It is sometimes hard to remember the atmosphere of the days before Bush assumed the presidency in 2001. One of the selling points of candidate Bush was that he was, ostensibly, a “compassionate conservative” (CC). Hope springs eternal among some liberals that Republicans will turn out to be RINOs, that is Republicans in Name Only, who will espouse liberal policies. To be sure, when it became clear that the conservatism of compassion involved channeling vast sums of money to religious organizations, any para-liberal constituency for George W. Bush wilted. (And as David Kuo, once a true believer, has shown, not much money was allocated to this possibly unconstitutional end.)
The alliteration is nice, but can any form of conservatism be compassionate? After all, in the view of many, conservatism means the ethic of “personal responsibility.” It accepts the logic of Joseph Schumpeter’s creative destruction. There are winners and loser in life, and we must not interfere with the salutary process of winnowing. To be sure, some libertarians argue that, paradoxically, conservatism is inherently compassionate, because in the long run it is better than society prosper instead of stagnating. In this case, the “compassionate” is built into conservatism. There is no need for the adjective. I suspect that few find this argument persuasive. Liberals are inclined to think that if we must have conservatism (though they would rather not) it is best that it be tempered with a little social engineering. Hard-edge freemarketeers will have nothing of such tinkering, and hence view the first c-word as a parasitic, noxious intrusion.
Of course this infraction of conservative principles, if such it is to be termed, turned out to be a mere bagatelle. The CC rhetoric was to be followed by truly horrendous actions: collusion with the Republican Congress in the most extravagant spending spree the nation has ever experienced; the launching and mismanagement of an unnecessary war; authorization of torture; dismantling of civil liberties; and rampant cronyism and deceit.
For every one of these horrors a conservative defense can be mounted. Supply-side economics holds that spending, no matter how profligate, serves to grow the economy. Deficits? They don’t matter. As for foreign wars, “every once and a while we need to take one of those small countries and slam it up against the wall,” as Jonah Goldberg would put it. We just didn’t slam hard enough. Torture is a legitimate way of getting back at the bastards. And surely the loss of a few paltry civil liberties is a small price to pay for obtaining security. Screw the ACLU. What is termed cronyism is actually loyalty, a prime conservative virtue. And deceit is permissible, in fact it is essential, on Straussian grounds.
So it seems that George W. Bush may be a faithful conservative after all. Not so fast, though, for there is a deeper problem. No one can say for sure what a “true conservative” actually is. There are similar problems with defining “true liberal,” “true Marxist,” “true Darwinian,” “true Christian,” and many others.
All this is as it should be. These labels are examples of essentially contested concepts. That is, they survive precisely in order to be battle grounds for the clash of different views.
We owe the idea of essentially contested concept to the neglected British social theorist W. B. Gallie (1912-1998), who first advanced the notion in a 1956 paper in Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society. Gallie argued that it is impossible to provide a conclusive definition of key appraisive concepts such as “social justice,” “democracy,” “Christian life,” “art,” “moral goodness,” and “duty.” Instead, we can offer reasons for holding one interpretation over competing ones. Clarification of essentially contested concepts relies not on the examination of predictive relations (as is the case with most concepts in the natural sciences), but rather calls for a careful consideration of how the concept has been used by different parties throughout its history.
This means recourse to the discipline of the history of ideas, a task that can be more arduous than it seems at first sight. In reference libraries one can choose between two editions of The Dictionary of the History of Ideas. For the first one (1973), I wrote an article on the “Concept of the Gothic.” In this piece I showed how the Gothic meme arose in the Renaissance as a term of disparagement, meaning “barbarous,” “misshapen,” and “tasteless.” As part of a massive shift in aesthetics in the 18th century a more favorable view emerged, contributing greatly to an enhanced appreciation of the cathedrals and medieval art generally. Already in the previous century some English theorists had written of the “Gothic balance,” ascribing the principle of division of powers to the practical wisdom enshrined in the common law tradition.
A further semantic twist lay waiting in the wings. Writing in 1973. I did not anticipate the rise of Goth fashions among young people. This purported lifestyle includes dress, makeup, interior decoration, and music.
I hasten to assure readers that I had nothing to do with the appearance of this fad among the young. Yet its existence does illustrate the inherent malleability of the concept of the Gothic. Mutatis mutandis, the same principle applies to “true conservatism.”
Some cherish precision of language above all else. Maybe they are right. Still, it is not my purpose to lecture writers on political topics, adjuring them, “please be careful with your language; there is no such thing as a true conservative.” Indeed, there is not. Yet the purpose of the term is precisely to serve as a site in which policy issues can be debated, with each party asserting the supremacy of its view. By all means let us have true conservatives--and true conservatives and true conservatives--as many types as possible, each one differing from last. I am tempted to say “let one-hundred flowers of evil flourish.” Yet that would judgmental. Perish the thought! It is consolation enough to realize that we will never know for sure what a true conservative is, any more than the arguments over who is a true liberal, Marxist, and so forth will ever be settled.
Let the wrangling continue.