What has happened to Conservatism? Historians trace the genesis of political conservatism to Edmund Burke (1729-1797), who first wrestled with the practical need for centralized authority versus the practical unfairness of centralized power. The Anglo-Irish Member of Parliament was one of the world’s biggest fans of the American solution to that problem – a practical apparatus for committing popular sovereignty – the Republic. Not much else happened in the political realm to refine conservatism until Russell Kirk (1918-1994), whose book, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot (1953), gave shape to the amorphous post-war conservative movement by tracing the rather subtle development of conservative thought in the Anglo-American tradition, and was quickly followed by William F Buckley Jr (1925-2008) – who had actually anticipated Kirk with his wave-making essay God and Man at Yale (1951) – but is best-known for the founding of National Review in 1955.
That Burke (a follower of those Liberals in Philadelphia) could be retrospectively cited as the founder of political conservatism speaks to two things – the drift of Liberalism since our Founding; and the intellectual arrogance of both movements (Liberals and Conservatives). Liberals, unable to recognize their victory with the Constitution, thought their base message was, not Liberty, but Change (sound familiar?). So once they had erected a magnificent edifice to liberty, they set about picking it apart. At the same time, “opinion makers”, those who see themselves as society’s thinkers, have constantly felt the need to quote the obscure in promoting the obvious. In doing so, a search was undertaken to find a figure who had surprisingly spoken to our times from the grave, instead of the rather handier option of returning to the thoughts and writings of our Founders: “Look here, you got your Change in 1788 … it works … quit fixing it.”
In adopting a mantra of Change, one eventually requires the force and power of the government to inflict “help” upon an unwilling – or at least an apathetic – polity. In the degree to which one relies on legislation to embellish the Constitutional relationship between government, business and the people, one is becoming an imperialist. The micromanagement of society is not a populist stance, it’s Imperial. It also pits a slow-moving body of committees and subcommittees against individuals, who are agile in their self-defense. Our attention was jerked wide when Woodrow “I won’t send your sons to overseas wars” Wilson sent our sons to France.
In an attempt to consummate the end of the War to End All War, the League of Nations was founded on the counterintuitive idea of “sovereign equality” – one nation, one vote. In order to legitimate the findings and decisions of the League, it was necessary to render the morality and ethics of governance transparent to the diplomatic function – Kim Jung-Il is equivalent to Kim Dae-jung – let alone Barack Obama, Gordon Brown or Nicholas Sarkozy. The United Nations has become so lop-sided with regrettable regimes that it has become an Orwellian democracy of dictatorships. This should-be-obvious surreality of sovereign equality drove a segment of Wilsonian Liberal Internationalists into the conservative camp, being, as one of them put it, “Liberals who have been mugged by reality.”
Norman Poderhertz and his followers became known as (although they have never used the moniker) “Neoconservatives”, and they came to symbolize the evangelical promotion of market republicanism. Conservatives were suddenly discussing a revolutionary foreign policy emphasizing regime-change (what we used to call “war”) in regimes we didn’t like and the popular take-over (what we used to accuse the Communists of) of regimes we didn’t trust. Neoconservative purity was reached by converts like ex-socialist Jeanne Kirkpatrick and the father of Realpolitik, Henry Kissinger. The real-world break came when Neoconservatives of a lesser shine came to power – GW Bush, Richard Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz. Their first meaningful act – the post-September 11th invasion of Afghanistan – was intellectually supported by Liberals and Conservatives alike; their second – the invasion of Iraq – was intellectually opposed by both. Spreading the Word (democracy) had become the antiseptic to Oppression (not-democratic). Once that leap of faith is made, geopolitical thinking dramatically changes.
Inflicting freedom upon an unsuspecting polity is as Imperialistic as is cradle-to-grave Liberalism. The profound difference between the camps was highlighted by their post-decision behavior – one side tried to win the unfortunate war, and the other tried to lose it. They desperately tried to defund the war, called the Commander-in-Chief an idiot, ran the SecDef out of town, told the Theater Commander that what he was about to say was a lie, denigrated the mission, and accused the shooters of being barbarians … but they were “for the troops.” Puleeeeze!
A college of ex-Wilsonians had taken titular control of the Conservative movement and was in the process of re-defining it. Well-intentioned Imperialism was being wielded in the name of the party of anti-Imperialism. As often happens to sinners who have suddenly discovered their apostasy, the next rule is far easier to break. Governing Republicans lost all sense of their republicanism. Republicans had become functionally indistinguishable from Democrats.
I would make it required for candidates for office – one would think it to be required of high school graduates – to read and understand the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, the Northwest Ordinance, the Constitution of the United States of America, and the Federalist Papers. For one thing, it would stop them from saying “we can’t know the intent of the Founders” about this or that. We need to get back to teaching those things. We need to get back to talking about the relationship of government to business and the individual.
Next election day, do me a favor and look around at society … incumbents have done this.