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essays

1978

Order and Virtue

Abbott identifies the third-wave of Whiggery,  Neo-conservatives.

“Understanding the ‘New Conservatives’.” Polity (USA), Winter 1977: 261–273.

The “New Conservatives” are thinkers who have received considerable attention as recent converts to conservatism. They may not be welcome allies since they do not appear to be defenders of Lockean liberty or laissez-faire, but rather of the traditional conservative values of Burke: “ordered liberty,” the aristocratic virtues, and a religious basis for social morality.

We may profitably examine the thought of several of these intellectual leaders of the loosely knit “neoconservative” movement comprised primarily of former liberals and socialists. Such figures include Alexander Bickel, Daniel Bell, Irving Kristol, Nathan Glazer, and Robert Nisbet. What emerges is a rather diverse “movement” united principally by a somewhat unfocused disgust with contemporary American life: with bureaucratic, monolithic corporations; with ever escalating demands placed upon government by the masses for equality and ample provision of educational, medical, and employment goods; and with the erosion of traditional moral and religious values.

The acknowledged intellectual predecessors of the groups are diverse. However, Burke seems to be a unifying precursor, with de Tocqueville, Proudhon, Kropotkin, Schumpeter, Weber, Madison, and Montesquieu enjoying less universal appreciation. Employing Louis Hartz’s classification of two previous periods in American life in which Whiggery dominated (the post-Jacksonian period and the era of industrialization following the Civil War), Abbott categorizes these “new conservatives” as constituting the third rebirth of Whiggery in America.

The positive content of the “new conservatism” is rather diffuse and unfocused, but its political style is one of “moderation and a spirit of compromise.” Nisbet’s prescriptions seem the clearest; what he proposes is a pluralism based upon neighborhoods, local universities, and decentralized economic life. Thus, Nisbet constitutes a link between socialist, conservative, and liberal Whiggish thought. The importance of these thinkers lies in their isolation of elements which are lacking in American life—i.e., a tragic sense of life, devotion to transcendental ends, and the absence of awe-inspiring heroism.