Saturday, April 22, 2006

The Jeffrey Hart Debate - American Conservatism at a Crossroads?

Jeffrey Hart is an English professor at Dartmouth College. A speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan and an editor of the National Review (the longest serving NR editor after William F. Buckley), Hart is author of The Making of the American Conservative Mind: National Review and Its Times, the authorized history of the National Review and the forthcoming "The American Conservative Mind Today."

On December 25, 2005, the Wall Street Journal published the final chapter of The American Conservative Mind Today, titled The Burke Habit: Prudence, skepticism and "unbought grace".

Hart presents an "assessment of the ideas held in balance in the American Conservative Mind today," -- "a synthesis . . . based on what American conservatism has achieved and left unachieved since [Russel Kirk's The Conservative Mind (1953)].

The synthesis, according to Hart, consists of a number of elements: resistance to "hard utopianism" (ex. communism's attempt to fashion "The Perfect Man and Perfect Society") and "soft utopianism" ("benevolent illusions, most abstractly stated in the proposition that all goals are reconcilable" -- ex. World Peace, multiculturalism, pacifism and Wilsonian global democracy); the validity of the nation state and the merits of constitutional government (aiming at government "not by majorities alone but by stable consensus," together with "mutual restraint among the branches").

Hart includes the advocacy of free market economics in his consensus, established by virtue of its supremacy over socialism. At the same time, however, he adds a word of caution:

the utopian temptation can turn such free-market thought into a utopianism of its own -- that is, free markets to be effected even while excluding every other value and purpose . . .
Hart mourns the neglect of Beauty ("Beauty has been clamorously present in the American Conservative Mind through its almost total absence") and the GOP's lack of concern for proper stewardship of the environment ("embarassingly . . . left mostly to liberal Democrats"), or, with regard to the role of religion, calling for "a recovery of the great structure of metaphysics, with the Resurrection as its fulcrum, established as history, and interpreted through Greek philosophy."

Hart also rails against the "Hard Wilsonianism" of the Republican Party, fueled by President Bush's desire to secure peace through the establishment of democracy:

No one has ever thought Wilsonianism to be conservative, ignoring as it does the intractability of culture and people's high valuation of a modus vivendi. Wilsonianism derives from Locke and Rousseau in their belief in the fundamental goodness of mankind and hence in a convergence of interests.

George W. Bush has firmly situated himself in this tradition, as in his 2003 pronouncement, "The human heart desires the same good things everywhere on earth." Welcome to Iraq. Whereas realism counsels great prudence in complex cultural situations, Wilsonianism rushes optimistically ahead.

The faux-"conservativism" of the GOP, says Hart, serves as "an example of Machiavelli's observation that institutions can retain the same outward name and aspect while transforming their substance entirely."

Hart's editorial strikes all the right notes (indeed, much of what he says has a certain affinity to Rod Dreher's crunchy-conservatism). I imagine his critique would likely warm the hearts of a few of our friends . . . if not for the fact that Hart's criticism of the Republicans extends to their defense of the "right to life":

[Abortion] has been a focus of conservative, and national, attention since Roe v. Wade. Yet abortion as an issue, its availability indeed as a widespread demand, did not arrive from nowhere. Burke had a sense of the great power and complexity of forces driving important social processes and changes. Nevertheless, most conservatives defend the "right to life," even of a single-cell embryo, and call for a total ban on abortion. To put it flatly, this is not going to happen. Too many powerful social forces are aligned against it, and it is therefore a utopian notion.

Roe relocated decision-making about abortion from state governments to the individual woman, and was thus a libertarian, not a liberal, ruling. Planned Parenthood v. Casey supported Roe, but gave it a social dimension, making the woman's choice a derivative of the women's revolution. This has been the result of many accumulating social facts, and its results already have been largely assimilated. Roe reflected, and reflects, a relentlessly changing social actuality. Simply to pull an abstract "right to life" out of the Declaration of Independence is not conservative but Jacobinical. To be sure, the Roe decision was certainly an example of judicial overreach. Combined with Casey, however, it did address the reality of the American social process.

* * *

Needless to say, there have been a number of responses to Jeffrey Hart's editorial:

  • Jeffrey Hart on 'the conservative mind' The New Criterion: "Armavirumque" Dec. 27, 2005. James Panero provides some background on Hart and posts a link to an essay, Lessons from Jeffrey Hart, "on the Hart School [of Conservatism] and its influence on young staffers in the Reagan administration."

  • The American Mind Today, by Stephen Bainbridge. Dec. 27, 2005. Prof. Bainbridge has the interesting observation that "what Hart doesn't discuss here is the possibility that the United States is not a nation-state but rather a state-nation."

  • Jeffrey Hart on 'the conservative mind': the response The New Criterion: "Armavirumque" Dec. 28, 2005. James Panero rounds up responses to Hart's article from National Review's blog "The Corner" by Peter Robinson, Jonah Goldberg and Ramesh Ponnuru (start here and scroll up). While agreeing that "Hart is always worth reading," both Goldberg and Ponnuru find fault with Hart's curious take on abortion.

  • Also weighing in by email to the NRO is Fr. Gerry Murray , of New York city's St. Vincent de Paul parish and a former alumni of Dartmouth. Responding to Hart's criticism that "Simply to pull an abstract 'right to life' out of the Declaration of Independence is not conservative but Jacobinical," Murray counters
    There is nothing abstract about an unborn human being, and likewise the metaphysical laws that govern human life are not abstractions, but rather the solid ground that makes a just society possible. My right not to be killed, without justification, at the discretion of another person is no an abstraction, it is the fundamental condition of the existence of any justly ordered community of persons. What is an abstraction is Roe, in which unborn human are not persons, and the killing of such non-persons is legally sanctioned and protected by the state against any interference.

    Babies before birth are people, and to treat them in any other way requires entrance into the horrible world of evil ideas (lies) that result in evil (unjust) actions. The Roe justices that gave us abortion would have liked the country to march into that world with them; they have been and will be unsuccessful as long as we do not concede the fight.

    Fr. Murray's letter is reproduced in full here, together with a response Jeffrey Hart's response (New Criterion: "Armavirumque" Dec. 29, 2005).

    Resonding to Fr. Murray, Hart takes a cheap shot at Fr. Neuhaus and First Things critique of "judicial activism" (as documented in The End of Democracy Spence Publishing Company, 1997):

    Some years ago, as I recall, Father Richard Neuhaus asserted in his magazine First Things that because of legal abortion the United States "regime" is illegitimate. That's right, "illegitimate." Of course this easy chair insurrectionary, this Jacobinical priest, did not become a genuine insurrectionary such as John Brown. Neuhaus knew only too well that the real insurrectionary John Brown received justice at the end of a rope. Neuhaus did not even go to prison, for, say, refusing to pay taxes. Thoreau had gone to prison over the Mexican war.
  • Hart's comments drew a response from Fr. Neuhaus (First Things: On The Square, Dec. 30, 2005):
    Oh dear. “Easy chair insurrectionary,” “Jacobinical priest.” And here I always thought of Jeffrey as a friend. At least he has always been very cordial when we met in the company of friends. . . .

    What was thought to be a radical idea at the time–and what Jeffrey Hart apparently still thinks is an impermissibly radical idea–is that we could reach a point, if the judicial usurpation of politics continued unabated, at which the American political order would be morally illegitimate and democratic government effectively ended.

    To deny the possibility that the American polity could descend into a form of tyranny, in this case judicial tyranny, is, I believe, a form of national hubris, and precludes the possibility of any rational consideration of what is meant by the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate government.

  • (The New Criterion "Armavirumque" Dec. 30, 2005). Ryan M. Schwarz thinks that: "As a longtime admirer of both Hart and Neuhaus (and, in the spirit of full disclosure, a former parishioner of Neuhaus' in his Lutheran days), I've quite enjoyed reading this little dustup . . . It does appear, however, that the participants are talking past each other just a bit."

  • Hart responded yet again to Neuhaus, protesting that, with respect to abortion, he was conducting Analysis, not Advocacy (New Criterion: "Armavirumque" Dec. 31, 2005): "The demand [for a "right" to abortion] will probably increase as a result of the successful women's revolution. Again, that was analytical. No one has challenged that analysis." Hart also disputed Neuhaus' rendition of events:
    Richard Neuhaus understates what actually happened in his magazine First Things in 1999. First Things ran five (commissioned) articles under the overall heading "The End of Democracy?" (He now says that some people thought the question mark unjustified -- that is, they thought democracy in fact had ended with Roe vs. Wade!

    Walter Berns and Gertrude Himmelfarb removed their names from the masthead of First Things. Mr. Berns protested that the magazine was "close to advocating not only civil disobedience but armed revolution."

    The spirit of Che Guevara must have been near at hand.

    Robert Bork objected to Neuhaus's observation that we "have reached the point where conscientious citizens can no longer give moral assent to the existing regime."

    Yet Neuhaus nevertheless gave moral assent to the laws that protected his own rights and liberties.

  • Why Edmund Burke would have taken issue with Jeff Hart, by Roger Kimball. (New Criterion: "Armavirumque" Dec. 31, 2005). The managing editor of the Criterion responds to Hart's suggestion that the normalization of abortion reflects the achievement of "the women's movement":
    The "privatization" of abortion--that moral metamorphosis according to which abortion would henceforth be regarded not as an enormity but as liberating "choice"--was part of the cultural revolution of the 1960s. In this sense, I believe, the normalization of abortion represented not the fulfillment of the woman's movement but its most terrible subversion. It seduced many women--many men, too--into believing that ending a life was a legitimate, often a "courageous" expression of personal freedom.

    I was surprised--a little shocked, even--to find Jeff colluding with this idea by citing with apparent approval the Sixties euphemism according to which abortion is rebaptized as a woman's taking control of her "reproductive capability." What abortion really means is annulling reproductive capability in the name of a spurious notion of personal autonomy. There is something Orwellian about the fact that the slogan "reproductive freedom" has turned out so often to mean "freedom from reproducing." . . .

    Jeff stresses, with some exasperation, that he is offering a political analysis, not a blueprint for his ideal society. I do not see that that changes the fundamental issue, though. In a democratic polity, political power is (at least in theory) widely distributed. Political power is the power to determine to some extent the shape of society. It is not the power to define morality, which precedes and guides political power. If voters in some society voted to make murder legal, that would not mean that murder would henceforth be morally OK. The fact that Adolf Hitler was duly elected by democratic franchise in 1933 illustrates one of the limits of that emollient epithet, "democracy."

    as well as Hart's portrayal of Burke has having resigned himself to the consequences of the French Revolution (suggesting in like manner we make our peace with the new order lest we appear 'perverse and obstinate'"):
    Jeff attempts to enlist Burke in a policy of resignation. But few figures in the annals of conservative thought are less likely accomplices in such an enterprise. Jeff seems to argue that because Roe v. Wade enjoys the sanction of popular sentiment (if it does enjoy that sanction, which some would dispute), it therefore ought to be accepted. "Facts of the social reality have changed a great deal," Jeff reminds us, "and actual people make actual decisions within the actuality they inhabit." Well, does the fact that a certain practice is popular legitimate it? Burke had it right, I think, when he warned in An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs (1791) that "the votes of a majority of the people, whatever their infamous flatterers may teach in order to corrupt their minds, cannot alter the moral any more than they can alter the physical essence of things."
  • On January 2, 2006, Fr. Neuhaus reponded further to Jeffrey Hart:
    Jeff writes: “Robert Bork objected to Neuhaus’s observation that we ‘have reached the point where conscientious citizens can no longer give moral assent to the existing regime.’” Stubborn fact: I never said that, and I rather doubt that Robert Bork ever said that I said that. I said that, if the judicial usurpation of politics, as exemplified by Roe, continued unabated, we could reach a point at which the American polity would become an illegitimate regime. The manifest purpose of the symposium was to contribute to abating the judicial usurpation of politics. Those with a greater respect for facts than Jeffrey Hart has exhibited in these exchanges are invited to press the “Search” button above and read the entire symposium in order to find out who said what.
  • On January 3, 2006 Jody Bottum weighs in on Hart vs. Neuhaus, Kimball, et al. (First Things "On The Square"). Bottum notes that "The Republicans’ adoption of the pro-life cause was one of the great moves in American political history," howbeit an adoption that occured almost by default when the Democrats enthusiastically rushed headlong to become the political lobby of NOW and Planned Parenthood. "The day the party abandons its pro-life platform is the day the pro-lifers stay home on election day—and the Democrats start to win again," challenges Bottum, "Is this what Jeffrey Hart wants? The decadent luxury of a purer, though powerless, party?"

    At the same time, says Bottom, Hart's criticisms have provoked in their own way a necessary evaluation of the relationship between conservatism and the pro-life cause ("We seem to need to go through this kind of brouhaha every so often, if only to get the argument straight once again"):

    One of the primary works of the pro-life movement has been the long, slow assembling of the intellectual argument against the killing of the unborn (a point made well by’s William Saletan in his interesting 2003 book Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War). And these occasional outbreaks of conservative disenchantment with the pro-life movement help us remember the intricacies of that argument—and its relation to deep structures of politics. . . .

    Hart is surely right that [conservative opposition to abortion] shares little of the conservative temperament. Fortunately, the modern pro-life movement in the United States is not dominated by its sentiment, in the political sense of the word. Its commitments remain instead radically above and below all that: a philosophical belief in the dignity of the human person asserted by Western civilization and (very approximately) embodied in the American experiment, on the one hand, and a practical association with mostly Republican politicians, on the other hand.

    This looks like sufficient conservatism to me. But give Jeffrey Hart his due: If conservatism is fundamentally a political sentiment, a temperament that accepts and defends the world as given, then the pro-life position now, three decades after Roe v. Wade, is not conservative but radical.

Additional Commentary on the Jeffrey Hart Debate

  • Synthesizing a Running Debate: Hart's New Conservative Consensus, by Marc at Spinning Cleo Dec. 28, 2005: "What follows is an experiment in which I attempted to "liveblog" a running commentary and debate amongst different bloggers across different blogs about different aspects of the same topic. . . . This post encompasses comments made during the course of approximately 36 hours of blog debate and (due to sanity reasons!) was terminated at around 8pm, EST on 12/28/2005."

  • Con-fusion: Prudence and Principle in Contemporary Conservatism, by Joseph Knippenberg, professor of politics and blogger at No Left Turns. The American Enterprise. Knippenberg finds some disjuncture between Hart's call for "a recovery of the great structure of metaphysics, with the Resurrection as its fulcrum" and his pragmatic concession to the demand for abortion:
    While Hart hasn’t given us much to go on, there seems to be a tension between his religion, which is universal and metaphysical, and his politics, which is grounded in particularity and concrete social facts. If the former is not supposed to have any influence on the latter, if the sphere of religion is supposed simply to be separate from the sphere of politics, then why mention religion at all in an essay on the conservative movement?

    I assume that Hart is not a mere separationist, simple-mindedly insisting upon the privacy of religion and banishing it from the public square. Religion is necessary and important and perhaps even true, capturing something of the human condition, addressing some of our deepest needs. If that is the case, then it will inevitably affect our attitude toward political life, albeit not necessarily in a straightforward or predictable way. It will challenge our subjection to seemingly inexorable material forces. It will call us away from our interests to our principles, to “the better angels of our nature.” But if it potentially has this effect, then it might at some point militate against a regime that permits abortion on demand during the first trimester.

  • The Metaphysics of Conservatism TCS Daily. January 12, 2006. Edward Feser of Right Reason subjects Hart's article to philosophical analysis, finding him to be an example of Anti-Realist conservatism (one who "does not really oppose liberal measures per se, but only their overhasty and excessively disruptive implementation").

  • Hart to Hart, by Amy Welborn. Discussion of Hart's article by the readers of Amy Welborn's blog Open Book. (Rod Dreher, a frequent contributor and author of Crunchy Con, notes "I'm probably closer to Jeff Hart's view on the abortion question than my own side's," noticing as well Hart's criticism of contemporary conservatism "for making a fetish of the free market" and neglect of Beauty.