Recent developments in the US Congress, including the resignation of House Speaker John Boehner to avoid removal by conservative members, continued calls for Congress to force President Obama to choose between shutting down the government and ceasing federal funding of Planned Parenthood, and demands for the ouster of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have produced a predictable backlash. There has been a crescendo of claims by politicians and journalists that “extremists” are taking over the Republican Party, with the aim of bringing government as we know it to an end. Predictions of massive rejection of such a program by the voting public, along with warnings of dire economic consequences, are central parts of the package of charges against conservatives, who increasingly are accused of not being “real” conservatives at all because of their supposed extremism.
The claim that one cannot be a conservative if one is too extreme in one’s goals or tactics is not without merit. Conservatives value tradition, but the mere claim that “our ancestors would have wanted us to do x” does not make “x” conservative. Like all good things, tradition may be used as mere window dressing or cover for evil intent. This does not mean, however, that conservatism can accurately be reduced to a mere call for continuity. One reason many people refer to Hitler’s National Socialism as a “right-wing” ideology is its persistent invocation of German historical mythology. But the vagaries of right- versus left-wing mythologizing are irrelevant to the categorization of political beliefs. Stalin sought to rally his beleaguered subjects to fight in World War II in part through clearly hypocritical invocations of “Mother Russia,” yet no one calls him a “right-wing” communist dictator.
The real question relevant to contemporary debates concerns whether it is “conservative” to call for significant change in the status quo. And the claim that it is not conservative to do so is so obviously a piece of useful liberal rhetoric that it should rightfully be dismissed out of hand. Because the claim remains with us, however, it seems useful to examine it somewhat more closely to show how it distorts the relationship between tradition and principle within conservatism.
When the late scholar Clinton Rossiter wrote about conservatives as properly the party of “stand-pattism,” he saw his condescension as a kind of compliment. For Rossiter, conservatives had a vital role to play in the United States, holding liberals back from rushing too quickly in their laudable pursuit of progress toward ever more equality and justice. That such a role is distinctly limited and secondary to that of those Rossiter deemed more heroic—leftists seeking to remake society—should be self-evident.
Conservatism, according to liberals (along with many neoconservatives and so-called “moderates”) is at best a reminder to “go slow” as we work to fundamentally alter the nature of our social and political reality. Whether painted in utopian or tragic terms, the liberal project is that of rearranging society and human nature itself to make us all treat one another more “fairly,” which is to say with greater affirmation and support for behavior previously recognized as abnormal and destructive. On this view, governmental programs should be instituted to reengineer our public life, our language, and our very characters to bring an end to racism, sexism, homophobia, poverty, and all the tragedies of life, or at least to redesign society so as to make constant war on these evils and injustices. Each progressive step is sold as just another limited step helping those “left out.” But what the latest group is to be “let into” is an increasingly seamless web of governmental programs and regulations intended to provide them with security and autonomy without responsibility or meaningful self-government.
There are significant rewards available to those who choose to fulfill the role of “stand-patter.” First and foremost, one in this position may enjoy praise from liberal leaders and the media for being “reasonable.” The “establishment wing” of the Republican Party, as it has come to be called, has taken such praise to heart, seeing itself as “the adult in the room” when dealing with actual conservatives. Praise from the left only lasts as long as the threat from conservatives—as John McCain and Mitt Romney discovered after defeating conservative opponents to win the Republican nomination for president, then confronting the mainstream media and its (liberal) candidate in the general election. But there are other benefits as well, primarily those of money and power related to one’s position defending the marginal advantages of players within the existing regulatory structure governing the American economy. In practice, this has meant that Republican Party leaders, often calling themselves “true” or “common sense” conservatives, refuse to push for policies they believe might undermine the smooth operation of the regulatory state and its clientele. Whether the policy at issue concerns immigration or spending, or is simply a matter of political tactics, the “adult” position is that compromise is necessary to maintain order in the system, with order in the system presented as the first and primary need. This means that all “compromise” begins from the assumption that current arrangements are generally satisfactory, requiring only minor tweaks and adjustments.
Given the symbiotic relationship between “adult” Republicans and the vast majority of Democrats currently in power under our system, it is not surprising that both show disdain, if not actual fear, for conservatives and populists demanding significant change such as the dismantling of Obamacare or enforcement of and changes to immigration laws to preserve the character of American society. But it is simply wrong to claim that such policies, or even the demand that they be pursued through vigorous action that might result in a “shut down” of the government, are intrinsically unconservative.
Russell Kirk, a key founder of post-war conservatism in the United States, was fond of noting that “order is the first need of all.” Does this mean, then, that the Republican Party establishment is correct to fear vigorous action aimed at rolling back Obama administration policies on abortion, immigration, health care, and so on? Are these establishment Republicans correct that the “radicals” in their midst are being untrue to conservatism by letting their political principles, their view of the best government imaginable, get in the way of stability and ordered movement toward a possible era of unmixed Republican government when something might be done to scale back some of the Obama legacy?
Only if we assume that the direction toward which Obama has been using legislation, regulation, and decree to move our nation is the right one, even if his movements may have been too vigorous. That is, it is wrong to seek a principled, significant change in current policies and the institutional structure with which they are entwined, only if those policies and structures are basically correct and beneficial for America. If they are not, then it is wrong to support them and wrong to oppose those who would reform them.
Recognition of the very basic fact that some policies are good and some bad rather clearly should lead to recognition that some should be pursued, some avoided, and some changed. The issue does not concern how quickly we move, but in what direction. Where the liberal posits a great future toward which we all must march, the conservative would allow the people to pursue their own ends, free of the yoke of a powerful state driving them toward a predetermined goal, free to pursue the goods of life as lived in their own families, churches, and local associations. The conservative finds his political principles not in grand ideological visions but in the customs and traditions of the people, as actually lived in their own communities.
If we recognize that conservatism is about something more than mere stasis, that it is, rather, a philosophy devoted to fostering a good life for a people within a stable order that will last over time, then we also should recognize the conservative imperative to stop and undo the destructive policies of this administration and undertake significant reforms to the machinery of federal regulation that has been built over the last several decades.
Any coherent vision of conservatism—one that sees that body of thought as anything other than the attempt to maintain one’s own privileges against anyone daring to pursue justice (i.e., any but a leftist interpretation) must include recognition that conservatives value tradition because it helps people lead good lives; not perfect lives, let alone perfectly happy lives, but good lives in the sense that they can develop the character necessary to recognize good and evil and choose the one over the other with greater regularity than otherwise would be the case. Edmund Burke, the father of modern conservatism, recognized the virtue in English, French, and Indian traditions from the fact that they fostered decent societies in which families, religious organizations, and various local associations fostered virtue in the people. Thus, Burke sought to defeat ideological regimes that put visions of perfect justice, or fairness, or equality, ahead of the need of actual people for institutions, beliefs, and practices that provided stability and a call to decency and virtue. When governments destroy the primary institutions of any good life in pursuit of some abstract goal, they undermine the very purpose of government and so must be changed or even abolished in pursuit of restored sense and tradition. Burke applied this reasoning to France, where traditions of ordered liberty provided the proper means of political reform as against revolutionary mass murder. Alexander Sozhenitsyn recognized the truth of this insight in seeking within Russia’s deeply religious tradition the proper alternative to communist tyranny.
Thank goodness our nation is not so far gone as revolutionary France or Soviet Russia. But it is wrong and/or disingenuous to claim that attempting to restore American traditions, in which limited government, respect for religion, promotion of the natural family, and adherence to principles of local self-government dominate, ought to be restored, if necessary by allowing the current president to close down the national parks for a few weeks. Those too invested in today’s welfare/administrative state, with its open hostility toward traditional arrangements and communities, to contemplate actual change aimed at restoring the political and cultural assumptions and practices dominant until quite recently should have the decency and honesty to declare themselves servants of the liberal state and cease telling conservatives what they should and should not believe as conservatives.
Bruce P. Frohnen is Professor of Law at The Ohio Northern University Pettit College of Law.