Politics & Policy

A Conservative Call to Action

Battling the Left, from FDR to Obama

In their new book, The New Deal & Modern American Conservatism: A Defining Rivalry, Gordon Lloyd and David Davenport provide a bracing call to action for conservatives. Unfortunately, it misses a real opportunity to offer the Right a winning strategy for the fight ahead.

The book has basically three points. First, the authors argue that Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover represented very different pictures of American society, with FDR’s liberalism winning out over Hoover’s measured conservatism. Second, the authors make a convincing case that Obama is worse than FDR in his view of the power of the state. The third point is that conservatives need to return to the Constitution in order to drive out Obama’s leftism.

The most interesting of these arguments is the first. FDR really did present something new, an all-encompassing state, against which Hoover placed the American system, defined by the authors as one “that limits government to those areas where it can do the most good (education, the Federal Reserve System, maintenance of protective tariffs) but otherwise trusts public life to the self-government of individuals acting in voluntary cooperation.” They cite several important overlooked speeches of Hoover to make the case for him as a conservative thinker, and they succeed to a large extent in showing a recognizable conservatism in his work before the rise of modern conservatism in the 1950s.

The second point can be passed over quickly, as the bill of particulars against Obama will be familiar to NRO readers. Obama continues the FDR vision of a unitary national system, where taxes flow to Washington and largesse is doled out by bureaucrats, and where most lawmaking is left in the hands of empaneled experts.

In their third point, Lloyd and Davenport i a Burkean conservatism in aid of their cause, but they reduce Burke to a sort of proto-individualist. For him, they say, “the essence of conservatism was individual liberty.” Well, yes and no. Burke opposed ideology, as that shackled the mind and reduced liberty in the state, but to call him a defender of individual liberty does not capture his full view. Burke knew rather that society is a contract among the generations, and that tradition is the surest guarantee of liberty. Helping tradition to flourish requires individual action, to be sure, but it also requires submission to that tradition.

For Lloyd and Davenport, such language smacks of cultural conservatism, and that, they believe, is the problem. Conservatives, they suggest, need to give up on cultural issues and focus instead on liberty and smaller government.

It does seem important, however, for conservatives to find a way not to insist that government support specific religious or social beliefs, without giving up entirely on the broader virtues and traditions that support a free society. Perhaps the focus could be more on some of the public virtues such as honesty and moderation that truly allow a free society to function. . . . So, then, social conservatives might be discouraged from pressing their views at the federal level in favor of the Defense of Marriage Act, for example, recognizing that marriage should really be a matter of state policy.

This is a dangerous view, even if one agrees with the authors on particular tactics. It is liberals who are insisting that specific social beliefs be imposed upon the nation, under the direction of Washington. To argue that “honesty” and “moderation” do not have specific social and cultural referents is to lose the game to the liberals from the outset. Moving DOMA to the states might be a winning strategy, but for two problems: First, liberals have their own state strategy, which is to enforce a nationalized understanding of marriage. Second, liberals use freighted words, such as “equality” and “rights,” to further a centralized statist vision of the polity. Conservatives are left little to fight them with if you make conservative terms as empty as liberal ones. FDR and Hoover may prove the point: Hoover may have been right, but FDR had the language and the vision that proved more palatable at the time.

Lloyd and Davenport are right that conservatives ought to be devoted to the original meaning of the Constitution and ought to define it at every turn. However, the Constitution is antediluvian to most Americans, and conservatives must therefore also recognize that certain cultural principles undergird that structure and need to be defended in the public square. The retreat called for by Lloyd and Davenport, even if only partial, seems a recipe for more electoral losses, not fewer. This manual seems directed principally toward professional conservatives uncomfortable with what they dismiss as “the culture stuff,” which they would rather leave to the provinces. This is not, and has not been, a winning strategy.

At the very least a combination of strong cultural language and a robust defense of federalism is needed if we are to persuade what Russell Kirk called the “sentiments” of the undecided voters of the country.

There is much good in this book, but its neglect of the importance of strong social and cultural elements to conservatism’s resurgence will mute its otherwise sound advice.

— Gerald J. Russello is editor of the University Bookman (www.kirkcenter.org).


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