The Conservatives: Ideas and Personalities Throughout American History
by Patrick Allitt
Recommendation: check out from library for reference (buy here).
What is a conservative? Allitt is not sure. This is odd because you’d think a man who wrote an entire book about conservatism would have provided an unambiguous definition. But Allitt is shy about this important matter, and, like Justice Stewart, is content to know it when he sees it. However, we cannot bypass this question—even though most readers will be satisfied that Allitt identifies all the usual conservative suspects—because when the alleged insult “You’re a conservative!” is hurled, we have to be know what it means.
It cannot be that a conservative is one who wishes to see the past in the present, who struggles to keep the old ways from fading, and who “think[s] of the past as rich and complex, and of the future as thin and vague.” For if this were true, then progressives—the natural enemies of conservatives—would not have railed against welfare reform under Clinton, because welfare had by that time long been the norm. Reform was new, and looking back to the glorious past, struggling to uphold the traditions of the New Deal, were progressives.
Couple this with the empirical observation that capitalism, like no other economical system, has changed (progressed?) the world in more ways and faster than any other. As it is usually conservatives who argue for less government control, and who are most suspicious of centralized we-know-more-about-what-is-good-for-you-than-you-do planning, it is progressives who must answer guilty to the charge of longing for stasis.
Then, for example, there is William Sumner and other post-Civil War leaders. It is “useful to think of them as conservatives…[who] denigrated tradition, marginalized religion, and showed more sympathy for low-born but self-made entrepreneurs than for established elites.” One service Allitt provides is—finally—an acknowledgement that intellectuals like Sumner and Supreme Court Justice Stephen Field—and many who followed after—were usually first in line to denounce plutocracy. Men like Andrew Carnegie (who certainly benefited amazingly from capitalism, but who argued and practiced forcefully noblesse oblige) never praised avarice. Their sympathy was for an educated, moral, and virtuous, but not necessarily moneyed, aristocracy, and was never for a rule by the wealthy (the followers of Ayn Rand notwithstanding).
The confusion about what a conservative is infuses the book. Every now and then Allitt comes out with something curious, like, “Think of the civil war as a conflict between two types of conservatism.” And then he says that it is better to see conservatism as “reactive and attitudinal than to regard it as a commitment to certain unchanging principles.” This won’t do. This leaves the definition floating and its interpretation ever changing. It lets its enemies ascribe its form. Anyone—left or right—who holds a political philosophy will find this position intolerable.
It is true that groups with varying core beliefs occasionally band together in an attempt to gain a majority: this, of course, is the political norm. But it’s not the core beliefs that are varying, it’s the groupings. Conservatives who favored small government welcomed into the tent the wave of disillusioned communist, big-government Trotskyites. (There were so many of these refuges that they gave themselves their own moniker, so they wouldn’t be confused with their classical brothers.) Then came the influx of Christian “evangelicals”, a small but not especially influential group that was made by their enemies to wear the conservative badge (and, as is human nature, they came to wear it proudly and loudly, eventually claiming the badge was their idea).
There is one thread that Allitt wove, but failed to recognize, that best describes the difference between conservatives and progressives, and that is their reaction to the world equality. Progressives say that they believe that all are equal, or can be, and that the lion will lie down with the lamb, if only X happens, where X can be, and has been, anything from voting for a particular ballot measure to, with Stalin et al., killing off as many who disagree with X as possible.
Conservatives say bosh, equality is an impossibility, and that Tocqueville was on to something when he said that equality might destroy liberty. They are apt to agree with Richard Weaver:
The comity of people is groups large or small rests not upon the chimerical notion of equality but upon fraternity, a concept which long antedates it in history because it goes immeasurably deeper in human sentiment. The ancient feeling of brotherhood carries obligations of which equality knows nothing…It places people in a network of sentiment, not rights…[F]raternity directs attention to others, equality to self, and the passion for equality is simultaneous with the growth of egotism.
The book could have used some editing: repetitions appear from time to time; in one place Allitt finds it necessary to tell us who Alexander was. Curiously, Allitt chose to ignore the influence of radio on the modern branches of conservatism. Books, newspapers, and periodicals have their place, even Fox News TV garners a mention, but Limbaugh, Hannity, Levin, and others are eschewed.
Remember: before you accuse somebody of being a conservative, make sure you know exactly what one is.
Categories: Book review