What's Wrong with Conservatism

For American conservatives, this is a strange period of anticlimax and indecision. Crime rates are down, welfare rolls are shrinking, the federal budget is in surplus, and there are fewer Democratic senators, congressmen, governors, and state legislators than in decades. Even more miraculously, the Soviet Union lies in history’s dustbin. Yet despite these glad tidings, conservatives are not rejoicing or even gloating. Nor are they aggressively following up their successes, pressing liberalism on all fronts and striving for a decisive political breakthrough. Like General McClellan outside Richmond, conservatives are proud to have come so far--but, uncertain of the kind of victory they seek and feeling an infinite need for reinforcements, they are afraid to risk going much farther.

This frustrating paralysis does not stem from conservatives’ having exhausted all their strategic or even tactical objectives, needless to say. The problem is their confusion about what their ultimate goals are, about the purposes that their strategy and tactics are supposed to serve. What is plaguing conservatism, in other words, is that its sense of mission--its devotion to a high, clear, and overarching cause--has deserted it, and recognition of this fact has begun to sink in among conservatives and liberals alike. Absent such a galvanizing purpose, even the most compelling conservative policies lose their urgency, and even the most faithful conservative politicians find themselves adrift. A glance at recent events will illustrate the point.

American conservatives have always been more confident of what they were against than what they were for. Sparked by their opposition to President Clinton’s health care plan, for example, right-wing Republicans won an enormous electoral victory, capturing the House of Representatives and the Senate in 1994. Hopeful that American liberalism, like Soviet Communism, was historically doomed and needed only a final shove to topple it into the grave, Republicans led by Newt Gingrich (the first Republican Speaker of the House in 40 years) tried to convert the public’s rejection of ClintonCare into approval of the Contract With America, the initial installment of what they promised would be a positive agenda for conservative governance.

After most of the Contract’s provisions had been acted on in the first hundred days of the new Congress, however, no new agenda came forward. The new Republican congressional majorities extemporized, lurching wildly from confrontation to conciliation with Clinton, apparently in the hope that if they just played for time the internal contradictions of liberalism would bring him down. Clinton was no Gorbachev, however, and his easy reelection, combined with the G.O.P.'s own sharpening divisions, left Gingrich and his allies dismayed. The future had failed them, and so had Gingrich’s scientific futurism, based on his (oddly Marxist) confidence that a new mode of production (the microchip) would inevitably yield new relations of production, which would "demassify" the economy and society and undermine Big Government. Touted by Gingrich as the basis of a new conservative epoch, this technological tidal wave neither swept Clinton out to sea nor transformed the conservative coalition.

Still, the Contract With America was an admission that the Right needed new goals in order to move forward, some inspiriting goals beyond merely the defeat of liberal measures and liberal candidates. The deeper problem was that the Contract contained no such goals, inasmuch as its recommendations never rose above the level of specific policies. Its genesis in an off-year congressional election showed; it looked like (because it was) a document cobbled together by the House Republican Conference. The Contract lacked the unity and comprehensiveness that presidential politics at its best forces on political parties. At the deepest level, however, the Contract failed to spark a larger conservative resurgence because it was itself more an abdication than an assertion of conservative principle. Vetted by political pollsters and honed by focus groups, it contained nothing that was unlikeable--e.g., it pledged that a Republican Congress would hold a vote on term limits, but it neither endorsed nor rejected any specific term limits plan.

To be sure, the Contract contained some sound provisions and had at least the merit of demonstrating that Republicans could keep their word--a useful corrective to the fiasco of President George Bush’s 1990 budget deal. But it hardly amounted, in the Contract’s own language, to "the end of government that is too big, too intrusive, and too easy with the public’s money." At any rate, Bob Dole’s feckless 1996 presidential campaign neutralized whatever good the Contract might have accomplished and re-emphasized its main vice. By then, "No Clear Principles" seemed to have replaced "No New Taxes" as the latest conservative Republican slogan.

So to put it mildly, conservatives have not yet achieved the top-to-bottom political realignment that they, and the Republican Party, have longed for ever since the New Deal. Despite the electoral victories of 1980 and 1994, the American public has not trusted the G.O.P. with simultaneous control of the House, Senate, and the presidency in more than four decades -- not since 1952-54. Facts are stubborn things, as Ronald Reagan used to say, and the failure to win an enduring realignment suggests that conservatism itself has failed, somehow, to engage the public’s deepest passions and principles.

In frustration, conservatives frequently turn on their own. The desperate hunt for the offending or off-putting strand within the movement usually corners the Religious Right, but libertarians come in for their share of criticism, too. These dissensions remind us that it is possible to have conservatives without having a unified conservative movement. Indeed, this was the situation in America before the mid-1950s. If it is not quite the plight of conservatives today, it may soon be again. In what follows, accordingly, let us examine how the conservative movement came into being as both an intellectual and political force, what its character was and why it is now so perplexed, and what lessons we can draw for the revitalization of American conservatism.

The First American Conservatives

The term "conservative" began to be used commonly in late 19th century America in order to distinguish the defenders of sound money and traditional constitutional and political arrangements from their sundry opponents--Populists, labor radicals, urban Progressives, and democratic tubthumpers like William Jennings Bryan. Conservatives were then the Establishment, or at least were thought to be, and hence did not need to launch a "movement." Confusingly, however, these "conservatives" included everyone from the most corrupt apologists for big-city political machines to the most high-minded defenders of constitutional rectitude. In part, this lumping together was deliberate, an effort to taint the latter with the former’s base motives. At its best, however, this conservatism had roots going back to Abraham Lincoln and to the Federalist-Whig interpretation of the Constitution, and its most serious exponents--e.g., Stephen J. Field, Elihu Root, William Howard Taft--were renowned statesmen and judges. By and large, these men were legal or constitutional thinkers, a strength that was also their weakness. Although they fought courageously against a growing variety of novel assaults on the Constitution, they were usually on the strategic defensive. In an era whose main intellectual currents were increasingly hostile to individual rights and limited government, these eminent practitioners were unable to face down the philosophical challenges to the order they loved so well.

A sign of this debility was the increasing confusion, by the end of the 19th century, about the meaning of serious conservatism. Teddy Roosevelt spoke for many when he asserted that the true conservative was the reformer, the man in favor of gradual change or adaptation in order to keep American government in tune with the times. Reform beckoned as the sensible middle way between standpattism and Revolution, and though he wasn’t in the habit of quoting Edmund Burke, T.R. was in effect echoing Burke’s admonition that "the state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation." But Burke never meant that every change was a reform, or that all reforms were created equal. Besides, in America, with a written Constitution that wisely was made very difficult to amend, conservative reform usually endeavors (in Walter Berns’s useful phrase) to keep the times in tune with the Constitution rather than the Constitution in tune with the times. For the Constitution and its principles are grounded in human nature, which is the unchanging ground of our constantly changing experiences. And so the true conservative is not in the first instance the reformer who advocates gradual change but the man who knows the difference between what is changeable and what is not--the man who knows the limits of reform.

But in the 20th century, this constitutionalist conservatism fell into a profound decline. Calvin Coolidge and Supreme Court Justice George Sutherland were perhaps its last major exponents. By the mid-1930s, the American Right was united in its opposition to Franklin D. Roosevelt but otherwise humbled, scattered, and confused, like the parts of a defeated army. There were conservatives aplenty, but no conservative movement.

Conservatism as an Intellectual Movement

The first stirrings of renewal were intellectual. Around the end of the Second World War, a series of scholarly books began to appear that would gradually transform the terms of political debate. Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom (1944) led the way, followed soon by seminal works by Richard Weaver, Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin, and Robert Nisbet. Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind (1953) brought the notion of an embattled conservative legacy, not to mention the very term "conservative," to new prominence. A series of books by James Burnham emphasized the ominous new strategic threat of Communism; and Whittaker Chambers’s autobiographical Witness (1952) elevated the anti-Communist cause into a transcendent battle for the soul of modern man. Harry V. Jaffa’s Crisis of the House Divided (1959) and Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom (1962) added important arguments on the nature of political and economic freedom.

But it was William F. Buckley, Jr., who set about to combine the factions of the American Right into a coherent movement informed by this new scholarship. National Review, the magazine that he founded in 1955 and edited for thirty years, was dedicated to shaking up the conformist status quo--to refuting the relativism and social utopianism that had seduced American professors and politicians. Fresh from college and his early fame as a critic of campus liberalism (God and Man at Yale had appeared in 1951), Buckley saw that the Left had conquered American politics by first besieging and occupying the high ground of the academy and journalism. Since "ideas rule the world," Buckley observed in the first issue, "the ideologues, having won over the intellectual class, simply walked in and started to run things." He concluded that an intellectual counterrevolution would be necessary before conservatism could organize as a political force. The diverse editors that Buckley assembled--ranging from traditionalists like Kirk to the most famous libertarian of the day, Frank Chodorov, and including powerful thinkers like Burnham and Willmoore Kendall--were testimony to the extent of National Review’s ambitions.

A movement must have a destination, of course, a shared goal by which its members define themselves and measure their progress. What were the principles that united these independent thinkers? Frank Meyer, a senior editor, claimed to have synthesized the precepts of libertarians and traditionalists into a new formula he called "fusionism," which became the magazine’s unofficial credo. Meyer argued that both liberty and order (based on traditional morality) were important, that each depended to some degree on the other, and that the two could be squared by assigning to the state primarily the function of defending individual freedom, and to society (families, churches, schools, etc.) the task of teaching morality to its members. For philosophical support, Meyer leaned on Aristotle, who despite his reputation as a defender of order had actually maintained that virtuous acts had to be voluntary, and thus that virtue (Meyer claimed) could not be coerced by state action.

Yet Aristotle’s contention depended on a factor that Meyer downplayed or ignored, namely, that moral virtue is a kind of habit and that a moral man’s choices are shaped by his habits or character. So, for example, government cannot hesto-presto make someone into a just man, but by the influence of salutary laws it can encourage men to make themselves just. By rewarding just and punishing unjust actions, the law compels and teaches at the same time, holding citizens responsible for their actions (thus acknowledging human freedom) but also shaping their character, which is the product of their actions and choices over time. Even if it wanted to, then, government could not be indifferent to moral issues, since in punishing injustice in business dealings, cowardice in the armed forces, sexual abuse within families, and so forth, the law acts implicitly to direct our freedom towards certain moral norms or virtues.

Although impressive, Meyer’s fusionism thus missed many of the hard questions about morality and politics. Like many traditionalists, Meyer loosely equated morality and religion, which, though overlapping and often mutually reinforcing, are not the same thing. And like most libertarians, he drew too bright a line between law and morality. In fact, his whole definition of the problem of freedom versus morality was fundamentally libertarian. Whatever its philosophical shortcomings, however, Meyer’s fusionism provided a rough-and-ready basis on which to bring together the principal factions of conservative intellectuals in the 1950s and 1960s. In truth, these factions were not so much fused as glued together for the sake of fighting liberalism and, a fortiori, Communism. Communism threatened individualism, liberty, tradition, virtue--everything worth conserving; it was "the century’s most blatant force of satanic utopianism," Buckley declared in National Review’s statement of principles. And so conservatism, consisting of "strange, discordant, and even, hostile elements...gathered from the four winds" (to borrow Lincoln’s description of the Republican party in the 1850s), coalesced, under Buckley’s and his allies’ influence, into the conservative movement. For the first time in this century, and after two waves of liberalism had washed over the country (about which more anon), conservatism became a self-conscious fighting force.

To be sure, libertarians did not cease to think of themselves as libertarians, and traditionalists remained loyal to their traditions; but acting in concert blurred some of the lines some of the time. The overwhelming practical imperative was to resist liberalism at home and defeat Communism abroad, and it would have been wrong to try to insist on other principles or conditions for such a necessary alliance. Against such enemies, then, each major conservative faction agreed to compromise: libertarians had to accept certain aspects of the "national security state," e.g., the draft, high defense spending, foreign alliances, an internal security apparatus; and traditionalists had to make their peace with the mass scale of modern life and warfare, the industrial economy, and the necessities of economic and scientific innovation.

The final piece of the conservative intellectual movement fell into place in the late 1960s when the neoconservatives began to discover their common outlook. Famously described as liberals who had been mugged by reality, most (though not all) of the neoconservatives had been liberal scholars whose indignation over the excesses of campus radicals and McGovernite Democrats had launched them on a pilgrimage to the Right. Intellectually, they represented a different and undogmatic kind of fusionism, blending a Burkean appreciation for the latent functions of social institutions and the unintended (usually bad) consequences of liberal reform, with a Chicago School-like commitment to the methods of positivist social science. Although their respect for religious and philosophical traditions moderated this enthusiasm for social science, their principal contributions and discoveries were beholden to it nonetheless. In short, they launched a critique of liberal rationalism from the standpoint not so much of tradition but of a sceptical pragmatism. Armed with their own influential journals (especially Commentary and The Public Interest), the neoconservatives quickly established new standards in the scholarly analysis of everything from Great Society programs to Communist foreign policy.

The neoconservatives’ defense of the "mediating structures" of civil society led them eventually to thoughtful reappraisals of the family, religion, and democratic capitalism. While extolling capitalism’s freedom and creativity, however, most expressed reservations about its effects on human character (as did many traditionalists) and endorsed the welfare state’s "ethic of common provision" as a useful corrective. This bold recommendation of a "conservative welfare state" dwindled over time to a defense of Social Security and little more, mostly because the inefficiency and inequity of government welfare and health care programs became increasingly evident. Thus the gap between neoconservatives and other conservatives narrowed. If Mark Gerson, a close student of neoconservatism, is correct, then as a separate intellectual force neoconservatism was a one-generation phenomenon. Its sons and daughters simply call themselves conservatives.

Even so, it was a very important phenomenon that marked conservatism both intellectually and politically. It fueled a new kind of dissatisfaction with the reigning formulas of both libertarianism and traditionalism, and its hard-headed analysis of public policy combined with its scorn for the New Left made it, to a degree, a kind of intellectual defense of ethnic and working-class Democrats’ worldview. Without exactly intending it, neoconservatism helped prepare the way, and even show the way, for Reagan Democrats (as they would later be called) to cross over into a grand conservative coalition.

Conservatism as a Political Movement

This coalition represented the consummation of a long political process, the roots of which stretched back a quarter century to modern conservatism’s founding. Although National Review had concerned itself mainly with distilling the intellectual case for conservatism, it did not neglect practical politics. The magazine’s firm rejection of the pre-War Right’s isolationism helped set the boundaries of the national debate on the Cold War. Its refusal to tolerate anti-Jewish and nativist polemics and Birchite conspiracy theories was essential to the nascent movement’s political health and sanity. More concretely, Buckley and his circle midwifed Young Americans for Freedom and the New York Conservative Party, on whose ticket Buckley would run for New York City mayor in 1965; Buckley’s brother-in-law, Brent Bozell, became Barry Goldwater’s legislative assistant and speechwriter (and ghosted his boss’s The Conscience of a Conservative); and William A. Rusher, NR’s publisher, conspired with Clif White and other conservatives in order to launch Goldwater’s presidential campaign. Quite independently, Goldwater’s backers in California, led by Holmes Tuttle and Henry Salvatori, hit upon Ronald Reagan as a pitchman only to realize that they had discovered a political talent far greater than the 1964 nominee’s. As a practical matter, of course, conservatism’s electoral future lay in the South and West, and a small New York-based magazine could not hope to influence it in detail. Still, Salvatori had been one of NR’s initial investors, and Reagan one of its earliest subscribers, so the political effects of Buckley’s project were far-reaching. He often said that he wanted to do for conservatism what The New Republic had done for liberalism -- help to define it and guide it as a political creed--and Buckley accomplished this and much else.

It was Ronald Reagan, however, who led the way in adapting fusionist conservatism to the new political circumstances created by the cultural liberalism of the Sixties and Seventies. He tempered Barry Goldwater’s relentless attacks on the welfare state and his adherence to states’ rights (Goldwater had opposed the Brown decision because he thought the federal government had no power over education). Whereas Goldwater had acerbicly criticized the New Deal, Reagan claimed Franklin Roosevelt as his spiritual predecessor, albeit the somewhat fanciful F.D.R. of balanced budgets and lean government. Still, Reagan thought it important to reach out to a larger constituency, and invoking a Reaganite Roosevelt was one way to do it. Goldwater had called for dramatic cuts in federal spending, with tax cuts following apace, and Reagan did too in 1976; but by 1980 he had decided to lead with tax cuts, even promising that they would be revenue-neutral (i.e., that government spending would not have to shrink because of them). President Reagan did propose cuts--few of which he achieved--in domestic spending and in the number of federal agencies. But at the center of his economic agenda were cutting, and later flattening, tax rates, and moderating growth in the money supply--policies designed to promote long-term economic prosperity, to reaffirm the virtues of risk-taking and entrepreneurship, and to restore the economic and moral underpinnings of the American middle class, which had been dangerously eroded by the long stagflation of the 1970s.

In the 1964 campaign, Goldwater had indicted liberalism for the morally corrupting effects of farm price supports, aid to education, Social Security payments, and other federal benefits. While Goldwater’s complaints had lost none of their libertarian cogency in 1980, more glaring abuses had in the meantime been thrust into view. The Supreme Court had elaborated a series of activist decisions narrowing religion’s role in public life, mandating busing for racial balance, legalizing abortion in all 50 states, extending constitutional protections to pornography--and effectively propelling millions of evangelical Christians and ethnic Democrats into the conservative movement. These new social conservatives were worried about the country’s moral tone and the perverse effects of the Counterculture--not the decline of agrarianism, the abandonment of aristocracy, or the other laments of many traditionalist intellectuals.

Reagan welcomed the social conservatives into the movement and they became an essential part of his electoral coalition. Building on Goldwater’s success with Southern Democrats, Reagan had already proved in his two winning races for the California governorship that by taking a tough stance towards campus protesters and urban rioters, he could attract significant Democratic and independent support. Unlike Richard Nixon, who rarely transcended the law-and-order aspects of these issues, Reagan knew how to parlay them into larger concerns over the moral law and order in America. In the 1980 presidential campaign, he broadened Goldwater’s flinty individualism and Nixon’s fealty to the Silent Majority into a warm and winning appeal to "all those across the land who share a community of values embodied in these words: family, work, neighborhood, peace, and freedom." President Reagan’s policies were controversial but he was able to reassure public opinion while dividing it: his invocations of America’s meaning and destiny--the "shining city on a hill"--lingered long after the controversies had been forgotten. Though he succeeded brilliantly at restoring America’s self-confidence, however, he fared less well at rehabilitating the conservative movement, which admired more than it emulated him. At any rate, Reagan’s Americanism was potent enough to delegitimize liberalism but not to reconstruct conservatism along more permanently attractive lines. For most conservatives, the "evil empire" always loomed larger than the "shining city on a hill."

In Search of Conservative Principles

During the long decades of the Cold War, the conservative intellectual movement provided a rich political education for conservative candidates and officeholders. With the Cold War’s end, however, it is increasingly clear that the conservative movement as we have known it is over. More and more, conservatism lacks a common message or focus, and the education it offers citizens and politicians is splintered into myriad discussions of specific policies. The range and intelligence of these discussions is unprecedented, but absent a sustained attention to general principles, their overall effect is to trivialize conservatism’s moral and political ambitions and, all too often, to emphasize conservatives’ disagreements rather than the common goals they might be cultivating. Nor is there a political figure on the scene with anything like Reagan’s stature who could, after absorbing the movement’s teachings, modulate them with a view to America’s "national greatness."

Hence the conservative predicament. When faced by urgent threats from a common enemy, conservatives were strong and united; blessed with peace, prosperity, and the freedom in which to focus on their internal differences, they have grown restive and uncertain. All the good enemies are gone, complain conservatives, because after Soviet Communism’s demise American liberalism seems much less threatening. Liberals have been chastened, at long last, by the discovery that the vectors of history do not point inevitably to the Left, and in response, many have "triangulated," that is, tacked to the center. They practice the sincerest form of flattery by imitating conservative policies--except that they do so insincerely, all the while praying for history’s winds to revive, fill their sails, and carry them leftward again. No matter, for so long as conservatism remains basically anti-liberalism, the weakened condition of American liberals enfeebles conservatives, too, paradoxically.

But what more could American conservatism be, other than liberalism’s nemesis? To begin with, it could be profoundly American. The most striking feature of traditionalist conservatism has always been how alienated it is from the roots of its own, that is, the American political tradition. Take Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind, for instance, still the best expression of the traditionalist school. Kirk enshrined a few Americans in his conservative pantheon--John Adams and John C. Calhoun, most prominently--but he had little room for George Washington, Thomas Jefferson (whose "a priori concepts" and "French egalitarian theories" Kirk distrusted), James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, or Abraham Lincoln, to name a few. Not that he renounced them, exactly, but he simply did not find in them the conservative disposition that he wished to celebrate, nor the conservative principles that he wished to canonize. In this respect, Kirk implicitly acknowledged distinctions that many of his readers may have missed. For none of these thoughtful American statesmen endorsed the quasi-Burkean love of prescription, inequality, and the Romantic-organic view of society that Kirk himself embraced.

Kirk’s conservatism, therefore, was never peculiarly American. It was consciously Anglo-American; more specifically, it took Burke’s useful fiction that the British Constitution had been a product of slow evolutionary growth and adaptation, and applied the nostrum to America, whose Revolution then became a "conservative restoration of colonial prerogatives." So much for the shot heard ’round the world! Until about 1774, Americans had in fact argued in favor of various conservative adaptations of the British Constitution to colonial conditions; but from 1776 on, they insisted on new, emphatically republican constitutions of their own devising, based on the unalienable or natural rights of man. To quote Kirk’s hero, John Adams, "there is no good government but what is republican," and the "only valuable part of the British Constitution" had been republican in effect if not in intent. The British political tradition contained valuable principles, then, which were sound not because they were British or traditional but because they were good, i.e., in accordance with human nature. In effect, the colonists exchanged their rights as Englishmen for their rights as Americans, precisely in order to secure their rights as men. They made a Revolution on behalf of human freedom, not "prescriptive freedom."

Kirk never admitted this, because he rejected freedom and equality as abstract principles and he loathed revolution. Like Burke, he spoke occasionally of the real or genuine rights of man--the moral order in which prescription or tradition was a chief part of the law of nature. Unlike his great model, however, Kirk allowed prescription to define virtually all of natural justice: as the "natural" part of natural law receded under his touch, the "law" part--the legal, customary, and conventional realm--grew apace. Hence Kirk’s "traditionalism," the belief in the abstract principle that all abstract principles are nonsense; that justice is to be discovered at history’s margins, not in nature’s intentions; and that reason, at least moral and political reason, is always properly a child of its times. For traditionalists, revolution with a capital R, based on appeals to nature or to abstract truths like human freedom and equality, is the greatest of political evils. Indeed, Burke’s opposition to the French Revolution was the inspiration for modern conservatism--and according to Kirk, the star by which conservatives should steer in all subsequent political upheavals.

But what of the American Revolution, which had boldly proclaimed its "new and more noble course" and its "new order of the ages," all in the name of certain unalienable and universal human rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness"? Kirk denied or downplayed everything revolutionary about it, obscuring its real character. He was right, of course, that the Revolution was about more than abstract natural rights. Protestant Christianity, classical republicanism, and traditional British constitutional arguments all played important parts in the drama, but each of these received a new spin from the Americans’ understanding of natural justice. Kirk was right, too, to insist that the American Revolution was quite different from the French Revolution, but it was not because the former was not revolutionary. The essential difference was that the French had been based on a Rousseauian theory of the rights of man, which robbed the rights of their foundation in an unchanging human nature and quickly abandoned them as a guide to political right in favor of the socialist authority of the general will. Then to make matters worse, this wrong-headed theory had been implemented by intellectuals leading a people with no experience in the habits and practices of self-government. It was a recipe for disaster.

After an initial burst of enthusiasm for the French Revolution--partly out of hope that it would be a sequel to or a continuation of the American experience--many American statesmen soon had second thoughts. For example, Adams shared with his then-opponent Jefferson the wish that the French people might eventually be free of civil and ecclesiastical tyranny; he disagreed sternly with Jefferson, however, about whether the French Revolution would ever emancipate the French nation. Adams went on to denounce the French experiment as foolish and irrational, and predicted, correctly, that it would be bloody. But whereas Adams blamed the French Revolution for being irrational, Russell Kirk blamed it for being rational, or rationalistic. In their choice of epithets, one can see the great distance between the conservatism of the American Founders and that of Kirk and today’s traditionalists.

The Limits of Traditionalist Conservatism

For the truth is that traditionalism, and the type of conservatism based on it, have never been comfortable, really, with the American Revolution. They have tried to make peace with it by treating it as something neither very American nor very revolutionary, but the result has been to miss its entire significance in American politics. Examples abound of contemporary conservatives’ wariness of the "Revolution principles," as Adams called them, on which the Founders took their stand. In fact, conservative politicians do not have to be self-conscious traditionalists to have absorbed this aversion to the concepts, indeed to the very language, of rights, equality, and justice. How many times, for example, has the Republican Congress ducked the chance to eliminate race and gender-based preferences in federal hiring, contracting, and grant-making? Republicans, including many staunch conservatives, flee the issue partly because they think it untimely, but mostly because they do not care to wage an uphill battle on an issue on which liberals presumptively command the moral high ground. In other words, they concede, without quite admitting it perhaps even to themselves, that equality and justice are liberal causes, to be defined by liberals, defended by liberals, and implemented by liberals.

There are honorable exceptions, to be sure, as in California where conservative activists forced Proposition 209 onto the ballot and succeeded in laying low the state’s regime of racial and ethnic favoritism. But such examples are rare. When conservatives in political office have to accost fundamental principles, they prefer to do so indirectly, from the shadows and behind many veils--by abstruse parliamentary procedures, say, or by deferring to the courts’ future disposition of an issue, or by calling reflexively for a constitutional amendment. Conservatives avoid arguing about questions of justice whenever possible, which means they eschew politics (whose central issue is justice) whenever possible. On taxation, for instance, conservatives frequently defend a flat or flatter income tax on the grounds that it will reduce inefficiencies in the economy, stimulate growth, increase family budgets, and produce as much tax revenue as the existing system. What of its superior justice? Few indeed are the conservative politicians who will condemn the basic unfairness of taxing extra increments of income, most often the fruits of diligence and hard work, at higher rates. Fewer still are the conservative statesmen who will calmly denounce progressive rates as dangerous to equality and liberty under law, insofar as they place in the majority’s hands the power to tax minorities at unequal, indeed potentially confiscatory, rates, for the majority’s benefit, and at marginal rates the majority itself does not necessarily have to pay.

The equality of citizens under law, free employment opportunity, tax policy--these are moral questions, too, in other words, when seen from the point of view of American principles; but the moral case for them often goes unmade by conservatives who are so depoliticized as to shun any appeal that cannot be reduced to a matter of efficiency, economy, interest, or tradition. Tradition can be a great and a good thing, of course, but it is never so merely because it is traditional; slaveholders had their ancestral ways, too. To tell right from wrong within a tradition, or among traditions, requires a moral standard that has a validity or goodness independent of the tradition: it requires an abstract principle.

Yet even in the familiar "social" disputes that currently agitate our politics, conservatives seem cut off from the principles of the American Revolution. They invoke "traditional family values," for instance, as though the phrase itself were traditional, which it is not. It is a very recent phrase, an untraditional term that tries, inadequately, to characterize and defend the American tradition of republican or democratic family life, rooted of course in the precepts of the Bible and of nature. Even worse, they invoke "traditional family values" as though being traditional were enough. (Even if the tradition they have in mind were the Judeo-Christian one, it is not valid eo ipso merely because it is traditional.) In practice, the new phrase often means little more than the "family values" that a majority in the past or at present would like to see prevail. Incidentally, this is where Kirkian traditionalism and the populist conservatism of the last few decades converge: at the core of traditionalism is a kind of historical majoritarianism (Chesterton called it "the democracy of the dead"). Traditions, after all, must be passed down by the major part of society (particularly in democratic ages) in order to be authoritative.

But wanting to keep "family values" traditional--i.e., majoritarian--does not establish that these "values" are good. Uncomfortable with moral argument, conservatives increasingly rest their case for morals legislation on majoritarianism, precisely because it appears to relieve them of the need to make moral arguments. They assume that they do not have to show why homosexual marriage, for example, is wrong if they can show that most Americans disapprove of it. The abortion issue is the massive exception to this tendency, precisely because conservatives cannot point with assurance to majority support for anti-abortion policies. Here moral arguments continue to be offered forthrightly in order to persuade the public. But the abortion issue is virtually the only part of the social or moral front where conservative troops are trying doggedly to advance; and the silent hunkering of the units on their flanks makes their efforts look fanatical rather than courageous.

On the premises of traditionalism, then, the conservative movement is ill-equipped to recognize, much less to rescue, a country largely defined by its traditional allegiance to universal principles of justice. This is not to gainsay the common conservative view that America’s liberal revolution is akin, somehow, to the various Communist revolutions of the 20th century; nor that all of these contemporary upheavals are descended ultimately from the French Revolution. It is merely to deny that these later revolutions were extensions of the American. Returning conservatism to its American roots would in no way compromise the Right’s principled opposition to these later revolts against human nature.

Yet many traditionalists, especially in the movement’s neo-Confederate wing, claim exactly that. Willmoore Kendall and M. E. Bradford asserted long ago, for instance, that the Civil War was the precursor of the New Deal, the "Yankee Leviathan" the beginning of big government, and Lincoln’s defense of human freedom and equality a fatal "derailment" of the American political tradition. In this humid version of Burke, the antebellum South became America’s noble ancien regime , Lincoln became Robespierre, and slavery (or the agrarian way of life based on it) became an integral part of American freedom. But this was an interpretation that proved too much, insofar as it implied strongly that the American Revolution was itself too egalitarian--all that loose talk of "all men are created equal" which now required explaining--and hence resembled the French Revolution more than American conservatives would care to admit. In the end, then, traditionalism seems to offer no alternative to making the U.S. a colony of Great Britain, either by reinterpreting our principles in order to render them compatible with Burke’s account of the British Constitution, or by admitting in effect that it was a political mistake to break with hereditary monarchy and aristocracy in the first place.

The Limits of Libertarian Conservatism

Today’s libertarians display another sort of wariness towards the American founding. Although they are keen on individual rights and free markets, libertarians are divided on the question whether individual rights need a moral foundation besides utility. Most Chicago School economists (a powerful influence on modern libertarianism) believe that freedom works, in the sense of generating far greater social prosperity and individual utility than non-free or socialist societies can manage; and they do not see the need or, frankly, the possibility of justifying individual rights on any other basis. By contrast, most libertarian philosophers and publicists insist that liberty is and would be valuable for its own sake, even if it did not lead to greater individual and social prosperity.

Now, the utilitarian argument is true, so far as it goes; but it begs the question of why (and to what extent) economic prosperity is good, and it assumes, without proof, that every individual’s utility should count equally. The "rights utilitarians," as they are sometimes called, try to explain why every person should count as one, but they disagree on the basis of this elementary equality and hence on its significance. Given these difficulties, the weight of the libertarian argument is on the side of bringing rights and utility as close together as possible, grounding the notion of individual rights in self-preservation and self-interest, and reducing the political morality of the American Revolution to the protection of mere life and a low sort of liberty. Conservative politicians of a libertarian stripe value freedom and individual rights much more highly than do their traditionalist allies, to be sure, but because the libertarian definition of liberty is almost synonymous with the pursuit of private desire, their public defense of it is much weaker than they think. Their "freedom" begins to sound suspiciously like a codeword for self-interest, an imputation that many of them would endorse! Libertarianism thus leaves citizens and politicians in much the same spot that traditionalism does: more at home with arguments about utility, efficiency, economy, and (spontaneous-evolutionary) order than about justice.

The ascending moral connections among life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness cease to be a vital public concern for the libertarians, because for them happiness is mainly in the eye of the beholder. Even those who know better (Charles Murray, for instance), who recognize that there is some objective moral core to happiness, do not regard it as very relevant to the activities of government. Happiness is for the private sphere, whereas government is about the use of coercion to protect life, liberty, property, and the obligation of contracts. To be sure, there are some legitimate points in this analysis. In a country founded on the doctrine of natural rights, the general assumption is that citizens are free to pursue their happiness in any way not explicitly proscribed by law, because they have entrusted government only with limited power in order to secure their (pre-existing) natural or God-given rights. Moreover, the right of conscience--of worshipping God according to one’s own lights, but in accordance with the same right and reciprocal social duties in others--makes one’s relationship to God a lofty but primarily private matter, which means that majorities acting through government may not dictate true religion or force citizens to be pious. In this sense, supreme happiness and its various ingredients and prerequisites are certainly the highest concern of private life, and justify the purest freedom from government coercion in respect of our religious opinions.

All very well--but just because the law cannot know the conditions of supreme happiness in the next life, does not mean that it cannot know anything about the elements of happiness here and now. The separation of church and state did not imply a parallel separation of morality and politics. Although human reason could not discern, by itself, the way to Heaven, reason could and did know much about the way to happiness. For instance, that courage was better than cowardice; wisdom better than ignorance or false knowledge; justice better than injustice; moderation better than intemperance--these moral propositions or truths were essential to a happy life, and to a free and self-governed life, as George Washington and virtually everyone else writing at the time emphasized. These virtues needed somehow to be inculcated in individuals, and in a people, who meant to use their life and liberty happily, as opposed to unhappily. And so to secure "the blessings of liberty" to themselves and their posterity, the American founders established a constitutional republic in which the people’s capacity to govern themselves individually and collectively would be put to the test.

Laws inevitably shape morality (pace Frank Meyer), but the American founders did not believe that the laws alone could do so. In fact, they appreciated that the general laws of a distant federal government could play--and ought to play--only a very limited role in this task. Here their prudence agreed with today’s libertarian prejudices. At the same time, however, they expected state and local legislation to play a much larger role in encouraging the moral habits needed for self-government, through the exemplary sanctions of civil and criminal law--especially the wide scope for the states’ police power, which dealt with the details of public health, safety, and morals--and through public-supported education. The statesmen of the early Republic realized, however, that even state and local legislation could accomplish only so much without the positive assistance of the primary character-shaping associations, families and churches.

In a republic, then, there is a public need for citizens with good character; but America’s best state smen have always understood that a public end does not solely or even necessarily have to be met by a public means. In the old days, for instance, the public need for a well-armed and regulated militia was met by acknowledging the private right to bear arms--supplemented, in some states, with the public duty to report for militia drills. Before the modern welfare state, the public need to assist widows, orphans, the sick, and the elderly was met not only in various ways by local governments, but also by state laws that encouraged the incorporation of charitable hospitals, self-insurance associations, and the like. Today, similarly, the public need for an educated citizenry may best be met by using educational vouchers and charter schools to encourage competition with, and even within, the public school system. In short, not every public need or end can be met directly by government. Nonetheless, the public may use government not only to protect life, liberty, property, and the obligation of contracts, but to elicit the character traits that help to keep limited government limited, and that help to make liberty a blessing rather than a curse.

The Americanization of Conservatism

One might combine these criticisms of latter-day traditionalism and libertarianism by saying that a reborn American conservatism, based on the principles of the American Revolution, would teach both morality and freedom, order and liberty, not as a fusion or agglomeration of opposites but as inferences from the same set of principles. Those principles are the rights of man under the laws of nature. Now, one of the great achievements of the scholars (notably Leo Strauss and his students, but including many others) who helped, intentionally or not, to inspire the contemporary conservative movement was their reopening of the question of natural right or justice. For the first time in perhaps a hundred years, it is now possible for us to return to the natural rights doctrines of the American founders in an intelligent way, to revive their moral and political enterprise and make it the heart and soul of a new American conservatism.

Practically speaking, this means a rediscovery of the moral basis and the moral argument for republican government. A restored Republic would entail a federal government that is much more limited than the present state, though energetic in pursuit of its limited objects. The inveterate conservative opposition to big government would shift in emphasis from hoarse calls to get the government out of our wallets and off our backs, to a new indictment of big government as an insult to our rights, an offense against our equality, and a violation of our Constitution. To be sure, big government has always been a reliable target of conservative denunciation. Yet often the grounds of the conservative attack on it have been sandy -- a few perfunctory invocations of the Tenth Amendment, warmed-over anger at the unholy expense of it all, some boilerplate about the imperial judiciary. The modern state offends republicanism even more profoundly than it offends federalism, however, and conservatives should reformulate their attacks along more provocative constitutional lines -- for example, stressing not only the cost of entitlement programs, but the manner in which they inveigle us into thinking that all our rights flow from government; or criticizing bureaucracy not only for its wastefulness and absurdity, but for its despotic tendency to concentrate legislative, executive, and even judicial powers into the same "expert" (and unelected) hands.

Even as economic conservatives ought to acknowledge that morality is essential to limited government, so religious and social conservatives should recognize that America is in many ways less free than it used to be. We suffer from too much license and not enough liberty, so to speak. On the one hand, the modern state’s social programs encourage personal irresponsibility by socializing its costs. On the other hand, Big Government narrows personal freedoms essential to republicanism: the right to use and be secure in one’s property; to donate money to political campaigns; to count as an equal, regardless of race or ethnicity, in the eyes of the law.

So today’s manifold threats to liberty and morality stem mainly from the same source: modern liberalism’s rejection of the original American understanding of self-government. Reacting piecemeal to this affront, each faction of the existing conservative movement has seized an important part of the truth, but there is something missing that can be supplied only by a more American, and more political, conservatism. Though in some ways conservatism is now in a position to reconnect itself with the constitutionalist doctrines of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, ultimately it is the conservatism of the founders that we are seeking. Their principles will not yield immediate solutions to every public policy issue: the Declaration of Independence will not tell us what to do about Microsoft. But their basic principles of justice and constitutional architecture will be relevant to our most important concerns, always assuming that we have the practical wisdom to apply them rightly.

The conservatives of a century ago had one advantage over us, however. They saw modern liberalism in its youth, at its most theoretically audacious and before its projects had become familiar. By rediscovering America’s principles, conservatives have it in their power to encounter liberalism afresh, to see it anew and as a whole for the first time in many decades, and thus to learn how radical a departure from our old regime it actually was. Here, in truth, was where something like the principles of the French Revolution took hold of mainstream American politics and did not let go.

Three Waves of Liberalism

The sense of liberalism as a comprehensive project has faded nowadays, lost in the prescriptive authority of its enduring innovations, not to mention the sordid writhings of the Clinton presidency. Yet liberalism is only about a hundred years old, and has brought with it not only a big but a new kind of government that has transformed American life. Three waves of liberalism have washed over America in the past century--political liberalism, economic liberalism, and cultural liberalism--and each has left us with a distinctive type of politics. We may call these, in order, the politics of progress, the politics of entitlements, and the politics of meaning. A brief account of these will perhaps show that, armed with a keener appreciation of what American conservatism stands for, we may also attain a better understanding of what it opposes, and why.

The first and most disorienting wave was political liberalism, which began as a critique of the Constitution and the morality underlying it. This morality--the natural rights doctrine of Jefferson and Lincoln--was primitive, claimed thinkers like Woodrow Wilson and Herbert Croly, because it was based on an atomistic and egoistic view of man, which needed to be corrected by a more well-rounded or social view. The new view was made possible by the supposed discovery that human nature was progressive or evolutionary, and the corollary that later ages enjoyed a fuller self-consciousness and a higher realization of freedom than preceding ones. Political liberalism therefore announced itself as a doctrine of human progress, disclosing a new truth for a new age--"the new freedom," Wilson dubbed it, which was destined to supplant the old. According to the new freedom, human rights were not natural but historical, not unchanging but constantly evolving in order to reflect the socio-economic and cultural conditions of the age. The hardy individualism of the founders’ "natural rights," actually a reflection (in this theory) of the egalitarian conditions of frontier farming, had therefore to be corrected by a more socialized individualism suited to a new industrial century.

The Constitution, according to the leading thinkers of Progressivism, had been premised on the older view of human nature, and had been designed, more or less successfully, to block political change by means of its elaborate systems of checks and balances. This 18th century Constitution, based on an 18th century notion of rights, had therefore to be transcended by a modern constitution based on the evolutionary view of rights. Thus was born the "living Constitution," proffered initially as a bridge to the 20th not the 21st century, but meant to be infinitely adaptable to the moral insights and political projects of succeeding ages. (This was a kind of left-wing Burkeanism, emphasizing future rather than past adaptability and playing up popular science rather than divine Providence, but still painfully close to right-wing Burkeanism.) In the bold political theory of liberalism’s founders, then, human rights were denatured and historicized, and the Constitution was left an empty vessel designed to hold the Spirit of the Age, which would be poured into it by political majorities inspired by popular leaders and influenced by experts in the new science of public administration.

We hear of the "living Constitution" nowadays as a theory of judicial interpretation or rather "noninterpretation," authorizing judges to be activist by substituting their will for the Constitution’s intent. But it was originally--and still is, in truth--a way for any and all of the branches to nullify the Constitution as understood by its authors and ratifiers. Conservatives oppose this theory of nullification when it is applied by judges, but they are strangely ambivalent when it comes to legislative expressions of similar sentiments. In particular, conservative lawyers and judges, understandably outraged by judicial activism, are wont to fly to the other extreme and to endorse an unqualified majoritarianism as "the whole theory of democracy" (Justice Scalia’s words, but echoed by many others). This makes raw majority will the basis of the Constitution. It is hard to oppose the Left when one has accepted its premises, but this is the case with any so-called constitutionalism that accepts will or power, unguided by reason, as the basis of right.

Liberalism’s second wave was economic. Economic liberalism had been discussed or anticipated by the Progressives, who made much of the closing of the American frontier and the rise of large-scale corporations and economic trusts; but it did not begin to be enacted as a legislative program until the New Deal. Its essence was the addition of new social and economic rights to the constitutional order -- e.g., the right to "a useful and remunerative job," to a decent home, to adequate medical care, to protection from "the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment." Not all of these new rights were enshrined in law, but most were in one form or another either by the entitlement programs of the 1930s or by the new governmental activism of the 1960s and early 1970s. These socio-economic rights purported to make Americans secure (or more precisely, to make them feel secure) in a new age dominated by large corporations and impersonal economic forces, and to make their existing civil and political liberties, the offspring of simpler times, newly relevant. "Necessitous men are not free men," Franklin D. Roosevelt liked to say. In short, freedom required that the government take care of a person’s necessities when he could not, so that he might live comfortably or fearlessly, beyond necessity. The immediate result was the first couple of floors of the modern welfare high-rise. But the long-term result was worse, because the reasons given to justify even the most modest welfare rights pointed far beyond themselves. What did it mean to want to live beyond necessitousness?

Turning economic and social goods into "rights" may seem foolish today, given that we live, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, in something like a post-socialist age. Free market economics has triumphed over the planned economy, both in theory and in practice, and even the soi-disant planned market economies of Asia have been embarrassed by events. At the same time, however, the market economy has proved remarkably compatible with entitlement rights, inasmuch as the free market is the only economic order that apparently can pay for the welfare state. Yet it is widely predicted that in a decade or so, even America’s robust economy will hit a demographic wall and find itself unable to fulfill all the social welfare promises it has made. A serious recession might trigger the crisis sooner. Would a default on entitlements propel our politics towards conservatism or towards socialism? It is an interesting question, one that would turn on whether the old or the new definition of rights prevailed in the public mind.

Liberalism’s third wave, cultural or lifestyle liberalism, hit in the 1960s. It was only when this wave crashed about them that the radical character of modern liberalism became clear to the American people; only then that conservatism became, at least temporarily, a majority movement, insofar as it stood for America against its cultured and uncultured despisers. Cultural liberalism agreed with economic liberalism that government had to provide for our necessities in order that we might live in freedom; but freedom from want and freedom from fear were no longer regarded as sufficient for genuine human liberation. Freedom required not merely living comfortably, but also creatively. America had to move beyond "soulless wealth" (Lyndon Johnson’s phrase), beyond the "rich society" and the "powerful society" to the "Great Society" where "the desire for beauty and the hunger for community" could finally be satisfied. Beyond necessitousness, in other words, lay the politics of meaning.

The New Left and the Counterculture took LBJ’s argument one step further, though it was a radical step. American society was very far from being either great or free, they claimed, inasmuch as it imposed on its members a conformist, racist, sexist culture that oppressed the "self" and destroyed the possibility of true community. At the heart of third-wave liberalism was this idea of the liberated or authentic self, free to create its own lifestyle or to choose its own values. (Libertarians like Murray Rothbard found much of this perfectly congenial, of course.) The new cultural emancipation revealed itself strikingly in the personal liberation movements of the Sixties--especially the sexual revolution and the drug culture--but soon thereafter in the form of group liberation, as in black power, the women’s movement, homosexual legitimacy, and other crusades for identity rights. The weakness of the abstract or individual self, a theme that modern liberalism (as well as traditionalist conservatism) had always emphasized, made it inevitable for personal liberation to become also a group phenomenon, inasmuch as the self, cut off from nature or God, needed affirmation--recognition--from other, similar selves if it were to be resolute in its freedom.

Liberalism in the 20th century has been an evolving, or truthfully a devolving, ideological movement. Its protean character explains much of its power. Beneath all the mutations, however, it has maintained towards the principles of the American founding an unchangeable condescension and even hostility, which it has tried to disguise by successive acts of creative reinterpretation. In 1932, in his Commonwealth Club Address, Franklin Roosevelt expressed the point this way: "Under such a contract [in the Declaration of Independence] rulers were accorded power, and the people consented to that power on consideration that they be accorded certain rights. The task of statesmanship has always been the re-definition of these rights in terms of a changing and growing social order." In his gloss on the founders’ principles, then, rights are not natural or God-given. They come from a bargain struck with government, and it is up to statesmen like F.D.R. to keep that bargain timely, i.e., to re-define rights in line with new needs and priorities disclosed by history or by social developments.

Consider now a pronouncement by President Bill Clinton in 1997:

"Over time, we have had to redefine the words that we started out with [in the Declaration], not because there was anything wrong with them and their universal power and strength...but because we were limited in our imaginations about how we could live and what we were capable of and how we should live. Indeed, the story of how we kept going higher and higher and higher to new and higher definitions -- and more meaningful definitions -- of equality and dignity and freedom is in its essence the fundamental story of our country.... We are redefining, in practical terms, the immutable ideals that have guided us from the beginning."

The last line is vintage Clinton--the "immutable ideals" whose meaning never stops changing. Nonetheless, his argument recapitulates FDR’s basic point, that the definition of human rights necessarily changes with the times and with the statesman’s understanding of history’s dictates. Roosevelt sought to redefine rights in the direction of social welfare. Clinton, speaking to the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest homosexual advocacy group, called for the extension to homosexuals of special employment rights--as a step toward the full social and moral acceptance that the group seeks.

As these examples show, the abandonment of natural right imperils both property rights and popular virtue, freedom and morality, limited government and good government. Unfortunately, many conservatives, too, have renounced the central principles of the American founding, leaving conservatism in many respects almost indistinguishable from liberalism. If in the next century the United States is to regain its republican spirit and rescue constitutional government from its new nullifiers and secessionists, then the conservative movement will first have to rediscover what about America it is trying, after all, to conserve.

Also Visit
AEIdeas Blog The American Magazine

What's new on AEI

image The Census Bureau and Obamacare: Dumb decision? Yes. Conspiracy? No.
image A 'three-state solution' for Middle East peace
image Give the CBO long-range tools
image The coming collapse of India's communists
AEI on Facebook
Events Calendar
  • 21
  • 22
  • 23
  • 24
  • 25
Wednesday, April 23, 2014 | 12:00 p.m. – 1:30 p.m.
Graduation day: How dads’ involvement impacts higher education success

Join a diverse group of panelists — including sociologists, education experts, and students — for a discussion of how public policy and culture can help families lay a firmer foundation for their children’s educational success, and of how the effects of paternal involvement vary by socioeconomic background.

Thursday, April 24, 2014 | 12:00 p.m. – 1:30 p.m.
Getting it right: A better strategy to defeat al Qaeda

This event will coincide with the release of a new report by AEI’s Mary Habeck, which analyzes why current national security policy is failing to stop the advancement of al Qaeda and its affiliates and what the US can do to develop a successful strategy to defeat this enemy.

Friday, April 25, 2014 | 9:15 a.m. – 1:15 p.m.
Obamacare’s rocky start and uncertain future

During this event, experts with many different views on the ACA will offer their predictions for the future.   

No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled today.
No events scheduled this day.