Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Comments on Princeton's Symposium on Conservatism in America

PROEM: Ralph Luker has offered some clarification that, post title notwithstanding, the post he put up at Cliopatria is referring only to the recent Princeton Symposium on Conservativism in America, not to a Cliopatria sponsored one on the same topic.
My post at Cliopatria refers to the symposium at Princeton, which is not to be confused with the citations to previous posts about conservatism by my colleagues at Cliopatria nor are they to be confused with the occasional Symposia on significant articles that Cliopatria occasionally sponsors. Notice that some of the posts cited there are as much as two years old. There was no advance call for submissions to the symposium because this was simply a post by me, not one of Cliopatria's occasional symposia.
Please keep that in mind (and for those who were here earlier, I've removed my musings about the short notice of this symposium, re-titled the post and made some edits for coherence). That aside, I think the rest of what I have written is relevant.

Taking a cue from a conference at Princeton University over the weekend ("The Conservative Movement: Its Past, Present, and Future"), the group over at Cliopatria is having a Symposium on Conservatism in America. The attendees to the conference included such conservatives as David Brooks, Steven Hayward, Midge Decter, George Nash, William Rusher, William Bennett, Lou Cannon, Stanton Evans, David Keene, Paul Weyrich, and George Will.

Brooks gave a keynote address, "The Future of American Conservatism: Hamilton Returns,"; Hayward provided a survey of the conservative movement to which Decter, Nash and Rusher offered commentary; other panels examined "the Goldwater and Reagan eras, the infrastructure of the conservative movement, the relationship between conservatism and the Republican Party, and the impact of conservatism on America's economic, social and foreign policies." None of this material is available on line (my fingers are crossed).

The items to which Ralph links are informative, but they take a decidedly skeptical view towards modern American conservativism. Much of this has to do with a conflation of the current Presidential Administration and it's policies as being typical of the ideals held by modern American conservatives. Obviously, there are many ideological conservatives who support this President--who himself claims to be conservative-- even though he has instituted policies and proposals that many conservatives, variously defined, consider un-conservative. Such things as increased entitlement spending, too-liberal immigration policies or embarking on an unwise foreign war, to name a few.

The pieces to which Ralph linked exhibit exemplify the more traditional (pre-1950) definition of conservativism. For instance, Ralph states
What passes for "conservatism" in America isn't conservative at all. If it were, it would take the lead in efforts at "conservation." Don't count on unbridled post-industrial capitalism to do that.
Ralph is concerned by what he perceives to be a gap between the rhetoric of political conservatives such as President Bush and Tom Delay and the conservative ideals as he understands them. (An article by liberal Rick Perstein, who spoke at the Princeton conference, also delves into the gap between pragmatic conservatives and principled conservatives). Ralph seems to adhere to a more traditional conservatism that is more heavy on virtue, or even noblesse oblige (no negative connotation implied) and less dependent on free markets or (at least politically) on religion-based morality. Likewise, his colleague Chris Bray cleverly contrasts a couple quotes (1, 2) by conservative Sir Edmund Burke with a comment made by Karl Rove. This is the older, traditional sort of conservatism that was prevalent before the 1950's and is but one of the many varieties of what can be considered conservative today.

What Ralph doesn't include are any posts by those who can explain some of the consistencies and inconsistencies between an apparently static conservative tradition--such as that exhibited by Ralph and Chris--and the modern conception of American conservatism. That's fine, it's his post. Nonetheless, there are simply different definitions and types of conservatism that have evolved over the past 50 years.

For example, George Nash identified three in his The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America: classical liberals (libertarians); new conservatives (championed a return to religious and moral truths); and anti-Communists (many of the "neocons" of today). William F. Buckley or the The Conservative Mind or any number of the other influences upon modern American conservatism are also worthy of examination. In short, to be conservative means many things. A survey of the pieces to which Ralph linked leads me to believe that most of the writers choose to define "true" conservativism as that of the Burkean sort, and all other claimants are but pretenders to the cause.

Unfortunately, I don't have time for a longer treatment, but one of my recent posts mentioned a couple other places that did deal with this topic, if in a bit of a different way. Also, "The Future of Conservatism," a talk held at the American Enterprise Institute, with Newt Gingrich, David Frum and Mike Pence is exemplary of the difference between conservative ideals (of one sort) and Republican politics. I'm not the first to say that not all Republicans are conservative (or vice versa). Perhaps I'll be able to get more in depth later.

UPDATE: Jonah Goldberg noticed Perlstein's piece and intends to look into it, while Ramesh Ponnuru offered some specific criticism.

UPDATE II: Steven Hayward has also weighed in on Perlstein:
Perlstein, a delightful fellow in person, affects a fascination and respect for conservatives and conservatism, but he seems to relish playing the bad boy role when he appears at conservative conferences. His argument seems to boil down to this proposition: examples of bad behavior by conservatives in power suggests an intrinsic hypocrisy in the conservative movement. In the discussion period I challenged him sharply on two points: first, whether he could establish an organic link between conservative ideas and the instances of bad behavior that he cited, or whether bad behavior wasn't endemic to politics since at least Alcibiades. (Couldn't I, I said, compile an inventory just as long of bad behavior by liberals in power? In other words, isn't he really just vindicating Acton, and therefore saying very little of signficance about the character of conservative ideas?) Second, I challenged him on his entirely typical use of the "southern strategy" charge against the GOP, arguing that if he was going to play that card he ought at least to acknowledge which party invented it in the first place and note instances such as Jimmy Carter's blatant racial appeals as late as Carter's governor's race in 1970 (Perlstein nodded in agreement at this), and moreover that the pattern of GOP ascendence in the South (i.e., winning first in the border states and winning last in the deep south where racial sentiment was strongest--the case Gerard Alexander made so superbly in the Claremont Review a while back) suggested that the story of the political realignment in the south had more to do with broader cultural issues, such as Democratic hostility or indifference to religion. In reply, Perlstein merely repeated himself rather than grapple with my arguments. Perhaps others who were there will care to weigh in with their perceptions. To repeat, I like Perlstein, but I wonder whether he feels the need to protect his left flank when he is slumming it with us, or whether his own ideological partisanship gets the better of him sometimes.
UPDATE III: Asheesh Kapur Siddique of CampusProgress saw David Brooks' presentation--which he characterized as offering some hope for Progressives like himself-- and offered these impressions (with some editing by me):
Conservatism, Brooks argued, has reached a moment of “crisis” largely due to its own success. Even as conservatism reigns triumphant in all three branches of government, he noted that the movement is “intellectually moribund,” “lacks a governing philosophy,” and is fraught with internal divisions. Brooks cited two examples demonstrating his thesis: President Bush’s failure to win enough support for Social Security privatization – a dream of the right’s intelligentsia since the Reagan days – even as Republicans dominate Congress; and massive government spending by the Bush administration – a key break from the right’s long-standing campaign to shrink government “down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub,” as Grover Norquist famously enjoined.

... Brooks offered some handy tips. First, progressive intellectuals need to become more explicitly philosophical. Brooks noted that almost every young aspiring conservative activist is enamored with some major intellectual from whom they claim to draw ideas and inspiration, be it Edmund Burke, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, F. A. Hayek, or Milton Friedman. Yet on the liberal side, how many young activists embrace figures like Thomas Paine, John Stuart Mill, John Dewey, John Rawls, and Richard Rorty as intellectual heroes?...

Second, Brooks advised both sides to resist moving to the political center. “Centrists are stupid,” he stated emphatically. “There is no intellectual center in this country. To call for a center is to call for nothing. [‘Centrism’] is not a set of policies or ideas”...

Finally, Brooks suggested that the road to an electoral majority for either party now lies in appealing to voters in exurban communities, such as Loudoun County, Maryland (about 25 miles outside Washington, DC), Douglas County, Colorado (located between Denver and Colorado Springs), and Kendall County, Illinois (on the outskirts of Chicago). Residents of these areas aren’t deeply wedded to either party – instead, they’re concerned above all with having, in Brooks’ words, “a safe place to raise their kids.”
Incidentally, Johah Goldberg offers similar advice to liberals. A snippet:

Liberals have a tendency to mistake political tactics for political principles, and vice versa. Exhibit A is the Left's fascination with "unity." Unity is often useful in politics, but it's often a handicap if you haven't figured out what to be unified about. Just as the Socratic method leads to wisdom, big fights not only illuminate big ideas, but they force people to become invested in them. Unfortunately, liberals define diversity by skin color and sex, not by ideas, which makes it difficult to have really good arguments.

Of course there are arguments on the Left and there are individual liberals with deep-seated convictions and principles. But most of the arguments are about how to "build a movement" or how to win elections, not about what liberalism is. Even the "Get out of Iraq now!" demands from the base of the Democratic party aren't grounded in anything like a coherent foreign policy. Ten years ago liberals championed nation-building. Now they call it imperialism because George W. Bush is doing it.

I think that is the problem that most academics have with trying to classify "conservatism". The various strains are able to coalesce for this or against that, but still maintain their respective ideals when they are at odds with each other over particular issues (for example, libertarians for "choice" and Catholics for "life"). In the political arena, they tend to define themselves by--and play up--the things that unite them, but that doesn't mean they have given up their ideals. As Goldberg said, "Liberals have a tendency to mistake political tactics for political principles, and vice versa. " Though it may be out of sight, the debate continues.


Ralph Luker said...

My post at Cliopatria refers to the symposium at Princeton, which is not to be confused with the citations to previous posts about conservatism by my colleagues at Cliopatria nor are they to be confused with the occasional Symposia on significant articles that Cliopatria occasionally sponsors. Notice that some of the posts cited there are as much as two years old. There was no advance call for submissions to the symposium because this was simply a post by me, not one of Cliopatria's occasional symposia.

Marc said...

Ralph, I apologize for my confusion. I hope you can understand why though, given the similarities of the titles! I'll correct in the text of the post. Thanks!

Matt Peterson said...

I think you all would enjoy these Claremont pieces by Charles Kesler and Harry Jaffa on the issue of conservatism:




Steve Hayward went to graduate school here and worked for the Claremont Institute.

Marc said...

Thank you for the links. Im' a subscriber to the Claremont Review and am familiar with some of the writings of Jaffa and Kessler. I look forward to reading these.