Commentary Magazine


The Future of Conservatism

To the Editor:

Responding to your symposium, “On the Future of Conservatism” [February], I would like, first, to suggest that the mixed results of the November 1996 election were due to the fact that the electorate realizes that both political parties are dominated by people far from the political mainstream. The voters want each party to restrain the ideological excesses of the other.

Among the Democrats are those who would like the government to eliminate poverty and racial inequality. These seem like laudable goals. Unfortunately, they cannot be achieved. Moreover, they cannot even be approximated without the intervention of a government that is more intrusive and expensive than most Americans—certainly most white Americans—desire.

On the Republican side we find people who would like to turn back the calendar on social issues, economic issues, or both, to the 50’s, the 20’s, or even the 19th century. But the basic reforms of the Progressive era, the New Deal—minus welfare—and the Medicare and environmental legislation of the 60’s and 70’s have broad popular support. Any efforts by the GOP to dismantle them will provoke a backlash in the next election. This is what happened between the elections of 1994 and 1996

In addition, while Americans are squeamish about abortion, and would probably support additional restrictions, most oppose an absolute ban, and opinion is not shifting on this issue. Finally, while most Americans feel that homosexuality is not very nice, most also acknowledge that homosexuals tend to obey the law and pay their own way.

If conservatism has a mandate in the near future it is to save the country from President Clinton’s more harebrained schemes and to continue attacking liberals where they are most vulnerable—that is to say, on the issues of crime, welfare, affirmative action, illegal immigration, and busing.

John Engelman
Walnut Creek, California

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To the Editor:

It would be well for conservatives to study and then restudy President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s State of the Union message of February 2, 1953, a portion of which reads:

There is in our affairs at home a middle way between untrammeled freedom of the individual and the demands for the welfare of the whole nation. This way must avoid government by bureaucracy as carefully as it avoids neglect of the helpless.

Eisenhower’s tone is moderately conservative, or one might even say progressively Republican. Lincoln would have been at home with it. But most if not all conservatives today were in favor of the 1994 Gingrich counterrevolution which turned so extremist (shutting down the government twice) that it led to the reelection of Bill Clinton.

This may be mid-90’s conservatism, but it is not true Republicanism. Republicans would do well to follow Eisenhower’s advice, and take the middle way.

Moses M. Twersky
Providence, Rhode Island

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To the Editor:

This physicist and engineer, an optimistic, progressive conservative in the tradition of the most popular Republican president of all time, Theodore Roosevelt, is not at all dismayed by the inflammatory rhetoric the editor of First Things, Father Richard John Neuhaus, used in his introduction to “The End of Democracy?” symposium in that magazine’s November 1996 issue. For, as Walter Berns points out in the COMMENTARY symposium, all conservatives, not just those who wrote in First Things, are outraged by the arrogance of the Supreme Court in such cases as Weber (1979), in which the Court knowingly and willfully misread the plain, blunt language of the Civil Right Acts of 1964 in order to support racist preferences.

In fact, history reveals that the Supreme Court has often been arrogant and wrong. Besides the notorious Dred Scott decision, and the many other infamous decisions regarding the rights of black citizens, such as the Civil Rights Cases (1883) and Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), there are the shocking Lochner decision (1905) and the outrageous declaration by the Court in 1918 that the child-labor law was unconstitutional. But still, the Court has changed with time and the nation has prospered.

As concern for public morality and religious thought returns to the debate in the “public square,” and the free-enterprise/private-property model grows and succeeds all around the world, there is every reason to believe that the Republican party can again win the presidency. A Republican following in the path of Ronald Reagan, Dwight Eisenhower, and Theodore Roosevelt, taking pride in America, its power and its ideals, can lead the party to victory.

Howard D. Greyber
Potomac, Maryland

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To the Editor:

As a fairly regular (though mostly apolitical) contributor to First Things and a sometime correspondent in these columns, I feel constrained to add my two-cents’ worth on the recent kerfuffle provoked by the now-notorious November symposium in First Things. Yet I also feel oddly reluctant to join in, as I do not want to do anything to contribute further to a rift between these two estimable journals. But on reflection, I do not think there is any danger of that, for without fail the contributors to COMMENTARY’s symposium spoke with the shrewdness, intelligence, and civility that is not only the mark of its pages but will, I hope, bode well for healing this temporary rift.

As for my two cents’ worth: to judge by First Things‘ rhetoric and by later reactions, I cannot help feeling that there are two ghosts (one for each penny?) lurking in the closet of this debate. Let me guess that what the critics of Father Richard John Neuhaus most fear in his untoward language of “regime,” “legitimacy,” “revolution,” etc. is Oklahoma City. But what he and the other editors of First Things must have had in mind, I hypothesize, is the ghost of a new Supreme Court decision establishing a “right” to die, a decision which, if handed down, would indeed unleash a crisis of confidence in our polity of unprecedented proportions.

I mostly agree with all those participants who find fault with the murky logic and dark foreboding tone of Neuhaus’s introduction to his November symposium. I found Gertrude Himmelfarb’s exegesis especially perceptive. But I regret, even deplore, what I regard as the rash step of Walter Berns, Peter L. Berger, and Miss Himmelfarb in resigning from the editorial board of First Things. Much more considered, I think, was Midge Decter’s measured and warmly affectionate (not to mention loyal) response. I sometimes joke with my friends, but only half-facetiously, that the only reason I do not regard the judgments of Midge Decter as per se infallible is that my Roman Catholic faith requires that I acknowledge this particular charisma as belonging to the See of Rome. But surely in her response to the First Things imbroglio she is right once again; a little patience, please!

Nevertheless, I personally look for good coming out of this. The whole controversy has at least highlighted the need for bringing into the foreground the essential moral consensus that is the prerequisite for political consensus. I think William Kristol, George Weigel, and Ruth R. Wisse are much closer to the truth than some of the other contributors in realizing how much rides on being very clear on exactly what is at stake in the abortion issue. To lapse into a vaguely thought-out libertarianism on social morality in the manner of twentysomething Internet junkies will only undermine, as Mr. Weigel so rightly asserts, the very foundations of the economic order so dear to the libertarian heart.

And I say this fully cognizant of the legitimate (that word again!) discrepancy that can exist between a moral judgment on abortion and its legal status. The difficulty in resolving that crux rests in the peculiar nature of the act of procuring abortion, especially against the background of American jurisprudence: in my opinion, it shares in about equal measure features of Abolitionism and Prohibition. On the one hand, we have a Supreme Court decision that has declared that in effect the fetus is a non-person, offering uncomfortable parallels with the Dred Scott decision; on the other hand, any attempt to ban the practice in law would lead to a considerable flouting of the law, given the relatively private nature of the operation, whereas denying personhood to black slaves was a persistent public act of ongoing degradation that required an endless series of legal supports and sanctions.

It is for that reason that I, for one, would not support a Human Life Amendment if it were ever to become a viable political option—on what I take to be the very good Thomistic ground of the law’s inherent unenforceability. I have never expressed such an opinion in public before because it has seemed to me that the chance of passing the amendment is next to nil.

However, I also think that we cannot afford to indulge in a live-and-let-live terminological insouciance about the nature of the incipient human being growing in the womb, for that road does lead to a moral agnosticism that makes the libertarian option inevitable.

As a Roman Catholic, I always get annoyed when people attribute my judgment on the immorality of abortion to my faith, for at least as far as I can judge my own convictions, it rests on perfectly obvious biological facts, the most important of which is the essential continuity of life—the interruption of which is the very definition of death and the deliberate interruption of which is the very definition of killing.

In conclusion, I join most of the COMMENTARY contributors in their judgment that the First Things editorial introducing the five articles on judicial usurpation of politics was carelessly phrased, but I also think it possible to overreact in the other direction.

Edward T. Oakes, S.J.
Denver, Colorado

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To the Editor:

Those who prefer the liberal-conservative wars to be fought on the social and political hustings can only look with dismay at the furor over the First Things symposium. What really happened? First Things writers reacted intemperately to the unquestioned excesses of the Supreme Court and seemed to be advocating rather far-fetched tactics to remedy the situation. One might have expected some in the conservative camp to point this out, while still recognizing they were dealing with friends and natural allies. But what is surprising, and troubling, is that many of our leading conservatives attacked Father Richard John Neuhaus in the harshest of terms and some who had been on the magazine’s board resigned.

Yes, Neuhaus and company said that our government was “morally illegitimate” and declared that they were no longer able to give “moral assent to the existing regime.” Clearly, however, they are some distance from spearheading a revolution in our democratic system. Moreover, in a subsequent issue, Neuhaus “clarified” the magazine’s position and adopted a more moderate tone.

Of course, those on the Left pounced on this controversy, less because they took issue with First Things‘ overkill than in an effort to wound and divide conservatives, whose views they know have found increasing acceptance among many, if not most, Americans.

It seems that in acting the way they did, many leading conservatives fell into the trap the Left had set for them. But I would remind these people that if they want to find real villains on the Right, they should remember that waiting in the wings are Patrick J. Buchanan and other paleoconservatives with isolationist and anti-Semitic baggage readying themselves for the next national election.

What is necessary, as Norman Podhoretz points out, is “to fight to roll back the imperial judiciary while striving to work out the details of a more humane alternative to the social and political depredations of the liberal ethos.”

Murray Friedman
Cheltenham, Pennsylvania

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To the Editor:

The ironies surrounding your recent symposium abound. Writing in National Review two years ago, Father Richard John Neuhaus objected to The Bell Curve by Charles Murray and the late Richard J. Herrnstein on the grounds that some matters are best passed over in silence. Now, some of those who defended The Bell Curve have come down hard on Neuhaus for providing a public forum for delicate matters.

The natural-law tradition offers a secular, philosophical perspective that happens to have been most fully developed among Roman Catholics. It is not a theological doctrine, except in the attenuated sense that it may require a certain metaphysical perspective, namely, that there is an order to the cosmos that implies a teleology of human development and activity. From such a perspective, it is possible to derive norms through which we may judge the propriety of human actions, including those of government. In other words, when we apply the natural-law tradition, precisely what we do is judge regimes and laws. Why, then, the scandal?

It may be objected that the tone of the symposium in First Things was alarmist. I myself, a neoconservative of the younger generation, dislike and disagree with “doom-and-gloom” conservatism. But I have another concern. The conservative coalition is not indestructible. As it stands, neoconservatives and Buchananites can barely manage civility. It is not helpful for prominent neoconservatives to anathematize those who only recently were their friends. That style of argument smacks of political correctness and the enforcement of discipline rather than principled disagreement.

Indeed, it seems to me that we must generally guard against a style of cultural criticism which is too eager to react, and instead affirm the value of reflection and the appreciation of nuance. Of course, critics must criticize, but censoriousness is no substitute for careful analysis and reasoned response.

Michael David Blume
Annapolis, Maryland

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To the Editor:

I found troubling one aspect of the discussion in your symposium: the attempt by some participants to reduce the initial broad charge of judicial usurpation to one concerning abortion alone.

The issue was put most sharply by Peter L. Berger in his customary concise fashion:

Imagine that abortion in the United States had achieved its present legal status through an act of Congress rather than a Supreme Court decision. Imagine further that the Supreme Court had then ruled this act to be unconstitutional. I doubt very much that most of the First Things contributors would have viewed the latter action as a serious usurpation of power, let alone a reason to question the legitimacy of the American polity.

I believe Mr. Berger’s example obscures more than it illuminates the issue.

Consider: in case A (which is what actually took place), the Court, in legalizing abortion, overturned not only the laws of many states but also a moral tradition of long standing in the West, still supported by many citizens. And it based its decision on a reading of the Constitution that many citizens find vaporous and unconvincing. This was an egregious act of judicial usurpation.

In case B (the Berger projection), the Court’s decision would be consonant with a long-standing moral tradition and, more importantly, it would be based on a reading of the Constitution that could be firmly grounded—one that provides for the protection of human life at a most vulnerable stage. In this instance, the Court would be acting in accordance with, not in contradiction to, our system of checks and balances. No judicial usurpation would be involved.

Without diminishing the importance of abortion in the present debate over judicial activism, it is well to recognize that it is only one of many issues in the larger context of examining how religiously and morally informed opinions of the body politic properly help shape public policy.

James Finn
Puebla Institute
New York City

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To the Editor:

I have been a reader of COMMENTARY since 1984. I am a dyed-in-the-wool Protestant of the Augustinian and Calvinist school, which, I suppose, classifies me as poor, illiterate, and uneducated. (Unfortunately, to the first of these I must admit, though the remainder I emphatically deny.) That said, I must, respectfully, enter a negative opinion on COMMENTARY’s latest symposium.

It seems to me the main difference between the contributors to the COMMENTARY symposium and the participants in the First Things symposium is to what degree each believes in the existence of God, His precepts, and His relevance to the day-by-day working-out of history. True, the First Things symposium was predominantly about the judicial usurpation of democracy, but it was strongly undergirded with the propositions and precepts of God. And I sense that it is this “throwing of God into the mix” that is a thorn in the side of the writers in COMMENTARY. Not that they do not believe in God—heaven forbid I should make such a charge—but I sense that they do not see God in the same way as those in First Things, and particularly, not the way the Founders saw Him.

In the Founders’ eyes the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights were not absolutes. Was what they did and what they wrote right; how near to the truth and to God’s will did they come, relative to what they were trying to accomplish? These things were the absolutes. And this is also the position of First Things. To think it wants in some way to bring America down and bring chaos down on all our heads is unbelievable. The critics completely misread Father Richard John Neuhaus’s intent and purpose; what he really wants is simply a return to the principles and ideas that were part and parcel of the original Constitution.

We are still the mightiest nation on the face of the earth, economically and militarily. Our freedom and opportunities still far exceed those of any other nation. But what made us a shining light upon a hill is fading. We were great once, now we are only mighty.

If the transcendent power behind the Constitution which gave it legitimacy is no longer adhered to, then what we have today is not the Constitution drafted by the Founders. That is the cry of First Things: go back go back, and seek the things that made us great in the beginning, make them real again, and we shall see our greatness return.

Eddie MacCausland
Ocala, Florida

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To the Editor:

The conservative movement, or counterrevolution, that has won majority support, particularly in the two victories of Ronald Reagan, was not based on a repudiation of the 60-year efforts of the federal government to create greater equality for all, socially and economically, but on anger toward a few recent policies that seemed to threaten basic values held by most Democrats as well as by Republicans. These policies included expanding welfare programs which helped to keep people out of the mainstream; reverse discrimination; judicial usurpation of legislative functions that resulted in placing the rights of criminals above the rights of their victims; and a political correctness in our colleges that assumed the values of the vast majority of people to be inferior to the values of radical feminists, Afrocentrists, and various new-Marxists.

To see what is actually taking place in the minds of the majority of people, conservatives will not only have to get over their visceral hatred of President Clinton but learn to imitate him in recognizing that the distortions of and anti-American accretions to traditional liberalism can be eliminated only if we assure people that the basic values underlying the democratic revolution will be maintained. Thus, we can drastically reform welfare programs only by also providing jobs and training to millions more than we do now, and reverse discrimination by doing more to end traditional discrimination, etc.

The leader of this kind of intelligent conservatism right now is President Clinton, but, admittedly, his leadership is equivocal and uncertain. Thus there is wide opportunity for others. But conservative leadership will come about only if conservatives give up their nostalgia for an imagined past and accept the fact that to hold onto what is best in our past requires change, just as intelligent change requires a sense of continuity with the past.

Lawrence Hyman
Ridgewood, New Jersey

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To the Editor:

Most of your symposium on the future of conservatism shows why conservatism neither has nor deserves a future. With the exception of David Frum, the contributors do not even understand the major issues confronting America. This is not some erudite debate about Catholics and Jews in an esoteric magazine, it is about the fate of average citizens.

Does anyone among the conservatives care that 40 million Americans are without health insurance? Can they imagine what desperation parents must feel when their child is sick and they have no health insurance? When an adult fears a serious illness? Clinton’s proposal for national health insurance had defects, but it was a serious attempt to solve a problem of fundamental importance. Republican opposition was clever, but showed no interest in solving the underlying problem; its triumph was the triumph of evil. And to refer, as Irwin M. Stelzer does, to the Family and Medical Leave Act as giving time off “to take the cat to the vet” demonstrates the complete lack of sympathy for the problems of real people that characterizes today’s conservatives.

The rigid anti-abortion position of most of the contributors is extreme and out of touch with most Americans, even members of the class that writes these hardline essays. For example, most American women at risk of bearing a damaged fetus have amniocentesis, and no doubt this includes conservative women as well. In the self-righteous posturing about abortion from Republican stalwarts trying to ingratiate themselves with religious fanatics, I have seen nothing about the situation of a family which wants a child, but not one with serious defects whose care might ruin family life for all.

As a former neoconservative, now once again a liberal, I looked to your symposium to see if there were still some common ground between us. I favor requiring welfare mothers to work, and agree that the old welfare system caused disaster by destroying the incentive of many to marry or to work. But we should not go to the extreme of putting legal immigrants who are patients in nursing homes on the street when their five years are up. I will not accept having children sleep on grates because their mothers cannot find jobs that pay enough to cover child-care expenses. Raising the minimum wage was essential, as is the earned-in-come-tax credit, but both measures were opposed by the Republicans in Congress.

What have conservatives to offer to that part of the electorate which cares about the unfortunate, not only when they qualify for protection by Mark Helprin’s standards by being unborn or facing death? I hear a lot of talk about charity, but the figures show that most of the rich are giving to their own institutions (e.g. universities, hospitals, and churches or synagogues), not to the needy and hungry. These uncharitable people are the same crowd which wants its taxes cut.

Edith U. Fierst
Washington, D.C.

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To the Editor:

It obviously does not fall to me, as associate editor of First Things, to answer the questions and complaints raised in your February issue; the writers published in the First Things November symposium on judicial usurpation are well able to defend themselves. But several of your contributors mention the inset historical quotations printed in First Things, and perhaps it does fall to me, as the person who found those quotations, to point out that they have been misread. The passages from William Lloyd Garrison, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Dietrich Bonhoeffer were intended to illustrate diverse opinions on the patriotic duty of citizens at a time of governmental immorality, ranging from Garrison’s revolutionary outrage to Bonhoeffer’s thoughtful observation of the enduring legitimacy of government. When Michael Novak, for instance, suggests that First Things might have printed passages from Bonhoeffer arguing against revolution, he is absolutely right—except that First Things already did, as a rereading of the printed quotations will show.

J. Bottum
First Things
New York City

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To the Editor:

The contributors to your symposium on the future of conservatism focused on the short term, about which on the whole they were pessimistic. Nevertheless, there are also grounds for rejoicing. The reason is that socialism is dead as an idea. It did not require theoretical refutation; Ludwig von Mises provided that long ago. But the fall of Communism, and the revelations that accompanied that fall, made untenable the redemptive fantasy by which modern liberals have sought to atone for their prosperity. Certainly, many liberals do not consider themselves socialists, but socialism has until now acted like a magnet attracting their thoughts.

Perhaps this does not appear to promise any improvement in the moral problems that seem unrelated to socialism. In their public-policy aspect, however, these problems are primarily ones of centralized power being imposed on local choices. And there is some reason to believe that the central-planning commitment essential to the socialist mind-set is what has created those intellectuals and jurists who insist that the people of a state should not be able, for example, to limit the special privileges granted to homosexuals, support single-sex military schools, or determine the terms on which they will permit abortion and suicide.

It is funny but true that material changes like the cell phone or the personal computer will spread like wildfire while outdated ideas take a generation to disappear into museums. The next few years are uncertain, but, like the American Revolution, the fall of Communism seems likely to determine the trend of intellectual fashion for some time to come.

Michael J. Lynch
Toledo, Ohio

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