Sunday, September 13, 2009

Berkowitz, Peter. "Conserving." POLICY REVIEW (August / September 2009).

Allitt, Patrick. The Conservatives: Ideas and Personalities Throughout American History. New Haven: Yale UP, 2009. Patrick Allitt displays a superb eye for the paradoxes that constitute conservatism in America. The Goodrich C. White Professor of History and Director of the Center for Teaching and Curriculum at Emory University, Allitt has written a fine book that is especially valuable at this moment of conservative soul-searching and regrouping. The questions that guide his study are straightforward: “Where did conservatism come from, what are its intellectual sources, and why is it internally divided?” In answering them, however, he is obliged to undertake considerable intellectual legwork because a recognized conservative movement in America only came into existence after 1950. This doesn’t prevent Allitt from reconstructing “a strong, complex, and continuing American conservative tradition” stretching from The Federalist to the Federalist Society. It does mean, though, that to justify his decisions about whom and what to include and exclude in the absence of a formal conservative tradition, a common canon, and an established set of spokesmen, Allitt is compelled to spell out the conflicting elements that distinguish a distinctively conservative approach to politics in America. Allitt does not seek to go beyond his role as a historian. Yet his learned and fair-minded reconstruction lends support to the view that the proper way forward for conservatives is neither greater purity nor a more perfect unity, but a richer appreciation of the paradoxes of modern conservatism and a more assiduous cultivation of the moderation that is necessary to hold conservatism’s diverse elements, frequently both complementary and conflicting, in proper balance. According to Allitt, conservatism is, first, “an attitude to social and political change that looks for support to the ideas, beliefs, and habits of the past and puts more faith in the lessons of history than in the abstractions of political philosophy.” Second, it involves “a suspicion of democracy and equality.” This can be divided into a concern that the formal equality of men before God and law not be confused with equality in all things, particularly virtue, and that too much government power not be placed directly in the people’s hands. Third, conservatism reflects “the view that civilization is fragile and easily disrupted” and therefore it teaches that “the survival of the republic presupposes the virtue of citizens” and calls for “a highly educated elite as guardians of civilization.” Within this unity, considerable diversity of opinion has flourished. Conservatives, Allitt emphasizes, have differed in their “attitude to the proper role of government” and can be found on “both sides of great conflicts.” For example, while Alexander Hamilton, as first secretary of the treasury, sought to increase the size and scope of government’s responsibility for the economy, conservatives, by the time of the New Deal, opposed a larger federal role in the economy. In the run-up to the Civil War, northern statesman Daniel Webster strove to conserve the Union and southern conservative John C. Calhoun strove to conserve the southern way of life. Since the founding, many American conservatives have viewed democracy as destabilizing because it gave too much power to ordinary people; more recently conservatives have seen ordinary people’s common sense and decency as a bulwark against elite ideas about radical change. . . . Read the rest here:

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