Ronald N. Neff
Hijacking the Conservative Movement(Reprinted from SOBRANS, November 2006, pages 1, 34, 7)
But have things really changed that much? Or is the change really superficial? Im afraid the latter is the case. The airwaves are clogged with the clamorous voices of talk radio, or squawk radio, as I like to call it people claiming to be conservative, though they dont sound much like the great conservatives I grew up admiring: Bill Buckley, Frank Meyer, James Burnham, Russell Kirk, Willmoore Kendall, and Barry Goldwater, to name a few.
In fact many of todays so-called conservatives seem to me to be liberals without knowing it, no matter how much they say they detest liberalism. Rush Limbaugh, to name only the most audible of them, seems to have no real philosophy, no awareness of conservative literature outside journalism. His premises are hard to distinguish from liberalisms. Apparently he equates favoring war with conservatism. He likes big government just fine, as long as its shooting something. He says the Republican Party will save Social Security and Medicare, huge liberal programs which a real conservative thinks shouldnt have existed in the first place. Sometimes, after listening to him for a half hour, I want to beg him, Rush, how about equal time for real conservatism?
Well, just what is real conservatism? This is an old question, much debated. Dictionaries define it in such terms as preference for tradition and resistance to change, but these are too general to take us very far. After all, nearly everyone wants to preserve some tradition and opposes some kinds of change, and people we call conservatives often want to do away with certain traditions and bring about important changes.
And all of life is in flux at all times. You can never conserve everything. We are forced to face the question of which things we should conserve, which we should discard or even destroy, and which we should let pass away. When a house catches fire, we may have to decide very quickly what we can rescue from the flames and abandon all the rest.
And conservatism isnt just passivity. Its active maintenance. An old house needs repair and painting, a garden needs weeding, trees and shrubs need pruning. To conserve is to renew. Conservatism cant mean neglect.
And conservatism varies from place to place, from people to people. The great Russian novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn, even under the Soviet regime, wanted to preserve tsarism and the Russian Orthodox Church. Islam is in many ways deeply conservative, but we have also seen it take radical and revolutionary forms. Mormonism was once seen as radical, but today it seems a very conservative religion. The same might be said of Christianity in various forms. And as G.K. Chesterton says, It is futile to discuss reform without reference to form.
The word conservatism came into general use after the French Revolution of 1789, its first and most eloquent spokesman being Edmund Burke in his Reflections on the Revolution in France. Burke argued for the traditional liberties of the English against the abstract Rights of Man advocated by the revolutionaries, predicting correctly that such abstract rights, with no force of custom behind them, would perish in a reign of terror. The revolutionaries, he said, were so obsessed with mans rights that they had forgotten mans nature.
History has vindicated Burkes warning, but many have doubted that his kind of conservatism fully applies to America. We dont have the sort of history England and France had, a feudal ancien régime with a social hierarchy and inherited status. It is even argued that our only tradition is a liberal one, of legal equality for everyone. After all, we are not divided into peasants versus noblemen, or anything of the sort. We even take pride in our social fluidity and more or less equal opportunity.
This brings us to a paradox. The most eloquent of our own Founding Fathers was Thomas Jefferson, who welcomed the French Revolution and had no use for Burke. Yet most American conservatives look to Jefferson as their intellectual patriarch, he who wrote the Declaration of Independence and proclaimed that all men are created equal.
Today conservatism has become a confusing term. It can refer to a Jeffersonian vision of limited government and strict construction of the U.S. Constitution, or it can be equated with President Bushs militarism and what has been called his big-government conservatism. And of course the title is also claimed by neoconservatives who share Bushs enthusiasm for war and are, when it comes to social policy, more like liberals than Jeffersonian conservatives.
Both Bush and the neocons favor an undefined war and speak of a global democratic revolution. But what is conservative about war and revolution? It has often been pointed out that this sort of talk is more akin to Leon Trotsky than to Edmund Burke. Bush even speaks of eliminating tyranny from the face of the Earth a neat trick, if you can do it.
Here I think we should keep in mind Burkes distinction between the abstract rights of man and mans actual nature. Conservatives tend to believe in Original Sin, or something like it, that will forever prevent man from achieving perfection. This attitude produces a disposition that tends to be both skeptical and tolerant, deeply dubious about overhauling society. Societies and traditions cant be built from scratch; as Burke said, we must build out of existing materials that is, real human beings and their habits, rooted in history.
Liberals, on the other hand, speak freely of ideals, imagined perfections that we can achieve if only we have the will. I have a dream, as Martin Luther King said. Hence liberals typically talk of abolishing evils eliminating poverty, eradicating racism, doing away with prejudice, ending exploitation, and so forth. This usually means strenuous government action, massive coercion and bureaucracy, because these things dont just evaporate of themselves.
Conservatives dont speak much of ideals. They think, more modestly, in terms of norms, which are never perfectly realized, but only approximated by sinful man. Consider homosexuality. Whereas the liberal wants to impose gay rights, by law and coercion, the conservative sees homosexuality as a defect, which to some extent can and must be tolerated, because it cant be eradicated, but it cant rationally be exalted to the plane of normality; and he knows that all talk of same-sex marriage is nonsense, like trying to breed calves from a pair of bulls. But to the liberal, the only issue is equal rights; human nature and normality have nothing to say to him. What the conservative sees as lifes mysteries, the liberal sees as mere irrationality.
One word is notably absent from the liberal vocabulary: enough. For the liberal, there is hardly such a thing as too much government. There is no point at which liberals say, Well, weve done it. Weve realized our dreams. We have all the government we need, and we should stop now. No, they always want more government. There is no such thing as enough government.
Again, Chesterton sums up liberalism in a phrase: the modern and morbid habit of always sacrificing the normal to the abnormal. We see this again in the grisly business of abortion. To the typical conservative it is an ugly thing, something that may not be entirely eliminated but must be contained, condemned, and above all must never be accepted as normal. But to the typical liberal it is a right even a fundamental human and constitutional right!
The role of Lincoln
Consider Abraham Lincoln, claimed by both liberals and conservatives. Most Americans consider him our greatest president a view I emphatically reject. But both sides have a point in claiming him. In some respects he was rather conservative for example, in his willingness to compromise on slavery before the Civil War. He doubted that he had the constitutional authority to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, which he finally justified only as a wartime measure, applying only to the seceding states.
But he finally became an all-out abolitionist, and he had a radical dream of colonizing all free blacks outside the United States; in his 1862 State of the Union message, he called for a constitutional amendment authorizing such colonization! In addition, Lincoln was a high-handed centralizer of power, who suspended habeas corpus and crushed freedom of speech and press throughout the North. Like most liberals, he talked of freedom a new birth of freedom, in fact but the reality was power. Under the Constitution, he insisted, no state could withdraw from the Union for any reason. This was a view Jefferson did not share. The United States had begun in secession. Lincoln himself had once called secession a most sacred right, which we believe is to liberate mankind.
A more recent conservative, Willmoore Kendall, who died in 1967, argued that American conservatism is rooted in its own constitutional tradition, best understood in the light of The Federalist Papers, where the limits of the Federal Government are clearly set forth. As far as I can tell, Lincoln was entirely ignorant of The Federalist Papers, as well as of the Articles of Confederation a point Ill return to.
An even more recent conservative, Michael Oakeshott, who died in 1990, was English rather than American, but he had much to teach us. Oakeshott, like Burke, decried rationalism in politics by which he chiefly meant what we call liberalism. He observed that some people (liberals) see government as a vast reservoir of power, to be mobilized for whatever purposes they imagine would benefit mankind. By contrast, Oakeshott argued, the conservative sees governing as a specific and limited activity, chiefly concerned with civility and the rule of law, not with dreams and projects. I consider Oakeshott the most eloquent expositor of conservatism and the conservative temperament since Burke.
I have already said that Lincoln was poorly acquainted with the Founding Fathers. By contrast, Jefferson Davis was thoroughly familiar with them, and in his history of the Confederacy (too little read nowadays) he makes a powerful, I would say irrefutable, case that every state has a constitutional right to withdraw to secede from the Union.
In the North, secession is still seen as a regional Southern issue, inseparable from, and therefore discredited by, slavery. But this is not so at all. At various times, Northern states had threatened to secede for various reasons. On one occasion, Thomas Jefferson said they should be allowed to go in peace. After all, the whole point of the Declaration of Independence was that these are, and of Right ought to be, Free and Independent States. Not, as Lincoln later said, a single new nation, but (to quote Willmoore Kendall) a bakers dozen of new sovereignties.
And the Articles of Confederation reinforced the point right at the beginning: Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence. And at the end of the Revolutionary War, the British specifically recognized the sovereignty of all 13 states! This is flatly contrary to Lincolns claim that the states had never been sovereign.
But didnt the Constitution transfer sovereignty from the states to the Federal Government, outlawing secession? Not at all. The Constitution says nothing of the kind. And as Davis wrote, sovereignty cannot be surrendered by mere implication. In fact, several states ratified the Constitution on the express condition that they reserved the right to resume the powers they were delegating that is, secede. And if one state could secede, so could the others. A state was not a mere province or subdivision of a larger entity; it was sovereign by definition.
Claiming sovereignty for the Federal Government, Lincoln felt justified in violating the Constitution in order to save the Union by which he meant saving Federal sovereignty. One of the best-kept secrets of American history is that many if not most Northerners thought the Southern states had the right to secede. This is why Lincoln shut down hundreds of newspapers and arrested thousands of critics of his war. He had to wage a propaganda war against the North itself.
Were you told this in your history classes? Neither was I. We are still being told that Lincolns cause was the cause of liberty; just as we are told that he was the friend of the black man, though he wanted the freed slaves to be sent abroad, leaving an all-white America. Lincoln had a dream too, but it wasnt Martin Luther Kings.
Lincoln achieved what the Princeton historian James MacPherson calls the Second American Revolution, giving the Federal Government virtually full authority over the internal affairs of the states. Columbias George Fletcher credits him with creating a new Constitution. A third historian, Garry Wills of Northwestern University, says he changed America, transforming our understanding of the Constitution.
Mind you, these are not Lincolns critics they are his champions! Do they listen to themselves? They are saying exactly what Jefferson Davis said: that Lincoln was abandoning the original Constitution! But they think this is a high compliment. Lincoln himself claimed he was saving the old Constitution. His admirers, without realizing it, are telling us a very different story.
Peaceful secession was a states ultimate constitutional defense against Federal tyranny. Without it, the Federal Government has been able to claim new powers for itself while stripping the states of their powers. Lincoln neither foresaw nor intended this when he crushed secession. But today the states are helpless when, for example, the Federal Courts suddenly declare that no state may constitutionally protect unborn children from violent death in the womb. If even one state had been able to secede, the U.S. Supreme Court would never have dared provoke it to do so by issuing such an outrageous ruling, with no support in the Constitution.
But Lincoln has been deified as surely as any Roman emperor. Today he is widely ranked as one of our greatest presidents, along with another bold usurper of power, Franklin Roosevelt. And as I say, even conservatives, so called, join in his praise. President Bush and his supporters invoke both Lincoln and Roosevelt to justify the war in Iraq and any powers he chooses to claim in its prosecution. In the old days, Americans told the government what our rights were; now it tells us. And we meekly obey.
If Bush and his right-wing supporters are conservatives, what on earth would a liberal be like? In these last six years, the Federal Government has vastly increased in power, with a corresponding diminution of our freedoms. Every American child is now born $150,000 in debt his estimated share of the national debt, which he had no say in incurring. And of course the figure will be much higher when he is old enough to vote.
Meanwhile, he will go to a school, where he will be taught that he enjoys self-government, thanks to great men like Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Bush.
What passes for conservatism now is a very far cry indeed from even the limited-government conservatism of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan just a generation ago. It is merely a variant of the liberalism it pretends to oppose.
How do these pseudoconservatives differ from liberals? Chiefly, for some reason, in their reflexive enthusiasm for war. Ponder that. War is the most destructive and least conservative of all human activities. It is big government par excellence; it breeds tyranny and, often, revolution. Yet most Americans now identify it with conservatism!
I am very much afraid that the next generation will have forgotten what real conservatism means: moral stability, piety, private property, and of course the rule of law (as distinct from the mad multiplication of regulations).
But genuine conservatism will reassert itself, even if it has to find another name and new spokesmen. If the Bushes and Limbaughs have usurped and discredited the word conservatism for the time being, we must try to take it back. If we cant, well just have to find a label they cant steal.
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