Thursday, December 29, 2005


The "Hart" of American Conservatism

In assessing the state of American conservatism, Dartmouth scholar Jeffrey Hart channels Edmund Burke and has some sobering observations on both the Bush administration and the modern Republican Party:

Wilsonianism. The Republican Party now presents itself as the party of Hard Wilsonianism, which is no more plausible than the original Soft Wilsonianism, which balkanized Central Europe with dire consequences. No one has ever thought Wilsonianism to be conservative, ignoring as it does the intractability of culture and people's high valuation of a modus vivendi. Wilsonianism derives from Locke and Rousseau in their belief in the fundamental goodness of mankind and hence in a convergence of interests.

George W. Bush has firmly situated himself in this tradition, as in his 2003 pronouncement, "The human heart desires the same good things everywhere on earth." Welcome to Iraq. Whereas realism counsels great prudence in complex cultural situations, Wilsonianism rushes optimistically ahead. Not every country is Denmark. The fighting in Iraq has gone on for more than two years, and the ultimate result of "democratization" in that fractured nation remains very much in doubt, as does the long-range influence of the Iraq invasion on conditions in the Middle East as a whole. In general, Wilsonianism is a snare and a delusion as a guide to policy, and far from conservative.

The Republican Party. Conservatives assume that the Republican Party is by and large conservative. But this party has stood for many and various things in its history. The most recent change occurred in 1964, when its center of gravity shifted to the South and the Sunbelt, now the solid base of "Republicanism." The consequences of that profound shift are evident, especially with respect to prudence, education, intellect and high culture. It is an example of Machiavelli's observation that institutions can retain the same outward name and aspect while transforming their substance entirely.
The other "modern Burkean", George Will had similar worries more than a year ago in a speech delivered to the Manhattan Institute:
Now America is engaged in a great exercise in nation-building. America invaded Iraq to disarm a rogue regime thought to be accumulating weapons of mass destruction. After nine months of postwar searching, no such weapons have as yet been found. The appropriate reaction to this is dismay, and perhaps indignation, about intelligence failures—failures that also afflicted the previous American administration and numerous foreign governments.

Instead, Washington’s reaction is Wilsonian. It is: Never mind the weapons of mass destruction; a sufficient justification for the war was Iraq’s noncompliance with various U.N. resolutions. So a conservative American administration says that war was justified by the need—the opportunity—to strengthen the U.N., a.k.a. the “international community,” as the arbiter of international behavior. Woodrow Wilson lives.

It is counted realism in Washington now to say that creating a new Iraqi regime may require perhaps two years. One wonders: Does Washington remember that it took a generation, and the United States Army, to bring about, in effect, regime change—a change of institutions and mores—in the American South? Will a Middle Eastern nation prove more plastic to our touch than Mississippi was? Will two years suffice for America—as Woodrow Wilson said of the Latin American republics—to teach Iraq to elect good men? We are, it seems, fated to learn again the limits of the Wilsonian project.

Make of this what you will.

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