Seeing a fair amount of discussion as to what “conservatism” is or is not cropping up on various threads — and not having time to write a massive treatise on the topic — I’d like to put forward a few basic thoughts on the topic and then turn it loose for conversation with our readership, which clearly has a number of opinions as to the matter.
I would argue that conservatism is, to a great extent, a relative term. Conservatives seek to preserve the ways and institutions of the past. In the ancient Greek and Roman world, there was a worldview present among conservatives that there had been, in the past, a literal golden age — in the age of the great heroes. Among modern conservatives, resistance to change is rooted more in a suspicion of programs of change based upon ideologies that seek to remake the human person or society into new forms. In this sense, conservatives do not necessarily hold that the way things have been in the past are necessarily good, but they lean towards the fear that drastic change will make things worse.
I’m a big fan of the personal finance speaker & author Dave Ramsey… when our oldest was born nearly five years ago and my wife prepared to stay home to take care of her and her siblings-to-come, I didn’t know how we were going to manage on my income alone; Ramsey’s book and radio show provided us with a straightforward, systematic approach to managing our finances, and for that, I am grateful… his is the talk radio show that I still listen to most.
But when it comes to politics, Dave is far too typical of many mainstream conservatives: he confuses principles for their application, just like Limbaugh, Hannity, et al.
It’s fashionable at the moment to write conservatism’s epitaph. Such epitaph writing is not my project here, but there is a sort of inherent tension in the recent history of conservatism which I would like to examine briefly.
For the last hundred years and more, conservatives have often found themselves arguing against those in the political and economic spheres who believe that we can achieve a great improvement in society by instituting some sort of centrally controlled state economy. Socialism, communism and fascism all attempted, in different ways, to create new and better societies through assigning people roles and resources rather than allowing their allocation to occur through a decentralized system of millions of individual decisions taking place independently every day.
Perhaps this is the great modern temptation. People looked at the incredibly intricate (sometimes seemingly orderless) organization of society resulting from custom and the summed decisions of millions of individuals and thought, “Now we have the ability to plan all this instead and do it better!” Various sorts of ideologues tried to impose various sorts of new order on society, and conservatives dragged their feet and tried to keep things as they were, allowing people to make their own decision as they saw best whenever possible.
Almost no matter who you are, the above is almost certainly true. Yet it’s a fact that few people seem to readily grasp.
I was struck by this as I continued to read the exchange between Ross Douthat and Will Wilkinson over whether secular libertarian intellectuals should all pack up and join the Democrats. Will predicts:
…I think intellectual capital flight from the right really does threaten the GOPs future success. If Republicans keep bleeding young intellectual talent because increasingly socially liberal twenty-somethings simply can’t stand hanging around a bunch of superstitious fag-bashers, then the GOP powers-that-be might start to panic and realize that, once the last cohort of John Birchers die, they’ve got no choice but to move libertarian on social issues. Maybe. I like to imagine.
This reads like it comes from some alternate universe, to me,
As the election becomes more a matter of history than immediate emotion, it is a good time for sober analysis of what went on in the 2008 election. Yuval Levin has a very good analysis in Commentary Magazine of the phenomenon that was Sarah Palin’s candidacy. In framing the controversy he makes an interesting distinction:
In American politics, the distinction between populism and elitism is further subdivided into cultural and economic populism and elitism. And for at least the last forty years, the two parties have broken down distinctly along this double axis. The Republican party has been the party of cultural populism and economic elitism, and the Democrats have been the party of cultural elitism and economic populism. Republicans tend to identify with the traditional values, unabashedly patriotic, anti-cosmopolitan, non-nuanced Joe Sixpack, even as they pursue an economic policy that aims at elite investor-driven growth. Democrats identify with the mistreated, underpaid, overworked, crushed-by-the-corporation “people against the powerful,” but tend to look down on those people’s religion, education, and way of life. Republicans tend to believe the dynamism of the market is for the best but that cultural change can be dangerously disruptive; Democrats tend to believe dynamic social change stretches the boundaries of inclusion for the better but that economic dynamism is often ruinous and unjust.
Both economic and cultural populism are politically potent, but in America, unlike in Europe, cultural populism has always been much more powerful. Americans do not resent the success of others, but they do resent arrogance, and especially intellectual arrogance.
Addressing how Palin’s candidacy turned this cultural fact into a firestorm, he says:
Bearing has an interesting post up which I suspect reflects the political experience of many serious Catholics over the last twenty five years. The whole thing is worth reading, but I’m quoting it extensively because I think the point she’s making is interesting and widely applicable:
I entered full communion with the Catholic church at the Easter Vigil in 1993, when I was a freshman in college…. A couple of years after that, I had a second conversion in which I was forced to realize that I could not be simultaneously a believing Catholic and a supporter of legal abortion. (Why it took me so long is another story again. Hint: There were some serious problems in that particular RCIA program.)
Being a contarian sort of creature, I’ve been wanting for some time to write a post on why the progressive instinct is sometimes the right one. I’m quite certain that neither conservatism nor progressivism, properly understood, is the only possible view for the moral and reasonable citizen — and yet I find myself impeded in this by being in fact a very temperamentally conservative person.
First off, I’d like to suggest that as most precisely used “conservative” and “progressive” (I’m avoiding the term “liberal” here because it strikes me as having an even more confusing and increasingly imprecise meaning) are very relative terms. The progressive seeks to change current social structures, attitudes and political institutions in order to make them better. He seeks to progress. Conservative seeks to preserve existing structures and institutions, and when he accedes to change he urges that it be done slowly in order to avoid the disruption which rapid change often results in.
I would argue that there are some times when we should follow the progressive instinct, others when we should clearly follow the conservative one, and many in which it is a matter of debate which should be followed.
President-Elect Obama used the word audacity a lot in his rise to the presidency but how much audacity does it take to be a liberal state senator, representing a liberal district, in a liberal state? True audacity is going against the odds and against the consensus on pundits. That is exactly what Joseph Cao did in Louisiana’s 2nd Congressional District. Cao is a devout Catholic Republican Vietnamese immigrant in an overwhelmingly African American and Democrat congressional district. Although his opponent is undoubtably corrupt politician facing serious indictments, he was still not given a chance at winning. Unfortunately, voters, especially it seems African American voters, often overlook these flaws in the name of some sort of racial solidarity. Nevertheless, Cao won! Let’s pray that he can help rebuild the wonderful city of New Orleans and provide true opportunity for its amazing people. Cao, like Bobby Jindal and Sarah Palin, is already getting attention from Republican leadership as the future of the party.
Although Cao probably hasn’t even had a chance to organize his staff, yesterday I heard Al Sharpton say that he would be working to “fix” this situation. Seems for Sharpton and his ilk working with a person who cares about the district and its people is trumped by partisan and racial politics.
Eric wrote what I think is a very good and heartfelt post about Catholic Social Teaching and Health Care Reform. Because this is exactly the sort of substantive discussion that American Catholic was intended to foster, I’d like to see if I can pick up some of the themes which he brought up and explore them specifically from a small government conservative and free market angle.
To start with, I’d like to make a distinction between levels of care, though such things are always slippery because medical science advances so rapidly in our modern world. First, there is basic health care. This includes most of the healthcare which goes on most of the time in the US — unless you’re well outside the norm it’s probably all that you’ve needed within the last year.
Everyone seems to have their own idea of what it is that the GOP lacks these days. Kathleen Parker seems to think that the big problem is its lack of a columnist with the prose style, intellectual rigor and cultural sensibilities of a Maureen Dowd — and in her most recent Washington Post column she tries to fill that void. [HT: Cranky Conservative]
As Republicans sort out the reasons for their defeat, they likely will overlook or dismiss the gorilla in the pulpit.
Three little letters, great big problem: G-O-D.
I’m bathing in holy water as I type.
To be more specific, the evangelical, right-wing, oogedy-boogedy branch of the GOP is what ails the erstwhile conservative party and will continue to afflict and marginalize its constituents if reckoning doesn’t soon cometh.
Simply put: Armband religion is killing the Republican Party. And, the truth — as long as we’re setting ourselves free — is that if one were to eavesdrop on private conversations among the party intelligentsia, one would hear precisely that.
Goodness knows, there are lots of ways that liberals and conservatives manage to annoy each other. Still, one that has struck me recently is an odd sort of bragging rights.
One of the main divisions between these groups at this point in time is over how the less vulnerable in society are best provided with care. The liberal view is generally that comprehensive government programs should be set up to assure that everyone in society has a certain basic level of food, income, medical care, housing, babysitting, rice pudding, etc. The conservative view is generally that guaranteed government handouts create dependency and hurt people in the long run, and that short term help for those in trouble is generally better provided by family, church or private charity.
The problem comes when members of these two groups get together and start arguing about how to help others.
So we lost. I don’t like it a bit, but it’s not exactly a surprise, and there it is. What is one to make of it all?
The Historic Moment
A great many people have commented on the historic nature of a black man being elected president of the United States — when in some states he would not have been served at many lunch counters fifty years ago.
I’m glad that those who are deeply inspired by that are having their moment — people should realize that skin color is not a barrier to achievement in the US and if this helps people (black, brown and white) realize that, all to the good. I must admit, as a 29-year-old who grew up in the working class suburbs of Los Angeles, I’ve figured for basically all my life that it was simply a matter of time till we had our first black president, our first hispanic president, out first female president, etc.
Whether the next four years are spend under an Obama administration or a McCain administration, one thing that may be said with certainty is that conservatives are going to have to do some serious thinking over that time in order to come up with an agenda that can bring conservatives back into political success — and bring the GOP back into something like conservatism. Either administration will be enough to make principled conservatives cringe — though I think that an Obama one would visit greater damage upon the country.
There are lots of contenders out there wanting present the new conservative policies that will bring the GOP back to relevance. Ross Douthat is very much at the forefront of that, with his Grand New Party out in bookstores.
I’m perfectly fine with that… maybe she’s not the hope for the future of populist conservatism that many believe she is or was, but I’d rather have her in the mix than not. And while she certainly bears some responsibility for some of her poor performances in interviews, an equal amount goes to the campaign for mishandling those aspects of her rollout.
(HT: Rod Dreher.)
A good part of what I was trying to say in my Socialist post the other day concerned the relationship between precision in political rhetoric and its ability to persuade; in short, I think that “toned-down” rhetoric is more likely to convince an interlocutor (let alone an observer) of at least the plausibilty of one’s position than is the “speaking truth to power” approach.
There are two poles, I think, to Christian attitudes towards the state.
At the one pole is a catacomb mentality. Here Christians think of the state as an unrelievedly secular force, and they seek to render what they must unto Caesar while keeping themselves aloof from its corrupting influence.
At the other pole is what might be termed the New Jerusalem mentality, in which the Christian sees the state as a means to achieve a more just and loving society which will reinforce virtue.