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Peter Berkowitz’s Constitutional Conservatism


Was William F. Buckley, Jr., the founder of modern American conservatism, actually a political moderate? Was Ronald Reagan a political moderate too? In an important sense, yes, says political philosopher Peter Berkowitz, and with justice. Berkowitz’s forthcoming book, Constitutional Conservatism: Liberty, Self-Government, and Political Moderation, makes a counterintuitive yet powerful case that the secret of conservatism’s success has long been, and will continue to be, its hard-won political moderation.

Coming at a time of conservative soul-searching in the wake of the 2012 elections, Berkowitz’s brilliant and accessible meditation on the inner-workings of the larger conservative tradition — and the contemporary conservative movement — is well worth your time. (As an old colleague and friend, I’ve been lucky enough to secure an advance copy to provide you with this preview.)

By moderation Berkowitz means something a bit different than the everyday use of the word, otherwise Buckley and Reagan wouldn’t qualify. Political moderation, says Berkowitz, “doesn’t mean selling out causes or making a principle of pragmatism.” A true understanding of moderation can even dictate strong stances and bold opposition to popular movements. Real political moderation, Berkowitz explains, means balancing worthy yet competing principles and putting them effectively into practice.

Above all, Berkowitz refers here to conservatism’s efforts to balance liberty and tradition. Constitutional Conservatism is largely an effort to update and deepen Frank Meyer’s fusionism, the reconciliation of libertarian and social conservatism that undergirds National Review, and America’s broader conservative movement. Berkowitz’s fascinating chapter on the last several decades of conservatism (sure-fire fun for any regular Corner reader) is a modern-day attempt to forge a principled alliance between often-fractious wings of our movement.

And the chapter on Burke from the book, published last week by Policy Review, shows that modern conservatism is rooted in the recognition that the securing of liberty depends on the preservation of tradition. To the extent that conservatism coheres intellectually and prospers politically, argues Berkowitz, it does so because of the movement’s capacity to prudently balance the complementary yet competing demands of liberty and tradition.

This, the core, of Berkowitz’s argument is likely to provoke widespread assent and gratitude from conservatives. His more controversial theme is that the reconciliation of worthy but competing conservative principles required by political moderation also involves the need to effectively implement those principles by adjusting them to “the changing habits and opinions of the American people.” Berkowitz does an excellent job of showing that successful conservatism has always found ways to make peace with changing social mores and entrenched political settlements, even as it sought to limit and scale back leftist excess. The question is, how do conservatives put that principle into practice today?#more#

Berkowitz’s brief answer to that question in his final chapter is susceptible to different interpretations. He calls on conservatives to make a peace of sorts with both the sexual revolution and the fundamentals of the New Deal welfare state, without, on the other hand, surrendering either their fundamental principles or their core battles.

You could take this as more a call for rhetorical adjustment than substantive change, but maybe also as a plea for some serious policy retrenchment. Berkowitz doesn’t want to over-specify, because his vision of constitutional conservatism isn’t meant to serve as detailed policy guide. It is, rather, a way of thinking about the inner-workings of conservatism itself, not an itemized issue-roadmap for activists on the ground.

My own take is that the “changing habits and opinions of the American people” notwithstanding, Obama’s policy overreach is likely to revive and unite conservatives in the president’s second term, as Berkowitz himself suggests in his book’s opening pages it did in Obama’s first term. Obama’s failures and transformative ambitions, I think, will be our salvation, rather than retrenchment on core conservative policies.

Whatever your response to Berkowitz’s closing suggestions, his overall account of the course of conservatism is compelling. In practical terms, conservatives of many stripes need to work together in order to succeed. Berkowitz sketches out principled grounds upon which that cooperation can proceed, while showing that this is what conservative greats going back to Edmund Burke and the Founders and right up to Buckley, Reagan, and Irving Kristol have been up to all along.

Insofar as conservatives succeed in accommodating the competing principles at the heart of our movement, we are all political moderates. That demanding and higher moderation, more true to the complexity of human nature and the realities of moral and political life than its contrary, argues Peter Berkowitz, is the real key to the past and future of conservatism.