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Political Moderation and the Conservative Disposition

Peter Berkowitz has written an outstanding book, Constitutional Conservatism, whose central aim is to “recover the constitutional connection between liberty, self-government, and political moderation.”

In discussing political moderation, Berkowitz does not mean lack of principle or expedience. Rather, what he has in mind is a conservative disposition that accommodates and balances competing principles. “The Constitution weaves political moderation well understood into the very structure of self-government,” he says. Berkowitz writes that constitutional conservatism “stresses that balancing worthy but conflicting political principles depends on cultivating the spirit of political moderation institutionalized by the Constitution.” It understands that liberty is sometimes in tension with tradition. It places a premium on prudence and takes into account shifting circumstances and public sentiments. And the Constitution, Berkowitz points out, promotes a spirit of balance, weaves together diverse human elements and political principles, and is itself a complex institutional arrangement that was the result of extraordinary political compromises.

This might all seem quite obvious, except that there is a current of opinion within conservatism that believes political moderation is a vice, a safe harbor for the unprincipled. That is what makes Berkowitz’s reclamation project an important one.

An oddity in our time is that some on the right who very nearly deify the founders and the Constitution fail to understand what Berkowitz calls “the unceasing need in the politics of a free society to adjust and readjust, balance and rebalance, calibrate and recalibrate… The Federalist reinforces the lesson of moderation inscribed in the Constitution it expounds and defends.”

There have always been those in politics who are animated by the auto-da-fe. They thrive on relentless confrontation and want to (in the words of Ronald Reagan) go over the cliff with all flags flying. To be sure, such individuals can be a source of energy in a political party. They can also serve the purpose of stiffening spines when that is needed. And they may even be on the correct side of many public policy issues.

Yet it strikes me that in a deep sense, they do not possess a conservative disposition or even a particularly conservative outlook on the world. Rather, they have reinterpreted conservatism in order to fit their own temperament, which seems to be in a near-constant state of agitation, ever alert to identify and excommunicate from the ranks those they perceive as apostates. One day it is Chris Christie; the next day it is Bob McDonnell, or Jeb Bush, or Mitch Daniels, or Eric Cantor, or Lindsay Graham, or Mitch McConnell, or someone somewhere who has gone crosswise of those who view themselves as prefects of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

There is a different conservative disposition to which we can look, one which was embodied in Michael Oakeshott, one of the most respected intellectual spokesmen for British conservatism in the latter half of the 20th century. In her 1975 essay on Oakeshott (which is reprinted here), the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb said the key word describing the conservative disposition was “enjoyment.” Unlike the rationalist, who is “always lusting after something that is not,” the conservative tends to find delight in the gifts and blessings we have. Conservatives do not grow angry when the world refuses to conform to their ideals, nor do they see the present only as, in Oakeshott’s phrase, “a residue of inoppportunities.” He did not view the human situation as dark or dreary. 

At the end of her essay, Himmelfarb writes about the Oakeshott she knew, “with whom conversation, even controversy, was a sheer delight.” She continues:

He did not avoid disagreement; there was nothing wimpish about him. But he confronted it with such good nature and good humor that he always won the argument (he would never, of course, have called it that) by default, so to speak. It is not often that the person and the philosopher are so totally congruent. The “conservative disposition” – the disposition to enjoy what is rather than pining for what might be, to appreciate the givens and the goods of life without wanting to subject them to social or political validation – that is a perfect description of his own temperament… Oakeshott’s conservatism, like his temperament, is something of a rarity these days. 

It is still a rarity these days – rarer at least than it should be. Because while passion in politics is a fine, even admirable, thing, so too is winsomeness, a certain generosity of spirit, and even a touch of grace. 


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