IN an election year, some outcomes are unpredictable, but one is inevitable: Conservatives will fight among themselves. They will accuse one another of having abandoned conservative ideals, admonish each other for having mistaken the essence of conservatism, and abjure their erstwhile fellows for having sold out principle for expediency. Such struggles are not the product of a temporary historical juncture--they are built into the very structure of conservatism, and perhaps American conservatism more than any other.
Conservatism and orthodoxy
What commonly goes by the name "conservatism" in the contemporary United States is an alliance of those who hold two sorts of worldviews which are quite distinct, and which inevitably come into tension from time to time. When vatism is defined (as it was by Russell Kirk) by the assumption "that there exists a transcendent moral order, to which we ought to try to conform the ways of society," the conceptual waters are muddied in a way that may be politically expedient but is intellectually obfuscating. For the notion that human institutions should reflect some transcendent order is shared by a variety of nonconservative religious ideologies and was contested by some of the most significant and influential conservative thinkers, beginning with David Hume. Kirk's definition might better be called "orthodox"--a term that suggests adherence to the true faith. Peter Berger once distinguished "conservatives by faith" from "conservatives by lack of faith," which corresponds to the distinction between orthodoxy and c onservatism suggested here.
The orthodox theoretician defends existing institutions and practices because they are metaphysically true. (The truth proclaimed may be based on particular revelation or on natural laws purportedly accessible to all rational men.) In contrast, the conservative theoretician defends existing institutions above all because they are thought to have worked rather well. For the conservative, the historical survival of an institution or practice--be it marriage, monarchy, or the market--creates a prima facie case that it has served some human need or some useful function. In addition, conservatives tend to be acutely sensitive to the costs of radical change. Elimination or radical reconstruction of existing institutions may lead to harmful, unintended consequences, conservatives argue, because social practices are interlinked, such that eliminating one will have unanticipated negative effects on others.
Such negative consequences, conservatives typically argue, occur because reformers are unaware of the latent functions of existing practices and institutions. Reformers are insufficiently cognizant, it is said, of the contribution of the practice they wish to alter to the functioning of the larger social system of which it is a part. That contribution may be unintended by those engaged in the practice, and most importantly, its function may be unrecognized, or recognized only retrospectively, once the reform of the practice has brought about negative unintended consequences. The expansion of public welfare provisions in the Great Society programs of the 1960s, for example, may have sapped the strength of black churches, which once fulfilled important social functions, however imperfectly; and the weakening of such churches may have deprived lower-class blacks of an important source of moral influence.
Those unfamiliar with conservatism sometimes wonder how contemporary American conservatives can hold in high regard Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France--a work that defends monarchy, aristocracy, and an established church--when their country has none of these institutions. The answer is that Burke provided arguments and modes of analysis that can be applied to very different institutional settings. Burke linked the three most common arrows in the quiver of conservative argument--the unanticipated negative consequences of reform, the importance of latent functions, and the interdependence of social elements--when he wrote:
The science of constructing a commonwealth, or renovating it, or reforming it, is, like every experimental science, not to be taught a priori. Nor is it a short experience that can instruct us in that practical science; because the real effects of moral causes are not always immediate; but that which in the first instance is prejudicial may be excellent in its remoter operation; and its excellence may arise even from the ill effects it produces in the beginning. The reverse also happens; and very plausible schemes, with very pleasing commencements, have often shameful and lamentable conclusions. In states there are often some obscure and almost latent causes, things which appear at first view of little moment, on which a very great part of its prosperity or adversity may most essentially depend.
Conservative and orthodox thinkers may sometimes reach common conclusions, but they reach them by different intellectual routes. The distinction between conservatism and orthodoxy is, however, often elided in conservative self-representations, at times because conservative thinkers may regard it as useful for most people to believe that existing institutions correspond closely to some ultimate, unchanging or transcendent truth. The recurrent conservative temptation is to declare preferred policies "self-evident" or a product of "natural law," deviation from which can only he explained by a debased understanding. That, for example, divorce was self-evidently at odds with natural law for Catholics but not for Protestants, or that artificial contraception was self-evidently abhorrent to Anglicans in 1850 but not in 1950, might call the assured certainty of such judgments into question. That is precisely why advocates of each position strive to banish the alternative from the mental horizons of their adherents, to maintain what Peter Berger has called the "plausibility structure of their assumptions, to reinforce the taken-for-granted quality of their beliefs. But it also creates the potential for tension between conservative analysts, who are aware of the partial contingency of moral norms--their dependence upon institutional structures that vary over time and space--and the religiously orthodox, for whom the admission of such contingency may seem tantamount to nihilism, if not heresy.
The religious question
There is no necessary link between conservatism and religious belief. Devout Christians or Jews have embraced a variety of political viewpoints, including liberalism, socialism, and nationalism, while many of the most distinguished conservative theorists have been agnostics or atheists. Conservatism arose in good part out of the need to defend existing institutions from the threat posed by "enthusiasm"--i.e., religious inspiration that seeks to overturn the social order. At the cradle of conservatism, then, lies the recognition that the religiously self-assured can be dangerous. The critique of religious enthusiasm, which was central to Hume's conservatism, was later extended, first by Hume himself and more emphatically by Burke, into a critique of political radicalism. When, during the twentieth century, conservative thinkers chastised communism and fascism as forms of political millenarianism, they took for granted that political millenarianism of a more religious sort was a potentially dangerous force.
Yet if some conservatives have questioned the veracity of religion, most have tended to affirm its social utility. They have made several arguments for the utility of religion: that it legitimates the state; that the hope of future reward offers men solace for the trials of their earthly existence and thus helps to diffuse current discontent that might disrupt the social order; and above all, that belief in ultimate reward and punishment leads men to act morally by giving them an incentive to do so (a proposition long shared by liberals, such as John Locke and Adam Smith).
Recognition of the social utility of religion is no reflection upon its truth or falsity. It is quite possible to believe that religion is false but useful: In such cases, conservatives may approach the claims of orthodoxy with strategies of tact, prudence, esotericism, or noble lying. But it is also possible to believe that religion is both useful and true, as Aquinas or Maimonides maintained (though in the latter case, much of what his coreligionists regarded as true was regarded by Maimonides as superstition or idolatry). Or one may believe that religion is "true" in a more rational and universalistic sense than in its particular, historical embodiments, but that those particular embodiments are necessary to make religion accessible to the mass of citizens, who may require a less rationalist and abstract version of the faith. As Burke put it, "Superstition is the religion of feeble minds; and they must be tolerated in an intermixture of it, in some trifling or some enthusiastic shape or other, else you wi ll deprive weak minds of a resource found necessary to the strongest."
There are, nevertheless, intrinsic tensions in the alliance between orthodoxy and conservatism, tensions that may remain latent or become manifest depending on the political constellation. In the eyes of conservatives, the orthodox lack intellectual sophistication: Their self-assurance about the answers comes from not having thought hard enough about the questions, from not comprehending the partial or problematic sources of their views. In the eyes of the orthodox, conservatives appear as cynical, as lacking in real conviction, which they believe can only come from acknowledging the absolute source of values.
Utility vs. truth
As we have seen, the conservative, in his role as analyst, is aware that the latent functions of institutions may be more socially significant than their avowed purposes. But latent functions are, by definition, hidden and unappreciated. When previously latent functions become the articulated purpose of institutions, the institutions may cease to fulfill the very functions for which they were originally valued by conservative theorists. Conservative analysts may conclude, for example, that the most important social function of churches is as mediating institutions, providing their congregants with a sense of shared purpose and a shelter from the larger, more alienating institutions of society. But a church in which most members no longer believe in God as the object of their common worship may cease to fulfill its latent social functions. The family that prays together may stay together; but members of a family that pray together in order to stay together may eventually find themselves neither praying nor st aying. By emphasizing the latent functions of institutions, then, the conservative analyst may find himself unwittingly transforming and perhaps impairing the very institutions he seeks to conserve.
This results in a characteristic tension of conservative analysis. On the one hand, institutions are defended on the grounds of continuity, utility, and the unanticipated costs of radical change. Yet these institutions may owe their functioning to beliefs that are held by the orthodox, not the conservative. Conservatives who are aware that only genuine belief may be socially functional must therefore take care not to undermine such belief--indeed, to strengthen it whenever possible. This leads to an implicit tension between typically conservative modes of defending institutions and those of their orthodox adherents. Sometimes the orthodox will adopt the language of conservatism in order to reach beyond their own circles. (The career of Ralph Reed exemplifies this process.) And, as already noted, conservatives may adopt the language of orthodoxy while remaining hazy as to just what orthodox propositions they actually affirm and why.
There are inevitable tensions on both sides. At some point, the orthodox tire of assurances that their program is useful: They want universal acknowledgment that it is true, and the stronger their power relative to other conservative forces, the more this will be the case. (The perceived electoral power of the Christian Right in Republican primaries, for example, made the confession of the born-again experience of Jesus Christ de rigeur among Republican presidential aspirants.) Calls of the orthodox for civil disobedience or revolution in the face of laws that they consider to be violations of morality are unlikely to find the same resonance among conservatives, as the controversy provoked by some of the contributions to First Things' 1996 symposium, "The End of Democracy?," demonstrates. At some point, conservatives may buck at the level of implausible beliefs they are asked to affirm or abide by, say "creation science," or the dangers posed by bar codes bearing the Mark of the Beast, or the repeated assura nces that praying along with Pat Robertson during his television show will cure one or another physical ailment.
Conservatives often appeal to tradition, in part on the assumption that the very longevity of a tradition is evidence of its intrinsic wisdom, in part because historical continuity increases the emotional hold of such traditions, adding emotional weight to their moral prescriptions. But the conservative appeal to tradition has a number of intrinsic problems.
To begin with, those who appeal to tradition for clear answers to contemporary dilemmas often do so under the impression that traditions are monolithic and offer clear guidance for practice. But old traditions tend to be more complex and tension-ridden than those who embrace "tradition" imagine. The notion that answers can be logically deduced from them is often an illusion, based on ignoring or suppressing part of the tradition.
One problem for any tradition is how to adapt to changing circumstances, or, to put it another way, when to admit that circumstances have changed in a way that requires renovation. As examples of innovation in light of changed circumstances, take the turnabouts of official Roman Catholic doctrine (brilliantly illuminated by John T. Noonan, Jr.) on issues from slavery (once permitted, subsequently condemned), the taking of interest on loans (once forbidden, since permitted), or the doctrine of religious freedom (condemned from 350 A.D. to 1964 as the toleration of heresy, declared by the Second Vatican Council to be a sacred human right conveyed by Christian revelation). As Noonan notes, in each case, the principles once thought to be dispositive were subsequently overruled by other principles, which were also part of Catholic tradition but were given new weight because of historical change. But Catholicism, like most religious traditions, has no theory of historical change which would clearly indicate when c hange is necessary, acceptable, or prohibited. That leaves room for dispute about what changes are needed and when. And it means that those adherents of tradition who engage in innovation or reform are open to the charge of heterodoxy.
But the difficulties caused by intrinsic tensions within traditions and their inevitable, but often unacknowledged, internal transformations only begins to suggest the dilemmas faced by those who recur to "tradition" as the source of political judgments. For any modern society, and the United States perhaps more than any other, is made up of multiple traditions--religious, political, ethnic, and regional.
Coming to terms with such pluralism affects each earlier tradition and leads to its redefinition and reconfiguration. The need for accommodation to, or coalition with, followers of other traditions leads to the creation of new, hybrid traditions, many of which would be regarded by earlier adherents of previously distinct traditions as hopelessly confused, if not heretical. This raises a recurrent dilemma for conservatives of how to legitimate change that breaks with the past. One solution is to recast or reinterpret the institutional past to make it appear continuous with contemporary practice; or, alternatively, to formulate innovation in a way that appears continuous with past practice. Take the "Christian tradition," which encompasses adherents of faiths that once regarded one another as heretics (the Catholic view of Protestants) or slavish followers of "the Whore of Babylon" (long a favored Protestant designation of the Church of Rome). Then there is the "Judeo-Christian" tradition, a relatively recentl y discovered hybrid, said to include the adherents of faiths that long considered each other as polytheists (on the Jewish side) or deicides (on the Christian side).
The quest to make the past appear homogeneous and a lodestone for present guidance may take ludicrous forms. Take that forum of intellectual combat referred to as "the Western Tradition," which some purport to use as a basis of policy, as if Plato and Augustine, Moses and Montesquieu, were likely to arrive at a single recommendation on homosexuality, school vouchers, or foreign aid.
The real heterogeneity of regional subcultures creates further barriers to deriving clear answers to current challenges from "tradition." From the perspective of the Southern tradition of antipathy to government (except to keep down blacks), gun ownership as the guarantor of liberty, and ostentatious religiosity, Rockefeller Republicans look like heretics--and vice-versa. In short, those who regard themselves as "traditional" will often have very diverse conceptions of what that means. And often enough they will be unaware that what is regarded as "traditional" within their own community today is quite different from what was regarded as "traditional" yesterday--or will be regarded as "traditional" tomorrow. The appeal to tradition, then, may itself be a source of conflict among those who regard themselves as conservatives but who seek to conserve rather different things.
Yet to call attention to the importance of divergences between religious or regional traditions is to oversimplify and mislead, for it conveys the impression that each individual is influenced by a single tradition, however defined and redefined. But the multiple traditions that constitute modern society run not only between communities but within individuals. As the sometime conservative British political theorist John Gray quite rightly reminds us, modern societies are "post-traditional" in the sense that they encompass a multiplicity of traditions between which individuals may move, or from among which individuals may pick and choose elements. Thus as Gray has noted:
We are none of us defined by membership in a single community or form of moral life. We are ... heirs of many distinct, sometimes conflicting, intellectual and moral traditions.... The complexity and contradictions of our cultural inheritance give to our identities an aspect of complexity and even of plurality which is not accidental, but essential to them. For us, at any rate, the power to conceive of ourselves in different ways, to harbour dissonant projects and perspectives, to inform our thoughts and lives with divergent categories and concepts, is integral to our identity as reflective beings.
As a result, outside of enclave-like communities of the culturally like-minded, individuals must make decisions about which elements of which traditions will bind their decisions--and to some degree or another most are syncretistic, drawing on what appears useful to them wherever they find it.
Historicism and its discontents
At some point, an awareness of the inadequacy of appeals to tradition as a guide to policy has led the most sophisticated conservatives, like Hume, Hegel, Sumner, or Hayek, to attempt to demonstrate rationally that the existing institutions they seek to conserve reflect higher, historically evolving norms. This has the advantage of providing grounds for belief and practice beyond those of particular traditions. But the adherents of older traditions respond--quite rightly--that the institutions being defended are at odds with their historic traditions. Thus while the most sophisticated forms of conservatism may be more intellectually compelling, they lack appeal to the orthodox.
There is a further problem with this more sophisticated version of conservatism. To its credit, it tends to be more conscious than orthodoxy that institutions (political, religious, familial) have changed over time, and that a variety of institutional alternatives have proved more or less conducive to human happiness, depending in part on time and place. But such a self-conscious and historically informed conservatism entails a certain measure of historicism and relativism, a situation that generates dilemmas of its own for conservatives.
Historicist conceptions have become an ubiquitous component of modern intellectual life. Although in an extreme form they may be detrimental, no doctrine that does not take the reality of historical change seriously can serve as a plausible guide for policy. Nowhere is this clearer than in regard to perhaps the most dynamic force in modern history, the capitalist economy. For perhaps the most consistent dilemma for conservatives concerns the cultural effects of the market--an institution that conservatives generally favor. Yet, at least since Burke, conservatives have feared that the capitalist market itself, or the attitudes it tends to engender, will erode the premarket and nonmarket institutions upon which conservatives typically believe that the successful functioning of a capitalist society depends. Even when it does not destroy existing institutions, the market tends to transform them. The family, for example, was transformed, beginning in the later nineteenth century, by the declining economic value o f child labor and the rising costs of preparing children for market partici- pation, both of which led parents to desire fewer children. The rise in women's ability to earn in an economy in which muscle power is ever less important has further altered (and will continue to transform) the relations between men and women and the nature of the family. The modern, liberal-democratic state, modern science, and modern technology have had--and continue to have--similarly transformative effects, all of which make attention to historical change unavoidable for serious analysis. That is why, in one form or another, historicism has been central in conservative thought as well.
Yet the permeation of historicist assumptions may have the effect of undermining conviction in the validity of existing institutions, or indeed in the idea of truth as such. Some truths are no doubt timeless, but adapting them to the times and discovering their timeliness is a Sisyphian task. The challenge for conservatives is to resist the intellectually easy routes of regarding every institutional transformation as evidence of decline, or of claiming that nothing fundamental has changed and that past doctrine need only be reiterated or reinstated.
Resistance or compromise?
All of this helps to explain why the content of conservatism varies not only over time and across national and regional contexts but often among self-proclaimed conservatives at the same time and place. The declaration that one is conservative, while it signifies a certain respect for tradition and for the value of historically evolved institutions, may reveal surprisingly little of operational significance.
The conservation of the institutional legacy of the past inevitably involves a selection from among existing traditions and legacies. Moreover, conservative theory, like all theory, cannot be applied without judgment. Decisions must be made regarding which historical institutions and traditions are viable under changed circumstances, how inherited institutions and practices ought to be revised or revamped, and what part of an institution is essential and what part is superfluous.
In his 1775 speech supporting conciliation with the American colonies, Burke provided a succinct formulation of conservatism's fundamental dilemma:
Our late experience has taught us, that many of those fundamental principles, formerly believed infallible, are either not of the importance they were imagined to be; or that we have not at all adverted to some other far more important, and far more powerful principles, which entirely over-rule those we have considered as omnipotent.
This recurrent conservative quandary--when does experience demand a change in the order of institutional priorities?--and the variety of responses to which it gives rise, provides a persistent source of tension among conservatives, and an ongoing stimulus to the reformulation of conservatism.
Conservative thought tends both to emphasize the restraining role of institutions as a prerequisite of human thriving and to defend existing, historically developed institutions on the grounds of their usefulness. Yet conservatism as an articulated intellectual position only arises when the legitimacy of existing institutions can no longer be taken for granted, either because those institutions are under ideological attack or because of social, political, and cultural developments that tend to undermine their authority or their functioning. In this sense, every wave of conservatism is neo-conservatism: It arises to defend institutions that are in fact somewhat different from those defended by previous conservatives. And because institutions that have already been challenged (even if the challenges prove ill-founded) lack the same taken-for-granted quality that they once possessed, or survive the challenge only through considerable alteration, they may appear to their defenders as weakened.
As a result, conservatives are likely to be historical pessimists. Thus, while conservatism is defined in large part by its defense of existing institutions, a recurrent lament among conservative thinkers has been that newer institutions are less adequate than older or existing ones, either because they are unable to command assent, or because they provide inadequate direction to human passions. This proclivity to view contemporary history as a process of decline may already be found in Burke's lament that the age of chivalry is dead, In certain conservative conventicles in the United States, it is believed that things have been going downhill since Nominalism made its appearance in the Middle Ages. Others date the Decline of the West to the 1960s. Such hand-wringing expresses the propensity of conservatives to identify the decline of particular institutions with the decline of institutions per se. Because the articulate defense of existing institutions usually comes about only when their stability has been challenged, and given the tendency of conservatives to identify the decline of existing institutions with the decline of institutions as such, conservatism sometimes appears as a defense of lost causes, or a fighting retreat from one institutional outpost to another.
A perennial dilemma for conservatives is when to declare the battle for a particular institution definitively lost. The defense of lost institutions is characteristic of a species of conservatism which might be termed "reactionary" except that it seeks to retreat to a position preceding the status quo ante-- "crankiness" seems a more adequate label. A comical self-caricature of this stance was provided by Evelyn Waugh. Requested by a British journal to comment on the upcoming elections of 1959, Waugh responded, "I have never voted in a parliamentary election. I shall not vote this year.... In the last three hundred years, particularly in the last hundred, the Crown has adopted what seems to me a very hazardous process of choosing advisers: popular election. Many great evils have resulted.... I do not aspire to advise my Sovereign in her choice of servants."
Less obviously comical, because less self-aware, is the sort of conservatism which insists upon reasserting values that have lost their institutional moorings. This was the case of the American "Southern Agrarians" of the 1930s and their spiritual offspring who championed the idealized values of the antebellum South long after the social structures that sustained those values had disappeared. Among the issues dividing contemporary conservatives are whether to give up the struggle against legalized abortion, pornography, gambling, and the legitimization of homosexuality. To be sure, there are conservatives who favor each of these, but even for those who are inclined to oppose such practices, the question of whether the battle is winnable, or worth the cost, inevitably arises.
The need for conservatives to react to cultural, social, economic, and political change gives rise to recurrent strategies, each of which have potential pitfalls. When the fundamental institutions valued by conservatives appear to be in imminent danger, a strategy of radical action may seem necessary. This is a dangerous course, as conservatives should be the first to know, given the historical sensitivity of conservatism to the hazards posed by the negative unanticipated consequences of action. The opposite strategy is pragmatic flexibility: While a necessity for any political movement, it runs the risk of trading away the fundamental substance of existing institutions in order to avoid unpleasant conflict. The strategy of holding fast to existing institutional arrangements in their totality, by contrast, risks descent into political irrelevance. Those who seek to ban pornography, for example, may simply fail to understand the technical impossibility of doing so, given the nature of the Internet. It has bee n argued that abortion is so inextricably a part of middle-class life that its recriminalization would not be tolerated by wide segments of the populace. The notion that homosexuals will return to the closet may be as implausible as putting Humpty-Dumpty together again, etc.
Change, in other words, is costly to reverse. That does not mean, of course, that change should never be reversed, or that the benefits may not be worth the political costs. The reversal of entrenched trade union power in Britain and the United States under Thatcher and Reagan provides an example. So does welfare reform, the reduction of crime through a combination of prison building and more effective policing, or the elimination of governmental racial discrimination in the awarding of contracts and in university admissions.
The dilemmas of conservative reform
Of course, conservatism is not wholly reactive. As any historian of modern Europe or observer of recent American experience knows, innovation has always been a part of conservatism. Conservative innovation is based either upon applying to new areas policies that conservatives regard as proven by experience or trying to use novel means to reach conservative goals. (Again, there is a relevant Burkean dictum, "A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation. Without such means it might even risk the loss of that part of the constitution which it wished the most religiously to preserve.") In recent years, successful tates has come largely from conservatives.
Yet conservatives will differ with one another on the advisability of future policy innovations--and differ on eminently conservative grounds. The idea of tax simplification through a flat tax, for example, may be recommended by the likelihood that it would curtail government intrusiveness, reduce the costs of compliance to individuals, and minimize the resources diverted to unproductive functions such as accounting and legal tax sheltering. But a flat tax would also remove an important existing incentive for donating to charities and nonprofit organizations, causes typically championed by conservatives as alternatives to the expansion of government.
Or take the issues of school vouchers and the provision of social services through faith-based organizations. Many conservatives regard these as promising innovations, because they strengthen mediating institutions, increase consumer choice, encourage decentralization rather than governmental direction, and bolster religious communities. But here again, there is room for dissent based upon conservative concerns. For the granting of governmental funds to such schools and organizations may have the unintended, but not unanticipatable, effect of diminishing their autonomy and the their ability to preserve the particular orientations that have made them successful in the first place. Conservatives may also be skeptical of innovations that might radically increase cultural pluralism, including the power of subcultures fundamentally at odds with the ethos of American institutions and antipathetic to integration within the nation state. Such fears may be overstated or unwarranted--but they are eminently conservativ e.
These, then, are among the structural reasons why conservatives will almost inevitably dispute, confute, and refute one another. That is why conservatism is perennially faced with a "crack-up" but also why it is capable of renovation and dynamism. The same could well be said of liberalism--but that is the subject of another essay.
JERRY Z. MULLER is a professor of history at the Catholic University of America and editor of Conservatism: An Anthology of Social and Political Thought from David Hume to the Present.…