The Magazine


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.

But this social pathology is only a small part of the story. The revolution in social sensibility is no less dramatic. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan has observed, we have so succeeded in "defining deviancy down" that what was once regarded as abnormal has by now been normalized, and what was once stigmatized as deviant is now tolerated and even sanctioned. "Illegitimacy" itself has been offcially rebaptized: It is now an "alternative mode of parenting" or "non-marital childbearing," terminology that rhetorically legitimizes what was once illegitimate.

By the same token, institutions that were born only yesterday, in the aftermath of the Great Society, are now regarded as so venerable as to defy retrenchment, let alone abolition. Thus, the proposal to reduce the budgets of the endowments for the arts and humanities, which have grown from less than $ 6 million a year each when they were founded in 1966 to $ 172 million each in 1995, is said to be tantamount to abolishing the arts and humanities themselves -- arts and humanities which were, in fact, in a flourishing state before the creation of the endowments. In this hothouse atmosphere, any program boasting even a five-year vintage is seen as an integral and inviolable part of our social system, a moral and legal "entitlement."

This is the situation that faces conservatives today: an entrenched revolution that cannot be significantly affected by the small, incremental changes a conservative would prefer. Nibbling away at the edges of this or that program, or cutting the budget of this or that agency, is little more than an invitation to restore that cut the following year and to devise yet another "initiative" to warrant the continuance of the agency. More important, the failure to challenge the legitimacy of the revolution itself is, in effect, to legitimize it, to give the revolution the moral sanction that ensures its perpetuation.

To undo a revolution, something like a counter-revolution is required. Reolutions, to be sure, are never completely undone, and counter-revolutions never completely restore the status quo ante. Conservatives, unlike those properly called "reactionaries," are well aware of this. (And neoconservatives are even more acutely aware of it.) If they use the rhetoric of "revolution" -- as in the "conservative revolution" -- it is to highlight the gravity of the situation and the seriousness of their enterprise.

Moreover, it is not in the name of an abstract idea or ideology, not out of regard for doctrinal purity or some notion of an ideal society, that conservatives launch their own revolution (or counter-revolution). The " Contract with America" is not the Ten Commandments. It is a legislative program on the order of a party platform, containing specific, practical proposals for reform -- proposals that can have large consequences in redefining and redirecting our social energies but that are by no means absolute or utopian.

Nor is the impulse behind this conservative revolution an obsessive ideological attachment to the free market, as some have claimed. This is the charge that has been brought against Margaret Thatcher in England and that was echoed here most recently by Alan Ehrenhalt in the New York Times. " Market worship," the unfettered free market," the tyranny of the market," an uncontrolled and amoral free market" -- Ehrenhalt's repetition of thse phrases gives a hyperbolic tone to his argument. Can this describe a proposed reform of Medicare that will not privatize health care but merely reduce the increase of government funding from 10 to 6 percent a year; or a reform of welfare that will not eliminate public relief but transfer it to state governments; or a reform of education that will not abolish free public schools but provide vouchers to parents to be spent on schools of their choice; or a reform of taxation that will produce $ 11.2 trillion in seven years rather than the $ 11.4 trillion proposed by the Democrats? If these reforms deserve the label of revolution, it is because they do truly, significantly, change the direction of social policy. But they hardly change it in conformance with some mythical agenda devised by the "dogmatic marketeers" conjured up by Ehrenhalt.

Ehrenhalt concludes by accusing conservatives of not appreciating the true nture of our problem: "the moral, social, and cultural erosion of the past quarter-century in American life." That erosion, he tells us, can be corrected only by restoring "community" and "civil society." But this, of course, is precisely what conservatives had been saying long before liberals belatedly acknowledged these moral, social, and cultural problems (remember " the economy, stupid") -- and long, long before liberals discovered the virtues of community and civil society. And it is precisely because conservatives ("cultural" or "social" conservatives, as they have been called) take these problems seriously that they seek to tndo the policies that have helped undermine individual, familial, and communal responsibilities. It is ironic to find liberals mouthing the mantras of "community" and "civil society" while refusing to make those reforms (in welfare, most notably) that would restore a truly viable community and civil society.

It is in such a situation that a conservative, a conservative by " disposition," raay be tempted to give two cheers for a conservative rvolution. Two, not three, because a conservative is a reluctant revolutionist. And two, not one or none, because there comes, unhappily, a time when evea conservative has to be a revolutionist.

Gertrude Himmelfarb is the author, most recently, of The DeMoralization of Society (Alfred A. Knopp).