Those voices in the right-wing media and D.C.-based, conservative advocacy groups who purport to represent “true” conservatives ignore (or are ignorant of) an essential quality in modern conservatism. In a fascinating interview with the Wall Street Journal, Harvey Mansfield, a giant in conservative thought, reminds the right:
“Conservatives should be the party of judgment, not just of principles,” he says. “Of course there are conservative principles—free markets, family values, a strong national defense—but those principles must be defended with the use of good judgment. Conservatives need to be intelligent, and they shouldn’t use their principles as substitutes for intelligence. Principles need to be there so judgment can be distinguished from opportunism. But just because you give ground on principle doesn’t mean you’re an opportunist.”
That, unfortunately, is far from the tone and the positioning adopted by many conservatives, who want to compete with the left in coarseness and extremism. For those that see themselves as heirs to William F. Buckley, Jr., they should recall his admonition that he’d rather be governed by the first 400 names in the Boston phone book than the faculty of Harvard University. That was both a warning against leftwing academics and a tribute to the common sense of the American people. It is a reminder that all-or-nothing politics expressed by public temper tantrums and constant threats is not conservatism as Buckley (or Edmund Burke or Russell Kirk) defined it.
In Ten Conservative Principles, Kirk writes:
Burke agrees with Plato that in the statesman, prudence is chief among virtues. Any public measure ought to be judged by its probable long-run consequences, not merely by temporary advantage or popularity. Liberals and radicals, the conservative says, are imprudent: for they dash at their objectives without giving much heed to the risk of new abuses worse than the evils they hope to sweep away. As John Randolph of Roanoke put it, Providence moves slowly, but the devil always hurries. Human society being complex, remedies cannot be simple if they are to be efficacious. The conservative declares that he acts only after sufficient reflection, having weighed the consequences. Sudden and slashing reforms are as perilous as sudden and slashing surgery.
In our current political environment it means reasoned bargaining should be encouraged. Say yes to more revenue if the president gets serious on entitlement reform. Support immigration reform if there is real border security. Allow states to do what they prefer on gay marriage if it is democratically agreed upon, not imposed by judicial fiat.
It is hard to be ferociously reasonable or adamant in one’s desire for compromise. But that is what is called for as the country tips on the edge of fiscal disaster and in light of the Republicans’ failure to win the White House and the Senate. This does not mean adopting the ideology of the left (e.g. higher marginal tax rates) or failed policies (e.g. raising capital gains rates results in less revenue). It does however mean that the politics of prudence (Kirk: “The ideologues who promise the perfection of man and society have converted a great part of the twentieth-century world into a terrestrial hell”) and respect for fellow citizens’ habits and beliefs (as they may evolve over time) should be cultivated, not vilified.
Immigration is a case in point. Texas Republicans are regarded as conservative stalwarts. And yet on immigration they have embraced their Hispanic populace, eschewed inflammatory rhetoric and adopted policies that recognize Hispanics, both legal immigrants and undocumented ones, are integral to the Texan economy and body politic. An insightful report notes that this entails “a proven Lone Star recipe that combines policies aimed at assisting immigrants, mixed with an effective political ground game and outreach – all of it glued together by welcoming language that embraces the Latino population and its concerns.” That includes guest worker proposals, rejection of incendiary Arizona-style enforcement, and Dream Act-type legislation at the state level.
That model was ridiculed in the Republican primary debates in favor of harsh rhetoric, unrealistic policy notions (“self-deportation”) and avoidance of reality (refusal to legalize those here illegally). Yet somehow, self-styled conservative purists have convinced their fellow Republicans that the current state of lawlessness and the prescriptions that ignore popular sentiment are “conservative” while the people of Texas (and elsewhere) who try to grapple with real world problems (and support measures that would increase at the border and at work sites enforcement of and respect for immigration laws) are wimps, squishes or “amnesty” proponents. This is conservatism turned upside down. I don’t know what ideology the all-or-nothing rightwingers espouse, but it is not the “conservatism” of Buckley, Kirk, Mansfield, and Burke.
Whether it is the budget or immigration or any of a dozen hot button issues, real conservatives, who aim to expand liberty with prudent governance, need to reclaim the conservative mantle. Dynamic, smart leaders need to champion conservative reform, which by its very nature rejects knee-jerk opposition to improved but imperfect governance. If not, the political battlefield will be left to the radicals on both sides.