Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

From Reagan to Bush

Bill McClay offers a richly nuanced article on the current (non-, in his view) crisis of conservatism. He reminds us that Bush 43 has a good bit in common with Reagan, including some of the same critics (who now cite Reagan against him) and criticisms.

I gathered much the same from reading Paul Kengor’s Crusader, which offers a compelling and detailed portrait of RWR’s "crusade" against the Soviet Union, a crusade undergirded by Reagan’s understanding of the universality of liberty.

But to return, for a moment, to McClay:

It is in fact a perfectly respectable conservative principle that leadership sometimes demands bold actions undertaken with the right ends in view. This, indeed, is the situation in which we find ourselves today, in what is likely to be a prolonged conflict with determined, well-organized, and well-funded transnational Islamic terrorists. It was one thing to assert, with John Quincy Adams in 1821, that the United States does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy; at the time, in any case, there was hardly much choice about the matter. It is quite another thing to stand on such a dictum in 2006, in the name of limited government, while remaining oblivious to the nature of the challenges before us.

The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, along with the incapacity or unwillingness of international and multilateral organizations to contain or control them and our own growing vulnerability to their use by shadowy proxies or groups accountable to no one, leaves the United States no responsible choice but to act vigorously and even preemptively in ways that an older conservatism could never have envisioned and would not have approved. That fact does not make such action imprudent; on the contrary, a failure to act, because of prior ideological commitments to a particular understanding of conservatism, would represent a lapse of prudence, and a betrayal of the core conservative imperative to defend and protect what is one’s own.


For Americans, as for others, a conservative sense of the past is expressed partly through shared stories and sufferings and customs, the mystic chords of memory. But that is only part of the story. In the United States, national identity is expressed as well through loyalty to the country’s founding principles and propositions, and to quasi-scriptural documents, like the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, which seek to express them.

Many of these principles, including the “self-evident” assertion that “all men are created equal” and possess “inalienable rights,” have always been put forward as statements of universal scope, and not merely particular or local values. Their universalistic implications have a tendency, indeed, to cut against the equally vital elements in the conservative tradition that argue for the primacy of the local, the settled, and the particular. The same is true of the culturally dominant Protestant emphasis on the primacy of the individual conscience, which also takes on a universalistic character, putting loyalty to principle above loyalty to settled traditions.

To revere America without honoring these principles would mean revering a different country from the one we actually inhabit. But it is true that the principles are not always themselves conservative, either in their applications or their effects. Hence the inherent tendency of American conservatism to show, as the political scientist Walter Berns has pointed out, a dual aspect, combining the customary and the propositional, the affective and the rational, the particular and the general. One should love one’s country both for what it is and for what it stands for; both because it is one’s own and because it embodies or aspires to the highest and finest ideals.

Read the whole thing.

Discussions - 2 Comments

As part of the minority Democracy on this blog, I found the essay interesting, even compelling in its outline of principles that unite some Republicans with some Democrats. I look forward to the thread it generates.

This was a pretty good article...too bad it generated no thread.

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