Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn heard just beneath the surface of the happy-talk of American pragmatists the howl of existentialism.
James W. Ceaser, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia, has an excellent essay called “Four Heads and One Heart: The Modern Conservative Movement,” in his recently published Designing a Polity: America’s Constitution in Theory and Practice. I read it for this year’s Miller Summer Institute, sponsored by the Jack Miller Center, in partnership with the University of Virginia’s Program on Constitutionalism and Democracy.
It’s an eye-opening piece: Ceaser helped me understand both the unity and the disunity of the right, its agreements and its squabbles. First, the agreement: It’s found in conservatism’s one heart, a heart that hates liberalism. A common “antipathy to liberalism” unites conservatives, not shared intellectual principles. He writes,
It has been said in jest that the conservative movement in America today is held together today by two self-evident truths: Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi. Like many such comments, this one contains a kernel of truth. Much of the unity that exists among conservatives stems from their shared antipathy to liberalism. It serves as the common heart that beats in the breast of the conservative movement’s diverse and often fractious components. If by some strange dispensation liberalism were to cease to exist tomorrow, conservatism would begin to break apart on the next day.
The left is different, according to Ceaser; they march under the same banner, touting the same ideals. They get angry with dissenters in their midst because heretics abandon shared liberal principles. Conservatives, by contrast, “have never operated under the illusion of ultimate agreement.”
That’s because, though conservatives have one heart, animated against liberalism, they have four heads, each favoring its own first principle or foundational concept. The heads can be distinguished by these different foundations, which they use to determine what is right or good; they are also known, as we shall see, by what they most deplore in liberalism.
The four heads are (1) traditionalism; (2) neoconservatism; (3) libertarianism, and (4) the religious right. For traditionalists, America’s original culture is to be cherished and guarded. Culture or history decides what is right or good. The foundational concept for neoconservatives, by contrast, is natural right, discerned by human reason, even if it is also established by divine law. Libertarians have a different foundational principle: spontaneous order, that is, letting things work out for themselves without trying to impose a plan. And, finally, Ceaser says, biblical faith animates the religious right.
With different foundations, it should be no surprise that each head hates a different feature of liberalism. Traditionalists find the rejection of the American Founding and our civic identity deplorable; neoconservatives lament liberalism’s relativism; libertarians object to market intervention, government planning, and big government, and members of the religious right decry liberalism’s secularism.
I’m persuaded by Ceaser’s analysis, and it’s interesting how our think tanks, foundations, and journals rarely embrace more than one or two heads. I’m not trying to be provocative or difficult—and I’m certainly open to counterexamples—but (I imagine) foundations, magazines, etc. are established because philanthropists have particular visions for the work that they want to do, and, being conservatives, they set out general guiding principles for the work, or, being conservatives, they have specific things about liberalism they want to criticize. There are places, e.g., the Philadelphia Society, where the four heads try to come together, but, for the most part, different institutions will speak (or read) differently than others, because they speak with the voice of one or two heads, but not all four.
And there’s nothing wrong with that. But Ceaser’s piece is instructive because it reminds us that there are real differences within the conservative coalition. If you think that conservatism is monolithic, you’ll be surprised at how different conservative events feel (a vacuous word, perhaps, but I can’t think of a better one). If you’re at a traditionalist or religious right affair, expect a public prayer before lunch. If you’re at a libertarian lunch, don’t expect one. And don’t think that the libertarians who aren’t praying together publicly don’t pray privately (they may, they may not); it’s just not what brought them together.
Ceaser concludes “Four Heads and One Heart” with two observations, one just plain interesting and the other provocative. Under “The Future of the Movement,” Ceaser says that conservatism succeeds in giving guidance in governance only when its heads are properly arranged. The proper arrangement depends upon the situation at hand. For “correcting or undoing errant liberal policies,” we need traditionalism and libertarianism in order to resist “foolish initiatives” (traditionalism) and “the excesses brought on by centralized planning” (libertarianism). Traditionalists are “the ‘conscience of conservatism,’” and libertarians are the best at “domestic ‘administration’— not, obviously, in the liberal meaning of building the administrative state, but an older meaning of handling affairs.” For “setting a moral compass,” Ceaser continues, “neoconservatives and the religious right must assume the leading roles.”
One sees an underlying theme in “The Future of the Movement”: Conservatives are at their best when they learn from each other and appreciate what others contribute to the coalition.
Finally, in an appendix titled, “Is Conservatism a Form of Liberalism?” Ceaser separates modern conservatism from liberalism, while recognizing that Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman both used the label. Ceaser believes that “it is in the end a mistake to think of American conservatism as the same thing as liberalism, even in the original sense.” Though conservatives embrace some liberal principles, conservatism recognizes that political liberalism cannot survive on its own. So Ceaser says, “Conservatism conserves the American republic by its theoretical foundation of natural rights.” Second, “Conservatism conserves the American republic by supporting the idea of the nation.” And, in contrast to liberal theory—which “often failed to acknowledge or appreciate how much liberal society had borrowed from the storehouse of religious capital”—conservatism gives “appropriate support to biblical religion,” recognizing that it “has been the major source of our ethical system, one of self-restraint and belief in something beyond material substance.” Finally, he adds, “Conservatism conserves the American republic by promoting ‘the tradition,’ which refers, beyond religion and the Enlightenment, to the classical Greek and Roman ideals of virtue and excellence.”
Notice how, at this point in Ceaser’s analysis, three of the four heads come into play: natural rights (neoconservatism), nationhood and tradition (traditionalism), and biblical religion (the religious right). Libertarians are not abandoned, either, because “the conservative movement is friendly to property rights and markets and is opposed to collectivism.”
Yet “conservatism is also the home for those who believe that liberalism’s defense requires something more than liberal theory.” “Conservatives of this variety,” he continues, “show how the cultivation of tradition, religion, and classical virtue replenish the cultural capital that sustains liberalism.” He concludes the essay with the following observation, worth quoting in full:
The existence within conservatism of these different strands of thought produces the aforementioned tensions, but it is also a source of the movement’s great creativity. That creativity is best expressed in the view that the public good is not to be found in adherence to the simplest principles, but in the blending of different and partly conflicting ideas. By acknowledging this complexity, conservatism shows that it is no mere branch of liberalism.
That’s Ceaser’s piece in a nutshell, and, for what it’s worth, I think his analysis is fundamentally correct. (I do have some reservations about the claim that conservatism is not part of political liberalism, classically conceived, but I’m inclined to trust Ceaser on this one). Ceaser is right to applaud our real and genuine diversity. Let many flowers flourish; we have much to learn from each other.
Ceaser’s piece is also, in a way, hopeful. As we know, different interests can create sharp disagreements. Perhaps the potential for conflict within conservatism is best seen in the dance for, or stumble towards, the Republican presidential nomination. If you think that spontaneous order erupts whenever the state does not intervene, then Ron Paul was (and is?) your man, and he certainly warmed many libertarian (and conservative) hearts with his dedicated frugality. But when, e.g., neoconservatives, heard him talk about his foreign policy (or lack thereof) they utterly rejected him. Similarly, Rick Santorum warmed the heart of some on the religious right, but the libertarians found him appalling. Etc.
And we should recognize the difficulty—the complexity or the confusion—that ensues when we try to apply Ceaser’s helpful and appropriate labels to a political movement. Take for example the Tea Party: What are they? Libertarian and traditionalist or religious right or agents for a possible neoconservative triumph? The answer may be all the above, or a blend, to varying degrees, of bits and pieces of each. Part of the problem—as this Politico piece recognizes—is that people don’t identify themselves in ways that fit with how think tanks, conservative periodicals, and Jim Ceasers see them. Instead, people take labels like “the Tea Party.” Even still, in further confirmation of Ceaser’s general point, they come together with a common heart, united by their opposition to liberalism. One heart, four heads.
Let me end with a tribute to the political genius of Ronald Reagan. Reagan appealed, and still does appeal, to all four heads. (It is slightly anachronistic to ask whether Reagan was a neoconservative, but the ideas are old, even if the label is new, so I hope this anachronism will be overlooked.)
Anyway, let’s take each head of the four-headed conservative coalition and see whether or not Reagan could pass as a legitimate member of each one. Traditionalism? He was a friend of William F. Buckley, Jr., the founder of National Review. Check. Neoconservatism? “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Check. Libertarianism? Think Reaganomics. Check. And, finally, the religious right? Look at Paul Kengor’s God and Ronald Reagan: A Spiritual Life. Check.
Now you may resist the notion that Reagan was really part of one head or another, but you have to ask yourself your reason for resisting the claim. I imagine that it’s either because (1) you don’t like that head of conservatism or because (2) you don’t think that Reagan was sufficiently dedicated to your particular cause. So, e.g., you don’t want to think of Reagan as part of the religious right, because you find the religious right disagreeable, or, e.g., Reagan wasn’t sufficiently libertarian for you. He didn’t go to church enough, or his economic policies were actually Keynesian, etc.
But think about what his opponents said about him! They certainly did not think that he was a progressive who was sheepish about rights and a big government taxer who loathed religious faith. Reagan was enough of a believer in each part of the conservative coalition to qualify as a member, but never so zealously dedicated to one cause at the expense of all the rest. That makes dedicated enthusiasts of one head of the coalition understandably skeptical of various aspects of Reagan’s presidency. But that doesn’t mean that Reagan belonged anywhere else.
And I don’t think Reagan was playing a role; I think he was genuinely a member of each. If so, then liberals have it all wrong. Reagan wasn’t dumb. He was a genius. He didn’t have just one head; he had four.