For the past two years, it’s been said that conservative ways of thinking are having a moment. We have heard that the real conservative tradition must be defended from the Trump insurgency—or that, come to think of it, maybe Trump’s victory proves that the populist right makes a few good points. A recent Washington Post profile of conservative publications and their editors puts it this way: “Trumpism has torn down the conservative house and broken it up for parts.” Conservative writers and editors “are working to bring a plausible intellectual order to this new reality—and figure out what comes next.”
But it’s not just conservative magazines. Editors at mainstream publications, like James Bennet at The New York Times or Jeffrey Goldberg at The Atlantic, have been hiring writers on the right in an effort to achieve “intellectual diversity,” though they sometimes back off when they’re reminded that what columnists write actually matters. All this calibration is an attempt to determine which parts of the wrecked conservative house are worth salvaging. Is there a difference between the bad conservatism of Trump and the good conservatism of, well, who again? It’s trite to say William F. Buckley.
A plausible (and living) alternative is the British philosopher Sir Roger Scruton, whose book Conservatism was released in June by St. Martin’s Press. If anyone is to rebuild the demolished conservative house—or at least give the facade a nice new coat of white—it’s Sir Roger. The author of more than 40 books on art, music, and literature, as well as two operas, Scruton was knighted in 2016 for making a “significant impact on thinking about national identity, freedom and Western values.” Since the early 1980s, he has written in defense of the right, a project that, he says, “blighted” his academic career. But no matter. Scruton has become, as The American Conservative dubs him, “perhaps the most prominent conservative philosopher in the English-speaking world.” As such, Scruton is the standard-bearer for a certain intellectual variety of Anglo-conservatism, one that’s often called “Burkean.”
Its namesake, the 18th-century Anglo-Irish parliamentarian Edmund Burke, was an opponent of the French Revolution and a defender of tradition and custom. Today, Burke’s legacy is mostly claimed by members of the commentariat rather than by politicians. Burkean conservatism is, as Adam Gopnik has put it, “the kind liberals pretend to want.” Burkeans speak loftily of received wisdom. They do not oppose progress as such, but insist on moderation. What Burke gives the right, says Edwin Feulner, founder of the Heritage Foundation, is “an abhorrence of ideology and radicalism, and a belief in the politics and policies of prudence.” The liberal columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. agrees. At least, he did in 2013, when he suggested that conservatives should “contemplate Burke to remind themselves that their intellectual heritage is about so much more than cuts in taxes.” Dionne’s admiration was not pretend, even if it was wasted. Burkean conservatism has never been a policy force on the American right. It has been more of a posture: powerless against neoconservatives on the warpath and free-market libertarians on Wall Street.
But Trump has shaken up conservative ideological lines, in no small part through his own incoherence. Trump’s early condemnations of endless war in the Middle East, for example, seemed to be an endorsement of anti-interventionism, a fringe position on the right during the Bush and Obama years. But with his recent appointment of the hawk John Bolton as national-security adviser, Trump has put the ideological spotlight back on neoconservatives. Despite the confusion, one thing is clear: The old Reagan coalition has fractured and will inevitably be replaced. That Scruton has just released the boldly titled Conservatism indicates he’s aware of the importance of this moment and is willing to seize it. So, to the chief Burkean of our day, what is “conservatism,” really—and what should it be?
Roger Scruton’s Conservatism is framed as an “invitation to the great tradition” of the right. But what the book offers is less an intellectual history of conservatism than a brisk walking tour through its main hall. We hear from Aristotle, skip to Burke and Thomas Jefferson, and later get to T.S. Eliot, Buckley, Russell Kirk. These individual voices join in a chorus of custom-worship, of adoration for tradition and nonideological prudence. Jefferson is important to conservatives, we’re told, for his “insistence on continuity and custom as necessary conditions for successful constitution building.” Burke teaches us that “Real popular sovereignty…involves respect for what the people themselves respect—namely tradition, law and the narrative of legitimate order.” Throughout the book, Scruton makes little effort to clarify what these ideas have looked like—or, more importantly, could look like—in practice. One quickly realizes that the book introduces conservatism in the style of promotional material. In effect, Scruton has written a 150-page pamphlet to be handed out to freshmen at Hillsdale College or at a Heritage Foundation conference table.
Still, Scruton’s defense of custom in the abstract is perhaps the most convincing theme of the book—that’s to say, what is most likely to seduce readers. When, for instance, Scruton insists that one of Burke’s main insights about customs is that they are “forms of social knowledge,” he makes a claim with which no one would disagree. Scruton’s subsequent argument that our politics should be based on, or rooted in, these customs—the habits of a culture, the bonds of a community—sounds not just wise but, in a refreshing way, nonpolitical. Readers weary of the intense politicization of our time can breathe a sigh of relief: Conservatism, as Scruton defines it, is politics without the politics. In this sense, Burkean talk of “custom” and “tradition” is like centrist talk about our “shared political norms.” But, as Jedediah Purdy writes, such language offers a “depoliticized way of talking about political conflict”—a way that is, upon any sort of analysis, misleading. “Norms are like the statues of dead leaders,” Purdy writes. “You can’t know whether you are for or against them without knowing which values they support.” The same goes for customs: What project do they serve? Whose political power do they uphold?
Scruton doesn’t give a satisfying answer—for one thing, because conservatism has periodically defended customs that, in the light of history, look grotesque. But there’s another reason: It’s just very hard to give an answer, in large part because “conservatism” as a bundle of ideologies doesn’t readily cohere. After all, what unites a free-market libertarian, who insists on the atomization of community, and a traditionalist conservative, who can only conceive of the individual as part of a community? The historian George H. Nash, in his seminal work The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945 (originally published in 1976), admits the difficulties of yoking together various factions of the right much more insistently than Scruton does. The thing that links all of them, Nash admits, is mainly their hostility to liberalism.
Corey Robin, in his 2011 book The Reactionary Mind, insists on a unifying narrative, a core project. Conservatism, writes Robin, is “a meditation on—and the theoretical rendition of—the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back.” Robin’s thesis has never been accused of charity, but it has much more explanatory power than Scruton’s. For Scruton, conservatism—from the Enlightenment debate over religion and popular sovereignty to the present battle against “political correctness” and “militant Islamism”—has admittedly undergone certain “transformations.” Still, “something has remained the same, namely the conviction that good things are more easily destroyed than created, and the determination to hold on to those good things in the face of politically engineered change.”
How can anyone accept this definition of conservatism in the wake of the two main conservative victories of our new era: Trump’s election and Brexit? Aren’t the political norms Trump dismantles the very sort of customs or “good things” that Scruton purports to defend? And Brexit is nothing if not a work of “political engineering”: Dominic Cummings, the director of the Vote Leave campaign, said he wanted Brexit to “break the system open”—hardly the phrase of a prudent defender of custom, tradition, or that which is “more easily destroyed than created.” Scruton’s main definition of conservatism—the effort to bridge the past, present, and future of a reasonable right—fails to articulate the main goals of the very movements called “conservative” in the UK and US today. Scruton’s vision of conservatism, like Burke’s, has very little to do with conservatism as a movement or as a political force in the Republicans or Tories.
But in its irrelevance is a charming anachronism. Indeed, even in moments when Scruton seems to be on to something, he is on to it in the most old-fashioned way imaginable. Where we read, for instance, that true conservatives might not like “classical” liberals or libertarians because they embrace “the ‘free market’ tendency of American politics,” which “has led to the destruction of the landscape,” our eyebrows rise. To what, the reader asks hopefully, could “the destruction of the landscape” refer: global warming, maybe, or even fracking? But Scruton doesn’t say. Instead, he merely pits free-marketers against the true conservatives, who have “on the whole been moved by a vision of settled communities,” and whose “ideal America is typified by beautiful settlements like Charleston and the old New York and Boston of Henry James.” American voters who enjoy The Portrait of a Lady and also relish Fox News may be rare.
And where Scruton isn’t anachronistic, he’s hopelessly obscure. Reading Conservatism, one wonders whether its author has recently heard any of the arguments against his own position. In one of his occasional definitions of the concerns of conservatives, Scruton writes: “Conservatism is about freedom, yes. But it is also about the institutions and attitudes that shape the responsible citizen, and ensure that freedom is a benefit to us all. Conservatism is therefore also about the limits to freedom.” Scruton holds this measured view of conservatism—containing both a claim and its negation—in contradistinction to the “extreme” liberal view, which he says “values freedom above all other things and refuses to set limits to its exercise.” The battle between these two views amounts to “one of the principal political issues of our time.” No, frankly, it doesn’t. It wouldn’t even be in bad faith to insist that conservatives do not—at least in America—argue that their concern is with the “limits” of freedom. And who on the liberal-left claims a project whose object is total freedom? The Movement for Black Lives, the fight against global warming, the fight, in the United States, for single-payer health care: None of these projects, routinely dismissed by conservatives, make a claim on total freedom. Their main claims are about accountability, responsibility, awareness of the demands made on us by history—precisely those things that, as Scruton might otherwise put it, place limits on one’s freedom.
Still, we’ve been promised an “invitation” to conservatism, and any such invitation extended in 2018, over a year into a Trump presidency and mere months before Brexit day, must be extended along with responses to a few specific questions. Were Trump and Brexit necessary gambles? Did the 2016 election, for instance, allow conservatives to “charge the cockpit” of the hijacked plane of the West in an attempt to stop it from crashing, as argued by proponents of the “Flight 93 Election” thesis? Or does the insurgence of right-wing nationalism and “populism” mark a departure from true conservatism, as Never Trump conservatives such as David Frum and David Brooks argue? These questions must be answered—they are the very questions that would have made Conservatism relevant.
And yet Scruton answers them only vaguely. He admits, in the first pages, that “issues that were for years undiscussable have appeared at the top of the agenda,” but leaves the issues nameless. He adds that “neither liberals nor conservatives were prepared for this” but doesn’t define this. Liberals, he determines, have been given a “new lease of life,” but he fails to mention which issues conservatives can now discuss, and why exactly this state of affairs was, for them, unexpected. On the former question, we get only the shadow of an answer. Scruton introduces conservatism as not only taking “its character from local questions”—this is typical—but also, in a peculiar phrase, from “the loves and suspicions that thrive in specific places and times.”
While we wonder what “suspicions” Scruton could mean, our own are heightened when he identifies what he sees as the central insight of the conservative: an acknowledgment of “the people’s needs, including the most important of their needs, which is the need to trust their neighbors.” This seems a rather polite way of defining nativism. Perhaps Scruton is talking about the British reluctance to accept Syrian refugees, or Trump’s Muslim ban, or ICE. Such reasoning about the need to trust our neighbors makes Thomas Homan a Burkean and John Kelly’s assurance that children separated from their parents by the Trump administration will be put in “foster care, or whatever” the line of a true statesman.
Christopher Hitchens once summed up the career of early-20th-century British writer G.K. Chesterton, the Catholic right’s “prince of paradox,” in terms that are apt for understanding Scruton: “When he was charming, he was also deeply unserious and frivolous,” and “when he was apparently serious, he was really quite sinister.” When he is charming, Scruton is also unaware both of the most common justifications for conservatism by voters today, as well as the most common arguments against them. When he could apply his airy defenses of “tradition” and “custom” to today’s most urgent problems—say, by condemning neoliberalism, the political and economic order that leaves families economically devastated and makes the formation of meaningful community impossible—he is either blandly silent or quaintly anachronistic. And when he manages to gesture toward issues of present importance—immigration and nationalism—he attempts, euphemistically, to dignify nativism and xenophobia.
But then, when he is sinister, Scruton is hard to take seriously. What is most impressive about Conservatism is, in the end, its aloofness. It is difficult even to imagine young conservatives seeing themselves in the book. Easier to imagine, however, is the likely reaction of liberal readers, especially those who once yearned for a “philosophical” conservatism of custom and tradition. Scruton’s vision of conservatism is so unrelated to the current project of the right that it couldn’t produce in its liberal readers anything like nostalgia for a “Burkean” conservatism—but rather the felt sense that such a conservatism could never have existed.