American Conservatism and the Beaconsfield Position

In reviewing Sam Tanenhaus’s The Death of Conservatism, Jackson Lears repeats Tanenhaus’s odd contention that “One puzzling feature of American politics is that the people who call themselves conservatives seldom want to conserve anything.” In the original essay that became the book, Tanenhaus insisted that “movement politics most clearly defines itself not by what it yearns to conserve but by what it longs to destroy — ‘statist’ social programs; ‘socialized medicine’; ‘big labor’; ‘activist’ Supreme Court justices, the ‘media elite’; ‘tenured radicals’ on university faculties; ‘experts’ in and out of government.” While it’s clear what the right has opposed, wrote Tanenhaus, conservatives remain “haunted” by the question of “what exactly has it been for?”

This is all very silly. Each item on Tanenhaus’s list of things conservatives oppose could be restated as something conservatives support: So the conservative movement stands for liberty against statism, free markets and choice against socialized medicine, freedom of contract and the right to work against big labor, originalism and constitutionalism against activist Supreme Court justices, fairness and patriotism against the media elite, and the Great Books and traditional core curricula against tenured radicals. It’s not a particularly puzzling feature of American politics that the conservative movement wants to destroy the things Tanenhaus lists — it’s precisely because conservatives want to protect something else.

But Tanenhaus thinks this isn’t proper conservatism. He believes conservatism reached “its peak period as an intellectual force” in 1965-1975, after which conservatives lost their minds. Tanenhaus lauds Irving Kristol’s Public Interest, for example, for publishing “rigorously nonpartisan policy analysis” during that time, but then accuses Kristol of going delusional in 1975 when he identified a “new class” of liberal social engineers who wanted to ideologize American life. By 1995, Tanenhaus writes, Kristol “spelled out the terms of revanchist strategy” by writing “American conservatism is a movement, a popular movement, not a faction within any political party. Though, inevitably, most conservatives vote Republican, they are not party loyalists and the party has to woo them to win votes. This movement is issue oriented. It will happily meld with the Republican party if the party is ‘right’ on the issues; if not, it will walk away.”

Tanenhaus thinks this is crazy, but it’s no different from how any other political faction operates. The party might decide not to court the movement’s votes, if it wants to, but the movement — precisely because it believes its agenda is best for the country — will try to urge the party in its direction. Tanenhaus makes a straightforward description of democratic politics seem like a nefarious conspiracy.

Indeed, any argument that traces the fall of modern conservatism to the election of Ronald Reagan is self-evidently ridiculous. Tanenhaus’s view of conservatives as serving “the vital function of clarifying our shared connection to the past and of giving articulate voice to the normative beliefs Americans have striven to maintain even in the worst of times” seems to relegate them to writing literary essays in National Review but not actually affecting public policy. That’s because Tanenhaus doesn’t think their policy prescriptions are worth implementing. He seems to think it’s self-evidently a bad idea — and anti-Burkean! — to want to reduce the size of government or regulatory burdens or taxes or to actually see those traditional normative beliefs reflected in law, but that only means he disagrees with conservatives, not that he’s diagnosed some kind of pervasive intellectual rot.

As an alternative to modern American conservatism, Tanenhaus offers “the Beaconsfield position” of Benjamin Disraeli. At the end of his essay, Tanenhaus quotes Disraeli’s Vindication of the English Constitution :

“Political institutions, founded on abstract rights and principles, are mere nullities,” Disraeli wrote. Europe, too, had its pre-democratic places where “a comparative civilisation had been obtained under the influence of a despotic priesthood. And these are the regions to which it is thought fit suddenly to apply the institutions which regulate the civil life of Yorkshire and of Kent!”

It’s not clear whether Tanenhaus means to endorse Disraeli’s view that other Europeans, “untinctured, even in the slightest degree, by letters, and steeped in the grossest superstition,” are incapable of democratic self-government. “We may celebrate the constitutional coronation of a Bavarian in the Acropolis and surround his free throne with the bayonets of his countrymen,” Disraeli writes immediately after the passage Tanenhaus quotes. “We may hire Poles and Irishmen as a body-guard for the sovereign, who mimics the venerable ceremonies of Westminster as she opens the parliaments of Madrid or Lisbon; but invincible nature will reject the unnatural novelties, and history, instead of celebrating the victory of freedom, will only record the triumph of folly.”

Yet putting aside Tanenhaus’s position on the prospect of achieving democracy in Spain, the simple fact is that the American Constitution, unlike the British, founded America’s political institutions precisely upon those “abstract rights and principles” Disraeli dismissed. In his Vindication, Disraeli denounced a new “political sect” that aimed “to submit the institutions of the country to the test of Utility and to form a new constitution on the abstract principles of theoretic science.” By contrast, in Federalist 9 Alexander Hamilton wrote that the American Constitution owes its form to “great improvement” in “the science of politics,” which led to an understanding of “the efficacy of various principles” such as the separation of powers and a system of checks and balances. “These are wholly new discoveries,” wrote Hamilton of these abstract principles, “or have made their principal progress towards perfection in modern times.”

The United States and Britain have two different constitutional and political traditions. For all Tanenhaus’s discussion of Burke, he doesn’t seem to understand that precisely because Burke rejected universalist ideology, he would not have the same political prescription for America as for Britain, but would have paid attention to the distinctive features of each society. Britain has an evolutionary, unwritten constitutional tradition while America was born of revolution and adopted a Constitution based upon abstract principles in order to protect abstract rights. It’s no surprise American conservatives are not Beaconsfieldians; they are conserving different things. Tanenhaus’s idea that the conservatism of nineteenth-century England is the ideal form of conservatism for twenty-first-century America and everywhere else is about as far removed from “Burkean conservatism” as one can get.