Peter Berkowitz merits reading as one of the sharpest observers of the Arab-Israeli conflict, but his policy chops can distract from his credibility as a polymath intellectual, well versed in the philosophical traditions that have shaped Western thought and their applicability to today's political debates. His review in The Weekly Standard of Mark Levin's bestselling polemic, Liberty and Tyranny: A Conservative Manifesto, belongs in any anthology of writing about where the Right went wrong:
Mark Levin certainly does not display a mechanical attachment to the status quo, but he cannot be credited with doing justice to the full weight of our moral and political inheritance, which contains a large progressive component. He refers to the need to "slow" and "contain" government's growth, but that's just for the short term. The ultimate aim of prudent reform, in his view, is nothing less than the overthrow of the New Deal.
But it is hard to square that revolutionary ambition with prudence, as he has defined it. For reversing and ultimately eliminating the New Deal would require the dismissal of society's accumulated experience, knowledge, and traditions over the course of 80 years, during which the federal government, at least partly in response to profound 20th century changes in social and commercial life (and with the persistent support of substantial majorities) assumed substantially greater responsibilities for caring for the vulnerable and regulating an increasingly complex economy.
Marshaling to his defense Edmund Burke, Alexis de Tocqueville, Irving Kristol, Daniel Bell and George Will, Levin wastes little ink in combating such a radical proposal, which slights the New Deal's effectiveness in saving capitalism from itself, and undercutting the Marxist argument at home. The only figure missing from Levin's constellation of conservative luminaries is Benjamin Disraeli, who, even more than Burke, grasped the importance of adapting traditional institutions to changing modern needs. I recently wrote an essay for Tablet examining Disraeli's genius for taking the temperature of the age and why today's Republicans might benefit from studying him:
[A] full hundred and fifty years before John Edwards coined the phrase “Two Americas”—itself borrowed from Michael Harrington’s seminal work The Other America—there was Disraeli’s concept of “Two Nations,” consisting of the rich and poor. In his novel Sybil, which was subtitled “The Two Nations,” Disraeli explained that these two binary constituencies were “as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones; or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by different breeding, are fed by different foods, are ordered by different manners, and are governed by the same laws.” Everything that informed the sentimental fiction of Dickens and the hard-nosed non-fiction of Orwell is captured in that diagnosis, and it’s a wonder, knowing the man who ventured it, that Engels could write to Marx in 1867, a year that saw industrial workers vote overwhelmingly Conservative, “Once again the English working class has disgraced itself.” Had it?
During his second term as prime minister, beginning in 1874, Disraeli passed a whole tranche of progressive legislation that caused Alexander Macdonald, one of the first Labor MPs, to conclude that “the Conservative party have done more for the working classes in five years than the Liberals have in fifty.” These bills included the Artisans Dwellings Act, which mandated slum-clearing and public housing works; the Employers and Workmen Act, which made it legal for trade unions to strike; the Rivers Pollution Act, which regulated the disposal of waste; the Sale of Food and Drugs Acts, which established standards of safety and purity; and the Factory Act, which limited the work hours of women and children. “Tory men and Whig measures” was how one of the characters in Sybil satirized such an approach to governance. (Today, anyone on the right who advocated similar policies would be sneeringly called a “RINO,” Republican in Name Only, by a pundit or blogger determined to keep the GOP out of power for the foreseeable future.) All told, however, this list of accomplishments was more than what Disraeli’s career-long rival Gladstone could ever boast in terms of social welfare reform.