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E.J. Dionne grossly distorts conservatism to make a familiar partisan talking point

I’ve been off the E.J. Dionne beat for years and rarely even read his columns these days. However, I decided to check an article of his that appeared in the Sunday paper. It’s about how, you guessed it, conservatives have changed –- and not for the better.

Dionne utterly misstates the nature of American conservatism. His piece is either dishonest or ignorant. If Dionne is as well-read in the conservative tradition as he claims, then he cannot be ignorant.

Dionne begins with the obligatory shot at Mitt Romney. In doing so, he dissembles in his very sentence. I’ll explain why in another post. For now, let’s turn to his thesis about the conservative movement. It is that, recently, conservatism has abandoned its “most attractive features.” Today’s conservatives no longer value prudence and caution. They no longer believe that change should be gradual. Most importantly, they no longer “care passionately about fostering community.”

There’s a short answer and a long answer to Dionne’s claim. The short answer is: rubbish. Conservatives have always cared about fostering community, but they have never believed that communities should, or can, be fostered by the expansion of government and/or by increasing government spending. In fact, conservatives have traditionally believed the opposite –- that an expending, ambitious government is the enemy of community. Today’s conservatives hold these same basic beliefs. Their attempts to foster community are focused on the family, the church, and the schools. Dionne presumably disagrees with the conservative agenda in these areas, but that doesn’t mean conservatives are indifferent to the community. It just means they aren’t liberals.

Now for the long answer:

The conservative movement in America is based on the fusion of two different strands. The first, sometimes referred to as neo-liberalism, was based on belief in free markets and individualism. It is associated with thinkers like Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and Wilhelm Ropke.

Dionne cannot argue that today’s conservatism as he describes it –- overly individualistic, denying the primacy of society as a whole, etc. –- is inconsistent with this strand of conservatism. So Dionne simply ignores this half of the conservative tradition.

The second strand of American conservatism did focus on community, tradition, and so forth, as Dionne says. But the notion of community that it upheld had nothing to do with the welfare state. Indeed, it was in large part a reaction to the welfare state, based on a romantic yearning for the past.

Richard Weaver was perhaps the leading conservative thinker in this camp. A “Southern Agrarian” from North Carolina, his idea of community was based on the Old South. Surely, Dionne does not believe that conservatives have abandoned conservatism’s “most attractive features” by moving away from the Old South model.

Wilmoore Kendall, who taught William F. Buckley, Jr. at Yale, came to be another leading exponent of this strand of conservative thinking. Kendall called himself an Appalachian to the Rockies conservative. According George Nash, the great scholar of the American conservative movement, Kendall’s idea of community was based on the small towns in Oklahoma where he spent his youth, almost 100 years ago, with his father, a blind minister.

Weaver, Kendall, and other adherents to this type of conservatism hated the New Deal because they believed that the State it created was antithetical to the kind of community for which they yearned. They were even more intent on fighting New Deal liberalism than, say, Hayek, who believed in a measure of government regulation.

Dionne reveals none of this. Instead, he cites one conservative thinker from this school, Robert Nisbet, the sociologist.

Nisbet was an important conservative intellectual, though far less so than Hayek, Mises, Weaver, Kendall, and many others. Heavily influenced by Russell Kirk, Nisbet believed in the value of “intermediate associations,” which he also called “private sovereignties.” As for the State, Nisbet thought that the excessive individualism he deplored and statism were symbiotic. As one analysis of Nisbet characterized his argument:

Men seek to escape the influence and demands of a multitude of local associations and political units, and in this quest for personal liberty, they appeal for deliverance to the nation-state, which alone has had the power to challenge and even suppress these local authorities. In exchange for their deliverance from local authorities, men transfer their allegiance to the state.

In this exchange, they sever ties to those local institutions that for millennia had provided meaning and purpose in men’s lives. Stripped of these moral guidelines and restraints, men seek the restoration of community. They seek community in mass politics, especially national politics. The quest for community becomes the quest for political power through large-scale collective association. The state invades and increasingly replaces all other authorities in a unitary, political chain of command.

I doubt that many contemporary conservatives would take major issue with this critique.

The two main strands of conservatism were fused when (to over-simplify) adherents realized that, while they disagreed about Plato, John Locke, Edmund Burke, etc., they agreed on nearly every policy issue of the day.

National Review, through Buckley and Frank Meyer, were key figures in the fusion. Dionne makes a brief reference to Buckley, citing him for the proposition that with liberty comes responsibility to the community. I doubt that many contemporary conservatives would dispute this. Such responsibility might take the form of paying reasonable taxes, obeying the law, and serving in the military if called on to do so. It would not entail responsibility for making sure everyone has health insurance, for example; nor would it entail aggressive income redistribution. Buckley never supported such an agenda.

In fact, Buckley was keen on rolling back the New DeaL. He was a fierce critic of President Eisenhower for not attempting to roll it back. He was so unhappy about this that, if I recall correctly, National Review did not support Richard Nixon in the 1960 election.

Yet Dionne claims that contemporary conservatives betray the tradition of Buckley by trying to “dismantle” the New Deal. Actually, conservatives are trying to find ways to keep the underling promises of New Deal and New Deal inspired programs (Social Security and Medicare) in the face of ballooning debt. But if conservatives were attempting to dismantle the New Deal, they would not be violating the conservative tradition.

Dionne, in sum, has distorted traditional conservatism beyond recognition in order to make partisan hay. All in a day’s work for him.

I’ll discuss some of Dionne’s other distortions, including the one about Romney, in subsequent posts.

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