Intellectual Conservatism Isn’t Dead: It’s On the Margin
by Rick Moran
There is a terrific exchange of views on the health of conservatism over at Slate between conservative writer Reihan Salam and Sam Tannenhaus (author of Death of Conservatism). Salam is author (with Ross Douthat) of Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream[ that was not very well received by movement conservatives. He is also the Schwartz Fellow at the decidedly unconservative New America Foundation.
I suppose for many on the right, this kind of background disqualifies Mr. Salam from having anything relevant to say20about conservatism. No matter. I find Salam’s writing to border on brilliant at times, and his insights into modern America fresh and thought provoking. I’m sure this exchange with Tannenhaus over the latter’s new book will not change anyone’s mind.
Salam offers a brief summary that will also familiarize readers here with the substance of Tannenhaus’s book:
To summarize briefly, you offer a sharp distinction between rigidly ideological movement conservatism, which you describe as more Jacobin than Burkean in its tone and in its anti-democratic ambitions, and the more modest and restrained “Beaconsfield position” advocated by Whittaker Chambers, a man whose courage, intellect, and independence you plainly admire. These two strands, revanchist and realist, have been present throughout the history of the American right and, as you vividly demonstrate in the case of William F. Buckley Jr., often coexist in the work of leading conservative intellectuals. The book ends with the revanchists triumphant as even neoconservative intellectuals, once the arch-realists, find themselves overtaken by ideological zeal.
“Beaconsfield” refers to the peerage of Conservative Party Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli (Earl of Beaconsfield) and his school of mid-19th century reform conservatism in England that embraced measures expanding the government’s purview into areas where it was previously unknown. Tannenhaus admires Disraeli, holding him up as the kind of conservative to which the right should aspire. But today, he would probably be seen as a “Big Government” conservative by the base given the numerous reforms that brought government in to play a role in education, and worker safety, while committing the definite conservative no-no back then of expanding sufferage to include almost all male heads of households.
Disraeli is usually referred to as the “Father of Modern Conservatism” – and for good reason as this 2005 piece by David Gelernter makes clear:
THUS DISRAELI FOUND HIMSELF in a position to rebuild the Tory party. How did he go about it? Reverence for tradition was central to Toryism and to Disraeli’s own personality. He wanted his new-style Tory party to embody respect for tradition–wanted it to be new and old, to be a modern setting for ancient gems, a new crown displaying old jewels. This was a popular idea in 19th-century Britain, where “the future” and “the past” were both discovered, simultaneously.
Disraeli’s approach was like Barry and Pugin’s in designing a new home for Parliament. The old one burned to the ground (except for a magnificent medieval hall and a few odds and ends) in 1834. The new structure, it was decided, should be built of modern materials and work like a modern building with all the conveniences–but should look medieval. The intention wasn’t play-acting or aesthetic fraud; it was to use the best ideas of the past and pre sent alongside each other.
The result was wildly successful, one of history’s greatest public buildings. Disraeli aimed to accomplish something similar for the Tory party. His underlying thought, which defined Disraeli-type Toryism and reshaped conservatism for all time, was that the Conservative party was the national party. Sounds simple and is. But everything else followed. If you understood “national” properly, then (on the one hand) the Tories must be a democratic, “universal,” progressive party that cared about the poor and working classes–since the party was national it must care for the whole nation, for all classes. But the Tories must also be a patriotic party that revered ancient traditions and institutions, again inasmuch as they were the national–and therefore honored profoundly the nation’s heritage and distinctive character.
He put it like this:
“In a progressive country change is constant; and the great question is not whether you should resist change which is inevitable, but whether that change should be carried out in deference to the manners, the customs, the laws and the traditions of a people, or whether it should be carried out in deference to abstract principles, and arbitrary and general doctrines.”
I present intellectual conservatism at its most lucid and sublime.
Perhaps here is where the schism between movement conservatives and reformists is most pronounced; the very idea of “change.” Not the revanchist view that the United States should return to some unrea listic, impossible to achieve, 19th century “small government” paradise – before there was a New Deal or Great Society. But rather the idea that conservatism at its best manages change so that ultimately, it is based on the traditions – “the manners, the customs, the laws” – that are the best of any society.
Even Russell Kirk embraced this view of change in his 10th Conservative Principle:
Tenth, the thinking conservative understands that permanence and change must be recognized and reconciled in a vigorous society. The conservative is not opposed to social improvement, although he doubts whether there is any such force as a mystical Progress, with a Roman P, at work in the world. When a society is progressing in some respects, usually it is declining in other respects. The conservative knows that any healthy society is influenced by two forces, which Samuel Taylor Coleridge called its Permanence and its Progression. The Permanence of a society is formed by those enduring interests and convictions that gives us stability and continuity; without that Permanence, the fountains of the great deep are broken up, society slipping into anarchy. The Progression in a society is that spirit and that body of talents which urge us on to prudent reform and improvement; without that Progression, a people stagnate.
Change is essential to the body social, the conservative reasons, just as it is essential to the=2 0human body. A body that has ceased to renew itself has begun to die. But if that body is to be vigorous, the change must occur in a regular manner, harmonizing with the form and nature of that body; otherwise change produces a monstrous growth, a cancer, which devours its host. The conservative takes care that nothing in a society should ever be wholly old, and that nothing should ever be wholly new. This is the means of the conservation of a nation, quite as it is the means of conservation of a living organism. Just how much change a society requires, and what sort of change, depend upon the circumstances of an age and a nation.
I would hope that our liberal friends read the preceding and understand why conservatives cannot and will not support the Obama version of national health care reform. It is decidedly not connected to our traditions, or our customs, and in no way can be supported since it posits “change” as some kind of mythical “progress.”
Neither, however, should many on the right believe that change should always be opposed simply out of opposition to the majority. This is mindless nihilism, and is also decidedly “unconservative” if you believe that society should be constantly trying to improve itself.
I took this detour into Disraeli and the notion of “change” because it is at the heart of Tannehaus’s critique; that movement conservatism has short circuited the connection between intellectuals and themselves by rejecting logic and reason, substituting paranoi a and an incipient anti-intellectualism in its stead.
Salam responds this way:
I have a slightly different interpretation of conservatism’s excesses. For good reason, you place the conservative intelligentsia at the heart of your story. I tend to think intellectuals belong on the margins. The revanchism you lament is not the invention of conservative elites. My view is that it is rooted in the considered judgments of a small but intense and vocal minority of American voters, many of whom are white evangelical Christians living in the Southern United States. As labor economist Stephen Rose argued in 2006, these are voters who are very tax-sensitive; they tend to settle in regions with a low cost of living, where self-reliance seems more plausible than it does from my vantage point as a lifelong city dweller. Social conservatism arguably has a totemic significance; because rural red America suffers from scandalously high rates of divorce, the sanctity of marriage is a live issue. Far from resenting public moralism, the voters I have in mind consider it a vital part of a decent, well-governed society.
What you see as conservative decline strikes me as a structural consequence of our permeable democracy. In Britain, for example, large majorities of the public back the restoration of the death penalty—more, according to some polls, than in the United States, where we’ve experienced its many downsides—but an elite cross-party consensus keeps the issue off the table. For better or for worse, our system gives the most intensely committed voters a voice that can’t be ignored. We remember the movement to impeach President Clinton as the wild-eyed crusade of out-of-touch congressional leaders, yet it was also fueled by the outrage of rank-and-file conservatives. And in a similar vein, Karl Rove never imagined that opposition to same-sex marriage would cement a permanent Republican majority. It was a distraction that I’m sure he found distasteful. President Bush himself could barely stomach talking about the issue. Yet talk about it he did, in deference to the need to press every advantage.
Is it an accident that southern evangelicals (and those who sympathize with their social agenda nationwide) are the most reliable GOP voters and play such a prominent role in conservatism today? I hesitate to agree with Tannenhaus that these grass roots conservatives exhibit reactionary traits but it is hard to escape the fact that much of the right’s social agenda – anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage (and gay rights), school prayer (“God in the public square”) – is predicated on the belief that attitudes in society that have changed to varying degrees on these issues can be rolled back. I don’t know if this is “reactionary” although I don’t believe that social conservatives are desirous of the kind of “change” that would have been supported by Disraeli or perhaps even Kirk.
I hasten to add that this doesn’t make these issues illegitimate. But they don’t represent my kind of conservatism, nor that of many others.
Tannenhaus’s response is interesting:
Actually, what you call a polemic means to be an interpretive history that makes the opposite case from the one described in your account. Revanchist conservatism did not originate as a form of populist protest. Rather, it was the brainchild of the very elites you say have no influence on our politics. It was conservative intellectuals who argued that the “managerial elite” (James Burnham), the “liberal establishment” (William Buckley), or the “new class” (Irving Kristol) had seized control of American politics and later our society. This argument, in its inverted Marxism, gave theoretical shape to the unarticulated anxieties and suspicions—anti-government, anti-institutional, antinomian—of the “small but intense and vocal minority,” many of them “white evangelical Christians,” who today populate the eroding island of movement conservatism. Even today the right insists it is driven by ideas, even if the leading thinkers are now Limbaugh and Beck, and the shock troops are tea-partiers and anti-tax demonstrators.
In other words, the movement has thrived not as a top-down operation, nor as a bottom-up one, but as a convergence of shared prejudices and cultural enmities. Thus, the right’s first great modern tribune was Joe McCarthy, whose theatrical “investigations” of “enemies within” were either endorsed or indulged by each of the intellectuals mentioned above.
The same antagonisms con tinued through the Bush years. Your reading of that dismal period seems rather wishful to me. Bush and Rove built their presidency on revanchism. This isn’t surprising since Rove’s number-crunching following the 2000 election—when Bush lost the popular vote by 500,000 or more—suggested that the GOP ticket had failed to exploit the evangelical base that might have yielded a majority. No wonder Bush devoted so much of his presidency to courting social conservatives—remember stem cells, intelligent design, the faith-based initiative? Nor was Rove taken aback by opposition to same-sex marriage. On the contrary, he made it a centerpiece in the 2004 election. It is the politics of the excluded middle, or center, and it defines the right today on every stratum.
Tannenhaus believes that the intellectuals who supplied much of the substance and heft to conservatism in the 1970’s ended up embracing ideology as a means to political power, igniting the passions of the base by focusing on “enemies” and “antagonisms.” He calls it a “convergence” of the elites (most of whom are not intellectuals I might add) with the base. Who was driving whom? I agree more with Salam on this one. The entrance into politics of evangelicals, motivated by TV preachers like Jerry Falwell, was definitely a grass roots phenomenon and one of the more significant political events since World War II. Reagan largely gave lip service to the Christian right (as Roosevelt gave lip service to the far left agenda during his adminis tration), and George Bush 41 stupidly rejected them.
It was left to Bush 43 to pander shamelessly to the evangelicals, increasing their power and influence, while running a corporatist, big government administration. He was supported by conservatives largely because of his social conservatism and his hawkish foreign policy. Also, the alternative of John Kerry was unpalatable to almost all on the right.
But did this “convergence” lead us to the sorry state of intellectual conservatism today? Salam replies to Tannenhaus by positing a different explanation:
And as I suggested in my first entry, I really do think that something structural is going on: In the past, the democratic marketplace was less “efficient,” and that was in a sense a very good thing for writers and thinkers and public-spirited elected officials, who had the freedom to defy movement discipline. Our more fragmented media landscape has far lower barriers to entry, and it allows passionately engaged citizens, as well as cranks, to organize and even intimidate. When you consider that Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa fears a hard-right Internet-enabled primary challenge, his otherwise puzzling behavior in the health reform debate starts to make sense.
Throughout the book, you draw on political analyst Samuel Lubell to argue that America’s party system consists of a dominant sun, a majority party that sets the ideological agenda, and a minority moon. And like many observers, you suggest that after a long period of Republican dominance, during which Democrats came to embrace conservative insights as part of a new consensus, we have now entered a progressive era. And so conservatives face a choice: Either a new generation of Republican Disraelis will champion a Bismarckian welfare state, a view that Irving Kristol championed as late as 2003 (I disagree with your interpretation of the late Kristol, but I digress), or the movement will be doomed to snarling insignificance at the margins of our political life.
That’s a pretty stark choice but, I believe, an accurate one. Salam said in his first piece that he believed the anger of the base would “steadily work its way out in hundreds of thousands of roiling conversations in office parks, shopping malls, living rooms, and lecture halls.” And, I might add, the voting booth. It is there that movement conservatism will finally meet its own “Waterloo.”
I believe it inevitable that even if the GOP mounts some kind of comeback in 2010, it will be shortlived. The systemic contradictions inherent in the movement as well as a continued disconnect with the concerns of ordinary voters will spell defeat of what will almost certainly be a movement candidate for president in 2012. Then, the excuse that their candidate wasn’t “conservative enough” will ring hollow and they will be faced with the yawning chasm opening beneath their feet that their angry, paranoid, illogical worldview is not shared with many outside of the cocoon they have created for themselves.