There is a symposium this week in the National Review centering around the question: Is conservatism a branch of liberalism? I confess the way the question was phrased got my back up a bit. It made me think liberalism was akin to the company with whom I have an account (Wachovia), wheras the particular office I bank at (a “branch”) is conservatism. Much as I may normally prefer the particular to the general, I can’t but think in this instance that the notion of a “branch” is a bit degrading. (Plus, which is now a more plausible concern, my FDIC insurance is routed through the main company.) In any case, I am a participant in that symposium as are Robert George, Chalres Kesler, and Yuval Levin. Below is my article.
American conservatism is devoted to conserving the American republic. Since the American republic is commonly classified as a “liberal” regime, the question of this symposium almost seems to answer itself: Conservatism today serves liberalism. (“Liberalism” in this context refers to its original 18th-century variety, meaning a limited government whose chief aim is to secure individual rights, rather than the modern variety, meaning a positive state that seeks to establish “social justice.”)
Yet it is mistaken to think of conservatism as merely a branch or subsidiary of liberalism. Conservatism may serve liberalism, but it often does so in ways that original liberalism hardly conceived of and that modern liberalism usually rejects. And this it does for liberalism’s good. Liberal theory never developed the tools to sustain itself; it has always required something beyond itself to survive. Conservatism, while endorsing so much of liberalism, recognizes and satisfies this need. Without conservatism, liberalism would begin to wither away. In fact it has already begun to do so.
Conservatism conserves the American republic by supporting its theoretical foundation of natural rights. This “abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times” (Lincoln) is something conservatives are not embarrassed to proclaim, even before the United Nations General Assembly. On this point, they are in full accord with the original liberals. Modern liberals, by contrast, are suspicious of metaphysical truths, advertising themselves as pragmatists while hiding their values behind the process of change.
Conservatism conserves the American republic by supporting the idea of the nation. The nation is necessary for security, for the activities of the common political life, and even for the welfare of humanity in general. What entity other than the nation-state, after all, defends us, enacts our laws, and provides for the well-being of many beyond its authority?
Conservatism not only recognizes the rational case for the nation but leaves space for justifiable feelings of attachment to it, acknowledging that the heart has its reasons that reason cannot comprehend.
Original liberalism was also a friend of the nation and developed such ideas as sovereignty. But it had difficulty from the first in articulating what the nation-state was beyond a contract, and it could never make full sense of feelings of attachment to it, allowing them therefore to develop unregulated. Modern liberalism, by contrast, has grown increasingly uneasy about the nation. It considers patriotism an anachronism and promotes global citizenship and global studies as replacements for American citizenship and education in our own political tradition.
Conservatism conserves the American republic by supporting the biblical religions, which have been the major source of our ethical system, one of self-restraint and belief in something beyond material existence. Conservatives subscribe to the liberal principles of freedom of religion, nonestablishment, and religious tolerance. But they see no contradiction (why should they?) between holding these principles and promoting reasonable measures—whether these concern immigration, fiscal policy, or education—that seek to preserve the central place of the biblical religions in our culture. Original liberal theory was sometimes cool to religion, failing to acknowledge how much liberal society was borrowing from the storehouse of religious capital. As for modern liberalism (setting aside the important faction that is hostile to biblical religions), it has taken the legal norm of religious freedom and twisted it into a new ideal of neutrality among faiths—an ideal reflected in President Obama’s proclamation that America is not “a Christian nation.”
Conservatism conserves the American republic by promoting “the tradition,” which refers, beyond religion and the Enlightenment, to the classical Greek and Roman ideals of virtue and excellence. Conservatives subscribe to the liberal principle of equality of rights, but they do so in no small part in order to allow for the emergence of inequalities and excellences. The tradition also provides a theoretical basis for a hierarchy of standards, which gives conservatives the confidence to criticize the vulgarity that pollutes any society and runs rampant in ours. Original liberalism often had the same inclinations—Jefferson spoke of a “natural aristocracy”—but it engaged too easily in attacks on the classics and, in its rationalist exuberance, went too far in elevating utility at the expense of nobility. Modern liberalism, in its focus on compassion, has had difficulty openly supporting and rewarding excellences. It has also allied itself culturally with relativism, which is the application of the idea of equality to all thought. Relativism makes it harder to support standards except those that touch on equality or diversity. Above all, in our universities, modern liberalism has pushed aside the “old books” in order to make room for diversity and identity politics.
Conservatism is the home today for the few remaining full proponents of original liberalism. It is also the home for those friends of liberalism who believe that liberalism’s defense requires something more than itself. The combination of these different strands of thought within the same movement produces tensions, but it is also a source of the movement’s great creativity. That creativity is best expressed in the view that the public good is not to be found in adherence to the clearest and simplest principles, but rather in the blending of different and partly conflicting ideas. It is above all by acknowledging this fact that today’s conservatism is no mere branch of liberalism.