The Definition of Conservatism

Tom Pauken wades into the contentious debate over it.

The beauty of the Roman Catholic Church is that it’s anchored by a single authority to lead the flock on questions of faith and morals. The flock, in turn, can look to that teaching authority to provide clarity and unity as time moves on and issues and controversies arise.

The conservative movement has no such Magisterium. There is no one person who can offer an authoritative definition of it, though many conservatives attempt one. Tom Pauken is among those not shying away from this tricky task. In Bringing America Home: How America Lost Her Way and How We Can Find Our Way Back, he unflinchingly hoists the torch of conservatism, which he refers to repeatedly as “traditional conservatism,” and makes it clear that he considers many self-professing “conservatives” to be bogus. Among them, none are as objectionable as neoconservatives, with Bushian conservatives not far behind.

In my view, this is the weak link in Pauken’s book. He defines conservatism too dogmatically, as something between Goldwater conservatism, Buchananite conservatism, Rockford Institute-style conservatism (the publisher of the book), and even Taft Republicanism. He approves of Reaganite conservatism and also Buckleyite conservatism. As to the latter, he cites William F. Buckley Jr.’s Up From Liberalism, alongside Barry Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative, as a capstone of “basic conservative beliefs.”

Yet, in truth, Buckley’s understanding of conservatism was never as restrictive as Pauken’s. As conservative historian Lee Edwards notes in his new biography of Buckley, Buckley’s National Review provided a fairly wide tent to conservatives, accommodating many varieties, with the notable exception of John Birchers. Buckley himself was influenced by intellectual mentors ranging from Albert Jay Nock to Willmoore Kendall, James Burnham, Whittaker Chambers, Russell Kirk, Frank Meyer, and, among other forces, the Roman Catholic Church.

Buckley saw the need for a “fusionism” (Edwards’ word) in the conservative movement. He welcomed traditionalists and libertarians, social conservatives and laissez faire proponents of the free market, isolationists and neoconservatives, Jewish ex-communists and Christian evangelicals, all under the same roof. He supported the decision by George W. Bush to go after Saddam Hussein, even as he did not hesitate to criticize Bush when he felt things were not going well in Iraq. As early as October 5, 2001, only four weeks after the 9/11 attacks, Buckley called for “the head of Saddam Hussein.” Six years later, though more wary, he nonetheless urged conservatives to “stick it out” in Iraq.

Not only did Buckley assemble a successful coalition of conservatives, but so did Ronald Reagan, coalescing a similar—yet wider—coalition to give the much smaller band of “traditional conservatives” a voice and a chance at policy. And both Buckley and Reagan did so while remaining conservative.

That’s the crucial point I think Pauken misses. Pauken uses the label “phony conservatives” too broadly. Pauken is no fan of George W. Bush, whom he sees as more personally than ideologically conservative. He makes some good points about him. He finds Bush particularly wanting compared to Ronald Reagan, whose presidency Pauken rightly describes as “the high point of American conservatism in the 20th century.” But in maintaining that Bush and Reagan were “not even remotely similar,” he goes too far. True, Bush did not read deeply in all the great conservative writers Reagan studied for years. Nevertheless, notable areas of conservative commonality existed between Reagan and Bush.

On culture issues, abortion, and appointing pro-life judges, Bush was just as conservative as Reagan, even arguably better in making reliable pro-life picks to the bench. Bush appointed Roberts and Alito to the Supreme Court; Reagan chose O’Connor and Kennedy, both of whom betrayed the pro-life cause, most infamously in their notorious votes on Casey v. Planned Parenthood (1992).

Most profoundly, Pauken finds Bush lacking, compared to Reagan in particular, on foreign policy, especially regarding Bush’s actions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Middle East. Here is where I disagree most strongly with Pauken, who, to be fair, is far from unique in this view. The Bush vision for the Middle East, dismissed by many on the right, was indeed, as Pauken laments, “Wilsonian.” Yet it was also— and here’s what even most conservatives miss—Reaganesque. Anyone who doubts this should carefully read Bush’s November 2003 speech to the National Endowment for Democracy, a group founded by Reagan. In this extraordinary speech, universally un-appreciated, Bush vowed to continue the “March of Freedom” enunciated by Reagan in his June 1982 Westminster Address. It was a march that advanced in stages through certain epochs in history, from the American Revolution to the ends of World War I, World War II, and the Cold War. Each time, more nations and regions became free.

Amid the current “Age of Liberty,” as Bush described the last half century, the percentage of democracies leapt from some 30 percent of countries in the 1970s to a decisive majority in the early 1990s after the collapse of the Berlin Wall. This flourishing of freedom is the great historical phenomenon of our time, noted Bush, and the least recognized. Tragically, however, the one region unwashed by this “freedom tide,” languishing from a “democracy deficit,” is the Middle East. Bush hoped to change that, sowing the seeds of a long-term “democratic peace” in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It’s an appealing vision. But is it a conservative one? Again, here it depends on who is defining conservatism. Pauken sees a hijacking of conservatism under Bush by the “neoconservatives,” whom he sees as not conservative at all. Under Bush, there had been a “neoconservative conquest of American foreign policy.” Pauken writes, “The neoconservative strategy of using US military force to impose democracy on the Middle East is not working. Instead, it is fanning the flames of militant Islam.”

Actually, militant Islam was militant long before George W. Bush sent troops to Iraq. Pauken says that US troops were not welcomed as liberators in Iraq. That’s not true. Recall the unforgettable scenes in Iraq the day that US soldiers arrived in Baghdad, captured by the tumbling of the Stalinist statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square. No doubt, the campaign in Iraq turned sour in 2005 and 2006 (before turning around with the Petraeus surge in 2007), but that does not obviate the undeniable fact that American troops were initially welcomed as liberators.

Much of what I’ve said about Pauken’s book thus far is negative, but there is much about this book that is commendable. Pauken is dead right in his disappointment with Bush’s oxymoronic “Big Government conservatism.” Likewise, Bush’s popular term “compassionate conservatism” was a grave injustice, implying that conservatism by nature was not compassionate and could only be rectified by binges of federal spending.

Pauken here offers excellent observations. He’s absolutely right about the excessive government spending of modern Republicans. He notes that selfidentified conservatives like George W. Bush left the nation with a record budget deficit of nearly half a trillion dollars. Indeed, whatever happened to the conservative virtue of thrift? Likewise, Pauken speaks to unifying issues for all conservatives in his chapters “The Coarsening of the Culture” and “Reforming Our Educational System.”

Moreover, Pauken’s thoughts on the first Bush (George H.W.) are insightful. He maintains that “the groundwork for the death of the conservative movement was laid by the selection of George Herbert Walker Bush to be Ronald Reagan’s vice-presidential running mate in 1980.” A native Texan who knows the Bushes, Pauken describes this as a “fateful decision.”

Pauken is harder than I would be on the first Bush, but he’s spot-on in noting that Vice President Bush was elected president effectively as the third term of Ronald Reagan, only ultimately to betray Reaganism (certainly domestically) by surrounding himself with the pragmatists and country-club, Rockefeller Republicans who spent eight years trying to convince Reagan not to be Reagan. (This included Jim Baker, Richard Darman, and David Gergen, among others.) The triumph of these arrogant pragmatists exploded when Bush violated his signature No-New- Taxes pledge, effectively blowing up his presidency and making the election of President Bill Clinton inevitable.

Finally, the last section of Pauken’s book is solid. He wraps up with a plea to restore the moral foundations of a self-indulgent American culture, invoking an eclectic group: Georgetown’s George Carey, the late Willmoore Kendall, the Federalist Papers, Publius, Hilaire Belloc, Solzhenitsyn, James Burnham, and, lastly, Pope Benedict XVI in his wonderful Regensburg Address.

Sounding much like the late Russell Kirk, traditionalist conservative and author of the seminal The Conservative Mind (and a different kind of conservative from the likes of Burnham), Pauken concludes: “True conservatism insists on a reasoned defense of the principles of ordered liberty—and insists that such liberty is itself reasonable.” That’s a definition of conservatism no one could argue with. As Pauken notes, it serves as a basis for building a moral society to address challenges, new and old, for generations to come.

“If not us, who?” concludes Pauken. “If not now, when?” Alas, that’s the rub. I’m with Pauken on the challenges for those of us who are conservatives. But my remaining question for Pauken is, “who is ‘us’?”


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About Dr. Paul Kengor 54 Articles
Dr. Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. His books include The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism, Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century, Takedown: From Communists to Progressives, How the Left Has Sabotaged Family and Marriage, and, most recently, The Devil and Karl Marx: Communism's Long March of Death, Deception, and Infiltration.