AMERICA'S WAY BACK: RECLAIMING FREEDOM, TRADITION, AND CONSTITUTION
By Donald J. Devine
ISI Books, $29.95, 283 pages
You have to be my age — 121 or so — to remember Frank Meyer in his National Review prime: firm jaw; light-saber intellect; working the phones at 3 a.m. as he pieced together and sorted out the varied stripes and gradations of conservatism.
To the same effect, nevertheless, you can read Donald J. Devine on how to get back where Meyer was, Meyer having held in his hands, on Mr. Devine's showing, the key to conservative recovery amid the moral confusion that characterizes modern culture and politics.
If you're a mere 120, and disadvantaged in respect of Meyer's contribution to conservative strategy while at National Review, prepare for enlightenment. Meyer — ex-Marxist, Catholic convert (near the last), lover of liberty — showed in writings of great depth and agility the way to combine traditionalist and libertarian instincts so as to unite instead of divide conservatives of varied outlook.
Mr. Devine, who ran the federal civil service under Ronald Reagan and has contributed his own notable brainpower to the conservative cause for half a century, proposes that the Meyer plan better serves conservatism than do competing versions longer on purity and rancor than on effectiveness.
Meyer's combination of libertarianism and traditionalism came to be known as "fusionism" — to purists a reproach, to more practical people (e.g., Reagan) a formula for combating the tightening grip of liberal "experts" on every possible topic.
Mr. Devine's conservative heroes are the long-dead Meyer, of course, but also Reagan, whose policies showed how to give flesh to Meyerism; also Bill Buckley of National Review, Milton Friedman, F.A. Hayek, Russell Kirk and a handful of others: mainstream, rule-of-law conservatives all in their embrace of the country's founding vision. The tension, inherent in the Founders' plan, between liberty and order allows boundaries to be set and doors and windows simultaneously to be flung open for fruitful exploratory purposes. Today's Republican party, as Mr. Devine sees the matter, doesn't get it and doesn't see the possibilities of unity instead of division into yapping factions that serve the purposes of the liberal dark side.
"Fusionist" conservatism, as Mr. Devine describes it — "a synthesis of traditional Western values and the need for individual freedom to achieve them" — is the answer. Certainly, Reagan thought so, when he declared, in his first inaugural message, that "ours is a consistent philosophy of government." There were no separate social, economic and foreign agendas. "We have one agenda. Just as surely as we seek to put our financial house in order and rebuild our nation's defenses, so too we seek to protect the unborn, to end the manipulation of schoolchildren by utopian planners," and acknowledge God in classrooms. It all fit together. Freedom was the means to the end of social order and soul order. Libertarians needed traditionalists to help them discern where to go; traditionalists needed libertarians to clear their minds of any clutter concerning the beauties of enslavement and government direction.
Advises Mr. Devine: "[S]earch the tradition to determine the good end to be accomplished, and use freedom to adjudge the means in a hierarchy — first leaving it to the individual to act, then to the family, then to the community, local government, regional government and only to the national state when there is no other way."
How, in practical terms, does this sort of thing work out? Mr. Devine offers localism as one crucial strategy. "Small local governments," says he, "provide a free libertarian means to build a true traditionalist community, which should be communal rather than coercive. They can revive a 'community spirit which has been largely suffocated by centralization,' as Hayek put it . Traditionalism and libertarianism come together on decentralization as a solution, as Ronald Reagan did in often praising Main Street, local government, and neighborhood communities."
The "top-down" solution, as conservatives of all stamps generally acknowledge, doesn't work. Witness the fraught condition of Obamacare, months before it even takes official effect. Witness the seeming impossibility of getting the country to agree on abortion policy. "From the most traditional Amish or Hasidic," says Mr. Devine, "to the conventional suburbs, to the free lifestyle of San Francisco or even 'Sin City' Las Vegas, why not let communities compete and let diversity prevail?"
I do not see how it is possible to read Mr. Devine's prescription for American conservatism without the occasional tear of nostalgia. Conservatives really, once upon a time — a not-so-long-ago time — pulled in the same cultural-political harness? Aw, couldn't be. The movement wasn't neatly divided into neocons, paleos, RINOs, Tea Partyers, dittoheads, and what not? Actually, it wasn't.
The Reagan era, being unique in circumstances and personalities, will not return; nor is Mr. Devine calling for search parties to go forth in quest of yet another charismatic ex-actor properly trained in political philosophy. Mr. Devine's enterprise here is to excavate the premises upon which the Reagan presidency acted with some considerable success and to suggest, against the backdrop of the Obama presidency, that if conservatives don't get their act together
That's another story, of course. The one that Mr. Devine narrates aptly, informatively, is engaging as a summons to look around, look back, ask the vital question: Are conservatives doing the very, very best they can?
William Murchison is a nationally syndicated columnist.