Every nation needs an intelligent and constructive form of conservatism. The debate over the health care bill, which mercifully came to a close Sunday night, was not American conservatism’s finest hour.

In its current incarnation, conservatism has taken on an angry crankiness. It is caught up in a pseudo-populism that true conservatism should mistrust — what on Earth would Bill Buckley have made of “death panels”? The creed is caught up in a suspicion of all reform that conservatives of the Edmund Burke stripe have always warned against. Authentic conservatism is better than this.

Conservatives, of course, are rightly suspicious that when those on the left recommend a “proper” role for the right, they usually want a tame creed that doesn’t really challenge any of the progressive fundamentals.

Still, I have written over the years with respect and some real affection for conservatism and its writers and thinkers because I believe that conservatism challenges the progressive worldview in at least three indispensable ways.

First, conservatives are suspicious of innovation and therefore subject all grand plans to merciless interrogation. Their core question goes something like this: Maybe you think this new health (or education or environmental) plan is a great idea, Mr. Liberal, but will it really work? What are its unintended consequences? Can our governmental institutions carry it off? Not all progressive ideas pass the test. In the health care debate, conservatives were at their best when they shelved the demagoguery and asked practical, focused questions.

Second, conservatives respect old things and old habits. They are not always right in this. Racial segregation and discrimination are good examples of “old ways” that were morally wrong. But an admiration for what the conservative writer Russell Kirk called “custom” and “convention” speaks to something deep in the human heart.

Our habits are the product of time, based on the slowly accumulated wisdom of our ancestors. That’s why tradition should not be discarded lightly. You don’t have to be a conservative to agree with Kirk that custom and convention “are checks both upon man’s anarchic impulse and upon the innovator’s lust for power.”

It’s worth remembering that not only did Hitler’s staunch opponents include the German left, but also, as the historian John Lukacs has insisted, conservative traditionalists horrified by the ways in which the Nazis were ripping apart German society and how they were treating other human beings.

Related to this is the third great contribution of conservatism: a suspicion of human nature and a belief that humans cannot be remolded like plastic. Conservatives see a fallen side of human nature usually described in terms of original sin. And when utopians propose to create a New Man or a New Woman, the conservative typically cries: Stop!

From generation to generation, human nature doesn’t really change. Efforts to alter it typically lead to totalitarian forms of political and social catastrophe.

A society that fails to keep these conservative warnings in mind is likely to run into trouble. Yet our current forms of conservatism seem thoroughly unconservative or, as Peter Viereck put it in the 1950s, “pseudo-conservative,” which is an ally of pseudo-populism.

It’s not just that the mob that gathered outside the Capitol to shout epithets at Democratic lawmakers before they voted on health care was disrespectful of the very norms that conservatism preaches. It’s also that utopianism, typically a danger on the left, now runs rampant on the right.

Many who call themselves conservatives propose to cast aside even government programs that have stood the test of time. They seem to imagine a world in which government withers away, a phrase that comes from Friedrich Engels, not Buckley. Or they tie themselves up in unruly contradictions, declaring simultaneously that they are dead-set against government-run health care and passionate defenders of Medicare.

And while modern conservatism has usually supported the market against the state, its oldest and most durable brand understood that the market was an imperfect instrument. True conservatives may give “two cheers for capitalism,” as Irving Kristol put it in the title of one of his books, but never three.

Perhaps I have just fallen into the very trap I warned against, seeking a conservatism that corrects, but doesn’t oppose, progressivism. But to my mind, conservatism has always made its greatest contribution as a corrective force that seeks to preserve the best of what we have. As our long and bitter health care debate winds to a close, might proponents of such a conservatism find an opening? Are they still there?

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is ejdionne(at)washpost.com.

© 2010, Washington Post Writers Group

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