Conservative Nation

Conservative Nation

Mini Teaser: Declarations of conservatism's demise after the 2008 election were greatly exaggerated. As the opposition, American conservatives are in their element—can they draw upon their intellectual tradition to solve what ails America?

by Author(s): James Piereson

The traditional conservatives, led by Buckley, Kirk and Chambers, found this approach too narrow and inadequate for the challenges posed by Communism and the Soviet Union. The Cold War, they argued, was not solely about preserving liberty but also about the conservation of the religious and moral tradition of the West. Because of their efforts, the postwar challenge to socialism was framed in terms of “conservatism” rather than in terms of Hayek’s vision of liberty and individualism.

The neoconservatives, for their part, developed their own synthesis in response to the unraveling of the American welfare state in the 1960s and a parallel rise in anti-American sentiment. From their point of view, the problem with the expanding social safety net was not that it threatened liberty but that it increasingly promoted disorder, crime, broken or unformed families, poor schools and a general loss of authority in society. The problem, in other words, was not that it led to collectivism but that it undermined the middle-class values upon which a successful commercial civilization must be based. Unlike the classical liberals and traditional conservatives, the neoconservatives were not in principle opposed to the welfare state but only to a liberal welfare state that did not uphold the ideals of family, order and community.

All of these writers were conservatives in one or another fundamental sense. An essential aspect of conservatism is the conviction that liberal institutions cannot prosper or even survive on the basis of their own internal resources; they will consume themselves by pushing one or another of their themes—freedom, equality or democracy—to a point of no return. According to the Whig tradition of liberty, republics follow a cycle of rise and inevitable decline as the people or their leaders gradually sacrifice their principles in the pursuit of money, security or power. Conservatives, most of whom respect this tradition of thought, are thus skeptical of liberal notions of inevitable historical progress that do not take into account the ever-present possibilities of corruption and decline. This is one of the key reasons conservatives have always looked for external supports for representative institutions, whether innationalism and patriotism, religion, family and community, or the various “little platoons” of society, as Edmund Burke called them, which provide direction and discipline for liberty and self-interest. Conservatives thus oppose liberal reforms and the further advance of the welfare state because they fear that these developments will erode those private associations and loyalties which sustain and support representative institutions.

As a consequence of this, conservatives look to authors and statesmen like Alexis de Tocqueville, James Madison, Joseph Schumpeter and, of course, Burke as important sources for their ideas. It was Tocqueville who wrote that American democracy needed to maintain an appreciation of aristocratic excellence to prevent the passion for equality from overwhelming liberty. Schumpeter, fellow Austrian to Hayek, argued that capitalism needed support from precapitalist institutions like the family and church to uphold the moral values that allowed it to thrive. Even James Madison, who hoped that the Constitution contained sufficient internal protections to maintain itself, acknowledged that an element of virtue in the public was necessary to the success of the republican experiment. The seminal conservative thinkers of our era are generally agreed on this larger point, though they have identified these external supports in different areas—Hayek in the founders’ Constitution, Buckley and his colleagues in religion, family and tradition, and Kristol and the neoconservatives in bourgeois virtues and patriotism.


THESE AUTHORS, books and publications are still read by conservatives as authoritative sources for their principles and ideas. Despite the passage of time and the accumulation of events, the classical liberals, traditional conservatives and neoconservatives still represent the main lines of conservative thinking. None, to the surprise of critics, has been discredited among conservatives by recent events—not the classical liberals by the financial crash, not the traditional conservatives by the libertarian cultural politics of our day and not the neoconservatives by the war in Iraq.

The conservative counterattack against the Obama administration has received equal and enthusiastic support from all three directions. And no one finds any sign of internecine warfare among conservatives in the pages of the various intellectual beachheads of neoconservatism and traditional conservatism as one did during the 1980s, for example. Then, some traditionalists complained about the influence of neoconservatives in the Reagan administration. Even before that, traditionalists attacked classical liberals for their libertarian take on moral issues. And more recently, during the presidency of George W. Bush, Buckley and others challenged the neoconservative campaign to export democracy to the Middle East.

At the same time, little that is new or fundamental has been added to the conservative movement since the neoconservatives arrived on the scene. It still runs by and large on that set of ideas developed in the postwar period in response to totalitarianism, socialism, and an expanding and self-confident welfare state. It remains to be seen if these will be adequate to the challenges of the twenty-first century.

This latter point is evident today in the surprising revival of Hayek as a basic source of criticism of current liberal policies coming out of Washington. The critique of Obama’s agenda is increasingly framed in popular circles in terms of “big government” as a threat to liberty and the constitutional order. The Road to Serfdom recently rose to the top of best-seller lists after a popular television host urged his viewers to read it as the clearest diagnosis of the challenges posed by liberal policies. Classical liberalism, which a few decades ago was judged by liberals and many conservatives to be out-of-date, is increasingly being presented as an alternative to the Democratic agenda. Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, has similarly framed the debate as one of “free enterprise” versus “big government.” The Road to Serfdom, however, while a penetrating diagnosis of the corruptions of the welfare state, offers few prescriptions for unwinding it in its mature phase. Hayek warned us not to go down that road in the first place; he did not explain what we should do once we have traveled a considerable distance along it. In an ideal world, these massive national programs would be eliminated. But so long as they exist, conservatives will be forced to deal with them in ways that at least appear positive and constructive.

What we see, then, are conservatives returning to the well of established ideas in their opposition to current liberal initiatives. It is ironic, and perhaps appropriate, that in response to these new programs, conservative thought should come around full circle to the ideals of classical liberalism out of which it was first formed. Yet, in the end, classical liberalism is an effective critique of the left, but it does not offer a philosophy of governance for a nation with a large bureaucratic establishment and substantial responsibilities to maintain order in the world. All of this means that once they regain power, conservatives will have to craft a new governing consensus out of the loose strands of their movement—but this time without the luxury of a period out of power during which they might have refined and tested some of those ideas.


ABOVE ALL—and in spite of the potential intellectual jockeying to come—conservatism will continue to operate as a political force in the years and decades ahead because it has turned itself into a popular, even a populist, movement—something few thought possible when conservatism first took shape. Indeed, popular conservatism still seems almost a contradiction in terms for those who take their bearings from abstract theories as to what conservatism should be: a force for order, continuity, and rule by the best and brightest. Yet in a democratic polity such as exists in the United States, conservatism could not have thrived as an intellectual movement alone without also channeling its ideas into a popular force. Its success in doing so was achieved through a long process by which conservative ideas and critiques of liberalism were developed far in advance of the popular support they eventually earned.

Critics, from Richard Hofstadter in the 1950s to Sam Tanenhaus more recently, have denied that a popular conservatism can exist because, in their view, conservatism must sacrifice its distinctive elements in the process of winning a mass following. They have found American conservatism wanting when compared to that model derived from Edmund Burke’s ever-famous writings on the French Revolution. After all, Burke did endorse governance by the talented, supportedthe status quo (with gradual reform), andpreferredprudence and realism as guides to political action over abstract theories and principles.American conservatism, on the other hand, beginning with anti-Communism, running through the Reagan and Bush IIpresidencies, and now adapting to the current Tea Party movement, has exploited popular appeals, attacked the status quo and “the establishment,” used terms like “the conservative revolution,” and, especially in foreign policy, proposed an “idealistic” rather than a “realistic” approach to dealing withforeignthreats. In view of this, it is not hard to see why some critics claim that American conservatism is not an authentically conservative movement.

Image: Pullquote: The election of 2008 was not a public endorsement of liberalism and a repudiation of conservatism.Essay Types: Essay