The Magazine

IS 'CONSERVATIVE REVOLUTION' AN OXYMORON?

Dec 18, 1995, Vol. 1, No. 14 • By GERTRUDE HIMMELFARB
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Budget reform, welfare reform, Medicare reform -- this formidable combination of reforms has been proudly heralded by a new breed of conservatives as a "conservative revolution." Yet an old-fashioned conservative may find that label disquieting. Surely it is a contradiction in terms. Surely conservatives are meant to conserve, not to revolt -- to conserve by a series of prudent, gradual, incremental accommodations to reality, not by any radical, precipitous change.


That is how conservatives have traditionally thought of themselves, and how some conservatives still do. For the traditional conservative, all change corrupts and radical change corrupts absolutely. Radical change is all the more repugnant because it is in the service of an idea, an idea so compelling as to warrant so radical a change. This too is anathema to the traditional conservative, who is as wary of ideas as of change.


The classical formulation of this view is by the English political philosopher Michael Oakeshott, whose memorable article, "On Being Conservative," defined conservatism as a matter of "disposition" rather than " doctrine" -- a disposition that takes "delight in what is present rather than what was or what may be." And it delights in the present not because the present corresponds to some idea or ideal that is esteemed, not even because it is better than what was or what may be, but simply because it is -- because it is known and familiar, and therefore congenial to the conservative temperament.


Recently this view has been provocatively advanced in the London Spectator by Owen Harries, who takes it as a vindication of Bob Dole. Dole commends himself to Harries not, as others would argue, because he is the best of an uninspired field of candidates, but rather because he is the only true conservative among them. Where some conservatives complain of Dole's lack of principle and conviction, a cynicism and pragmatism that regards everything as negotiable (Harries cites Dole's willingness to "do" a Ronald Reagan if that is what people want), Harries finds in him an "irony" that is the mark of a true conservative.


If this urbane and wiriy endorsement of Dole sounds equivocal, there is othing equivocal in the implied criticism of Newt Gingrich and the other enthusiasts in the new Congress, nor in the distaste for the "Religious Right" and the "Movement Conservatives" who would carry the "conservative revolution" even further than Gingrich might like.


Harries does not quote Oakeshott in this connection. Instead he cites a very thoughtful article by the American political scientit Samuel Huntington, "Conservatism as an Ideology," to the same effect. Huntington disputes the ideological conception of conservatism, the idea that conservatism reflects a "political vision." He reasonthat an ideology, he says, is called for only when rdical change is desired, which is precisely what conervativism rejects, intent as it is upon essentially maintaining the existing order. "No ideational theory," Huntington explains, "can be used to defend established institutions satisfactorily, even when those institutions; in general reflect the values of that ideology."


Huntington's essay was written in 1957; Oakeshott's in 1956. A decade later no conservative could have written so sanguinely about the viability, let alone defensibility, of "established institutions." For these established institu rions were decisively disestablished, first by the counterculture and then by the Great Society, both the products of the tumultuous -- and revolutionary, a conservative might say -- -decade of the 1960s. By now, the nature of our institutions has been so radically altered teat we find ourselves in a society few conservatives can tolerate, let alone "delight in."


What is a conservative to do -- a conservative by "disposition" -- confronted with a revolution so firmly established that it is now the status quo? This revolution may be quantifiably measured: In these three decades the illegitimacy rate has increased sixfold, crime fivefold, unmarried couples sevenfold, one-parent families threefold, familSes headed by a never-married mother twelvefold. And so with statistics of welfare dependency, illiteracy, drug addiction, and the other symptoms of an all too common "social pathology. " This social pathology is most conspicuous, of course, in the underclass, but the rest of society is by no means immune to it. The black illegitimacy rate in 1965, presaging the breakdown of the black family, is very nearly the white illegitimacy rate in 1995.