Sunday, November 4, 2012

Conservatism In America: A Sunday Review

In the 1950s, political observers noted the rise the so-called New Conservatism. The intellectual leaders of this movement hoped to distinguished their movement from the Eisenhower and Taft conservatives that dominated the Republican Party. Their bible was Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind ; their weekly sermons were delivered by writers in such periodicals as Human Events and National Review. In distinguishing themselves from 50s era mainstream conservatism, they rooted their New Conservatism in the British conservatism of Edmund Burke.

As a rejoinder to these New Conservatives, Cornell history professor Clinton Rossiter published Conservatism in America in 1955. Fresh from winning the Bancroft Prize for his now classic Seedtime of the Republic, Rossiter presented the case for a more broad based conservatism rooted in American tradition. He attempted to demonstrate that the American historical experience shaped American conservatism into a movement that differs in significant ways from the British-based New Conservatism that emerged in the 1950s.

In his introduction. Rossiter noted that the term conservatism is one of the more confusing terms in our political discourse. He distinguished between temperamental conservatism, possessive conservatism, practical conservatism, and philosophical conservatism. It is the latter, the conservatism that is conscious of the principles of the traditions, institutions, history, and faith upon which society is based, about which which he writes. Rossiter also introduces an alternative paradigm on the range of political ideology that differs from the traditional Left-Right linear one. He sees political ideology as a circle in which one can begin with say, revolutionary radicalism, and work one’s way around to radicalism, liberalism, reaction, and revolutionary reaction until one arrives back at the top of the circle. This not only visually suggests the affinity between Communism and Nazism, but also, which suit his purpose, demonstrates how closed liberalism and conservatism really are to one another.

Rossiter begins by delineating the core beliefs of the New Conservatism. The New Conservatives see men as a mixture of good and evil. Man’s goodness, rationality, and altruism are offset by his evil, irrationality, and his selfishness. Social institutions cannot change this. “He is not perfect; he is not perfectible.” These Conservatives reject of individualism and equality. They believe in a ruling and serving aristocracy of the virtuous and talented. And they are skeptical that the mass of mankind can recognize these qualities in others and elect them to office.

These views of mankind serve as the foundation for their views of society. Society is a unified organism, not “an agglomeration of lonely individuals.” Man by nature is a social animal whose realizes his best interests through cooperation. Society’s arrangements reflect the wisdom of previous generations.

Government, too, is natural. For man is not only a social animal, but a political one. Because of man’s corruptibility, the New Conservatives argue that good government must contain the following features: constitutionalism, diffused powers, and limited aims.

The New Conservatives see rights not so much as God-given as hard-earned. And man has a duty to exercise those rights within the bounds or religion and natural law to be truly free.

So what is the New Conservative mission? To defend the established order, protect community values, remind mankind of their limitations and those of their institutions, support organized religion, and foster stability and unity within the community.

According to Rossiter, however, the New Conservative mission is complicated by the fact that the American political tradition which the conservatism seeks to conserve is basically liberal. Americans traditionally are optimistic. (See the sunny optimism of the most dominant modern conservative--Ronald Reagan.) Americans are anti-elitist and support equality. American have a fluid class structure. Americans are the most individualistic of all peoples. According to Rossiter, American conservatism has been shaped by liberalism; and American liberalism has been shaped by conservatism.

Rossiter surveys in the next three chapters the history of American conservatism up to the 1950s. Rossiter’s survey is much more interesting and inclusive than Russel Kirk’s more narrow focus on the so-called “true conservatives.” He includes several varieties of American conservatives. And because he is a historian, he provides the historical context in which conservatives lived. He misreads, however, the outlook of the so-called laissez-faire conservatives that arose during the post-civil war era of industrialism. Rossiter calls the 19th century industrialists natural leaders of conservatives and argues they advocated limited government regulation. Most historians today agree that corporations supported whatever legislation supported their particular interests. They wanted government regulation that benefited them and opposed government regulation that did not. Their outlook reflected corporate interest rather than any consistent ideology.

In his last chapters, Rossiter analyzes American conservatism and assesses its future prospects. In “A Hard Look at American Conservatism, Rossiter makes more explicit the differences between the New Conservatism and traditional American conservatism that he implicitly suggested in earlier chapters. He concludes with the now failed prediction that the New Conservatism “will not flourish on this soil.”

The last couple of chapters on conservative theory and practice amount to questions that conservatives must provide thoughtful answers in order to articulate a clearly conservative message to America. And who is this new kind of conservative? “Any American who is clearly happier with things as they are than with things as they would be if our social reformer had their way, and who, further, is equally determined to steer clear of liberalism to his left and stand patters and reaction to his right.”

Overall, Rossiter’s book is an interesting one, especially the historical perspective on conservatism. He could have done more to show the changing meaning of conservatism (and liberalism for that matter) over time. And his concluding remarks leave this reader unsatisfied. Yes, conservatives must think critically about broad principles and craft a distinctly conservative message. But the answers Rossiter seems to have hoped that conservatives will provide will really be nothing more that “stand patters”--satisfaction with the Eisenhower conservatism that dominated the conservative movement in the 1950s.

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