sanction of prejudice under item Third, its defense of “orders and classes, differences in material condition, and many sorts of inequality” under item Fifth, and even its casual attitude toward “evils, maladjustments and suffering” in item Sixth make it suspect as support for contemporary conservatism.
Kirk reiterated his defense of social classes in The Conservative Mind. There he set forth another six-part list, one described as the “six canons of conservative thought.” The third is: “Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes as against the notion of a ‘classless society’. . . . If natural distinctions are effaced among men, oligarchs fill the vacuum. ” To conservatives, “equality of condition. . . means servitude and boredom.”
Contrast Kirk’s defense of orders and classes with this passage from an essay by Herbert Hoover: the American form of individualism requires that “we keep the social solution free from frozen strata of classes.”
4. Inherent problems with the proposed definitions
Kirk’s comments seem to reveal what many of us suspect about “conservatism” as often practiced, that it is a defense of privilege, influence and wealth. “Liberty” or “freedom” appear over and over again in American Conservatism, and can be a excuses for that defense. One of the essays notes the risk: Liberty “should always be associated with progress, never with stagnation and the mere maintenance of the social and economic status quo, It will be a bad day for any country when the idea of liberty can be plausibly represented as a screen for wealth and special privilege.”
American Conservatism presents a variety of views. As noted, and as Bacevich concedes, they sometimes are inconsistent with one another. In a history of conservatism, that would pose no problem, but in argument in favor of adopting conservative policies, it seems self-defeating. Some of the opinions are in direct opposition to one another. For example the collection includes an essay by Murray Rothbard which is a libertarian attack on the state, but William Buckley dismissively refers to “Dr. Rothbard and his merry anarchists” and “their fanatical antistatism.”
Milton Friedman’s essay presents an idyllic view of the free market: “coordination through the markets is a system of voluntary co-operation in which all parties to the bargain gain.” By contrast, Wendell Berry, discussing political “centers” and “peripheries,” says this: “above all, now, as a sort of center of centers, is the global ‘free market’ economy of the great corporations, the periphery of which is everywhere, and for its periphery this center expresses no concern and acknowledges no responsibility.” Here is Irving Kristol, commenting on the views of Friedrich von Hayak: “I conclude, despite Professor Hayak’s ingenious analysis, that men cannot accept the historical accidents of the marketplace — seen merely as accidents — as the basis for an enduring and legitimate entitlement to power, privilege and property.”
The last section of the book offers another example of inconsistency, presenting opposing views on United States involvement in foreign affairs. The editorial prefaces to the essays describe Theodore Roosevelt as “an unapologetic imperialist,” label Charles Beard’s position as “anti-interventionist,” describe James Burnham as a “stalwart Cold Warrior,” and note William Pfaff’s “skepticism toward our nation’s enthusiasm for foreign entanglements.” The age of the selections there is especially striking; of eight essays, only one is later than 1982, only two after 1957.
An earlier book by Bacevich provides further inconsistency on this topic. The last section of American Conservatism is captioned “The Exceptional Nation: America and the World,” but his earlier work, The Limits of Power, is subtitled The End of American Exceptionalism. Do we then take the section heading in the current book merely to describe an earlier era? The age of most of the essays might suggest that, but again: what becomes of the intent to persuade us that conservatism has any present application?
Also, one of the contributors to the last section is Ronald Reagan. In The Limits of Power, Bacevich describes him as a faux-conservative. That comment is in the context of Reagan’s domestic views, but there follows an extended criticism of his views on foreign affairs, culminating in this: “In Washington, confidence that a high-quality military establishment, dexterously employed, could enable the United States, always with high-minded intentions, to organize the world to its liking had essentially become a self-evident truth. In this malignant expectation — not in any of the conservative ideals for which he is retrospectively venerated — lies the essence of the Reagan legacy.”
5. Another way of looking at conservatism
Difficulty in defining conservatism and inconsistency of policy positions supports the conclusion that it ought not to be regarded as a political platform but rather as a general way of looking at public issues. Rather than a program with specific aims, it would be more usefully regarded as an attitude toward values, standards, traditions, social structures, continuity and the pace of change.
Bacevich more or less acknowledges this, one page before his list of conservative propositions: “Conservatism is more akin to an ethos or a disposition than to a fixed ideology.” Even Kirk did so: “conservatism is not an ideology, but instead a mode of looking at human nature and society.” However, Frank S. Meyer took the opposite view: “This essay is concerned with conservatism as a social and political movement — not as a cast of mind or a temperamental inclination.”
An extreme form of conservatism as an attitude is William F. Buckley’s motto for his publication, The National Review, that it “stands athwart history, yelling Stop.” However, Bacevich notes that the actual aim of the magazine was “not to stop history, but to nudge it in a positive direction. Much the same can be said about conservatism itself.” That, and not a dubious list of policies to be imposed on society, should be its contribution.
A realistic conservatism necessarily involves the acceptance of change. Kirk acknowledged that: “Burke . . . knew that change in society is natural, inevitable, and beneficial . . .” The statesman’s duty “is to reconcile innovation and prescriptive truth, to lead the waters of novelty into the canals of custom.” More simply, he refers to Burke’s principle that “the able statesman is one who combines with a disposition to preserve an ability to reform.” This too militates against a list of political aims such as limited government.
Criticizing conservative thought does not lead to an acceptance of liberalism or progressivism, as currently practiced. The present political situation in this country overwhelmingly is the fault of those on the right, but our general state of decadence and confusion is the result of attitudes across the spectrum. As to the right, the replacement of its anarchic behavior by genuinely conservative principles and attitudes certainly would be a step forward.
<br>1. <i>American Conservatism</i>, Introduction, p. xiv
<br>2. Introduction, p. xx
<br>3. “The Recrudescent American Conservatism” in <i>American Conservatism</i> p. 31
<br>4. <i>The Conservative Sensibility</i>, p.296
<br>5. Introduction, p. xv
<br>6. Introduction, p. xvii-xviii
<br>7. Introduction, p. xiii. The first paragraph offers a somewhat puzzling list. Was expanded rail a bad thing? Did opposition to large corporations become a core conservative principle?
<br>8. Introduction, p. xviii-xix
<br>9. “Conservatism Defined,” from <i>The Portable Conservative Reader</i>, (1982), in <i>American Conservatism</i>, pp. 9-11
<br>10. Introduction, p. xxi
<br>11. <i>The Conservative Mind</i>, Seventh Edition (1985). pp. 8-9. His comments on orders and classes, differences in material condition, many sorts of inequality, and the lurking of evils, maladjustments and suffering, taken from his book <i>The Politics of Prudence</i> (1993), are set forth again at https://kirkcenter.org/ conservatism/ten-conservative-principles/.
<br>12. “American Individualism” in <i>American Conservatism</i>, p. 78
<br>13. William Henry Chambering, “The Choice Before Civilization,” in <i>American Conservatism</i>, p.117
<br>14. “From <i>For a New Liberty</i>, in <i>American Conservatism</i>, p 397
<br>15. “Notes Toward an Empirical Definition of Conservatism” in <i>American Conservatism</i>, p 18
<br>16. “Capitalism and Freedom” in <i>American Conservatism</i> pp.369-82
<br>17. “Local Knowledge in the Age of Information” in <i>American Conservatism</i>, p.481
<br>18. ” When Virtue Loses All Her Loveliness’: Some Reflections on Capitalism and ‘the Free Society’ “ in <i>American Conservatism</i>, p. 390
<br>19. <i>The Limits of Power</i> (2008), pp. 36. 43
<br>20. Introduction, p. xviii
<br>21. <i>The Conservative Mind</i>, p. 490
<br>22. “The Recrudescent American Conservatism” in <i>American Conservatism</i>, p. 28
<br>23. Introduction, p. xvii
<br>24. <i>The Conservative Mind</i>, p. 130
<br>25. “Conservatism Defined: in <i>American Conservatism</i>, p. 7