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Friday, December 11, 2009

Modern Conservatism and the Need for Definition

The holidays are a busy time for most people. Not to suggest that my holiday is more hectic than the next person, but in the four coming weeks is my birthday, Christmas, my wife's birthday, my mother-in-law's birthday and my father-in-law's birthday. So, I'm afraid I'm going to be a little pressed for time.

Recently there's been a lot of buzz about a third political party in the blogosphere. A lot of it seems to stem from this Rasmussen Report survey that has the Tea Party topping the GOP in a generic three-way ballot. As some have pointed out, this would inevitably lead to a Democratic plurality victory, much the same way that Ross Perot handed Bill Clinton his first term.

I think in light of this, in might be important to remember the infrequently discussed roots of modern conservatism, and the rather recent history that has shaped the conservative movement. For that reason I'm re-posting a piece I originally put up in early May. I don't suggest that this is any sort of last word on the subject, but I hope that it can illustrate the dynamic changes that occur in politics. Also, I hope that it can help readers think about exactly what kind of conservative they are (if indeed they wish to label themselves as such), without the tribalist value judgements so often accompany discussions of this subject.

So here you go:

A few days ago, I was reading through Suzanna Logan's insert clever s.logan here blog. Logan had written a post describing her dislike for Eric Ulrich, a Republican New York City councilman. Check out the posting here. While there I was perusing the comments section of her post and got into a minor exchange with another commenter on the nature of conservatism. You can read it at the above link to see what I mean.

This exchange brought to mind, the need for definition of certain complicated terms that are oftentimes taken for granted. In this case the term being conservative. According to this commenter, my value system lauding individual freedom and liberty, small government respectful of its citizenry and ideally responsive to its constituency's morals and values, is not truly conservative.

I wrote: "One of the most important aspects of conservatism, for me, is the inclusiveness of it. A person is judged by their own actions, their beliefs, and not their handy race or 'type.' It champions leaving people alone to allow them to develop themselves the way they wish. Liberty and freedom are far more important than tradition."

Apparently such remarks are "liberal," and, in a way, that is true. They are indeed classically liberal. Yet, liberalism-- as the word is used today-- is not in any way classically liberal. The term liberalism has been corrupted, and shifted its meaning to being synonymous with the current Left, i.e. socialism. Being progressive has been defined as necessarily "progressing" toward Marx's Communist utopia-- an inevitable utopia according to Marxists (Hegel's influence evident). In fact classical liberalism, as a term, is as dead as the Liberal Party of Great Britain.

My 1980 Oxford American Dictionary defines liberal (way down at definition 6) as "favoring democratic reform and individual liberty, moderately progressive." Does that honestly coincide with the modern idea of liberal? When the media and others use liberal to describe political positions that imposes taxes on cigarettes to pay for government medical services, or institutionalizing political correctness, or nationalizing banking and auto industries, or just generally enlarging government at the expense of citizens' freedoms and income, do they refer to this definition? When Nancy Pelosi, Charles Schummer, Phil Donahue, or Michael Moore describe themselves as liberal, are they referencing this definition?

The source of this confusion is probably mostly due to the current and prevalent Hegelian idea that the world is chiefly made up of binary opposition-- the idea of a thesis confronted with an antithesis e.g. the Left vs the Right, theists vs atheists, Conservative vs Liberal, Democrat vs Republican, etc.--that results into synthesis and "progress." This is a position encouraged by the Left as it reinforces the Marxist's Hegelian tenants upon which Karl Marx based his theories. The fact that this naively simplistic model is demonstrably untrue (Hegel seemed to believe that the Prussian monarch Frederick William III was the eventual end of this thesis/antithesis/synthesis chain, and Marx's apocalyptic predictions have not been proven to be in any way accurate [communism was supposed to be an antithesis to the industrial revolution and the tyranny it inflicted]) has not seemed to stop the vast majority of academicians and the general public to give it great amounts of credence. Perhaps this is because of the superficial similarities between the Hegelian model and the scientific notion of progress towards truth-- but perhaps that is the topic for another post.

Another reason for confusion is the notion that political ideas and stances are largely intractable and have remained mostly unchanged over the years. While at first it seems extraordinarily foolhardy for people to believe this (when has a politician himself remained unchanged?), it is an intensely popular view. I used to believe that Republicans and Democrats could be easily traced back to their origins, and that, although ideas may change, the basic tenets of their policies are unmalleable.

It is a belief that both political parties reinforce. Republicans love to trace their heritage back to Lincoln and herald Theodore Roosevelt, and likewise Democrats love to tie their pedigree to Thomas Jefferson (although a more realistic tracing would be to Andrew Jackson) and celebrate John F. Kennedy and Franklin D. Roosevelt. The implication being that the tenants that these people derived their popularity from remains largely unchanged today, or at the very least today's parties are directly evolved from policies, values and beliefs espoused by these great past names. Indeed, even the Constitution has been reworked in our minds to be something almost religiously continual-- not merely principles that guide our political thought, but guiding principles that have continued unabated for over 200 years.

Yet in reality, political parties and their positions, like all human endeavors, are finite and changeable things. While some may argue that principles may be universal and absolute truths, human translations of them (if possible) are, by definition, flawed, interpretive, and dynamic. The current relevance of the Constitution is derived from the recognition of this fact. The Magna Carta, while an extraordinarily important event in Western history, deals mostly in feudal rights and has relatively little direct bearing in contemporary political or legal thought. The Ten Commandments, while seemingly permanent, are supported by both ardent religious belief and literally millennia of theological study which has resulted in subtle adaption.

For the modern definition of conservative, one must begin in the years following World War II. This is at the nexus of three defining moments in 20th century American history: the Great Depression, World War II, and the beginnings of the Cold War. The Great Depression ushered in Roosevelt's New Deal, a fundamental shift in both government and political thought, not simply to the Left but toward the Socialist Left. World War II ended up positioning the US as one of two global superpowers, while the resulting Cold War instituted a prolonged competitive stare down of different ideologies.

Old conservatism is typified, not by by the great names of Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt (both 19th century progressives), but rather by presidents Coolidge and Hoover. Old conservatism tended to lean toward international isolationism and laissez-faire economics. The Old Right (a phrase coined later with the advent of the New Right) formed itself in opposition to Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. Like most reactionary political movements it tended to be amorphous and disorganized, being without clear political principles. Generally they could be said to be strongly isolationist and anti-socialist, but mostly they defined themselves according to what Roosevelt did and as such added little to the political spectrum except to offer largely token resistance to socialist movements.

With the shadow of communism in the form of both the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China looming, conservatism was redefined, in a very real sense under the gun, in the post World War II era. Convinced of the success of the New Deal, many on the Right considered laissez-faire economics to be a thing of the past, and the main conservative debates were to what limits federal government interventions should run economic theory. And still the GOP saw themselves as Democratic foils rather than a cohesively principled political party. While the conservative reorganization that followed was complicated and involved a wide variety of people, for the sake of brevity I will focus on the two major influences of Russell Kirk and William F. Buckley.

Russell Kirk (1918 - 1994) was heavily influenced by Edmund Burke an 18th Century British politician, philosopher, and political theorist. Kirk's work The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot, published in 1953, laid down the groundwork for what would eventually become Traditional Conservatism, a subset (although it eventually separated itself) of the New Right. Kirk's influential writings and views helped form the New Right from the chaotic scramble following Roosevelt's unprecedented expansion of the federal government and World War II. A reactionary at heart, Kirk's Six Canons of Conservatism lay down the groundwork for his viewpoint (from wikipedia):

"1) A belief in a transcendent order, which Kirk described variously as based in tradition, divine revelation, or natural law;
2) An affection for the 'variety and mystery' of human existence;
3) A conviction that society requires orders and classes that emphasize 'natural' distinctions;
4) A belief that property and freedom are closely linked;
5) A faith in custom, convention, and prescription, and
6) A recognition that innovation must be tied to existing traditions and customs, which entails a respect for the political value of prudence.

"These Six Canons were much later (1993) expanded into The Ten Conservative Principles currently espoused by The Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal. Not pretending to be self-contained like the Six Canons, they are titled:

"1) First, the conservative believes that there exists an enduring moral order.
2) Second, the conservative adheres to custom, convention, and continuity.
3) Third, conservatives believe in what may be called the principle of prescription.
4) Fourth, conservatives are guided by their principle of prudence.
5) Fifth, conservatives pay attention to the principle of variety.
6) Sixth, conservatives are chastened by their principle of imperfectability
.7) Seventh, conservatives are persuaded that freedom and property are closely linked.
8) Eighth, conservatives uphold voluntary community, quite as they oppose involuntary collectivism.
9) Ninth, the conservative perceives the need for prudent restraints upon power and upon human passions.
10) Tenth, the thinking conservative understands that permanence and change must be recognized and reconciled in a vigorous society."

With William F. Buckley and others, Russell Kirk helped found The National Review in 1955, and then founded the quarterly Modern Age himself in 1957. Modern Age reflects far more Traditional Conservative policies than The National Review.

As previously noted, William F. Buckley (1925 - 2008) founded The National Review, and used the publication to further refine conservative beliefs, and moved away from the big government Republicans of the time (Eisenhower, a centrist of the time, supported most of the New Deal policies). Indeed most tenants that mainstream society considers conservative (supply side economics, reduced size in government, anti-socialistic tendencies, etc.) were reinvigorated out of this New Right movement championed by the magazine. The television commercial's image of William F. Buckley, dressed smartly in a suit and sitting by a blazing fireplace while dryly extolling The National Review is an indelible image of modern conservatism.

Yet, it was out of the 1960s that modern conservatism was truly formed. The counter-culture's unmistakably Marxist beliefs saturated popular culture, while the Civil Rights Movement called into question the moral authority (as Shelby Steele succinctly points out in his essay "Why the GOP Can't Win With Minorities") of both Left and Right American values (and created strange bedfellows in the mission to eradicate racial segregation). When the socialism (often opportunistically tied to the hot topic and moral imperative of racial politics) contained within the now mainstream counter-culture was adopted into the Democratic Party, the term "liberal," already politically redefined (perhaps intentionally) during Roosevelt and the New Deal, jumped the tracks further becoming synonymous with Socialist progressiveness.

This move toward socialism also created the opportunity for fusion within the conservative movement, combining American political conservatism, libertarianism, classical liberalism (and with it much of historic progressiveness), laissez-faire economic theory, and strident anti-communism that abandoned isolationism. Alienated moderate Democrats were redefined or moved to the right and joined in the GOP. Fear of socialism swelled the ranks of libertarians, Traditional Conservatives, and social conservatives.

This occurrence of fusionism, already having been openly encouraged by The National Review and William F. Buckley, is what has shaped the New Right into the mainstream conservative of the modern day. Kirk, grounded in tradition and with only a passing interest in economics, was highly critical of this fusion and the Traditional Conservatives became largely excluded from the New Right. Ronald Reagan is often used to illustrate the New Right and the results of fusionism. This also illuminates why so many of John F. Kennedy's policies closely mirror conservative ideals, while Eisenhower's seem somewhat foreign.

I will not go into neoconservatism nor paleoconservatism mainly because I don't feel enough time has passed to see the full structure, history and precepts of the movements. This is especially true as battle lines are currently being formed to oppose the far-Left policies of Obama. Likewise Ayn Rand's Objectivism is absent being rejected early on (mostly likely because of its atheism) by what would become the more mainstream New Right.

I hope this quickie review of the last fifty years of conservative thought was helpful. This is by no means an exhaustive history and analysis, nor is it meant to do anything other than give a a very general overview of the recent evolution of conservative theory. Hopefully, it also, in a small way, illustrates the inadequacy of Hegel's synthesizing chain and how ideas organically evolve rather than collide in presupposed opposition. Yes, I know Hegel was talking in great, sweeping generalities, but I'm addressing more of the modern Marxist conviction that world history is made up of collisions between progressives and conservatives. A political science professor I knew back in California taught his courses that way and it drove me nuts.

People now talk of the GOP being in disarray (as people so often do when a party loses an election) and that Republicans need to pull back to their ideological roots. It should be realized though that conservatism's roots are actually quite complicated and a fusion of various political outlooks. Rather than regression and fracture, perhaps a better strategy would be to reinvigorate the enthusiasm for the principles that created modern conservatism. Perhaps it would be best to clearly articulate and celebrate the doctrines that won the Cold War, that ushered in an era of historic prosperity and economic growth, that incorporates individual liberty as one of its cornerstones. Can the Left lay claim to any of that?


  1. Several times, between 1976 and 2001, I wound up working on the campaigns of several presidential candidates, and too many times found myself working on the campaigns of local politicians. I depended on labels. But over the past ten years I've become more and more disillusioned with politics. In my mind, one politician is the same as another, whether as individuals they try to define themselves as Republican or Democrat, Conservative or Liberal. I no longer see such distinctions. I see only people who presume authority to make national policies who do nothing but chase the all mighty dollar.

  2. @ Annotated Margins

    Yeah, I've had similar experiences in my own life (although my personal experience is far less than 25 years). I think too often that is the way things work on many levels of government. The amount of money spent on lobbying is incredible, and that money would never be spent if there weren't immediate and tangible results-- results that have everything to do with immediate benefits and precious little to do with political belief.

    But still political theory does develop, move and act, and controls what people can do within abstract governmental structures. I believe that a history of political theory should be an attempt to describe what is and how things work, not to control the outcome, decide what should be, nor to develop things toward a certain end.

    It seems to me that even after all the disillusionment, selfishness, corruption, greed, dishonesty, and arrogance, exists in a certain current that one (even the disillusioned and corrupted) must work within. And defining the limits and best ways of working within this current is the job of political theory.

    In my own line of work, I would compare this to writing. When writing a story, I must work within the confines of language (I can't just make up my own language-- although I guess Tolkien did as hobby, but his books were in English), and within the constraints of narrative theory. I don't do this because I choose to, but because I have to. If I didn't, I would only come up with some incoherent mess that woiuld be of little value.

    Off-topic here, but I don't know if this is true in the world of poetry. I haven't personally met many poets who I thought produced works of any merit. When I tried to discuss writing theory with those that I have met, we approached the subject in such a different manner that any the talk was basically incoherent to both of us.

  3. Good post. Much ink has been spilled, so to speak, on the transformation of Liberalism into liberalism with a small 'l' and modern Conservatives need to learn their own history.
    In Europe of course, the terms mean something different than in America, although many of us would chose the American model given the chance.
    I do think there exists a contradiction between a conservatism that believes in such a thing as 'the fabric of society', and one that holds Individualism as an important tenet of their belief. Not too much ideological acrobatics is required to believe that the individual, while the building block of society, also stands in a long line of tradition and is part of a wider society.

  4. This post has been linked for the HOT5 Daily 12/14/2009, at The Unreligious Right