In 1976 George H. Nash published his definitive history, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945. In it he recounted the somewhat fractious workings of a philosophic and political coalition made up of libertarians and fellow-traveling economists, traditionalists, and pro-military anti-Communists. Neoconservatives soon aligned themselves to this aggregation, focusing on the excesses of the welfare state and the Communist threat worldwide.
These seemingly incompatible elements united around Ronald Reagan to capture the presidency in 1980. This, in turn, led to supply-side tax cuts, prosperity and massive rearmament that forced the Soviet Empire into bankruptcy.
Today, in the post-Cold War era, traditionalists and libertarians are poles apart on issues such as marriage and the war on drugs. Realists, neoconservatives, and neo-isolationists snipe at each other on foreign policy and military matters. There is also a lively debate between libertarians and Young Gun reformers over the extent to which the federal government should deal with inequality, education, and family policy. I have described this recent kerfuffle here.
Moreover, Tea Partiers seem to fixate on cutting small change, like foreign aid, from the federal budget while ignoring the looming Death Star of unfunded liabilities for entitlements — Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid — not to mention interest on the national debt. And the GOP base in agricultural states demands, and continues to receive, generous subsidies, tariffs, and miscellaneous goodies from compliant Pachyderms, driving all varieties of conservatives crazy. Corporate cronyism divides establishmentarians from conservative activists as does immigration (or “amnesty” at any rate).
Of course, a distinction must be made between conservatives and Republicans who are not always the same. But, come on, where else are conservatives of any stripe to go when the chips are down on Election Day? The Reagan triad may be frayed at the edges, but it is still a working coalition that demonstrated its resilience in the recent mid-term election.
So what is a “conservative” in 21st century America?
Years ago I stumbled upon an eloquent characterization of his own conservatism by the English writer Evelyn Waugh. It appeared in his book Robbery Under Law: The Mexican Object Lesson (1939),which he wrote, under contract, after a trip to Mexico prompted by the socialist government’s expropriation the British oil interests. I have not read the book, but Martin Stannard quotes it at length in the first volume of his biography of Waugh published in the U.S. in 1987:
Let me, then, warn the reader that I was a Conservative when I went to Mexico and that everything I saw there strengthened my opinions. I believe that man is, by nature, an exile and will never be self-sufficient or complete on this earth; that his chances of happiness and virtue, here, remain more or less constant through the centuries and, generally speaking, are not much affected by the political and economic conditions in which he lives; that the balance of good and ill tends to revert to a norm; that sudden changes of physical condition are usually ill, and are advocated by the wrong people for the wrong reasons; that the intellectual communists of today have personal, irrelevant grounds for their antagonism to society, which they are trying to exploit.
This passage has a very high curmudgeon quotient guaranteed to cause Saul Alinsky to roll over in his grave. As Stannard observed, “It is brilliantly written, its rhetorical structure echoing the Creed.” But there is more:
I believe in government; that men cannot live together without rules but that these should be kept at the bare minimum of safety; that there is no form of government ordained from God as being better than any other; that the anarchic elements in society are so strong that it is a whole-time task to keep the peace. I believe that inequalities of wealth and position are inevitable and that it is therefore meaningless to discuss the advantages of their elimination; that men naturally arrange themselves in a system of classes; that such a system is necessary for any form of cooperative work, more particularly the work of keeping a nation together. I believe in nationality; not in terms of race or of divine commissions for world conquest, but simply this: mankind inevitably organizes itself into communities according to its geographical distribution; these communities by sharing a common history develop common characteristics and inspire a local loyalty; the individual family develops most happily and fully when it accepts these natural limits. I do not think that British prosperity must necessarily be inimical to anyone else, but if, on occcasions [sic], it is, I want Britain to prosper and not her rivals. I believe that war and conquest are inevitable; that is how history has been made and that is how it will develop. I believe that Art is a natural function of man; it so happens that most of the greatest art has appeared under systems of political tyranny, but I do not think it has a connection with any particular system, least of all with representative government, as nowadays in England, America and France it seems popular to believe; artists have always spent some of their spare time in flattering the governments under whom they live, so it is natural that, at the moment, English, American and French artists should be volubly democratic.
There is something here to offend or please everyone. For most Americans Waugh’s view on classes and conquest may grate. But there is much common sense in this statement on the limits of politics, the reality of nationality, and much more. Notes biographer Martin Stannard, Waugh’s propositions are “those of a pragmatic aesthete rather than those of the right wing of the Conservative Party.”
“Politics, to Waugh, were only useful in so far as they maintained traditional moral and aesthetic standards. His horror of experimentation he saw as justified by the Mexican experiment in which, he believed, theft, murder and religious persecution had been legalized,” writes Stannard.
Neither Waugh, nor Edmund Burke, can be completely grafted onto American society, culture, and politics. But there is wisdom these Anglo-Catholic writers can offer conservatives on this side of the Atlantic as they sort out what it means to be a conservative in the age of Obama.
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