Pragmatic Conservatism: A Defense

By Vannatta, Seth | Humanitas, Spring-Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

Pragmatic Conservatism: A Defense

Vannatta, Seth, Humanitas

In the "Conclusion" to the fiftieth anniversary issue of Modern Age, "The Decline of American Intellectual Conservatism," Claes Ryn offers a view of conservatism that, in a sense, is inclusive of liberalism and individualism and also a criticism of conservatism's distortion and hijacking by powerful figures in think tanks, foundations, and the media. The conservatism Ryn defends recognizes the possibility of a synthesis of universality and historical particularity, which allows conservatism to distinguish between two types of individualism and liberalism: one atomistic and one "integral to Burkean conservatism." (1) Ryn criticizes neoconservatives for having consciously or unconsciously turned conservatism into a sort of neo-Jacobinism, viewing America as an exceptional model of transcendent, ahistorical, and universal truths--democracy and liberty--which should be exported to far lands in an effort to reconstruct foreign states and peoples. (2) In a discomforting irony, these putative conservatives resemble the original Jacobins in their attempt to remake the world on the model of equality, liberty, and fraternity. The French revolutionary idea that society and the state should be wholly remade in the image of these principles was the chief target of Edmund Burke in Reflections on the Revolution in France. The neoconservative commandeering of American intellectual conservatism has also, Ryn argues, reflected a "misguided" "pseudo"-pragmatism, which has let a turn to practical matters--to public policy, business, and economics--trump the need for a philosophically rich and serious defense of conservatism, not least in its moral, aesthetical, and political iterations. (3)

Sixty years ago, another prominent American intellectual conservative, Russell Kirk, wrote, "[Edmund] Burke was a liberal because he was a conservative." (4) Perhaps today American readers of Ryn's account of conservatism's relation to liberalism and of Kirk's description of Burke's liberalism find these comments confusing or internally inconsistent. The patient reader of Ryn, however, will find that these attempts to change the terms of current political discourse point to the possibility of a more truly pragmatic conservative political methodology and of giving it a voice in our current political climate, a voice not dominated by neoconservatives.

Crucial to such an attempt is to demonstrate how conservatism and pragmatism intersect methodologically, which is my present task. Such an undertaking must confront the popular associations and colloquial uses of the term "conservatism"--those which might cause confusion in contemporary readers of Ryn's or Kirk's assertions about conservatism and liberalism--and must also assess whether the customary academic resources on conservatism are all what they should be. Research into the latter question may help undermine the force of the popular and colloquial understandings of conservatism; the two mentioned tasks converge when significant strands of scholarship on conservatism reinforce uncritical associations and usages. By correcting academic misinterpretations of conservatism, one can undermine colloquial usage and make way for new thinking on conservatism as a political methodology.

In popular and journalistic political discourse and even among intellectuals, conservatism and pragmatism are seen as tending to repel one another as if both were positively charged magnets. Pragmatism means about the same as relativism and utilitarianism, while conservatism means adherence to undying principles inherited from the past or divined from religious authority or revelation. Caricatures of two important figures often register as uncontroversial: Edmund Burke was a reactionary defender of the British aristocracy and state religion, and John Dewey was a mere apologist for New Deal Liberalism.

One of the most influential scholarly books on conservatism reinforces the second of these oversimplified characterizations. …

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