Where Are the American Conservatives?
Conservatism is rarely a program and certainly never a dogma. It is not an ideology. At its best conservatism is a way of thinking and acting in the midst of a social order which is too overlaid with history and too steeped in values, too complex and diverse, to lend itself to simple reforms. It is a way of thought which not only recognizes different classes, orders, and interests in the social order but actually values these differences and is not afraid to cultivate them.
In the older societies of Europe conservatism is made definite and understandable by being embodied in particular classes of society. Usually such classes have been in a numerical minority. They have sensed intuitively that only by a carefully preserved balance of power in the state, combined with deep habits of sufferance and mutual respect, could their own existence be safeguarded. Very often, again, these conservative classes were close to the land, and so learned the lessons of slow growth and the significance of ceremonies and traditions which form the instinctive wisdom of rural people.
This kind of conservatism could become, of course, merely the defenses which these minorities threw up around their privileges. Or it could degenerate into an attempt to impose on everyone the specific standards and habits of a landowning class. But at its best the spirit of conservatism transcended the particular circumstances which gave it birth. What men had learned from their particular way of life became a pervasive force, stimulating an attitude of tentativeness and of tolerance.
In the United States, political conservatism has had no such fertile ground to grow in. There was no landholding aristocracy (except before the Civil War in the South), no court or church or other visible and dramatic order of society in which it could take hold.
The business community has liked to think of itself as being the seedbed of conservatism; occasionally, indeed, as during Webster’s advocacy of the New England commercial classes, business interests did associate themselves with a doctrine of rooted orders balanced and checked under the Constitution. But for the most part American capitalism has been far too dynamic, too restless and destructive, to foster a conservative approach. It has been too absorbed in its immediate quest to attain an essential detachment, and too bent on novelty—new markets, new products, new men—to appreciate the traditional aspects of society.
The compulsion to exploit natural resources has made American capitalism the enemy of settled ways. Indeed it is a curious but readily explained paradox that in this country conservation (meaning conservation of natural resources) has never been identified with the so-called conservatism of the business classes. Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt were alike considered dangerously radical when they moved to protect certain irreplaceable portions of the national wealth and heritage.
Many of the habits and techniques of centralization and modern liberalism are derived specifically from American business. Commercialism and advertising have pointed the way to the kind of government propaganda which makes Washington increasingly the center of gravity of the country. Without the mechanical methods invented by business for simplifying masses of paper work, many of our federal bureaus would immediately collapse. To take one other example, mass production applied to the automobile has done more than a thousand radical philosophers to encourage a rootless existence in America.
The conservative spirit, therefore, has had to be fostered among us by a much more subtle process than in older countries. No nursery child or hothouse plant, it has had to be drawn by perceptive individuals from a wide experience of life. It has not been preached vehemently by a small group; all the citizens have had to learn it quietly from within. They have had to master it as one of the conditions of meeting sagely the practical dilemmas of living in a democracy.
Education in conservatism can come, I suggest, in part from a schooling that makes men aware of the values in a community, and tolerant of their differences. It can come in part, also, from the common everyday discipline of living in an environment where multitudinous groups think in their own ways and set a varying hierarchy of values upon the goods of life. In such a community the doctrinaire approach is impossible. Rationalism cuts athwart the basic understandings which hold all together; and the search for a unique solution would drive men to distraction were it not abandoned for a spirit of practical accommodation and acceptable compromise. The diversity with which the citizen learns to live sanely comes by degrees to seem a virtue; and the climax of the wise man’s education is when lie turns about and begins consciously to preserve and nourish the institutions in which diversity has been bred. That is the moment, too, in which he becomes a conservative.
The outstanding fact about conservatism in America is that as a force it was hideously distorted in the bitter fires of the past twenty years. A whole generation has been brought up to suppose that conservatism is essentially negative and sterile, and that it is represented by the kind of groups which fought to the death against the New Deal and the Fair Deal. The New Deal, and the Fair Deal after it, were wildly attacked by men who called themselves conservatives. But in truth these were mainly the advocates of a purer and more orthodox brand of liberalism. They objected to the government’s program in the name of laissez faire. They attacked centralization, government by decree, excessive bureaucracy and the rest—not as a Burke or a Disraeli would have attacked them, because they chilled an inner spirit of growth and development, but almost precisely in the terms of the nineteenth-century Manchester economists. The result was that crowds of young men left our colleges with the idea that conservatism offered no useful insights to any of the modern dilemmas.
The point was almost never made that the rapid and revolutionary developments in Washington were, in their total impact, a blow against the free, independent, varied, and self-governing life of the American community. This was the true basis for a conservative critique. Bureaucracy may have been expensive, but that was not the real trouble with it. The real trouble was that it tended to substitute for the principle of inner action and decentralized leadership the method of direction from above and—equally bad—direction from a distance. Within the broad movement of the New Deal, amid the many individuals it drew into its service, there was admittedly some stress on what might be accomplished by the localities. The Department of Agriculture, for example, was fertile with experiments to enlist the support and understanding of the scattered farmers. But in the main it was the central government which undertook with a fierce energy to reform everything, to renovate everything, and to save everything. The conservatives, however, did not attack the centralization as being at odds with the independent, varied, and self-governing life which is the genius of America. Moreover they did not defend and explain what was being done in accord with their basic philosophy. They merely responded with a violent and irrational outcry.
The New Deal experiments were hostile to the deeply pluralistic nature of the American social order, not alone because they often crushed initiative, but in a much more subtle way because they corrupted initiative. The New Deal capitalized for political purposes on the group life of the country. It made men conscious of their special loyalties and attachments, not so much to develop their intrinsic energies as to give them what they wanted—in order to cultivate blocs of voters. Thus the New Deal made us all aware of the importance of group interests in our national life. Class ties, as well as professional and regional ties, were deliberately cultivated. Separate industries were encouraged to make their own codes in return for freedom from persecution under the anti-trust laws. But the result was not so much to develop a sense of energy in all the parts of the social order; rather it was to cultivate an extreme dependence on the central government.
Each group was encouraged to express its claims in a most extreme form. The farmers, the laborers, the aged—as well as particular industries—were given to understand that if each pressed its claims to the utmost the whole country would somehow be benefited. This was a form of the eighteenth-century doctrine of a harmony of interests; but it encouraged the selfishness of groups rather than intrinsic morality of individuals.
The conservatives might have discerned and expounded these dangerous tendencies. They could have said: “The effects of this sort of deformation may be imperceptible at first; yet in the long run it is the most difficult of all to obliterate. For one can repeal laws and disestablish agencies; but to re-educate the multitudinous private agencies that make up the national existence, to give them a realization that they exist for some other aim than to clamor at the gates of Washington, is a process of years and can only be accomplished through a saving instinct for liberty within the people themselves.” The conservatives, however, did not say this or anything like it. They merely said that bureaucracy was bad and that centralization upset the balance of the Federal budget.
While the conservatives were thus failing to criticize the New Deal on meaningful grounds they were also falling into a major heresy in regard to the content of their own program. In a word, they took the very un-conservative position of suggesting they would undo and overturn the great reforms which had become part of American life. They became desperately afraid of seeming “me too”—even though the genius of free government (and of a true conservatism) is precisely to bring as many people as possible, with their different interests and outlooks, into a common course of action. They rang all the changes on the theme “It’s time for a change,” sometimes merely suggesting that new forces in office would be an asset but more frequently hinting at those deeper changes and reverses which democracy instinctively abhors. These conservatives really wanted to view everything as if nothing had ever been settled. From Landon to Eisenhower the standard-bearers chosen at successive national conventions of the Republican party had the good sense to avoid this heresy; but they did not always avoid it completely, or convince the electorate that they would resist the urge to go about uprooting and upheaving in a very drastic (and actually a very radical) manner.
Thus the American conservatives seemed to think that there existed a coherent and logical body of conservative doctrine, a program the opposite in all its details and all its major outlines of what the Liberals had been putting into action. Any point of resemblance with existing practice was, in their minds, pure coincidence; or else it was treason to the Republican party. They never discovered what this program of theirs was; but they were convinced that it existed. As a substitute, pending its discovery and unfolding, they were willing to settle on a point-by-point negation to everything the Democrats had upheld.
The concept of a pure conservatism, its pattern “laid up in heaven,” was an illusion; it was in fact the same illusion that had possessed the Liberals and the Utopian democrats through the nineteenth century. That the conservatives should have fallen under its spell was particularly strange, for traditionally the conservatives mistrust an excessive rationalism—they know that the world moves by habit, by values, by inherited faith, quite as much as it moves by getting new ideas. The conservatives, when they are in their right mind, avoid tearing up the roots of something they do not like almost as instinctively as they avoid tearing up the roots of institutions and procedures of which they approve. The fact that American conservatives to so large a measure forgot, or never learned, this healthy prudence and this basic tolerance, I can only attribute to the fact that they had grown so uncontrollably angry. In attacking the New Deal they became inflexible in their thinking, unresponsive to the settled expectations and tacit consents of the great public; and they wanted instead to impose a doctrinaire program of their own.
Because it is a spirit rather than a dogma, and because in a democracy it pervades the whole community rather than inhabiting a particular class, American conservatism has been particularly difficult to embody in political forms. Both major parties have been instinctively conservative in their best period; but as soon as one party, or one group within a party, vaunts its conservatism, it seems to depart from the very principles which ought to guide it. It falls back upon blind reaction or else wants to make everything over in accordance with some doctrinaire pattern. The conservative individual in England can be a man like Churchill, manifold, complex, overlaid with layers of prejudice, memory, and conviction. In America, the avowed conservative is usually a young man, proverbed (like Romeo) with “grandsire phrases.” Or else he is a middle-aged man or woman with a dour expression and a resolve to overturn everything that has developed since the flood.
The Republican party, against its best traditions, has run the danger of being identified with these professional conservatives. The long exile from power (1932-1952) was as bad for these Republicans as the long tenure of power was bad for the Democrats. Outright negativism and obstruction seemed to offer the natural way of winning an election. Yet within this party there remained a group which continually rescued it from its apparent fate. This group had walked out of the Chicago convention with Theodore Roosevelt in 1912. It walked back in again with Willkie at Philadelphia in 1940. And at Chicago in 1952, where General Eisenhower was nominated, it strode triumphantly through the convention hall.
This element of Republicanism traced its ancestry to at least three historical sources. Madison had seen the necessity of balancing groups under a constitution whose rules of procedure all accepted. The Whigs had discerned the possibility of harmonizing divergent national interests through large public works such as roads and canals. Finally there had been deliberate use of public grants in the Homestead law to strengthen enterprising and independent citizens on the land. The Republicanism descended from these origins had a strong respect for federal power, wielded responsibly for a good end. It upheld the states, not as a means of thwarting national action, but as viable communities where citizens could be cultivated and loyalties engaged. It saw the states, too, as laboratories where social legislation could be tested.
Meanwhile, the Democratic party has had its full share of distorted conservatism. The strategy of simple obstruction—nullification, veto, threats of secession—was continually advocated in the slaveholding period. It persists today in the repeated use of the filibuster to thwart civil rights reforms. Under the New Deal, as I have suggested, the reaction within the Democrat party was toward the other extreme—excessive centralization based on the assumption that a numerical majority was free to act pretty much as it wanted. So persistent have been the reverberations of this period that many people saw Adlai Stevenson as something close to a radical because he bore the Democratic banner. They failed to discern that he was by all odds the most consistent and philosophically mature conservative to have arisen in this century in either party. Stevenson had to a unique degree a sense of the diversity of which American society is composed. He had a feeling for the way separate groups could be brought into the service of the whole.
The failure to understand the true nature of conservatism has made political campaigns in the United States signally barren of intellectual content. In debate it is difficult at best to admit that you would do the same thing as the opposition, but in a different way. Yet the spirit in which things are done really does make a difference, and can distinguish a sound policy from an unsound one. Social reforms can be undertaken with the effect of draining away local energies, reducing the citizenry to an undifferentiated mass, and binding it to the shackles of the all-powerful state. Or they can be undertaken with the effect of strengthening the free citizen’s stake in society. The ends are different. The means will be also, if men have the wit to distinguish between legislation which encourages voluntary participation and legislation which involves reckless spending and enlargement of the federal bureaucracy.
It is easy to say that such distinctions arc not important. A conservative intellectual like Peter Viereck is constantly challenged, for example, because in a book like The Shame and Glory of the Intellectuals he supports a political program not dissimilar in its outlines from that which was achieved during twenty years of social renovation under the Democrats. But the way reforms are undertaken is actually crucial. Concern for the individual, reluctance to have the central government perform what can be done as well by the state or to have the public perform what can be done as well by private enterprise—these priorities involve values. And such values (upheld by writers like Mr. Viereck) are at the heart of modern conservatism.
The length to which American conservatives can go in their folly is illustrated by the fact that the term “welfare state” was invented by them as a term of opprobrium. Not only is welfare—the welfare of all the citizens—a supreme end of the government; it is a concept made familiar by the authors of the constitution and basic to every sound conservatism. When Edmund Burke sketched the character of the historic Christian states standing opposed to French radicalism in the eighteenth century, he particularly stressed the social progress achieved by free government. “Every state,” he said, “has pursued not only every sort of social advantage, but it has cultivated the welfare of every individual. His wants, his wishes, even his tastes have been consulted.” As for Britain, it was the state, “without question . . . which pursues the greatest variety of ends. . . It aims at raking the entire circle of human desires, and securing for them their fair enjoyment.” In contrast to this Burke placed the new French despotism: the design “is spirited and daring; it is systematic; it is simple in its principle; it has unity and consistency in perfection.” In that country, “to cut off entirely a branch of commerce, to extinguish a manufacture, to destroy the circulation of money, to suspend the course of agriculture, even to burn a city or to lay waste a province of their own, docs not cost them a moment’s anxiety. . . The state is all in all.”
The contrast today should be precisely here. It should be between the state that “cultivates the welfare of every individual,” and that which in its search for doctrinaire unity and efficiency “cuts off a branch of commerce or extinguishes a manufacture.” Churchill, as a true conservative, has made this his case, and he has used it not only against distorted liberalism at home but against the false lure of Communism. Our own so-called conservatives treated welfare as an epithet of abuse, and then wondered why radicalism was making giant strides in the country.
The ideal of security may have been overdone as a political slogan. But are the conservatives the ones who can afford to denounce security as the legitimate and indeed the overriding aim of government? Everything which they value in the public sphere—sound growth and steady development, the spirit that avoids violent change and finds utility and promise in established things—depends upon a fundamental feeling of security in the social order. Individuals must know that preventable catastrophes will not needlessly be let fall upon them, that the worst of fortune’s ills will be alleviated out of the common store, and that some floor will be placed under the normal and predictable hazards of a lifetime. It is in such a framework that true enterprise flourishes and that opportunity is more than a word.
Every strong and well-founded society has fulfilled, in one form or another, this basic need for security. It was for this, indeed, that men first came together out of the old, wild state of nature and submitted themselves to the inevitable yoke of government. In rare circumstances and usually for brief periods of time—as when our own frontier was moving ceaselessly westward and the seas were still firm barriers against attack—security has pretty much taken care of itself. But the normal thing is that government should concern itself directly, avowedly, and boldly in this field—that it should concern itself not with the security of the nation only, but the security (as Burke put it) of every individual.
During the past twenty years American conservatives saw, or believed they saw, the objective of social security twisted so as to become one more means of enlarging the apparatus of the state. They cried out against the abuse; unfortunately they too often cried out against the legitimate concern of government in this field. Many of them really persuaded themselves that the assurance of a pittance in a man’s old age, combined with a guaranty against the shock of unemployment or catastrophic illness, would remove from life the whole spirit of adventure. As if a thousand vexations and disappointments did not remain as a spur at every corner of this world’s existence, with untold terrors and challenges—even for the commuter bringing up his family in a five-room house! As if children did not still cry out in the night, and pain and loss and unrequited love stand brutally at the door! The scorn poured out by many so-called conservatives upon the objective of social security was not merely inexpedient politics; it was a shocking revelation of their own circumscribed and narrow view of human fate.
The conservatives could well have begun by admitting the plain need for a social security program, and gone on to insist at every turn that it be conceived as a means of strengthening local ties, strengthening the family, and strengthening the true spirit of independence in the citizens. Here was a new instrument for the achievement of the basic conservative goals. A program conceived and administered in this spirit might not have cost less—it might actually have cost more—but a dollar saving is only one of the important criteria which must be weighed in the making of policy. The assumption has been current that decentralized administration costs society less than administration concentrated in the federal government. In the long run it may prove to be quite the contrary. A centralized bureaucracy can develop a machine-like, mass production efficiency; but decentralization involves a “custom job.” Even if this added cost were established, the everlasting human advantages secured by decentralized power should, I believe, be cultivated and willingly paid for. (Of course that must sound like heresy to the kind of conservative who makes “government economy” the highest, and sometimes indeed the sole, article of his faith.)
If it accepted welfare as its goal, the Republican party could find in this conservatism a new focus. It could campaign vigorously and creatively, without seeming to adopt the presuppositions of the much-abused Democratic regime. Even so, it seems questionable to me whether conservatism in America should ever become the exclusive characteristic of one major party. Because it is a spirit, and because it is widely diffused, it must ultimately inform all our politics. In this country there is no single class, no section, which embodies a sense of local values and the imbedded qualities of balance and detachment. Such values and qualities, I believe, the wise citizen is compelled to adopt by the fact that he lives in a democracy. They arc the conditions of practical compromise and adjustment. So conservatism at best remains deeper and more pervasive than any party; and a party that does claim it exclusively is likely to deform and exploit it for its own purposes.
August Heckscher (1913-1997) was an American intellectual, historian, and administrator. This essay appeared in Confluence in 1953. We’re grateful to The Imaginative Conservative for first making the text available online.