Defining Conservatism


Review of Shattered Consensus: The Rise and Decline of America’s Postwar Political Order, by James Piereson

New York: Encounter Books, 2015

I begin my review by noting the blurbs on the back cover. There are four of them, all praising the book. There is, of course, nothing wrong with that; that’s what blurbers are supposed to do. It is, though, significant that all of them are identified in 2016 with what might be termed “hardcore” contemporary conservatism: George Will, the longtime columnist for the Washington Post; William Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard; Amity Shlaes, the admiring biographer of Calvin Coolidge; and Stephen Moore, Chief Economist for the Heritage Foundation. All of these are bright people; I reviewed Coolidge for the History Book Club and warmly recommended it to the Club’s membership, whatever my own disagreement with its central theses. Still, I am struck by the uniformity of their place on the political spectrum. Perhaps this simply reflects the fact that the publisher, Encounter Books, is itself self-consciously conservative, currently headed by Roger Kimball, who is also the editor of the New Criterion (where several of the chapters in this book were previously published). Piereson himself is President of the William E. Simon Foundation and a Fellow of the Manhattan Institute.

One aspect of contemporary polarization is the tendency to live in one or another echo chamber, whether of the left, right, or, for that matter, center. I am afraid that Shattered Consensus itself exemplifies this tendency, to its detriment. There is certainly much worth discussing, whatever one’s own politics, with regard to Piereson’s central thesis, that we are indeed living in a period of heightened dissensus that cries out for new and even radical analyses instead of relying on increasingly outworn conventional wisdom. He has interesting things to say. But his willingness to remain within the echo chamber will, I suspect, limit the readership precisely because he himself seems uninterested in engaging thinkers with other perspectives.

Piereson initially presents his argument by reference to the widespread agreement that Obama’s tenure as president has served to demonstrate the frayed “post-war consensus”—he is clearly referring to post-World War II—“beyond the possibility of repair. There is no longer enough agreement in the American polity to address any of the nation’s systemic problems before they escalate to the point of crisis.” Among the consequences of such crises will be a diminished standard of living, as “various levels of government” will be forced to “renegotiate the promises made to seniors, students, governmental employees, and the various individuals and groups that rely on public subsidies.” What this means, practically speaking, is that “Americans will then be compelled to organize a new system of governance on the remnants of the postwar order, one that can generate the kind of growth and dynamism to support the way of life to which they have become accustomed.” The alternative is grim, the cessation of the United States as a “high-functioning nation-state and world superpower” (p. xii).

I found at least some of this analysis quite compatible with my own views; after all, I support a new constitutional convention that would address the extent to which our 1787 Constitution contributes to the dysfunctionality that Piereson describes. “[A] new system of governance” would appear to suggest a deeply serious discussion of some basic constitutional issues, inasmuch as the most basic feature of any constitution is precisely to organize a “system of governance” instantiated in the particular institutional structures that define any such system. So one might believe, at least at the outset, that one response to a shattered consensus will be to assess what kinds of governmental structures would be suitable for the world we now live in if we are to escape the dire fate that he finds altogether possible. A “consensual” society might well be able to afford more “checks and balances” (also known as veto-gates) preventing significant deviation from the status quo, in a way that a dissensual one cannot.

Piereson appears to accept what contemporary political scientists and historians call the ineluctably historical nature of “American constitutional development.” He notes that there is nothing new about shattered consensuses and significant transformations in modes of governance. He refers to three broad periods in our history: the period from 1800-1860 when the country was completely divided by slavery and “related territorial issues,” culminating, of course, in war; there was then the “capitalist –industrial-era” that followed, but that “regime collapsed in the midst of the Great Depression.” That period (and the war that brought it to an end) was followed by the development of the “postwar welfare state that took shape in the 1930s and 1940s and extends to the present, but is now in the process of breaking up” (xiv). What must follow, he argues, is a “Fourth Revolution” akin to these earlier developments—or, he might add, the initial decision in 1787 by those we call the Founders to ruthlessly cast aside the existing system of government, a system viewed by Publius in Federalist No. 15 as an “imbecility” that doomed the project of successful nationhood.

“In each period,” Piereson writes, “an old order collapsed, and a new one emerged out of an unprecedented crisis; and in each case, the resolution of the crisis opened up new possibilities for growth and reform. No particular consensus or set of political arrangements can be regarded as permanent in a dynamic country like the United States” (p. xiii, emphasis added). And it is surely startling, given stereotypical expectations of what constitutes contemporary conservativism in America, to find a sentence referring to “the golden age of social democracy” that was initiated by the New Deal, and the comment that “one should not gainsay the genuine economic and social progress achieved in the United States and elsewhere during the middle decades of the century” (p. 78). To be sure, he immediately cautions against “overstat[ing]” those accomplishments.

What makes Piereson’s analysis so potentially interesting is that there is no scintilla of a lament, as one finds in many other contemporary conservatives, for a purportedly “lost Constitution” that can ostensibly be “restored’ and, by doing so, make things right. Indeed, what is striking is that he finds all of these earlier transformations to have “accomplished something important for the United States” (xiv). It is, therefore, telling that such names as Robert Bork, Richard Epstein, Randy Barnett, David Bernstein, Ilya Somin, or Michael Greve are wholly missing from the index. Nor, for that matter, is there anything resembling a list of the “dirty dozen” mistaken decisions of the Supreme Court or an honor roll of presumptively great decisions. There is in fact blessedly little discussion of the judiciary; it most certainly is neither the hero nor villain of Piereson’s analysis of contemporary American politics. Something must be done, but it is not clear what, beyond recognizing that, to steal from Arthur Schlesinger’s first volume on The Age of Roosevelt, we are involved in our own “crisis of the old order,” though our own “old order” is precisely the product of the Democratic triumph in 1932 and then thereafter in the 1960s.

The early essays, including a fine treatment of the Keynsean revolution in economic thought and its justification, which Piereson really does not seem to reject, of a far more powerful managerial state, are well written and compelling. And it is in fact hard to reject the notion that further transformations might shape our future, with the attendant “creative destruction” of existing notions and forms of governance that occurred in the past. But here is where Piereson’s book proves disappointing. It would have benefitted considerably from his grappling with, say, Bruce Ackerman’s ambitiously historical account of America’s constitutional and governmental transformations, or, perhaps even more productively, Philip Bobbitt’s panoramic The Shield of Achilles, which views the “welfare state” as doomed to fall victim to a newly developing “market state” that reflects, among other things, the consequences of a globalized economy (not to mention a permanent state of de facto war against “virtual states” that disrupt settled understandings of the nature of the international system). Nor is there any discussion of the modern administrative state.

Instead, the five essays that comprise “Part I. The Political Economy of the Postwar Order,” which could easily have been expanded and made the basis of a truly enlightening book, are followed by three considerably less interesting groups of essays. Five of them offer musings on “Liberalism and Conservatism,” four on “The Kennedy Legend and the Liberal Ideal,” and then a final set of five on “The Politics of Higher Education.” Several of these essays are dated by subsequent developments. There is, for example, in 2016 surely a “shattered consensus” among those who call themselves conservatives, as revealed by the spectacle of the campaign for the Republican nomination for the presidency. A 2010 essay on America as a “conservative nation” refers almost offhandedly to “prominent representatives of American conservatism, from Newt Gingrich to Sarah Palin to Rand Paul and Ted Cruz” (p 150), which help to define the truly “exceptional” nature of American conservatism when compared with conservative parties, many of them governing, abroad in Europe. “The conservative movement thus increasingly defines American exceptionalism in the contemporary world. It is unlikely to die anytime soon, but if it did, much that is exceptional about America would expire with it” (id.). As a sociological observation, this may be impeccable, but it is hard to tell whether the urbane Piereson, a resolute defender, for example, of classical humanistic education against the barbarism of the modern cafeteria-style university that rejects it, could possibly be sympathetic to Palin, Donald Trump, Ben Carson, or even Mario Rubio, whose primary contribution to the 2015 campaign was to suggest that because philosophers purportedly make less than plumbers, aspiring students should turn their back on philosophy (or, presumably, all other humanistic education) in favor of vocational education.

American conservatism may well be “exceptional,” relative to its European counterparts, in its historical rejection of a politics centered around the “throne and altar” that appealed to continental conservatives in the aftermath of the French Revolution, which had, of course, dramatically rejected both. But almost no American “conservatives” yearned for restoration of the English monarchy, and religion in America has served to inspire social and political movements across the spectrum. In any event, support for “small-government” and individual rights has far more to do with one or another version of classical liberalism than any view identified with the philosophical right in Europe. Nor is it easy to discern exactly how “neo-conservatives,” with their Wilsonian attachment to muscular interventionism and nation-building, fit into a political tradition that, at least prior to World War II, was distinguished by its emphasis on isolationism and America First (a theme evoked by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, for example). It is obvious, for example, that the “shattered consensus” of which Piereson writes was considerably caused by the response to Vietnam, which Piereson comes close to ignoring.

Piereson summarizes the “enduring appeal” of conservatism in America as resulting from its deployment of “the principles of tradition, reason, and orderly change in defense of fundamentally liberal institutions: the Constitution, representative government, liberty and equal rights, and the rule of law” (p. 162). Contemporary liberals, on the other hand, are accused of rejecting the “inspired example of the Founding Fathers” and instead desiring to “overcome the past.” Yet, as already noted, one might regard as an especially inspiring legacy of the Founding Fathers their willingness savagely to criticize and even to overthrow what they regarded as “imbecilic” institutions that served principally to hinder the possibility of achieving the potentially great ends of the American experiment. It was Publius himself, in Federalist 14, who cautioned against undue reliance on “tradition” or what he called “names”—i.e., the invocation of “great men”—against our own reliance on the “lessons” of our own experiences.

Bill Kristol proclaims Shattered Consensus to be “one of the most thought-provoking volumes I’ve read in a long time.” Perhaps that is true, since I don’t know what else Kristol has read recently. But for readers outside the conservative echo chamber, Piereson’s book is more an unfortunate exemplification of a lost opportunity to reach out and engage a broader audience about undoubtedly troubled (and troubling) aspects of our contemporary political and cultural situation.

Posted on 3 February 2016

SANFORD LEVINSON is the W. St. John Garwood and W. St. John Garwood, Jr. Centennial Chair in Law at the University of Texas Law School and Professor of Government at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Framed: America's 51 Constitutions and the Crisis of Governance, (Oxford University Press, 2012) and, most recently, An Argument Open to All: Reading The Federalist in the 21st Century, (Yale University Press, 2015).