E.J. Dionne’s op-ed today imbibes deeply in a mythological view of conservatism’s past. Noting what he sees as a traditional conservative embrace of community over individualism, Dionne cherry-picks his way through a mythological conservative past to find a supposedly better conservatism than what we see today. There are many gems–trying to say that people like Henry Clay and Abraham Lincoln were conservatives for instance, as if such comparisons would even be valuable. I assume his calculus here is Federalists lead to Whigs lead to Republicans, but that’s as silly as saying that Democrats today are the party of racism because of John Sparkman.
But it’s the core of Dionne’s constructed mythological past I want to focus on here.
True, conservatives continue to preach the importance of the family as a communal unit. But for Nisbet and many other conservatives of his era, the movement was about something larger. It “insisted upon the primacy of society to the individual — historically, logically and ethically.”
Because of the depth of our commitment to individual liberty, Americans never fully adopted this all-encompassing view of community. But we never fully rejected it, either. And therein lies the genius of the American tradition: We were born with a divided political heart. From the beginning, we have been torn by a deep but healthy tension between individualism and community. We are communitarian individualists or individualistic communitarians, but we have rarely been comfortable with being all one or all the other.
The great American conservative William F. Buckley Jr. certainly understood this. In his book “Gratitude: Reflections on What We Owe to Our Country,” he quotes approvingly John Stuart Mill’s insistence that “everyone who receives the protection of society owes a return for the benefit.” With liberty comes responsibility to the community.
So what is this great community the respectable conservatives of the past supported? Was is this?
Or maybe this?
We know that “great conservative” Bill Buckley supported all Tailgunner Joe, busting heads during the civil rights movement and fighting against busing. The actual implications of this “community” conservatives supposedly used to value go completely unexamined in Dionne’s Beltway mind. Conservatives might have railed against “individualism” when they meant acid, amnesty, and abortion, but they were all about their own individualism–such as the individual right of the homeowner to not have his property value decline by allowing blacks into the neighborhood. As several books on the history white flight and suburbs have shown (see Kevin Kruse’s White Flight or Robert Self’s American Babylon for instance), conservatives have always been more than happy to exclude the unwanted from their community by using the rhetoric of individual rights.
Dionne then goes on to note the good conservatism of past Republican presidents, noting that Reagan never wanted to dismantle the New Deal (although not noting that Reagan certainly wanted to dismantle the New Deal). And then we get to George W. Bush:
George W. Bush, who promoted “compassionate conservatism,” built on old progressive programs with his No Child Left Behind law, using federal aid to education as a lever for reform. And he added a prescription-drug benefit to the Medicare program that Lyndon B. Johnson pushed into law.
Wait, wasn’t Bush president like 4 years ago? Does Dionne actually believe that Bush practiced a “compassionate conservatism?” If that means attacking teachers unions through No Child Left Behind, I guess he does. Because I don’t see any actual evidence behind Bush caring about community except in rhetoric. I suppose he deserves credit for not wanting to deport all the Mexicans because he wanted his rich business friends to have access to cheap labor. Great. Where was that compassion in Guantanamo? In Iraq? In tying our communities together through civil liberties?
But that’s the Beltway pundit class for you. Rhetoric means more than actions. Headnods toward bipartisanship make a politician a hero. The past was always a more sensible time than the present. And conservatism is based upon a halcyon vision of a mythological past rather than in its reality of race-baiting, segregation, union-busting, imperialism, and class warfare.