Conservatism is today, in 2009, a word without meaning. It can refer to a Christian agrarianism, urban free market capitalism, the Objectivist world of Ayn Rand and the libertarians, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation and the imams of Syria and Saudi Arabia. It can refer to the love of free trade and protectionism. It can refer to a strong state, such as Franco’s Spain, or a weak one, such as the early American republic.
It can embrace technology and innovation or reject it, seeking a simpler life. It is both anti- and philo-Semitic. It can embrace either integration or race separatism. It can refer to a monarchy or a republic. It can refer to populism or aristocracy. It can refer to the assembly line or the craft guild. It can refer to Milton Friedman, George Bush, G. K. Chesterton or Fedor Dostoyevskii. The word is worse than useless.
The book under review here purports to be a conservative manifesto for the Obama era, the era of democratic dominance last seen in the early 1990s. It is in fact two books: a semi-theoretical account of conservative ideas in the first few chapters, and later, a more issue-oriented approach to American politics in 2008-2009. Ultimately, the book fails for several reasons: first, it fails because its “theory” is aimed at a popular audience, and hence, lacks the theoretical rigor of works such as The Conservative Mind.
It also fails because the beginnings of the work, dealing with the founding fathers and the nature of federalism and constitutionalism, are, at best, incompletely integrated with the issue-oriented chapters that follow. Thirdly, and most seriously, the ultimately ideological aim of this book is in no respect different from the basic theoretical ideas of the Enlightenment, dependent upon John Locke, Thomas Jefferson and Adam Smith, regardless of the completely different ethical starting points of the two systems.
This is a curious beginning for a work on “conservatism. ” Even more odd is the author’s complete lack of differentiation among the various people that formed the artificial category of “the founding fathers. ” There is nothing about Patrick Henry or George Mason’s rejection of the constitution, or the radical distinctions between Federalists and Anti-Federalists. The author is a radio talk host with a law degree. He is not a social theorist or philosopher, much less a historian, yet the scope of his work seems to demand these backgrounds.
The work itself is highly unoriginal, with every idea and every ideological formulation stated in almost the precisely identical to terms in the National Review or conservative papers such as Human Events. There is nothing in the book itself that is specifically original, and these ideas have been regular currency in conservative circles since the New Deal. Since it does purport to be a summation of “conservative thought,” the fact is that the author sets the reader up for a theoretical discourse that Mr. Levin does not have te desire or ability to relate.