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The Conservative Foundations of the Liberal OrderDefending Democracy against Its Modern Enemies and Immoderate Friends
By Daniel J. Mahoney
ISI BOOKSCopyright © 2010 Daniel I. Mahoney
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTocqueville and the Conservative Foundations of the Liberal Order
This book aims to recover a thoughtful and capacious appreciation of the conservative foundations of the liberal order. Why, then, begin with an examination of the thought of Alexis de Tocqueville? He was after all a nineteenth-century French statesman and political thinker who did not fit within the received political categories of his day, nor ours. He did not share the antirational traditionalism of the French and European conservative thinkers of his time, and while he freely called himself a liberal, he hastened to add that it was of a "strange" kind. He is perhaps the most penetrating representative of a French tradition of "sad liberalism." This tradition consisted of chastened liberals who after the French Revolution recognized, however reluctantly, that there was no viable alternative to the new order—modern, democratic, commercial—that was in the process of transforming the Christian European world. They rejected both reactionary nostalgia and revolutionary euphoria, even as they warned against the threats that unbridled democracy posed to the freedom and integrity of human beings.
Among these thinkers, Tocqueville stands out because of his unparalleled insight into what might be lost as well as gained in the transition from the "aristocratic" to the "democratic" dispensations (which he understood as great "orders of humanity" rather than political regimes in the narrow sense of the term). As Pierre Manent has pointed out, Tocqueville's equanimity in addressing the two great "anthropological forms" of political experience—democracy and aristocracy—is rooted in a profound thoughtfulness about human nature and the nature of democracy. Tocqueville acknowledged the justice of democracy and the underlying "similarity" of human beings while never losing sight of the fact that the recognition of the equality of human beings can never substitute for the cultivation of the "grandeur," "independence," and "quality" of the human soul. Joseph Epstein observed in his fine, pithy biographical sketch of Tocqueville that the French aristocrat's endorsement of democracy, while "somehow less than ebullient," nonetheless remained sincere and wise. That sober and qualified appreciation of democracy is an important reason to recommend Tocqueville.
French analysts of the liberal intellectual tradition distinguish between "conservative liberalism" and "liberal conservatism." Conservative liberals have no objection to the fundamental presuppositions of the liberal order (i.e., the rights of man, constitutional liberalism, and the moral and civic equality of human beings) while recognizing the crucial dependence of liberal society upon extraliberal and extrademocratic habits, traditions, virtues, and "inheritances." Liberal conservatives, on the other hand, defend liberty against every form of despotism but are more openly critical of the Enlightenment categories that are used to justify the regime of modern liberty. They more forthrightly reject the illusions of modernity—including the affirmation of the individual and collective "autonomy" or "sovereignty" of human beings, the drift toward indiscriminate relativism, and the "blind worship of progress that destabilizes society, undermines virtue, and tempts modern man with utopian ideologies that lead to totalitarian systems of government," to quote the political theorist Robert Kraynak. There is, of course, no absolute line that separates "liberal conservatism" from "conservative liberalism." Most conservative-minded liberals also criticize the contemporary confusion of liberty with moral relativism and point out the laxity of the progressive-minded before the totalitarian temptation. In the context of his time, Tocqueville may not have called himself a conservative. But in decisive respects he matches the description of both a "conservative liberal" and a "liberal conservative." He was a perspicacious critic of radical modernity avant la lettre and the most insightful analyst and judicious critic of the "democratic dogma" (Tocqueville's phrase) that continues to erode the moral foundations of democracy.
Tocqueville had an almost prophetic foreboding that the traditional moral and cultural underpinnings of the free society, the fundaments of civilized order (or the "laws of moral analogy" as he called them in the "Introduction" to volume 1 of Democracy in America), would continue to erode under our feet. It would be difficult to gainsay his insight. The "acids of modernity," as Walter Lippmann called them in 1929, continue to do their work. There is seemingly no end in sight to the self-radicalizing propensities of modernity, including modern democracy. In Harvey Mansfield's laconic formulation, "democracy democratizes."
Tocqueville's understanding of the "democratic revolution"— "providential," to be sure, but also relentless and self-radicalizing—provides the larger framework in which the contingencies of our political and intellectual lives unfold. In addition, his writings provide important guidance for preserving the "moral contents of life" amidst the unending democratic storm. In analyzing democracy, Tocqueville wishes to convey to his readers (in his own inimitable words) "the salutary fear of the future that makes one watchful and combative, and not that sort of soft and idle terror that wears hearts down and enervates them." At the conclusion of his penetrating 1982 book Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy, Pierre Manent writes that the lesson to be drawn from Tocqueville is that "to love democracy well, it is necessary to love it moderately." That, I would like to suggest, is the heart and soul of a distinctively conservative, as opposed to reactionary or progressive response, to the challenge of democratic modernity.
American Theory And Practice
To be sure, Tocqueville is not the only estimable resource for the "politics of prudence" within modern democratic societies. Far from it. The American tradition of statecraft and political thought is rich in theoretical and practical wisdom, especially regarding the art of self-government and the nature of legitimate governmental authority within a federal republic. The American constitutional order's ingenious melding of republican self-government and liberal constitutionalism is one of the most impressive political achievements of the modern world. The American founders admirably affirmed the fundamental equality of all human beings, an affirmation that was honored in the breach but that gave powerful support to the struggle against slavery, the great stain on America's national honor. At the same time, they were wary about dogmatic egalitarianism and utopian projects of any stripe. Conservatives, like other Americans, honor the founders' achievement and are more likely to show deference to constitutional forms. They are rightly suspicious of nebulous appeals to a "living constitution." Fidelity to the founders' constitution remains an integral part of any authentically American conservatism.
But there are important limits to any unqualified "return" to the founding, since the architects of the American experiment in self-government arguably built better than they knew. In Walker Percy's words, they presupposed a "hodge-podge anthropology" that drew unevenly upon classical and Christian wisdom, on the one hand, and Enlightenment presuppositions, on the other. In many ways this was a fruitful tension. But it was also an unstable mixture that was likely to decay as time went on.
Once again this fact was manifest to alert foreign visitors and observers. The French Dominican Raymond-Léopold Bruckberger argued in his eloquent and discerning 1959 book Images of America that the genius of America was to recognize the difference between self-government "under God and the law," as Tocqueville put it, and the monstrous illusion that human beings have the "right to deify and worship themselves." At the heart of the "political theology" of America as embodied in the Declaration of Independence (a document that was itself a compromise between Jefferson's rather doctrinaire deism and the more theistic convictions of the members of the Continental Congress) Father Bruckberger saw a wisdom that avoided the twin extremes of theocracy and religious fanaticism at one pole and atheistic fanaticism at the other. For Americans, "the people are always subject and at the same time free and sovereign. They are subject to their own law and God's justice. They are free because they obey their own laws. They are sovereign because their sovereignty is part of the sovereignty of God." To the extent that Americans—and in particular American intellectuals—have redefined their liberty as human self-sovereignty, as pure liberty unbeholden to ends or purposes outside the human will itself, they repudiate their own genius and unknowingly endorse a principle at the heart of twentieth-century totalitarianism.
In confronting willful claims on behalf of human autonomy, it is necessary to remain faithful to the "genius" of the founding while moving beyond the founders' somewhat constricted theoretical horizon. As Orestes Brownson suggested long ago in The American Republic (1865), the founders' practical achievement was in decisive respects better than their theory. On the theoretical plane, they endorsed social-contract theory, the conceit that the political community is an artificial construct of free and equal individuals who voluntarily depart what Locke called the "inconveniences" of the "state of nature." However, they were not fully aware of all the metapolitical implications of this doctrine. As Tocqueville appreciated, it could be applied to every aspect of human life and even to the governance of the cosmos itself. But as wise and prudent statesmen the founders respected America's unwritten or "providential" constitution, the habits and mores of the American people so eloquently described by John Jay in Federalist 2, as well as the "territorial" character of American democracy. As Roger Scruton argued in The West and the Rest, they appreciated that there was a preexisting "We"—a people with certain habits and traditions—that was the crucial precondition for forming a "more perfect union" at the time of America's constitutional founding. They also drew upon the common law and the larger moral inheritance of Western civilization. Unlike the French revolutionaries, they did not and would not start from scratch.
It is up to us today to theorize their practical wisdom and thus transcend the limits of some of their theoretical assumptions and presuppositions. In a particularly illuminating discussion in their introduction to their translation of Democracy in America, Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop argue that one of Tocqueville's most penetrating insights was that American practice, which includes its prodigious associational life, its rich traditions of local self-government, and its unforced efforts to combine "the spirit of liberty" and "the spirit of religion," was superior to democratic theory. This was "partly because some aspects of American practice had not yet been been transformed by democratic theory, partly because practice tends to correct theory." The American founding is not reducible to modern "theory." But nor is it exempt from some of theoretical modernity's more problematic claims and assumptions.
Burke and Our Present Discontents
As I have suggested, Tocqueville is indispensable for this dialectical rethinking of the theory and practice of modern democracy, for a renewed appreciation of the conservative foundations of the liberal order. What, then, of Edmund Burke? The great Anglo-Irish statesman and political philosopher had a legitimate pride of place in post-1945 conservative reflection on the "politics of prudence" appropriate to modern circumstances. Not only was Burke the inspiration for the "new conservatism" of the 1950s—the conservatism of Russell Kirk, Peter Viereck, Ross J. S. Hoffman, and Robert Nisbet—but he was also recognized as the paradigm of statesmanlike prudence by no less a figure than Leo Strauss. In his remarkable essay "Consistency in Politics" from his 1932 collection Thoughts and Adventures, Winston Churchill (a Burkean conservative in his own right) paid eloquent tribute to the "Burke of authority" and the "Burke of liberty," the friend of American liberties and the scourge of French revolutionary fanaticism. Burke's seemingly contradictory public faces were, Churchill argued, two perfectly complementary manifestations of the same animating purpose: the defense of civilization and ordered liberty. "No one can read the Burke of Liberty and the Burke of Authority without feeling that here was the same man pursuing the same ends, seeking the same ideals of society and Government, and defending them from assaults, now from one extreme, now from the other." Burke was the very model of the prudent and "consistent" statesman. No conservatism worth its salt can ignore Burke's incisive defense of tradition and practical reason and his salutary efforts to root modern liberty in the larger inheritance of Western civilization.
In addition, Burke remains a most penetrating critic of the revolutionary or ideological abstractions that risk subverting the achievements of modern civilization. His critique of the protototalitarianism that he saw at work in revolutionary France foreshadowed the more radical and consistent nihilism represented by the Communist revolution in the twentieth century. He opposed the Jacobin revolution with the same courage and singleness of purpose that Solzhenitsyn opposed Communist totalitarianism in our time. Who can forget Burke's profound evocation in his valedictory Letter to a Noble Lord (1796) of a new kind of revolution, "a complete revolution ... extended even to the constitution of the mind of man"?
This "Old Whig" remains a teacher and inspiration even if he belonged in decisive respects to a transitional world between the remnants of the European old regime and a fully modern democratic order. Burke could not imagine a "perfect democracy" that was not a disguised tyranny. But we live in such a democratic world, one where prescription and established hierarchy have no place in our official political or moral self-understanding. We live in a world dominated by the "democratic dogma," which asserts the natural equality and independence of all. To be sure, Tocqueville's thought owed much to Burke: his critique of revolutionary fanaticism, his attack on the irresponsible "literary politics" of French intellectuals, his insistence on the importance of "aristocratic inheritances" such as family, religion, and local self-government to the health and well-being of modern democracy are deeply indebted to his great predecessor. Yet the French political thinker praised the practical wisdom of Burke while criticizing him for being blind to the full import of the "democratic revolution" unfolding before his eyes. As Tocqueville put it with a certain severity in The Old Regime and the Revolution, Burke thought the French revolutionaries had torn apart a living body, when in fact they had assaulted a corpse.
Unfortunately, Burke has lost much of his appeal, even for conservatives. His style is excessively ornate for democratic tastes and his grandiloquent defense of the "gentleman" seems arcane in an egalitarian age. As a result, his books don't sell the way they used to and appear to have little appeal outside the small quarter of traditionalist conservatives. Some so-called conservative intellectuals rather perversely cite the authority of Burke to justify a slow-motion accommodation to the progressivism of the age. Since abortion on demand, the transformation of marriage to include all "consensual" relationships, and various forms of expressive individualism undoubtedly have deep roots in contemporary culture and society, conservatives are called upon to abandon all resistance to the cultural revolution that is in the process of radically transforming the Western world. Conservatism is defined as prudent accommodation to the inevitable. And what is "inevitable" is best discerned by those committed to ever more radically consistent applications of equality and autonomy. But when Burke reminded his contemporaries that "prudence is the god of this world below" he surely did not mean that the "moral constitution" of the universe was subject to fundamental revision. Burke remains our contemporary, but his wisdom needs to be supplemented by sober awareness that the goods he defended need a different articulation in the context of a world where democracy relentlessly democratizes.
Excerpted from The Conservative Foundations of the Liberal Order by Daniel J. Mahoney Copyright © 2010 by Daniel I. Mahoney. Excerpted by permission of ISI BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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