Richard Hofstadter wrote of pseudo-conservatives. Sam Tanenhaus has taken this idea up with his realist versus revanchist conservatives. In the time between these two thinkers, Henry Fairlie was a British journalist who lived in America for the last part of his life. He began his writing career before Reagan and Thatcher came to power. It is interesting to read Fairlie explaining conservatism in that earlier time, a conservatism that once was more trusting of government than capitalism.
Fairlie called himself a Tory, but his Toryism made him closer to a Democrat. American conservatives often trace their tradition back to Edmund Burke who was a Whig and he was a liberal for his time. Burke argued against British imperialism and for the rights of Catholics. This would be the equivalent of an American politician arguing against American imperialism while arguing for the rights of Muslims, a hard thing to imagine a Republican doing.
There is lots of ideological confusion. While Tea Partiers point fingers at supposed RINOs, another group of conservatives have taken the left’s criticism of false conservatism and made it their own. Many moderate Republicans have seen their party taken over by the Tea Party which is really just the inevitable result of the Southern Strategy. Conservatives liked how this strategy initially won them power, but they have come to question the price they paid for power.
Two books I’ve read this year offer moderate and moderating conservatism as true conservatism: The Founding Conservatives by David Lefer and Constitutional Conservatism by Peter Berkowitz. I don’t find their arguments overly convincing, but I just like that there are conservatives making such arguments. Of the two, Lefer makes the most original argument, partly basing his definition of conservatism on the example of John Dickinson. The only problem is that, if Dickinson is a conservative, most Republican politicians aren’t conservatives and many Democrat politicians are.
The other perspective is that of Corey Robin with his reactionary conservatism. He doesn’t see this as false, but as the real deal. He includes Burke among these reactionary conservatives. I’m sympathetic with this view. Burke after the French Revolution is like Reagan after the Cold War began, reacting not just to liberalism but more specifically their own liberalism or former liberalism. I suspect reactionary conservatives are often nothing more than liberals who become cynical about change? This makes them cynical liberals for sure. I don’t know that it makes them conservatives, reactionary or otherwise.
I must admit I’m fond of the notion of conservatism as moderation. However, this seems less about conservative ideology and more about conservative-mindedness. I’ve commented about the fact of American liberals being rather conservative-minded, defending what traditionalists once stood for. This distinction between conservatism and traditionalism is important, but maybe it has less to do with conservatism. Such things as moderation and radicalism seem less to do about specific ideologies. Robin is maybe wrong to solely identify conservatism with reaction.
I honestly don’t know what conservatism is or could be under different conditions. I’d like to believe in a moderate and moderating conservative. People sometimes ask what do conservatives seek to conserve? The main problem I have with Lefer and Berkowitz is that they have a limited knowledge of history. If you don’t know the past, you might repeat what is less-than-desirable but you also won’t know what could and should be maintained. This is how conservatives constantly fail or even actively threatens traditional.
This brings me to two other books: Liberal Beginnings by Andreas Kalyvas and Ira Katznelson and The Magna Carta Manifesto by Peter Linebaugh.
Conservatives like to make a misinformed distinction between classical liberalism and modern liberalism. Progressive liberalism goes at least back to Thomas Paine’s “Agrarian Justice”, and it was Paine who inspired the US Constitution by suggesting Americans needed their own Magna Carta. Paine came of age when the enclosure movement was hitting hard those who were dependent on the commons. Besides food riots, one thing this led to is the first labor unions. The world during Paine’s life was the beginning of our modern political order.
Someone like Paine wasn’t simply attempting to create something new. He was trying to save what was being destroyed, the commons along with the rights of Englishmen. This relates to a long English tradition going back to the Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest. Liberalism arose not just in envisioning new liberties but in defense of old liberties. Such things as the commons are what modern conservatives would like to conveniently forget. Conservatives want to pick and choose what they want from the past and discard the rest.
A genuinely moderate and moderating conservatism would not be so blithe about the past. It isn’t just that they dismiss important traditions. They don’t even bother to learn the history that would inform them about why these traditions matter. I have a natural inclination toward moderation, but it seems to me that moderation can only exist to the degree that knowledge is embraced. I want to conserve what is good in the world because that is the first step to increasing the good.
If what goes for conservatism is somehow false, it is because it has become a hollow label.