Crooked Timber » » Douthat on Conservatism: Ross Douthat takes a stab at defining American ‘conservatism’.... Here it is:
A commitment to the defense of the particular habits, mores and institutions of the United States against those socioeconomic trends that threaten to undermine them, and those political movements (generally on the left, but sometimes on the right) that seek to change them radically in the pursuit of particular ideological goals.
This has to be a complete failure, but I’m not going to snark too severely... little definitional exercises are always failures... [but] instructive....
Take out the parenthetical bit and you have something that is much closer to a definition of ‘liberalism’ than ‘conservatism.’... Douthat himself... agrees with me about this:
This “revolution or bust” tendency has defined traditionalist conservatism for some time now, with an alienation from actual-existing American politics coexisting with sweeping visions for what American politicians ought to be doing with themselves instead; it’s manifested itself frequently among religious conservatives....
Liberals are more resistant to “Revolution or Bust” because they tend to be more attached to “the particular habits, mores and institutions of the United States against those socioeconomic trends that threaten to undermine them.” I don’t expect Douthat simply to agree to that. But the fact that there is considerable truth to it means that just saying the opposite will never do as a definition of ‘conservatism’....
What does Douthat’s parenthetical add?... [I]t amounts to the claim that conservatives are those who object to proposals for change from the left, on the grounds that change is bad, but don’t as readily object to proposals for change from the right, on the grounds that change is bad. That is to say, ‘conservative’ must mean right-winger with a bad conscience. As a liberal, I’m half inclined to say my suspicions are confirmed. As a conservative intellectual, Douthat can surely do a bit better...
I think John is a little too easy on Ross Douthat, largely because I do not believe that conservatism is a political philosophy. Conservatism is the practical principle that the pieces of furniture you have that suit and are comfortable should not be thrown away. And conservatism is a rhetorical mode of justification--effective on those who respect authority. But it isn't a philosophy.
I have written about this before:
Grasping Reality with Both Hands: The Semi-Daily Journal Economist Brad DeLong: Jacob Levy thinks he has a problem: he cannot present conservatism attractively in his classes because there are no attractive modern conservatives.... I say cut the Gordian knot. THERE ARE NO ATTRACTIVE MODERN CONSERVATIVES BECAUSE MODERN CONSERVATISM SIMPLY IS NOT ATTRACTIVE. DEAL WITH IT!!
You can see this most clearly if you take a close look at Edmund Burke. Edmund Burke does not believe that Tradition is to be Respected. He believes that good traditions are to be respected. When Edmund Burke in his Reflections on the Revolution in France makes the argument that Britons should respect the organic political tradition of English liberty that has been inherited from the past, he whispers under his breath that the only reason we should respect the Wisdom of the Ancestors is that in this particular case Burke thinks that the Ancestors--not his personal ancestors, note--were wise.
Whenever Burke thought that the inherited political traditions were not wise, the fact that they were the inherited Wisdom of the Ancestors cut no ice with him at all. It was one of the traditions and institutions of Englishmen that they would conquer, torture, and rob wogs whenever and wherever they were strong enough to do so. That tradition cut no ice with Edmund Burke when he was trying to prosecute Warren Hastings. It was one of the traditions and institutions of Englishmen that all power flowed to Westminster. That tradition cut no ice with Burke when he was arguing for conciliation with and a devolution of power to the American colonists. It was one of the traditions and institutions of Englishmen that Ireland was to be plundered and looted for the benefit of upwardly-mobile English peers-to-be. That tradition, too, cut no ice with Burke.
Even in Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke doesn't argue that Frenchmen should build on their own political traditions--the traditions of Richelieu and Louis XIV, that is. He argues--well, let's let him talk:
Burke: Reflections on the Revolution in France: We [in Britain] procure reverence to our civil institutions on the principle upon which nature teaches us to revere individual men; on account of their age; and on account of those from whom they are descended.... You [in France] might, if you pleased, have profited of our example, and have given to your recovered freedom a correspondent dignity. Your privileges, though discontinued, were not lost to memory. Your constitution... suffered waste and dilapidation; but you possessed in some parts the walls, and in all the foundations, of a noble and venerable castle. You might have repaired those walls; you might have built on those old foundations. ... In your old [E]states [General] you possessed that variety of parts corresponding with the various descriptions of which your community was happily composed; you had all that combination, and all that opposition of interests, you had that action and counteraction which, in the natural and in the political world, from the reciprocal struggle of discordant powers, draws out the harmony of the universe.... Through that diversity of members and interests, general liberty had as many securities as there were separate views.... [B]y pressing down the whole by the weight of a real monarchy, the separate parts would have been prevented from warping and starting from their allotted places.
You had all these advantages in your antient [E]states [General].... If the last generations of your country appeared without much lustre in your eyes, you might have passed them by, and derived your claims from a more early race of ancestors. Under a pious predilection for those ancestors, your imaginations would have realized in them a standard of virtue and wisdom.... Respecting your forefathers, you would have been taught to respect yourselves. You would not have chosen to consider the French as... a nation of low-born servile wretches until the emancipating year of 1789.... [Y]ou would not have been content to be represented as a gang of Maroon slaves, suddenly broke loose from the house of bondage....
Would it not... have been wiser to have you thought... a generous and gallant nation, long misled... by... fidelity, honour, and loyalty... that you were not enslaved through any illiberal or servile disposition... [but] by a principle of public spirit, and that it was your country you worshipped, in the person of your king? Had you made it to be understood... that you were resolved to resume your ancient [liberties,] privileges[, and immunities]... you would have given new examples of wisdom to the world. You would have rendered the cause of liberty venerable in the eyes of every worthy mind in every nation. You would have shamed despotism from the earth...
Burke's argument is not that France in 1789 should have followed its ancestral traditions. Burke's argument is, instead, that France in 1789 should have dug into its past until it found a moment when institutions were better than in 1788, and drawn upon that usable past in order to buttress the present revolutionary moment. This isn't an intellectual argument about how to decide what institutions are good. It is a practical-political argument about how to create good institutions and then buttress and secure them by making them facts on the ground.
What are good institutions? Burke sounds like Madison: checks-and-balances, separation of powers, rights of the subject, limitations on the state. Burke's views on what good institutions are Enlightenment views--that branch of the Enlightenment that took people as they are and politics as a science, that is, rather than the branch that took people as Rousseau hoped they might someday be and politics as the striking of an oppositional pose. Because he finds that the English past is usable as a support for his Enlightenment-driven views, Burke makes conservative arguments in Reflections. But whenever conservative arguments lead where Burke doesn't want to go--to Richelieu or Louis XIV or the plunder of Ireland or the Star Chamber or Warren Hastings or imperial centralization--Burke doesn't make them and they have no purchase on him. England's inheritance of institutions and practices is to be respected wherever it supports Burke's conception of properly-ordered liberty, and ignored wherever it does not. For Burke, conservatism is a sometimes useful rhetorical weapon, not a set of principles.