Cracked Conservatism

This Bruce Bartlett column, noting the disgust of old-guard conservatives like George Carey and Jeffrey Hart with the Bush administration, is excellent. Just yesterday I was re-reading Carey's essay in the latest (Fall 2005) Modern Age and thinking what a shame it is that Modern Age isn't available on-line. Carey's piece is entitled, aptly if rather starkly, "The Failure of Conservatism." Actually, the starkness of the title is a virtue — one can hardly begin to fix a thing without first taking stock of just how profoundly broken it is. Assuming repair is possible at all: Carey cites personal communications with several conservative acquaintances of his who think that the term has just about lost whatever usefuless it may once have had, now that conservatism is identified with Bushism — "This conflation has led some traditional conservatives to abandon the very term conservative, aguing either that it no longer has meaning (certainly not that which it possessed prior to Bush's first election) or that the very use of the term leads to a misunderstanding or confusion too troublesome to unravel."

Carey's essay goes beyond particular gripes about Bush policies to look at how the growth of presidential power, no matter who the president might be, necessary tends in a centralizing and progressive direction, and how political parties — especially under one-party rule as we have today — exacerbate that tendency. "Parties provide the link or the thread between institutions; they are the instrumentalities that can covercome the constitutionally mandated fragmentation, thereby enabling the branches (principally Congress and the presidency) to act in unison."

Naturally enough, Carey suggests that divided government — divided along party lines, that is — is at least a partial remedy for this short-circuiting of constitutional checks and balances. Conservatives, Carey argues, ought to favor "Congress more than the presidency, but only when party differences enable it to exercise a truly independent will, to demonstrate some institutional pride and backbone along the lines that the Framers envisioned." He concludes by saying conservatives "should never swear undying allegiance to either political party."

I suspect that Carey's counsels will fall on deaf ears (or blind eyes, as the case may be) — no good conservative Republican would admit to swearing undying allegiance to the party. And certainly nobody who uses the term "RINO" (Republican In Name Only) is going to understand what Carey is saying. I suspect as well that divided government will prove a bust sooner rather than later: if the two parties are, as Pat Buchanan has said, two wings of the same bird of prey, it won't make much of a difference in major policy questions (like war) whether there's divided government or not. But if it can cause any friction at all within the machinery of government, so much the better.

Barlett also calls to his readers' attention this article by Jeffrey Hart. Hart pulls no punches in giving his judgment of Bush's foreign policy:

George W. Bush is not a conservative, but a right-wing ideologue whose abstractions are contrary to reality. He lied us into this war, betting that Iraq would be easy and that the lies would be forgotten. Now a majority of Americans consider him a failed president.

And Hart goes further, taking issue with Bush domestic policies that are sacrosanct on the right:

Nor is he a conservative domestically. A Gallup Poll recently showed that 65 percent of Americans oppose repeal of Roe v. Wade, only 29 favoring its overthrow; against President Bush, 2 to 1 support stem-cell research, as both common sense and morality support the research; Mr. Bush's plan to privatize Social Security and turn the social safety net over to the stock market dropped like a stone; and 89 percent opposed the intervention of President Bush and the Bush Congress in the Schiavo case.

Hart wrote along similar lines in the Wall Street Journal a month later, setting right-wing bloggers and commentators aflame with his heterodoxy. They missed the point. There are indeed good conservative reasons to disagree with Hart about the particular evils of Roe and stem-cell research. But Hart's criticism of Bush's stance on those issues remains valid: what Bush and his supporters — including the most nominally conservative among them — are attempting to do is to impose a plan upon society. Precisely because the plan is in the service of absolute good, nothing — including niceties of law and custom — must be allowed to stand in the way of its achievement. Such a mindset is the farthest thing from actual conservatism; it's ideology run amok.

The title of Bartlett's column asks "Is a crack-up coming?" There have been tensions on the right from the very beginning, of course, and even the idea of a "crack-up" has been around since at least 1992, when R. Emmett Tyrrell published a book called The Conservative Crack-Up (a sequel to his earlier Liberal Crack-Up). There are good reasons to think that the desire for power will be more than sufficient to keep the Republican-conservative movement together for a long time yet. Politically speaking, no, there is not going to be a crack-up any time soon, though there may be a few tremors. Philosophically speaking, though, things are much different. In 1992, there was still enough common ground between establishment conservatism and paleoconservatism or traditionalist conservatism that National Review could endorse Pat Buchanan against George H.W. Bush. National Review is still capable of making squeaky noises about Republicans, but the gulf between the official conservative movement and the older generation of conservative thinkers is now very wide indeed. And it's not just a neo-paleo split but also an intergenerational division — as Bartlett says, "Both Hart and Carey are disappointed by the younger generation of conservatives who run National Review and other conservative journals for subordinating conservatism to transitory politics." It's hard to think of any old-guard conservative intellectuals of real standing (leaving aside Straussians and neoconservatives) who have much enthusiasm for Bush. And it's hard to think of any conservative in the middling generation now in power who is as philosophically-minded as Carey or Hart. (The youngest cohort, which includes Austin Bramwell and Ross Douthat, is something else again.) Within the Intercollegiate Studies Institute there are some younger conservatives who have the traits of the older generation, but they're outliers.

With divisions not only between neos and paleos but also between philosophical and political conservatives and older and younger cohorts, a conservative crack-up doesn't seem so far-fetched. But perhaps it's less a crack-up than simply a new political class disposing of ideas, and idea-men, that are no longer so useful to them. From a political perspective, the kind of conservatism that Hart and Carey have in mind must look awfully constrictive — better, then, to embrace a politics without limits while still calling it conservatism, whatever its substance might be.


One thought on “Cracked Conservatism

  1. Ian May 4, 2006 / 9:02 pm

    Actually, issues of MODERN AGE from 2003 thru 2005 are available free through the link below. I would, however, urge people to subscribe ( $18/year ): this journal ( founded by Russell Kirk ) is coming up on its 50 anniversary next year and deserves all the support it can get.

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