This Is the Conservative Tradition

Edmund
Fawcett has remarkable timing. His book  Conservatism: The Fight for a
Tradition appeared two weeks before the U.S. election and a few weeks before
a Brexit deadline. With Donald Trump’s refusal to concede defeat in a free and
fair election,  support  in the Republican party for this openly authoritarian
move, and Britain dropping out of a free-trade customs union, we can safely say
that conservatism as we’ve known it is in an existential crisis. A tradition that
once defined itself by the virtues of the rule of law, a respect for
institutions, and economic liberalism has sunk into kleptocratic corruption and
populist showmanship. The party of Lincoln has found itself undermining
democracy and free trade, led by a would-be authoritarian con man  professing racism and xenophobia. How did it happen?   While
today’s crisis may be a break with the liberal tradition of conservatism,
Fawcett shows, it is a return to its deep anti-democratic and anti-Enlightenment
roots. The French Revolution was the catalyst of conservatism as it washed
away feudalism and monarchy, at first bringing liberalism and political and
human rights. Led by Robespierre, violent elements on the far left of the parliamentary Convention took power and brought the Reign of Terror in 1793; they were
answered by a similarly violent reaction. The counterrevolutionary writer
Joseph de Maistre believed the bloodletting was a lesson from God, who was
punishing France for its sins. He believed that kings and nobles had to take
back the guillotine and embark on their own process of bloody cleansing. Punishment
and fear, he believed, would bring an end to the outbreak of radical,
scientific skepticism and disrespect for traditional authorities. So began the
conservative movement to restore European absolute monarchy and theocracy, and
to protect it where it still existed, for example, in Russia.  Conservatism found a more restrained presiding spirit in the
Irish writer Edmund Burke. Like de Maistre, he opposed the idea that the rational
processes of the Enlightenment would improve society. For Burke, progress would
come, but he believed it would come through a mixture of old traditions and
reason. Also like de Maistre, he believed that established, “consecrated”
authorities, those that had grown through long, historical custom, were the
only legitimate ones. Thus he defended oligarchy and wealth and the genius of
tradition over individual genius and scientific innovation. For this reason, Burke loathed the popular sovereignty of the
French Revolution. Burke echoed James Madison’s fear of majoritarian rule—and
what Madison meant by majority was the rule of any commonfolk over a propertied
white elite. Anyone surprised at modern conservative opposition to positive
liberty needs to go back and read Burke: He abhorred The Declaration of
Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789), written in part by the Marquis de Lafayette in consultation
with Thomas Jefferson, because it repeated many of the ideas of the American Declaration
of Independence, which he considered a “digest
of anarchy.” The ideas he opposed were that “the
aim of all political association” was to preserve the rights to “liberty,
property, security, and resistance to oppression” and that “Liberty consists
in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else.” For Burke
and de Maistre alike, the people needed natural, traditional masters and the
“Gothic muddle” of hierarchy, tradition, and the religious authority.   Conservatism makes clear the long, anti-democratic roots
of the tradition. Famed conservative leaders, such as the British Prime
Minister Benjamin Disraeli, protected corporate institutions, not individual
rights; he defended “order, property, and religion” by supporting “the church,
crown, universities, and the Lords.” It should come as no surprise that one of
the most influential nineteenth-century American conservatives was the southern
apologist for slavery, John Calhoun. He also decried the American rejection of
free trade: Northern tariffs helped develop America into an industrial
powerhouse, but they stymied the value of the slavers’ cotton exports. The old
fear of majority rule in the U.S. was not only philosophical—it was the
plantation owners’ fear that democracy would bring freedom to slaves, more
power to poor whites, and the economic dominance of the industrial class. While conservatism has its roots in anti-Enlightenment,
anti-scientific, and anti-democratic ideals, Fawcett also shows that, in
America, Britain, France, and Germany (his points of focus), conservatism has
been most successful when it gives up its reactionary DNA and leads in liberal and
democratic reforms. While liberal democracy is “a child of the left,” Fawcett
maintains, it was, in fact, built by conservative political movements and
depends on them still. Much of the book is the story of conservative statesmen
and women ( Margaret Thatcher is the lone leading woman in the book) who evolved toward working within and leading liberal democracy. If the book has a hero, it might be Robert Gascoyne-Cecil,
Lord Salisbury, builder of the modern conservative Tory party in the last
decades of the nineteenth century. An anti-egalitarian, Salisbury saw liberalism
as an “untenable religion.” He “privately” complained about the “delusions of
progress,” but he publicly fashioned himself as a “patrician democrat.” He
defended John Stuart Mill’s utilitarian vision of positive liberty by which a
person is free to pursue their interests as long as they do not undermine the
interests of others (by which he meant fellow Europeans). He believed that the
government had to support the popular demand for higher material living
standards and created the Workman’s Compensation Act of 1897. He was an ardent
colonialist and diplomat, who used his political skills to maintain and expand
the British Empire. By defending the
imperial interests of the aristocracy, along with living standards and workers’
rights, he showed that the British conservative party could serve both elite
and popular interests while maintaining the Pax Britannica. Democratic conservatism works best when it leans left, rejects racism and
nationalism, and works with trade unions.   In much of Europe in the second half of the twentieth
century, the best hope for conservatism resided in liberalism. In Britain,
France, and Germany, conservative parties that were once anti-democratic and
openly embraced racist imperialism moved toward the democratic center. In the
1970s, conservative parties became liberal-conservative parties, embracing
individual rights and consumerism, along with business interests. From Georges Pompidou
to Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and Jacques Chirac, French conservative leaders embraced
liberalism and rejected the far right to evolve and survive in the new American
age.    The oxymoron of forward-looking conservatism also defines
the political success of the German Christian Democratic Union, a pro-business,
pro-Europe, and, until recently, pro-Atlantic alliance party that united the
right after World War II. From Konrad Adenauer to Helmut Kohl to Angela Merkel,
the CDU has led a progressive and politically open Europe and battled the
German far right. In 2015, in a highly contested move, Angela Merkel welcomed
1.4 million Syrian refugees to Germany. She formed three grand coalition
governments with the conservative Christian Social Union in Bavaria, the Social
Democrats (socialists), and Greens.  Fawcett
implies that Merkel’s lasting power and influence have shown that sustainable,
democratic conservatism works best when it leans left, rejects racism and
nationalism, and works with trade unions.   The era of liberal conservatism appears to be passing,
threatened by the far right and authoritarian nationalist movements. Merkel’s
foreign policy has been defined by her political and economic support of
authoritarians in Hungary and Poland, where Germany keeps part of its
manufacturing base. Far from looking to protect old institutions and seek
postwar liberal stability, figures such as Donald Trump have threatened NATO
and allied themselves with dictators, authoritarian foes of the U.S. and Europe,
as well as home-grown far-right groups. Some traditional conservative parties
now pose open threats to the liberal democratic order. Indeed, in Spain, the
right-wing Popular Party and the center-right Citizens Party made electoral alliances
with the far-right, nationalist, racist, anti-feminist VOX party. Nigel
Farage’s Brexit Party pulled the British Tories into what became a successful
nationalist Brexit campaign. Today’s conservatives express their politics in racist
dog whistles, xenophobia, and friendly relations with the white nationalist Trump
administration.   Today’s conservatives express their politics in racist
dog whistles, xenophobia, and friendly relations with the white nationalist Trump
administration. There’s no comfortable way to tell this story. At the
beginning of his book, Fawcett declares himself “a left-wing liberal” and says
he hopes to do an “objective” job of telling the intellectual and political
history of conservatism. To write the book, he has consulted with a pro-Brexit
member of Boris Johnson’s government and conservative members of parliament. In that sense, the
book has a sort of friendly dinner party appeal by which any conservatives in
the room will not be made to feel ill-at-ease by what should now be a very
uncomfortable history. To avoid any indigestion, Fawcett has not used the words
nationalist, racist, misogynist, homophobic, or even evangelical or
libertarian. That’s a problem. The road to this conservative crisis has been
neither polite nor civil, and it’s impossible to reckon with the state of the
Republican Party today without accounting for its history of racist,
segregationist policies, voter suppression, and its opposition to women’s rights
and gay rights. Fawcett’s history is enriching and worth reading. But it will
take a tougher, more critical eye to understand how Atlantic conservatism broke
so dramatically with liberalism to embrace the anti-Enlightenment and
anti-democratic politics of hate, repression, anti-science, paranoia, and
revenge that Joseph de Maistre expressed with such zealous elegance 225 years
ago. 

2021-01-07 | critical mass, Books, Culture | English |