The Future of Conservatism by Charles W. Dunn (ed.)

Few things are as popular among conservatives as internecine philosophical battles. In magazines, Op-Eds, and book length treatises conservatives of various stripes regularly lay out the reoccurring battle for the soul of conservatism. And as others have pointed out, this is probably healthy. Conservatives believe ideas are important and worth fighting about.

But let’s face it, not all of these battles are intelligent and civil debates over first principles. And that is what makes The Future of Conservatism edited by Charles W. Dunn and published by ISI so refreshing. Rather than a diatribe about which faction hijacked the movement, or which politician betrayed it, it is an intelligent and thoughtful discussion about the various perspectives within conservatism, the principles at issue, and how these debates might play out in the future.

There is a lot to chew on in this slim volume and I have been contemplating a longer essay/review for weeks. But I simply don’t have time at this point. So let me simply outline why you should read this book if you are interested in conservatism past, present, or future.

For a brief outline of essays involved click below.


Editor Charles W. Dunn attempts to define and describe modern conservatism. He offers “Ten Canons of Conservatism” and describes five “wings” of the conservative movement (neoconservative, libertarian, Midwest conservatives, traditionalists, and religious conservatives). This introductory essay is a useful entry into the development and structure of conservatism and its many factions or perspectives. I am sure many will want to question or quible with parts, but it is a great place to start.

George H. Nash looks back in order to look forward. He surveys the historical development of American conservatism to understand how we got here and where we are headed. He notes that much of the discontent on the right is due to its maturity and success which bring unique problems. He also notes, however, that philosophical and political unity was always a challenge for conservatism and inter-movement discussion and debate – often quite heated – has always been evident.

After these two introductory type essays, the book goes on to offer various perspectives on the future of conservatism. James W. Ceaser argues that the conservative coalition is made up of four heads: traditionalist or paleo-conservatism; neoconservatism; libertarianism; and the Religious Right. He goes on to argue that for neocons natural rights are the foundational concept and the American Founding is the emblematic event. Ceaser feels that the natural right perspective of the neocons, broadly defined, and the faith based perspective of the Religious Right can combine to lead conservatism into the future. He claims that they “alone posses major projects that speak to the great political issues of our time.”

George W. Carey argues the the nature of the presidency and political parties has led the Republican Party away from conservative principles and that conservatives must look to tradition and crtical checks and balances in order to preserve freedom and fight an ever expanding state.

Harvey Mansfield argues for a “Constitutional Conservatism” that is roughly equivalent to classical liberalism. Michael Barone outlines why he thinks the country remains evenly divided and how conservatives can continue to succeed in this environment.

Marvin Olasky offers ten thoughts on how Christians should engage the culture. He argues that:

The future of American conservatism depends on the ability of libertarians to understand that liberty without virtue cannot last, and the ability of Christian conservatives to understand that being strong and courageous doesn’t mean demanding ideological purity.

Two of the strongest essays, or at least most though provoking to me, were those by Daniel J. Mahoney and Allan C. Carlson. Mahoney’s essay is one of the most intelligent and yet respectful critiques of the foreign policy of the Bush administration that I have seen. In setting out a balanced view Mahoney insightfully argues that:

We are confronted then, with a foreign policy that in many respects operates within sober parameters of principle and prudence – but which is expressed in a self-defeating rhetoric that both encourages overreach and leaves the administration vulnerable to tendentious criticism.

Carlson looks back at the history of pro-family politics to understand why Reagan was once a Democrat and became a Republican. Clearly the revolutions of the sixties changed which party was home to support for the traditional family.

But despite some real gains, Carlson also notes that the GOP hasn’t done a great deal for traditional families lately. Too often big business has triumphed over families in Washington. If the Democrats were ever to moderate their support for the sexual revolution and embrace pro-family policies signficant social and political realignment is possible.

This is an issue that the GOP and conservatives ignore at their peril. I was so fascinated by Carlson’s argument that I added his recent book, The Natural Family: A Manifesto, to my reading list.

Peter Augustine Lawler attempts to explain how conservatism and postmodernism need not be antithetical. And William Kristol argues that conservatives should look to the lessons of Ronald Reagan and offer “counterintuitive leadership” and have the ‘courage to make history.”

The Future of Conservatism is a great collection of essays. It offers a nice blend of history, politics, philosophy, and personal perspective from a variety of conservatives. There is much to agree with, argue about, and think further on. An added benefit is that the book and the essays it contains are slim enough to make it an easy read.

As I noted above, anyone with an interest in conservatism will want to add this volume to their library.

About the author

Kevin Holtsberry

I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season – oh, and watching golf too).

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