Michele Bachmann calls herself a “constitutional conservative.” So does Rand Paul, and anyone endorsed by Sarah Palin gets the label as well. As the nation heads towards defaulting on its debt obligations and the state of Minnesota remains closed, it’s worth pondering what constitutional conservatism actually means, and what lessons we can take from it.
For conservative politicians, the name signals that they are identifying as Tea Party members, which means limiting government, balancing the federal budget, lowering taxes, ending redistribution from the wealthier to the poor, assigning a central position for God in the lives of Americans, even in courthouses and public schools, and asserting the right to bear arms. While God will always be given top billing, one gets the sense that lowering taxes and eliminating social programs are actually the most important pillars in the platform — so much so that many elected officials claim to be unwilling to compromise no matter what the short-term consequences.
Yet the term “constitutional conservative” is older than the Tea Party movement, and has a subtle yet important difference to it, since it focuses on moderation. For contemporary conservative political theorists like Harvey Mansfield and Peter Berkowitz, among others, constitutional conservatism requires a proper balance between principle and prudence — that is, between living up to one’s ideology, and living together in a democratic community in which all acknowledge the necessity of compromise. God remains central, for religion provides a source of virtue and a reason to sacrifice for the greater good, and protecting individual liberties still remain the fundamental goal, but being a constitutional conservative for political theorists above all requires an awareness of political realities, and an accommodation to them in order to a allow a range of people in a society to live together peacefully.
Today’s officeholders who call themselves constitutional conservatives have taken a very different approach. They may do well to revisit their theoretical brethren who acknowledged the necessity of living according to principle while not being ideologues, of being driven by values and not opportunism, of compromising on policy while remaining true to principle, and understanding that as much as one would like to move society in a certain direction, it may not happen overnight.
As the federal government stands on the brink of defaulting on its debt obligations, the question for the moment is whether political constitutional conservatives, too, can find proper balance between principle and prudence, between staying true to their ideology, and living together in a democratic community in which all acknowledge the necessity of compromising with others.
Brian J. Glenn is a political historian who teaches in the Department of Government at Wesleyan University. His book, “Conservatism and American Political Development" (co-edited with Steven M. Teles), was published by Oxford University Press in 2009.