Alan Wolfe on American conservatives’ inability to govern

Alan Wolfe argues here in the The Washington Monthly that conservatives have a dismal record in as political leaders.

What I found most interesting was his argument that, contrary to its constant invocation of the Founding Fathers, today’s American Conservative movement is out of sync with American history and political culture.

"Why Conservatives Can’t Govern" by Alan Wolfe

The United States, as the political scientist Louis Hartz argued in the 1950s, was born liberal. We fought for our independence against Great Britain and the conservatism that flourished there. In Europe, a conservative was someone who defended the traditions of the monarchy, justified the privileges of the nobility, and welcomed the intervention of a state-affiliated clergy in politics. But all those things would be tossed out by the revolutionaries who led the war for independence and then wrote the Constitution. We chose to have an elected president, not an anointed monarch. Our Constitution prohibited the granting of titles of nobility. We separated church and state. 

Of course, we had more than our share of thinkers who distrusted national authority; conservative political philosophy may not come naturally to Americans, but a fear of centralized power and an unwillingness to pay heavy taxes does. Beneath the broad political liberalism embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution was a frequently unexamined conservatism that questioned the very idea of the vibrant, expansive society that America promised to be. 

Odd men out in America’s liberal political culture, America’s conservatives were never very unified. Alexander Hamilton and John Marshall wanted to see a strong national government created to improve America’s economic prospects, even if they retained an aristocratic sense that only social superiors should control that government. (John Adams outdid them on behalf of a strong executive; he thought our first president should be addressed as a monarch). But this kind of New England Federalism would go into abeyance once America’s democratizing forces were unleashed. Others insisted that this country should embody timeless Christian principles; they, however, soon ran up against the skepticism of the Founding Fathers and conceptions of religious liberty associated with dissenting Protestantism. With the decline of both, the only significant conservatism left would come from defenders of slavery such as John C. Calhoun. Once the advocate of a strong national government, Calhoun, putting the rights of slaveholders first, viewed this country as a compact among states, not as a unified society. His ideas would live on in the voices of those thinkers, primarily Southern, who objected to relying on national power to promote equal rights for all.

As this litany of lost causes suggests, our conservatives, while representing different regions and economic interests, were united by their irrelevance in the face of history. If the term reactionary is too pejorative, let’s call them reactive. In this entrepreneurial, mobile, innovative, and individualistic country, conservatism was constantly on the defensive, aiming to preserve things–deference, reverence, and diffidence, to name three–that most Americans were anxious to shed. Deprived of both a church and state to defend, American conservatives became advocates for privileges determined by birth, suffrage restricted to an elite, and rural virtues over urban realities.

And so conservatives faced a dilemma from the moment the first shots were heard around the world. They could be true to their ideals and stand on the sidelines of political power. Or they could adjust their principles in the interests of political realism and thus negate the essential conservative teaching that principles are meant to be timeless. All the conservatives that played any role in America’s history since the age of Jackson chose political relevance over ideological purity. The Whigs abandoned aristocracy to nominate a popular military leader in the 1840s, hoping thereby to out-democratize the Jacksonians. An emerging business elite defended the free market–an 18th-century liberal innovation detested by agrarian-oriented conservatives–to protect the very kind of privileges that Adam Smith hoped the free market would curtail. Isolationists abandoned the cosmopolitanism of Hamilton, perhaps America’s greatest conservative, for a populistic nativism suspicious of worldly grandeur. Clergy from evangelical churches played down such depressing doctrines as original sin and predestination in favor of the wonders of salvation for all. European conservatism had defended authority against liberty and social standing against equality. American conservatives used the language of liberty to justify inequality and promoted democracy to stand against change.

Read the whole thing.

  • TM Lutas

    Unfortunately, Wolfe uses several confusing terms that will lead most of his readers (those who are not intensely political and educated to the nuances) astray. Conservatism has always been about taking what is useful from the past and preserving it, adapting it so that it is useful for today but keeping the flame alive. What that past that is being conserved is changes from variant to variant. Jacques Chirac is a conservative. So is Jonah Goldberg, the fellow who coined the phrase “cheese eating surrender monkey” and hurls it so liberally at Chirac. This makes perfect sense once you take into account that Chirac is conserving the old european tradition of class, nobility, and privilege and Goldberg is conserving the revolutionary american tradition of mocking exactly those things.
    It is this “conserving revolutionary liberalism” fraction that throws so many people for a loop. People cannot understand George W Bush unless they know that post 9/11 he is the second coming of the Radical Republican faction, which hearkened back to the old NE firebrand sons of liberty of the US colonial period. Bush is not the heir to Adams but of Thomas Paine without most of the eloquence.
    Wolfe uses few of the signposts that differentiate one conservative faction from another and thus mashes up all the factions and picks out what is convenient to his aim which is propaganda, not education. Care is called for.
    Bush explicitly ran as a compassionate conservative, a word which was pretty controversial on the center-right because of its implied concession to the leftist claim that preceding variants had not been compassionate. The word compassionate or variant do not enter into the article at all. Compassionate conservatism *is* more big government friendly than preceding variants. What it gives up in holding the line on government spending and program growth it tries to improve in demanded results. George Bush has famously not vetoed one bill in his presidency. What he has insisted on is that whenever a program is reauthorized, significantly changed, created, or funded at greater levels it come with a new set of tools to honestly and properly measure progress and a commitment that if those measurements show that the program is a failure it will either be reformed to work or outright killed in the future.
    What George Bush has been doing for almost six years now has been setting up easy home runs for the next round of small government conservatives because the old liberal tricks of layering a new program doomed to fail on top of an old program that has already failed (but keeps getting funded) won’t work when the entire government actually measures success and failure and holds programs accountable.
    It is a long range readjustment of the country that is barely starting to bear fruit. NCLB educational reform, for instance, is putting the squeeze on incompetent and outright destructive mostly urban school districts that should have been replaced decades ago.
    The article’s treatment of Katrina is practically cartoonish. One would hardly know that the disasters all seemed to fall in the political jurisdiction of Louisiana and New Orleans while neighboring states hit as hard or harder didn’t seem to have the same sorts of problems.
    The Medicare Part D coverage is even less attached to reality. The truth is that Medicare was horribly broken. It’s coverage of office visits and surgery but not pills meant that it couldn’t be privatized. Some sort of drug benefit had to be included in the program before it would be sane to even consider whether there was a way to improve care by spinning it off to a private entity. Medicare Part D was akin to asking a bankruptcy judge for the ability to borrow more money to operate the company while it reorganizes. Virtually every bankrupt company does this and most judges approve those requests.
    Wolfe ignores decades of failure to implement Medicare drug coverage including plenty of filibusters and filibuster threats on both sides of the aisle. Democrats had a hand in a great many of the provisions in this program otherwise it would have been filibustered to death, again.
    The less said about Wolfe’s Iraq analysis, the better. When all is said and done, Iraq will likely be on its feet faster (2003-??) than the US was (1776-1789). Militarily, right now it’s one province down, 17 to go for handover. Politically, their constitution is set up fairly well and we’re well into the unpredictable growing pains of forging a competent political class. Economically, recovery is well on its way.
    Wolfe’s description of the inner-Republican factional jockeying is just not serious. Of course there are different factions among Republicans. That’s virtually embedded in the system. And each faction gets a bone so the coalition goes forward without the dogs turning on each other. Democrat factional jockeying is no different so either Wolfe is singularly uninformed or disingenuous.
    Even the K Street Project analysis doesn’t get things quite right. The lobbyists initially expected a rerun of the 1950s with the House soon tipping back to Democrat control. They thus continued to fund Democrats and Democrat causes as if “the present unpleasantness” would soon pass and the rightful lords of the House would soon return to their stations as committee chairs and Speaker. K street was disabused of that fanciful idea due to the K Street Project. Whatever abuses also came of it (and there appear to be many) there was an incestuous relationship of 4 decades that needed to be broken up and Tom Delay was the hammer that struck the blows.
    Now you can buy my analysis as being correct or not on any of these points but at least now you know the other side of the argument, something you would not get from Mr. Wolfe’s original piece.

  • Flit(tm)

    Why Liberals can’t honestly describe Conservatism

    Ran this comment on Akram’s Razor which ran a lengthy excerpt of the deeply flawed “why conservatives can’t govern” by Alan Wolfe. Unfortunately, Wolfe uses several confusing terms that will lead most of his readers (those who are not intensely…

  • Svend White

    Hey, TM
    Thanks very much for the in-depth analysis.
    While I don’t have the time at the moment to sit down and figure where exactly on stand on the many interesting points you raise, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if he paints with too broad a brush. Part of the problem with the MSM is how polarized and hostile to nuance the culture of debate has become, making it necessary for its participants to assume predefined roles and shout loudly to get any attention at all. It’s a bit like Hollywood–if you don’t play according to how you’re typecast, you don’t get to participate. So the debate is almost preordained.
    Sober, evenhanded analysis doesn’t get you on the Sunday afternoon talk show circuit–broad, melodramatic and divisive generalizations do.
    So I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets some things wrong.
    One reason I shared it was because it turned the tables on the monopoly of Americanness for a change. We lefties are always being disparaged as un-American, un-patriotic, etc., etc. by the Right (or what’s left of it today) on flimsy and/or highly debatable grounds (e.g., diehard defenders of the 2nd Amendment such as the NRA are real Americans; equally diehard defenders of all the REST of ‘em, such as the ACLU, are pinko bastards), so I like to consider contrarian analyses of this shared political tradition that call into question these tenditious schemas.
    Based on what I’ve read and heard from Iraqis, I am not at all as sanguine as you about Iraq’s situation or prospects, but that’s another discussion.
    More generally, I think W’s been an unmitigated disaster on most fronts. The only reaon, IMO, this isn’t self-evident to most people is that since his advent the Right has rewritten the rules of the game–with the full cooperation of that “liberal” media–so that his often breathtakingly irresponsible and/or incompetent decisions and policies seem logical and/or principled. He’s about as “Big Government” as it gets; he’s a nation-builder; he tramples on the Constitution; etc etc.
    This is one buck-naked emperor if you ask me.
    BTW, for what it’s worth, I was not a fan of Clinton, either. I think he was an incredibly venal and unprincipled politician –who, btw, betrayed just about every cause he claimed to believe in and who gutted the Left–and that he should’ve been impeached for multiple reason (even if one accepts the privacy argument, once he lied under oath about it, he should’ve been out). So this isn’t just the grudge of a leftist against a rightwinger. I think W’s a terrifying cross between Mr. Magoo and Ghengis Khan.
    Anyway, perhaps the biggest reason I found the piece of interest is that I share one of its key assumptions, that much of today’s Conservative movement bears little ressemblance to authentic “conservative” political and social values. Like many so-called Islamists today–who, for example, are often more interested in defending headscarves than the women who wear them–too many Republicans IMHO are more interested in narrow modern ideological preoccupations (e.g., this neurotic fear of the government, the sometimes downright idolatrous faith in the free market, …) than authentic traditional values.
    I don’t think a real conservative like Russell Kirk would get much respect in today’s wide-eyed Jacobin GOP.
    I suspect that many of his general observations are right, perhaps for the wrong reasons.

  • Svend White

    BTW, re: Bush’s supposed lack of vetos
    While he doesn’t veto, he very freely ignores laws he doesn’t like. I forget the term for this trick, but he frequently issues many presidential findings that in effect annull parts of legislation that he finds inconvenient.
    I think a recent issue of The American Conservative might’ve discussed this problem.
    His arrogance and disrespect for the Constitution is truly breathtaking at times.

  • svend

    BTW, here’s the article I mentioned:
    July 17, 2006 Issue
    Copyright © 2006 The American Conservative
    Power of the Pen
    The president uses signing statements to decree which laws apply to him.
    by James Bovard