On these pages, I have often been critical of modern-day capitalism and right-wing politicians and thinkers, but also indicated that progressivism should value tolerance, humility, compromise, and pragmatism. Moreover, I admire individuals like Anton Chekhov, Carl Sandburg, Wendell Berry, and Dorothy Day.
Chekhov regarded “trade-marks and labels as a superstition” and disliked being labeled, as he said, by those “determined to regard me either as a liberal or as a conservative.” In response to a question about his religion, Sandburg once said: “I am a Christian, a Quaker, a Moslem, a Buddhist, a Shintoist, a Confucian, and maybe a Catholic pantheist. . . . I am all of these and more.” In 2013 Berry wrote, “In the present political atmosphere it is assumed that everybody must be on one of only two sides, liberal or conservative. It doesn’t matter that neither of these labels signifies much in the way of intellectual responsibility or that both are paralyzed in the face of the overpowering issue of our time: the destruction of land and people, of life itself, by means either economic or military.” Day, who cannot easily be labeled, believed that “we must always be seeking concordances, rather than differences.”
So, following the open-minded spirit of these individuals, we need to recognize that the Right, at least the conservative as opposed to the extreme right portion of it, is not always wrong, that at times conservative thinkers have expressed ideas well worth considering.
But before proceeding, one cautionary note: the meanings of words often vary and change over time. One of the most visible American conservatives, New York Times (NYT) columnist David Brooks, has noted (see, e.g., here) how U. S. conservative thinking has changed, even writing “in the 1980s, when conservatism was at its most politically and intellectually vibrant, the dominant voices in the movement celebrated Lincoln, the Progressive Era and even the New Deal.” A review of Edmund Burke: The First Conservative, by the Conservative British politician Jesse Norman, states “‘conservative’ is also situational: a British ‘conservative’ would most likely be a center-left ‘liberal’ in the United States.”
Thus, the conservatism of Brooks or Norman is not the same as that of Rush Limbaugh and many Fox News followers. The conservative ideas mentioned below that I think have some merit may not be embraced by many on the political Right, but have been espoused by historically important conservatives or at least by some people who consider themselves conservatives.
Let’s begin with the eighteenth-century Irishman Edmund Burke, who briefly served in the British Parliament. Norman’s book on him states: “Over his long career Burke fought five great political battles: for more equal treatment of Catholics in Ireland; against British oppression of the thirteen American colonies; for constitutional restraints on executive power and royal patronage; against the corporate power of the East India Company in India; and most famously, against the influence and dogma of the French revolution.”
It was the last of these battles, as outlined in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, that best exemplifies his conservatism. Russell Kirk (1918-1994), sometimes labeled “the Father of
American Traditionalist Conservatism,” once stated that “to Burke’s analysis of revolutionary theories philosophical conservatism owes its being.”
What I appreciate most about Burke’s thinking is his view that social and political life should be based not on abstract ideas and ideology, but on historical continuity, human nature, common sense, compromise, and practical wisdom, that is, what works, what fits with what. In urging the British government to be conciliatory to the American revolutionaries he declared: “All government, indeed every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue, and every prudent act, is founded on compromise and barter. We balance inconveniences; we give and take; we remit some rights, that we may enjoy others; and we choose rather to be happy citizens than subtle disputants.” Norman believes that “above all, a [modern] Burkean leader will insist on the common good, and the importance of public service and public duty.” Seeking the common good also seems to me to be the proper aim of politics, and my main criticism of today’s right-wing politicians is that their policies subvert that aim.
As with other conservative thinkers treated in this essay, Burke also made statements with which I don’t agree, but such disagreements are not the subject of this essay.
Many conservative thinkers (see, e.g., here) include among their number the early twentieth-century English Distributists Hilaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton, but both men were critical of various aspects of capitalism and championed local communities, decentralization and the widespread distribution of property. The self-proclaimed pacifist and anarchist Dorothy Day once stated that “the principles of Distributism have been more or less implicit in much that we have written for a long time.”
The conservative Russell Kirk, mentioned above, was a great admirer of Burke and devoted almost sixty pages to him in the second chapter of his The Conservative Mind. I like what Kirk wrote in “Errors of Ideology” about ideology and compromise:
Ideology makes political compromise impossible: the ideologue will accept no deviation from the Absolute Truth of his secular revelation. . . . Ideologues vie one with another in fancied fidelity to their Absolute Truth; and they are quick to denounce deviationists or defectors from their party orthodoxy. . . .[but] the prudential politician . . . is well aware that the primary purpose of the state is to keep the peace. This can be achieved only by maintaining a tolerable balance among great interests in society. Parties, interests, and social classes and groups must arrive at compromises, if bowie-knives are to be kept from throats. When ideological fanaticism rejects any compromise, the weak go to the wall.
In Kirk’s chapter “The Problem of Wants” in Prospects for Conservatives (1956) he criticizes our capitalist consumer culture in an appropriate manner. “Every year, we become still more the slaves of creature-comforts and effortless amusements. Our whole economy—indeed, our very foreign policy—is calculated to endorse and increase this appetite for material goods, and we are urged to consume everything, at the greatest possible rate, lest the structure of our society come tumbling down about our ears. . . . The advertising-man whips us on; permanence and thrift are ridiculed as obstacles to progress; and no class is spared.” When Kirk writes that our economy “endeavors to satisfy the dreams of avarice,” his words remind me of those of economist-environmentalist E. F. Schumacher, who wrote that our advertising and marketing encouraged a “frenzy of greed and . . . an orgy of envy.”
I also appreciate the words of Kirk quoted on the Imaginative Conservative website: “The conservative is concerned, first of all, with the regeneration of the spirit and character—with the perennial problem of the inner order of the soul, the restoration of the ethical understanding.” Conservatives often like to talk about ethics, virtues, and values, and progressives are sometimes put off by what they think is right-wing religious dogmatism. But I harken back to Martin Luther King Jr., whose crusades for civil rights and non-violence were based on his own deep spiritual values. And I agree with President Obama, who once wrote in a chapter on “Values,” “I think that Democrats are wrong to run away from a debate about values.” He went on to insist that the question of values should be at “the heart of our politics.” In “What Is Progressivism?” I devoted more than half the essay to “progressive values.”
During the past few years a number of works have indicated the value of some conservative thinking. In late 2011, The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry appeared. Social conservatives wrote 16 of the 17 essays it contained, many of them insightful. The collection’s introduction stated:
Although Berry is often associated with the political Left, it is our conviction that his work is profoundly conservative and that, as a consequence, conservatives should attend carefully to what he writes. As evidence of his conservatism, one might cite his position on any number of issues a conservative would recognize: his defense of decentralization and the relative autonomy of local communities; his healthy suspicion of government power and support for a robust civil society; his hostility to the welfare state and defense of private property; his opposition to abortion, promiscuity, and divorce [in a 2012 interview Berry stated that Abortion for birth control is wrong. . . . In some circumstances, I would justify it, as I would justify divorce in some circumstances, as the best of two unhappy choices]; his respect for tradition and distrust of leveling abstractions such as scientism. At the same time, Berry also holds positions that would make many American conservatives uncomfortable, including his pacifism, conservationism, and opposition to corporate capitalism.
Despite this embrace by conservatives, Berry’s essays frequently appear in The Progressive, which describes itself as “a monthly left-wing magazine.”
In January 2012 Thomas Edsall, who writes thoughtful essays for NYT, penned a column entitled “What the Right Gets Right.” Although mentioning some of the failings of conservatism, he wrote sympathetically of conservatives’ awareness of “human fallibility/corruptibility,” their emphasis on “liberty/autonomy,” family and good parenting, “hard work and individual responsibility,” the “need for fiscal balance,” and their suspiciousness of big government, bureaucrats, Wall Street, and “the application of social science theories to real world problems.” In 2014 NYT columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote a similar titled article, “Where the G.O.P. Gets It Right.” Like Edsall, he mixed praise with criticism, but did write that “conservatives have been proved right about three big ideas of social policy”: the need for strong families, job creation, and school reform.
Edsall’s column also referred to Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, which a few months later was reviewed in NYT. One of Haidt’s main points is that people act more on their underlying moral intuitions than on reason. The explanations they give for their actions and political stances tend to be rationalizations. He believes that in emphasizing family stability, religion, responsibility, community, patriotism, and law and order conservatives are more in tune with most people (throughout the world) than are liberals, who stress more compassion and fighting oppression.
Another book recently reviewed in NYT is The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor. The book’s author, William Easterly, often quotes “favorites of the right like Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek.” His central argument is that “the conventional approach to [global] economic development, to making poor countries rich, is based on a technocratic illusion: the belief that poverty is a purely technical problem amenable to such technical solutions as fertilizers, antibiotics, or nutritional supplements, and that this “technocratic approach ignores . . . the real cause of poverty— the unchecked power of the state against poor people without rights.” Easterly’s criticism of experts and state power, coupled with his frequent citing of Hayek (see here for more on him and his popularity with the Right), reminds one at times of the populist Right’s anti-intellectualism and anti-Washington, D.C. rhetoric.
But Easterly’s belief that experts and intellectuals are often wrong and out of touch with the real needs and desires of ordinary people is well-worth considering. Wisdom scholar Robert Sternberg has stated that “smart and well educated people” are often unwise because of four fallacies, which he labels the egocentrism, omniscience, omnipotence, and invulnerability fallacies. All four are tied up with too big an ego and with overestimating one’s own importance and powers. Decades ago in his The Best and the Brightest, David Halberstam illustrated how the supposedly smart people surrounding Presidents Kennedy and Johnson mired us down in the Vietnam War. And the recent film Philomena captured well the smug sense of superiority that elite educated people like the film’s Martin (Steve Coogan) sometimes exhibit when dealing with those less educated like Philomena (Judi Dench).
Most recently, Arthur Brooks has written an essay “Capitalism and the Dalai Lama.” Brooks is president of the American Enterprise Institute, which one prominent conservative calls “probably the most important think tank on the American right.” Brooks praised the compassion and practicality of the Buddhist leader, who once said, “as far as socio-political beliefs are concerned, I consider myself a Marxist.” In the spirit of the Dalai Lama, Brooks wrote: “We need to combine an effective, reliable safety net for the poor with a hard look at modern barriers to upward mobility. That means attacking cronyism that protects the well-connected. It means lifting poor children out of ineffective schools that leave them unable to compete. It entails pruning back outmoded licensing laws that restrain low-income entrepreneurs. And it means creating real solutions . . . for people who cannot find jobs that pay enough to support their families.”
Another Brooks, but no relative, NYT conservative columnist David, has praised such an approach and often criticizes those on the Right whom he considers unreasonable. To be sure, he also frequently criticizes those on the Left. But his disagreements with the latter are generally amicable, as those of us who witness his exchanges with fellow-NYT-columnist Gail Collins or fellow-PBS-Newshour-contributor Mark Shields can testify. I feel about Brooks as Wendell Berry did about fellow writer Edward Abbey: “He is not always right or always fair—which, of course, he is not. who is? For me, part of the experience of reading him has always been, at certain points, that of arguing with him.” Judging by the course Brooks has taught on humility, which included a segment on Dorothy Day, he also values that virtue, one I see too little demonstrated on the Right. And, to be fair, not as often as it should be on the Left (see, e.g., some of the comments about Brooks’ course on the Huffington Post site).
Another NYT columnist, Charles Blow, recently wrote “We Should Be in a Rage” about
- recent Republican attempts to disenfranchise voters,
- Supreme Court decisions that favor moneyed interests over democracy,
- attempts to reduce women’s reproductive options,
- the inability of some full-time workers to earn a living wage,
- crumbling infrastructure, and that
- we are spiraling toward cataclysmic, irreversible climate change.
If Blow means, as I think he does, that we should be passionate about opposing such trends, I agree with him. Tolerance toward other people’s positions, coupled with humility about our own fallibility, does not mean we should lack passion for overcoming injustices.
In one of his best speeches, at a University of Michigan commencement in 2010, President Obama expressed the need for the proper combination.
These arguments we’re having over government and health care and war and taxes . . . should arouse people’s passions, and it’s important for everybody to join in the debate, with all the vigor that the maintenance of a free people require.
But we cannot expect to solve our problems if all we do is tear each other down. You can disagree with a certain policy without demonizing the person who espouses it. Throwing around phrases like “socialist” and “Soviet-style takeover;” “fascist” and “right-wing nut” may grab headlines, but it also has the effect of comparing our government, or our political opponents, to authoritarian, and even murderous regimes. . . .
The problem is that this kind of vilification and over-the-top rhetoric closes the door to the possibility of compromise. It undermines democratic deliberation.
In regard to “demonizing,” I have written elsewhere: “In almost all cases of [twentieth-century] wars and atrocities, the enemy was depicted as less human by the use of derogatory terms. The Nazis equated the Jews with all sorts of subhuman creatures from rats to lice . . . .”
One of the saddest realities of the last six years has been that with President Obama we had a president who wished to work in a pragmatic, bipartisan fashion with Republicans in order to further the common good, but they were too uncompromising to cooperate. He recognized that the Right is not always wrong. Republican Congresspersons, however, have lacked sufficient open-mindedness, humility, tolerance, compassion, and empathy to admit that the Left is sometimes right.
Walter G. Moss