Huntington, the woke, and Radicalization

by Eric Schliesser on May 16, 2023

Richard Bourke’s (2018) “What is conservatism? History, ideology, party” critically discusses (inter alia) Samuel P. Huntington’s (1957) “Conservatism as an Ideology.” Yes, that Huntington (1927–2008). What follows is not about the clash of civilizations, promise.

Bourke claims that “the conservatism of Oakeshott and Huntington, like the liberalism of Hayek and Rawls, reflects an effort to fabricate an ideal, to stake out territory – to label in order to legitimise a particular system of values.” (Sadly, Bourke is unfamiliar with my own work on philosophical prophecy.) In particular, Bourke treats Huntington as a kind of modern Humean who, first, thinks that liberty presupposes authority. And, second, “that a conservative programme was necessary for the survival of the tradition of liberal politics in America.” On this reading, Huntington, then, criticizes those (like Russell Kirk) who understand themselves as ‘conservative,’ but who in their lack of understanding of American political culture end up in reactionary places. The role of Burke is, following Strauss’ reading of Burke (according to Bourke), to legitimise “existing institutions without prescribing for them any particular content.” Fair enough.

Now, if we go back to Huntington’s essay, he distinguishes among three ways of understanding conservatism as “a system of ideas concerned with the distribution of political and social values and acquiesced in by a significant social group:” first, as an aristocratic response to the French revolution. Second, as “an autonomous system of ideas which are generally valid. It is defined in terms of universal values such as justice, order, balance, moderation.” In fact, those political agents that adhere to this second way of understanding conservatism may well understand it as a “preferable political philosophy under any historical circumstances.” (emphasis added) And third, a situationist one in which a “recurring type of historical situation in which a fundamental challenge is directed at established institutions and in which the supporters of those institutions employ the conservative ideology in their defense.” (emphasis added.) Notice that, one can accept this three-fold taxonomy even if one is not a conservative. One can even think, as a dispassionate scholar, that one of these kinds of notions best describes conservatism in history while not endorsing it as a political agent or from a normative perspective. As Huntington observes the three kinds of conservatism posited by this taxonomy only differ analytically in relation “to the historical process.”

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