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The chief difficulty in assessing the state of contemporary American conservatism is arriving at some understanding of its nature and meaning. What makes this task so difficult is that conservatism, unlike liberalism, is not an ideology. Proof of this, I think, resides in the fact that whatever principles we might come up with to embrace the various conservatisms in the free world are so general, lofty, and abstract that they reveal little about the “essences” or peculiar characteristics of the conservatisms from which they were derived. Nor, for this reason, are these principles of much help to the various conservatisms in dealing with the political realities of their own nations. On the other hand, precisely because liberalism is an ideology, its principles and goals are essentially the same from country to country. Liberalism’s ideological character accounts for the well-known body of unity and sense of camaraderie that exists among liberals throughout the world. It even helps to account for the well-known phenomenon of the “Volvo liberal.”

If, contrary to the impression conveyed by its detractors, American conservatism is not the ideological counterpoise to liberalism, its chief characteristic, nevertheless, is and has been its resistance to the programs and policies that are the logical outgrowth of liberal ideology. For example, in one of the finer and more comprehensive statements on the substance of political conservatism and its goals (National Review, 31 December 1985), Joseph Sobran provides us with even a finer insight into the nature and strategy of liberalism. Moreover, in his view, conservatism is in need of a “dose of radicalism” to undo what the liberal has accomplished over the decades so that even the conservative agenda, if one can call it that, is in large part defined by liberalism. Yet, the fact that conservatism can legitimately be viewed as a reaction to liberalism should not be taken to mean that conservatism is essentially negative in character. As Sobran points out, the liberal is at war with the American tradition and what it stands for. The liberal’s belief in the perfectability of man, his quest for an egalitarian society, his unbounded faith in reason, and his secularism are all alien to the underpinnings of our social and political order. The unrelenting assault on the motives, character, and aims of our Founding Fathers by the intellectual liberals only manifests an underlying hatred of the American tradition. And so, too, at another level, are the liberal assaults on the role and status of organized religion, private property rights, and, inter alia, the family. But American conservatism, in contrast, is rooted in what it understands to be the principles which guided our Founders; principles which, in turn, it sees as rooted in the better part of Western civilization, though adapted to the peculiarities of the American condition.

This conception of conservatism, though admittedly sketchy, would seem to embrace at least the basic and acknowledged elements of American conservatism. Even in its skeletal form—without, that is, expansion or refinement to reflect all the differences, nuances and refinements in conservative thinking—it constitutes an instructive and revealing point of departure for assessing the state of contemporary American conservatism and its course over the last decade. To begin with, we can see at once that there have been changes, and very drastic ones, within conservative ranks. The fact that many contemporary conservative ‘heroes” and leaders were but a decade ago liberal Democrats is testimony to just how drastic this change has been. Indeed, most individuals in this category—Jeane Kirkpatrick, who now finds herself even the darling of New Right elements, being perhaps the stellar example—achieved this status while openly proclaiming their support for the Hubert Humphrey brand of domestic liberalism. To be sure, a partial alliance between the intellectual heirs of a Hubert Humphrey or a “Scoop” Jackson and conservatives is understandable, particularly given their strong anti-Soviet (not necessarily anti-Communist) stance. However, that they should assume prominence in traditionally conservative circles is baffling. Equally baffling is the identification of certain “neoconservatives”—e.g., Moynihan, Glazer, Wattenberg—with conservatism; an identification fostered, no less, by the patron saints of conservatism at National Review. (In fairness it should be noted that most of those identified as neoconservatives shun this label which has been pinned on them for having strayed here or there from the liberal line. Yet, I cannot help but think that they rather like the notoriety and attention which comes with the label.)

This is not to deny that some neoconservatives and fugitives from the Coalition for a Democratic Majority have not been useful allies in the political arena on certain issues, particularly those relating to defense and Soviet-American concerns. I point to them only because, in my opinion, they best illustrate how tenuous the conservative alliance behind the so-called “Reagan revolution” actually is. That the neoconservatives are not at ease, so to speak, with other members of this conservative alliance should scarcely come as a surprise. We could hardly expect too much by the way of congruence on social and domestic issues between the neoconservatives and, say, the New Right. What is more, the focus of their concerns is significantly different. The New Right is primarily interested in what we have come to term the social issues, such as prayer in the public schools, abortion, crime in the streets, busing, and pornography. But the sources of the uneasiness within the coalition are deeper and go well beyond issues to matters of style. Many, if not most, neoconservatives—along with, I might add, many paleoconservatives whose concerns have long paralleled those of the New Right—find the appeals of the New Right simplistic, uninformed, and unnecessarily strident. In part, this attitude is no doubt due to a disposition on the part of academics to take a detached view of politics and to look with some great suspicion, if not alarm, on mass political movements; a disposition which in this case, I need hardly add, is reinforced by the role Christian fundamentalism plays in the New Right movement.

To this point I have only emphasized certain aspects of what close students of American conservatism—e.g., George Gilder, Paul Gottfried, George Nash—have noted about its contemporary character. And it is from this perspective that my observations relative to the nature and future of American conservatism should be understood. First, while it is true that conservatives must never be unmindful of the Soviet threat to our survival and that of the free world, it is also true that if the Soviet Union were to disappear tomorrow, American conservatism would still be confronted with an internal liberalism which is eroding the foundations of the republic. And this internal erosion, obviously, affects our capacity and willingness to defend ourselves against the external dangers of Communism. What conservative, for instance, has not at one time or another thought hard about the question of whether the greatest danger to the republic comes from within or without? To the degree, then, that conservatism in recent years has focused on the external dangers for the sake of harmony within its ranks or political expediency, it is pursuing a fatal strategy.

Second, if rolling back the liberal excesses that have become part of our landscape requires the “radicalism” of which Sobran writes, this roll-back can only come about by cultivating the popular roots of conservatism. From the conservatives’ point of view, what certainly must be regarded as one of the most promising developments in recent years has been the growth of popular resistance to and disillusionment with liberalism and its policies; a reaction which has come, albeit, only after a heavy price has been paid by both society and individuals in the form of a social, cultural, and economic degeneration. Nevertheless, it is interesting to note, conservatism does not seem to have enjoyed anywhere near a corresponding resurgence in the groves of academe or among the gurus of the mass media, groups largely unaffected by the disastrous policies which their liberal ideology fathered. These bastions of liberalism seem virtually impregnable. What this points to is that a conservative revolution is not likely to come about from the “top” down; that is, it will not be “sparked” and fed by the media or brought about by a “take over” of higher education or even through a “balanced” education wherein the follies of liberalism might be laid bare. Rather, in no small measure the future success of conservatism will rest on the shoulders of conservative politicians who, much as President Reagan has been able to do, can give expression to the discontents, identify their source, and thereby maintain and broaden the alliance.

Finally, to turn to the matter of priorities, the first order of business for American conservatives ought to be the restoration of the constitutional order bequeathed to us by our Founders. Clearly the overriding issue in this respect involves the role and function of the Supreme Court. Other constitutional issues—e.g., the relative domains of the legislative and executive powers which concerned many conservatives in decades past—pale into insignificance when compared with the extravagant and preposterous claims advanced by the modern judiciary and its liberal supporters. How the liberal has advanced and solidified his goals by reading his ideology into the Constitution, thereby skirting the deliberative political processes, needs no recounting here. But in this process he has shown utter contempt for the basic principles inherent to and underlying our constitutional system. He would have us believe that ours is a judicial supremacy constitution which it patently is not. By his words and deeds, he strives to legitimate no less than judicial tyranny, a state of affairs wherein the courts have taken unto themselves executive and legislative powers.

The growing public awareness that there are compelling and valid grounds to question the liberals’ view of the courts, the fact that liberals are increasingly on the defensive on this issue, are promising signs which have appeared only in the last decade. A principled answer to this critical concern does not consist in holding out the prospects of a conservative Court that can use the Constitution in the same way liberals have. Nor is a realistic solution one that relies on the judges to restrain themselves. The test of conservative intellectuals and leadership in the coming years is not only to keep the issue in the political arena, but to fashion a remedy that accords with our republican heritage—rule by the deliberate will of the people.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.  Reprinted with the gracious permission of Modern Age (Spring 1986).

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1 reply to this post
  1. In my humble opinion, the real problem with conservatism is not that it is hard to pin down. The real problem is that it attached itself to the Republican Party, which was inherently supersidiarist in its inception. And since then, it has made some very strange bedfellows.

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