Conservative Godfathers: Reflections from Don Devine, Part 1

August 17th, 2017

In a city where institutional experience is often in short supply, seeking it out can be a valuable exercise.

That was my goal when I sat down with Donald Devine – a former aide to President Reagan, prolific author, and intellectual godfather in the conservative movement. Devine cut his teeth in the early, salad days of conservatism – a peer of Bill Buckley and Frank Meyer, the founders of National Review, and an acolyte of the conservative “fusionism” espoused by Meyer.

The author of seven books that explore the philosophical underpinnings of conservatism as well as its more practical aspects of governing, Devine went on to become the Director of the US Office of Personnel Management (OPM) under Ronald Reagan. (There, the Washington Post dubbed him the “terrible, swift sword of the civil service.”)

Throughout the years, Devine has maintained a sharp intellect and remains a keen observer of today’s conservatives – where they’ve been successful and the work that still needs to be done.

Our conversation covered his reflections on modern conservatism, its evolution in today’s Congress, and his thoughts on Trump, OPM and more.

This interview will be presented in two parts.


On the birth of modern conservatism.

I grew up in and around New York city, where the conservative movement really got started. When I went to graduate school, the top book was a thesis on why there was no conservatism in America – and that was true.

In 1940, Friedrich Hayek wrote The Road to Serfdom. In 1945, the Reader’s Digest published an excerpt from it, under the headline “One of the Most Important Books For Our Generation.” [Ed note: the Reader’s Digest headline refers to a blockbuster review of the book by New York Times economics editorial writer Henry Hazlitt.] The Reader’s Digest was widely circulated throughout the country at the time, and the publication got the attention of Bill Buckley and Frank Meyer. The two went on to lead National Review, and that was really the beginning of the modern conservative movement in America.

Conservatism was built around the idea of preserving, or re-establishing, Western civilization in two main parts: its general tradition – moral and common-sense ideas –  and freedom. Buckley and Meyer saw conservatism as a balance between tradition and freedom; as a synthesis between these two ideas.

Importantly, conservatism was not an ideology. An ideology is an arrangement of ideas that begin with a first premise and expand into billions of conclusions. Conservatism is not a purely deductive ideology, but rather a set of principles that must be applied to political and social affairs. At the time, nobody had any really good idea of what that meant.

So, the editors of National Review started holding forums all around New York City to really work out the question of what it meant. This spawned Young Americans for Freedom – one of the first modern conservative organizations.

Over time, we put together what conservatism meant in policy and political terms.


The growth of conservatism, from a nascent political movement to the presidency of Ronald Reagan.

Once conservatism was put into popular form, it got turned into political action.

There was great dissatisfaction at the time with President Eisenhower, who ran as a conservative, but kept giving into the welfare state. Conservatives were upset with him for this. Then there was Nixon, not a conservative at all, and then Goldwater. At that point, we really began to orient ourselves around the ideas laid out in Conscience of a Conservative.

By the 1980s, we were a bunch of people who wanted to change the world. We still didn’t accept the New Deal. And in Reagan, we had a leader who not only read the National Review, but read Hayek and really understood the principles of conservatism.

For example, in his first speech to conservatives after his election, at the Conservative Political Action Conference in 1981, he laid out what the conservative philosophy was – this fusionist idea, a balance between tradition and freedom. I remember he used the word “synthesis.” I kept wondering how that word had gotten into the speech. Everyone told me it was the speechwriters. So I went and asked the speechwriters how he got that word, “synthesis,” into the speech. And each one looked at me and said, “what?” That’s when I realized, they didn’t do it, Reagan did it. Reagan really understood the deep philosophy underlying the principles of conservatism.

The reason Reagan was so different was that he wasn’t airy and abstract – he really understood what made western civilization great. When he was giving a speech or making policy, he had principles that guided what he did.


Where conservatism has gone astray.

After Reagan, conservatives became pragmatic. They moved from principles to pragmatism, which is when things started to go downhill, as does every movement over time, after they achieve power. Right now, serious people understand that we are totally at sea. We have no idea what we are about.

I knew the conservative movement was dead when conservatives were standing up and applauding the non-conservative policies of George W. Bush. I knew then that we were in big trouble. Conservatives couldn’t tell the difference between what was conservative and what wasn’t. Bush put through a new entitlement [Medicare Part D]!

Bush did some conservative things, but mostly by backing into them. Bill Buckley put it best when he told the Wall Street Journal that Bush was “conservative but not a conservative.” That is the critical difference. Bush had conservative instincts to some extent, but whenever he tried to think something through, it was too pragmatic to work out in a conservative way.

To me, we are still no closer at putting it together. I’ve spent a good part of my life since then trying to get conservatives to meet and think through what we are all about. It might take a long time to do it. It took a long time to put this together.

When we talk about conservatives moving from principle to pragmatism, they’ve also moved from principle to ideology. And we have a bunch of them: social conservative ideology, neoconservative ideology, libertarian ideology. What they all miss is that you need both freedom and tradition to make it work. How can you be a social conservative and not realize you need freedom to be able to express and practice your beliefs? Then you have the libertarians who think you can run a free society without tradition.

Interestingly, the one who started the modern libertarian movement – Friedrich Hayek – said you can’t have a free society without basing it on tradition. And that’s why he was really the one who put all this together because he was able to express why you need both sides.

What we really need today is people who think. What made Reagan so different is that he thought. He read everything. Conservatism has to be both analytical and empirical.

While I believe in fusionism – the idea that we need both freedom and tradition – there are two ways it can be looked it. The first is the philosophical. But the much more popular, much more understood way of looking at it, is fusionism as a political coalition. And they are totally different.

One is a philosophy that sees these various elements as all being important as part of the basic principles. Then there is the political way of looking at it. The idea that, okay, we can take social conservatives and the libertarians and the neoconservatives and let them all keep their ideologies and put them all in a political coalition, because we hate the left more than we hate each other.

Okay, that’s smart politics. But it destroys the non-ideological nature of it. So, our political success, in a credible way, has harmed us. To some extent, we’ve built coalitions at the expense of principles.


On conservatives in Congress.

The GOP Congress is just as confused. Senators Mike Lee (R-UT), Rand Paul (R-KY) and Ted Cruz (R-TX) have some sense of putting this stuff together. Senator Ben Sasse (R-NE) is trying to put some measure of synthesis together. At least they’re thinking. But that’s only four out of 52!

It actually is a great time to be a conservative. It’s time to rebuild this great tradition of Western civilization, put it back together, and make sense of it for today’s world. We can’t oversimplify it. Freedom and tradition have so many dimensions. It is not an easy job we have, to reconcile the two principles of freedom and tradition, which was Meyer’s goal from the beginning. We’re not Marxists or fascists or even progressives – we can’t go to a book which says this is what’s most important and this what you have to do. All those things collapse. The first two have already collapsed. The third one is collapsing right now.


On the election and presidency of Donald Trump.

 Trump is an interesting challenge. He’s governing in a more conservative fashion than he ran on. Politically, conservatives need to support him. The fact that Trump is getting beaten up so much on conservative issues could turn him around. He’s a guy who learns by experience. He could turn into a solid conservative. We need to keep working with him.

I think he is a challenge to us in the sense that he has given the serious conservative movement a well-deserved wakeup call. Think about this. We had 16 reasonably spoken conservatives, and he beat them all in the GOP primary! I think he’s a great wake up call for us to get ourselves as conservatives together – to figure out what we are really about.

The country is more conservative than are the conservative Republicans in Washington. They know something is fundamentally wrong, and most people here in DC do not, on both social and economic issues.

The social issue is more in their face – you have to be so politically correct, you can’t say what you think anymore. Look at this guy getting fired from Google, for example. The basic problem is that you can’t speak up and say what you think. And that’s partly why Trump is the president today. On all social issues people are just scared to death to say anything.

On economic issues, it’s almost worse. Anyone who can look at actuarial tables knows that Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and federal pensions are going to break America. And you can’t talk about reforming any of them. It’s not that you can’t do it; you can’t even talk about doing it.


Up next: Devine’s reflections on White House personnel issues, and the best way to control The Swamp.