Bayou Calvinist

A Somewhat Eclectic Discussion by a Law Student Concerning All of Today's Major Topics, as well as, a Few Not So Major Topics

Friday, December 30, 2005

The Conservative/Progressive False Dichotomy

As a conservative who feels justified in stating wholeheartedly that he is also forward-looking and compassionate, few things upset me more than the false assumption that all Republicans (all conservatives) are concerned only with numbers or only with moral axioms to the exclusion of the people whom are so greatly affected by political policies. While I wouldn't say that I have been greatly influenced (at least in my political outlook) by Edmund Disraeli, the more I read of and about him, the more I find myself agreeing with his understanding of Conservativism (what it is, what it should be). A fantastic article, which demonstrates what I see as Disraeli's proper understanding of conservativism is found at The Weekly Standard online. A few quick quotes from the article which best summarize these views:

"In a progressive country change is constant; and the great question is not whether you should resist change which is inevitable, but whether that change should be carried out in deference to the manners, the customs, the laws and the traditions of a people, or whether it should be carried out in deference to abstract principles, and arbitrary and general doctrines." ~ Disraeli

(Which is exactly the issue that divides Republicans and Democrats today.) If Tories were "national," the Liberal party was ("to give it an epithet," he said, "a noble epithet--which it may perhaps deserve") the "philosophic" party.

In his Vindication of the English Constitution he explained that "the Tory party in this country is the national party; it is the really democratic party of England." The "national" party is the inclusive, universal party--"universal" meaning "all classes of Britain." "If we must find new forces to maintain the ancient throne and immemorial monarchy of England," he said in Parliament, "I for one hope that we may find that novel power in the invigorating energies of an educated and enfranchised people." According to one school of opinion (Cecil Roth reports), had Disraeli lived and got another shot at the premiership in the 1880s, he would have "extended the franchise to women, this being according to The Times of June 13th 1884, the 'trump Conservative card' which he kept up his sleeve."

* * * * *

As Disraeli saw it, liberals and conservatives were equally progressive. But liberals were rational internationalists who worried what the Germans would say. Conservatives were romantic nationalists who worried what their forefathers would have said. (Thus "national" Republicans invoke the wisdom of the people and the authority of the Founding Fathers. "Philosophic" Democrats invoke the wisdom of the intellectuals and the authority of the United Nations.)

* * * * *

One consequence among many: Schoolchildren (Disraeli believed) are natural Tories. During the last generation or two, many Americans figured that youthful idealism made for Democrats and left-wingers automatically. Disraeli saw things just the other way: You are driven to make society better not by ideology but by sense of duty, your sense of oneness with the nation and its history. A romantic idea, he freely admits; the sort of thing that appeals to schoolchildren. Duty and honor were central to Disraeli's worldview. His proudest achievement, after all, was to bring home what he called "peace with honor" from the Berlin Congress. He was no warmonger; he called the Crimean War "just but unnecessary." But he did believe in peace through strength, through courage, through unqualified readiness to do your duty and (if need be) display your valor--ideas that the young once found appealing, intimately tied up as they are with romance and eros. And today, America's young people are indeed--at least by some calculations--more conservative than their elders.

The Liberal says, in despairing disbelief: Can't you sense the world around us? Don't you care about its disapproval? The Conservative says, in despairing disbelief: Can't you sense the generations behind us? Don't you care about their disapproval? Liberals live "horizontally," spiritually in touch (they believe) with all the world's nations. Conservatives live "vertically," spiritually in touch (they believe) with their forebears and with generations to come.

Marx and Disraeli are perfect countertypes--partly the same, partly opposite (like particle and anti-particle in nuclear physics; when they meet, they destroy each other). Marx and Disraeli are the principal creators of the modern left and right respectively--two 19th-century Jews whose fathers had them baptized, who worked mainly in London, who counted on British power to protect the world from a dangerous Czarist Russia, who died within two years of each other, in 1881 (Disraeli) and '83 (Marx). They were both obsessed with Jews and Judaism, but Marx (the atheist left-winger) hated Jews, Judaism, and religion in general; Disraeli (the devout right-winger) felt differently.

Marx says, "Workers of the world, unite!" Disraeli says, Peoples of Britain, unite! Marx foresees one class united around the world. Disraeli envisions all classes united throughout the nation. Socialists had "internationals," but conservatives never felt any need to blend their national parties into transnational organizations.

Yet Marx-to-Disraeli is not finally a left-to-right spectrum. Marx gave birth not only to the modern left but to totalitarianism. Marx's end of the spectrum is the "shame end," Disraeli's the "pride end." Shame was a powerful force in Marx's life; witness his self-hating anti-Semitism. Twentieth-century totalitarianism was created (not only but in large part) by shame. Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany were born out of humiliating defeat in the First World War: Germany beat Russia (Russian communism followed); the allies beat Germany (Nazism followed). Defeat and shame were not the only forces at work, but we can't understand the 20th century without them. Nor can we understand today's radical Islamic terrorism and totalitarianism (totalitarians being terrorists who have already got what they want) without understanding the central role of defeat and shame.

Modern liberals are nothing like Bolsheviks or Nazis. They are closer to Disraeli's end of the spectrum than Marx's. Yet American liberals are more likely than conservatives to focus on the shameful in American history, conservatives on the things that make them proud.



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