What Is Conservatism?

By JOHN W. DEAN
Friday, Dec. 17, 2004

Among them, there are many philosophical and practical conflicts. But what is it that they have in common? Why are they all under the same tent, and (for now, anyway) in the Republican Party?

In their recent book The Right Nation: Conservative Power In America, John Micklethwait (the U.S. editor of the right-of-center Economist) and Adrian Wooldridge (the Washington correspondent for the Economist) seek to explain conservatism to Europeans (if not Americans). But they conclude that "[c]onservativism has become one of those words that are now as imprecise as they are emotionally charged" -- especially since conservatives insist "their deeply pragmatic creed cannot be ideologically pigeonholed."

Are Micklethwait and Wooldridge correct? Or can the core of conservatism be defined?

Speeches on Conservatism: Failing to Agree on a Core Definition of the Term

To answer this question, I started with the grand-daddy of the conservative think tanks, The American Enterprise Institute. On its site was a fascinating 1995 speech by conservative columnist George Will. The speech is a 6,000 word tour de force - and it was plainly delivered before the arrival of "compassionate conservatism."

In the speech, Will scolds conservatives for ceaselessly hammering on big government. But his larger point is that "conservatism has not had to ask itself some hard questions about what it is prepared to tell people that people would rather not be told." Here is one example Will gives: Quoting President Woodrow Wilson, he says that "no man must look to have the government take care of him, but every man must take care of himself."

Also on the AEI site was a lengthy talk by Charles Kessler, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. But Kessler concentrated on the difficulties of defining conservatism, rather than offering a definition. He contended that "American conservatives have always been more confident of what they were against than what they were for." (Emphasis in original.) And he said that conservatives needed goals, but had none -- notwithstanding Congressional conservatives' promotion of their Contract With America.

The Heritage Foundation site offered a 1986 speech by William Bennett, then President Reagan's drug czar. Bennett announced, "American conservatism today is optimistic" - in that "conservatives do not expect completion or perfection in the things of this world. Just as, when in the wilderness, conservatives knew that there were no lost causes, so they know, while governing, that there are no causes finally and irrevocably won."

Also on the site, Edward Fullner, the president of Heritage, reminded the faithful in an essay that "Conservatism is based on freedom, opportunity and responsibility--ideas that span centuries because they work. The same can't be said for liberalism." (Emphasis in original.)

Conservatives and the Judiciary: Activist, Restrained - Or Both?

The Heritage Foundation site also offers a 1993 talk by Professor David Forte -- a Harvard-trained lawyer with a Ph.D. in political economy -- on "Conservatism on the Rehnquist Court." Professor Forte gave Chief Justice Rehnquist passing grades on his conservatism. But unlike Bill Bennett, Professor Forte did not find much for conservatives to be happy about.

To the contrary, Forte explained, "The greatest disappointments for conservatives lay in the areas of school prayer and abortion." Justices Kennedy, O'Connor, and Souter, he argues, not only voted to uphold Roe v. Wade, but halted a trend towards greater tolerance for religious expression. He expressed little respect for the basis for their votes, opining that "[W]hile the "principle of stare decisis is designed to maintain worthy precedents Roe v. Wade is without any constitutional worth."

Also in 1993, James L. Huffman, a resident scholar at Heritage, talked about judicial activism: "Most political conservatives believe in the principle of judicial restraint. I share that conviction, but I also believe in judicial activism."

In short, conservatism embraces both judicial restraint and activism. They can have it any way they want - overruling Roe if it suits them, while arguing that conservative precedents ought to be respected under the same rule of stare decisis they reject for Roe.

Is Libertarianism Conservative? Is Conservatism Necessarily Libertarian?

The Cato Institute website, meanwhile, raises the issue of the problematic relationship between libertarianism and conservatism.

The Cato site quoted Reagan to suggest the two are, at least, closely related: "Ronald Reagan often said that 'the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism.'" And Cato Vice President David Boaz -- who has written extensively on libertarianism - added that, "These days I put it somewhat differently: the best aspect of American conservatism is its commitment to protecting the individual liberties proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence and guaranteed in the Constitution."

As for George W. Bush's conservatism, Boaz observed, "It's a far cry from the individualist, free-market, less-government conservatism of Barry Goldwater, the 1964 presidential nominee and author of The Conscience of a Conservative, who inspired a generation of conservative activists, and Ronald Reagan, who later put into practice much of Goldwater's agenda."

Interestingly, when many conservatives were cheering Bush's tax cuts, Cato scholars were pointing out how wrong they were. Jerry Taylor and Peter Van Doren explained that, "conservatives in Washington have completely abandoned their campaign against big government. Rather than tackle spending head-on, Republican politicians trot out tax cuts as a symbolic surrogate . . . forgetting the fact that tax cuts have nothing to do with the size of government. They have to do with how we pay for government."

With so many factions among conservatives, what unites them all? As I see it, one major factor is simply a common antipathy (or worse) toward liberalism. And this antipathy proves to be a powerful glue.

What Really Defines Conservatism: An Antipathy to Liberalism

Sidney Blumenthal, then a staff writer at The Washington Post, concluded in his 1986 book, The Rise of the Counter-Establishment: From Conservative Ideology to Political Power, that "conservatism requires liberalism for its meaning." For "without the enemy [of liberalism] to serve as nemesis and model, conservative politics would lack its organizing principle."

The ensuing decades, it seems, have only proved Blumenthal more right. Talk radio could barely exist without its endless bloviating about, and bashing of, all things perceived "liberal." And distaste for all that is considered liberal has remained a constant theme of conservatives. Ironically, this aversion persists even though many conservative believe that its object is dead. For example, in 1998, Newt Gingrich flatly stated, "The age of liberalism is over."

Nevertheless, condemnation of the liberal bogyman continues to unite conservatives of all stripes. Consider recent, bestselling conservative titles by Ann Coulter's work: Slander: Liberal Lies About the American Right (2002), Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terror(2003), and currently How to Talk to a Liberal (If You Must).

Realizing what all conservatives are against, and what appears to hold them together, however, is not much of a definition of what they affirmatively believe in. We know what they all hate - but what, if anything, do they all love?

I have come to agree with Micklethwait and Wooldridge that conservativism no longer can be accurately defined. There is no Conservative Manifesto. And as the speeches and books I have cited show, there are endless and widely varying descriptions of contemporary conservative beliefs.

Even America's preeminent conservative thinker, William F. Buckley, Jr., the normally verbally facile founder of the National Review, found "conservatism" hard to define. Responding to Chris Matthews on "Hardball," Buckley stammered, "The, the, it's very hard to define, define conservatism." Then he proceeded to offer a definition, however: "A famous professor, University of Chicago, was up against it when somebody said, 'How do you define it.' He didn't want to say, well, he said, he said, 'Conservatism is a paragon of essences towards which the phenomenology of the world is continuing approximation." (Emphasis added.)

Got that?


John W. Dean, a FindLaw columnist, is a former counsel to the President.