Andrew Sullivan on the True Meaning of the Word “Conservatism”

America Desperately Needs a Healthy Conservatism

by Andrew Sullivan

In these fetid times, it’s easy to know what you’re against. And I’ve spent many diaries assailing the dueling Trump and “social justice” cults on the illiberal right and left these past several months. But what am I for?

That’s a harder question but a useful one to ask yourself from time to time. You don’t defeat something with nothing. So I thought I’d take a brief detour from the tribal abyss, and go back to some first principles. I remain a conservative, pretty much where I’ve always been, with the exception of foreign policy where I’ve seen the folly of interventionism in the wake of Iraq. By conservative, I do not mean Republican. To my mind, the Republican Party has become — and not just recently — a cancer on this particular strain of Western thought. To those who believe that this is a cop-out, or a version of the “all true conservatives” gambit, I offer a new book, which sure buoyed my spirits, and helped me regain my bearings. Reading it, for me, was like feeling an unexpectedly cool, dry breeze on a stiflingly humid day.

The book is called Conservatism: An Introduction to the Great Tradition, and it’s by arguably the most acute conservative thinker of his generation, Roger Scruton. It’s a slim, concise monograph, and it begins with the truth that conservatism is a branch of liberalism, and not its enemy. It is the branch that tries to conserve the liberal democratic state against the corrosive effects and flaws of liberalism itself (not to speak of leftism and reactionism, which seek to overthrow liberalism entirely). More to the point, it does not defend liberalism as a function of natural rights, or of human rights, or self-evident truths, but simply as the inheritance of a particular place in a particular sliver of human history: the Anglo-American world in the last two and a half centuries.

Conservatism defends the individual against the state as an evolving tradition born in the English common law from the 12th century onward, a tradition that came to be embedded in the American justice system. What distinguished the American Revolution, conservatives argue, was that it was rooted in a defense of the rights of Englishmen against a monarch’s whims, as much as a novus ordo seclorum. It was not only a liberal revolution, but also a conservative one, seeking to defend a preexisting state of affairs, and buttressing a new egalitarianism with deep conservative safeguards against majoritarianism, mob rule, and direct democracy. The alternative type of revolution — the one that took place in France — was based on a complete erasure of what had gone before, a rupture in time and culture and regime, and one that led, as all such ruptures must, to murderous tyranny. When all tradition and inherited institutions and norms are abolished, there is only raw power to occupy the vacuum.

Conservatism began then as a defense of America and a critique of France — which is the essence of Edmund Burke’s formative argument. He saw the advent of democracy as a challenge — which demanded acute attention as hierarchies collapsed, and society changed, in order to ensure that too much of value wasn’t thrown away. And so it emphasized the importance of a vibrant and autonomous civil society (independent of government), the centrality of federalism, local community, and voluntary association of the kind that Tocqueville marveled at and saw as the indispensable complement to the atomizing, destabilizing forces that America had also unleashed.

Conservatism’s defense of the free market and free trade was therefore never absolute. In fact, there’s more protectionism in conservatism’s past than many would like to admit. But these market mechanisms were nonetheless the least worst way to discern the value of things traded and sold, and were never supposed to be ends in themselves or to be advanced regardless of the impact on society. In fact, for conservatism, society is for no end and no purpose; it is valuable simply in itself, as the combination of traditions, landscapes, communities, and customs that define a nation, bind us together as citizens, and make us feel at home.

And yes, that feeling of being at home is nebulous. It is in many ways sub-rational. Ask ordinary people to describe it and they will often not be articulate. Sometimes, it manifests itself as bigotry, yes. Most of the time, it is about loss, and mourning it, while understanding that change is inevitable. Burke famously saw society not as a contract between individuals, but as a contract between generations: to pass on to the future the good and viable things we inherited from the past. This emphatically does not mean resistance to all change. In fact, it understands some change as critical to conservation. And perhaps that’s where American conservatism began to go wrong. The goal is not to stand athwart history and cry “Stop!”, as William F. Buckley put it. It’s to be part of the stream of history and say: slow it down a bit, will you?

In Scruton’s account, the list of conservative intellectuals is long and distinguished. The respective geniuses of Burke and Hume and Hegel are integral to its formation; they were succeeded by the Romantic era that urged a corrective to mass industrialization, and a hedge to the Enlightenment’s preference for theoretical reason over the practical wisdom that works, as Adam Smith saw it, as an invisible hand in guiding society. Tradition, conservatives believe, is a form of collective knowledge. It can contain wisdom that reason simply cannot grasp.

As a temperament, conservatives are prone to obey as passionately as liberals are prone to rebel. They prefer order to change, stability to upheaval, authority to anarchy. And so a conservative is likely to see, say, the flag as an object of veneration, the Constitution as something to be protected rather than altered, the nation as demanding a loyalty before all other claims, especially those of ideology, tribe, gender, or race. The conservative immediately saw why Fascism and Communism were evil; they were intent on obliterating settled ways of life, destroying the individual in favor of a collective, empowering the state so that it destroyed the civil society that made liberalism thrive. No conservative ever wants to purify anything. It’s the human mess that we love, with its intimations of how to improve it.

And so conservatism became the resistance to socialism, to government planning, and to the abuse of the English language so that it could be forced to reflect an ideology, rather than a lived reality. (In this sense, Scruton shrewdly notes, Orwell was a conservative.) It saw all too well how the good intentions of liberalism could lead to its unraveling. It abhors war as the ultimate change-maker and disrupter; it despises concepts of race or gender that eradicate the uniqueness of the individual; it defends high culture against philistinism and mediocrity; it cherishes norms. It values the particular over the general, prefers present laughter to utopian bliss, relishes humor in all its forms, defends art as an apolitical force, and respects religion as a separate avenue for the search for ultimate truth, and a critical component of the civil and moral society that enables government to be small and limited.

In today’s America, this conservatism is completely under siege. The left will increasingly tolerate nothing that gets in the way of what it calls “social justice,” which far too often reduces individuals to their racial or class or gender identities rather than their merits, or character, or talents. The conservative approach to a multicultural and multiracial society is to keep our focus on the individual and do what’s best to help every individual, regardless of their race, gender, or whatever, to be part of our shared liberal democratic inheritance. Conservatism is about enfolding the new into the old, sustaining a society’s coherence and cohesion, while being extremely tough on particular injustices against particular individuals, vigilant about corruption, and anguished when the criminal justice system loses legitimacy, because of embedded racism.

But conservatism is more deeply besieged by the Republican Party, its alleged harbor. If you consider the themes I’ve emphasized above, it becomes clearer that the GOP is not only not conservative, but actually dedicated to destroying that tradition. Republicans pursue the ideology of free markets and lower and lower taxation, regardless of its brutal assault on fiscal solvency, human dignity, social cohesion, and community life. They have nominated and protected a president who assaults the norms that conservatives revere, has contempt for existing institutions and sees the rule of law as a means to advance his own interests, rather than that of the society as a whole.

This is a man and a party that has such disdain for conserving anything that it is actively despoiling our landscape, enabling a climate catastrophe. It is a party that has generated crippling and everlasting debt — even in good economic times — in a way that makes a mockery of any compact between generations. It is a party that actively endorses cruelty as a policy tool, deploys fear as its prime political weapon, and insists that the opposite party has no legitimate right to govern at all. It is the party of torture, the absolute nemesis of the liberal inheritance, the party of corruption, propaganda, vote suppression, and barely masked bigotry.

I despise it because I am a conservative. I don’t believe that conservatism can be revived on the right (it has been thankfully sustained, by default, by the Democrats in recent decades) until this hateful philistine would-be despot and his know-nothing cult is gone. And by revived, I do not mean a return to neoconservatism abroad or supply side crack-pottery at home. The 1980s and 1990s are over. I mean a conservatism that can tackle soaring social and economic inequality as a way to save capitalism, restore the financial sector as an aid to free markets and not their corrupting parasite, a conservatism that will end our unending wars, rid the criminal justice system of its racial blind spots, defend liberal education and high culture against the barbarians of postmodernism and the well-intentioned toxins of affirmative action, pay down the debt, reform the corruption of religious faith, protect our physical landscape, invest in non-carbon energy, and begin at the local level to rebuild community and the spirit of American civil association.

I also believe we need to slow the pace of demographic and cultural change. It is happening too fast, even for America, to sustain our society’s coherence and cohesion. The elite indifference to mass immigration — especially the illegal kind — is an ugly pact between Republican elites, eager for cheap, exploitable labor, and Democratic elites, who cynically encourage it because they think it will give them a reliable voting bloc. When the foreign-born population is at a proportion last seen in 1910, and as the raw numbers are higher than ever before, it is not inherently racist to seek to slow the pace to integrate the newcomers better, to defuse racial conflict and resentment. A nation has to mean something; to survive, it needs a conservative weaving of past, present, and future, as Burke saw it. And you cannot do that if you see this country as a blight on the face of the earth and an instrument of eternal oppression; or if you replace a healthy, self-critical patriotism with an ugly, racist nationalism that aims to restore the very worst of this country’s past, rather than preserve its extraordinary and near-unique achievements.

I know there’s no place for this in our current political climate. And that is why I believe this country is in as grave a crisis as any since the 1850s. Without a healthy conservatism, liberalism will degenerate. Without liberalism, conservatism has no inheritance to defend. And both rich veins in Western moderation are now under assault from the ideological left and the authoritarian right. We have to brave this pincer attack, conservatives and liberals together, or we will die together.

— from his diary entry of September 14, 2018 for New York Magazine .


My Own Thoughts and Observations

Rather than out of any agreement with Mr Sullivan (though there’s much here with which to agree…) or out of any difference of opinion (though there’s much here with which at least to quibble…), I’m posting this piece because it outlines a clear and concise definition of the what the word “conservative” really means – especially its origins and a brief outline of its history – and why so many today who claim to be “conservatives” are anything but.

Though it’s hardly an original thought on my part (as Sullivan mentions, Orwell was saying much the same thing over seventy years ago…), I’ve long felt that the quality of our social/political discourse has been horribly diminished due to the misuse of many words which originally had, and probably still should have, at least reasonably clear definitions.  Usage, to be sure,  has a very strong influence on meaning in the realm of vocabulary, but when it’s advertisers and politicians who are doing the using, and doing it in such a manner as to shift the meanings of words around every which way – always so as to suit their own often questionable ends – that’s another matter altogether.  It seems to me that, in recent years, the terms of the discourse have become so obscure, so garbled, that true conversation has become as difficult as chopping one’s way through a jungle swamp.

Perhaps the most radical thing anyone can do right now is to try to re-seize, to recapture, and indeed to re-establish, the original clear meanings of the basic terms of social/political discourse.  In the above piece, Sullivan strikes a mighty blow for that cause.