Defending Social Conservatism
by Donald Devine
Issue 205 – June 6, 2012
Social conservatism is in sore need of a sophisticated defense in these days of 24/7 attack by the media, Hollywood and the culture generally. One of the nation’s top political minds has taken up the task and has produced a must read for all serious Americans.
Jeffrey Bell’s The Case for Polarized Politics: Why America Needs Social Conservatism is in fact three fine books: a history of conservatism in America, why social conservatism failed in Europe, and a reconstruction of social conservatism as rooted in the 18th Century Enlightenment rather than in Western Civilization generally. The first two themes will be highly welcomed by all who admire crisp and well-researched history, whether they consider themselves socially conservative or not. The final theme will force conservatives to re-think their premises. Who could ask more from a book? No one can afford to ignore its challenges.
As his wonderful history of modern Europe suggests, Bell’s vision of conservatism is rooted in the techtronic French Revolution. The central issue of modern times to him is equality and what it implies for today. Freedom is a negative term, rooted in that revolution as a means to escape the responsibilities that follow from equality. Bell insists that the project of the Left “from Rousseau, to Robespierre to the present” has been the “crushing of traditional social institutions to pave the way for autonomous human freedom.” To crush traditional social institutions certainly was their means, but was their goal freedom or to eliminate it and substitute their own authority? Rousseau, in fact, proposed a state religion with doctrines most modern social conservatives would consider quite moral, if not very free.
Bell makes the Declaration of Independence’s “all men are created equal” not only the foundational statement justifying its principles, as do most conservatives, but as the inspiration for all of its continuing politics. He limits “life, liberty and happiness, and all other rights” to being “exercised in a framework” that is political. “Equality is so compelling and so central to politics it must be honored” to “take precedent over any one goal of politics.” Indeed, “the main thing worth conserving” for conservatism, quoting Professor Charles Kesler, “is equality.”Bell even concedes this is a “shocking thing to say to conservatives.”
While Mr. Bell’s history does find conservatism’s roots remotely in the Torah and Jesus’ commands, including separating Caesar from God, and that the medieval attempt to “work through this issue” was significant, it is the European Enlightenment that is the priority event. Bell even gets it right against most modern interpreters that it was the divine right of kings that undermined the continental covenants exemplified by Magna Carta but he still holds that conservative and left views of the Enlightenment are what matter most for modern times. He recognizes the “American divergence” but its formative period does not greatly inform his major thesis that it is one’s view of equality that counts.
This certainly is shocking to conservatives, most of whom if asked for one word to define their beliefs would say liberty and almost never equality. Surely, most would root that freedom as coming to all equally from a Creator as did the Magna Carta, Declaration, and the philosopher who most framed the Founders’ views, John Locke. It is critical that the formal name of the priority document, Magna Carta Libertatum, was about liberties and how to protect them from overreaching governments, about separation of powers and individual and associational rights against the state, not primarily about equality. The first principle of actual Western politics was to structure government to allow Creator-granted freedoms room to be exercised.
While Bell credits separation of powers, democracy is the more important means. “By virtue of being human, everyone has an equal dignity and therefore an equal stake in decisions concerning the whole community – that is in political decisions.” Equality thus may come from a Creator but is enacted in community by popular decision. Bell’s root complaint is that U.S. politics is dominated by elites who frustrate rule by a people who are conservative. Political corruption was introduced through Machiavelli’s “conflict theory” teaching elites that their job was to manipulate the masses rather than follow the natural law and rule virtuously. But the constant refrain of Magna Carta, the Declaration and the Constitution was that power could never be trusted, even to the people. Indeed, the Founders in Federalist 10 were clear that conflict was natural and could only be controlled by elites in separated institutions, the ambition of each to counteract the others, of course, under the final control of the people in elections.
Bell certainly understands the importance of elites since he has dedicated most of his life to creating a counter-elite to combat the Left which he sees as the main challenge to the values he holds dear. He even recognizes that political victory is ephemeral. But the necessary failure of politics, rooted in the reality of power, ambition and self-interest is precisely why morality must be built outside politics. Indeed, Bell recognizes that the state poses a danger to morality and that political Establishment of Religion weakens rather than strengthens it. Still, he makes politics the arbitrator of morality. But leaving morality to the state means morality is dictated by power not right. The sad reality is that the people are not always right. Hitler was elected, so was the French Terror, and so in a more mundane manner was Barack Obama.
Much of Bell’s focus on equality seems directed at inequalities suffered by women, but he ends advocating voiding laws that incentivize men to stay home rather than to go to work that would then allow women to stay at home (and have children), hardly equality as normally understood. In the case of marriage, Bell recognizes it was the state in France, Britain, Germany and the rest that took marriage from the church and gave it to itself as a means to control all religions equally. The error was granting this power to governments seeking equality that has created today’s power struggles over same sex marriage and the rest.
In truth, modern conservatism was not rooted in a single value at all, as Bell concedes by arguing against social unity, but was formed by William F. Buckley Jr., Frank Meyer and even Ronald Reagan around the idea of a synthesis of freedom means and social tradition ends. Creator-granted equality was important to justify freedom and equality before the law but was not the ruling principle of politics which was to allow individuals to seek their own happiness under that law subject to moral obligations to family and neighbor. Modern conservatism’s first principle of political means was freedom; to limit government coercion so that social institutions could preserve society freely. The end goal was not equality but virtue, which must be worked out freely by each individual with his neighbors under God.
Bell gets every factual and moral “tree” precisely correct but allows the idealist Elysian Fields to obscure the realist Runnymede “forest.” He abruptly concludes that “social conservatism and economic conservatism must end the fiction that they are operating in separate, fundamentally unrelated realms of human affairs” after hardly a positive nod to the word “freedom” in 300 pages. It says much for his character that the author insisted I write this review even though he knew my concerns. I agree with so much of what he says and the ends he desires that it is a shame to say so much about where we disagree. His magnanimity testifies to his shrewdness since the reader cannot judge whether the criticism is fair until he reads his book.
Donald Devine, the editor of ConservativeBattleline On Line, was the director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management from 1981-1985 under Ronald Reagan and is Senior Scholar at The Fund for American Studies.