The Twilight of Conservatism
The people of Britain have spoken, and the Labour Party is back in power with a comfortable, if much diminished, majority of seats in Parliament. The leader of the Conservative Party has said he will step down, forcing the Tories to their fourth leadership election in eight years.* The victorious Labour Party got 36 percent of the vote, the Conservatives 33 percent, the Liberal Democrats (a Naderite Green-Left party) 22.5 percent, and "other" (Scottish, Welsh, and Irish parties) 9.5 percent.
The real victory here is Margaret Thatcher's. By annihilating the old statist ideological Left in the 1980s, she forced the Labour Party to bourgeoisify itself. The class warriors and Soviet stoolies, the nationalizers and America-haters, the Bomb-banners and tree-huggers, the Scargills and Benns, the Foots and Kinnocks, were hustled off the Labour Party stage, replaced by mild-spoken middle-class types in business suits, murmuring unthreateningly about "opportunity" and "investment." They are colorless by comparison with the old crowd — I can never remember which of Blair's people is which — but much less dangerous to Britain's prosperity and security.
The price of victory, however, was extinction. In accomplishing this transformation of her enemies, Mrs. Thatcher left the Conservative Party with nothing to define itself against. Since the fall of the USSR, there is not even an external enemy to concentrate minds. (Hardly anyone in Britain thinks that the War on Terror is any of their business.)
If your national economy consists of a large private sector and a large public sector, and if neither big political party is nakedly hostile to either, or looks like doing serious harm to either, then politics comes down to a dull, wonkish tussle between those who think that the private sector is over-regulated and those who think the public sector is under-funded. Right now in Britain the economy is humming along nicely; the welfare state is in reasonable working order; and the public-private mix in life services like health, education, and pensions seems to offer about as much choice as people want.** Center-left or center-right? A state that occupies 40 percent of the national economy, or one that occupies 38 percent? Why change?
There isn't much room in there for a strong, principled conservatism. Nor do the British seem to want such a thing. Look at those voting figures. Since the Lib-Dems are to the left of Labour, and most of the little nationalist parties are even further left than that, the vote breaks down as one-third for conservatism — the much diluted conservatism of the post-Thatcher Tories — and two-thirds for everything further left. Apparently our cousins across the pond are pretty happy in their Old-Europe-trending welfarist consensus. Real conservatism is dead in Britain.
Is it any better off here in the USA? Hardly. Executive, legislature, judiciary — where can we look for strong promotion of, and adherence to, conservative principles? We think of our president as a conservative, but in what respects can he be said to have advanced conservatism? John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, in The Right Nation, tick off the six fundamentals of classical, Burkean, Anglo-Saxon conservatism:
- A deep suspicion of the power of the state.
- A preference for liberty over equality.
- A belief in established institutions and hierarchies.
- Skepticism about the idea of progress.
"The exceptionalism of modern American conservatism" (the authors go on to say) "lies in its exaggeration of the first three of Burke's principles and contradiction of the last three." All right, let's ignore the last three of those principles and mark George W. Bush on the first three.
• Power of the state. Is the federal government more powerful, or less, than it was in January 2001? That, of course, is an ah-but question. Our country was attacked by a terrorist conspiracy well supported by, and well funded from, the wealthy and populous Moslem Middle East. All sorts of things flowed from that, including necessary expansions of government power and expenditure. (Though whether a $300 billion experiment in Wilsonian nation-building was really necessary, is a question I shall leave to another time.) Even setting all that aside, though, are the federal authorities less of a presence in our lives, in areas unrelated to national security, than they were four years ago? Sure, you got an itty-bitty tax cut, paid for by dumping a slew of federal debt on your children and grandchildren. But spending? Even non-security spending? The answers are here.
• Liberty vs. equality. There has been no rollback of the tort-spawning, job-killing egalitarianism of the 1990s. Title IX and the Americans with Disabilities Act are still on the books. Norm Mineta is still at Transportation, so presumably your grannie is still as much of a threat to air travel as any Saudi flight-school graduate. Not only are both sexes, all physiques, and all air travelers equal by government fiat, so are all kids. The No Child Left Behind Act assures us of that, and pokes the federal government's nose into every classroom.
• Patriotism. Flip on Fox News any night of the week and watch those clips of foreigners streaming across the southern desert into America by the hundreds and thousands. Doesn't patriotism imply some concern for your nation's borders? Some ideas about what people you would like to have come settle in your country — how many, and from where? Some cherishing and privileging of the notion of citizenship? Apparently not. Our President, at any rate, is perfectly insouciant — seems, in fact, to be on board with the idea put forward recently by Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Ernesto Derbez, that his country and ours will soon be "integrated." Let 'em come!
Ah, my conservative friends tell me, but this is not Britain. They are sunk in spiritual apathy, but we have a Religious Right! That will keep us on the straight and narrow! Will it, though?
There are two main strands of politically significant religiosity in this country: evangelical Protestants, and devout Roman Catholics. Evangelical Protestantism is theologically conservative by definition; but as NR's own Jeffrey Hart has noted, it is under no necessity to be conservative on any of the Burkean points, and historically has not been. (Try grading William Jennings Bryan on the Burke scale.) Evangelicanism is, in fact, too intellectually flimsy to sustain any coherent political position outside a narrow subset of "social issues." As Prof. Hart concludes:
The Bush presidency often is called conservative. That is a mistake. It is populist and radical, and its principal energies have roots in American history, and these roots are not conservative.
Roman Catholicism is more intellectually substantial, but no more necessarily conservative, in the Burkean sense, than Free Silver evangelism. Does the Roman Catholic church really have deep, ancient roots nourished by the concepts of liberty and individual autonomy? When and where, exactly, did those roots first become visible? During the Inquisition or the Armada? Under the Bourbons or the Hapsburgs? In Franco's let's-ignore-the-20th-century Spain or Éamonn de Valera's nasty, corrupt little people-exporting "confessional republic"? Yes, yes, the late John Paul II, bless his memory, made up for a great many of those things; but that only brings to mind how very much there was to make up for.
And if American religiosity is not dependably conservative, American conservatives have not, historically, been very religious. The great 20th-century conservative Presidents were Calvin Coolidge and Ronald Reagan. Neither was an atheist, but neither was much of a church-goer either. Their expressions of religious belief did not venture far beyond the requirements of "ceremonial deism." The more you look at the link between American conservatism and American religiosity, in fact, the more tenuous the link appears. Scanning the names on the original masthead of National Review, I see several of whom it must be said that, if they had failed to show up for an editorial meeting and I had been sent out to look for them, the pews of the local churches would not have been my first point of call.***
American exceptionalist-conservatism still holds out in odd corners of the national life. The National Rifle Association, for instance, is still a formidable force for personal liberty: The passing of the recent "right to shoot" law in Florida is very heartening. All in all, though, I don't think that the prognosis for conservatism in America is any better than in England. My colleague Ramesh Ponnuru pointed out the other day that there has been no conservative elevated to the US Supreme Court without an assist from identity politics since 1972! Scalia, remember, was the first Italian-American justice, and was nominated partly for that reason. I doubt there will be ever be another conservative on the Court. In place of Coolidge ("It is much more important to kill bad bills than to pass good ones") and Reagan ("Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem"), we have George W. Bush ("When somebody hurts, government has got to move").
I believe, in fact, the trend lines show that we in the conservative movement are living in false hope. Our recent apparent advances — the breaking of the media monopoly, the defeat of Jean-Jacques Kerry and his sidekick John "ATLA" Edwards — are not indicative of any permanent revival, but only transient death-fevers, like the bright flushed complexion that comes at the last stages of tuberculosis.
Britain today, the US tomorrow. There will be no more Churchills or Thatchers, no more Coolidges or Reagans, no more Rehnquists or Scalias. We are living in the twilight of conservatism.
* William Hague elected to replace John Major, 1997. Iain Duncan Smith elected to replace Hague, 2001. Michael Howard elected to replace Duncan Smith, 2003. T.B.A. to replace Howard, probably this year.
** In the matter of healthcare funding, for example, the public-private mix is about 77-23 in Britain (£54bn out of £70bn for 2003). The latest figure I can find for the USA is 43-57 for 2001. The ratios are on a path of rapid convergence. When, later this year, the money for George W. Bush's colossal expansion of Medicare begins to flow, the public-private mix in the USA will tip to majority public funding, just like Britain's.
*** Not Frank Chodorov, a Jewish agnostic, nor Max Eastman, an atheist (who later became the only NR editor ever to resign because he thought the magazine too religious). Not Frank Meyer, either, though I believe he was accepted into the Roman Catholic church on his deathbed.