Phony in-house Conservative Battles
My former political editor at the late-great Culture11, James Poulos makes an excellent contribution to a roundtable discussing Sam Tanenhaus’ piece declaring the death of movement conservativism. Tanenhaus’ original article is here. The roundtable discussion is here–Br. James’ contribution is fittingly the final one.
What I like in some ways most about James’ response is that in my mind he is the only one who you can’t basically guess what his response will be to the question by looking at his biographical/affiliation blurp. Some of the other responses I find interesting and on point, others maybe less so, but the rest all strike me as quite easily if not predictable at least guessable based on the individual’s place within conservo-world.
A (very) cheap and dirty version of Tanehaus’ argument is that movement conservatism is dead and should be replaced by a form of Burkean conservatism (so-called Beaconsfield conservatism).
When Tanenhaus cuts deeper, however, he complicates this easy narrative. Foreign and market policy concern little of the internecine warfare between ideological movement conservatives and their classical Beaconsfield foes. For both factions admit or champion the necessity of internationalism abroad and the free market at home—unlike a third, less popular or publicized strain of conservatism. More importantly, conservatives of this third strain most stridently reject the idea that cultural change is necessarily open-ended, progressive, and inevitable. Classical and movement conservatives alike, by contrast, concede—at a minimum—that we live in “a culture of continual novelty.” Yet they hesitate to consider that cultural change itself may have been commodified as a shared psychological and economic imperative.
This point is a further elucidation of James’ distinction between what he calls cultural (or what ED calls civilizational) conservatism and social conservatism.
For Poulos then, the difference between the Beaconsfieldians and the movement conservatives is really more just two various articulations of a common core assumption. (Ed: Does this apply as well to Grand New Party Conservatism? I’m guessing it does). The Beaconsfieldians (that’s a pleasant word to say, just rolls off the tongue btw) argue for a more so-called organic, skeptical, open-ended, flexible, adaptable kind of conservatism. The movement conservatives by attaching themselves so closely to (among others) social conservatives (as well as neocons I would add) embrace ideology described by Poulos as:
[an ideology] purports to comprehensively standardize and synthesize non-political convictions and commitments with political objectives…
This criticism I think lands quite successfully in many regards. I hear a whole mess of MacIntyrean echoes in this graf. Which leads me then to the ending to this piece:
Tanenhaus admirably invites conservatives to explode ideology—with its central myth that religious convictions, cultural commitments, and political objectives can be purified into a programmatic and comprehensive creedal unity. But he cannot explain how post-movement conservatives can successfully oppose movement liberalism, which effectively instrumentalizes economic and political policies that advance our cultural pathologies in such a way as to celebrate them.
Having made what I think is this crucial distinction between these various strands of conservatism (even adroitly applying that insight to the liberaltarian discussion), I want to nudge JP to begin answering his own hanging question: how would post-movement conservatives respond to movement liberalism? Especially given the (in my mind) rather sound critiques of the alternate Beaconsfieldian types.
It seems to me that James has not gone in for the Benedict Option–at least not totally, though I doubt he’s opposed and potentially somewhat sympathetic to that route. James while I sense some MacIntyrean influence is more influenced by Philip Rieff (I feel like there is something wrong with wiki-ing Philip Rieff. Oh well). If not Benedict, then what for cultural conservatism?
Bonus Coverage: In the previous link on the Benedict Option, Rod Dreher also talks about a Cincinnatus option. Now being a native Cincinnatian, the child of multiple generations of born, raised, dyed in the wool Cincinnatians–of the proper or West Side Variety (people from The ‘Nati will know of what I speak)–I have to say a word or two on this.
Re: Cincinnatus option according to Rod:
I conclude that if we are Rome, we can either take the Cincinnatus Option, and work to rebuild our flagging institutions and restore our republican (small-r, nota bene) vigor …
Depending on one’s point of view fortuntaely or unfortunately, the Cincinnatus Option (as I recall my local civic history) would entail a partial period of dictatorship. The Cincinnatus Option (at least historically and mythically) like The Benedict Option has a strong agricultural ethos to it. [i.e. Emphasis on the crunchy in crunchy conservative.]. Cincinnatus post-dictatorship and military victory, returned to plowing his field rather than being life long dictator. [Sidefact: My hometown is therefore named after George Washington considered the American Cincinnatus]. This agrarian imagination is generally what I don’t see in James’ work. So when I’m asking JP to tease out the implications of his own theory, I partially mean that given an urban context.
* Also check out Larison’s piece in much the same vein.