Editors’ Note: Crossposted from The New York Times Post, Dec. 24, 2020. As we have sometimes noted, the book review essay is often as informative as the reviewed book itself Here, Sullivan conducts an examination of the essential theses of conservatism and its origins. This essay offers much to partisans on both ends of the spectrum in appreciating the dynamics of political disagreement and divergence.
By Andrew Sullivan
The War Within Conservatism and Why It Matters to All of Us
From its very origins in resistance to revolutionary movements in the late 18th century, conservatism has had two broad contrasting moods. The first is an attachment to the world as it is, and a resistance to too drastic a change in anything. The second is an attachment to what once was — and a radical desire to overturn the present in order to restore the past. Some have attempted to distinguish these two responses by defining conservatism as the more moderate version and reactionism as the more virulent. But Edmund Fawcett, in “Conservatism: The Fight for a Tradition,” a truly magisterial survey of the thought and actions of conservatives in Britain, France, Germany and the United States, insists more interestingly that they are both part of conservatism in its different moods.
Most conservatives, I imagine, have experienced both these sensibilities. A defense of the status quo against disruption comes naturally to anyone truly comfortable in the world. Its mood is skeptical, defensive, pragmatic, and it is rooted in sometimes inexplicable love of country, or tradition. But this can often shift, in different circumstances, toward acute discomfort and near-panic when change seems overwhelming and bewildering. The mood of this type of conservatism is certain, aggressive and ideological, and it can become obsessed with its enemies to the left and extremist in countering them. The first mood defends liberal democracy as a precious inheritance that requires tending; the second excoriates it for its spiritual shallowness, cultural degeneracy and tendency toward an individualist myopia or socialist utopia. Fawcett, the author of “Liberalism: The Life of an Idea,” calls the second not the “far right” but the “hard right,” keeping it central to the conservative tradition as a whole, rather than a departure from it.
Edmund Burke was both right and hard right. He was as in favor of the American Revolution as he was horrified by the French; he believed in pluralism, modest but necessary reform and the dispersal of power. But he could equally be viewed, Fawcett notes, as “a conservative nationalist, an early exponent of geopolitics treated as a conflict of ideologies (England, Burke wrote in 1796, ‘is in war against a principle’) or as a down-to-earth defender of British power concerned with efficient taxes, lively commerce and a stable empire.” He could be as rhetorically brutal as he was intellectually supple. He had Irish fire and English sense.
What liberal democracy eroded — the authority of religion, the coherence of a community, a sense of collective belonging, home, meaning and security — could prompt far more radical responses. Fawcett sees these not as anomalies, but as part of a conservative spectrum.
Burke could defend liberalism because it emerged organically in English and British history — and therefore was a conservative inheritance. And this conservative defense of liberal democracy is in many ways the history of conservatism in the West, and a core reason for its endurance and resilience, as well as its remarkable success in winning governmental power. But what liberal democracy eroded — the authority of religion, the coherence of a community, a sense of collective belonging, home, meaning and security — could prompt far more radical responses. Fawcett sees these not as anomalies, but as part of a conservative spectrum.