Out of its Minds — Berkowitz on American Conservatism

Political movements develop around policies rather than belief systems. And as support for the Bush administration’s policy agenda crumbles, so too does America’s conservative movement — an unstable alliance of conservatives and libertarians. In the Wall Street Journal Peter Berkowitz argues that those to "the right of center are engaged in an intense intra-party struggle to balance competing principles and goods."

Intellectually, America’s conservative movement is an alliance of libertarians, traditionalist conservatives and neo-conservatives. Rights-based libertarians look to thinkers like Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard and Ludwig von Mises. Economic libertarians look to Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman and the Chicago School. Traditionalist conservatives look to Russell Kirk and Richard Weaver. And neo-conservatives look to thinkers like Leo Strauss and Irving Kristol. The majority of conservative activists don’t read difficult books. Instead they use references to great thinkers the way teenage boys use spoilers and bonnet scoops on their Hyundai Excels — as a way to signal prowess and identity.

After the Second World War, the various conservative tribes were united by their shared opposition to communism. Communists were against the market so libertarians hated them. Communists were against God so the traditionalists hated them. And communists were from the wrong alcove in City College, so the neo-conservatives hated them. Liberalism was obviously a kind of moderate Stalinism and so everyone hated liberals. Admittedly there were a few problems. Traditionalists figured out that Ayn Rand’s followers were also opposed to God, so they had to be thrown out. But as long as libertarians kept their copies of Atlas Shrugged under the bed they were allowed to stay. Reading Rand was like being Jewish or gay — alright as long as you didn’t make a big deal about it.

With the Reagan presidency the movement reached its peak. Almost everyone approved of Reagan’s attacks on welfare. For libertarians it represented an attack on big government while for conservatives it was an affirmation of the work ethic and a statement about the wrongness of out of wedlock childbearing. And if defence spending was spiralling out of control even libertarians had to admit it was the communists who made military spending necessary. In contrast, Bush is having more trouble keeping the movement together. His Democratic predecessor abolished AFDC (the welfare program conservatives hated most) and communism collapsed in the Soviet Union and its European satellites (but not in China where it became indistinguishable from capitalism). Military spending is again increasing, but it’s not directed against a threat that everyone can agree on. Bush spends too much of his time attacking things that only some of the movement hate.

Berkowitz argues that political debate has become too focussed on policy issues — the war in Iraq, abortion, stem cell research and same sex marriage. Instead focusing on concrete policy, he thinks debate should focus more on abstract principles. American conservatism is about striking a balance between liberty and tradition, he says. He nominates three key conservative thinkers — Russell Kirk, Friedrich Hayek and Leo Strauss — and argues that their writings form a family. "All agreed that liberal democracy constituted the last best hope of modern man." That was fine for the conservative movement when ‘modern man’ was threatened by totalitarianism, but not so good when he’s worried about global warming and terrorism.

The divisions on the right may be deeper than Berkowitz thinks. Conservatives refuse to agree on his list of three key thinkers. At the National Review Online’s Corner, commenters are arguing over whether Russell Kirk and Leo Strauss really belong in the pantheon. Elsewhere Nicolai Foss and Tyler Cowen are wondering whether Hayek really matters anymore. Others might wonder why Milton Friedman isn’t on the list? And what about Ayn Rand? Or for that matter, what about Jesus?

Another problem is Berkowitz’s claim that the left are more ideologically united than conservatives. In reality, the left are just as ideologically fragmented as the right. However, at the moment they seem to be following Richard Rorty’s advice and focusing on projects rather than principles. Rorty argues that philosophical principles are too vague for political decision making. Instead, "Principles are useful for summing up projects, abbreviating decisions already taken and attitudes already assumed." Kirk, Hayek and Strauss may have agreed on liberal democracy, but then so do most American liberals.

In the 1980s the American left was convinced that conservatives were united by a monolithic ‘New Right’ ideology. But in reality, it was the opportunity for power and influence that encouraged the movement’s separate tribes to paper over their differences. As the Heritage Foundation’s Ed Feulner wrote:

We make it clear to anyone who seeks a job at Heritage that conservatives are a varied lot, and our ultimate success depends on unity, not division… We simply make it clear from the outset that at Heritage we settle our differences, or we agree to disagree, but we ultimately pull together and work towards common ends (p 77).

The American left is doing the same thing. The disasters of the Bush administration have brought power and influence within reach. The Republicans have lost control of Congress, and soon they will lose control of the presidency. Nobody on the left wants to blow their chance.

Berkowitz thinks that disputes over policy are getting in the way of more interesting debates over principle:

The varieties of conservatism are poorly understood today not only because of the bitterness of current political battles but also because the books that have played a key role in forming the several schools go largely untaught at our universities and largely unread by our professors. Indeed, perhaps one cause of the polarization that afflicts our political and intellectual class is the failure of our universities to teach, and in many cases to note the existence of, the conservative dimensions of American political thought.

In an article for the Weekly Standard he argued that "the disputes between right and left in America are not over rival conceptions of the political good but rather over competing ideas of what policies best serve individual freedom and equality under law." He hopes to draw both the left and right into a more sophisticated debate over policies and principles — one that recognises the many-sidedness of political issues.

Rather than uniting the conservative movement, encouraging debate over principles is likely to lead to division. It might even reconfigure the left/right divide. Calling himself an ‘old Whig’ Hayek argued against conservativism. Strauss and his followers argued against the basic assumptions of libertarianism. And Russell Kirk argued with Straussians, neo-conservatives and libertarians. The more readers understand about the principles that underlie these disputes, the more they’ll realise they have to choose sides. Quite likely, readers may decide that the old alliances no longer makes sense. Some libertarians, for example, are already talking about a new alliance with liberals.

America’s conservative movement isn’t falling apart because it’s lost its intellectual moorings, it’s falling apart because the political environment has changed.


At Catallaxy, Rafe Champion sides with Berkowitz and argues that there’s more ideological diversity on the right than on the left (he says more in the comments thread than in the post).

Conservatives vs Dinesh D’Souza. When D’Souza claimed that America’s cultural left was responsible for 9/11, even his allies on the right thought he’d gone too far. In the Weekly Standard, Peter Berkowitz writes:

To claim that by promoting, among other things, abortion, gay marriage, pornography, and atheism, the cultural left presents a threat to America as grave as that posed by radical Islam is seriously wrong and foolishly divisive.

At Conservative Times Bede writes:

Putting Strauss on this list is absurd. He was a mediocre thinker at best, and hardly a conservative. He was successful at peddling left-wing Jacobin thought as conservative, and at superimposing over the Greeks a modernist notion of natural right. Strauss should be in the top 3 for the Greatest Conman List or the Greatest Neocon / Neoliberal List, but not on any conservative list.

…If The Corner likes Strauss and rejects Kirk, then it’s a safe assumption that Kirk is probably conservative, and Strauss is not.

Jay Reding says that Berkowitz’s "thesis is interesting, and his analysis deep, but ultimately I’m not sure that the larger point is quite true":

…I think that ultimately, the left really is more divided than the right in this country. The only thing making the left coherent is their hatred of George W. Bush.

Too complicated for liberals. Please don’t read the Berkowitz’s piece, says Edward A Teller at WPYO:

It is much too complicated for your simple minds. Just take another bong hit and relax, George Bush will be out of office before you know it.

This entry was posted in Economics and public policy, Politics - international, Politics - national. Bookmark the permalink.
Notify of

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
16 years ago

This comment disappeared the first time I tried to post it.I agree with Berkowitz on the disunity of the right, to the point where it is not usefully called "the right" without qualification. He sees the disunity as healthy which is only true if the resulting dialogue produces better positions and I think that is not happening. Major differences relate to (a) economic policy, especially free trade and (b) the extent that politicians are entitled to impose moral agendas on us. The thrust of my contribution on this topic was to urge economically illiterate conservatives to lift their game on free trade and to encourage economic rationalists to be more active on the broad cultural agenda where the left have dominated by weight of numbers and activism.Berkowitz struck a disquieting note at the end of his article when he linked Kirk, Hayek and Strauss as partners in defence of limited constitutional government. That view of Strauss is contested by those who see him as a defender of the Platonic totalitarian republic. If that interpretation is even partly correct, the more appropriate partner for Hayek would be Popper, who identified Platonic ideas at the root of modern totalitarian thought. By an incredible stroke of good fortune his critique of Plato is summarised on line.

16 years ago

IMO conservativism's issue is that it cannot provide a coherent narrative for progress. Usually economic liberalism is cited for taking care of that, but conservatism cannot reconcile its requirement for cultural, social, sexual, (even) biblical traditionalism.

The big problem is the language that divides the political spectrum into left/right. It is erronous. For instance if you are for cultural liberty and economic liberty then you arent left or right, but you are center either – as you have taken an extreme stand in both domains.

If Berkowitz sheds the misleading division of left/right then he doesn't have a problem of describing political ideologies. I am convinced the only binary way to differentiate political ideologies is either 'individual first' or 'state first' and this becomes the guiding principle for governance. Divided this way it ceases to be the fabrication of a 50/50 divide and becomes more obviously an 80/20 one.

From the individual first spectrum you have progressives, Au republicans, classic liberals, libertarians etc. The state firsters include conservatives (Au conservatives are often better described as liberals), marxists, socialists and statists (many Au blog commentators who call themselves statists are really progressives within the liberal tradition).

Consequently the arguments around policy and governance become ones inside liberalism as the truly repugnant (or pre-enlightenment) have been shedded or marginalised in the political debate.

I think it is an error to persist with the left-right descriptors.