February 3, 2005


The Inventor of Modern Conservatism: Disraeli and us (David Gelernter, 02/07/2005, Weekly Standard)

DISRAELI FOUND HIMSELF in a position to rebuild the Tory party. How did he go about it? Reverence for tradition was central to Toryism and to Disraeli's own personality. He wanted his new-style Tory party to embody respect for tradition--wanted it to be new and old, to be a modern setting for ancient gems, a new crown displaying old jewels. This was a popular idea in 19th-century Britain, where "the future" and "the past" were both discovered, simultaneously.

Disraeli's approach was like Barry and Pugin's in designing a new home for Parliament. The old one burned to the ground (except for a magnificent medieval hall and a few odds and ends) in 1834. The new structure, it was decided, should be built of modern materials and work like a modern building with all the conveniences--but should look medieval. The intention wasn't play-acting or aesthetic fraud; it was to use the best ideas of the past and present alongside each other.

The result was wildly successful, one of history's greatest public buildings. Disraeli aimed to accomplish something similar for the Tory party. His underlying thought, which defined Disraeli-type Toryism and reshaped conservatism for all time, was that the Conservative party was the national party. Sounds simple and is. But everything else followed. If you understood "national" properly, then (on the one hand) the Tories must be a democratic, "universal," progressive party that cared about the poor and working classes--since the party was national it must care for the whole nation, for all classes. But the Tories must also be a patriotic party that revered ancient traditions and institutions, again inasmuch as they were the national--and therefore honored profoundly the nation's heritage and distinctive character.

He put it like this:

In a progressive country change is constant; and the great question is not whether you should resist change which is inevitable, but whether that change should be carried out in deference to the manners, the customs, the laws and the traditions of a people, or whether it should be carried out in deference to abstract principles, and arbitrary and general doctrines.

(Which is exactly the issue that divides Republicans and Democrats today.) If Tories were "national," the Liberal party was ("to give it an epithet," he said, "a noble epithet--which it may perhaps deserve") the "philosophic" party.

In his Vindication of the English Constitution he explained that "the Tory party in this country is the national party; it is the really democratic party of England." The "national" party is the inclusive, universal party--"universal" meaning "all classes of Britain." "If we must find new forces to maintain the ancient throne and immemorial monarchy of England," he said in Parliament, "I for one hope that we may find that novel power in the invigorating energies of an educated and enfranchised people." According to one school of opinion (Cecil Roth reports), had Disraeli lived and got another shot at the premiership in the 1880s, he would have "extended the franchise to women, this being according to The Times of June 13th 1884, the 'trump Conservative card' which he kept up his sleeve."

Thus the radical new idea of "Tory Democracy" (not Disraeli's phrase but his idea)--conservatism by and for the man in the street: Teddy Roosevelt conservatism, JFK conservatism, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan conservatism, the conservatism that has been so potent in modern Britain and America. JFK fits the pattern beautifully: people's man, tough stand-up-for-America man, lady's man--so to speak. But did Disraeli influence JFK? Like nearly every politician of his generation, Kennedy was deeply influenced by Churchill, who was deeply influenced by his father, who was deeply influenced by Dizzy.

As Disraeli saw it, liberals and conservatives were equally progressive. But liberals were rational internationalists who worried what the Germans would say. Conservatives were romantic nationalists who worried what their forefathers would have said.

It's always amusing to read folks on the Left who think they've devastated George Bush when they say that he leads a faith-based party against their reason-based party. Rather few conservatives would disagree with the formulation.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 3, 2005 6:55 AM

"conservatism by and for the man in the street"

The writer omits the two Americans who best exemplified the application of this idea to America: William McKinley and Mark Hanna. The GOP carried the urban labor vote in 1896 and 1900 in the face of Bryan's theoretical radicalism. No one understands this better than Karl Rove.

Posted by: Dan at February 3, 2005 10:48 AM

Neither American party can in any sense of the word be said to be based on 'reason.' While the GOP has a basic credo, pretty well outlined here by Gelernter, the Democrats are far more a coalition of disparate interests held together by mutual greed. It has no center. You certainly don't get a sense that they are sitting up nights re-reading Mill, Bentham or Locke. Gladstone would find the American Democratic party as appalling as any of us do.

Dan's reference to McKinley and Hanna is brilliant.

Posted by: Bart at February 3, 2005 11:40 AM

The Democratic Party is run by the self-described enlightened who honestly believe that human ills and imperfections are social or environmental constructs. The very idea is the bastard child of the "age of reason". Marx's historicism and utopianism is said to have a scientific grounding. The social engineering policies typical of social/statist Democratic Party are impossible to justify without the belief that reason alone provides the remedy for all human imperfections. Their radical secular intolerance can only be justified through their absolute reliance on reason and characterization of religion and tradition as relics of a dark and ignorant past. The Democrats are a collection of disparate groups with one thing in common: gullibility.

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford,Ct. at February 3, 2005 3:13 PM

There you have it, for those who may have thought I had been making it up. Conservatives are in fact progressive, only our progress is the unbroken progress of humanity, while what the Left calls "progress" ia a turning away, most often a turning backwards, from that same march. .

Posted by: Lou Gots at February 3, 2005 3:13 PM

A sound Conservative government . . . Tory men and Whig measures.
Benjamin Disraeli, Coningsby, Bk ii. Ch. 6

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at February 3, 2005 5:29 PM

Tom C. :

I bought a copy of Soviet Communism: A New Civilization? by Sidney and Beatrice Webb in a used bookstore a few months ago. It's an infamously gullible 1930s whitewash of Stalinist Russia that relied on official Soviet statistics in drawing its conclusions.

The headline on Soviet science is titled: SCIENCE THE SALVATION OF MANKIND.

This from people so in love with "reason" that, after tireless examination of the "evidence," they declared Josef Stalin no more powerful in Russia than Roosevelt in America. Reason conquers all! Now bow your head and genuflect.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at February 3, 2005 7:18 PM


Isn't funny how today's scientific rationalists can describe their ancestors as so obviously irrational and unscientific? They are still running the show in many places where the walls are caving in around them and they still don't get it. Discarding unworkable theories should be easy, one would think.

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford,Ct. at February 4, 2005 8:24 AM