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Alive and Kicking

Reports of conservatism's demise have been greatly exaggerated.

11:00 PM, Feb 24, 2009 • By JAMES W. CEASER
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In the rare moments that public intellectuals have not been extolling President Obama's supposed new philosophy of pragmatism, they have turned their efforts to writing requiems for conservatism. These contributions offer variations on the same theme. The conservative movement is dead or dying, the victim of its own theoretical errors. Not mistakes of political leaders, nor the occurrence of unfortunate events, nor even the inevitable grievances that accumulate with holding office, are to blame. The root cause of the death of conservatism lies in the realm of ideas, and conservatives today have earned the just deserts of a defective philosophy.

The "end of conservatism" genre made its appearance just after the election, in the full flush of Obama's victory. Despite ritual claims of intellectuals to their independence of judgment, the general reaction of most of them showed how greatly they stood in awe of the voice of the majority, at least where that majority could be depicted--as it universally was in 2008--as representing the progressive wave of the future. With the moral weight of the public behind them, it was time to pronounce final judgment on what had been the dominant governing coalition of a whole era.

Among the first to rush into print with a summary judgment was the political theorist Mark Lilla ("The Perils of Populist Chic," The Wall Street Journal, November 8, 2008). Lilla narrated the fall of conservatism in the context of his personal intellectual odyssey. Coming to age as a thinker in the 1970s when liberalism appeared to be "utterly exhausted," Lilla was repelled by the "radical posing of [his] professors and fellow students." Though apparently never drawn to the substance of conservatism, Lilla admired the "comportment" of conservative intellectuals, who displayed "maturity and seriousness," "historical perspective," and a "sense of proportion." In contrast to their liberal counterparts, they were "unapologetic elites, but elites who loved democracy and wanted to help it."

Alas, this high-minded "comportment" began to give way in the eighties, just as conservatives acquired real political influence. Conservative intellectuals started to display antipathy to intellectuals as a group, whom they may have suspected of clinging bitterly to their secularism and multiculturalism. Their contempt gradually turned into a full-blown demagogic populism that culminated in 2008 in their support of Sarah Palin. For Lilla, this was the final straw. More in sadness than anger, he concluded that "the conservative intellectual tradition is already dead. And all of us, even liberals like myself, are poorer for it." Conservatism had failed in one of its most important tasks, which is contributing to the development of liberal intellectuals.

Writing shortly thereafter in the same vein, E J. Dionne, a columnist at the Washington Post and a frequent invitee to university campuses, neatly divided conservatism into two camps, labeled the "ideological conservatives" and the "dispositional conservatives" ("Which GOP will Obama Face?" the Washington Post, November 18, 2008). Ideological conservatives were those stuck in the old way of thinking; they were believers in tax-cutting, small government, "extreme social conservatism" (what other kind is there?), and, presumably, a democracy agenda abroad. These conservatives continue to think of Ronald Reagan as great model. Dispositional conservatives are more moderate and pragmatic. "Dispositional conservatives have leanings and affections, but not an ideology." Their hero is David Cameron. The triumph of ideological conservatism appears to be what accounted for the GOP's downfall. This is, after all, the age of pragmatism.

Dionne can be credited with adding to the end of conservatism genre by introducing the Manichean theme of good conservatism (of a dispositional comportment) and bad conservatism (of an ideological comportment). This simple distinction, like Lilla's taxonomy of thoughtful and populist, has the curious quality of being at odds with conventional judgments that relied on political success. It was the "bad" conservatives--assuming that, in Dionne's estimation, Reagan was more ideological than dispositional--who actually rebuilt the Republican party and helped to win power, while the "good" ones were, at most, allies and helpers. From Dionne's perspective, the only good conservative is a docile one, someone who serves at the pleasure of liberals.

What seems to lie behind this line of analysis is an attempt to discredit the whole reign of conservative-influenced governance that began with Ronald Reagan. The brilliance of the approach is that it does so without ever mentioning the concrete political record and accomplishments of the period, but speaks instead of putative characteristics of various ideas, as if these ideas alone, and not the acts taken by conservative leaders, are what govern the world. This objective becomes even more evident in a long article recently published in the New Republic by Sam Tanenhaus entitled "Conservatism is Dead." With Tanenhaus the "end of conservatism" genre reaches its full development, in which, as so often occurs in the evolution of literary forms, elegance and refinement have replaced vigor and simplicity. Writing with conspicuous erudition, Tanenhaus gives an account of conservatism that fleshes out in much greater detail the previous narrative. The difficulties with modern conservatism, he argues, appeared at exactly the moment that it became a movement in the 1970s and 1980s. The intellectual figures involved in creating this movement built it by "organizing cultural antagonisms"; they defined conservatism "not by what it yearns to conserve, but by what it longs to destroy," e.g., tenured radicals, the media elites, activist judges, experts. The whole movement was predicated on turning things back and expressed a "revanchist" attitude. It was "ideological." Like Lilla and Dionne, Tanenhaus reverses what a surface political history of the Reagan era had indicated and reveals a truth that all missed: that conservatism was going downhill from the moment it appeared to be going uphill.

Nothing in this modern American conservative movement, Tanenhaus argues, would have been comprehensible to the originator of genuine conservatism, Edmund Burke. Burke favored a way of thinking that was based "not on a particular set of ideological principles, but rather distrust of all ideologies." Burke's thought represents the only authentic conservatism (good conservatism) while the conservatism we have come to know, which Tanenhaus derides as "what passes for the conservative movement", is bad conservatism. Indeed, it is not conservative at all, but "profoundly and defiantly un-conservative--in its ideas, arguments, strategies, and above all its vision." It is un-conservative, because it is "ideological" and, oh yes, "revanchist."

Tanenhaus expresses even more sadness than Lilla about what has happened to conservatism. His wish is not merely to learn from conservatism, but to rescue it. He is a crusader. He wants to purge the entire conservative movement of today and have it renounce "ideology," as he says liberals wisely did in the 1980s. His revived conservatism, echoing some unspecified period of the past, would "serve the vital function of clarifying our shared connection to the past and giving articulate voice to the normative beliefs Americans have striven to maintain even in the worst of times." Such a blood and guts appeal, charged with so compelling a vision, would presumably allow conservatives to win the hearts and minds of the millions of voters whom the modern conservative movement has forsaken. Or perhaps Tanenhaus does not want conservatism actually to vie to govern, but to recover its "honorable intellectual and political tradition" of being the house servant of liberalism.

For all of his commitment to the cause, Tanenhaus would seem to be a most dubious champion of conservatism. Set aside his understanding of Burke, who could get downright revanchist when it came to excoriating "university professors," "publicists," and "speculators." The more central question would be why an American conservatism should aspire to be entirely "Burkean" in Tanenhaus's sense. Conservatism, even on Burkean grounds, respects prescription, and the roots of this country are not entirely Burkean. America was founded, at least in some part, on what one historian famously called "ideological origins." Among the sources on which American conservatives have drawn are Alexander Hamilton and Abraham Lincoln, figures whose thought some might not describe as Burkean. (The greatest "pure" Burkean of the nineteenth century, Rufus Choate, denounced the Republican Party in the 1850s for its ideological tendency of revering the "glittering generalities" of the Declaration of Independence.) While no conservative movement could exist without a Burkean voice, that voice is--and has been--only one part of the American conservative choir.

No person of sound judgment is in favor of "ideology," if by that word one is referring to the holistic systems of thought represented by Marxism or Jacobinism or Fascism, all of which repudiate constitutional politics. If the term is to be used differently as the basis of a fundamental taxonomy in a democratic nation, it would seem only proper to define it in a way that makes sense. Tanenhaus instead employs it, in one of the oldest ideological tricks in the book, as a tool of denunciation. At most, what one can glean from Tanenhaus and Dionne is that conservatives, besides vilifying certain categories of people (something liberals never do), put more emphasis on explicit principles or foundations than do liberals, who prefer to preach their in-tunedness with the march of humanity and their progressive values. (What, after all, is the need for explicit principles if everyone who counts already knows what is right?) But denouncing a stance that takes a great first principle seriously as "ideology" without exploring the merits of that principle would seem almost as unreasonable as defining pragmatism as a position without principles that embraces change for change's sake.

The end of conservative authors seek to create for themselves a neutral perch from which they can peer down and pronounce a priori objective judgments, calling, for example, a John Boehner or a Mitch McConnell an ideologue and a Nancy Pelosi or a Harry Reid a pragmatist. Pragmatism is the magic word to describe what liberals want, but do not want to argue for. It is at this point, as Burke might have said, that we enter "the fairy land of philosophy."

James W. Ceaser is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution and professor of politics at the University of Virginia.