Monday, January 02, 2006

What Is Conservative Thought?

Terms that define different political ideologies are tossed about in common conversation and in the media, but often there seem to be differences in understanding those words. Few pause to consider, for example, what is or ought to be the anatomy of conservative thought. It is simply taken for granted that it is what any particular commentator thinks it to be at the moment.

Jeffrey Hart, a widely published conservative writer who is a retired professor of political science from Dartmouth, has published an article in the Wall Street Journal that has engendered a fair amount of commentary on this subject. (See here, here, and here.) He begins his article referencing Russell Kirk’s seminal 1953 treatise the Conservative Mind. He then says he will present his “assessment of the ideas held in balance in the American Conservative Mind today.”

I expected to see some kind of cohesive definition of what it means to be an American conservative. But Hart’s piece ends up being kind of a tirade against what he sees wrong with conservatism today. His points appear to be presented in no logical order and are given no comparative value. After reading the article I still have no clue what Hart thinks makes up conservative thought, only that he thinks some ideas and policies fail the conservative litmus test.

I agree with many of Hart’s statements. I particularly like his take on the proper role of the judiciary in our constitutional government.
“Though the Supreme Court stands as constitutional arbiter, it is not a legislature. The correct workings of the system depend upon mutual restraint among the branches. And the court, which is the weakest of the three, should behave with due modesty toward the legislature. The legislature is the closest to "We the people," the basis of legitimacy in a free society. Legislation is more easily revised or repealed than a court ruling, and therefore judicial restraint is necessary.”
Hart explains the value of a constitutional republic. “This system aims at government not by majorities alone but by stable consensus, because under the Constitution major changes almost always require a consensus that lasts over a considerable period of time.”

Hart cautions against unbalanced pursuit of free-market economics to the exclusion of “every other value and purpose.” He says that “when the free market becomes a kind of utopianism it maximizes ordinary human imperfection--here, greed, short views and the resulting barbarism.” Hart believes that government has a proper role in promoting and maintaining beauty, such as national parks, the arts, etc. He is concerned that this is too often left to the liberal agenda, resulting in its purpose being twisted.

Hart suggests that the Republican Party is a poor custodian of conservative principles. I have made some parallel observations myself. But Hart’s defining argument seems to be his belief that people in the South are imbeciles. It’s as if he has fallen into elitist thought, which I believe is at odds with traditional conservatism.

The good professor (emeritus) rails repeatedly against utopianism, and seems to argue that realism is the true conservative way. Others have pointed out (see here) that realism cannot be equated with conservatism. That would make Nixon and Kissinger great conservatives, a detestable idea in many conservative circles. Hart seems to embrace realism and parallel current liberal arguments as he argues that the Bush administration’s foreign policy is nothing more than blind, happy-go-lucky “Wilsonianism.”

Perhaps the most contentious argument in Hart’s article is his dismissal of the pro-life ideology. He casually minimizes the desire to save the unborn from termination of life as utopianism gone amuck. He argues that while Roe was a poor tool, “it did address the reality of the American social process.” You can see an example of criticism of Hart’s position here and here, where it is pointed out that his position is contradicted by the position he takes on religion.

I’m not sure what to make of Hart’s call to re-enthrone “traditional forms of religion” in American society. He makes no real effort to explain how this should be accomplished. I’m a religious guy who feels that the country and the world would be better off if each citizen had an inward and abiding faith in the true and living God. Hart dismisses non-traditional religion as lacking the reliability to convey “the distinctive identity of Western civilization.” I might point out that nearly all known religions, including the one to which I belong, had their roots as upstarts. It’s all very good and well to pine for long-term religious tradition, but almost implicit in that emotion is the denial of free religious expression that Hart might class as “spasms of emotion.” That’s a good way to rob religion of its life force. It is what drove “seekers” in the 19th Century to look outside of established religion.

Hart closes his article by glowingly referring to the “constellation of ideas” that comprises conservative thought. He calls this a “permanent achievement.” This great achievement must exist in Hart’s mind, but rather than showing us what it is he has oddly shown us what he thinks it isn’t.


Gordon S. Jones said...

Hart's "realism" is not exemplified by the "realpolitik" of Nixon and Kissinger. Rather it is grounded in Hart's Catholic view of the nature of Man. "Realism" in this sense is posed as a counter to the Utopian Heresy, which holds that the nature of Man is malleable, and can be changed by changing his environment. This heresy finds expression in utopians from Plato to Marx to Hitler to Mao and Lenin.

Conservatism, by contrast, holds that human nature doesn't change. As a conservative myself, I don't regard that claim as inconstistent with idealism. In fact, if human nature is consistent, it is consistent across the family of man, and humans in Iraq are as capable of enjoying the benefits of freedom as are citizens of this republic. Whether that is "Wilsonian" (as in Woodrow) or not I'll leave to others. It is certainly "Wilsonian" in the Ronald Wilson Reagan sense.

Conservatives should be realists. They should not delude themselves into thinking that Utopia is possible on this earth. But they should also be idealists, holding forth their ideals as applicable to everyone, and removing (where prudently possible) barriers to enjoyment of those ideals, which will (reaslistically) also promote continued enjoyment of those ideals among themselves.

Reach Upward said...

Thanks. Your comments are more coherent than Hart's.