One result of the rebalanced political power in Congress and the rise of the Tea Party within the Republican Party is that we are all likely to be spared talk about “compassionate conservatism” for the next couple of years; anyway, until the GOP discovers—as is more than likely to happen in 2012—that conservatism of the other kind cannot deliver the votes in a spoiled, socialized, and overexpectant society. If so, do not count on many Republicans, or even many “conservatives,” to argue that the old, heartless conservatism indeed is inherently compassionate, while “compassionate conservatism” is really a cynical trick on the society it is supposed to benefit and console.
Mencken described democracy as the theory that the plain people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard. Democrats and socialists have been operating for centuries on this principle, or at least they profess to have done so. But there is nothing compassionate about government telling people what they want to hear, and giving them what they ask for, when what they want is either unrealistic or bad for them—most likely, both. Several years ago, Claude Polin, writing in these pages, described conservatism as the necessary medicine for a self-sickened society. Polin was right about that. In the medical world, the advocates of homeopathic treatment, besides being mostly cranks, are usually liberals as well. Western medicine was developed, over the past century and a half especially, because the old folk remedies failed to cure the patient, who eventually died following the application of superstitious placebos. Western democratic government was constructed, during the last two centuries, according to a collection of superstitious doctrines that assumed (consciously or not) the divinity of man, and so it is in dire need today of a metaphysically grounded philosophy to rescue it from itself. The question is whether democracy will accept this philosophy. If it refuses, then what? A person suffering from cancer is free to decline the radiation treatment that could cure him and choose marijuana tea with eye of newt instead. But a society afflicted by a wasting disease is another story. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said that he was prepared, as a judge, to help his country go to Hell, if that was what it wanted. Most people would not be willing to go so far. When the fate of a country, or an entire civilization, is at stake, compassion, in the sense of giving appreciable segments of the public what they demand (cradle-to-grave security, subsidized healthcare, lower taxes, free college tuition, acceptance of homosexual behavior and “gay marriage,” no-fault divorce, abortion on demand, open borders, birthright citizenship, and so forth), needs to give way to comprehension, which is only compassion raised to that higher level we call conservatism. Just as no one would describe as compassionate a skilled doctor who neglected to prescribe harsh treatment that would save the patient on the ground that it would be traumatic for him, so no one should applaud a conservative government that acquiesced in the whims of the electorate, or even its settled demands, which it knows to be harmful, or positively suicidal. Government founded upon a sound and convinced understanding of human nature, of metaphysical truth, and of the human constraints imposed by these things is morally required to act realistically. And to govern realistically is to govern humanely—that is to say, compassionately.
The obvious problem here is that we imagine we in this country live in a democracy, where the majority rules—contrary, in the event, to the will of the enlightened minority. Who is to say what human nature is? Who is to determine what the lessons of history really are? Who has a firm grasp on metaphysical reality? The answer is conservatives. True, they have never—not since the early American Republic, anyway—been able to convince the barest majority of their fellow citizens of the truth of their inherited wisdom, and they represent today a small minority (from which we can further subtract most of the Republican Party, and with it much of the Tea Party itself) of the country. But that is beside the point. Conservatives ought never to be self-constrained by idols of popular elections and popular rule. So far in American history, almost to a man, they have brought themselves up just short of the idea that majority rule is not only a religious heresy but a political one as well. From Washington’s administration until the 1830’s, democracy (an indefinable term, finally) came as close to realization as it ever has in human history; perhaps, even, as close as it is possible, theoretically and practically, to get. Since then, democracy has been a sham and a fraud in America, as it has been elsewhere. Since then, too, it has been steadily receding as a human possibility over the horizon of the future. Democracy, as a fact, is not dead; it has never been realized. But it is dead, today, as a possibility, even if not yet as a dream, however synthetic and sentimental that dream might be. There is no reason why conservatives should feel obliged to pay it lip service, let alone fealty, any longer. They should talk about “liberties” instead.
Francis Fukuyama wrote a book, published 20 years ago, which argued that, while the fortunes of democracy might rise and fall in future, the ideal of liberal capitalist democracy cannot be improved upon. Nowadays, Fukuyama’s faith in his own proposition seems shaken. The goal of democracy, he admitted recently, has been compromised in the eyes of the world by President George W. Bush’s muscular democratism, tailored to conform to his equally muscular Christian evangelism. Bush has not only wrecked Iraq as Obama is now wrecking Afghanistan, he has compromised—perhaps fatally—the name of democracy itself. As Fareed Zakaria has suggested, freedom is faring better in the world today than democracy—probably because many peoples will settle for liberties granted to, or wrested by, them from an autocratic power. The so-called democracy movement in China is far more a demand for certain freedoms than it is a genuinely democratic movement demanding a democratic form of government. The same is true, to a lesser degree, of the “democratic” parties in Russia. Only in America and Great Britain, perhaps, is an approximation to democratic government something truly understood, because it is something partly remembered. But the United States and Britain are presently on a convergent course toward Russia and China—as, during the 1970’s, the United States and the Soviet Union were often said to be. The future of the world is not the democratic nation-state; it is the corporate nationalist one, in which the worlds of government and business are becoming one and the same thing, and citizens of the state indistinguishable from corporate employees. If the Republican Party is conscientious as well as lucky, over the next 100 years—or less—it may succeed in preventing the United States from devolving into a Third World socialist state by deflecting her into a North American variant of national corporatism that nevertheless ensures certain traditional freedoms, or liberties. In any case, the GOP (which, as Clyde Wilson once remarked, has never conserved a single thing in its history) may be counted on to avoid following anything like a conservative program in the future as it has in the past—since 1854, in fact. Conservatism will survive in America only if American conservatives admit and agree that conservatism and democracy, far from being synonymous, are actually each other’s mortal enemies.
Conservative political philosophy implies Platonic guardians of one sort or another, and it is no good pretending otherwise. If this is unpalatable as a political message, then it must be delivered in some other form and by some other means of communication. That can only be the natural guardians themselves, whether or not they hold political office and wield social power. The difficulty here is the contemporary anomaly of a social, economic, and political establishment that—in theory, at least—despises the very idea of an establishment, while conspicuously enjoying and indulging in the powers and perquisites that come with establishmentarian status. Of course, this may change, but only if the United States becomes less a meritocracy and more a class society of the European type. If that does not happen, the meritocratic principle, honestly observed, will continue to make social and economic position insecure, as the postmodern equivalent of what once were called “the great families” are steadily undermined by new men and prevented by the tax laws from bequeathing their estates to their children. Many of the great plutocratic families of the Gilded Age learned, over generations, to become civilized. In the same way, perhaps, the inheritors of the Silicon Valley and new Wall Street fortunes might civilize themselves, much as such a prospect seems miraculous today. If so, they might, with time, eventually learn conservatism—though, on the other hand, the Roosevelts, Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, Duponts, and Kennedys never did. But, if they were to succeed where much of the earlier plutocracy had failed, that would give American conservatives the social material with which to work.
Claude Polin is right: Conservatism is medicine—medicine of the kind that prevailed in an age when medicine and philosophy were aspects of each other, complementary parts of the same intellectual whole. “When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on earth?” Similarly, we might ask: “When the Son of Man comes, will He find conservatism on earth?” The second question is identical to the first, expressed in different terms.