Essays - Winter 2007

Not Compassionate, Not Conservative


A political traditionalist critiques our pseudo-conservative president

By Ethan Fishman

December 1, 2006

In 1954 the celebrated American historian Richard Hofstadter offered his explanation for McCarthyism in an essay he contributed to THE AMERICAN SCHOLAR titled “The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt.” Looking back on his essay 11 years later, Hofstadter noted: “I have written nothing else of comparable brevity that aroused more attention or drew more requests for quotation or reprinting.”

Seeking to understand the underlying social psychology of McCarthyism, Hofstadter borrowed the term pseudo-conservative from the philosopher Theodor Adorno to designate Americans who cloaked their “serious and restless dissatisfaction with American life, traditions and institutions” in the guise and rhetoric of conservatism. Hofstadter, who studied alternative explanations for political conduct, hypothesized that the dissatisfaction of 1950s pseudo-conservatives was based on a fear of loss of status common to open societies where social mobility is relatively fluid.

Compounding their fear in the McCarthy era was anxiety generated by the post–World War II nuclear arms race, which created a doomsday scenario in the minds of many Americans. In response to these fears, Hofstadter argued, alienated groups began describing themselves as conservative because the term appeared to identify them as being diametrically opposed to the forces they perceived were threatening both their lives and their social positions. As Hofstadter pointed out, however, from a strictly political perspective there was nothing authentically conservative about their arguments. In the first place, they were trying desperately to overturn the status quo of New Deal America— not to conserve it. Furthermore, they adhered to an ideology of anti-intellectualism, substituting feelings and emotions for the rational discourse that for millennia has characterized the history of Western conservative thought. “The pseudo-conservative tends to be more than ordinarily incoherent” about political issues, Hofstadter wrote. The result, he maintained, was a politics that emphasized unarticulated psychological impulses over reasonable analysis—a politics of the gut, in other words, rather than of the mind.

Another reason Hofstadter considered McCarthyism to be a form of pseudo-conservatism had to do with the rage with which it expressed its opposition to the American political system and with the reckless policies it supported. Conservatism as a political philosophy is analogous to conservatism as a personality trait. Both stress moderation, practicality, and prudence. “Look before you leap” and “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” might well be their credos. As Hofstadter reminded readers of THE AMERICAN SCHOLAR, however, McCarthyism had virtually nothing “in common with the temperate and compromising spirit of true conservatism in the classical sense of the word.”

Today another form of pseudo-conservatism threatens American institutions. Under the administration of George W. Bush, our public policy has for six years been shaped by those who discount reason to practice a politics of largely inchoate sentiments.

In order to recognize the counterfeit quality of the pseudo-conservatism that Hofstadter identified, as well as the “compassionate conservatism” Bush sometimes espouses, one has only to turn to the political philosophies of Aristotle and Edmund Burke. It is in their works, notably Aristotle’s Politics and Nicomachean Ethics and Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), that the basic principles of the Western conservative tradition can be found. At the heart of Aristotle’s and Burke’s thinking is a belief in the existence of natural law, a set of moral ideals that gives meaning to such terms as honor, integrity, justice, and courage. Neither Aristotle nor Burke possessed much faith in the rationality and morality of human beings. They feared that without the guidance that natural law provides, humans would forfeit their opportunities to lead virtuous lives and establish just governments. Because Aristotle and Burke considered them to be universal, these moral ideas were meant to apply to every human relationship—including economics.

Aristotle and Burke supported private property and free enterprise on the basis of the distinguishing characteristic of human beings—the possession of a soul that makes it possible for us to exercise free will and become unique individuals. One of the advantages of private property, they taught, is that it helps us to develop and manifest our individuality as well as to express one of their most cherished ideals, generosity. If people did not own property to share, they pointed out, generosity would be a largely empty virtue. But Aristotle’s and Burke’s support for private property and free enterprise was not unlimited. The standards of natural law require owners to treat workers the same way they would like to be treated if the roles were reversed and challenge merchants to provide consumers with a fair product at a fair price.

From this perspective, what makes the Bush administration an example of pseudo-conservatism is its dogmatic commitment to laissez-faire policies that deny the relevance of universal ideals and that rely primarily on market forces to guide economic activities. In its pursuit of laissez-faire economic policies, the Bush administration has relaxed banking standards, introduced nobid government contracts, allowed private corporations greater access to public lands, and refrained from limiting monopolistic practices. It has sought, furthermore, to reduce governmental responsibility for the welfare of its elderly citizens by advocating the privatization of Social Security accounts.

By assuming that some form of economic justice will result from the relatively unchecked selfishness of individuals and corporations, the policies of the Bush administration contradict Aristotle’s and Burke’s negative views of human behavior. Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness (1944) echoed Aristotle’s and Burke’s rejection of unlimited economic freedom for its smug optimism. Only people who think of themselves as “harmless egotists,” Niebuhr remarked, could fail to understand that when the “economic process is left severely alone either the strong devour the weak, in which case monopoly displaces competition, or competition breeds chaos in the community.”

Consistent in its inconsistency, the Bush administration celebrates economic freedom while acting to curtail other basic American freedoms, such as privacy, religion, speech, and press. The same government that hesitates to apply explicit moral standards to economic behavior has had few qualms about restricting the Fourth Amendment right against warrantless searches, loosening rules on the confidentiality of medical records, supporting faithbased initiatives that cause citizens to subsidize religions to which they do not belong, ordering librarians to divulge information on material checked out by patrons, and attempting to influence the content of National Public Radio and public television. Equally disturbing has been its approach to sexual issues. Among the manifestations of pseudo-conservatism that Hofstadter observed in 1954 was the vindictive quality of the policies it espoused. By opposing abortion as well as convenient access to birth control, the administration has demonstrated a punitive attitude toward sexual conduct.

Another serious disconnect between the Bush administration and traditional Western political conservatism is its foreign policy. Although Aristotle and Burke believed in universal ideals, they were not idealists. Instead, they practiced a politics of prudence that seeks to adjust immutable natural laws to constantly changing situations and circumstances. The unique value of prudence, Aristotle wrote, is its ability to ensure that governments do the right thing at the right time “in the right way.” Burke called prudence “the first of all virtues” because it alone can teach governments how to bring “power and right” into harmony. Indeed, Burke’s famous criticism of the French Revolution was based upon his appreciation of political prudence.

Although Burke promoted the ideal of free government as the necessary political correlate to personal free will, his understanding of prudence taught him that societies are organisms that require great care in order to endure and flourish. They can be modified, consequently, only with considerable thought and patience. At the end of the 18th century, France had been living under feudal autocrats for centuries. When the revolutionaries ignored their past and tried to introduce a historically unprecedented level of “liberty, fraternity, and equality” into their society virtually overnight, Burke predicted that death and destruction beyond anything the French had ever experienced would soon transpire.

Burke favored the American Revolution, on the other hand, because he judged Americans, as former English men and women, to be seeking to adapt traditional English ideals of self-rule for their new home. He considered their goal to be a relatively moderate one that would serve to lay a firm foundation for the evolution of free government in the United States. Burke explained this in his Reflections:

I flatter myself that I love a manly, moral, regulated liberty as well as any gentleman. But I cannot stand forward and give praise or blame to anything which relates to human actions, and human concerns, on a simple view of the object, as it stands stripped of every relation, in all the nakedness and solitude of metaphysical abstraction. Circumstances (which with some gentlemen pass for nothing) give in reality to every political principle its distinguishing colour and discriminating effect. The circumstances are what render every civil and political scheme beneficial or noxious to mankind.

By Aristotle’s and Burke’s theories of evolutionary change, the Bush administration’s decisions to invade and occupy Iraq were clearly imprudent. A number of explanations have been offered to justify these policies. One was that Saddam Hussein possessed nuclear weapons. Another was that he was in league with Al Qaeda terrorists who attacked the United States on 9/11. The latest is that we need to remake Iraq into a democracy that will serve as a political role model for the rest of the Middle East. Although the first two explanations have been discredited by the thorough investigations of several bipartisan congressional committees and independent commissions, the Bush administration continues to stick by them. This strategy calls to mind Hofstadter’s observation that pseudo-conservatives are suspicious of reasonable analysis and often rely on knee-jerk reactions to reach policy decisions.

As Bush’s former Secretary of the Treasury Paul O’Neill revealed in Ron Suskind’s book The Price of Loyalty (2004), the president in 2001—for reasons that were never explained fully and seemed like a snap judgment at the time—informed his cabinet that he was thinking seriously about overthrowing Saddam. It was especially shocking to O’Neill that Bush announced his convictions about Iraq only 10 days after his inauguration and a full eight months before 9/11. “Conviction is something you need in order to act,” O’Neill said. “But your action needs to be proportional to the depth of evidence that underlies your conviction.”

The third explanation is even more bewildering from a traditional conservative point of view. Iraq has never come close to being a democracy. The Iraqi people have never been free and rarely have shown an inclination to fight and die for freedom. In the context of Iraqi history, therefore, the administration’s vision of a democratic Iraq is reminiscent of the mistakes made by the French revolutionaries. Both acted as if dreams can easily be translated into political reality. Both upheld the ideal of freedom, but neither was able to adapt that ideal to the specific circumstances they encountered. Both were unable to appreciate the staggering costs in human lives and property that are unavoidable when radical change is pursued over a very short period of time.

The Bush administration’s attitudes toward the national debt and the environment represent another break with the Western conservative tradition. Aristotle’s and Burke’s writings remind today’s generations that we have a moral responsibility to leave the world a better place for our descendants. This is why, Walter Lippmann explained in Essays in the Public Philosophy (1955), “young men die in battle for their country’s sake and why old men plant trees they will never sit under.” After six years of a supply-side economic policy that increases government spending but declines to pay the bills by increasing taxes, however, the administration has left our children with a national debt of more than $8 trillion. By refusing to ratify the international Kyoto Protocol on global warming, deciding against requiring automobile manufacturers to raise fuel-efficiency ratings, withdrawing funds from the EPA, FEMA, and the Corps of Engineers, and discouraging wetlands-preservation projects, the administration may have set the stage for future environmental catastrophes on the order of Hurricane Katrina. Our children will have to cope with these disasters.

Other similarities between Bush administration policies and Hofstadter’s description of pseudoconservatism include: hostility toward the United Nations; a penchant for amending the Constitution; an insistence on political conformity; an inability to make subtle distinctions between international players, which is required for effectiveness on the world political stage; and a reliance on the populist rhetoric of anti-intellectualism. John Bolton, Bush’s U.N. ambassador, has taken the position that the institution is largely irrelevant. The Bush administration has supported amendments to the Constitution regarding flag burning and homosexual marriage. Americans who want to set a deadline for our troops’ withdrawal from Iraq are described as traitorous “cut-and-runners.” The failure of Senator McCarthy and his followers in 1954 to recognize that communist regimes in the Soviet Union, China, Yugoslavia, and Vietnam were different seems similar to the Bush administration’s insistence that organizations such as Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, and Hamas are all part of a unified group of “Islamofascist” terrorists. Furthermore, the Bush administration’s approach to such issues as creationism, placing replicas of the Ten Commandments in public places, and the Terri Schiavo debacle contains a good deal of anti-intellectual populist rhetoric.

Perhaps the most valuable aspect of Hofstadter’s 1954 AMERICAN SCHOLAR essay is its ability to explain more than 50 years later why traditional conservatives tend to get so exasperated with the Bush administration. Traditional conservatives—of whom I am one—consider themselves loyal citizens who want to believe that their president knows what he is doing. So we keep trying, with little success, to appreciate the logic of his budget deficits, incoherent foreign policies, attacks on constitutional rights, anti-environmentalism, and puritanical attitude toward sex. What Hofstadter teaches us is that these policies were never meant to be understood logically in the first place. As he wrote in a later essay, “Pseudo-Conservatism Revisited—1965”:

As a rule, [pseudo-conservatism] does more to express emotions than to formulate policies. It is in fact hard to translate the claims of [its] policies into programs or concrete objectives . . . and for the most part the proponents of such politics, being less concerned with the uses of power than with its alleged misuse, do not offer positive programs to solve social problems. The operative content of their demands is more likely to be negative: they call on us mainly to prohibit, to prevent, to censor and censure, to discredit, and to punish.

Despite the brilliance of Hofstadter’s analysis, there is a major difference between pseudo-conservatism and its traditional counterpart that he neglected to discuss. Aristotle’s and Burke’s pessimistic view of human nature, their belief in a system of natural law that sets moral parameters for human behavior, their development of a theory of prudence that appreciates the difficulties involved in translating morally preferable ideals into politically feasible policies, and their commitment to moderation and caution are major components of traditional conservatism’s emphasis on doubt and limits. Traditional conservatives believe that the universe imposes profound restrictions on what individuals and governments can accomplish. They adhere, according to Noel O’Sullivan in his book Conservatism (1976), to a “philosophy of imperfection, committed to the idea of limits” that regards human beings as “imperfect, dependent” creatures who are “doomed to make the best of things by the more modest policies of compromise and accommodation.”

The Bush administration, however, has not consistently recognized doubt and limitations. Despite the burgeoning national debt, the administration declines to heed the advice of fiscal conservatives either to raise taxes or seriously reduce public spending. Despite the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina, the administration persists in ignoring the warnings of prominent scientists about the destructive effects of global warming. Despite former Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki’s concern that we would need “several hundred thousand soldiers” in Iraq, the administration went ahead with its preconceived plan for a diminished force. With a certainty bordering on arrogance, the administration has behaved as if it believes the national debt somehow will disappear, nature will heal global warming on its own, and Iraqis will soon come to their senses, welcome Americans as their saviors, and conclude that democracy is preferable to secular or religious tyranny.

Certainty in the face of strong evidence to the contrary is the hallmark of ideological thinking. Ultimately, it is the ideological quality of Bush administration policies that classifies them as pseudo-conservative. Whereas ideologues advance one doctrinaire solution to every problem regardless of the circumstances, traditional conservatives expect political leaders to adjust their convictions to the situation at hand. Whereas ideologues prefer to deal with political abstractions, traditional conservatives seek to practice a more practical form of politics that operates, in Burke’s words, on a level of “the more or less, the earlier or the later, and on a balance of advantage and inconvenience, of good and evil.”

An especially troubling assault on traditional conservative limits and doubts has been the administration’s adherence to a strategy for presidential leadership that it calls the “doctrine of the unitary executive.” Among the people who participated in the formulation of this doctrine were Bush appointees Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and Justice Samuel Alito. Gonzales helped to develop it when he served as Bush’s White House counsel; Alito, when he was a lawyer in Ronald Reagan’s Justice Department. To the administration the “doctrine of the unitary executive” means that the executive branch can interpret laws any way it wants—even if its interpretation differs markedly from the directives of Congress and the Supreme Court.

Although this doctrine represents an egregious violation of the separation of powers, the president has used it with impunity. Bush has claimed that he will disregard laws prohibiting warrantless wiretapping of domestic phone calls. He has said that he intends to ignore the provisions of the Patriot Act with which he disagrees. When Bush announced that he vehemently opposed the Military Commissions Act being considered by Congress, which would restrict his ability to detain and torture enemy combatants, Congress caved in to the president’s pressure and virtually granted him the power to interpret the Geneva Convention as he sees fit.

With the two-term presidential limit in effect and the end of the Bush administration in sight, can we expect that pseudo-conservatism is about to run its course? Do the recent midterm election results indicate that moderate Americans have grown disillusioned with pseudo-conservative policies? Only for the time being, Hofstadter would maintain. Just as McCarthyism was followed by the presidential campaigns of Barry Goldwater and George Wallace, Richard Nixon’s “Silent Majority,” the Reagan presidency, and the current administration, it is inevitable that another version of pseudo-conservatism will appear on the American political scene.

As long as citizens remain fearful of their status in society and as long as Americans continue to dread attacks from powerful enemies committed to the destruction of their country, Hofstadter warned, the specter of pseudoconservatism never will completely vanish. In 1954, he prophetically noted: “We do live in a disordered world . . . of enormous potential violence, that has already shown us the ugliest capacities of the human spirit. . . . These considerations suggest that the pseudo-conservative political style . . . is one of the long waves of [contemporary] American history and not a momentary mood.”

Ethan Fishman is the author of The Prudential Presidency and a professor of political science at the University of South Alabama.

Comments are closed for this post.