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Dear Prudence

Constitutional Conservatism:
Liberty, Self-Government, and Political Moderation

By Peter Berkowitz
Hoover Institution Press, 140 pages

Peter Berkowitz’s brief and wise Constitutional Conservatism argues that conservatives, and the Republican Party, lost the popular vote in 5 of the past 6 presidential elections in part because of changing demographics, the popularity of big government, and the pervasiveness of the sexual revolution with its consequences for family and marriage. Neither social conservatives nor libertarians have been able to determine which novel ideas and arguments they jointly must support in order to cope with these realities. Berkowitz argues that conservatives should rally under the new and better banner of constitutional conservatism, guided by political moderation. Or rather, political moderation properly understood.

If conservatives dig deeply into the principles of liberty, order, and faith that informed the American Founding, they will discover that the Constitution itself institutionalizes moderation—by accommodating, balancing, and calibrating rival and worthy principles to form a sustainable politics of liberty. Federalism, separation of powers, party contests, and a politics of both religious liberty and appeal to religious beliefs together comprise a system that balances and blends differing views and interests. Progressives, from the early 20th century until our time, have been frustrated by this balance; they think it gums up the works and makes change more difficult. For Berkowitz, this is the genius of the system, not a failing, and thus he counsels conservatives to embrace it as the moderation Americans crave and need. Instead, he fears, conservatives have fallen prey to the Progressive temptation to elevate the ends over the means, pushing for an overall goal rather than respecting the overall system. He urges social conservatives, libertarians, and neoconservatives to harmonize their ideas and electoral tactics because, in their discrete searches for ideological purity, they have forgotten that “conservatism in America comprises a family of rival and worthy principles that require accommodation—to each other, to the exigencies of the moment, and to the changing habits and opinions of the American people.”

Berkowitz turns to philosophical exemplars to make his point. First he cites Edmund Burke as an exponent of constitutional conservatism and moderation who balanced the need to preserve tradition with the need for reform. He moves on to Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, who used The Federalist to advance the balance of individual rights and majority consent and checks on government power with the need for the executive to be energetic rather than ineffectual. Finally, he examines the rediscovery of constitutionalism and moderation as rediscovered by modern conservatism from the 1950s onward—in Hayek, Friedman, Kirk, Chambers, Buckley, Meyer, and Irving Kristol, along with such political leaders as Goldwater and Reagan.

Berkowitz offers not policy proposals but the general principle that social conservatives, libertarians, and neoconservatives should recognize the mutual dependence among their core ideals, and thereby consider that each will be better off for a meeting of minds—since the achievement of conservative harmony would blunt the least electorally attractive qualities of each strain. They should not compromise on principle, or be mushy, but boldly compromise for principle as the necessary condition for achieving political and electoral success. Along the way, he rehabilitates prudence as the ally of moderation and justice, rescuing it from the imputation of Machiavellian calculation. He offers the sobering examples of Newt Gingrich and George W. Bush, both of whom meant well but improperly balanced the ideals of liberty, limited government, tradition, and virtue—and lost the prudence that would have helped them achieve their policy aims. Prudence helps moderation by making it clear how to reconcile principles with the intention of achieving the best outcome possible. He points out that The Federalist opens and closes by invoking moderation as an ideal of intellectual balance and political balance—which involves tempering one’s rhetoric amid the inevitable contestation of a free politics.

I cannot think of a corresponding volume on high constitutional principle and moderation by a liberal-progressive scholar; this alone might give conservatives cheer in recalling that Reagan’s Republican Party still advocates ideas about liberty and equal opportunity while the Democratic Party has drifted toward a coalition of interests and grievances over inequality. Because liberty and tradition, virtue and religion, face stiff winds from the universities and the media, and also from the popularity of government largesse and lifestyle liberation, it now is moderate simply to weigh in on the side of constitutional principles that have made America so free, fair, prosperous, and powerful—and that Progressives tend to simultaneously presume, consume, and denigrate. In the face of the conservative reclamation of moderation, progressives may struggle to explain how their vision of equality is culturally, socially, and fiscally sustainable.

Drawing on his experience as a professor and as a Hoover Institution fellow, Berkowitz has combined both erudition and shrewdness in this useful civic primer for American conservatives of all stripes. Indeed, it would be profitably read by any serious citizen seeking a concise survey of the principles of our constitutional order, the rise of modern conservatism in the 1950s and its successes into the Reagan era, and the need for all public figures to rediscover the limits of partisanship.

About the Author

Paul O. Carrese is the Forbes Visiting Fellow in the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton, where he is completing a book on democracy and moderation.




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