the foul rag and bone shop of real politics
You may have to put some of this in your Helen Rittelmeyer-style “things I believe but cannot prove” file. Fair warning.
I read stuff like this, from John, and am intrigued, and I always think it is cool to see people hashing out these kinds of intra-ideological issues. Matter of fact, it’s kind of my favorite. But I am left, reading John’s post, and many like it from what we might call the American Scene strata of contemporary conservatism, with a deep dissatisfaction and sense of injustice. Because I think that John and Will Wilkinson and many other reformist conservatives have the unfair habit of judging conservatism entirely from the lens of their notional ideals of what conservatism is, but judging liberalism, and the Democratic party, from the lens of vulgar politics.
So, for example, take this idea of the notion that liberalism should be more classically liberal. OK. I can sign on to that, although the devil is in the details and I don’t think that classical liberalism often means what conservatives think it means. But I have to ask: is the relationship that mainstream American conservatism has to classical liberal values really irrelevent, here? Isn’t it fair to point out that the mainstream of American liberalism has some very good claims to being the side that has honored classical liberal values? How far, exactly, should we allow the claim “I’m not one of those conservatives” to take us? And how much do those claims disqualify reformist conservatives from taking any part in the way forward for mainstream conservatism and the GOP?
Consider the notion that liberals are too coersive in spreading their values. See, for example, Noah Millman or Ross Douthat. Maybe so. It’s worth talking about. Am I meant to take it that American conservatism has anything at all to tell American liberalism about the horrors of coercion? Linker was critiquing “theocons,” after all, and I find few groups more amenable to coercion than religious conservatives. And am I meant to simply say that although they claim the mantle of conservatism, like their mainstream peers, there is no connection to be made there? I’m not asking these questions from a purely rhetorical standpoint. I think they are real questions. But I also think that they are questions that imply something fair.
In the comments of that post, John says “I’m not sure what party you’re talking about, but the GOP ain’t mine.” Fair enough. John doesn’t want to be associated with the Republican party. I am a Democrat, but certainly that allegiance is inferior than that I hold to procedure (first) and policy (second). It is definitely the case that the Democratic party, as it is currently constituted, is not going to up and adopt a policy platform consistent with my beliefs. But I don’t think that it is responsible or pragmatic of me to declare myself a stranger to either the Democratic party or American liberalism, nor do I think that the liberals who I disagree with on many subjects are totally outside of my area of responsibility. I dislike the idea that we can declare ourselves political islands for the same reason that I tend to dislike people saying “I’m politically uncategorizable!” You’re entitled to do so but the consequences tend to be far greater than people imagine, and few tend to really live up to them when push comes to shove.
What you risk is what I think is broadly true of reformist conservatism, that it hops on and off the bus of the GOP and mainstream conservatism as it sees fit, and as benefits it in its battles with liberalism. You can’t reform a movement from within when you want to but not be considered at all responsible for its failings when it suits you. That’s the challenge for many conservatives, to be advocates of a radically different conservatism than the one we have while not succumbing to the temptation to wash their hands of what conservatism actually means in practical terms. (Incidentally I think this mirrors the fact that conservatism, so long out of real power, had the minority’s benefit of pure criticism; but when exposed to the real responsibilities and realities of power, had a much harder time of it. The great seduction of the Bush years for conservatives is to uncritically accept the idea that Bush was just a uniquely incompetent traitor to the right, and that none of this administration’s failings are reflective on conservatism in general.)
Ross Douthat once wrote somewhere that the history of conservatism is a history of beautiful losers. I think that there are indeed a great many beautiful people in the conservative intelligentsia today; I’m honored to call some friends. But you can’t allow yourself to see only the beautiful dreamers and ignore the great mass of conservatives who don’t like the reformers and have no intention of letting them steer the ideology or the Republican party.
I don’t expect my reformist conservative friends to agree. But this seems to me to be a simple truth: that this reformist, philosophical conservatism is not even close to representing any kind of consensus within what we might conventionally call the American right. That’s not very troubling. But I also don’t see them making much headway, and that is troubling. Until they do, I find that there is something unfair about their tendency to hang liberals by the thumbs for so many of the failings of our imperfect but real agenda while ignoring the failings of the conservative movement as it exists– and I define those failings only insofar as the reformist conservatives define them, for the purposes of discussion.
All of this takes me back again to my constant suspicion, that American conservatism, and especially reformist conservatism, is inherently reactive, that it still has crafted no purely positive vision, that for all of our failings conservatives are still fundamentally looking over their shoulders and critiquing us. I think that many of them want more for their movement, but expect more from ours, and someday, if reform is to come to the American conservative movement, it will have to come from an honest accounting of that fact. And with that accounting, it seems to me, must come credit, credit for liberalism, credit for liberals.
Update: It occurs to me that, insofar as he has never claimed interest in being a reformer of conservatism, Will Wilkinson was a stunningly poor example for me to choose. Withdrawn in embarrassment. Please see also John Schwenkler and Daniel Larison.