We enter a season in which the meaning of conservatism becomes the ping-pong ball du jour.  With not only an election, but the meaning of the “movement” in itself in the contention, people of various beliefs and commitments seek to lay claim to the word and thereby to the direction of the opposition to Obamacracy.  

For many, the main ambition remains to hold together the coalition that successfully vaulted Ronald Reagan to the presidency and created a competitive, indeed, governing Republican coalition (if for a time).  The most articulate recent defense on behalf of the viability of this coalition has been made by Peter Berkowitz in a recent column in The Wall Street Journal , in which he argues on behalf of a “constitutional conservatism.”  This minimalist conservatism, he argues, can draw together the commitments of social conservatives, economic libertarians and national security hawks around a classical conception of the constitution:  “The constitution it seeks to conserve carefully defines government’s proper responsibilities while providing it with the incentives and tools to perform them effectively; draws legitimacy from democratic consent while protecting individual rights from invasion by popular majorities; assumes the primacy of self-interest but also the capacity on occasion to rise above it through the exercise of virtue; reflects, and at the same time refines, popular will through a complex scheme of representation; and disperses and blends power among three distinct branches of government as well as among federal and state governments the better to check and balance it. The Constitution and the nation that has prospered under it for 220 years demonstrate that conserving and enlarging freedom and democracy depends on weaving together rival interests and competing goods.”  

What is being proposed by Berkowitz and others is the conservation of liberalism.  Ironically, if Louis Hartz could argue in the 1950s that there was only one tradition in America – the liberal tradition, in particular that tradition deriving from the thought of John Locke – it was by dint of historical and philosophical developments that this very tradition eventually came to known as “conservatism” in the face of redefinitions of modern liberalism.  In particular, even as Hartz was writing, increasing numbers of the American intelligentsia were being drawn to the allure of communism; liberalism was moving left, meaning that a space was created where the Left had once resided that now appeared to be to the Right of the trajectory of history.  The conservatism forged by Frank Meyer and William Buckley (as mentioned by Berkowitz) was one that rallied around the liberal tradition inaugurated by Locke and the Founders.  It was defined above all by what it was against – communism and the idea of human perfectibility – rather than what it was for.   

All along “conservatism” was never an “ism”: it never was a philosophic checklist of positions like its various ideological opponents.  It grew up alongside and against ideology (namely and particularly the French Revolution); yet, it tended to move in opposition to increasing extremes, from the butchery of the French Revolution to the massacres of Fascism and the pogroms of Communism.  Conservatism is thus subject to drift, and that drift has necessarily been leftward in a modern world that has a decided tilt toward viewing politics as the realm of solutions (final or otherwise).  Thus, to find a foothold in a modern liberal America particularly in the fight against communism, “conservatism” adapted itself to a dubious partner - liberalism.

As a whole what this meant was that American “conservatism” became considerably anti-traditional.  In occupying the abandoned space of Lockeanism, it resided with the deep anti-traditionalism that lie at the heart of Locke’s philosophy.  “Traditionalism” is, of course, almost as meaningless a word in the abstract as conservatism:  what it most fundamentally seeks to signal is the legitimacy of authority – lodged in “the ancestral,” practice and longstanding custom, culture, and tradition – as the basis of rule and power.  That rule is represented by the paternal, the authority vested in an older generation by dint of their inheritance of tradition and their responsibility in its transmission to subsequent generations.  Locke’s mostly unread First Treatise on Government is devoted to a lawyerly (and very devastating) evisceration of the theory of Patriarchy as devised by Robert Filmer; while Filmer sought to meld parental authority with a defense of Kingship (i.e., that Adam was the first King and then-contemporary Kings were Adam’s heirs), the larger game that Locke was hunting was the de-legitimation not simply of hereditary monarchy, but of all forms of traditional authority.  As developed in the Second Treatise , legitimate authority could only be chosen authority.  Hence, even the authority of fathers and mothers eventually gave way at the age of “nonage”:  children no longer owed parents any filial piety once they reached the age of maturity, unless, that is, the children chose such piety.  Locke’s overarching ambition was the dissolution of all authoritative claims based in tradition:  because things had been done in some way by previous generations was no basis for its legitimacy.  The only basis of legitimacy was the free choice of successive new generations.  The authority of the ancestral was displaced by the authority of choice. 

In the context of 20th-century history and philosophy it is possible to regard this position as “conservative.”  Compared to communism or theories of justice that hold the possibility of ever-greater moral perfection of human beings, Locke’s view of humans as endowed with a basic and unalterable nature – self-interested individuals – at least resembles aspects of pre-modern anthropology in retaining some recognizable elements of the Fall.  Lockean liberals and various (often religious) social conservatives could agree that the vision of humankind offered by progressive liberals and communists – one of human perfectibility – offended the more conservative or classical sensibilities about the unalterable nature of human beings.  As long as this alternative anthropology held attraction to intellectual elites, various stripes of conservatives could suppress their disagreements in their battle against a common enemy.  Politics, as ever, makes strange bedfellows.

While only a few noticed it amid the celebration of 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall sounded the death-knell of the modern conservative coalition.  Without the external threat of communism to hold together the disparate elements of conservatism, its incoherence became yearly more evident to one and all.  Libertarians grew restive with social conservatives:  indeed, not a few people noted that no less a leader of libertarianism than Milton Friedman declared years earlier that he, for one, was not a “conservative.”  Social conservatives began to balk at the idea that they were merely “conserving” liberalism, if liberalism meant the continued evisceration of the traditions of hearth and home.  Thomas Frank – in his book What’s the Matter with Kansas? – thought that he was exposing the great deception at the heart of conservatism, when in fact he was merely glimpsing its internal divisions. 

The great and self-destructive paradox of modern “conservatism” is that there was very little that a “conservative liberalism” could ultimately hope to “conserve.”  If Frank was right that social conservatives were ill-served by economic elites who won most battles of the Republican agenda, it had more to do with systemic bias in a liberal regime than deceit and subterfuge.  In particular, the very system to which Berkowitz now calls for the old coalition to sign onto – “constitutional conservatism” – was designed expressly to undermine the claims of tradition and culture.  Its main ambition was to liberate individuals from the arbitrary authority of place, family, and folkway, and to permit them a life of material success amid an economic system that generated an endless bazaar of values and “lifestyles.”  One merely had to choose what one preferred.  Thus, even “traditionalism” was rendered itself into a choice (this is a point Peter Lawler likes to make as a critique of various traditionalisms, pointing out that it too is merely a kind of lifestyle choice.  But this is to confuse effect for cause:  of course “front porch” traditionalism or “crunch conservatism” or “the Benedict option” become “lifestyle choices”: the constitutional order was designed to make EVERYTHING into a choice – except the option not to choose).

Growing numbers of social traditionalists (let’s not call them “conservatives,” lest we confuse the issue) are realizing that the coalition they joined was a devil’s bargain.  While communism was successfully combated, market capitalism did its work undermining most of the traditions that held together communities, folkways and customs.  Communities were undermined by multinationals while elite universities scoured the land for any talent that could be strip-mined from localities and turned into productive material in the international market system.  If you weren’t a winner in the cosmopolitan, meritocratic sweepstakes then you deserved some kind of welfare and re-education; the norm of success was defined by one’s distance from traditions and culture.  The conservation of liberalism has accelerated the demise of the viability of tradition’s claims.  Thus, I, for one, have a jaundiced eye toward the old bargain being offered in some circles:  rather, it seems likely that it is time to fight battles with erstwhile allies (even as new alliances are formed with some on the current Left, e.g. those with localist or somewhat healthy environmental views which stress conservation over techno-optimism) rather than sign back on to a lousy bargain that offers to allow us to “conserve” an anti-conservative “tradition.”  The place to start – difficult as it will be – is to reject the various “isms” being offered in return for electoral success.  After all, what could be more conservative than opposition to an “ism” – even, dare one say, “conservatism”?

Articles by Patrick J. Deneen


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