Principled conservatism difficult in America

“Stover at Yale,” a serialized novel about Yale life at the turn of the 20th century, opens with a depiction of Dink Stover as one of the “chosen” in his class. A football star in prep school, he is well-known upon arrival and immediately begins to climb the social ladder that will lead to a sophomore society and ultimately into Skull and Bones. A consummate Yale man, he fairly embodies the characteristics of the “Yale type”: “first, a pretty fine type of gentleman, with good, clear, honest standards; second, a spirit of ambition and a determination not to be beaten; third, the belief in democracy.”

But during his sophomore year, after a chance encounter with a group of intellectual students outside the social elite, Dink determines that his view of Yale and of the world is extremely limited by the priorities of the social elite. So he plunges headlong into an intellectual awakening with his newfound friends, eventually abandoning his sophomore society and slipping off the “likely list” for Skull and Bones. His intellectual friends, dissatisfied with Yale and other northeastern colleges, grope to find words to explain for the problem. In the mouth of Dink’s friends, Stover at Yale becomes social commentary.

Brown, one of Dink’s friends, contends that the “function of a college has changed. It is now the problem of educating masses and not individuals… we go out, not as individuals, but as a type.” Regan, another friend, laments that the colleges “don’t represent the nation: they don’t represent what the big masses are feeling, fighting, striving for,” and he suggests that they “ought to be great political hotbeds.” The closing lines of the book are reserved for Brockhurst, the most quixotic of them all: “I dream of something else, something visionary, a great institution not of boys, clean, lovable, and honest, but of men of brains, of courage, of leadership, a great center of thought, to stir the country and bring it back to the understanding of what man creates with his imagination, and dares with his will — it will come.”

And it did. Yale gradually and then more rapidly shifted to become “a great center of thought” and a “great political hotbed” organized around an individualist philosophy. The high-water mark was the late 60s, when Yale president Kingman Brewster “sensed a telling familiarity” while reading Stover at Yale. The period was trying for conservatives. The school once called a “bastion of conservatism” by Time magazine endured riots by radicals, public defacing of the American flag and the breakdown of the WASP social order that had for so long defined and served Yale.

Thus, conservatives witnessed a social revolution that overthrew the mixed system of opinion and sentiment that had made it possible to speak of a “Yale man.” Everything was to be simplified according to the principles of autonomy and individual right. Virtue, duty, and honor were scorned, and conservatives could be excused for thinking that everything good was coming to an end.

The revolution that claimed the support of “reason” forced conservatives to find the philosophical foundation of their antipathy to such change. They found inspiration in Edmund Burke, who in critiquing the French Revolution supported the concept of inheritance against that of social contract, prescription against the spirit of innovation, aristocratic privilege against democratic theory and chivalry against the rights of men. And Burke’s valorization of statesmanship as a high calling gave conservatives a purpose and a role to play.

But the conservatives soon learned the danger of their newfound intellectualism. For in accepting Burke’s withering critique of the doctrine of the rights of men, they unwittingly came into conflict with the central idea of the American creed: the inalienable rights of the Declaration of Independence. Herein lies the predicament of being conservative in America: the attempt to preserve the goods of a social order seems futile when the founding principles of that order justify its own eclipse. How, then, can conservatives aspire to political leadership in America?

Liberal enlightenment thinkers implicitly considered the state in an analogy to a maze. For them, the pre-modern state was a labyrinth full of dangers and dead ends, and a thread was needed to lead them through the darkness to enlightenment. The “rights of men” evoked by the French Revolution and the Declaration of Independence constitute their proposal for this thread. In contrast, if American conservatives aspire to political leadership, they must be especially wary of adopting this way of thinking about the state.

Classical political theorists implicitly considered the state in an analogy to architecture. Two questions — “Rule by whom?” and “For what purpose?” — suggested a variety of structures for the state. The categories of democracy, aristocracy and monarchy, among others, were the result. In the Constitution, American conservatives inherit a collection of the best of these ideas, and conservatives who aspire to political leadership would do well to emphasize their wisdom.

But architecture can only provide structure; conservatives need another analogy with which to inform their policy. Expect that analogy, and more, in 2008.

Peter Johnston is a junior in Saybrook College. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays.


  • Anonymous

    Mr. Johnston, It is surprisingly refreshing and reassuring that a Junior has such a firm grasp of the "Big Picture". You do the University body a
    service by putting it into words.

    I am so tired of the news heaving up sound bites, video clips. Our "Leaders" portraying courage,tenacity, conviction and patriotism, chest puffed up and heads held high, its a practiced stance,about as genuine as the Rolex I paid $7.50 for at the Ghetto Mall last weekend. Reminds me of the nature channel, like a mangy hyena regurgitating pre-digested information to its young, feeding the hungry little pack of citizens .

    Proudly and emotionally displaying their obvious moral, ethical and intellectual superiority . Its the other side of the big ole tug-o-war, one side raves about constitutionally protected ideals, pro-gun, pro-choice, pro-war. The anti’s , well anti-this or that.

    See the puppet masters attempt to confuse and separate. Divide & conquer is as old as time itself, somewhere in the wild world a predator cuts the weak and lost out of the herd, dinner is served.

    I don’t know about you but I have had more than enough pol-speak and piss-poor representation from those elected to represent the will of the people, not convince the people that they know better and simply ignore us. Read; Immigration Reform as the most recent example.

    As the smoke clears and the practiced display of disparity and diversion, carefully served up by Conservative and Liberal channels is an echo, who is left to sweep up the party poppers, gum wrappers and paper confetti when its finally over?

    It’s become a mindless, no-win paradox, intentionally created by a two-party system that’s the same slobbering, greedy, power drunken swaggert or swagget under the surface. One body for the two headed hydra at the helm of our country. The heads do agree on one thing though, in order for their plan to work, individuality cannot survive, it’ll destroy the group-think mentality .

    Their forming an alternate reality of realism, accountability, reason, practicality, prudence, modesty, humility, ethics, restraint, moderation and eventually the most dreaded of ideals, a real choice, dangerous, very dangerous. Now children, we can’t have that can we? Oh Chillllldrreeeen!!!

    With a smug sense of duty and satisfaction the line wraps round, pull the lever,touch the screen, flick the chad, don’t let it hang! X marks the spot, check one, check two, select your candidate and feed the card to the reader, behind the slot sits a funny little man, quietly giggling, manically laughing at the futility of it all. Further behind the curtain, glasses clink, firm masculine and strong feminine handshakes are exchanged. They tell each other how great they are, pornographic obscenities whispered, feet tapping behind the bathroom stall, plans made, promises of promises to break. Lies to cover lies. Hurry hurry hurry, step right up the barker shouts! There are sheep to fleece, Social Security money and tax dollars to spend, hurry up folks, the line forms to the right, wait your turn, don’t push, like pigs at the trough. Easy, wait your turn, there is plenty of room at the throat of America for all of you little vampires.