A conservative’s definition of conservatism — an essay adapted from RET’s new book, After the Hangover: The Conservatives’ Road to Recovery, published April 20.
Ever since the Reagan presidency, the smokestacks of the Kultursmog have pumped out the myth that conservatives intent on cutting taxes, deregulating industry, privatizing government services, or strengthening the military are acting as ideologues. In the Kultursmog — our political culture thoroughly polluted by Liberal bugaboos and pieties — it is understood that ideologues are unreasonable enthusiasts, often given to unworkable political projects dangerous to the commonweal — the kind of projects Edmund Burke warned about while witnessing the French Revolution. When Liberals use the term, it is a term of disparagement, which they disdainfully apply to conservatives. Yet when they are calling conservatives ideologues, they are again engaged in Masked Politics. That is to say, they are advancing big government projects behind a mask, say, the mask of sweet environmentalism, or reasonable consumerism, or sexual hygiene — one of Eleanor Roosevelt’s favorites.
Behind their masks of measured reason, it is the Liberals who are the ideologues. Conservatism is not an ideology but, as the great conservative political philosopher Michael Oakeshott has explained, a “disposition.” The fact that conservatism is but a disposition explains why the conservative’s political libido is restrained while the Liberal’s is famously inclement.
Ideology is a word that has undergone many changes since the Frenchman Destutt de Tracy introduced it in the late 18th century as meaning the “science of ideas.” Shortly thereafter, in the early 19th century, Napoleon conferred on the word the deprecatory sense that makes Liberals don their masks and apply it to conservatives. Napoleon applied the word to the zealots of the French Revolution, whose enthusiasms for abstraction and for balmy projects were the ruin of France and a threat to his well-run army. Had he not thwarted them, he never would have become an emperor, and his army might never have gotten to a battlefield on time. The French Revolutionaries even imposed their abstractions on time. They dreamed up a revolutionary calendar, revising months, days, and even the clock. It led to all sorts of impractical results that brought France ever more grief.
Unsurprisingly, no other country adopted the Revolutionary clock. Not even President Barack Obama has shown an interest in it. If Napoleon were forced to use it, he might have found himself ordering his troops into battle about the time that, according to the Revolutionary clock, his infantry was expecting lunch or his cavalry’s horses all had to go to the bathroom. The revolutionaries’ exaltation of reason that struck Burke as cruel and tyrannical struck Napoleon as imbecilic. Ever since Napoleon’s denunciations, the ideologue has been suspected of imposing impractical academic schemes on ordinary life, which is precisely what Liberals often do. The Liberal imposes such ideological constructs as diversity, income redistribution, and gender or racial quotas on society, while deviously denying their ideological designs. The conservative implements tax cuts that actually spur economic growth, and is dismissed by the Liberal as an ideologue. Tax cuts, of course, are popular with ordinary Americans. Quotas and income redistribution are not. The Liberals’ recourse is to the Kultursmog, where they just pump out more smog: “Tax cuts are unpopular and cause deficits!” “Quotas and income redistribution are a matter of justice, and people love them!” “Only bigots oppose them!” Here again, the Liberal is engaged in Masked Politics.
MICHAEL OAKESHOTT SET DOWN his finding that conservatism is a disposition in an essay still popular with many conservative intellectuals, “On Being Conservative.” There the distinguished British philosopher explains that, rather than being an ideology, conservatism is a disposition, one that favors, he says, “the present.” As he analyzes conservatism, conservatives — unlike Liberals — rarely seek to impose ideas or policies on the present unless the present is “arid” or “remarkably unsettled.” Those ideas or policies that conservatives actually impose on society will not be the academic contrivances of revolutionaries or of hell-bent reformers, but what Oakeshott would perceive as being tried and true. Where conservatism is au fond a disposition toward the present, Liberalism is au fond an anxiety about the present. Keeping this analysis in mind, we can understand the origin of Liberalism’s one unwavering political value, namely: to disturb the peace. Once we understand that it is personal anxiety that provokes the Liberals’ petty crimes against society, the bloom is off their claims to noble visions and humanitarian reforms. Armed with an awareness of Liberalism’s anxious nature, conservatives will be better prepared for the Liberals’ furious opposition. A disposition is always more nonchalant than an anxiety.
To be sure, there are restless, impulsive conservatives. Newt Gingrich comes to mind. However, the true conservative will put golf before the meetings of “concerned citizens,” the cocktail hour before a flag burning, and a day at the office before flying off to the Indus Valley to sit at the feet of a smelly swami or to Scandinavia to arrange a sex change.
Oakeshott also explains how conservatives are roused to political action, albeit reluctantly:
If the present is arid, offering little or nothing to be used or enjoyed, then this inclination [this disposition to use or enjoy] will be weak or absent; if the present is remarkably unsettled, it will display itself in a search for a firmer foothold and consequently in a recourse to and an exploration of the past; but it asserts itself characteristically when there is much to be enjoyed, and it will be strongest when this is combined with evident risk or loss. In short, it is a disposition appropriate to a man who is acutely aware of having something to lose which he has learned to care for; a man in some degree rich in opportunities for enjoyment, but not so rich that he can afford to be indifferent to loss.
That “something to lose,” for modern conservatives, has been individual liberty, and it has been infringements on individual liberty that have incited conservative activism from the days of the New Deal to the present collectivism of Obamaism. The New Conservatism was roused by the New Deal. The Reagan Revolution was roused by the Great Society. The Republicans’ Contract with America was roused by premonitions in the early Clinton administration of a return to big government, particularly in the area of health care. Always conservatism’s impetus has been to preserve individual liberty, as warranted by the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.
IN THE 1950s AND 1960s, Frank Meyer, a senior editor to the New Conservatism’s leading magazine, National Review, became the intellectual strategist and practitioner of Oakeshott’s lyrical philosophizing. Through his national lecture tours, his service as the magazine’s book review editor, and his political column in the magazine, aptly titled “Principles and Heresies,” he refined the movement’s principles and resolved disagreements among the movement’s first constituent groups — the anti-Communists, the traditionalists, and the libertarians. In the case of the last two groups, he developed a political analysis that kept them together when they were perhaps at the point of breaking away from each other and slipping into obscurity. The analysis was dubbed “fusionism,” by his friend L. Brent Bozell, Bill Buckley’s brother-in-law. Frank did not like the term, but he accepted it, and it caught on.
A graduate of Oxford’s Balliol College, Frank was an active Communist through the 1930s. Working in Chicago, he became one of the Party’s most effective organizers, and after he broke with the Party in the 1940s an effective anti Communist. He left the Communist Party with at least two invaluable troves of knowledge, the nature and practice of Marxist-Leninist ideology and the locations of all the best restaurants in Chicago. The Reds’ appreciation of history might have been defective, but not their appreciation of cuisine. Frank raised the epicurean standards of the conservative movement as well as its standards of political analysis.
From his modest house on a quiet rural road up a mountain in Woodstock, New York — for a while Bob Dylan lived down from it — Frank read and wrote and telephoned fellow members of the New Conservatism all over the country from dusk to dawn. Fearing that the Communists would kill him in his sleep, he slept by day and worked from wake-up time, around 4:00 p.m., until bed-time, around 8:00 a.m. He slept with a shotgun at his bedroom door. Chain-smoking through the night and alternating coffee with an occasional tumbler of Scotch, he cultivated a network of anti-Communist, traditionalist, and libertarian intellectuals to review books for National Review and organize throughout the country. In the early 1960s, when a serious break between traditionalists and libertarians threatened the unity of the movement, he kept them together with fusionism, which mined the best thought of both groups and demonstrated their coherence.
As a member of the conservative movement’s two youth groups, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (originally founded as the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists in 1952, when Buckley and other founders of the modern conservative movement were more comfortable calling themselves individualists than conservatives) and the Young Americans for Freedom, I spent as much time with Frank as I could. He was a born prof, who relished speaking on campus and developing the next generation of conservative intellectuals and activists. I, as editor in chief of a conservative student magazine, had little difficulty becoming one of his friends before his untimely death at age 62 from lung cancer. In terms of intellect and selfless energy, there has been no one to equal him since.
Usually I visited with him when he was on one of his frequent speaking tours. I only spent one working night with him in Woodstock, but it was a memorable one. From New York City I brought along a young friend whom I knew Frank would see as a potential conservative activist, Bill Kristol, the son of the emerging “Godfather” of neoconservatism, Irving Kristol. I was a graduate student, working on a PhD in American history. Bill was a high school student. Even then Bill was not what you would call a neoconservative. At a very early age, Bill was pretty much a movement conservative, exuberantly to the right of his father. We arrived around dusk; had dinner at Frank’s usual time, 8:30 p.m.; and for the rest of the night talked about politics, philosophy, the arts, and sports. Bill was too young to drink. I compensated. Until we all turned in after breakfast at 6:00 a.m., it was a raucous night punctuated by Frank’s long-distance calls to his apparatchiks and book reviewers and by cups of coffee alternately taken with the Scotch. Frank had a theory: coffee kept him alert; Scotch kept him relaxed.
After our brief retreat to sleep, we were awakened by his graceful wife, Elsie, who led us to my car and the bleary drive back to Manhattan. Mark that night down as one of the most grueling nights I have ever spent. Dancing at a Manhattan nightclub until dawn can be hard on the liver and other interior plumbing, but trying to keep up with Frank was far more punishing. By the time we got back to the Kristol family’s Manhattan flat to greet Irving and his wife, the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, I suspect we looked more like we had spent the previous 24 hours with Frank’s neighbor, Bob Dylan, than with the book review editor of National Review.
HAVING REJECTED COMMUNISM and found refuge in the writings of the Founding Fathers, Frank propounded “freedom of the person” as fundamental to American conservatism. Using the words freedom and liberty interchangeably in his writing, he considered freedom “the central and primary end of political society.” To him “the person” was a thinking and autonomous creature; “freedom was of the essence of his being.” Government must ensure that freedom, but that freedom existed for the high purpose of allowing the individual to choose virtue. Yet virtue could not be imposed by the state, whether it was governed by Liberals or traditionalists. As Frank wrote, “Unless men are free to be vicious they cannot be virtuous. No community can make them virtuous.” He argued that government’s end is to preserve freedom, and the citizen’s end is to choose virtue. Always it is the individual who has to do the choosing.
Frank believed that libertarians and traditionalists were compatible in the conservative movement. Balancing freedom and virtue would be crucial for that alliance. He subscribed to the Founding Fathers’ insight that freedom was the ultimate political end, but virtue was the ultimate end of man. Traditionalists and libertarians had different emphases. Traditionalists were soft on limited government. Libertarians were not in agreement on the importance or even the existence of virtue. Frank believed that the U.S. Constitution supplied the bridge between these two elements of conservative thought. Both had portions of what a serious political movement needed to protect the individual. Russell Kirk, author of The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Santayana, led the traditionalists in stressing order and virtue as apprehended through the Western experience by “right reason.” Traditionalists would use the state to impose virtue, much as monarchies and nation-states had throughout much of Western history. F. A. Hayek, author of The Road to Serfdom, led the libertarians in stressing (A) individual liberty, (B) laissez-faire economics (now more popularly called free market economics), and (C) reason. According to Frank, as long as the state was not used to impose virtue, and society developed democratically, the two elements of conservatism were compatible. He proved to be right.
Frank’s position on government was strongly libertarian. Beyond national security, preservation of domestic order, and the administration of justice through the rule of law, state power should be limited. He feared, however, that the libertarian argument for freedom was shallow and needed to be fortified by accepting the traditionalists’ insight that freedom was God-given, that virtue was important, and that many Western traditions strengthened the free society. The skepticism of some libertarians toward these three values weakened their defenses against statism, either secular statism or totalitarian statism.
As much a student of Western history as of Western philosophy, Frank believed that the God of Abraham endowed us with individual liberty. Unlike the classical liberals who admired liberty for its utility, he understood liberty as being more than merely useful. In creating man, God made freedom the “essence of his [man’s] being.” God did this so that his creatures could choose to be virtuous. We might also choose to be evil, but without God-given choice, virtuousness was impossible. Doubting that the libertarians’ basis for freedom was as compelling against Communism and other statist regimes as was the traditionalists’ divine basis for freedom, Frank opted for the traditionalists’ basis. He came to believe in the traditionalists’ God, converting to Catholicism on his deathbed.
His practical insight was that whatever one thought of virtue or of God, as long as neither was imposed on libertarians, they had no grounds to break with the conservative movement. From tradition and history, God and virtue would make their appearances in the American polity. As long as libertarians were comfortable in that polity, the conservative movement could endure and prosper. It has for nearly 60 years.
THROUGHOUT MY NEW BOOK I play a happy tattoo on the already dated presumptions of David Brooks and David Frum(p), the spectacularly unprophetic leaders of that clutch of opportunists whom I call the Reformed Conservatives (RCs). Listening to their sermonics on precisely which adaptations conservatives must make to get elected, one might conclude that American conservatism is nothing more than a gimmick for attaining high office. Actually it is, as the founders of conservatism conceived it, an intellectual movement to preserve American values, preeminently the value of liberty. As an intellectual movement it will affect a wider realm than mere campaign politics. It will affect American society.
In the middle 1960s, as the conservative movement was gaining strength, Frank laid out a series of “articles of belief” that most conservatives would accept to one degree or another today. They are worth repeating as a prelude to unveiling the definition of a political movement that has come from its three constituent elements (advocates of limited government, anti-Communists, and traditionalists) to embrace neoconservatives, evangelicals, Reagan Democrats, and many ordinary Americans made uneasy by the Liberals’ feverish projects.
A. “Conservatism assumes the existence of an objective moral order based upon ontological foundations.”
B. “Within the limits of an objective moral order, the primary reference of conservative political and social thought and action is the individual person.”
C. “The cast of American conservative thought is profoundly anti-utopian.”
D. “It is on the basis of these last two points — concern for the individual person and rejection of utopian design — that the contemporary American conservative attitude to the state arises….Conservatives may vary on the degree to which the power of the state should be limited, but they are agreed on the principle of limitation.”
E. “Similarly, American conservatives are opposed to state control of the economy.”
F. “American conservatism derives from these positions its firm support of the Constitution of the United States as originally conceived — to achieve the protection of individual liberty in an ordered society by limiting the power of government.”
G. “In their devotion to Western civilization and their unashamed and unself-conscious American patriotism, conservatives see Communism as an armed and messianic threat to the very existence of Western civilization and the United States.”
Presumably, today Frank would say that the same holds true for radical Islam, in all its contemporary configurations and guises.
To one degree or another, most of the members of today’s conservative movement would accept these articles of belief. Even Americans who consider themselves conservative without giving any thought to being part of a movement would probably adhere to them, for as Oakeshott says, conservatism is a disposition, as he implies a reasonable disposition. Yet here let me take mild exception to Oakeshott’s choice of the word disposition. Irving Kristol and Bill Buckley, too, accepted it, but a better word is temperament. Herb London, a formidable mind in contemporary conservatism, who heads the Hudson Institute, argues for the word, and I think he is right. A disposition could be dismissed as a mere mood. Temperament has more substance and consistency. It is a manner of acting, feeling, and thinking. In our time it is a better description of the origin of the conservative sensibility.
A proper definition of modern conservatism is then this: Conservatism is a temperament to delight in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — including in that pursuit the desideratum that John Locke mentioned in his original variation of this theme, the acquisition and exchange of property. Modern conservatism is a temperament, not an ideology or an anxiety. It is a love of liberty, not a misdemeanor.
R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr. is the founder and editor in chief of The American Spectator. He is the author of The Death of Liberalism, published by Thomas Nelson Inc. His previous books include the New York Times bestseller Boy Clinton: the Political Biography; The Impeachment of William Jefferson Clinton; The Liberal Crack-Up; The Conservative Crack-Up; Public Nuisances; The Future that Doesn’t Work: Social Democracy’s Failure in Britain; Madame Hillary: The Dark Road to the White House; The Clinton Crack-Up; and After the Hangover: The Conservatives’ Road to Recovery.
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