Political movements rarely pause and take stock of their present shape and future direction when they are victorious. When you’re winning, what needs fixing? Of course, pride goeth before a fall, and so we may look forward to liberalism’s self-undoing under its present leadership. Meanwhile conservatism, if not in retreat, is in a redoubt, hunkering down and marshaling its best arguments for the battles it must face if it is to emerge again triumphant. The start of the second Obama term is a time for contemplation.
Peter Berkowitz, a Hoover Institution scholar, has written a useful primer for the conversation on “Where do we go from here?” In true conservative fashion, Berkowitz looks to the past to find wisdom useful for the present. His touchstone figures in conservative history are familiar ones: Edmund Burke, the American Founders (with the emphasis chiefly on the Federalist Papers), and the leaders of conservatism’s 20th-century intellectual revival.
The book’s aim is to teach “social conservatives” and “limited-government conservatives” that they need each other, electorally and for mutual intellectual nourishment. Berkowitz argues that the common rallying point for conservatives, whether they are divided by substantive disagreements or merely by differences of emphasis among principles held in common, should be the Constitution. What the Founders bequeathed us, he says, is a constitutional order that “accommodates, balances, and calibrates to translate rival and worthy principles into practice.” And it does so “out of a sober recognition of the imperfections of human nature, the importance but scarcity of virtue, and the need to limit government to secure freedom.”
Berkowitz knows his sources well, and ably communicates the essence of their achievements. Burke, he reminds us, was a conservative devoted to preserving liberty, which he understood to be enmeshed in “tradition, religion, and community” and threatened by various forces in his own day, not all of them radically revolutionary.
Burke’s political life was dominated by four great causes. First was reconciliation with the American colonies, which he thought deserved a larger measure of self-government. Second was toleration of the Catholic faith in Ireland, a goal Burke pursued with understandably incrementalist caution. Third was reform of imperial policy in India, where the government had permitted the rapacious East India Company to treat Indians as creatures with no rights. In each case, Burke favored as much recognition of liberty as justice required, but not so suddenly as to cause upheavals that would do more harm than good to established ties of community and lawful order.
Burke’s fourth and most famous cause was his implacable hostility to the French Revolution. Here he can seem the intransigent one, but this is only because he saw, earlier than most, that the revolutionaries were bent on trampling down every fence erected by the old order, those that secured liberty as well as those that guarded privilege. Against blind destructive forces, one cannot be just half opposed. But Burke’s reaction to the revolution is still of a piece with his other great exertions. For him, liberty was secured by close attention to particular circumstances, respect for inherited ways of living, prudent reform where necessity demands it, and the avoidance of theoretical or dogmatic extremism. In America, Ireland, India, and France, the problems were all different, the themes of liberty all the same.
Turning to the American Founding, Berkowitz finds the overriding theme of The Federalist to be moderation, or the prudent balancing of rights and powers in a constitutional order that was “structured to prudently channel passions and interests,” and whose complexity would “constitutionalize liberty by institutionalizing political moderation.”
The Constitution does not insist that all political action be virtuous and high-minded; its framers were too realistic for that. Yet, as Berkowitz recognizes, The Federalist can “economize on virtue” as a “scarce resource” in one place, and in another rely heavily on a presumption of essential decency in the citizenry, without having much to say about how that modicum of virtue is to be maintained. And he is surely right that freedom — the very thing we wish to preserve — can become the enemy of that moderation that is the key to its preservation. “The Constitution does not provide a cure” for this problem, Berkowitz admits. Is it not then somewhat questionable to make a “return to the Constitution” the central pillar of a revived conservatism? Perhaps there is something still sturdier to which we must repair, something solid enough to provide the Constitution itself with a foundation. What would that something be? We shall return to this question.
For the third of his historical touchstones, Berkowitz surveys the key figures of conservatism’s modern emergence as a political force: Russell Kirk, Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, Whittaker Chambers, William F. Buckley Jr., Frank S. Meyer, and Irving Kristol. In many ways Buckley and Meyer loom largest in the tale told here, for their “simultaneous devotion to individual liberty and traditional morality,” and for their efforts to harmonize and moderate the views of “traditionalists and libertarians.” Meyer in particular is singled out for his influence on Ronald Reagan, whose presidency Berkowitz identifies as “the high-water mark in modern American conservatism of the reconciliation of liberty with tradition, order, and virtue.”
After three able treatments of historical antecedents and inspirations for today’s conservatism, Berkowitz’s turn to our present situation is somewhat disappointing. It is rather uncertain what our conservative forebears have to say to us other than that we should balance freedom with virtue, and be moderate but still principled. Check. Then what?
Berkowitz assures us that “moderation doesn’t mean selling out causes or making a principle of pragmatism.” Sometimes conservatism will require “taking strong stands and opposing popular movements” that seem to have the wind at their backs. Yet he identifies two “entrenched realities” that conservatives will have to learn to live with: “big government” and “the sexual revolution.”
With respect to the first, Berkowitz counsels conservatives to stop speaking of “small government” and speak instead of “limited government.” Fair enough: By the standards of its size long ago, we will probably never have a truly small federal government again. But Berkowitz may concede too much here. Conservatives for the most part have made their peace with having a “social safety net,” but should they really accept the idea, as he thinks, that the federal government must “shoulder a substantial share of responsibility for safeguarding the social and economic bases of political equality”? It is not very clear what the words just quoted even mean, if they are not a reference to “progressivism’s leveling proclivities,” which Berkowitz tells us a moment later conservatives must “resist.” But if a critique of big government does not go to the roots of the moral errors on which it is based, it is hard to see how even “moderate” opposition to its expansionist logic can be maintained.
The same sort of thing may be said of Berkowitz’s view of the sexual revolution. There is no doubt that sexual relations, marriage, and family have been “transformed.” But does it really follow, as Berkowitz more than hints, that conservatives will just have to live with same-sex marriage? They “should back family-friendly public policy,” he says, but “refrain from attempting to use the federal government to enforce the traditional understanding of sex, marriage, and the family.” But this is as much as to say that liberals are free to use the federal government to enforce a brave new orthodoxy that will reduce millions of Americans to second-class citizenship, by forcing them to violate their consciences in various ways — and that conservatives are doomed to perpetual rearguard action. It won’t do, as “a way forward” for conservatism, to concede so much on both these fronts, else we find that it is actually the way down.
These concessions point up the defect of making moderation a theme of political guidance: It is always in search of an equilibrium point in a world of moving targets. Perhaps the reason for this deficiency of Berkowitz’s account of politics is that it is too political. He is aware of the cultural foundations of our political life but not concerned enough about their character, or their erosion.
And culture, as we know, is in turn built on the cultus, on religion. There is no source older than the thought of Edmund Burke to which Berkowitz turns for conservative guidance. But Burke was a Christian, and knew that faith was the ancient foundation of the civilization he was defending.
Call it “Judeo-Christian civilization” if you like. But isn’t religion the true source of American conservatism, the one thing strong enough to tame the destructive tendencies of Enlightenment liberalism? Only the faith of Americans — the faith that tells them God made them free human beings in His image — is adequate to the task of resisting the pressures of both big government and the sexual revolution. And only conservative reason, fortified by the courage born of this faith, can maintain the radical critique of radicalism that makes all our practical moderation possible from each day to the next.
–Mr. Franck is director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, N.J.