A former publisher of the National Review has endorse Barack Obama as the “conservative” candidate in this year’s Presidential race. That may sound like a paradox, but it makes perfect sense if you go back to what the word “conservative” originally meant.
“Conservatism” has many meanings. To my somewhat jaundiced eye, the primary practical content of American conservatism as embodied in the Republican Party is a preference for the interests of rich people and employers over non-rich people and workers, combined with hostility to the demands of “outsiders” for equal treatment. All the rest — the preference for “small government” that is nonetheless active in dictating sexual morality, hostility toward environmental protection, hostility toward science, nativism — follows from that basic stance. (The current tendency on the right to support the executive power over the legislative power is merely temporary and partisan.)
Of course there are tensions on both interest-group and ideological lines. Employers tend to be anti-nativist. Many “small government” types are anti-imperialist. Libertarians don’t like the sexual-purity agenda.
But the thing American conservatism most lacks is “conservatism” in the proper sense in which “conservative” is the opposite of “progressive”: a sense of the costs of rapid change and a distrust of pervasive schemes of reform, in the tradition of Burke, Hayek, and Oakeshott. Steve Teles has pointed out, for example, how utterly un-conservative it is to propose drastic changes in Social Security, and of course the same might be said about the project of making Iraq safe for democracy.
As relentlessly partisan as I am on most left/right issues, I find myself right in the middle on the progressive-conservative axis. The Second Reconstruction was a frankly revolutionary effort, and had quite as many unintended side-effects as Burke himself could have expected, but it was no less necessary or glorious for all of that. The same was true of the New Deal, and is true now of the movement toward regulating the environmental impacts of private economic activity. But I still find myself nodding in agreement when someone says “The basic cause of problems is solutions.” Both the freeway and the public housing project seemed like good ideas at the time.
Thinkers with an Oakeshottian cast of mind have been drawn toward Republicanism by the relentlessly progressive mood of the Democrats. And some of them, revolted by the past eight years, are now looking for another option. One of the attractions of Barack Obama’s candidacy was his capacity to speak to those people. I don’t know how many of them are actually out there, but it’s good to know that there are some.