Hillary Clinton told an Iowa crowd that George W. Bush is “radical” rather than “conservative.” Politically, this strikes me as dumb. Bush isn’t going to be on the ballot next year, but lots of people who call themselves “conservative” will be, and there’s no reason for Democrats to help them make Bush their scapegoat. We want his bad reputation to rub off on “conservatives” generically, just as Jimmy Carter’s did on “liberals.” Politicians, it has been said, are like checks: if you can’t go after the maker, you go after the endorser. The right wing of the Republican Party owns Bush, and the Democrats shouldn’t let anyone forget it.
But it’s also no more than a quarter-truth. Surely it’s true that if “conservatism” means a concern for the unintended consequences of proposed actions and a disinclination to change what doesn’t need changing, Bush is no conservative; Burke and Oakeshott would recoil from him in horror.
But Bush is hardly unique. Today’s Republican party is plutocratic, authoritarian, theocratic, racist, nativist, militarist, and imperialist, but hardly conservative except in the sense of being reluctant to reform entrenched abuses. You could throw rocks at random at the ten clowns who line up at the podia for a Republican Presidential debate and never risk hitting an actual conservative, though you couldn’t avoid hitting a Reagan-worshipper. It’s American conservatism that is no longer conservative, not merely George W. Bush.
That’s too bad: the conservative impulse is just as necessary to a properly balanced political system as the progressive one.
The rhetorical question for the opponents of the current ruling clique is whether to appeal to voters who consider themselves “conservative” by pointing out that the politicians they’ve been voting for aren’t actually conservative, or rather to try to make them ashamed of being “conservatives” by make “conservative” a term of abuse, the way the right manage to make “liberal” a term of abuse. (I once described myself to a Cuban-American student at the Kennedy School as a “liberal,” and discovered that he thought I must be joking, as if I’d referred to myself as a child molester. He’d never heard the term used in other than a pejorative sense.)
The right used, and uses, both tactics, vilifying “liberals” generically while also pointing out (sometimes accurately) the illiberal words and actions of some Democrats. Vilification has been the dominant one, and no doubt highly successful. But I’m not sure we want to imitate our opponents on this score. The opposite tactic — proclaiming that there are many values, and trying to identify your side with all of them and the other side with mere vice — also has a respectable tradition. In Jefferson’s first inaugural, delivered after what may still rank as the bitterest Presidential election of all, he said, “We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans; we are all Federalists.” That was not because Jefferson lacked the combative instinct. That inaugural address marked the beginning of the longest period of one-party control of the Presidency in American history, by the end of which the Federalist Party had ceased to exist.
Footnote The language by which the various political factions and tendencies are commonly described is in hopeless confusion. The proper opposite of “conservative” is “progressive,” not “liberal.” And the opposite of “liberal” is “authoritarian,” not “conservative.” Since liberty and authority are both necessary, both of these tendencies should find their proper political voices, and there’s no particular reason why reluctance to change and eagerness to control individual behavior should be identified with each other.
Similarly, the “left” or “populist” desire to try to reduce the extent of inequality and to make life better with the poor and powerless has only a limited and circumstance-bound alliance with either liberalism or progressivism, just as the “right” or “elitist” tendency to maintain inequality and defend the values cherished by the socially well-established is only accidentally conservative or authoritarian. For example, the belief that there’s a difference between truth and error, and that people who know about any given topic ought to be listened to in preference to the ignorant is, at root, an “elitist” belief. Similarly, the rule of law is arguably the fundamental conservative idea, but it can be used for liberal, progressive, populist, and sometimes radical ends.
A radical is someone willing to notice that some problems don’t respond to incremental reforms, because the problem lies at the root rather than in the twigs. Since that view is sometimes correct, sometimes radicals will have the right answer, while their “moderate” or incrementalist opponents busy themselves with trivialities. So although Clinton is right to say that Bush has an undesirably radical tendency, she’s wrong to reinforce the belief that radicalism is always undesirable. Cutting off half a gangrenous limb rather than the whole thing is neither merciful nor efficacious; the sort of “moderate” liberalism that wanted to soften the Jim Crow regime rather than overthrow it was better than the conservative desire to leave things as they were, but inferior to the radicalism that gave us the Second Reconstruction.