Friday, December 31, 2010

American Conservativism: Intellectual, Cohesive, Anti-establishment, Exceptional (Part I)

James Piereson is president of the William E. Simon Foundation and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. He has written an important essay that proclaims American conservativism to be the country’s most vibrant political philosophy; the very essence of American exceptionalism.

Here Piereson’s argument, in his words, Part I:

one of the more significant political developments in the United States over the last half of the twentieth century was the rise of conservatism from a marginal intellectual movement in 1950 to its position by the end of the 1990s as a rival to liberalism as the nation’s most influential public doctrine. It fought its way to that position. . . because it solved a series of public challenges—from crime to the Cold War—that liberals could not, or at least did not, address.

there are now more conservatives in America than there are liberals[; they] make up a highly significant minority of American voters. . . liberals in power, if they are to survive, must tack to the center while conservatives can govern more from the right—and, indeed, [are] why Obama’s attempt to reprise FDR and LBJ was bound to fail.

American conservatism began . . . as a movement of ideas and. . .has managed to maintain its original character. Thus David Brooks has observed that conservatives differ from other political sets in their apparent preoccupation with books, ideas and a handful of influential authors. One rarely hears of liberal groups discussing major works written by the intellectual architects of the welfare state, such as John Dewey, Herbert Croly or John Rawls, or sponsoring programs in honor of leading figures like John Maynard Keynes or John Kenneth Galbraith. One would be hard-pressed to identify an influential book or essay that sets forth the principles of contemporary liberalism as they relate to feminism, multiculturalism, diversity or economic planning.

Conservative groups, on the other hand, regularly pay tribute in their programs to the founding fathers of conservative thought . . .The texts that energize conservatives . . .are: (1) The Road to Serfdom, published by F. A. Hayek in London and in the United States in 1944, which developed the enduring case for classical liberalism; (2) Witness, published by Whittaker Chambers in 1952, and The Conservative Mind, by Russell Kirk in 1953, which provoked a renewal of Burkean conservatism, which in turn led to the founding in 1954 of National Review by William F. Buckley Jr.; and (3) the Public Interest, a quarterly journal founded in 1965 by Irving Kristol and Daniel Bell which was the original forum for neoconservatism, a set of ideas that quickly found expression in other influential venues, such as Commentary magazine and the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal.

traditional conservatives, led by Buckley, Kirk and Chambers. . . argued [the Cold War] was not solely about preserving liberty but also about the conservation of the religious and moral tradition of the West. . . The neoconservatives, for their part, developed their own synthesis in response to the unraveling of the American welfare state in the 1960s and a parallel rise in anti-American sentiment. . . the problem with the expanding social safety net was . . . that it increasingly promoted disorder, crime, broken or unformed families, poor schools and a general loss of authority in society[, undermining] the middle-class values upon which a successful commercial civilization must be based. . . neoconservatives were not in principle opposed to the welfare state but only to a liberal welfare state that did not uphold the ideals of family, order and community.

An essential aspect of conservatism is the conviction that . . . republics follow a cycle of rise and inevitable decline as the people or their leaders gradually sacrifice their principles in the pursuit of money, security or power. Conservatives. . . are thus skeptical of liberal notions of inevitable historical progress that do not take into account . . . corruption and decline. This is one of the key reasons conservatives have always looked for external supports for representative institutions, whether in nationalism and patriotism, religion, family and community. . . which provide direction and discipline for liberty and self-interest. Conservatives [fear eroding of] those private associations and loyalties which sustain and support representative institutions.

. . . conservatives look to . . . Alexis de Tocqueville, James Madison, Joseph Schumpeter and [Edmund] Burke as important sources for their ideas. . . The seminal conservative thinkers of our era . . . have identified these external supports . . .—Hayek in the founders’ Constitution, Buckley and his colleagues in religion, family and tradition, and Kristol and the neoconservatives in bourgeois virtues and patriotism.

These authors, books and publications are still read by conservatives [and none], to the surprise of critics, has been discredited among conservatives by recent events—not the classical liberals by the financial crash, not the traditional conservatives by the libertarian cultural politics of our day and not the neoconservatives by the war in Iraq.

At the same time, little that is new or fundamental has been added to the conservative movement since the neoconservatives arrived on the scene. It still runs by and large on that set of ideas developed in the postwar period in response to totalitarianism, socialism, and an expanding and self-confident welfare state. . .

The critique of Obama’s agenda is increasingly framed in popular circles in terms of “big government” as a threat to liberty and the constitutional order. [Hayek’s] Road to Serfdom recently rose to the top of best-seller lists after [FOX’s Glenn Beck] urged his viewers to read it as the clearest diagnosis of the challenges posed by liberal policies. [Hayek’s conservativism] is increasingly being presented as an alternative to the Democratic agenda. Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, has similarly framed the debate as one of “free enterprise” versus “big government.” The Road to Serfdom, however, while a penetrating diagnosis of the corruptions of the welfare state, offers few prescriptions for unwinding it in its mature phase.

(Part II continues here.)

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