“The 1960s are rightly remembered as years of cultural dissent and political upheaval, but they are wrongly remembered as years stirred only from the left,” writes George Will in the foreword to a recently reissued edition of Barry Goldwater’s The Conscience of a Conservative. Several decades ago, Will’s claim would have elicited catcalls and jeers. But in the years since, the publication of a slew of books, each advancing the notion that most of the political innovation of the last half-century, including the 1960s, has come from the right, has led historians to revise the conventional wisdom about postwar America. The new consensus is reflected in the opening sentence of Ronald Story and Bruce Laurie’s The Rise of Conservatism in America, 1945- 2000: “The central story of American politics since World War II is the emergence of the conservative movement.” Yet for some reason Will still feels that the travails of his political kinsmen are insufficiently appreciated and recognized.
Will is not the first conservative to believe himself an exile in his own country. A sense of exclusion has haunted conservatism from the beginning, when émigrés fled the French Revolution and Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre took up their cause. Born in the shadow of loss–of property, standing, memory, inheritance, a place in the sun–conservatism remains a gathering of fugitives. From Burke’s lament that “the gallery is in the place of the house” to William F. Buckley Jr.’s claim that he and his brethren were “out of place,” the comfortable and connected have fashioned a philosophy of self-styled truancy. One might say this fusion of pariah and power has been the key to their success. As Buckley went on to write, the conservative’s badge of exclusion has made him “just about the hottest thing in town.”
While John Locke, Alexis de Tocqueville and David Hume are sometimes cited by the more genteel defenders of conservatism as the movement’s leading lights, their writings cannot account for what is truly bizarre about conservatism: a ruling class resting its claim to power upon its sense of victimhood, arguably for the first time in history. Plato’s guardians were wise; Aquinas’s king was good; Hobbes’s sovereign was, well, sovereign. But the best defense of monarchy that Maistre could muster in Considerations on France (1797) was that his aspiring king had attended the “terrible school of misfortune” and suffered in the “hard school of adversity.”
Conservatives have asked us not to obey them but to feel sorry for them–or to obey them because we feel sorry for them. Rousseau was the first to articulate a political theory of pity, and for that he has been called the philosopher of the losers. But doesn’t Burke, with his overwrought account of Marie Antoinette in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790)–“this persecuted woman,” dragged “almost naked” by “the furies of hell” from her bedroom in Versailles and marched to “a Bastile for kings” in Paris–have some claim to the title, too?
Marie Antoinette was a particular kind of loser, a person with everything who finds herself utterly and at once dispossessed. Burke saw in her fall an archetype of classical tragedy, the great person laid low by fortune. But in tragedy, the most any hero can achieve is an understanding of his fate: the wheel of time cannot be reversed; suffering cannot be undone. Conservatives, however, are not content with illumination or wisdom. They want restoration, an opportunity presented by the new forces of revolution and counterrevolution. Identifying as victims, they become the ultimate moderns, adept competitors in a political marketplace where rights and their divestiture are prized commodities.
Reformers and radicals must convince the subordinated and disenfranchised that they have rights and power. Conservatives are different. They are aggrieved and entitled–aggrieved because entitled–and already convinced of the righteousness of their cause and the inevitability of its triumph. They can play victim and victor with a conviction and dexterity the subaltern can only imagine, making them formidable claimants on our allegiance and affection. Whether we are rich or poor or somewhere in between, the conservative is, as Hugo Young said of Maggie Thatcher, one of us.