Autumn 2009: Of Note
The Right Stuff
Patrick Allitt charts American conservatism in new book
“Allitt traces history of American conservatism,” Emory Report, Sept. 21, 2009
By Paige P. Parvin 96G
When a U.S. representative called out, “You lie!” during President Barack Obama’s speech on health care reform in early September, many of those watching weren’t sure at first who had disrupted the proceedings. But in light of the politics at play, there was little doubt in anyone’s mind that he would fit current definitions of “conservative.” In fact, the noisemaker was a Southern Republican who does indeed embody commonly held notions of the term.
It wasn’t always so easy to define American conservatives, nor did they identify themselves as such. But the roots of what is now considered conservatism are more than two centuries deep. Patrick Allitt, Cahoon Family Professor of American History, traces the progression of conservatism in his new book, The Conservatives: Ideas and Personalities throughout American History.
When Yale University Press approached Allitt about the project, he says, the topic piqued his interest. “This is a relatively understudied area of American history,” he says. “There are many more books about liberalism, probably because academics tend to lean more left.”
Before the 1950s, Allitt found, there was really no conservative political movement in the United States—at least not by today’s standards. But from the time of the nation’s founders, conservatism was alive and well in what Allitt describes as “an attitude to social and political change that looks for support to the ideas, beliefs, and habits of the past and puts more faith in the lessons of history than in the abstractions of political philosophy.”
A few aspects of conservatism have remained fairly consistent over time. One, according to Allitt, is a deep discomfort with the idea of equality among citizens—except perhaps “in the eyes of God.” Today, he says, this distrust of egalitarianism is only thinly veiled by a surface endorsement of equality that has come to be socially expected.
“I think conservatives would say everybody knows it’s true that people aren’t equal; we just pretend they are,” Allitt says. “In most areas—at our jobs, for instance—we work very hard to accurately reflect inequalities and put them into practice. To act as though they’re not there is a collective self-delusion. But a politician can’t ever say that people aren’t equal, so they play a double game.”
Conservatives also have tended to take a dim view of human nature and the potential for positive change. “What neoconservatives in the 1970s described as the law of unintended consequences was part of this attitude—the fear that reformers can intend good effects but accidentally cause bad ones, such that the evil outweighs the good,” Allitt writes.
Alongside the common themes that have dominated conservatism, Allitt also discovered inconsistencies on a range of major issues that have fluctuated with the times. Democracy, the free market, and foreign policy are examples of areas where the conservative position has shifted or fractured in response to current events.
Today, one of the defining characteristics of conservative thought is a general opposition to expansion of government, but that was not always necessarily the case. “There isn’t a definite conservative attitude toward government; it has been contingent on circumstances,” Allitt says. “At the very beginning of the Republic, for instance, Alexander Hamilton and John Adams sought to reinterpret the Constitution to strengthen federal government. During the Cold War, conservatives were against big government at home, but in favor of increasing defense. It always depends on which bit of government you’re looking at and the perceived threat.”
While conservatism is often aligned with privilege and wealth, Allitt quickly dismisses “the self-interested special pleading of men who have a lot to lose” as shallow and uninteresting. “The people I dedicated the book to had ideas that were more than self-justification,” he says. “These were people really expressing their understanding of human nature and the difficulties life generates.”
Allitt, who was born in England and does not consider himself conservative, says he sought to strike a neutral tone in the book, with the hope that readers from all points of the political spectrum can gain new understanding. One of the surprises in researching The Conservatives was that he found some of the key figures to be much more likeable than he anticipated. For instance, he had always understood William Graham Sumner, a sociologist who taught at Yale during the late nineteenth century, to be a cold proponent of social Darwinism, but became taken with Sumner’s advocacy of what he called “the forgotten man”—the average, working, tax-paying American who is all too often overlooked by government policy.
The influence of conservatism has helped to create remarkable stability in the American political system, Allitt points out, and for that we owe it a debt of gratitude. It’s easy to forget that all over the world, failed democracies and bloody revolutions cause widespread human devastation. The U.S., by contrast, benefits from dependable elections and leaders who step into the established system and play by the rules—the occasional outburst during a presidential speech notwithstanding.
“The downside of conservatism is that it tends to put up with injustices, but the upside is that it prevents the outbreak of worse injustices,” Allitt says. “If you are a utopian, you will get impatient with it, but if you are a pragmatist you will be thankful for it.”