New York Times Book Review | October 7, 2007
THE FUTURE OF CONSERVATISM: Conflict and Consensus in the Post-Reagan Era. Edited by Charles W. Dunn. ISI Books. Paper, $15.
DEMOCRATIC CAPITALISM AND ITS DISCONTENTS. By Brian C. Anderson. ISI Books. $25.
BEFORE there was a Heritage Foundation or a Federalist Society, or a Cato or Claremont or Discovery or Hudson or Manhattan Institute, there was the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. Founded in 1953 to seed a new conservative generation (and originally called the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists), this pioneer of what would become a sprawling conservative counterestablishment boasted as its first president a young man named William F. Buckley Jr., who would go on to bigger things. As conservatism rose first to prominence and then to power, and as the conservative counterestablishment became an establishment in its own right, I.S.I. plugged along, mostly in the background. Today, as conservatism staggers through its worst crisis in a generation (or two), I.S.I. is still there — now asking what went wrong.
Two new anthologies from I.S.I., both sparkling with insights and both agreeably short, offer as good a gauge as anything out there of where conservatives think they stand. The Future of Conservatism: Conflict and Consensus in the Post-Reagan Era, edited by Charles W. Dunn of Regent University (that’s Pat Robertson’s school, itself a counterestablishment pillar), gathers essays by 11 conservative thinkers, some prominent and all intelligent. Democratic Capitalism and Its Discontents gathers ten essays by Brian C. Anderson, a conservative journalist who deserves to find a following.
Apart from the unaccountable omission of contributor biographies, Dunn’s volume is as smart and stimulating a collection of political essays as I’ve read in years, in part because it soars above the partisan potshots and petty maneuvering that preoccupy the political commentariat. “Conservatism’s strength has always rested in the realm of ideas,” Dunn writes in his introduction. This bracingly self-critical collection, at least, supports his boast.
The contributors mostly agree that “American conservatism has become middle-aged,” as the historian George H. Nash observes, and that with middle age has come a midlife crisis. Nash identifies four braided but distinct strands of modern American conservatism. Traditionalists value continuity, order and hierarchy; libertarians prize personal freedom and social spontaneity; neoconservatives blend the New Deal’s idealistic spirit with conservatism’s muscular nationalism; and religious conservatives fight relativism, secularism and immorality. Given their differences, the surprise is that these four heads ever joined atop one political beast. Yet Ronald Reagan, Soviet Communism and hostility to the excesses of the 1960s brought together a vibrant coalition.
Today Reagan and the Soviet Union are gone, and conservatism in power has produced excesses of its own, bringing the movement’s cultural contradictions to the fore. Libertarians and traditionalists disagree on the relative importance of liberty and virtue; many neocons care not a fig about abortion, while religious conservatives often seem to care about little else.
Unexpectedly, George W. Bush, Reagan’s would-be heir, has divided the conservative movement while unifying the Republican Party (whereas Reagan unified both). In his obsession with marginalizing the Democrats, and in his determination to be a “transformational” president, Bush embraced an activism that unmoored the party from its libertarian preference for small government and its traditionalist preference for orderly incrementalism. Libertarians’ disenchantment has become obvious; less widely appreciated is that “there is now an apparently unbridgeable divide between traditional conservatives and the Bush administration on major policy matters,” writes George W. Carey, a professor of government at Georgetown.
Consider foreign policy, where Bush broke decisively with the more cautious conservatism of Dwight Eisenhower and Bush’s own father. In a dazzling essay, worth the price of admission all by itself, the political scientist Daniel J. Mahoney argues that Bush’s and the neocons’ “misplaced one-sided emphasis on democracy” — their “democratic monomania” — “marks a break with an older conservative tradition which always insisted that Western liberty draws on intellectual and spiritual resources broader and deeper than that of modern democracy. ... The best conservative thinkers of the last two centuries have been wary of unalloyed democracy.” To many traditionalists, Bush’s penchant for overreach is reminiscent less of Reagan than of Lyndon Johnson.
Social and religious conservatives are unhappy, too. Their rise to political power has redirected cultural currents much less than they had hoped, and Bush’s Republican Party, the family scholar Allan C. Carlson complains, has sided with big business over families. Marvin Olasky, the author of the book Compassionate Conservativism, feels the need to contribute a long essay, studded with biblical quotations, pleading with Christians to be patient and not to “tear apart the Reagan coalition.”
True to the critical spirit they embrace, the authors disagree on just how much trouble the conservative movement is in. Some, like the journalist Michael Barone and the political scientist James W. Ceaser, see the coalition as fractious but stable, united in believing that “markets work and morals matter” and in its “shared antipathy to liberalism.” Others, like Carey, Carlson, Nash and Olasky, are more worried. All can take comfort, at any rate, in the intellectual vitality on display in this collection.
JUST as impressive, in a different way, is Anderson’s book, a selection of his own articles adapted from five prominent conservative journals — among them the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal, which he edits. Like the authors in Dunn’s anthology, Anderson, the author of South Park Conservatives, shows no interest in partisan gotcha or culture-war hype. He concerns himself with politics in the Aristotelian sense: the study of how people best govern their societies and their souls.
His 10 essays range in subject from judicial activism to the philosophy of John Rawls. On law and policy, his arguments are intelligent but derivative and not always rigorous. (He favors both strict jurisprudential originalism and judicial restraint, seemingly unaware that the two conflict as often as they coincide.) It’s in his six chapters grappling with potent thinkers of the right and left — Rawls, Sartre, Bertrand de Jouvenel, John Kekes and others — that Anderson establishes himself among the most probing and erudite political essayists of our day.
The pieces stand independently and deserve to be savored that way, but common themes emerge. Like his intellectual mentor Alexis de Tocqueville, and unlike so many of today’s red-meat, red-state right-wingers, Anderson is no triumphalist tub-thumper for capitalism or democracy. Both, he recognizes, are far better than the alternatives; but both, unchecked, can set in motion cultural forces — anomie, dependency, ruthless egalitarianism — that corrode soul and society alike. Like Jouvenel, Anderson holds with a worldly-wise anti-utopianism whose lineage goes back to the very origins of conservative thought. If more of today’s conservatives had heeded its cautions, they might not have been so surprised to see Iraq’s unstructured liberation turn sour.
Karl Popper once wrote, “The attempt to make heaven on earth invariably produces hell.” For Anderson, conservatism’s stewardship of that truth is the source of both the movement’s indispensable strength and its intrinsic weakness. Conservatism can keep us out of trouble by warning against the fanciful idealisms of the left (communism), the right (fascism) and the ultrareligious (bin Ladenism), but it cannot scratch humanity’s perpetual itch for a Promised Land free of hunger, pain, conflict and grubby politics. “There is no ultimate solution in politics, only temporary ‘settlements,’ ” Anderson writes, affirming Jouvenel, who affirmed Aristotle (“Man is by nature a political animal”). To read Anderson at his luminous best is to be reminded of conservatism at its wisest — not least in its understanding of its own limitations.