Quo Vadis, Conservatism?
H. David Baer

Mitt Romney’s defeat in November appears to have triggered a more extensive than usual post-election dissection. The media tells us the Republican Party is losing voter share among every demographic group except white men, and only one Republican presidential candidate since 1988 has won the popular vote. Commentators are alternately blaming immigration policy, the Tea Party, or social conservatives for the damaged Republican brand. Shortly after the election, The New Republic republished a provocative article written by Sam Tanenhaus in 2009 with the title “Conservatism is Dead.” Clearly conservatism is in trouble. More probably, however, rumors of conservatism’s demise, like those of Mark Twain’s, are greatly exaggerated. Accurate prognosis depends upon a correct diagnosis. How, then, should we diagnose conservatism’s ailments?

Tanenhaus’s diagnosis builds upon a kind of philosophical argument. He believes the conservative movement was flawed from the outset by intellectual incoherence rooted in the differences between traditional conservatives and “revanchist” conservatives. Traditional conservatives were concerned with preserving civil society, while revanchist conservatives wanted to dismantle the New Deal. In Tanenhaus’s words:

The story of postwar American conservatism is best understood as a continual replay of a single long-standing debate. On one side are those who have upheld the Burkean ideal of replenishing civil society by adjusting to changing conditions. On the other are those committed to a revanchist counterrevolution, the restoration of America’s pre-welfare state ancient regime. And, time and again, the counterrevolutionaries have won. The result is that modern American conservatism has dedicated itself not to fortifying and replenishing civil society but rather weakening it through a politics of civil warfare.

The history of the modern conservative movement is not that of a broad coalition built on the alignment of diverse interests, but the tale of a committed group of revolutionaries taking over the Republican Party.

And this interpretation, although flawed in crucial respects, is not altogether implausible. It depends upon an account of recent political history that goes something as follows. The modern conservative movement began with Barry Goldwater’s 1964 Presidential campaign. Goldwater, appealing to Southern resentment of the Civil Rights Act, ran on a platform of states’ rights, repeal of the New Deal, and anti-communism. Although Goldwater was defeated in a historic landslide, his campaign helped turn the South Republican and galvanized movement conservatives. His defeat resulted in a much larger victory; it led to Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s presidency was the conservative movement’s golden age, the moment when the grand conservative coalition was forged. But the Reagan Revolution was betrayed—at least in the view of movement conservatives—by George H. W. Bush, who broke a promise not to raise taxes and “failed to finish” the Persian Gulf war by deciding not to invade Iraq. Bush’s tepid conservatism—movement conservatives believed—led to his defeat by Bill Clinton. But having learned from Goldwater’s defeat how to regroup, the revanchists positioned themselves to capture the presidency of George W. Bush.

The triumph of movement conservatism, however, was also its downfall, according to Tanenhaus. Movement conservatives were behind the disastrous crusade to transform the Middle East through a war of choice in Iraq; and more broadly, the Bush administration’s many failures were rooted in its ideological inflexibility, that is, they were rooted in the total victory of movement conservatives. Movement conservatism is therefore exhausted, although its death, Tanenhaus claims, is actually good for the Republican Party, because “it has been clear for some time the movement is profoundly and defiantly un-conservative—in its ideas, arguments, strategies, and above all its vision.” Without movement conservatives, the Republican Party can recover the legacy of Burkean conservatism.

Edmund Burke, the eighteenth-century Irish-born British statesman known for his Reflections on the Revolution in France, is certainly a wise political thinker worthy of study. His current status as conservatism’s patron state has a lot to do with Russell Kirk’s 1953 book, The Conservative Mind. According to Kirk, the heart of Burke’s conservatism was respect for the unarticulated wisdom of tradition and custom, combined with respect for the social fabric of civil society rooted in tradition:

Human beings, said Burke, participate in the accumulated experience of their innumerable ancestors; very little is totally forgotten. Only a small part of this knowledge, however is formalized in literature and deliberate instruction; the greater part remains embedded instinct, common custom, prejudice, and ancient usage… Often men may not realize the meaning of their immemorial prejudices and customs—indeed, even the most intelligent of men cannot hope to understand all the secrets of traditional morals and social arrangements; but we may be sure that Providence, acting through the medium of human trial and error, has developed every hoary habit for some important purpose. The greatest of prudence is required when man must accommodate this inherited mass of opinion to the exigencies of new times. (Kirk, The Conservative Mind)

The corollary of respect for humanity’s accumulated wisdom is skepticism about grand proposals to transform society in line with some “social ideal,” an ideal usually discerned by reason but uninformed by experience. Unbridled confidence in the possibilities of social engineering is what inspires liberalism and explains its many failures. The disaster of the French Revolution, Burke believed, originated in an exaggerated estimate of the ability of individual reason to improve upon nature and custom. This did not mean Burke’s conservatism was static and inflexible. Burke recognized that change was both inevitable and necessary, writing famously that, “A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation” (Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France). But change should be carried out gradually, with due deference to the wisdom of established practice and the limits of human understanding.

Failure to appreciate the Burkean maxim “correct and conserve,” according to Tanenhaus, is the underlying cause of American conservatism’s unraveling. The revanchists who have taken over the Republican Party, he argues, do not want to conserve any political gains from the last century (which generally speaking are social programs like Social Security); rather, they want to dismantle civil society as we see it today and roll America back into the nineteenth century. And indeed, the current GOP does appear opposed to everything, without ideas or proposals for addressing the nation’s domestic challenges. Many of the libertarians who dominate the Republican Party appear oblivious to the very idea of civil society. Their single solution to all that ails America is deficit reduction, an approach which calls to mind the saying, “when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” But even so, Tanenhaus’s analysis is flawed by a simplistic presentation of Burke. He reduces Burke’s thought to the single maxim “correct and conserve,” but the “corrections” Tanenhuas has in mind are all government social programs, as too, are the gains he seeks to “conserve.” The principle “correct and conserve” thus comes to bear an uncanny resemblance to the pragmatic liberalism of Clinton and Obama. Tanenhaus rarely identifies any actual Burkeans. In his account, they all seem to be working behind the scenes, perhaps in the Democratic Party.

What Tanenhaus finally offers is a pseudo-Burkean interpretation of American conservatism, one that overlooks the tradition of American individualism. That long and broad tradition, rooted both in the religion of the early Puritans and the experience of the American frontier, explains why Americans are more skeptical of government than the nations of Europe, and why, compared to Europe, the United States is a conservative country. No thinker informed by Burke would declare conservatism dead, because the tradition of conservatism is deeply rooted in the American experience.

Still, Tanenhaus may be right that the GOP is losing touch with the tradition of American conservatism. A sizeable constituency within the Republican Party seems to have confused individualism with libertarianism. Because individualism emphasizes self-reliance and limited government, it sometimes looks like libertarianism, but libertarianism is unconcerned with civil society. It believes that when people are free to pursue their selfish interests without regard for community, the few social goods that are needed will materialize on their own. Thus libertarians do not attend to the health of civil society. By contrast, American individualism has always been coupled with volunteerism and a commitment to community. Self-reliant American individualists demonstrate a remarkable capacity to organize at the local level, to form voluntary associations, and to work together to address societal issues. This American volunteerism contrasts with European statism, which seeks to address social problems from the top down, under the guidance of bureaucratic agencies with little democratic accountability. Even in Europe such statist solutions elicit resistance, precisely because they threaten political pluralism and undermine regional self-determination. How much more so, then, will statist solutions generate opposition in the United States, given our strong traditions of individualism, volunteerism, and regionalism. Conservatives know this because they respect tradition. But respecting the distinctive American political experience is not the same thing as ignoring new challenges to civil society as they emerge. Individualism is not the same thing as libertarianism.

One symptom of the eclipse of individualism by libertarianism among conservatives is the ever increasing popularity within their ranks of Ayn Rand. Even Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney’s overrated vice presidential candidate, was reportedly deeply influenced by Atlas Shrugged. But Rand’s atomistic individualism and celebrated selfishness has nothing to do with American individualism. It disregards the bonds of community which conservatives believe give life structure and meaning. It matters, perhaps, that Rand, who emigrated to America in her early twenties, was educated in the Soviet Union. Although she rejected Marxism, she never rejected materialism, and her ethics of selfishness, with its Nietzschean undertones, bears no organic relationship to the American experience. Rand’s individualism disregards civil society, and if truly implemented, would eradicate the social institutions that sustain human communities, ironically atomizing individuals in the same way they were atomized in totalitarian states.

The future of American conservatism is certainly not with Ayn Rand, nor is it with libertarianism. True conservatives can distinguish between limited government and no government. They can recognize the way big business and globalization, as well as big government, threaten local communities. The future of the Republican Party may depend upon the extent to which it rediscovers a conservative concern for civil society. And conservatism as a movement may need to rediscover a Burkean concern for the distinctive American traditions of individualism, volunteerism, and self-determination which give rise to a free and pluralistic body politic.


H. David Baer is Associate Professor of Theology and Philosophy at Texas Lutheran University.

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