These are dark times for American conservatives. When they aren’t issuing recriminations at one another for the loss of the White House, they’re resorting to increasingly desperate tactics against the new president. Obama’s international allure, many on the right insist, is at odds with his duty to uphold and defend strictly American interests; his cosmopolitan background—though itself the embodiment of our national dream—is little more than affirmative action at the world-historical level. Conservatives have looked on in amazement as a man fluent in identity politics and skilled at promoting his outsider status for insider gain has ascended to the highest public office on earth. This is odd given that one the founders of modern conservatism was himself an ethnic minority with an exotic last name, who governed a predominant culture as if to the manor born, undercutting bigotry and innuendo with the ironic put-down instead of the throbbing vein. If the GOP wants a model for future political leadership, it should revisit the career of Benjamin Disraeli.
What made Britain’s first and only Jewish prime minister so prescient? Adam Kirsch, fresh off his absorbing biography of Disraeli, observed that what his subject and Obama have most in common is literary origin. Both men used their writing as a “laboratory” in which to test to the same question that would mark their political careers: “is it possible to genuinely belong to, and even lead, a society that shuns people like you?” Yet while Obama is no doubt the elegant yield of an evolved zeitgeist, it remains to be seen if he can precipitate the next stage in that zeitgeist’s evolution. Disraeli’s great virtue was to understand that the world of the 19th century, of which he was that paradoxical oddity—a romantic conservative, a baptized Jew—was changing under the dual engines of industrial capitalism and colonial expansion, and that the Tories must also change or perish. Rather than remain fixed in some curmudgeonly idyll for a feudal past, responsive only to cooked-up resentments against so-called “elites” (he proudly was one), he fashioned a pragmatic materialism that set about to answer what Thomas Carlyle called the “condition-of-England question.” Acting out of a mixture of principle and expediency, Disraeli pioneered the Third Way, avant la lettre.
Following Edmund Burke, he believed that the customs and institutions that were already in place in England, and had been for centuries, could be harnessed to lessen the plight of the working-class, who might otherwise threaten those customs and institutions with violent revolution. This philosophy used to guide the thinking American Right in its heyday—the 1950s—so much so that up until Richard Nixon, some of the most sweeping civil rights and healthcare initiatives were undertaken by Republican presidents. Whittaker Chambers, once a revered sage on the National Review masthead—not least because he was the most famous ex-Communist in existence—termed his own brand of activist conservatism “Beaconsfieldism,” after the peer title Disraeli was given in 1876, and luxuriated in until his death a few years later.
Of course, to hold the current mealy crop of GOP leaders and tacticians to the standard of Beaconsfieldism is to be laughably disappointed. It is impossible, for instance, to imagine Queen Victoria’s favorite politician, who was a student of the blue book and the dark, Satanic mill, calling England a “nation of whiners,” as Senator Phil Gramm did in reacting to the financial market crisis last year. Nor can one envision Disraeli kowtowing to crass demagogues such as Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin, who today burble on overpriced airwaves that any and all attempts to expand the role of government is “socialism.” Disraeli would have looked at his watch or sighed extravagantly in the face of such witless bloviation. He was by no means a socialist, but nor was he afraid of heeding the warnings of his radical opponents in order to undermine their revolutionary goals with gradualist measures. He was one of 5 MPs to vote for leniency for the leaders of 1830’s Chartism, probably because he sympathized with their chief plaint for universal male suffrage, which is why, three decades on, he railroaded the Second Reform Bill of 1867 through parliament despite party pressure not to do so (the Tories were then in opposition).
Indeed, 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.
There aren’t many Disraelian figures dotting the landscape at present, although the Canadian David Frum, who has become a preeminent gadfly of movement conservatism, has done his part to uphold a kind of Beaconsfieldism modified for the 21st century. In a Newsweek cover essay he wrote last March, directed primarily against Limbaugh, Frum argued that the Republican Party was about thirty years out of date and almost autistically out of touch with popular demands. Instead of placing free market healthcare reform at the top of the economic agenda, the call of the hour was for more tax cuts. Instead of acknowledging that the rising generation of voters was quite comfortable with gay rights and incorporating new immigrant groups, the response was to drum up populist hysteria about a liberal assault on American “values.” (Disraeli also understood how minorities should be conscripted, not alienated by the right. “[T]he persecution of the Jewish race,” he wrote, “had deprived European society of an important conservative element and added to the destructive party an influential ally.”)
In the face of a seemingly unstoppable Democratic majority, what conservatives need most, according to Frum, is “every resource of mind and heart, every good argument, every creative alternative and every bit of compassionate sympathy for the distress that is pushing Americans in the wrong direction.” What they need, in other words, is a refresher course on the most eminent of Victorians.