Just at a time when Republicans are debating what sort of party they should have and what sort of conservatism they can practice and still win elections comes along an important and highly readable book by Hoover scholar Peter Berkowitz, “Constitutional Conservatism: Liberty, Self-Government, and Political Moderation.”
The book’s brevity is deceiving. It packs in a lot – a history of modern conservatism, an erudite discussion of the tone and temperament of conservatism and a calmly reasoned guide to the future of the conservative movement. At a time when conservatism has gotten screechy, he reminds us it is a political disposition based on reasoned moderation, civil discourse and respect for the institutions and habits of our fellow citizens. He also takes on the notion that “moderation” is a four-letter word. Instead he explains that it is not simply split-the–baby compromising but rather an appreciation of competing interests and values and a respect for unintended consequences and aversion to rash action.
Peter graciously agreed to a Q &A that captures a great deal of the book. Due to length, this post will contain the first half; the remainder of the discussion will appear on Sunday.
Why this book and why now?
I wrote this book in response to several observations. First, in the immediate aftermath of President Obama’s victory in November 2008, prominent figures as well as rank-and-file members of the two main camps of conservatism—social conservatism and economic conservatism or libertarianism—denigrated the other camp and contemplated breaking the conservative alliance. This struck me as electoral folly and it seemed to reflect a misunderstanding or forgetting of the principles that can and should unite conservatives of various stripes. Second, prominent progressives—among them the New Yorker’s George Packer, the Washington Post’s E. J. Dionne and the New York Times’s Sam Tanenhaus—proclaimed the death of conservatism, which seemed a tad premature. Third, the emergence of the tea party as a formidable political force in the spring of 2009 and its contribution to major success in the 2010 elections suggested that devotion to limited government and free markets continued to enjoy strong popular support in America. Fourth, in the campaign for the Republican nomination in 2012, the tendency of GOP leaders to stakeout extreme and inflexible positions exhibited, I believed, an erroneous view about how best to honor conservative principles.
I came to the conclusion that it was necessary to restate the connection between liberty, self-government and political moderation. “Constitutional Conservatism” represents my attempt to do so. The book contains chapters on Edmund Burke, “The Federalist” and the high points of post-World War II American conservatism. You could sum up the results in three propositions:
First, social conservatives and libertarians should rally around, and rededicate themselves to conserving, the principles of liberty inscribed in the United States Constitution.
Second, dedication to conserving these principles of liberty would yield an alliance among conservatives that is both philosophically coherent and politically potent.
Third, both the philosophical coherence and the political potency derive in significant measure from the lesson of moderation inscribed in the Constitution and in modern conservatism more generally.
The defense of political moderation is always needed because the tendency to take one single principle, right, or policy to an extreme is endemic to politics, yet we are called upon, particularly in a liberal democracy, to balance and blend competing principles, rights and policies as times change and as new opportunities and threats emerge and others recede.
The defense of political moderation is particularly needed now because we have lost sight of the connection between liberty and tradition. This allows some conservatives to believe that you can preserve liberty without attending very much to tradition and it allows others to believe that you can preserve tradition without attending very much to liberty. As I understand it, political moderation in a liberal democracy above all means balancing the competing claims of liberty and tradition.
We tend to think our age is unique and battles between “moderates” and purists, libertarians and conservatives are new. But you make a powerful case that it always has been so. Are these the tensions inherent in every generation of conservatives?
There are indeed tensions inherent in every generation of conservatives, and certainly in every generation of modern conservatives. The defining goal of modern conservatism, the conservatism whose founding father is the great 18th-century British statesman Edmund Burke, is the conservation of liberty. At the same time, Burke esteemed tradition not only for its intrinsic worth but because of its contribution to liberty. Tradition, and the practices and institutions that embody it—traditional morality, family, faith and the associations of civil society—cultivate the virtues on which liberty depends.
Yet liberty and tradition also conflict. Doing as you want or as you think best is often at odds with doing as has been done in the past or as authoritative figures think wise.
Some conservatives naturally gravitate toward conserving the principles of limited government and economic liberty. Others are devoted to conserving the principles of traditional morality, the family, religious faith and civil society. It would be highly desirable to have more conservatives who appreciate that precisely because conserving both liberty and tradition is essential, some trade-offs will be necessary.
“Moderation,” as you point out, has gotten a bad rap for mushiness or mechanical horse trading. You argue it is something different. Perhaps heterogeneity or “fusion” (Frank S. Meyer’s term) would be better. What’s the essence of conservative moderation and have you seen examples of such (e.g. Ryan’s Roadmap for America, Bush on immigration reform) that embodies that ethos? Should we replace “moderation” with prudence or restraint or balance?
Yes, moderation has a bad name, and in some quarters it always has. In “Reflections on the Revolution in France,” Burke observed that one who seeks to defend a “scheme of liberty soberly limited” is likely to be accused of lacking “fidelity to his cause.” Purists, he says, will denounce moderation as the “virtue of cowards” and will condemn compromise as the “prudence of traitors.”
Nevertheless, I prefer to stick with the term moderation — or better still, political moderation — because “heterogeneity” is very abstract and “fusion” (which Meyer did not care for) suggests that conservative principles can only be held together by some ineffable cosmic force.
The political moderation I defend has nothing to do with splitting the difference or compromise for the sake of compromise. The essence of political moderation in a free society is balancing and blending competing and worthy principles for the sake of liberty. And the essence of conservative political moderation is recognizing the mutual dependence and mutual tension between liberty and tradition.
Political moderation is bound up with an appreciation of the imperfections of human nature, respect for the limits of human knowledge, and recognition of the significance of circumstances in coloring conduct and shaping options. Together, these yield a generally empirical, skeptical and anti-utopian sensibility.
And yes, Paul Ryan’s Roadmap for America and President George W. Bush’s and now Sen. Marco Rubio’s proposals on immigration reform do exhibit the spirit of political moderation. Their efforts reflect a determination to honor competing and worthy principles to the extent possible in a complex, murky and fluid political world. I don’t say that their solutions are the best or that they have struck the balance just right, but the spirit in which they have approached the challenge is salutary.
We should not replace moderation with prudence, restraint or balance. Rather, we should understand that political moderation consists in the exercise of restraint, the application of prudence and the accomplishment of balance.
Part 2 on tone, right-wing grumbling about the electorate, the anti-tax pledge and the myth of “small government” will run on Sunday.