In his novel Coningsby, the great British Conservative leader Benjamin Disraeli noted that the first thing a conservative must ask himself is what it is he means to conserve.
Observing many of the men and women in our current political arena who call themselves “conservative,” it is not clear to what sort of political philosophy they are referring. Some appear to be opposed to virtually all government programs, what we would traditionally call anarchy. Others seem opposed to almost any form of taxation, not the “taxation without representation” which stimulated the American Revolution.
Others seem to promote American intervention in a variety of foreign trouble spots and promote a philosophy of spreading democracy to parts of the world which have never known representative government, different from more limited ideas of self-defense. Another group, while proclaiming a commitment to “limited government,” would have government deeply involved in our personal and our family lives, mandating properly approved behavior. In the name of “conservatism,” we see candidates for our highest office taking positions on such subjects as climate change, evolution and sexual orientation.
Those who initiated the modern conservative movement in the years after World War II would hardly recognize some of things which are promoted as conservatism today. To them, what conservatism meant was conserving the American political tradition.
In other societies, people who call themselves conservative are engaged in conserving far different traditions, monarchy in the United Kingdom, for example. To see how far contemporary “conservatives” have strayed from that understanding it is important to briefly look at some elements of the American political tradition and the thinking of the Founding Fathers.
Alexander Hamilton pointed out that, “Here we have already seen enough of the fallacy and extravagance of those idle theories which have amused us with promises of an exemption from the imperfections, weaknesses, and evils incident to society in every shape. Is it not time to awake from the deceitful dream of a golden age, and to adopt as a practical maxim for the direction of our political conduct that we, as well as the other inhabitants of the globe, are yet remote from the happy empire of perfect wisdom and perfect virtue?”
The Founding Fathers understood very well that freedom was not man’s natural state. Their entire political philosophy was based on a fear of excessive government power and the need to limit that power and strictly control it. But they also understood the necessity of government.
In The Federalist Papers, James Madison declared that,
It may be a reflection on human nature that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: You must first enable the government to control the governed, and in the next place oblige it to control itself.
The framers of the Constitution believed that, given man’s nature, government was necessary. But, also given man’s nature, it had to be limited. John Adams expressed the view that, “Whoever would found a state and make proper laws for the government of it must presume that all men are bad by nature.”
As if speaking to those who place ultimate faith in egalitarian democracy, Adams attempted to learn something from the pages of past history:
We may appeal to every page of history we have hitherto turned over, for proofs irrefragable, that the people, when they have been unchecked, have been as unjust, tyrannical, brutal, barbarous and cruel as any king or senate possessed of uncontrollable power…. All projects of government, formed upon a supposition of continual vigilance, sagacity and virtue, firmness of the people when possessed of the exercise of supreme power, are cheats and delusions…. The fundamental article of my political creed is that despotism or unlimited sovereignty, or absolute power, is the same in a majority of a popular assembly, an aristocratic council, an oligarchical junto, and a single emperor. Equally bloody, arbitrary, cruel, and in every respect diabolical.
The Founding Fathers spent much of their lives studying history, carefully considering the rise and fall of Athens and the Roman Republic. Most of those now seeking the presidency have spent little time studying history and trying to understand the nature of the political philosophy of their own country. Jefferson, Washington, Franklin, Hamilton and the others dared to challenge the British Empire, the most powerful of that era. If they did not succeed, which was a real possibility, they would have been executed. They risked everything to create a free society which they hoped would extend into the future.
Today’s office seekers spend most of their time raising money from special interest groups and consulting pollsters about what positions to take on various issues. They risk nothing and, all too often, permit naked ambition to propel them. Is it any wonder that most American have such low regard for most of those holding political office and pursuing it?
In today’s increasingly heated political arena we hear a great deal about walls being built across the Mexican border, about how Obamacare is virtually the same thing as “slavery,” and how America has become a replica of Nazi Germany. Government de-funding of Planned Parenthood, however worthy a goal in itself, has replaced a concern about our crumbling infrastructure and declining schools and middle-class jobs, as a subject of discussion.
In the Republican presidential race, name-calling and insults have taken center-stage. If anyone thinks this represents any form of legitimate conservative discourse, they are seriously mistaken. Tearing our government down and viewing the opposition party as virtual enemy agents is hardly a formula designed to bring Americans together to confront the many challenges, foreign and domestic, which confront us.
And the idea that men and women with no experience in government are the best people to put in charge of our increasingly complex civic enterprise is many things, none of them conservative. We need steady leadership that understands where the levers of power are and how to use them. The world around us has become an increasingly perilous place. To keep our country safe and secure, amateurs and fantasists are hardly what any traditional conservative would recommend.
The conservative political tradition is an honorable and thoughtful one, imbued with an understanding of man’s nature, the necessity for limits on government power, and a respect for differences of opinion. That tradition is now in danger of disappearing as many who proclaim themselves “conservative” today have replaced it with something far different. What they have embraced, in fact, cannot be called a political philosophy at all.
If there was ever a time when we needed the re-emergence of America’s traditional conservative worldview, and temperament, that time is now. Those who desire to be genuine conservatives must answer Disraeli’s question—and decide what it is they genuinely seek to conserve.