Postmodern Conservative

Ceaser’s 14 Conservative Points

The APSA panel on the life and work of postmodern conservative James W. Ceaser will be next Saturday at 4:30 p.m. in the Omni Shoreham (in, of course, Washington, D.C.).  You are all invited.

So after considerable reading, I think I’ve found the tightest and most illuminating summary of Ceaser’s conservative public philosophy (or political science?). I’ve reduced what he says in his Designing a Polity (pages 149–51) to fourteen propositions. The numbering is somewhat arbitrary and may or may not deserve JWC’s approval. My “learning style” when trying to get a handle on a complicated and subtle text is to write it out, while imposing on it an order that makes sense to me. That may be at the expense of the logographic necessity intrinsic to the text itself. My next step, of course, will be to think through and engage in friendly criticism of each proposition. You can start doing that right now, if you want:

1. “American conservatism is devoted to conserving the American republic. It can have no higher or nobler goal.”

2. “It is in the end a mistake to think of American conservatism as the same thing as American liberalism, even in the original sense. Conservatism may serve liberalism and seek to preserve it, but it often does so in ways the original liberalism hardly conceived of and that modern liberalism usually rejects. And it does so for original liberalism’s own good.”

3. “The fact is that liberal theory never developed the tools to sustain itself; it has always required something beyond itself to survive. Conservatism . . . is the philosophy that recognizes this need. Without conservatism, liberalism would begin to wither away.”

4. “Conservatism conserves the American republic by supporting its theoretical foundation of natural rights. This ‘abstract truth, applicable to all men and at all times’ (Lincoln) is something conservatives are not embarrassed to proclaim, even before the United Nations General Assembly. On this point, conservatives are in accord with many of the original liberals,” [versus contemporary liberals’ thinking of their principles as both nonfoundational and developmental].

5. “Conservatism conserves the American republic by supporting the idea of the nation. . . . [Original liberalism] had difficulty from the first in articulating what the state [and its sovereignty] was beyond a contract, and it could never make full sense of reasonable feelings of attachment to it. . . . Modern liberalism . . . considers patriotism an anachronism and promotes global citizenship and global studies as replacements for American citizenship and education in our own political tradition. The main category of modern liberalism is humanity.”

6. “Conservatism conserves the American republic by giving appropriate support to biblical religion. Biblical religion has been the main source of our ethical system, one of self-restraint and belief in something beyond material existence. . . . Original liberal theory was in some formulations cool to religion, and it often failed to acknowledge or appreciate how much liberal society had borrowed from its storehouse of religious capital.”

7. “Liberalism does not require . . . neutrality [between faith and nonbelief], and conservatism does not recommend it.”

8. “Conservatism conserves the American republic by promoting ‘the tradition,’ which refers, beyond religion and the Enlightenment, to the classical Greek and Roman ideals of virtue and excellence.”

9. “Conservatives subscribe to the liberal principle of equality of rights, but they do so in no small part because it makes room for the emergence of inequalities and excellences.”

10. “The tradition also provides a theoretical basis for a hierarchy of standards, allowing conservatives to criticize without apology the vulgarity that pollutes any society and runs rampant in ours.”

11. [Conservatives see that] “original liberalism often had such [hierarchical, anti-vulgar] inclinations . . ., but it engaged too easily on attacks on the classics and, in rationalist exuberance, went too far in elevating utility at the expense of nobility. . . . Modern liberalism, with its focus on compassion . . . allied itself culturally with relativism, which is the application of the idea of equality to all thought.”

12. “Conservatism is the home today for the few remaining proponents of the original liberalism. And rightly so, since the conservative movement is friendly to property rights and markets and is opposed to collectivism.”

13. “But conservatism is also the home for those who believe that liberalism’s defense depends on more than liberal theory. Conservatives of this variety show how the cultivation of tradition, religion, and classical virtue replenishes the cultural capital that sustains liberalism.”

14. “[Conservative] creativity is best expressed in the view that the public good is not to be found in adherence to the simplest principles, but in the blending of different and partly conflicting ideas. By acknowledging this complexity, conservatism shows that it is no mere branch of liberalism.”

Peter Augustine Lawler — Peter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College. He is executive editor of the acclaimed scholarly quarterly Perspectives on Political Science and served on President George ...

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