Conservatives in Name Only

Published January 15, 2015

The New York Times

We live in an era of unusual political polarization, but the polarization isn’t simply between the two parties; there are also splits within them.

Last week the Republican Party’s divisions were on display, when Speaker of the House John A. Boehner — who helped his party gain its largest majority since the Truman administration — faced an uprising. The revolt was led by conservatives against a man whose voting record is unquestionably conservative. It was another indication that the tension on the right these days is not about policy or ideology but tone and temperament.

Mr. Boehner is hardly a perfect leader, but what got him into trouble was less a failure to lead than a failure to fight. The Republican Party is more uniformly conservative than ever. What some on the right are insisting on from Republican leaders, but not getting, is greater confrontation, more strident rhetoric and legislative brinkmanship. Hence the unhappiness.

What informs these demands is an apocalyptic view of American life during the Obama era. America is “very much like Nazi Germany,” in the words of Ben Carson, a Tea Party favorite. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas said we had a couple of years to turn this country around or “we go off the cliff to oblivion.” Mark Levin, a popular radio talk show host, warned that Republicans were “endorsing tyranny” if they didn’t support shutting down the government in 2013.

Those of us who are conservative and deeply concerned about the damage inflicted on the country by the president but don’t share this doom-laden view are labeled by some on the right as cowardly and unprincipled. Which raises a significant political and philosophical issue: Is there a conservative disposition? The answer, I think, is that there is, and what I’ve just described is not it.

What often masquerades as conservatism these days is really populism. There is room for populism within conservatism, but it should not define conservatism. In fact, it is often in conflict with it.

Conservatism, for starters, is rooted in human experience. It appreciates the complexity of human society. It believes in a givenness to human nature and in enduring principles, yet it has the capacity to apply those principles to changing circumstances. And because it isn’t a rigid ideology, it leaves itself open to self-examination and self-correction. Authentic conservatism has a high regard for things empirical, for facts that can lead us to better apprehend the truth.

Conservatism is famously anti-utopian, understanding life’s imperfections and the limitations of politics. Knowing this, those on the right shouldn’t become enraged or forlorn when the world itself doesn’t fully conform to their hopes. Conservatism considers one of the cardinal virtues to be prudence. And no conservative — certainly no one familiar with the magnificent history of the Constitution — should be opposed to compromise per se. Whether or not accommodation is wise depends on whether an agreement nudges things in the right direction.

This doesn’t mean that conservatives shouldn’t fight passionately for liberty and justice. Today’s Republicans, for example, should advance a policy agenda that systematically transforms welfare-state programs into a market-friendly safety net. Nor does it mean that conservatism is merely a disposition, unconnected to a political theory. It simply means that conservatives should make their case with an urgency balanced by practical wisdom, equanimity and a sense of proportion. Their passion should also be balanced by gratitude.

In a marvelous 1976 essay, the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb contended that the key word to describe the conservative disposition was “enjoyment.” Unlike those who are “always lusting after something that is not,” the conservative tends to find delight in the achievements and blessings we have.

This matters because disposition is not incidental to politics; it is central to it. Voters rightly base their judgments on more than how politicians check the boxes on policy positions. What also matters is the cast of mind of public officials, their sensibilities and temperament.

One’s disposition speaks to something far deeper than merely tone and style. It influences when and how we act, including the fights (or deals) we are drawn to or away from. It determines not just what our priorities are but how we interpret the world. Our lives, then, are determined in large part by our intellectual and psychological predispositions. Think of the difference in attitude between the resentfulness of Richard Nixon and the sunny optimism of Ronald Reagan. One had an enemies list while the other told his aides, “Remember, we have no enemies, only opponents.”

Fairly or not, there are some widespread negative impressions of the Republican Party: opposed to change, too extreme and inflexible, unwilling to compromise. Which is why Republicans, in selecting a presidential nominee, should choose someone with a conservative disposition, who is seen as a reassuring agent of change, and who can persuade voters rather than hector them.

Here’s a good rule of thumb for politics: The stronger one’s philosophical convictions are, the more important temperamental moderation is. Magnanimity, winsomeness and grace aren’t antithetical to conservatism. They are an essential part of it.

Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, served in the last three Republican administrations.

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