Most people associate “Conservatism” with such figures as Ronald Reagan, Barry Goldwater, and Jack Kemp. And if we’re defining Conservatism as the fusionist ideological movement that married libertarian economics, social traditionalism, and foreign policy hawkishness, then Reagan, Goldwater, and Kemp were indeed the patron saints of “Conservatism-“ and George W. Bush was the consummation of that ideology’s excesses and policy prescriptions.
But this is only Conservatism as the intellectual (or pseudo-intellectual) movement that centered around National Review, the Heritage Foundation, and Young Americans for Freedom in the last sixty years or so. “Conservatism,” in a broader sense, is a temperament disposed towards tradition, preservation, and incremental reform, for fear of chaos and revolution and love of the eternal and good. For a brief overview of this “Conservatism,” see Chapters 2 and 3 of Clinton Rossiter’s “Conservatism in America” or Wallach and Myers’s excellent essay at National Affairs, “The Conservative Governing Disposition.”
But Reagan-Goldwater-Kemp “Conservatism” does not necessarily conform to Rossiter, Wallach, and Myers’s definition. What, after all, is so conservative about a laissez-faire economics that presumes all men to be rational animals and which judges value not by enduring and lasting goodness, but on material wealth alone? There’s a better case for social traditionalism as truly Conservative, but in the post-1960s form it has taken, it is oftentimes more reactionary than traditionalist. And what case can possibly be made that mindless hawkishness and attempts to transform entire societies into democracies is Conservative, in the temperamental sense?
No, as Michael Lind has argued, “Conservatism” in the tradition of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush is, at best, an outgrowth of the Southern Right, and at worst, utopian idealism based on the inverted Marxism of some of the movement’s founders.
A strong case can be made that two other great Cold War Republican presidents, Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, were more truly “Conservative” than Reagan, Goldwater, or Kemp. President Nixon, in particular, seems to have been a conservative in the same sense that such great Anglo-American statesmen as Churchill, both Roosevelts, Lincoln, Hamilton, and Disraeli especially, were “Conservative.” Nixon’s Conservatism, in both foreign and domestic policy, can be witnessed in his choice of primary advisors in foreign and domestic policy: Henry Kissinger and Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
The Devil on the Right
Nixon’s foreign policy was in many ways crafted by his Secretary of State and National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger. Kissinger was a scholar of international relations from Harvard, whose work on diplomacy and nuclear policy had already gone down in legend by the time Nixon recruited him onto his policy staff.
Kissinger is perhaps the greatest exemplar of the great foreign policy tradition of “Realism” in the 20th Century. Realism assumes that human beings are irrational and self-interested, driven by impulse and passion, and always susceptible to conflict, violence, and competition. As a political and foreign policy doctrine, Realism emphasizes the importance of military power and the balance of power on the diplomatic front, assumes states to be in a constant state of competition, and is less than sanguine about prospects for international institutions and cooperation.
In other words, Realism, by its tough-minded and hard-nosed pessimism, is more “Conservative” in regards to human affairs than is “Conservative” foreign policy in the Reaganite sense. Nixon and Kissinger’s efforts to keep the expansive Soviets out of the Middle East, to balance the USSR with Red China, to preserve American honor through a slow withdrawal from Vietnam, and to maintain stability through support of less-than-savory regimes around the world arguably kept the American position in the world reasonably stable at a crucial time. Later Republican administrations’ interventionism, military hawkishness, and promotion of American values abroad have oftentimes backfired, to the detriment of American interests and the global order.
Like his great historical mentor Metternich, Kissinger brought a conservative understanding to international affairs. But pessimism in an anarchic world is not the only element of Conservatism.
The Angel on the Left
Nixon’s chief domestic policy advisor, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, had already had a successful career in government, working for the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations. Moynihan, like Kissinger, had previously taught at Harvard, and published plenty of work on various elements of social policy.
Moynihan was a leading member, albeit a reluctant member, of a group of intellectuals whose movement was called “Neoconservatism.” Neoconservatism (which later morphed into the hawkish democracy-mongering of the Bush Administration, but only after most more right-leaning Neoconservatives had abandoned Moynihan and Daniel Bell’s moderation) was an attempt to resurrect the old conservative tradition of Edmund Burke and Benjamin Disraeli, and update it for a post-New Deal America. Neoconservatism, with traditional Burkean conservatism, emphasizes community, tradition, custom, and gradual reform and social amelioration, with respect for the limitations of human understanding and the complexity of society. In politics and public policy, Neoconservatives generally supported the New Deal’s welfare state and its basic scheme of insurance for all citizens, a mixed economy, the traditions of Western Civilization, and activist government in the interest of social progress.
Neoconservatism, then, is a philosophy of culture for a technocratic world, demanding the best of government policy while seeking to preserve the best of traditional society. It is far more “Conservative” than the crude Social Darwinism than laissez-faire economics and social policy inevitably devolves into. Nixon’s and Moynihan’s efforts to institute a Guaranteed National Income, to expand social and health insurance, and to institute reasonable regulatory policies are testimony to the Administration’s social and economic pragmatism, as are the institution of wage and price controls and the furthering of civil rights enforcement in the Nixon years. The key was principled pragmatism for greater social ends, and Moynihan and Nixon accomplished far more in this regard than did either the overly ambitious Lyndon Johnson or the less careful and more libertarian Ronald Reagan.
Like his great historical mentor Burke, Moynihan brought a conservative understanding to domestic affairs. Combined, he and Kissinger’s counsel to the President would catapult Nixon to the ranks of great Conservative statesmen of the 20th Century.
A Model for the Ages
Nixon’s legacy, influenced as it was influenced by Moynihan and Kissinger, has been underappreciated and misunderstood largely due to the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s subsequent fall. But that doesn’t make it any less important; as I have argued elsewhere, Nixon arguably melded Reaganite Conservatism and Johnsonite Liberalism into a happy medium that should provide the blueprint for a revitalized set of American institutions.
There’s a lot to like about the mix of Realism abroad and Neoconservatism at home. For one thing, it was effective. But more importantly, Realism and Neoconservatism apply the wisdom of true Conservatism to two very different sets of problems- strategic foreign policy and domestic social policy- in such a way as to effectively deal with them both. And in an America today with an uncertain, imbalanced world in need of leadership abroad, and a decaying, increasingly divided society in need of leadership at home, the Nixon synthesis increasingly looks like a good bet. True Conservatives- Progressive Republicans- would do well to look to it for guidance.