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Book Review: Shall "the Permanent Things" Endure?

Book Review: Shall "the Permanent Things" Endure?

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March 16, 2011

March 2008 -- Charles Dunn, editor, The Future of Conservatism: Conflict and Consensus in the Post-Reagan Era. (Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2007), 158 pages, $15.00.

“Conservatism is too often a conservation of the wrong things,” said T.S. Eliot during a lecture in 1937, “liberalism a relaxation of discipline, revolution a denial of the permanent things.” Since that time, and especially since Russell Kirk turned Eliot’s words into a slogan, conservatives have sought to define and foster “the permanent things.” This collection of essays, by eleven conservative thinkers, begins in that spirit and, on occasion, speaks movingly about the dangers threatening our highest values. But too often, as Eliot warned, it looks to conserve the wrong things. And, in the end, it descends into triviality.

WHAT IS CONSERVATISM? WHO ARE CONSERVATIVES?

Dunn’s introductory essay is one the book’s highlights, and that was only to be expected. He is, with J. David Woodward, co-author of the splendid Conservative Tradition in America (published in 1996). In that volume, the authors took the conservative movement through Newt Gingrich’s ingenious Contract with America and his seizure of the House of Representatives after forty years of Democratic dominance. Remember the Contract? It promised balanced budgets, Social Security reform, term limits, and much more. Certainly, it is time and past time for Dunn to return to the question of where conservatism is headed.

His introduction sets down ten “canons” of conservatism, which can be thought of as outlining “the permanent things.” (1) Organic social change is preferable to change that is abrupt and unsettling. (2) Government’s overriding duty is to protect its citizens against foreign enemies and domestic disorder. (3) Individuals flourish in a rich civil society. (4) Natural and divine law transcend human law. (5) Individuals have responsibilities, and most especially self-responsibilities, as well as rights. (6) Democratic government requires constitutionally limited government. (7) Private property is basic to the free society. (8) Liberty encompasses only an equal opportunity to pursue happiness, not equality of results. (9) Merit ought to be the primary factor in the selection of leaders. (10) Collectivism at home and abroad is to be opposed.

In addition to setting forth the canons of conservatism, Dunn also essays to delineate its varieties, and he finds five: traditionalism, libertarianism, neoconservatism, religious conservatism, and Midwestern conservatism. The last of these is a borderline category, for its members (exemplified by former Senator Bob Dole) are more often Republican “moderates” than adherents of conservatism’s canons. In any case, no other author mentions that particular species.

“Conservatism is too often a conservation of the wrong things,” said T.S. Eliot.

The evolution of Dunn’s basic four-fold typology is explained by George Nash, author of The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America: Since 1945. He begins by tracing the course of conservatism since World War II, noting especially the libertarian-traditionalist-anticommunist debates of the 1950s and the rise of both neoconservatism and religious conservatives in the 1970s. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the anticommunist faction disappeared as a distinct variety, and most of its members dispersed to the other four groups.

James W. Ceasar, a professor of government and foreign affairs at the University of Virginia, also accepts a typology similar to Dunn’s and Nash’s. But, usefully, he offers a “foundational concept” for each of the four factions. For traditionalism, it is History or Culture (capitalized); for neoconservatism, natural right; for libertarianism, spontaneous order; for the Religious Right, biblical faith.

CAN THE COALITION SURVIVE?

The problem raised by the title of this book—The Future of Conservatism—really comes down to one concrete question: Can the four varieties of conservatism continue to work together, as they did prior to President George W. Bush’s election?

None of the authors, so far as I can see, maintains that conservatism can flourish if it loses any of its four main branches. Indeed, one author (Marvin Olasky) makes this the point of his essay. He says that religious conservatives should be New Testament in their practice, not Old Testament. By that he means the following: “The Old Testament emphasizes subtracting a family and then a nation (and its land) from the idol-worship that surround first Abraham and then Israel. The emphasis was on purity, not evangelism. . . . [By contrast,] Christians were free to evangelize and admit to church membership anyone who confessed faith in Christ, regardless of pedigree, past sins, race, or ethnicity. . . . Christian conservatives need to apply such thinking to our political processes.” Coming from Olasky, I find that warning against schisms just a bit ironic and even a little bit funny. For it was precisely Olasky who coined the term “compassionate conservatism,” with its implicit smear of nonreligious conservatives, and thereby opened the greatest schism in conservatism since the libertarian/anticommunist split of the early 1950s.

But even if one concedes to Olasky that the coalition “must” work together, will it?

Michael Barone, principal author of The Almanac of American Politics, is this country’s chief psephologist, and for that reason I must suppose that he has solid evidence when he declares: “Conservatism’s electoral fortunes are pretty good—certainly better than the electoral future of liberalism.” But even if Barone is right about conservatives’ electability, I know he is wrong about their compatibility. He writes: “Economic conservatives and cultural conservatives have no major goals which are in conflict; the conflict, if there is any, is over what issues should be emphasized.” Really? Has he seen what happens when a contributor to National Review Online posts a remark about immigration? Regardless of which side the post is on, you would think the poor fellow had fallen into a tank of sharks.

Yet Nash also is hopeful about the future of conservatism’s coalition. “Above all,” he writes, “the conservative coalition seems destined to endure because most of the external stimuli that goaded it into existence have not disappeared. In some respects, they have grown stronger. The Berlin Wall may be gone, and socialist economics may be discredited, but significant sectors of American society continue to move in directions antithetical to conservative beliefs. Particularly, in the area of ‘lifestyles’—of drug use, sexual mores, acceptance of pornography, and taste in mass entertainment—popular attitudes and behavior have veered sharply in a permissive, even neopagan, direction in recent decades.” Again, hasn’t Nash observed how libertarians react to the moral and “lifestyle” agendas set forth by other coalition members? Is he unaware of the attempt by Brink Lindsey, the Cato Institute’s vice president for research, to float the concept “liberaltarianism” and thereby wangle an invitation for his faction to join the Left?

Of course, there are some pessimists among the authors, most notably George W. Carey, a professor of government at Georgetown University, and to me he sounds more realistic about conservatism’s future. Carey locates the problem in neoconservatism, not libertarianism, and his essay is a lamentation over the consequences of George W. Bush’s neoconservative administration. “In a very short period of time,” he writes, “a major transformation in the American political landscape has occurred. The Republican Party has, so to speak, changed its spots virtually without attracting much critical attention.” And for this, Carey blames neoconservatives, who provided the “cover” (his word) that allowed an essentially Progressivist president to transform the Republican Party without overtly severing his ties to the conservative movement. Thus, “along with the transformation of the Republican Party, we have witnessed a corresponding transformation of the popularly accepted understanding of conservatism.”

WHAT ARE CONSERVATISM’S PRIORITIES?

The question of conservatism’s solidarity is, like so many questions, manipulable. Those who wish to stress the unity of conservatism can rise to the very highest levels of abstraction and announce that conservatives agree on their mission to save and nurture Western Civilization. But that is a vacuous goal. Why and how should the West be saved? Conservatives disagree profoundly over the existing threat to our civilization and the means of coping with it.

For Harvey C. Mansfield, a professor of government at Harvard, the chief threat is the possibility that we may again lurch into viciously illiberal forms of society—communism and fascism in different disguises—because of the spiritual deficiencies of our liberal society. Thus, for him, the proper role of conservatism is merely to temper those deficiencies of liberalism while letting conservatism’s “older brother” govern. By contrast, James W. Ceasar wants to launch a conservative crusade at home and abroad. Relegate traditionalism and libertarianism to minor roles in the coalition, he urges, and forge an alliance between neoconservatism and the Religious Right “in the battle to save civilization from a new barbarism and in the effort within the part of civilization we call the West to sustain a culture of biblical faith.” Somehow, I cannot see George Carey enlisting in that holy war.

Daniel Mahoney, a professor at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts, joins Carey in deploring neoconservatism’s Wilsonian foreign policy. But he points out, very instructively, that such a foreign policy has not always been characteristic of neoconservatism. Originally, indeed, neoconservatism was a movement that sought to rally America against totalitarianism. It understood clearly that the purpose of foreign policy was protecting American security and that the spread of economic and civil liberty was a secondary goal, with the spread of electoral democracy a very distant third. Jeane Kirkpatrick’s “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” published in the neoconservative magazine Commentary, was the classic statement of that realistic view. More hopefully than expectantly, Mahoney suggest neoconservatism return to “a principled and prudent foreign policy that does not confuse a robust defense of liberty with doctrinaire support for democracy abroad.”

THE CONSERVATIVE MIND

It is undoubtedly true, as Charles Dunn says in his introduction, that “conservatism’s strength has always rested in the realm of ideas.” I only wish Dunn had remembered that when choosing a conservative to write the Epilogue for his book. He might then have picked a person who could summarize his authors’ disagreements and assess the conservative coalition’s viability in light of them. Unfortunately, the final word was given to journalist William Kristol, and his epilogue is not worthy of the book it closes. Was he picked to give the volume name recognition? If so, it was a mistake, for he merely leaves the reader feeling let down, with his trivial discussion of Ronald Reagan’s presidency.

Reagan may have had a great impact on America’s political scene and even on the world’s political scene. But he was the consequence of ideas that had been building since the early 1940s—the period of Ayn Rand ’s The Fountainhead , Isabel Paterson’s God of the Machine, Rose Wilder Lane’s Discovery of Freedom, and Friedrich Hayek’s Road to Serfdom. As Dunn himself says: “Ideas endure, politicians change.”

But of course it is not true that all ideas endure, nor should they. The virtue of conservatism is that it seeks to conserve those ideas properly called “the permanent things.” Its vice, as T.S. Eliot observed, is that too often it conserves the wrong ideas. On the evidence of this book, it is by no means clear which of those two sorts of ideas conservatism will embrace in the future.