E.J. Dionne contrasts angry, pseudo-populist Tea Party-style conservatism with a more humane conservatism that “seeks to preserve the best of what we have.” He recognizes that he may be defining conservatism as little more than a corrective to progressivism rather than a free-standing ideology in its own right, but he maintains that Burkean-Kirkian conservatism is primarily about providing cautionary advice to over-zealous reformers, rather than opposing reform per se.
At a philosophical level, Dionne may have a point. If conservatism is primarily a set of warnings against overreaching, then it isn’t a political agenda itself so much as a set of constraints on any positive agenda. Any sane liberalism will take note of the fact that policies can have unintended consequences, that ingrained social habits can’t simply be pulled up by the roots without sacrificing certain values, and that it’s not within the power of government to radically change human nature, as Marxists may have imagined.
But Dionne also surely knows that American conservatism has never been limited to this modest version. Since at least the post-World War II era, conservatism has had a positive agenda of dismantling, or at least radically limiting, the welfare and regulatory state; expanding the national security and military apparatus; and defending “traditional” values against all comers. The relation between this movement and conservatism as Dionne describes it has been tenuous at best. The benign, avuncular conservatism Dionne praises has largely been confined to a handful of intellectuals and writers. Tea Partyism isn’t a radical break with the substance of American conservatism, so much as a particularly unattractive face of it.