Types of Right

How the conservatives break down.


Mr. O'Sullivan is a National Review Editor-at-Large.

CONSERVATISM is an ornery beast that hibernates in the summer and wakes up in winter. When political storms rage and radicals attack the fundamental institutions of society, then conservatism emerges angrily from its cave to do battle. But when the political climate is mild and pleasant as now — with a rising Dow, low unemployment, moderate social policies like welfare reform, and no clear and present danger from Abroad — then conservatives either cultivate their gardens or, if they are philosophically minded, sit around in circles under the sun speculating on what the next battle will be about.

The conservatism of the future is being shaped, debated, and tested in these circles today. What are these groups? What do they believe? And which among them is likely to prevail?

An exhaustive list would be too exhausting. We can surely pass quickly over such factions as the Religious Right and the libertarians. Not because they are unimportant — quite the reverse. But we know their philosophies pretty well already, and neither is likely to change dramatically.

Now, what about the other factions? In no particular order, they are:

1. The Tories. For, ahem, significant historical reasons, Toryism has not been a major trend in American political thought. But it is the dominant tendency in George W. Bush's GOP. Nor do I mean that sarcastically. Toryism (properly understood, as they say) is the conviction that government is the art of managing the state — in Tory language, "carrying on the King's government." Whereas a radical wants power to implement his utopian vision, or a liberal seeks office to spread the blessings of liberty, a Tory accepts the burden of public duty in order to deal with problems as they crop up. His appeal to the voters is as follows: "Look here, you all know I am a patriotic, godfearing, and honest man with sensible views. And I will surround myself with similar people. We will do our best on your behalf. But we cannot go into details now because, as you will appreciate, we cannot forecast either what the problems or the solutions will be."

This is a conservatism with a far more respectable philosophical pedigree than you might suppose. If George W. Bush were less of a Tory (i.e., more self-consciously philosophical), he would now be quoting the distinguished British political theorist, the late Michael Oakeshott, who in the essay "Rationalism in Politics" made the point that politics is a practical rather than an intellectual activity and that therefore it is best learned not from books but from being apprenticed to a master. (Alas, George W. was apprenticed to his father.) That being so, it is perfectly consistent that George W. Bush has no house Tory philosopher. Of course, a number of distinguished conservative intellectuals have signed on to his campaign to advise. But they are social or foreign-policy conservatives in a more conventional American mold, who believe either that Gov. Bush is one of their number already or that he can be steered in the right direction by their sage advice.

Toryism, finally, may well be an effective governing philosophy for a non-ideological time like the present moment. If, however, new radical ideologies emerge from the post-Cold War flux to challenge American institutions, it is likely to be superseded by a more self-conscious and intellectually grounded conservatism. To which Gov. Bush might well reply: "I'll deal with that when it happens."

2. Free-market Post-Nationalists. These are classical liberals and business conservatives, such as Robert Bartley of the Wall Street Journal and perhaps Newt Gingrich, who think that globalization is eroding the nation-state and making socialism impossible. They see that, with trade barriers falling and capital markets likely to punish governments that overtax and overspend, national governments have much less power to raise domestic levels of tax and regulation.

What this theory ignores, however, is that the same trends are likely to encourage the rise of international versions of regulation (the Kyoto accords), taxation, and government. The European Union — a kind of cartel of governments — is the prototype of future supra-national bodies. For international socialists, moreover, supra-nationalism has the advantage of not being under effective democratic control-an advantage because the voters usually reject socialism. Most conservatives respond to these trends by defending national sovereignty against supra-national incursions. But the free-market post-nationalists are in a dilemma here. If they strengthen the nation-state, they may also strengthen its power to regulate and intervene. If they don't, they may find down the line that a larger and more remote bureaucracy has acquired the power to regulate over a wider area. Their visceral dislike of Pat Buchanan will probably mean that they opt for the greater risk.

3. Nationalists. This is a very big tent indeed, with a lot of fighting under the canvas. Some themes unite all nationalists — such as the opposition to the loss of national sovereignty described above. But they are divided seriously over other issues. Economic nationalists (Pat Buchanan, Ross Perot, Dick Gephardt), standing for protectionism, have grabbed most attention. But their essentially gloomy nostrums are unlikely to have mass appeal in a long boom when manufacturing plants and steelworks account for less than a quarter of the U.S. economy. Unless there is a collapse in the Dow, therefore, economic nationalism on its own seems likely to peter out-to the benefit of the small but doughty group of nationalists who favor free trade (e.g., former Democratic governor Richard Lamm, Forbes senior editor Peter Brimelow).

Cultural nationalists (e.g., former California governor Pete Wilson, Michael Lind, Ward Connerly, Lamm, Brimelow, and, except for immigration, Linda Chavez and John J. Miller) are growing in number as bilingualism, multiculturalism, and immigration become more pressing problems. This is likely to continue. For the dirty little secret of multiculturalism is that it maximizes ethnic tensions. Democrats have inadvertently confirmed this in recent years with blatant race-baiting appeals to minorities. In the past, cultural nationalists have attempted to soothe such tensions both by restricting immigration and by promoting a trans-ethnic common American culture and consciousness. This time, however, they will run up against the multicultural Right that for electoral reasons has embraced ethnic and linguistic diversity as a good thing in itself. Conservative multiculturalism has very few intellectual supporters (only one in fact, Nathan Glazer), but it has a very important political one — George W. Bush.

4. National Greatness Lite Conservatives. This faction is born of the insight of some neoconservatives that nationalism has a powerful appeal, but that it usually involves policies they dislike, such as lower immigration. It then searches around for policies that could be thought to express or forward national greatness. So far this has mainly meant building great buildings and having great national projects — generally without specifying very clearly what they are or detailing any sacrifices involved. But these are early days, and Rome wasn't built in a day.

5. Evolutionary Conservatives. This is an almost wholly intellectual group (e.g., Steve Sailer, John McGinnis, Charles Murray)— not a politician brave enough to stand with them — who have realized two things: first, that lessons of the new science of evolutionary psychology are largely conservative ones about an adamantine human nature, the natural basis of sex roles, and so on; second, that the knowledge gained from the Human Genome Project and the rise of genetic engineering will throw up some fascinating and contentious political issues in the increasingly near future. John McGinnis outlined the conservative lessons of evolution in the December 22, 1997, issue of this magazine. The main obstacle to their acceptance by other conservatives is that, although they actually lend support to the moral rules derived from the Judeo-Christian tradition, they seem to rob them of divine backing by making them merely adaptive. That is a false criticism in logic, since God's laws and successful evolutionary adaptations could easily coincide. But that may not settle the dispute.

As for the new issues born of genetic research, some have already crossed the political radar screen — notably, the controversy over race and I.Q. — and others will stride into the limelight very soon as it becomes possible for parents not merely to correct obvious genetic effects, but also to improve their children's I.Q., looks, height, etc. Will governments allow this? It will be hard to deny a parent the right to lift the curse of some hereditary disease from his daughter. But since there is no clear dividing line between correcting a defect and improving a feature, then wealthy parents would be able to buy better life-prospects for their offspring. Liberals would then want to use the same technology to "equalize" life-chances.

Major political battles are riding on the back of these scientific discoveries — and the evolutionary conservatives are among the very few people who have thought about them seriously. The Tories will have a lot of hard thinking to do when these issues land unexpectedly on their desks. Maybe they should start practicing now.

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