Posted: June 5, 2009
merican conservatism, according to John Judis, has "slipped back into the chaos and impotence that prevailed" before National Review was launched in 1955. Judis, a careful though not neutral observer of all things conservative, reported in the New Republic, "Conservatives' repudiation of Bush is part of their own self-denial. By pretending that he is entirely separate from them, they can delude themselves" that his unpopularity is not theirs.
Conservatives at the dawn of the Obamerican Century may be comforted to learn that Judis wrote this obituary in 1992, one Bush presidency and half an election-cycle before Republicans won congressional majorities that would last for 12 years. Lexis-Nexis is pitiless to writers who confidently explain how yesterday's election will shape the next decade's politics. Barry Goldwater "has wrecked his party for a long time to come," James Reston assured his New York Times readers in November 1964, before that wrecked party won 5 of the next 6 presidential elections. Perhaps, then, the reports of conservatism's death are as greatly exaggerated as the ones about Mark Twain's.
On the other hand, Twain did eventually die. A political movement is not mortal in the same way as a man, but "everything that had a beginning must have an end," according to David Frum. A month after the 2008 election he reflected on William Rusher's The Rise of the Right (1984) in an online essay:
While political conservatism is founded upon deep and enduring truths, political conservatism itself is a political movement that arose in response to certain conditions and that must fade with those conditions. In the end, political conservatism's core insights will cease to belong to any one political party, and be integrated into the shared history of the American people, part of the historical background from which new politics and new coalitions will arise.
The feeling that the lamps are being turned out is not unique to this election cycle. Liberals contemplated the prospect of a long internal exile after 1972, 1984, and 2004. Conservatives did the same after 1964, 1976, and 1992. A subsequent election or two proved many of these fears to be overwrought. It's always tempting to mistake what's vivid for what's important, to say "this time it's different" about the many transitory, non-defining elections that turn out to be not all that different.
Again, however, the fact that historic importance is wrongly ascribed to most elections does not prove it cannot be rightly ascribed to some. Perhaps 2008 was different, and conservatives' forebodings about when or whether they'll govern again are well-founded.
Many Republicans are now saying what the Outs always say after a bad election: how do we get back In? (The conservative movement is distinct from the Republican Party, but for the imaginable future there is no feasible way for the movement to succeed while the party fails.) Their argument is the mirror image of the one Democrats conducted throughout the Reagan era: do we need to adhere faithfully to our party's orthodoxy, and overcome voters' misgivings about it (and us) by advocating our central goals more passionately? Or do we need to accept that the voters are never going to embrace some of those goals, and alter or abandon them?
In confronting this choice, Democrats mostly muddled through. The party's commitment to gun control is quieter and less insistent than it was 30 years ago. Democrats have learned to speak sternly about crime, and respectfully about the military. Most congressional Democrats voted against the 1996 welfare reform bill, but a Democratic president signed it. For 12 years, Democrats seemed to accept that abolishing Aid to Families With Dependent Children meant that the government had negotiated a new deal between taxpayers and the poor that was more successful and equitable. Upon gaining simultaneous control of the House, Senate, and White House for the first time since 1994, however, the Democrats of 2009 waited all of four weeks before eviscerating the 1996 law in the fine print of the stimulus package.
Abortion was never so ambiguous. The party tolerates pro-life Democrats like Senator Robert Casey of Pennsylvania in states and districts that would be inhospitable to a pro-choice alternative. Such Democrats are made to understand, however, that they cannot change the party platform's unqualified commitment to Roe v. Wade (1973), cast any judicial confirmation votes that might increase the possibility of Roe being overturned, or even daydream about a spot on the national ticket.
On the broadest domestic policy question, the era of Big Government being over is over. (Conservatives can draw some equivocal solace from knowing that the era of Big Government being over never really got started.) By the end of 1997, the first year of his second term, Bill Clinton was on the verge of embracing entitlement reforms that would have moved Social Security and Medicare in the direction of solvency and privatization, according to historian Steven Gillon's new book, The Pact. Some prominent Democratic senators, including Bob Kerrey, John Breaux, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, were prepared to govern along the same lines. After the Monica Lewinsky story broke in January 1998, Clinton's aspirations shrank from building a history-book legacy to serving out his elected term. He was left dependent on the good will of ideologically implacable Democrats, who quickly scuttled any consideration of private accounts, reduced benefits, or means testing. There the matter has rested ever since.
Traditionalists vs. Reformers
For conservatives, the coming argument about core principles will pit "Traditionalists" against "Reformers," according to David Brooks of the New York Times. Traditionalists, he says, "believe that conservatives have lost elections because they have strayed from the true creed. George W. Bush was a big-government type who betrayed conservatism. John McCain was a Republican moderate, and his defeat discredits the moderate wing." The Traditionalists, Brooks says, include Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform. They're convinced the cure for the problems of conservatism is more conservatism: "Cut government, cut taxes, restrict immigration. Rally behind Sarah Palin."
Reformers, by contrast, believing that "American voters will not support a party whose main idea is slashing government," recommend "new policies to address inequality and middle-class economic anxiety." They "tend to take global warming seriously," according to Brooks, not only on the merits, but in the belief that conservatives "cannot continue to insult the sensibilities of the educated class and the entire East and West Coasts." The most prominent Reformers are writers. Brooks's list includes: David Frum, author of Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again; Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, co-authors of Grand New Party; Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review; and Yuval Levin of the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
The Traditionalist-Reformer boundary line is not clearly marked. Not only do Reformers disagree with one another on many questions, but their differences push some closer to and some farther from the Traditionalists. Frum, for example, urges conservatives to take obesity seriously as a public health problem. Ponnuru doubts that "a citizen's weight is any of his government's business," since the conclusion of that argument would mean "there is no principled reason to reject compulsory calisthenics." He chides Frum for leaving behind not just the "conservative consensus," but "conservative habits of mind." Frum, conceding that all the policy options for obesity may turn out to be worse than the problem, insists on the broader point: "[W]e cannot allow ourselves to be scared away from creative thinking about new problems by ideological policemen." Even if it is true that conservatism rules out any ambitious policy measures to reduce obesity, Frum recently remarked, that tells us more about the limits of conservatism than the unimportance of obesity.
Reaching a Majority
Both traditionalists and reformers confront the Outs' essential problem in a two-party democracy: how do we get back to 50.1%? Part of addressing the question involves choosing between a half-full or half-empty interpretation of the most recent election. The Republicans' half-full explanation is that winning 46% of the presidential vote in 2008 was not bad, all things considered. Those things included the unpopularity of a Republican president whose second term comprised 208 bad weeks, Senator McCain's strained relations with his party's conservative base, Barack Obama's funding advantages and forensic skills, and the credit crisis and market crash seven weeks before Election Day.
A party that garners 46% of the vote under such dire circumstances could, conceivably, win a majority under ordinary ones. The half-full explanation is especially appealing to Traditionalists: if conservatism has so much residual support, then it doesn't need to be re-thought, just presented more confidently and effectively to an America that remains "a center-right nation," according to post-election analyses by Karl Rove, National Review's Rich Lowry, and others.
Ronald Brownstein of the National Journal laid out the most bracing half-empty interpretation of 2008. He divides the American electorate into six demographic groups: 1) whites who have not graduated from a four-year college; 2) whites who have; 3) blacks; 4) Hispanics; 5) Asians; and 6) other minorities. By Brownstein's arithmetic, McCain would have won a 50.2-to-47.9 victory over Obama-if the electorate in 2008 had been apportioned among those six groups exactly as it was in 1992. McCain did best among whites without college degrees, getting 58% of their vote. In 1992 such voters accounted for 53% of the electorate, but were only 39% by 2008. Whites with college degrees were 35% of the total electorate in 2008, as they had been in 1992. Obama got 47% of their votes. The smaller proportion of working-class white voters corresponded to the larger proportion of minority voters. Blacks went from 8% of the electorate in 1992 to 13% in 2008; Hispanics from 2% to 9%; and Asians and other minorities from 2% to 5%.
Unless America's demographic future veers off the path it has followed the past 16 years, the Republicans' prospects will worsen from daunting to hopeless. Brownstein applies the 2008 election results for his six groups to the electorate demographers expect in the year 2020. The increasing proportion of non-white voters turns the Republicans' 7-point deficit in 2008 into a 14-point landslide defeat.
The problem, which looms larger in the Reformers' minds than the Traditionalists', is how to effect a net addition in the number of voters for America's more conservative party. Winning new votes is not rocket science. Winning new votes without losing old votes can be.
George Bush and John McCain, looking at the same demographic trends as Brownstein, concluded after 2000 that the GOP could not be viable without being electorally competitive among the growing cohort of Hispanic voters. That was plausible, as was their decision to make immigration reform a big part of the Republican sales pitch to Hispanics. There was no place in their equations, however, for determined opposition to more immigration from the GOP base, especially white voters without college degrees, the ones most likely to be competing with Mexican immigrants for jobs at restaurants, factories, and construction sites. Confronted with a rebellion by the party's core voters, Bush and McCain reluctantly let the immigration issue drop in 2007 after it became clear that any congressional majority for their proposal would be overwhelmingly Democratic.
"There will not be an Hispanic future for the GOP for years and years," Frum wrote in a newspaper column the day after the election. "American Hispanics are poor-and they vote majority Democrat for the same reasons that poor people of all races vote Democratic." Obama got 67% of their votes, despite McCain's ardent courtship. Black voters have been beyond the GOP's reach for almost half a century. Barack Obama received 95% of their votes, according to Brownstein. Asians and other minorities? Too small a portion of the electorate to bail Republicans out-and they gave 62% and 66% of their votes, respectively, to Obama in 2008.
New Votes or Core Votes?
For the foreseeable future, then, republicans will have to get more votes from whites. The question is whether the party's best bet is to grow wider or deeper. Frum thinks the GOP has to do better with college graduates. "College-educated Americans have come to believe that their money is safe with Democrats-but that their values are under threat from Republicans," he says. Reassuring them will require saying some different things, about issues that include abortion and the environment, and saying some things differently. Frum wants a GOP that is "less overtly religious, less negligent with policy, and less polarizing on social issues." Michael Barone agrees that Republicans can and must do better with upscale voters, an effort that will require, among other things, "downplaying cultural issues." For example, he says, "the days of winning votes by opposing [same-sex marriage] are nearing an end."
Douthat and Salam think the GOP should concentrate on doing even better with its core voters, whom they call "Sam's Club Republicans." (The subtitle of Grand New Party is How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream.) Douthat and Salam are, nevertheless, Reformers rather than Traditionalists. They think Republicans must approach working-class voters with tangible benefits, not just cultural solidarity and anti-government populism. Douthat urges Republicans to talk to those voters "about the famous ‘kitchen table' issues-public education and transportation, crime and health care costs-and [try] to expand the definition of what it means to be ‘pro-family' without abandoning the GOP's core pro-life convictions."
To that end, Douthat and Salam endorse Ramesh Ponnuru's proposal to: a) increase the tax credit for each dependent child from $1,000 to $5,000; and b) make the credit especially valuable to working-class families by letting taxpayers use it to offset income and payroll taxes. The Ponnuru plan is revenue-neutral; its tax cuts equal its tax increases, which include ending the federal deduction for state and local taxes. It is, then, explicitly redistributive; his plan "would create winners and losers," Ponnuru says. The losers would be more prosperous taxpayers, especially those who never started or have finished raising families.
Douthat and Salam endorse similar policies to help working-class families with health insurance, as well as wage subsidies that would "help less-educated single men with low-paying jobs make ends meet, thereby making them more desirable marriage partners." The objective is to make conservatism attractive to a working-class larger than the cohort of those without college degrees. As Douthat argued in his Atlantic Monthly blog, many alumni of Youngstown State will have more in common with graduates of community colleges and technical institutes than with members of the "mass upper class" who spent four years at Amherst on their way to Wharton.
I think building a coalition of social conservatives and social moderates from the middle of the income and education distribution makes much more political sense than trying to hold together a coalition of social conservatives from the middle of the distribution and social liberals from the upper end. Joe the Plumber and Joe the Office-Park Employee make much more plausible political bedfellows than Joe the Plumber and Joseph the Hedge Fund Guy.
The Reformers disagree on the new conservative agenda, and the makeup of the coalition it will galvanize, but agree that the Traditionalists, prepared to wait for the spontaneous political revival of Conservatism 1.0, are in denial. 1980 was a long time ago, say Douthat and Salam. "Every Republican wants to be Ronald Reagan running against tax-and-spend Jimmy Carter, but Jimmy Carter has long since left the building." As a result, Republicans "are losing the argument over taxes and spending."
1972 was even longer ago, Frum points out in Comeback. "Republicans have been reprising Nixon's 1972 campaign against McGovern for a third of a century. As the excesses of the 1960s have dwindled into history, however, the 1972 campaign has worked less and less well." He asks, "How many more elections can conservatives win by campaigning against Abbie Hoffman and Bobby Seale?" The time warp isn't helpful. "If we conservatives and Republicans want to win again," says Frum, "we have to offer the American voter something fresh and compelling-answers to the problems of today, not the problems of the era when disco ruled."
The Reformers want the Traditionalists to face some hard truths and make some hard choices. After the disastrous elections of 2006 and 2008, that advice is manifestly superior to sanctioning complacency.
But it's advice the reformers need to take as well as give. In the Reformers' books, articles, and blogs, good government always turns out to be good politics, and vice versa. Conservatism 2.0 can win elections while steadily making America more prosperous, just, and free.
Ponnuru and Frum disagree about abortion, for example. Ponnuru thinks retreating from the GOP's pro-life stance will offend more voters than it attracts, while Frum thinks refusing to modify the party's position on abortion will alienate larger and retain smaller numbers of voters over time. Leaving aside the question of which one is right, it's noteworthy that each is confident that his preferred policy outcome is also the sound, vote-maximizing political tactic. Reformers, who find wise governance corresponding so closely to smart politics, would do well to extend some patience to Traditionalists, who struggle to reconcile them.
Conservatives, the defenders of American capitalism, have welcomed the application of business techniques and terminology to national politics. Google "Republican brand," for example, and your laptop will melt. Business is amoral in a way politics must not be, however. In business, if the price of corn is high we plant corn, and if wheat is high we plant wheat. If both are low and stay there, we sell the farm and write Game Boy software.
By contrast, as Margaret Thatcher said and showed, the only politicians deserving admiration are "conviction politicians." Successful, compelling, and shrewd ones like Thatcher and Reagan seize their historical moments to render their convictions more popular and politically consequential than they were before. Such leaders and moments are rare, however, and cannot be summoned just because a movement bound together by a cluster of convictions needs them.
While waiting for the next exceptional leader who can secure majorities for their convictions, conservatives-both Reformers and Traditionalists-must understand their situation without illusions. If the world is as congenial as the Reformers hope, doing the right thing will regularly resolve into doing the popular thing. Each additional wise and just policy proposal will make the conservative coalition that much bigger and more durable.
If it turns out that the tensions between governing wisely and winning elections are more formidable, then the Traditionalists' inclinations deserve some respect. Their strategy for future conservative victories is, indeed, hopeful rather than plausible. But among the causes of that disconnect is something more admirable than sloth, cowardice, dogmatism, or denial.
The Art of Compromise
The traditionalists' reluctance to embrace the Reformers' fresh and compelling ideas, or offer some of their own, reflects an inherently conservative disposition to resist the Zeitgeist rather than accede to it. Politics is the art of compromise, and prudence may well dictate that conservatism should compromise with realities it cannot change and forces it cannot defeat. But compromising includes knowing when not to compromise, knowing which differences cannot be decently split. As political scientist Martin Diamond wrote, men may prefer to "go down fighting" rather than settle for a "morally disgusting" compromise.
Thus, conservatives who contemplate the smoldering wreckage after the 2008 election and say, "This time is different," may be right. Conservatives don't just have to devise a strategy to gain a majority, as they did in 1965, 1977, and 1993. They have to wonder, based on the entire record of the past 28 years, whether there is anything particularly conservative they'll be able to do if they secure that majority.
Conservatives disagree about what, exactly, they exist to conserve. University of Virginia politics professor James Ceaser has identified four different "foundations" for American conservatism: 1) Traditionalism, in the sense it was used by Russell Kirk to extol Edmund Burke; 2) Libertarianism, and its assurance that "spontaneous order" will emerge from uncoerced human action; 3) Natural Right, the belief that human reason can ascertain universally valid principles of human conduct, such as the Declaration of Independence's self-evident truths; and 4) Faith, the desire to resist the forces of secularization and vindicate the role of religion in shaping American culture.
Proponents of each foundation have argued with the others' advocates for decades, sometimes esoterically, sometimes belligerently, occasionally in both ways at the same time. Despite their differences, the four foundations share an implicit premise: the conservative's mission is to champion to his contemporaries a heritage with roots that are centuries old. If, however, the relationship between those contemporaries and that heritage has become attenuated to the point of estrangement, then the heritage will be regarded as an exotic or anachronistic option instead of a vital but neglected part of the existing order. The "conservative" would then be reaching back beyond a historical rupture, and no longer trying to conserve but to recreate or refound, an endeavor that is even more difficult and less promising.
In "My Cold War," a famous-to some, infamous-article in 1993, Irving Kristol wrote:
There is no "after the Cold War" for me. So far from having ended, my cold war has increased in intensity, as sector after sector of American life has been ruthlessly corrupted by the liberal ethos. It is an ethos that aims simultaneously at political and social collectivism on the one hand, and moral anarchy on the other. It cannot win, but it can make us all losers. We have, I do believe, reached a critical turning point in the history of the American democracy. Now that the other "Cold War" is over, the real cold war has begun.
A year later, William Kristol encouraged conservatives to embrace "a politics of liberty and a sociology of virtue" in order to wage the war his father had declared. Conservatives can point to impressive accomplishments over the past decade-and-a-half, none greater than the dramatic decline in crime rates, a problem most liberals and some conservatives considered insoluble in the early 1990s. The dark night of collectivism and moral anarchy has not descended.
It was clear even before the 2008 election, however, that the liberal ethos, by any reckoning, is more robust than it was in 1993. One measure of its strength is that conservatism's policy victories often engender conservatives' political defeats. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 paved the way for Bill Clinton's election in 1992, in the same way that the success of the surge in Iraq in 2007 took the war off the front page in 2008, and made it impossible for John McCain to gain electoral traction as its chief advocate. The tax reduction and simplification achieved by the tax reforms of 1986 cleared the canvas for liberals to immediately begin advocating new increases and complexities. Even as the memory of the great crime wave from 1960 through 1994 has been effaced by the expectation of safe streets over the past 15 years, liberal activists and writers are laying the groundwork for a campaign against America's "scandalously" high incarceration rates. Their "logic" is that safe streets have rendered full prisons unnecessary-rather than full prisons having rendered safe streets possible.
Conservatism or Victory?
In short, America's political division of labor finds conservatives cleaning up liberals' messes, and liberals sweeping into the newly tidy spaces to start making new messes. If that's true, what is to be done?
We can begin by saying that the conservative project has a kind of built-in cognitive dissonance: conservatives obey the imperative to fight for their principles while expecting defeats to be bigger and more numerous than victories. The psychological armor that protected the National Review conservatives of the 1950s was their belief that being denounced as cranks and menaces for asserting the political equivalent of 2 plus 2 equals 4 was a badge of honor and a source of great, iconoclastic fun. William F. Buckley, Jr., in particular demonstrated through his public persona as much as his arguments, how to be a simultaneously fierce and happy warrior against opponents who were much likelier to have theTimes than the truth on their side.
The new Reformers' effort to fashion a conservatism that can win again is deeply earnest, but could avail itself of a bit of the spirit of standing athwart history yelling Stop, instead of debating how and when to seize the future. Without that attitude, the Reformers will be tempted either to define conservatism down, or to define victory down.
Defining conservatism down means giving the benefit of the doubt to every policy proposal that pushes the conservative coalition closer to, and finally back above, the magic 50% line. The practice of conviction politics in a democracy, by contrast, requires the mission to define the coalition, rather than be defined by it. The Reformers Brooks cites seem cognizant of this problem. Frum, for example, laments the "tremendous resistance to any push for change" in the conservative rank-and-file, but points out that the change he advocates is in conservatism's method more than its content. "What our party needs is not more ‘moderation.' It is more empiricism." The danger is that the Reformers' audience, including their politically ambitious readers, will be too eager to embrace any policy idea that might win votes as "conservative enough."
Defining victory down, on the other hand, means using the probability of ultimate defeat to justify immediate capitulation, and then celebrating that surrender as evidence of refinement and perspicacity. This is the position urged by Sam Tanenhaus, whose essay, "Conservatism is Dead," appeared in the New Republic earlier this year. John Judis was right, in other words, but a prophet 16 years before his time.
As it happens, Judis wrote a biography of William Buckley 20 years ago, and Tanenhaus is completing one now. Tanenhaus's previous book was a biography of Whittaker Chambers, who was closer to Buckley personally and philosophically than politically. The two friends were resolute anti-Communists in the 1950s, but Chambers declined Buckley's initial invitation to join National Review. "He sympathized with the magazine's opposition to increasingly centralized government," according to Tanenhaus, but believed "that New Deal economics had become the basis for governing in postwar America, and the right had no plausible choice but to accept this fact," rather than pursue a "futile" challenge to it.
This debate, according to Tanenhaus, is the "story of American conservatism." It pits "those who have upheld the Burkean ideal of replenishing civil society by adjusting to changing conditions" against "those committed to a revanchist counterrevolution, the restoration of America's pre-welfare state ancien regime." If Tanenhaus considers himself a conservative in any sense, he clearly does so in the first, not in the straw-man alternative he constructs. He approvingly quotes Chambers:
Those who remain in the world, if they will not surrender on its terms, must maneuver within its terms. That is what conservatives must decide: how much to give in order to survive at all; how much to give in order not to give up the basic principles.
Besides having a somber beauty, this passage is undeniably correct. It does not follow, however, that any particular decision about how much conservatives must give to maneuver within the world's terms is a correct or defensible one. According to Yuval Levin, the problem with Tanenhaus's use of Chambers is that he makes "playing nice with liberals" thecriterion defining true conservatism. "In this view," says Levin, "conservatism is accommodation-it is pure gradualism, with no concern for where we are gradually headed."
"I know that I am leaving the winning side for the losing side," Chambers told the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1948, "but it is better to die on the losing side than to live under Communism." Chambers died in 1961, 30 years before history would show that he had joined the winning side after all. His refusal to reckon how much of that basic principle to give up made Chambers a conservative hero.
The American Experiment
Tanenhaus admires chambers, and does not dispute the wickedness of Communism, but doesn't believe there are anyother basic principles left for conservatives to worry about or defend. "What our politics has consistently demanded of its leaders, if they are to ascend to the status of disinterested statesmen, is not the assertion but rather the renunciation of ideology," he writes. Yet he applies this standard far more leniently to liberals than to conservatives. In the era of Radical Chic, "liberals unwittingly squeezed themselves into the stereotypes conservatives had invented," according to Tanenhaus. Well, perhaps. Or, maybe, the McGovernite liberals who admired and feared a menagerie of thugs, loons, and trust-fund revolutionaries were vindicating the worst kind of stereotype-an accurate stereotype-which conservatives didn't invent but discerned.
Be that as it may, by 2009 these disputes about liberalism and the 1960s are all bong water over the dam, Tanenhaus says. Liberals renounced their ideology "a generation ago when they shed the programmatic ‘New Politics' of the left and embraced instead a broad majoritarianism." Now it's time for conservatives to renounce their ideology.
Yet somehow oblivious to the post-ideological spirit proclaimed by Tanenhaus, the Pelosi Democrats stuffed every social pork-barrel project on the shelf into their $787 billion stimulus bill. Similarly, the generation-old liberal devotion to comity can easily be mistaken for something less conciliatory when it comes to the politics of abortion. As Douthat argued last year, the pro-choice idea of compromise, stipulating at the outset that Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey(1992) remain the law of the land forever, is identical to the Soviet Union's posture during arms talks: what's ours is ours, and what's yours is negotiable.
By the same token, the Californians who voted against same-sex marriage last November will be puzzled to learn from Tanenhaus about the broad majoritarianism of the post-ideological liberals. This expressed itself through anti-majoritarian lawsuits, filed days after the election, asking the state supreme court to declare null and void the votes of 6.3 million citizens who deliberated in good faith a public question legitimately placed before them. The liberal spirit of live-and-let-live inspired, as well, virulent protests in front of churches that opposed same-sex marriage, and the workplaces of individuals who donated a few hundred dollars to the campaign against it.
If Tanenhaus greatly exaggerates the liberal spirit of accommodation, in other words, then what he is asking of conservatives is not the reciprocal but the unilateral renunciation of ideology. The question that has "haunted" conservatism for half a century, according to Tanenhaus, is that conservatives know what they're against, but not what they're for. But aren't there usually some illuminating connections between the two, as in the famous lines by Evelyn Waugh about Rudyard Kipling?
He was a conservative in the sense that he believed civilization to be something laboriously achieved which was only precariously defended. He wanted to see the defences fully manned and he hated the liberals because he thought them gullible and feeble, believing in the easy perfectibility of man and ready to abandon the work of centuries for sentimental qualms.
In the American context, our experiment in self-government is the precarious undertaking conservatives defend. Most experiments fail. America's astounding triumphs in the past do not guarantee perpetual success going forward. Whatever their differences about conservatism's foundations, conservatives agree that defending the American experiment more often requires opposing than accommodating liberalism.
The danger liberalism poses to the American experiment comes from its disposition to deplete rather than replenish the capital required for self-government. Entitlement programs overextend not only financial but political capital. They proffer new "rights," goad people to demand and expand those rights aggressively, and disdain truth in advertising about the nature or scope of the new debts and obligations those rights will engender. The experiment in self-government requires the cultivation, against the grain of a democratic age, of the virtues of self-reliance, patience, sacrifice, and restraint. The people who have this moral and social capital understand and accept that there "will be many long periods when you put more into your institutions than you get out," according to David Brooks. Instead, liberalism promotes snarling but unrugged individualism, combining an absolute right "to the lifestyle of one's choice (regardless of the social cost) with an equally fundamental right to be supported at state expense," as the Manhattan Institute's Fred Siegel once described it. Finally, the capital bestowed by vigilance against all enemies, foreign and domestic, is squandered when liberals insist on approaching street gangs, illegal immigrants, and terrorist regimes in the hopeful belief that, to quote the political scientist Joseph Cropsey, "trust edifies and absolute trust edifies absolutely."
Conservatives have no guarantees that they will be able to save the American experiment from those who cavalierly dissipate the capital required to sustain it. They can only struggle to prudently reconcile the experiment's deepest needs with the exigencies posed by today's circumstances and threats. If that reconciliation ultimately requires nothing short of morally disgusting compromises that give up basic principles, the conservative will, instead, cheerfully commit to doing his duty for the duration, fully expecting to die on the losing side.
This essay is part of the Taube American Values Series, made possible by the Taube Family Foundation.
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For Correspondence on this essay, click here.