Conservatives and Creeds

Published October 5, 2007

National Review Online

David Brooks is a national treasure. He is perhaps our most gifted spotter of trends, and his pop-sociology seems moved by a genuine curiosity, and so is often blissfully immune from the draw of familiar categories and conventional wisdom. He has taught us more about the life of the contemporary middle class than anyone, and most weeks he is the only reason to read the New York Times.

But as a spotter of trends, Brooks is also a generalizer, and tends to advance a simple, coherent, well packaged aphorism as an explanation for large events and ideas. It is the columnist’s fate, of course, but this tendency to push a clever observation to its breaking point does have its shortcomings. Sometimes the conceit just breaks. And Brooks’s column in today’s New York Times (generously entitled “The Republican Collapse” by the Times’s editors) is an example.

Brooks argues that American conservatives have lost sight of what conservatism is. As first articulated by Edmund Burke, Brooks says, conservatism is a disposition, not an ideology or creed, and it is a disposition to moderation and caution, and to wariness of profound or sudden change. Contemporary conservatives, he writes, have become creedal instead, and push ideologies — be they theological traditionalism, libertarian individualism, or naïve democratic transformationalism — rather than a humble moderation. This has caused them to lose their way, he argues, and has badly hurt them with voters.

It is a plausible diagnosis for what is surely a genuine ailment, and it has the added advantages of simplicity and an appeal to intellectual pedigree. But it is mistaken in some crucial ways, both as a depiction of Burkean conservatism, and as an assessment of the state of the American right.

Brooks vs. Burke
Brooks hinges a lot on his reading of Burke, and returns to it throughout the column. But his description of Burke just doesn’t ring true. Brooks seems to want to make conservatism purely an attitude, rather than a political cause. But that’s not what Burke argued.

Burke’s conservatism was not essentially temperamental. It was political, too — perhaps first and foremost. (Remember that Burke is the father of modern political partisanship, as well as of modern conservatism, and not by accident.) He argued that a society needed to progress by building on what has successfully provided it with peace, virtue, and freedom in the past, and so by building on the best fruits of its own traditions; and he argued that to do this a society needed to preserve and sustain the sources of its strength.

Burke’s “disposition,” therefore, is precisely to defend and uphold a society’s particular explicit and (especially) implicit creeds (he sometimes called them “prejudices,” long before that word was robbed of its full and complex meaning). These deeply held and widely shared premises are what holds a society together and what sustains unity, peace, and sensible reform in the otherwise raucous atmosphere of an increasingly democratic politics.

Like it or not, and conservatives don’t always like it, America’s traditions are idealistic, and are in some respects also ideological. And they tend to be expressed in more explicit creeds than Britain’s. Ours is a young nation, so some of our age-old wisdom is young too. Brooks criticizes American conservatives for being American conservatives, and thus engaging in their work of preservation and progress with American materials. But it is the strange fate of American conservatives that the tradition that is ours to defend is a liberal tradition. A good conservative, a good Burkean, would defend what is best about it (like freedom and independence) and seek to build on that while drawing also on what is best about our other, older traditions (like faith and family).

Burkean conservatism would counsel America to be American, not abstractly but practically. Brooks is right to suggest, I think, that Burke would have worried about our deification of the founders and of Lincoln (and his second founding), because Burke worried that returning to beginnings in political life was profoundly dangerous, as it risked enticing us to restart through revolution. This was a crucial element of what worried him so about the French Revolution and its advocates in Britain — that the revolutionaries wanted to return to even pre-political beginnings — to look beyond history to nature. Nothing could be more dangerous to political stability and sensible progress, Burke thought, and this is largely what he meant by his critique of abstract principle — a rejection of all else in the name of an extreme and artificial principle.

But to criticize creedal conservatives, Brooks wants to argue that Burke dismissed abstract principle from politics altogether. He did no such thing. “I do not put abstract ideas wholly out of any question,” Burke wrote in 1792, “because I well know that under that name I should dismiss principles, and that without the guide and light of sound well understood principles, all reasonings in politics, as in everything else, would be only a confused jumble of particular facts and details, without the means of drawing out any sort of theoretical or practical conclusion.” Principles, particularly a nation’s most cherished traditional principles, are a crucial part of prudence.

Progress and Prudence

Brooks’s failure to see this is most apparent in his discussion of stem cell research. Brooks writes:

Over the past decade, religious conservatives within the G.O.P. have argued that social policies should be guided by the eternal truths of natural law and that questions about stem cell research and euthanasia should reflect the immutable sacredness of human life.

But temperamental conservatives are suspicious of the idea of settling issues on the basis of abstract truth. These kinds of conservatives hold that moral laws emerge through deliberation and practice and that if legislation is going to be passed that slows medical progress, it shouldn’t be on the basis of abstract theological orthodoxy.

The notion that Burke would have advocated an ideology of unrestrained science is highly implausible, though of course no one can say where he would come down in the stem-cell debate. But Brooks’s argument relies on a more serious error. He argues that what he calls “legislation to slow medical progress” is not conservative because it is grounded in an abstract principle.

But Burke believed that it was precisely such radical claims to progress as those offered by modern science that needed to be moderated by the tempering forces inherent in each society. In our society, the greatest force for the moderation of such excess (and therefore for moral progress) is the view that all men are created equal. Whether you believe the claim is true or not (it seems that Burke did in some form, though perhaps not in the same way Jefferson did), it is the organizing principle of American life, and it is also the premise in which opponents of embryo-destructive research ground their case. A Burkean would not seek carelessly to overthrow that view in the name even of progress — let alone in the name of the kind of dubious promises now made on behalf of embryo-destructive stem-cell research. He would seek, more likely, a way to advance medical research without trampling on the most essential moral and intellectual premises of his society.

Is “all men are created equal” a kind of “abstract theological orthodoxy”? Perhaps it is. But it is America’s creed, and Burke’s revulsion at creeds was at the imposition of artificial and ill-fitting creeds forced upon a society that already has its own successful ways of organizing free and decent living, not at the exercise of a nation’s own deepest moral wisdom in its political life.

The Varieties of Conservatism

Brooks applies his abstract critique of abstractions to essentially all the threads of the conservative program of recent years. He says that social conservatives are not Burkean enough because they seek a politics of applied principles, and that libertarians are not Burkean enough because they pursue excessive individualism, and that neoconservatives are not Burkean enough because they think societies can be reformed at will.

But to some extent surely these criticisms of each conservative strand answer one another. Social conservatives believe deeply (at times surely excessively) in precisely the kind of social cohesion and unity Brooks finds so lacking in individualist libertarians.

Libertarians, in turn, push against the excesses of social conservatism and refuse to abide a politics of theological abstractions. And the neoconservatives, finally, have been from the beginning concerned with culture on the one hand and with data and empiricism on the other. Their belief in the importance of a culture’s internal institutions, and in the notion that over long spans political reform can help spur cultural reform, are hardly the stuff of the French Revolution.

American conservatism is, in other words, a coalition. Each of the camps that constitute it has its own strengths and weaknesses, to be sure. And there is no question that some peculiar combinations of these camps — like President Bush’s highly creedal democracy rhetoric, which is part social conservative, part neoconservative — can rub particularly temperamental conservatives the wrong way. But the coalition as a whole, with its parts pushing this way and that, seeks in the end to advance the causes of both freedom and tradition, of both the family and the market. These causes are in tension, as Brooks also notes, and the tension is often constructive but not always so.

But coalition politics is the way to advance any cause, and it has been an effective way to advance the Burkean cause of American conservatives: the cause of practical progress bounded by both principle and prudence. Serious political coalitions are always fractious and complicated, but they are essential too, as Burke himself teaches better than anyone. “No men could act with effect who did not act in concert,” Burke says, and acting with effect in politics is more important than an utter purity of principle or disposition. Those involved in political life, Burke wrote, must be “fully persuaded that all virtue which is impracticable is spurious; and rather to run the risk of falling into faults in a course which leads us to act with effect and energy than to loiter out our days without blame, and without use.”

Brooks is right, I think, to argue that conservatives are somewhat adrift these days, and that voters have noticed. But by too strictly separating temperament and creed, Brooks forces himself to choose one as diagnosis for the ailment. In fact, American conservatives are temperamental conservatives of creed, and we lose our way when we lose sight of both. We have done that in some respects in recent years. But we are prudent enough, surely, to learn from a mistake. We have not strayed as far as Brooks suggests, and we know the way back: To reconnect with both our prudent moderating temperament and our creeds of liberty and virtue — and so to reconnect with the American voter.

— Yuval Levin is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and senior editor of the The New Atlantis magazine.

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