“A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation,” Edmund Burke famously wrote in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). The philosophical founder of modern conservatism recognized that change in society has to occur but that change can also be used to preserve a nation’s important traditions and institutions.
Burke’s statement perfectly encapsulates the earliest notion of what we now understand to be conservatism. The political philosophy has since spread its wings in many different directions over the past two centuries. Some variants include liberal conservatism, libertarian conservatism, neoconservatism, paleoconservatism, social conservatism, and fiscal conservatism.
There have been spirited discussions and debates among conservatives about which policies should ultimately take precedence in political campaigns, policy platforms, and party leadership. Whether it be the role and size of government, taxation, capitalism, free markets, individual rights and freedoms, liberty, nationalism, populism, or even Trumpism. There’s no strict uniformity of thought or direction.
This situation isn’t unique. Liberals and socialists face the same type of internal and external debates that conservatives do. Yet the competing visions of conservatism often come from very different ideological perspectives than other political philosophies. Many propose political ideas and historical interpretations that usually can’t be properly tied together. Two recent books on conservatism succinctly illustrate this point: Matthew Continetti’s The Right: The Hundred Year War for American Conservatism, and Conservatism: A Rediscovery by Yoram Hazony.
Continetti’s deep work is an examination of the many tentacles that make up this political movement. The author is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and founding editor of the Washington Free Beacon. He would be primarily regarded as a conventional conservative thinker who holds some unconventional ideological positions. In a Feb. 26, 2009, C-SPAN interview, for instance, Continetti told host Brian Lamb, “I'm a conservative who is probably less concerned with the size, the overall size of government than most other conservatives.” His view of today’s GOP is less than positive, with more than a few splashes of frustration and derision directed at an orangish former president. Success for conservatives can only be achieved if they’re willing to “return to the wisdom of their best minds and advocates.”
Continetti’s book is a well-written historical account of the good, bad, and occasionally ugly side of conservative leaders, writers, and participants. Some readers will be familiar with the subject material related to modern Republicans such as Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, Newt Gingrich, and Ronald Reagan. They’ll enthusiastically agree with Continetti’s positive assessment that “American conservatism’s commitment to the American political tradition of constitutional self-government and individual rights makes it unique.” It seems less likely they’ll be onside with statements such as “a successful political movement must incorporate both elites and the people. Only intermittently, however, has the American right been able to achieve such a synthesis. That is why its victories have been so tenuous — and why its coalition has been so fragile.”
The time period “beginning in the 1920s, when the Republican Party rejected Progressivism for the philosophy of individualism and economic freedom, brought into view some parallels with our own time.” (Note the capital P here, since "progressives" smuggle into their movement’s very name the idea that their ideas equate with progress and the good itself despite the movement’s birth in ideas such as scientific racism and policies such as the resegregation of the federal bureaucracy, things that have a genealogical and causal relationship with the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II by Franklin Delano Roosevelt.) This had led to an “endless competition and occasional collaboration between populism and elitism” on the Right the past century and whether they wanted to be seen by the electorate as Washington insiders or outsiders.
Republican Presidents Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge, for instance, didn’t think of themselves as conservatives in the 1920s but rather mainstream “spokesmen for Americanism” who equated “economic growth with social well-being.” Hoover, like the GOP, would shed his lifelong Progressive roots during the 1932 presidential campaign against FDR. The party believed the New Deal was a “radical restructuring of America’s government and market,” which it undoubtedly was in hindsight. Continetti, however, noted the Republicans also adopted “an adversarial and catastrophizing attitude toward the government” after losing the election to combat the New Deal and its bureaucratic and regulatory structure, which it “never quite shook off.”
On the flip side, movement conservatism emerged from this political restructuring. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, a Republican war hero, was elected president. The public was introduced to new thinkers such as Russell Kirk, Frank Meyer, Eric Voegelin, and the National Review’s William F. Buckley, who mixed elements of libertarianism, traditionalism, and anti-communism in his philosophy and elegantly opposed official racism and antisemitism in the Liberty Lobby and American Mercury. Many conservatives adopted anti-communist sentiments during the height of Joseph McCarthy’s hearings, which helped reinforce the perception that this philosophy “was participating in an embattled counterrevolution.” Neoconservatism joined the fray in the 1960s and 1970s, aided by the Public Interest’s co-editor Irving Kristol, whose intellectual journey led him from “ex-radical to Republican thought leader.”
Continetti’s assessment of Reagan is eloquent. “He restored the ethos of ‘Calvinism’ to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” in an appropriate nod to Coolidge. “Like the conservative predecessor of the 1920s, Reagan cut taxes, lionized the Constitution, and promoted a non-sectarian form of civil religion.” He also pointed to the Gipper’s “temperment, rhetoric, and policies,” which made the Right “seem more populist, more forward-looking, and more optimistic than it had been before.”
Continetti's rhetoric takes a glib turn when focusing on what he sees as the failings of more modern conservatism, such as Pat Buchanan’s writings and presidential campaigns, Ron Paul’s newsletter, Sarah Palin, Fox News, and the Tea Party movement. Naturally, the biggest target is Trump. He’s depicted as “abrasive, touchy, combative, and unable to refrain from responding to criticism,” and, due to the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol, someone who “joined the list of American villains from John C. Calhoun to Andrew Johnson, from Joseph McCarthy to George Wallace.” Those are indeed the consensus judgments, but an intellectual conservative history might have dug deeper and taken the measure of what even intellectuals might find to admire here to help the reader better understand how those figures came to such prominence on the Right.
“What begins in the twentieth century as an elite-driven defense of the classical liberal principles enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution of the United States,” Continetti notes, “ended up, in the first quarter of the twenty-first century, as a furious reaction against elites of all stripes.” Moreover, he writes that “many on the right embraced a cult of personality and illiberal tropes” and suggests “the danger was that the alienation from and antagonism toward American culture and society expressed by many on the right could turn into a general opposition to the constitutional order.” Unless the GOP and the conservative movement untangle themselves from Trump & Co., Continetti’s view of the Right’s future is grim and gloomy. That’s fine, but he offers not enough explanation of the Trump phenomenon besides defining it as unconservative by his personal standards and definitions, which may serve to explain the author’s own reasons for rejecting the Trumpist turn among the actually existing Right, and doesn't offer enough historical analysis, or not quite historical enough analysis, of the period of time that is not quite yet history.
Yoram Hazony’s Conservatism, on the other hand, examines the political movement from a nationalist conservative perspective that many don’t share. The Israeli-born and U.S.-educated philosopher/political theorist is president of the Herzl Institute in Jerusalem and chairman of the Edmund Burke Foundation in Washington. His book has a nuanced approach at times but often downplays or misinterprets the understood historical successes of modern conservatives. It is, much like Continetti’s book, a well-written and worthwhile read from a contrarian viewpoint. But it will also leave some readers scratching their heads.
The author firmly believes “many of today’s ‘conservatives’ know very little about what it would take to actually conserve anything — that is, to propagate beneficial ideas, behaviors, and institutions across generations.” He does acknowledge that Cold War conservative intellectuals such as Buckley and political figures such as Reagan and Britain’s Margaret Thatcher “accomplished crucial things” in power. Nevertheless, he believes “the political and religious traditions that had granted stability and continuity to these countries for centuries were being severely damaged or overthrown entirely” during those glorious years of leadership. In his view, this caused the “shocking destruction of the Anglo-American cultural inheritance” and, aided by self-defeating conservatives, brought down important religious symbols (God and scripture) and traditional values (marriage and family).
Hazony also points to “the extraordinary confusion over what distinguishes Anglo-American conservatism from Enlightenment liberalism (or ‘classical liberalism’ or ‘libertarianism’ or, for that matter, from the philosophy of Ayn Rand).” In his estimation, “many prominent ‘conservatives’ have had little interest in political ideas other than those that can be used to justify free trade and lower taxes, and, more generally, to advance the supposition that what is always needed and helpful is a greater measure of personal liberty” for the past few decades. By doing this, the political theorist suggests “what we are conserving is liberalism, or that Conservatism is a branch or species within liberalism, or that liberalism is the new conservatism.” This is similar to the idea in the classic Lionel Trilling work The Liberal Imagination, in which Trilling states that “in the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. For it is the plain fact that nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation.”
In 1950, Trilling was using the words “liberal” and colloquial in perhaps a proper philosophical or historical sense, but certainly a noncolloquial sense, and Hazony is here too, making him at best hard to understand and at worst easy to misunderstand. Let’s stop here for a moment. It’s a false narrative to suggest conservatives have participated in destroying Anglo-American traditions. They’re the only ones trying to preserve them in a world where modern liberalism and socialism have attempted to overhaul Western society and democratic values. Meanwhile, it’s incorrect to say that free trade and lower taxes are basically the only items of interest to conservatives. These cherished principles guide the movement, but there’s more to modern conservatism than this. If we look at social values, there are plenty of pro-life and pro-family conservatives, and many who oppose everything from euthanasia to political correctness.
Why does Hazony look at modern conservatism in such a skewed fashion? Primarily it’s because his own position tends to be more Burkean and Disraelian in design. “A conservative is a traditionalist,” he writes, and “a person who works to recover, restore, and build up the traditions of his forefathers and to pass them on to future generations.” With respect to political conservatism, “it’s a political standpoint that regards the recovery, restoration, elaboration, and repair of national and religious traditions as the key to maintaining a nation and strengthening it through time.”
Sir John Fortescue, who sat as chief justice of the King’s Bench (or Supreme Court) in England, is identified by Hazony as a driving force of the birth of Anglo-American conservatism. Fortescue wrote that the English constitution was protected by a “political and royal government” and economic prosperity can be properly determined by a “nation’s laws and their protection of private property.” Hazony believes his writing “breathe[s] the spirit of English nationalism … a form of government more conducive to human freedom and flourishing than any other known to man.”
Conservatism: A Rediscovery also identifies Richard Hooker, an English priest and theologian, as a Protestant Conservative who “defended a vision of national particularism within the context of the effort to secure general political, religious, and moral norms.” John Selden, scholar and polymath, “sought to defend conservative traditions, including the English one, not only against the absolutist doctrines of the Stuarts, but also against the claims of a universalist rationalism.” Edmund Burke’s role in opposing John Locke and liberalism is tackled (unsurprisingly) since he placed “the nation at the center of his understanding of politics, regarding it as a community projected both backward and forward in time.”
Meanwhile, the original Federalists, including George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and John Adams, are depicted as nationalists and conservatives. They regarded the public “as one nation, and they saw the establishment of the forms of the British constitution and the English common law over and above the thirteen states as the best possible instrument for ensuring that Americans would remain a single nation.” While it’s hard to describe them properly as conservative-oriented individuals, it’s valid to say they represented a different viewpoint from classical liberal politicians such as that of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Even some early Republican presidents are praised, including Abraham Lincoln, who “comfortably mixed Jeffersonian rhetoric with his imposing biblical imagery,” and therefore “his policies as president were in a tradition the Federalists would have easily recognized.”
With respect to modern conservatism, Hazony’s analysis is a mixed bag. Kirk is praised for maintaining Anglo-American conservative traditions and “succeeded in imparting a sense of historical depth and intellectual attractiveness to a movement that many had assumed to be disappearing.” Friedrich Hayek and Leo Strauss, who are both respected by conservatives, are dismissed as liberals. Buckley had certain conservative traits as a “nationalist,” “empiricist,” and “committed Catholic,” but when it comes to the National Review, which Hazony describes as an “alliance of anti-Communist liberals and conservatives,” he redefines conservatism to ensure nonconservatives could join. Reagan and Thatcher are “thoroughly associated with economic liberalism” but also “sparked a broad religious and nationalist revival” when Hazony studied at Princeton. Kristol and George Will both receive praise because they “believed that many conservatives — in rightly opposing socialism — had taken their hostility to government too far.”
What is Hazony’s solution to liberal democracy? He rejects concepts such as Marxism and fascism and suggests an alternative proposal: conservative democracy. It would be defined by concepts such as national identity, public religion, law, family and congregation, and economy. He supports ideas such as free enterprise and property rights as “indispensable for the advancement of the nation in its wealth and well-being” and wants to combine them with the “Anglo-American constitutional tradition,” “biblical religion,” and “cultural inheritance,” among other things. While it’s hard to imagine modern conservatives and Western democracies implementing these theories, it’s an intriguing proposal that’s worth our time and consideration.
Who knows? Maybe there is a route for conservatives to conservation, after all. With these two works, it seems conservatism’s past and future are matters that have great minds working on them, though the matter’s far from settled.
Michael Taube, a columnist for Troy Media, Loonie Politics, and the Epoch Times, was a speechwriter for former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.