Constitutional conservatism is a blend of populism and elitism:
a good thing made of two dubious ingredients. To explain what that
is, in brief compass, I will begin from the dilemma of
conservatism, move to the task of conservatism, which I believe to
be defending liberalism in the wide sense of the word, and last
come to the form of conservatism in the American Constitution. Its
future will be like its past, except for unpredictable changes.
The Dilemma of Conservatism
What is conservatism? Conservatism is a correlate of liberalism.
It follows upon liberalism. It is liberalism's little brother.
Conservatism began to be heard of as a political term only after
the French Revolution, when it was provoked by the manifest
excesses of the Revolution into opposition. But what kind of
opposition? Was conservatism to be the alternative to liberal
revolution, or was it to supply the defects of that revolution so
as to make it work?
There were opponents of the Revolution, usually called
"Reactionaries" but still conservatives who wanted to return to the
old regime and therefore supported monarchy and religion, the
throne and the altar; but there were also conservative liberals
such as Benjamin Constant, François Guizot, and Alexis de
Tocqueville who accepted the Revolution while blaming its excesses.
Later, the great liberal, John Stuart Mill, described the party of
progress and the party of order as correlates of a liberal regime,
the one making advances, the other providing digestion.
Here, at the origin of conservatism, we see its fundamental
dilemma: Is it the alternative to liberalism, or does it make
liberalism work? We can put this in fewer words: Does conservatism
go back, or does it go slow? It is a dilemma because these are
opposite strategies and require opposite behavior.
If conservatism is the alternative to liberalism, it needs
principles and goes back in history to find them. Going back is a
revolution against the present, against the liberal status quo. It
is a counterrevolution. It brings turmoil, upset, and accusations
of extremism--think of the Republican Revolution of 1994. If, on
the other hand, conservatism supplies the defects of liberalism and
goes slow, it must forget principles and accommodate with
liberalism. "Responsible conservatives" like George H. W. Bush and
Robert Dole are called "responsible" because they take charge of a
situation they do not care for but make the best of it. For such
conservatives, all ideas cause problems, including conservative
The elder Bush spoke deprecatingly of "the vision thing" that he
was alleged to lack. This was his wonderful contribution to our
political vocabulary. Visions are bad; they are closer to
nightmares than to sweet dreams, but in either case they are
dreams. In a democracy, vision almost always means the vision of a
"more perfect democracy"-- more of what we already have. It's
imaginary and not very imaginative.
Conservatism is thus in a dilemma between "go back" and "go
slow." Neither strategy is satisfactory by itself; hence, both are
inevitable. Conservatives cannot be consistently responsible or
revolutionary, so perhaps they must be both. Being both is being
inconsistent, but it might be prudent. Conservatives can try to
have it both ways; using prudence keeps you from being an
ideologue, but holding to principle keeps you from being
inconsistent and opportunistic. With the double strategy of
principle and prudence, go back and go slow, conservatives must
take on the task of defending liberalism. To defend liberalism is
to defend its principles, the best in liberalism; but it is also
prudent because liberalism will not go away, and if it did, the
forces replacing it would be worse, as we see in the Islamic
The greatest critic of liberalism was not a conservative, not
Edmund Burke, but Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau saw that
liberalism had opposite defects: It was thoroughly selfish because
it ignored the community, and it was ignoble because it promoted
the mediocre life of commerce. In the 19th century, the first
defect was adopted as a target by the Left in promoting socialism
and communism, which claimed to cure selfishness, and the second
defect was adopted by the Right as its target, which later came to
be fascism and Nazism, claiming to cure ignobility and mediocrity.
Both of these movements flourished in the 20th century before they
were defeated. But as long as we have liberalism, both movements
will probably return, though perhaps in a different form that we
may find difficult to recognize--because both answer to essential
defects in liberalism.
Liberalism, based mostly on self-interest and the virtues of
self-interest, is indeed too selfish and ignoble. Liberalism needs
sensible defenders who are aware of its vulnerabilities, who
understand its principles and are ready to use prudence in applying
them. These sensible defenders are mainly conservatives, because
most liberals are so devoted to liberal principles that they
overlook the weakness of those principles. A partisan liberal
typically pursues liberal principles regardless of the common good,
and conservatives need to hold liberalism to the standard of the
common good, which includes supporting the virtues of generosity
and nobility, even though these virtues are not very liberal.
Big Government/Rational Control
The enemy of conservatism is what is called in America "big
government"--a government so large in scope and so beneficent in
intent that it tries to save citizens "the trouble of thinking and
the pain of living." The quotation is Tocqueville's sarcastic
description of the government he called the "immense being." Big
government rests on appeal to self-interest and also to motives
opposite to self-interest, particularly compassion, even a kind of
greatness. President Lyndon Johnson called his version of big
government "the Great Society."
Although the phrase "big government" is recent, the idea is much
older. Tocqueville dates it back 10 generations from the French
Revolution to the time of Machiavelli, the high point being the
statist policy of Cardinal Richelieu and Cardinal Mazarin. The
French monarchy tried to apply the idea of "rational control" to
all parts of society--for example, in teaching farmers how to farm
better, very much like the U.S. Department of Agriculture
Rational control is beneficent, not exploitative; mild, not
terrifying; and even-handed, not arbitrary. One could say it is the
idea of modernity itself, the original vision thing. It means the
rational control of risk, the risk to one's security. Typically,
Tocqueville notes, rational controllers exaggerate their capacity
to control risk and end up raising expectations they cannot satisfy
while they remove or destroy trust in God or trust in tradition,
which are the alternatives to rational control. The result is
dependence on government together with contempt for
government--just what we have now.
Big government is often contrasted with reliance on the free
market, liberals being proponents of the former, conservatives of
the latter. That contrast is, of course, correct, but government
and market are alike in serving the end of rational control: the
management of risk. This suggests that conservatives today are,
like liberals, committed to the modern idea of rational control.
But, as opposed to big government, the market provides management
of risk with allowance for taking a risk.
In this regard, one might ask: Who is the conservative, the
entrepreneur who takes a risk or the conservative investor who
avoids it? The market is more of a mechanism than big government;
it offers rational control without rational controllers. But is
that really so? What of stock market advisers? Are they not
comparable to the social scientists who facilitate big government?
For big government is rational control, and rational controllers
need science, enabling them to control rationally things previously
left to nature or to chance, yet stock market advisers typically
say that everything depends on the level of risk you are
comfortable with: You should not buy risky stocks if they keep you
from sleeping at night.
Thus, it appears that there are irrational dispositions
underlying rational control which must be accepted. Some people
have conservative dispositions, others not.
What is a conservative disposition? Aristotle, in his
Rhetoric, describes the conservative dispositions of old
people: They are cautious, weak, malicious, small-minded, cool;
more concerned with the useful than with the noble; more given to
money than hope, to gain than anger, to calculation than character,
to querulousness than to wit; and they are loquacious. Not a pretty
picture, and this is how many people regard conservatives.
Aristotle also has a chapter on youth, with its opposite vices. How
you are seems to depend a good deal on how close you are to death.
This is fundamental to the idea of risk as well.
Aristotle's solution is to say that the mean is the prime of
life, between the two extremes. He doesn't offer a notion that
would discount the benefits of the prime of life throughout one's
life, unless that would be what he calls moral virtue. He certainly
does his best to reduce the venerableness of the old.
Conservatives, despite their love of the old, would do well to
avoid the crabbiness of old age.
Despite the unspoken affinity of free-market conservatism for
rational control, conservatism mostly doubts the idea of rational
control. From David Hume on, conservatives say that the human
intellect is not capable of grasping society as a whole so as to
reform it. If you attempt to reform everything, you will bring on
revolution in which the furies of passion, not reason, will
For conservatives, reason has its place, which is up close, in
front of your nose. The rest they call nature: that which is beyond
human control. Nature can be understood with a single swoop of
reason; the whole of nature, distinct from humanity, as dramatized
by romanticism, is left to take care of itself, as guided by the
invisible hand, or is said to require reform by increments, as with
the notion of prescription in Edmund Burke's thought.
In sum, conservatives, as defenders of liberalism, are aware of
its defects, which are, to repeat, too much reliance on
self-interest, causing liberal principles to be vulnerable to
charges of selfishness from the Left and ignobility from the Right,
and the related reliance of liberalism on big government and
Bad consequences of the idea of rational control have led
conservatives such as the romantic Coleridge, the libertarian
Hayek, and the Whig Burke to doubt the value of reason and even, in
some cases, to condemn the use of reason in politics. Instead of
universal reason, it is better to use prudence and the particulars
of each case, and if a general principle is required, let it be
historical tradition rather than reason.
Yet we have seen that conservatives can be trapped politically,
in a position of serving the ends of their opponents, if they keep
solely to the policy of going slow and never think of going back.
Conservatives today might find themselves obliged to have recourse
to liberal principles when circumstances seem to require vigorous
action in order to change an unacceptable situation. One example is
the conservative use of the liberal principle of merit in our time
in order to oppose "affirmative action" in promoting racial and sex
Defending Liberalism from Itself
What must conservatives do to defend liberalism from itself?
They must defend the liberal regime and the bourgeoisie or the
middle class, the ruling class of the liberal regime. They must
defend what Aristotle might call the "interest of the regime."
Liberals today, and some conservatives, are blind to the
necessity of maintaining and defending the rulers of the liberal
regime. Liberals tend to favor compassion, which means compassion
toward the enemies of the middle class. They promote welfare or
entitlement policies that reward those who lack the sturdy virtues
of the liberal middle class--virtues that make compassion
Libertarian conservatives, unconcerned for virtue, look to
loosen the bonds of responsibility and sacrifice that enable a
liberal regime to maintain and defend itself. Post-modern liberal
intellectuals, especially, forget that respect for themselves
depends on respect for the intellect and for reason. They may be
joined by conservative intellectuals of a traditional sort who
attack reason, confusing reason with rational control.
Toleration and diversity are liberal policies that conservatives
must make compatible with the liberal regime. Liberalism can and
must, within reason, tolerate its enemies within a liberal society,
but it is not enough to tolerate. Conservatives must be alive to
diverse contributions, to liberalism as a whole. They must see left
and right not as enemies only, but also as permanent tendencies
that cannot be "got rid of." Conservatives will never kill the
Left, for as long as we have a liberal regime, the Left will always
come back after every defeat.
Liberals, believing in progress, are less likely to tolerate
conservatives because they are impelled to think that those in the
way of progress are prejudiced and do not deserve respect. At the
same time, liberals are inclined to relativism, wishing not to
judge others. In this mood, they maintain that all values are
equal, the values of oppressors equal to those of liberals. As
progressives, liberals are too hard; as relativists, they are too
Conservatives are both more tolerant and more resistant. They
must help out their big-brother liberals, who are weaker than
conservatives in mind and spirit. Above all, conservatives must
defend the liberal form of government that makes liberal politics
The liberal form of government has an interest in its own
survival, like the Aristotelian regime, but it is also unlike that
regime. In the Aristotelian regime, the form is the end. For
example, the democratic form of government has as its end a
democratic way of life. But in the liberal regime, the form is
partly distinct from the end. In its view, the purpose of democracy
is partly to live a democratic life, but it is also to secure the
rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
In liberalism, rights are prior to government and therefore
serve as a separate basis by which to judge whether government is
doing its job well. We see a sign of this in the question that our
politicians often pose to the electorate: "Are you better off?"
Being better off is distinct from being a better democrat. It is a
separate, nonpolitical standard that a liberal regime adopts for
itself and with which it invites support. As such, it can be used
against a liberal regime that does not deliver on its promises.
For the Aristotelian regime, there is no such problem in
maintaining the form of government; the problem is to restrain the
tendency of any form of government to intensify itself, to make
itself more extreme. A liberal regime, however, must struggle to
maintain its form of government because it is always being judged
against a standard of an end that is outside itself. Its end is not
so much democracy as a form of government as it is equal rights, or
equality for all men everywhere: that is, human rights.
This is what Tocqueville meant when he spoke of democracy as a
continuing democratic revolution. A liberal democracy hurtles
forward toward more democracy without considering whether more
democracy is in the interest of a liberal regime. Hurtling forward
toward more democracy: With this we begin to recognize the appeal
of Barack Obama. Liberalism seems to have a fundamentally
"apolitical" character which is hostile to disagreement or argument
or conflict. You see this in the original liberalism of Thomas
Hobbes and John Locke. For these 17th century philosophers, the end
of society is peace or security.
Peace is what everybody wants as a condition of other ends,
decent ends, which may be diverse. You may have one way of life
that you prefer, another that someone else prefers, but what you
have in common is the minimum condition for all ways of life--or
all decent ways of life--and that is peace. Whatever else you want,
you must have peace, the minimum condition. The trouble, in this
politics of the apolitical, is that the minimum tends to become a
maximum. It turns out to be harder to agree on the minimum than
liberals expected, and, therefore, you have to adopt the minimum as
an end rather than leave it as the condition of all ends. Consider
In foreign politics, the idea of global justice has now come
upon liberalism. Global justice is not the same thing as good
government because it is above government. Global justice
wants to transcend political boundaries, treat the whole world as
one liberal society, prosecute criminals far from their homes.
This is done through international courts and also through a
network or private sector of non-governmental organizations, or
NGOs, outside of normal governments: for example, Medecins sans
frontiers, Doctors Without Borders. But this leads to conflict
between those who believe in global justice and those who resist
it, so that there's no agreement, and you have to have a struggle
for global justice-- a struggle to end struggle.
A second example, from domestic politics, is the politics of
entitlements. Entitlements are guarantees from government to
individuals: for example, Social Security. They were intended by
the New Deal to remove the question of pensions and retirement from
politics so that security would mean security against political
In this way, the New Deal was very apolitical, because the
change that it introduced in entitlements was meant to be
irreversible, which indeed has occurred to a great extent. But the
entitlements were resisted by Republicans, so it turned out that
they weren't nonpartisan. Democrats continued to win elections
against resisting Republicans with the slogan "Don't let them take
it away." I think that comes from the Truman Administration. Maybe
entitlements are deliberately set so high that they are impossible
to sustain and, therefore, the more responsible Republicans are
induced to oppose those entitlements, and party war is on. Maybe
the Republicans do the same with taxes.
This is the politics of the apolitical. Conservatives need to
defend the necessity and value of politics, which means also of
Conservatism and Constitutional
Now, we may ask: What is the liberal form of government or
politics? It is limited government as opposed to big government. It
is constitutional government in a new non-Aristotelian sense. It is
popular government because the government is chosen by the people,
yet government is also withdrawn from the people so that the people
can judge it in democratic elections.
In a democratic election, the people choose the government and
judge the same government they choose, so when an election is
prospective--looks to the future--and retrospective--judges the
past--the people are both responsible for the government they
choose and not responsible when they judge it. When they choose it,
it's theirs; when they judge it, it's on its own. If the people
vote the existing government out, they do not apologize for their
own bad choice in the preceding election. They are the sovereign,
and sovereigns do not apologize.
The interest of a liberal regime is in the defense of the forms
of the Constitution. This is what defending liberalism means. Those
forms, on one side, put obstacles between people's will and the
government's actions so that the people's will has to be expressed
constitutionally. For example, an unpopular government has to be
voted out of office instead of being shamed into retirement by low
ratings in the polls.
Government is withdrawn from the people for two opposite
reasons: so that the people are forced to act on their own and so
that the government can act on its own. The people acting on their
own are in voluntary association; that's the good sense of
populism. Rather than sitting inactive as consumers, clients, or
dependents of big government, they're voters; they're
participators. The government acting on its own, on the other hand,
can control the people. It can maintain its ability to call for
forbearance, even sacrifice, from the people. Here it shows
responsibility in an anti-populist sense.
Our constitutional government combines populism and elitism,
both understood, as we now see, in a healthy way. Its populism is
to preserve the forms of consent, especially elections, against the
temptation to govern through the polls or to welcome the intrusions
of judicial activism, and thus to preserve the practice of
democracy. Its elitism is to keep a distance between people and
government, not to encourage the arbitrary exercise of power, but,
on the contrary, to enable government to act consistently and on
principle, and thus responsibly.
This alliance opposes a contrary combination of unhealthy
populism and elitism: the populism that wants unending
democratization and the elitism that also wants this without regard
to the people's needs, especially the need to get their
For conservatives, preserving the forms of popular consent is to
insist on constitutional due process. It is the conservatives'
strategy of "going slow." Keeping a distance between the government
and the people, however, allows a conservative government to act on
principle. To be a conservative is a balancing act. You have to
compromise so as to get the consent of a majority, and you have to
uphold the principle of restoring our Constitution or limited
government with the support of that majority.
But how can we do this? George Bush exercised his constitutional
distance by doing just the opposite of what the electorate seemed
to ask him to do when it elected a Democratic Congress in 2006. He
did not show the vice of "servile pliancy"--that's what
Federalist 71 says about a President who follows the will of
the people too closely--and instead ignored the impatience of the
It seems now that the Republicans are losing both ways in regard
to the war in Iraq. Either they lose the war, in which case they're
blamed because they started a war they couldn't win, or they win
the war, in which case they started a war which they couldn't win
right away and therefore should have abandoned, as if losing a war
were like selling a stock: Take a loss and take it off your income
The practice of forms means the forms of democracy, and
especially elections. Tocqueville's advice was this: Try to draw
the principles of democracy from the practice of democracy, not the
practice from the principles. In practice, conservatives are
Republicans. Conservatives, if they want to establish conservatism,
need a majority of the people and therefore need a majority party.
Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam have recently written a new book
called Grand New Party, which I recommend to you.
Grand New Party is something of a repudiation of the Grand
Old Party, separating Republicans from "Old." I don't know if that
will work entirely, because conservatism seems to have an
inseparable connection to what is "old."
Conservatism has to be responsible, which means for the common
good. It's not enough to be right, but it's also not enough to win,
so what happens in practice is that you win some and you lose
Virtue, Necessity, and Choice
Constitutional conservatism stands for political liberty. This
means the right to choose with the chance that you may lose. You
cannot bring politics to an end as the liberals want. The search
for the apolitical is a search for a definitive end, which is
characteristic of modern political philosophy.
This definitive end might be a natural end which is guaranteed
by nature, beyond human tampering, choice guided by natural law or
natural right. That could seem conservative, and there are
conservative Catholics and conservative libertarians who believe in
natural law, some kind of bright line. For example, conservative
Catholics, addressing the question of abortion, look for a bright
line to see where life begins. Where does it begin--at conception,
at birth, or at maturity?
There's a difficulty here: Nature doesn't seem to give us a
bright line of distinction which says, yes, this is natural and,
no, that is unnatural; don't do it. There are conservative
libertarians who want a bright line where liberty ends. It ends at
the state. You obey the state because you've made a contract to
obey. But it seems that life is not contractual. Neither birth nor
death is by consent, and there's a lot in between those two things
which is not by consent.
Aristotle says, "Man is by nature a political animal." By
political animal he means an animal that makes laws and
conventions. Laws and conventions are statements or commands that
could be otherwise than they are.
And that's part of our nature: that we make ourselves to be
otherwise than we could be. So we have these differences in
different societies, and even within a single society. But politics
tries to naturalize our conventions. When you're in politics, you
have to remove any sense of the arbitrary, and, therefore, your
virtue comes to be understood, or you try to make understood, as
Take the example of the war in Iraq. President Bush said it was
a necessary war. The opponents of the war say it was a chosen war
in which choice means whimsical; you didn't have to do it. If
you're for something, you have to argue for it with certain
reasons, and the better reasons are the more compelling reasons, so
you seem to remove your sense of having done something virtuous by
giving your reasons, since your reasons say why it was necessary.
And if it was necessary, then what credit should you get for doing
The opposite is true with what is chosen. People who are for
choice in abortion are against it in war. When they have a
pro-choice position with an abortion and I hasten to say that I do
not take this position, the pro-choice position becomes a kind of
necessity to protect women's equality. When men are confronted with
pregnancy, they can walk away from it; women have to have the right
of abortion in order to equalize themselves with men.
Tocqueville said that political liberty is best shown in its
practice. His choice, then, is a choice and not a necessity. Our
political liberty can best be shown in conventions, expectations,
that are in between virtue and necessity--courtesies that a woman
should be able to expect from a man, for example.
Liberalism has a certain absolutism to it which denies this
middle point between virtue and necessity. For liberalism, an
action is either illegal or all right. We conservatives need to
recover our sense and our defense of what is normal or what can be
expected of most people, not necessarily what can be
required of all people. Conservatives need a new feminism.
Where should we get it--from new principles from which we draw
practical conclusions? Why not just look at a healthy, normal woman
like Sarah Palin and get a new feminism from her? She seems to have
made a success of it.
Conventions preserve liberty because conventions are
expectations. They're not absolutely required, and yet they
preserve the good sense of our citizens as our society sees it.
Conservatism needs to recover respect, not so much for customs, but
for conventions as noncompulsory guides to the good life.
Harvey C. Mansfield is William R.
Kenan, Jr., Professor of Government at Harvard University. He has
written on a variety of subjects in government and political
philosophy, including Edmund Burke, Machiavelli, and the discovery
and development of the theory of executive power. Professor
Mansfield has been on the faculty at Harvard since 1962 and is
considered one of today's most eminent political philosophers.