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Why We Are Conservative

Dr. Donald J. Devine, Editor, ConservativeBattleline.com

Once upon a time, not very long ago, there was no conservative movement. Then, for a half century, it rose and grew ever stronger, finally, to contest for control of the major American political institutions. At the height of this climb, under President Ronald Reagan, powerful liberal establishment observers could no longer ignore the movement that had developed so quietly over the years, essentially under the media radar screen. Yet, once Bill Clinton won the Presidency and control returned to the Democrats, they wondered whether conservatism had been a mirage. Conservative control of the House of Representatives was declared a failure after 1995 and it was even said that George W. Bush could not get elected without qualifying his conservatism as “compassionate.” Soon conservatives themselves, not unaffected by this media buzz and the caution of their own elected officials, doubted it all too. What had happened?

Before the 1950s, there were no conservatives. There were traditionalists and libertarians who opposed the dominant welfare state liberal ideology, and there were Republicans who were “do it slower-than-the Democrats,” moderates. But there were no conservatives in the modern sense. Modern conservatism was invented at National Review magazine in the mid fifties, primarily by editors, William F. Buckley, Jr. and Frank Meyer. As befitting conservatism’s positive view of common sense and tradition, the new doctrine was not planned but grew from the interactions of its creative but divided staff, which needed some common ground from which to publish a coherent enterprise. Meyer dubbed it “fusionist” conservatism. Its highest value was liberty, but it was a freedom to be used responsibly as a means to pursue traditionally defined and virtuous ends. The formula was: conservatism equals relying upon libertarian means to pursue traditional ends.

From this formula flowed conservatism’s support of Western values as desired ends and opposition to both domestic statism and international communism, as enemies of those ends. Judeo Christian morality, the family, religion, local communities and national patriotism were the values Meyer defined as Western. This also meant support for means such as individual freedom, free markets, voluntary associations, local governments, unfettered businesses–especially small businesses–and capitalism generally. This formula inspired additional conservative journals, new think tanks, the political action organizations, the Goldwater take over of the Republican party, the Reagan successes in limiting the welfare state, the Fall of the Berlin Wall and communism, and–after a forty year hiatus–the 1994 majority in the House of Representatives.

In spite of this success, Bill Clinton was re-elected in 1996. Many libertarian-leaning conservatives thought the problem was that the GOP had leaned too far to the traditional end and developed amnesia for the implicit consensus. The Republican National Committee chairman at the time proposed that “we should talk about those issues on which we all agree: limited government, low taxes and cutting spending.” But these were positions the traditionalists accepted in return for libertarian agreement that traditional ends were the goal. If there was not even to be discussion of social issues like abortion, the family, education, faith and the culture, how could virtue be recognized as the end, the goal? If the libertarians would not openly acknowledge the legitimacy of the ends, even if achieved by free means, no wonder traditionalists would seek payback when conditions improved for them.

Sure enough, when George W. Bush was elected in 2000 with strong support from his fellow traditionalists, social conservative were more than pleased to suggest and support national government programs to advance their values. Yet, this attempt to write traditional values into national law violated its implicit agreement to use market or at least local government or community means to implement values rather than using the libertarian nemesis–the national welfare state. Opposition to abortion was a position libertarians had to accept for the coalition to be created—and, it was coercion, after all–but libertarians revolted at the No Child Left Behind nationalization of education standards, national regulation of welfare eligibility rules, increased funding of national abstinence-only contraception and national anti gambling laws. Why are these issues that state or local or private sources could not handle, they not unreasonably demanded?
It is a fundamental truth of American politics, however, that it is very unusual for any single ideology to gain a majority mandate in a U.S. election. In the very diverse 21st Century America, it is virtually impossible. Various voter groupings have been identified by experts, but no one of them total to a majority, including “conservatives” or moderates. The old, very useful Time Warner typology identified a dozen groups, none of which represented more than an eighth of the population. The consistent “libertarians” (Time called them enterprisers) and traditionalists (called moralists) were the two largest groupings, but they only represented 12 percent of the population each. Even among the Republican primary electorate, enterprisers represented only 34 percent and moralists only 33 percent. Neither can win by itself, although together they could dominate the GOP nomination process, which is presumably why they came together in the first place.

Even the broadest classifications of voter types do not find a majority supporting any single one. Political scientist par excellence, Aaron Wildavsky, identified four very broad political types: so called individualists, deferentials, egalitarians and fatalists. Based upon the Time Warner data, the first (which corresponds to economic conservatives) represented 34 percent of the population, the second (social conservatives) equaled 22 percent, egalitarians (liberals) were 27 percent and fatalists 17 percent. On the basis of this division, Wildavsky concluded that all politics must be coalition politics, with no single one able to mold a reliable majority.

Interestingly, Wildavsky claimed that the normal ruling coalition is the economic social conservative one. They can cohere because they both basically hold a positive enough view of human nature to not require a strong central government to control a nasty human nature. The economic conservatives view nature as actually benign, encouraging individualism, experimentation, and entrepreneurship, believing that a “hidden hand” will make everything turn out right. The social conservatives are not so optimistic, but they do think nature can be at least tolerant for human social life if institutions like the family, church and community are vibrant. Both limit government in favor of private institutions and differ from the egalitarians who view nature as ephemeral and fatalists who view it as capricious–both of which views require the strong hand of government to control harmful nature.

Like it or not economic and social conservatives are stuck with each other, if they want to be in the majority–or at least if they do not want a coalition of egalitarians and fatalists in control. To even protect themselves from the governmental intrusions of the egalitarian-liberal and fatalist-conspiratorial types on the left, traditionalists and libertarians must respect each other’s bottom line values. Economic conservatives must be explicit that the traditional values are the goal, even if they stress more that the means should be voluntary ones. Social conservatives must recognize a difference between recognizing moral ills and the temptation of translating their solution into national laws, even if they must insist upon public discussion of the ultimate value-goals and their solution by voluntary and local means. If both conservative factions do not accommodate their natural allies, the other guys will determine what the goals are and use national government means to enforce them.

It would be better to understand conservatism as more than a political bargain–as a consistent fusionist philosophy. As non theistic, economic conservative F.A. Hayek taught, both are necessary. Freedom and markets cannot exist without a traditional, even religious, social order to sustain them. As social conservative Russell Kirk believed, the state is often the greatest threat to traditional values and institutions. So there was a valid reason to “create” modern conservatism. Libertarian means and traditional ends have been the preferred historic formula for the great majority of both economic and social conservatives. A serious review of the major philosophers of tradition and liberty will find that the best in each school believed both were necessary, even if they lacked full belief in the traditional values themselves. Indeed, Western civilization itself was and is a harmony of both. Not a simple uniform tune but a harmonic masterpiece, not simple libertarianism nor univocal traditionalism but both. That was the mix that created Europe and its offspring and imitators around the world, very much including the United States.

Even for traditionalists and libertarians who insist upon their own single tune–and who cannot accept a conservative philosophical harmony–if they want to be part of a governing majority, it is still rational to accept some coalition. The one that can protect the interests of both is the tested, Reagan one of libertarian means and traditional ends.

The price of a successful conservatism must be a gracious acceptance of the traditional live and let live formula. If the modern scourges of brutal egalitarianism and debilitating fatalism are to be transcended, traditionalist and libertarian conservatives must learn again to work together in bold harmony. That means a vigorous conservative program based upon common principle. After the September 11 attack, and the threat to both freedom and Western values it represented, that unity is more required than ever. If we will not hang together, we surely will hang separately.

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