Few things seem as un-American or unconservative as talking about class. Our country is a republic, after all, and citizens as citizens are supposed to be equal. Talk of class is for the Marxists, including the fossilized ones that still inhabit faculty lounges. Conservatives should have nothing to do with it.
This is short-sighted. Precisely because a republic has to remain vigilant, lest it decay into some other form of government, frank examinations of how power works in our country must be undertaken periodically. Concern about the evolution of oligarchy or Caesarism within the form of a republic is one of the oldest themes in the political literature of the West. “Class” may be a concept of more recent vintage, but it is only a restatement in modern terms of a most ancient danger to republics.
Conservatives, for their part, have historically been the masters of class politics at the intuitive and practical levels. Robert Peel, as founder of the modern Conservative Party in Britain, did not need a theorist to tell him that his country’s increasingly important commercial class had to be accommodated, even if that meant repealing the Corn Laws so dear to the country squires who considered themselves the body and soul of the party. (The small landowners had a case: the Corn Laws that maintained agricultural prices were the quid pro quo for the land taxes they paid, which before Peel created a peacetime income tax was the way in which government was routinely funded.)
Peel’s decision split his party, but it is a testament to the success of conservatism in 19th-century Britain—in contrast to the radicalism and reactionary folly that prevailed on the Continent—that when the realignment Peel provoked had finally, after many years, shaken out, the Liberal Party that was the Conservatives’ great rival had a former Conservative, William Gladstone, as its leader, and its top ranks were rich with Peelites.
The Conservatives themselves produced in Benjamin Disraeli a leader whose imaginative approach to the class politics of his time struck a remarkably effective balance. Disraeli had made his name by attacking Peel for his betrayal, but Disraeli never seriously contemplated bringing back the Corn Laws once he had become prime minister himself. He romanticized the feudal past, but his Conservative Party remained a bourgeois party. And just as Peel had accommodated the new class realities of the early 19th century, so Disraeli accepted those of the middle and later years—expanding the franchise and providing relief for the working class. The Conservatives were ready when the Liberal Party proved unable to meet the new challenges of socialism and the advent of the Labour Party. Conservatives could appeal to the working class with moderate reforms and romantic appeals to the nation; the bourgeoisie saw that this was more effective than the Liberals’ methods, which threatened to lose the country to the socialist left.
American conservatives face a very different environment today, but one that demands much the same level of creativity. The multicultural left in this country is a force of fragmentation, while what passes for the political center—the establishment in both parties—is as brittle in its ideological uniformity and rigid in its outlook as the most sclerotic of Marxists or reactionaries. To any sign that its foreign policy or economic self-serving is failing the nation, our calcified ruling class only responds with more of the same. It does so unaware of its own failings, unshakeable as it is in its belief in its own good intentions and brilliant reasoning. Such rationalism and idealism in politics always means disaster, and it is the job of conservatives to say so.