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Hijacking the Conservative Movement

(Reprinted from SOBRANS, November 2006, pages 1, 3–4, 7)
Hijacking the Conservative MovementNowadays, in startling contrast to my youth, it’s very fashionable to claim to be a conservative. Back in the Sixties, conservatism was still rather a fugitive thing, and the fashion was liberalism or even radicalism. By the late Eighties, liberal had become “the L-word,” and liberals were looking for a less alarming euphemism, such as progressive. As I say, the change is startling.

Hijacking conservative movementBut have things really changed that much? Or is the change really superficial? I’m afraid the latter is the case. The airwaves are clogged with the clamorous voices of talk radio, or “squawk radio,” as I like to call it — people claiming to be conservative, though they don’t sound much like the great conservatives I grew up admiring: Bill Buckley, Frank Meyer, James Burnham, Russell Kirk, Willmoore Kendall, and Barry Goldwater, to name a few.

Hijacking conservative movementIn fact many of today’s so-called conservatives seem to me to be liberals without knowing it, no matter how much they say they detest liberalism. Rush Limbaugh, to name only the most audible of them, seems to have no real philosophy, no awareness of conservative literature outside journalism. His premises are hard to distinguish from liberalism’s. Apparently he equates favoring war with conservatism. He likes big government just fine, as long as it’s shooting something. He says the Republican Party will save Social Security and Medicare, huge liberal programs which a real conservative thinks shouldn’t have existed in the first place. Sometimes, after listening to him for a half hour, I want to beg him, “Rush, how about equal time for real conservatism?”

Hijacking conservative movementWell, just what is “real” conservatism? This is an old question, much debated. Dictionaries define it in such terms as “preference for tradition” and “resistance to change,” but these are too general to take us very far. After all, nearly everyone wants to preserve some tradition and opposes some kinds of change, and people we call conservatives often want to do away with certain traditions and bring about important changes.

Hijacking conservative movementAnd all of life is in flux at all times. You can never conserve everything. We are forced to face the question of which things we should conserve, which we should discard or even destroy, and which we should let pass away. When a house catches fire, we may have to decide very quickly what we can rescue from the flames and abandon all the rest.

Hijacking conservative movementAnd conservatism isn’t just passivity. It’s active maintenance. An old house needs repair and painting, a garden needs weeding, trees and shrubs need pruning. To conserve is to renew. Conservatism can’t mean neglect.

Hijacking conservative movementAnd conservatism varies from place to place, from people to people. The great Russian novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn, even under the Soviet regime, wanted to preserve tsarism and the Russian Orthodox Church. Islam is in many ways deeply conservative, but we have also seen it take radical and revolutionary forms. Mormonism was once seen as radical, but today it seems a very conservative religion. The same might be said of Christianity in various forms. And as G.K. Chesterton says, “It is futile to discuss reform without reference to form.”

Hijacking conservative movementThe word conservatism came into general use after the French Revolution of 1789, its first and most eloquent spokesman being Edmund Burke in his Reflections on the Revolution in France. Burke argued for the traditional liberties of the English against the “abstract” Rights of Man advocated by the revolutionaries, predicting correctly that such abstract rights, with no force of custom behind them, would perish in a reign of terror. The revolutionaries, he said, were so obsessed with man’s rights that they had forgotten man’s nature.

Hijacking conservative movementHistory has vindicated Burke’s warning, but many have doubted that his kind of conservatism fully applies to America. We don’t have the sort of history England and France had, a feudal ancien régime with a social hierarchy and inherited status. It is even argued that our only tradition is a liberal one, of legal equality for everyone. After all, we are not divided into peasants versus noblemen, or anything of the sort. We even take pride in our social fluidity and more or less equal opportunity.

Hijacking conservative movementThis brings us to a paradox. The most eloquent of our own Founding Fathers was Thomas Jefferson, who welcomed the French Revolution and had no use for Burke. Yet most American conservatives look to Jefferson as their intellectual patriarch, he who wrote the Declaration of Independence and proclaimed that “all men are created equal.”

Hijacking conservative movementToday conservatism has become a confusing term. It can refer to a Jeffersonian vision of limited government and strict construction of the U.S. Constitution, or it can be equated with President Bush’s militarism and what has been called his “big-government conservatism.” And of course the title is also claimed by “neoconservatives” who share Bush’s enthusiasm for war and are, when it comes to social policy, more like liberals than Jeffersonian conservatives.

Hijacking conservative movementBoth Bush and the “neocons” favor an undefined war and speak of a “global democratic revolution.” But what is conservative about war and revolution? It has often been pointed out that this sort of talk is more akin to Leon Trotsky than to Edmund Burke. Bush even speaks of eliminating tyranny from the face of the Earth — a neat trick, if you can do it.

Hijacking conservative movementHere I think we should keep in mind Burke’s distinction between “the abstract rights of man” and man’s actual nature. Conservatives tend to believe in Original Sin, or something like it, This is the lead article to the November 2006 
issue, Hijacking the Conservative Movement -- Read Joe's columns the day he writes them.that will forever prevent man from achieving perfection. This attitude produces a disposition that tends to be both skeptical and tolerant, deeply dubious about overhauling society. Societies and traditions can’t be built from scratch; as Burke said, we must build out of existing materials — that is, real human beings and their habits, rooted in history.

Hijacking conservative movementLiberals, on the other hand, speak freely of “ideals,” imagined perfections that we can achieve if only we have the will. “I have a dream,” as Martin Luther King said. Hence liberals typically talk of abolishing evils — “eliminating poverty,” “eradicating racism,” “doing away with prejudice,” “ending exploitation,” and so forth. This usually means strenuous government action, massive coercion and bureaucracy, because these things don’t just evaporate of themselves.

Hijacking conservative movementConservatives don’t speak much of “ideals.” They think, more modestly, in terms of norms, which are never perfectly realized, but only approximated by sinful man. Consider homosexuality. Whereas the liberal wants to impose “gay rights,” by law and coercion, the conservative sees homosexuality as a defect, which to some extent can and must be tolerated, because it can’t be “eradicated,” but it can’t rationally be exalted to the plane of normality; and he knows that all talk of “same-sex marriage” is nonsense, like trying to breed calves from a pair of bulls. But to the liberal, the only issue is equal rights; human nature and normality have nothing to say to him. What the conservative sees as life’s mysteries, the liberal sees as mere irrationality.

Hijacking conservative movementOne word is notably absent from the liberal vocabulary: enough. For the liberal, there is hardly such a thing as “too much” government. There is no point at which liberals say, “Well, we’ve done it. We’ve realized our dreams. We have all the government we need, and we should stop now.” No, they always want more government. There is no such thing as enough government.

Hijacking conservative movementAgain, Chesterton sums up liberalism in a phrase: “the modern and morbid habit of always sacrificing the normal to the abnormal.” We see this again in the grisly business of abortion. To the typical conservative it is an ugly thing, something that may not be entirely “eliminated” but must be contained, condemned, and above all must never be accepted as normal. But to the typical liberal it is a right — even “a fundamental human and constitutional right”!
The role of Lincoln

Hijacking conservative movementConsider Abraham Lincoln, claimed by both liberals and conservatives. Most Americans consider him our greatest president — a view I emphatically reject. But both sides have a point in claiming him. In some respects he was rather conservative — for example, in his willingness to compromise on slavery before the Civil War. He doubted that he had the constitutional authority to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, which he finally justified only as a wartime measure, applying only to the seceding states.

Hijacking conservative movementBut he finally became an all-out abolitionist, and he had a radical dream of colonizing all free blacks outside the United States; in his 1862 State of the Union message, he called for a constitutional amendment authorizing such colonization! In addition, Lincoln was a high-handed centralizer of power, who suspended habeas corpus and crushed freedom of speech and press throughout the North. Like most liberals, he talked of freedom — “a new birth of freedom,” in fact — but the reality was power. Under the Constitution, he insisted, no state could withdraw from the Union for any reason. This was a view Jefferson did not share. The United States had begun in secession. Lincoln himself had once called secession “a most sacred right, which we believe is to liberate mankind.”

Hijacking conservative movementA more recent conservative, Willmoore Kendall, who died in 1967, argued that American conservatism is rooted in its own constitutional tradition, best understood in the light of The Federalist Papers, where the limits of the Federal Government are clearly set forth. As far as I can tell, Lincoln was entirely ignorant of The Federalist Papers, as well as of the Articles of Confederation — a point I’ll return to.

Hijacking conservative movementAn even more recent conservative, Michael Oakeshott, who died in 1990, was English rather than American, but he had much to teach us. Oakeshott, like Burke, decried “rationalism in politics” — by which he chiefly meant what we call liberalism. He observed that some people (liberals) see government as “a vast reservoir of power,” to be mobilized for whatever purposes they imagine would benefit mankind. By contrast, Oakeshott argued, the conservative sees governing as “a specific and limited activity,” chiefly concerned with civility and the rule of law, not with “dreams” and “projects.” I consider Oakeshott the most eloquent expositor of conservatism and the conservative temperament since Burke.

Hijacking conservative movementI have already said that Lincoln was poorly acquainted with the Founding Fathers. By contrast, Jefferson Davis was thoroughly familiar with them, and in his history of the Confederacy (too little read nowadays) he makes a powerful, I would say irrefutable, case that every state has a constitutional right to withdraw — to secede — from the Union.

Hijacking conservative movementIn the North, secession is still seen as a regional “Southern” issue, inseparable from, and therefore discredited by, slavery. But this is not so at all. At various times, Northern states had threatened to secede for various reasons. On one occasion, Thomas Jefferson said they should be allowed to “go in peace.” After all, the whole point of the Declaration of Independence was that these “are, and of Right ought to be, Free and Independent States.” Not, as Lincoln later said, a single “new nation,” but (to quote Willmoore Kendall) “a baker’s dozen of new sovereignties.”

Hijacking conservative movementAnd the Articles of Confederation reinforced the point right at the beginning: “Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence.” And at the end of the Revolutionary War, the British specifically recognized the sovereignty of all 13 states! This is flatly contrary to Lincoln’s claim that the states had never been sovereign.

Hijacking conservative movementBut didn’t the Constitution transfer sovereignty from the states to the Federal Government, outlawing secession? Not at all. The Constitution says nothing of the kind. And as Davis wrote, sovereignty cannot be surrendered by mere implication. In fact, several states ratified the Constitution on the express condition that they reserved the right to “resume” the powers they were “delegating” — that is, secede. And if one state could secede, so could the others. A “state” was not a mere province or subdivision of a larger entity; it was sovereign by definition.

Hijacking conservative movementClaiming sovereignty for the Federal Government, Lincoln felt justified in violating the Constitution in order to “save the Union” — by which he meant “saving” Federal sovereignty. One of the best-kept secrets of American history is that many if not most Northerners thought the Southern states had the right to secede. This is why Lincoln shut down hundreds of newspapers and arrested thousands of critics of his war. He had to wage a propaganda war against the North itself.

Hijacking conservative movementWere you told this in your history classes? Neither was I. We are still being told that Lincoln’s cause was the cause of liberty; just as we are told that he was the friend of the black man, though he wanted the freed slaves to be sent abroad, leaving an all-white America. Lincoln had a dream too, but it wasn’t Martin Luther King’s.

Hijacking conservative movementLincoln achieved what the Princeton historian James MacPherson calls “the Second American Revolution,” giving the Federal Government virtually full authority over the internal affairs of the states. Columbia’s George Fletcher credits him with creating “a new Constitution.” A third historian, Garry Wills of Northwestern University, says he “changed America,” transforming our understanding of the Constitution.

Hijacking conservative movementMind you, these are not Lincoln’s critics — they are his champions! Do they listen to themselves? They are saying exactly what Jefferson Davis said: that Lincoln was abandoning the original Constitution! But they think this is a high compliment. Lincoln himself claimed he was “saving” the old Constitution. His admirers, without realizing it, are telling us a very different story.

Hijacking conservative movementPeaceful secession was a state’s ultimate constitutional defense against Federal tyranny. Without it, the Federal Government has been able to claim new powers for itself while stripping the states of their powers. Lincoln neither foresaw nor intended this when he crushed secession. But today the states are helpless when, for example, the Federal Courts suddenly declare that no state may constitutionally protect unborn children from violent death in the womb. If even one state had been able to secede, the U.S. Supreme Court would never have dared provoke it to do so by issuing such an outrageous ruling, with no support in the Constitution.

Hijacking conservative movementBut Lincoln has been deified as surely as any Roman emperor. Today he is widely ranked as one of our “greatest presidents,” along with another bold usurper of power, Franklin Roosevelt. And as I say, even conservatives, so called, join in his praise. President Bush and his supporters invoke both Lincoln and Roosevelt to justify the war in Iraq and any powers he chooses to claim in its prosecution. In the old days, Americans told the government what our rights were; now it tells us. And we meekly obey.

Hijacking conservative movementIf Bush and his right-wing supporters are conservatives, what on earth would a liberal be like? In these last six years, the Federal Government has vastly increased in power, with a corresponding diminution of our freedoms. Every American child is now born $150,000 in debt — his estimated share of the national debt, which he had no say in incurring. And of course the figure will be much higher when he is old enough to vote.

Hijacking conservative movementMeanwhile, he will go to a school, where he will be taught that he enjoys “self-government,” thanks to great men like Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Bush.

Hijacking conservative movementWhat passes for “conservatism” now is a very far cry indeed from even the limited-government conservatism of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan just a generation ago. It is merely a variant of the liberalism it pretends to oppose.

Hijacking conservative movementHow do these pseudoconservatives differ from liberals? Chiefly, for some reason, in their reflexive enthusiasm for war. Ponder that. War is the most destructive and least conservative of all human activities. It is big government par excellence; it breeds tyranny and, often, revolution. Yet most Americans now identify it with conservatism!

Hijacking conservative movementI am very much afraid that the next generation will have forgotten what real conservatism means: moral stability, piety, private property, and of course the rule of law (as distinct from the mad multiplication of regulations).

Hijacking conservative movementBut genuine conservatism will reassert itself, even if it has to find another name and new spokesmen. If the Bushes and Limbaughs have usurped and discredited the word conservatism for the time being, we must try to take it back. If we can’t, we’ll just have to find a label they can’t steal.

Joe Sobran

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