The year 2016 marked a dramatic change of political course for the English-speaking world, with Britain voting for independence from Europe and the United States electing a president promising a revived American nationalism. Critics see both events as representing a dangerous turn toward “illiberalism” and deplore the apparent departure from “liberal principles” or “liberal democracy,” themes that surfaced repeatedly in conservative publications over the past year. Perhaps the most eloquent among the many spokesmen for this view has been William Kristol, who, in a series of essays in the Weekly Standard, has called for a new movement to arise “in defense of liberal democracy.” In his eyes, the historic task of American conservatism is “to preserve and strengthen American liberal democracy,” and what is needed now is “a new conservatism based on old conservative—and liberal—principles.” Meanwhile, the conservative flagship Commentary published a cover story by the Wall Street Journal’s Sohrab Ahmari entitled “Illiberalism: The Worldwide Crisis,” seeking to raise the alarm about the dangers to liberalism posed by Brexit, Trump, and other phenomena.
These and similar examples demonstrate once again that more than a few prominent conservatives in America and Britain today consider themselves to be not only conservatives but also liberals at the same time. Or, to get to the heart of the matter, they see conservatism as a branch or species of liberalism—to their thinking, the “classical” and most authentic form of liberalism. According to this view, the foundations of conservatism are to be found, in significant measure, in the thought of the great liberal icon John Locke and his followers. It is to this tradition, they say, that we must turn for the political institutions—including the separation of powers, checks and balances, and federalism—that secure the freedoms of religion, speech, and the press; the right of private property; and due process under law. In other words, if we want limited government and, ultimately, the American Constitution, then there is only one way to go: Lockean liberalism provides the theoretical basis for the ordered freedom that conservatives strive for, and liberal democracy is the only vehicle for it.
Many of those who have been most outspoken on this point have been our long-time friends. We admire and are grateful for their tireless efforts on behalf of conservative causes, including some in which we have worked together as partners. But we see this confusion of conservatism with liberalism as historically and philosophically misguided. Anglo-American conservatism is a distinct political tradition—one that predates Locke by centuries. Its advocates fought for and successfully established most of the freedoms that are now exclusively associated with Lockean liberalism, although they did so on the basis of tenets very different from Locke’s. Indeed, when Locke published his Two Treatises of Government in 1689, offering the public a sweeping new rationale for the traditional freedoms already known to Englishmen, most defenders of these freedoms were justly appalled. They saw in this new doctrine not a friend to liberty but a product of intellectual folly that would ultimately bring down the entire edifice of freedom. Thus, liberalism and conservatism have been opposed political positions in political theory since the day liberal theorizing first set foot in England.
Today’s confusion of conservative political thought with liberalism is in a way understandable, however. In the great twentieth-century battles against totalitarianism, conservatives and liberals were allies: They fought together, along with the Communists, against Nazism. After 1945, conservatives and liberals remained allies in the war against Communism. Over these many decades of joint struggle, what had for centuries been a distinction of vital importance was treated as if it were not terribly important, and in fact, it was largely forgotten.
But since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, these circumstances have changed. The challenges facing the Anglo-American tradition are now coming from other directions entirely. Radical Islam, to name one such challenge, is a menace that liberals, for reasons internal to their own view of the political world, find difficult to regard as a threat and especially difficult to oppose in an effective manner. But even more important is the challenge arising from liberalism itself. It is now evident that liberal principles contribute little or nothing to those institutions that were for centuries the bedrock of the Anglo-American political order: nationalism, religious tradition, the Bible as a source of political principles and wisdom, and the family. Indeed, as liberalism has emerged victorious from the battles of the last century, the logic of its doctrines has increasingly turned liberals against all of these conservative institutions. On both of these fronts, the conservative and liberal principles of the Anglo-American tradition are now painfully at cross-purposes. The twentieth-century alliance between conservatism and liberalism is proving increasingly difficult to maintain.
.... But to have a strong and intellectually capable conservatism, we must be able to see clearly what the Anglo-American conservative tradition is and what it is about. And to do this, we have to disentangle it from its old opponent—liberalism...--- "What Is Conservatism"
(1) Historical Empiricism. The authority of government derives from constitutional traditions known, through the long historical experience of a given nation, to offer stability, well-being, and freedom. These traditions are refined through trial and error over many centuries, with repairs and improvements being introduced where necessary, while maintaining the integrity of the inherited national edifice as a whole. Such empiricism entails a skeptical standpoint with regard to the divine right of the rulers, the universal rights of man, or any other abstract, universal systems....
(2) Nationalism. The diversity of national experiences means that different nations will have different constitutional and religious traditions. The Anglo-American tradition harkens back to principles of a free and just national state, charting its own course without foreign interference, whose origin is in the Bible. These include a conception of the nation as arising out of diverse tribes, its unity anchored in common traditional law and religion. Such nationalism is not based on race, embracing new members who declare that “your people is my people, and your God is my God” (Ruth 1:16).
(3) Religion. The state upholds and honors the biblical God and religious practices common to the nation. These are the centerpiece of the national heritage and indispensable for justice and public morals. At the same time, the state offers wide toleration to religious and social views that do not endanger the integrity and well-being of the nation as a whole.
(4) Limited Executive Power. The powers of the king (or president) are limited by the laws of the nation, which he neither determines nor adjudicates. The powers of the king (or president) are limited by the representatives of the people, whose advice and consent he must obtain both respecting the laws and taxation.
(5) Individual Freedoms. The security of the individual’s life and property is mandated by God as the basis for a society that is both peaceful and prosperous, and is to be protected against arbitrary actions of the state. The ability of the nation to seek truth and conduct sound policy depends on freedom of speech and debate. These and other fundamental rights and liberties are guaranteed by law, and may be infringed upon only by due process of law.