Any attempt to rescue conservatism from the ashes, then, has to begin with the defeat of Donald Trump in November. If he wins a second term, whatever latent conservatism remains in the Republican Party will be extinguished. The redefinition of the Republican Party into the Trumpian Party will be complete and very difficult to undo. Conservatism as a political philosophy, as a political sensibility, will be homeless.
That would obviously be bad for those of us who are conservative; it would also be bad for the country. Conservatism at its best — conservatism properly understood — appreciates the complexity of human society, the role of civic institutions in the formation of human character, and the dangers of popular passions, mob mentalities and conspiratorial thinking. It places greater weight on human experience and practical wisdom than on the attachment to abstract theory and ideological purity that Ronald Reagan warned against in 1977.
There is — or at least there once was — such a thing as a conservative disposition. The great 20th-century British political philosopher Michael Oakeshott put it this way in his 1956 lecture “On Being a Conservative”:
The disposition to be conservative in respect of politics reflects a quite different view of the activity of governing. The man of this disposition understands it to be the business of a government not to inflame passion and give it new objects to feed upon, but to inject into the activities of already too passionate men an ingredient of moderation; to restrain, to deflate, to pacify and to reconcile; not to stoke the fires of desire, but to damp them down. And all this, not because passion is vice and moderation virtue, but because moderation is indispensable if passionate men are to escape being locked in an encounter of mutual frustration.
But conservatism is far more than merely a disposition. It is premised on certain beliefs, including the dignity and equality of individuals, while it is also undergirded by the idea that freedom is impossible without strong civic institutions and responsible personal behavior. It prizes prudence and considers gratitude a virtue. And because of its reverence for our Madisonian system of government — checks and balances, separation of powers — conservatism considers compromise part of our constitutional DNA.
Conservatism believes in limitations on the power of the state, it believes in the rule of law, it respects free markets as a generator of wealth and government and as a means to secure what the founders referred to as “unalienable rights.” It believes in defending the most vulnerable members of society, including the unborn. Understanding how easily a large, multiethnic nation can break into warring factions, conservatism finds ways to strengthen our bonds of affection, knowing that despite even deep differences we are not enemies but friends. It believes in objective truth while acknowledging the limitations of human reason and wisdom. We see through a glass darkly, knowing only in part, in the words of St. Paul.
Conservatism celebrates human excellence. It embraces change and reform as circumstances shift while always staying alert to the dangers of demagogues, fanatics and personality cults. And it stands against the destructive mind-set that seeks to destroy rather than to build up. “Rage and frenzy will pull down more in half an hour than prudence, deliberation, and foresight can build up in a hundred years,” as Edmund Burke famously put it.
Liberals should also hope for the revivification of a healthy conservatism. It would check some of the excesses of the Democratic Party, making it stronger and more responsible. In fact, some of the best laws passed by Congress in the past decades, on issues like Social Security, taxes and welfare, were the result of input from and compromise between the two parties.
But sound center-right parties also play a central role in well-functioning democracies everywhere. The Harvard political scientist Daniel Ziblatt, the author of “Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy,” concludes that democracy’s fate hinges on how conservative political parties — the historical defenders of power, wealth and privilege — recast themselves and cope with the rise of their own radical right.