This article is from our January symposium issue, in which 53 leading writers and thinkers answer the question: “What is the future of conservatism in the wake of the 2012 election?” Click here to read the entire symposium.
It’s possible to be too concerned with the future–or to be judged too concerned–as conservatives discovered in the election of 2012. In winning, liberals paid almost no attention to impending trouble in the economy, in society, abroad, in anything or anywhere. Under President Obama’s leadership, they confined themselves to pointing out that we, the liberals and Democrats, the party of the people, are on your side. Whatever happens, we will do better for you than the conservatives will.
Who are “we” in the party of the people? The answer is, anybody who wants to be. The liberals belong to the party of inclusiveness, frowning on no one except those who frown. These are the conservatives. The conservatives are the party of the common good, and are therefore concerned with the future of the country. They are, speaking generally, the responsible party, and because they are responsible, they are obliged to be judgmental. They must uphold the virtues of the more responsible among us, i.e., the few versus the many. They hope to persuade the many, for example, by promoting the entrepreneurial talents of small businessmen rather than corporations. But however inoffensive they try to be, they can be made to appear exclusive.
Liberals want democracy at its fullest; conservatives want democracy to work. Since these goals are both necessary and conflicting, the future of each party is assured. Democracy, we are told by Tocqueville, is a revolution toward ever more democracy, not a static state. Democracy wants liberty, but not as much as it wants equality, and it will always interpret the exercise of liberty as requiring more equality. Democracy is naturally given to the visionary schemes of liberals, one unlovely example of which made its debut in the campaign of 2012 when the Democrats made themselves the party of free contraception. Why? Free to buy condoms means equally free to buy, hence free without charge. Carry this further: What good is a free condom if it is kept unused in a drawer? Doesn’t a free condom imply a right, and a government guarantee, that it will be put to use? Here is the very definition of a visionary scheme–a false promise if there ever was one–of sexual liberation.
It is the business of conservatives to restrain democracy to what is good, not abstractly, but to what is the common good of a democracy. Democracy on its own has a tendency to exaggerate itself and to go too far, thus to bring trouble on itself. In demanding equality it tries to level differences, claiming to raise the low but often actually lowering the high.
Conservatives are needed to stand for greatness against democratic mediocrity and, as we now see, for solvency against democratic profligacy. But in a democracy it is not enough to “stand for” greatness and solvency; that will work for liberals with their easy goals, but not for conservatives. Conservatives have the harder task of persuading the people with arguments showing why it is necessary to admire the best among us and to restrain the extension of equality. The party of judgment has to be the party of argument. It would take too long to explain why the party of argument is known as the stupid party, and why the party of intellectuals is so contemptuous of the intellect. But that is where we are and will be.
Harvey Mansfield is a professor of government at Harvard University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.