Is there such a thing as a conservative disposition?
For some on the right the answer is not really. They (rightly) view the purpose of conservatism as a means to limit government in order to further liberty. But they tend to think of conservatism almost strictly in terms of issues: the size of the modern welfare state, taxes, regulations, immigration, welfare, education, and so forth.
For others on the right, conservatism does have a dispositional element. This group includes people who can be fairly characterized, I think, as confrontational and opposed to compromise, rhetorically aggressive, impatient, and often angry (for justifiable reasons, they would insist). These individuals are suspicious of those in their ranks they consider to be unprincipled (“RINOs”). Populist in outlook, they disdain the “establishment” and the “ruling class,” whom they view as cowardly and compromised. Their operating assumption is that we’re witnessing the downfall of America; some even argue we’re moving toward tyranny. This of course shapes their cast of mind and rhetoric. The type of individuals I’m describing, when they listen to Barry Goldwater’s line in his 1964 convention speech “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice,” are likely to cheer.
There are others of us who believe in a conservative temperament, but it’s very much different than the one I just described. This dispositional bent is beautifully articulated in an essay in National Affairs titled, appropriately, “The Conservative Disposition in Politics.” Written by Philip Wallach and Justus Myers, the essay explores the conservative intellectual tradition, which they identify with figures like Burke, Hume, Madison, Hamilton, Oakeshott, Hayek, de Tocqueville, and Nisbet.
The essay includes important caveats, including this one: Temperamental conservatism is not a good match for every problem, and conserving institutional structures that are incompatible with liberty or justice would be illiberal and unjust. Different moments require different approaches. Still, generally speaking, the key features of conservatism include being consciously anti-ideological and anti-utopian, wary of abstractions and disruptive change, and somewhat humble in its approach given the complexity of human society and the limitations of knowledge.
When possible, conservatism prefers incremental changes to radical ones. It places a premium on experience and prudence. It is adaptive and situational, taking into account the circumstances in which we find ourselves. It accepts that governing can be messy, frustrating, and painfully slow (which is precisely what Madison intended with his system of checks and balances and separation of powers). Conservatism properly understood isn’t in principle opposed to compromise–particularly, it needs to be said, since the Constitution would never have been ratified but for repeated compromises. Compromise was in fact thought to be a positive good within the system of government created by the founders (see here for more). While certainly willing to fight for principles, a true conservative disposition seeks to temper and constructively channel passions rather than inflame them.
This difference in temperament is, I think, the major divide that exists within conservatism today. While there is some variance in terms of policies they are, by historical standards, somewhat narrow. The Republican Party is an almost uniformly conservative party these days. This is not a Rockefeller v. Goldwater moment.
Which disposition is most appropriate for this particular time is for each individual to decide. (Most of us will defend the disposition that comes most naturally to us.) My point, though, is that those who identify with the intellectual tradition described by Wallach and Myers should not cede the mantle of conservatism to those who don’t.
It’s one thing to believe, as I do, that we need substantial reforms of our governing institutions. But conservative reforms can be achieved–in fact, they are more likely to be achieved–by those with moderate temperaments: men and women who can persuade and not simply exhort, who are seen as equable and bold rather than zealous and reckless, and who carefully select the ground on which they’ll fight. (Ronald Reagan succeeded where Goldwater failed in part because his temperament reassured voters whereas Goldwater’s alarmed many of them.)
There is also something “inherently sunny about conservatism,” Wallach and Myers write. It tends to, in the words of Oakeshott, “delight in what is present rather than what was or what may be.” Conservatives correctly judge our situation not against perfection, but against life in this fallen world. And even in this fallen world they’re still able to find joy in the journey.