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Thursday, February 14, 2013

Curbing Our Enthusiasm: Do We Need Conservative Chaperones at the Progressive Party?

My friend Peter Berkowitz, a scholar at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, has written a self-help book for conservatives.  In Constitutional Conservativism, just published by Hoover’s own press, Berkowitz argues that conservatives can regain coherence and relevance as a political force through repositioning themselves as the voice of moderation and restraint in public life.  But, rightly, Berkowitz insists that conservatives need first to moderate themselves in order to claim justly that they can counterbalance the supposed excesses of progressivism.   Thus, to stake the territory of moderation, conservatives must abandon “the attempt to dismantle or even substantially roll back the welfare and regulatory state” and “refrain from attempting to use the federal government to enforce the traditional understanding of sex, marriage, and family.”

This may seem like just another pitch that the Republican Party ought to recapture the political center.  But Berkowitz grounds his argument in a conception of conservativism (and progressivism) that he finds, above all, in Edmund Burke.  He may well overestimate the extent to which Burke’s attack on the fanaticism of the French revolutionaries can be applied to American progressives.  But in rather anti-Burkean fashion, Berkowitz tells American conservatives that they need to get a theory before they can get moderation, whereas Burke himself tended to identify political theory with political immoderation.  Of course, Burke was theorizing in his very attack on theory, and awareness of this paradox permeates the fine, illuminating treatment of Burke’s ideas in Constitutional Conservativism.  

According to Berkowitz, the moderation taught by Burke consists in an awareness of the human costs and risks involved in violently breaking with tradition, of seeking perfection rather than reasonable improvement in laws and society, and of being unwilling to tolerate compromise, error and even an element of abuse and injustice in political life.    But to be true to his own objection to the universalism of theory (and Berkowitz notes this) Burke has to admit that there are times and places where only sweeping change or radical upheaval can establish or re-establish a healthy polity (“as a last resort”).   Is it possible that the New Deal and the Sixties (where the standard conservative narratives most liken American progressives to Burke’s Jacobins) were two such moments of necessary transformative politics?   And transformative politics inevitably gives rise to hopes that cannot fully be satisfied, to expectations that will be not met.   As Tocqueville observed, “the generation that witnesses the end of a great revolution is always anxious, discontented and sad.”  Was the retrenchment represented by Reaganism in the US built so much on a conservative legacy of political moderation as on the exploitation, in various ways, of post-Sixties depression or disappointment?  The question is whether and how one distinguishes political moderation from mere disillusionment with political idealism.          

            Berkowitz, who, cautions against viewing compromise as an end in itself, does not want to dispense with political idealism.  He is only against conservative political idealism.  While admirable as personal values or social norms, respect for private property, free enterprise, the traditional family, piety etc., are nevertheless not themselves suitable as political ideals.  It is just that they are useful if not indispensable for checking or moderating progressive political idealism when it veers too far in the direction of overbearing governmental bureaucracy or secular social engineering.  In sum, conservatives are valuable because they know too much of a good thing when they see it.   And that means that progressivism is, in fine, a good thing.  

But is it correct that we progressives need conservatives as our chaperones?   Though reviled by conservatives, were not FDR and more recently Ted Kennedy masters of compromise and coalition-building, knowing when to push forward and when to back off?   And what of Bill Clinton?  The jury is out but I venture Obama will prove no slouch either as a practitioner of prudent progressivism.

As for theory, there is a strong case that the progressive Montesquieu is a sounder source of political moderation for progressives than any conservative thinker.  This suggestion is supported by Berkowitz’s own turn in his argument from Edmund Burke to the framers.  Those (according to Berkowitz) consummate practitioners and expounders of political moderation were also, and especially the greatest of them, revolutionaries—establishing, in most un-Burkean fashion, a constitutional order on the rights of man and the abstract principles of self-government.   

And they were students of Montesquieu.  As noted, Berkowitz has difficulty articulating any independent political ideal or value for which moderation stands-he is constantly presenting it as a negative principle of necessary constraint or limitation on excess.  But Montesquieu’s grounding of political moderation in gentleness and unprejudiced understanding does connect moderation to a positive conception of human goodness.  I venture that Montesquieu comes closer to the spirit of Berkowitz’s idea (and to Peter as I know him as a person, I might add) than Burke’s idealization of the actual, which, as Leo Strauss very perceptively noted in Natural Right and History, points toward that fateful replacement of G-d by History on which the worst excesses of left and right in the last century were built.        


Posted by Rob Howse on February 14, 2013 at 09:15 AM in Blogging, Constitutional thoughts | Permalink


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Re: “Burke’s idealization of the actual, which, as Leo Strauss very perceptively noted in Natural Right and History, points toward that fateful replacement of G-d by History on which the worst excesses of left and right in the last century were built.”

Apart from NOT believing it is the case that the “fateful replacement of G-d by History” accounts for “the worst excesses of left and right in the last century were built” (I think those excesses have different and myriad causes and that conceptions of history are merely one and not very prominent variable in any such discussion), I would not put too much stock in Strauss’s interpretation of Burke’s political philosophy, which appears mistaken if not profoundly wrong on several counts: see, for example, Burleigh Taylor Wilkin’s discussion in The Problem of Burke’s Political Philosophy (Oxford University Press, 1967). The view that Burke’s thought on this score is somehow an anticipation of Hegel (in the Straussian sense that there is an identification—or reduction—of what ‘ought to be’ with ‘what is’) seems in fact to be on the order of post hoc ergo propter hoc. In any case, and relatedly, Strauss’s reading of Hegel on history seems rather simplistic as well, and here too Wilkins is a reliable guide (not speaking to Strauss in particular but inclusive of a Straussian and Straussian-like interpretation of Hegel on history): see his Hegel’s Philosophy of History (Cornell University Press, 1974). Incidentally—or perhaps not—I’ve had ongoing problem with Strauss’s general conclusions and reading of so much political philosophy owing to my educational experience with a loyal Straussian professor of classical political philosophy (so it begins with his views of Plato). Of late, and by way of yet another example, S.A. Lloyd’s two books on Hobbes’s moral and political thought help us appreciate not a few fundamental difficulties with his characterization of key Hobbesian arguments.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Feb 14, 2013 11:32:56 AM

Actually, I agree there were myriad causes etc.  Thats why I chose the phrase built not derived or determined.  Strausss reading of Burke can stand or fall on its merits.  But I do think it is brilliant of Strauss, who is addressing what is in many respects an audience with conservative sympathies, to point out those tendencies or possibilities in what they might regard as soundly conservative or moderate thinkers that actually contributed to a further radicalization of modernity and to its excesses, arguably.  A discuter, ne cest pas?  Thanks for your reaction.

Posted by: Rob Howse | Feb 14, 2013 11:46:18 AM

As to such possible contributions, I'm not opposed in principle to the exercise, although I think we need to be rather careful here. I'm not fond of attempts, for instance, to judge Rousseau by Robespierre or assess Marx by Stalin and, conversely, believe it perverse to assess Burke by Curzon or the two Mills by those who ritually invoked the notion of "oriental despotism." Why? with a late teacher of mine, I'm inclined to believe that the

"search for scapegoats whose crucifixion can atone for monstrous systems of error and evil is itself based...on an unduly rationalistic faith in the influence of theory and on an absurdly simple view of both individual and national character. Herder may have good reason to assert that a history of opinions would really be the key to the history of deeds. It is, however, one thing to stress the impact of ideas and opinions on policies and actions. It is quite another to single out certain thinkers or theories or concepts as responsible for what they could neither have visualized nor intended in all its implications. [....] In pleading against the tyrannical and tragic consequences of isms and systems, we may foist too easily the entire burden of blame on those thinkers whose theories were most vulnerable to distortion as well as exploitation."

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Feb 14, 2013 1:49:06 PM

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