Toward a positive conservatism
“How much time he gains who does not look to see what his neighbor says or does or thinks, but only at what he does himself, to make it just and holy.”
– Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
“I do not think that a politics radically adversarial to the government holds much promise for the future. And I do not believe that an individual who takes Carroll Quigley and Cleon Skousen seriously is the appropriate spokesman for a serious conservative populism.”
I thought Continetti’s piece was quite good. That being said, I’m always leery of easy dualisms. Goldberg’s critique, in this sense, is spot on. The two faces of Glenn Beck and Rick Santelli certainly make for a handy rhetorical device, but I imagine the actual composition of the movement is far more complex.
Nonetheless, I think the piece has other merits more important than its rhetorical structure. The most important, perhaps, is Continetti’s assertion that for conservatism to flourish the movement needs to evolve beyond an attitude toward government that is ‘radically adversarial’.
One reason I enjoy the writing of center-right thinkers such as Reihan Salam or Ross Douthat (among others) is that rather than constantly taking a position against liberals or other conservatives, they are constantly on the prowl for good ideas.
I think this is especially true of Reihan, whose wonkish blog over at NRO can only be described as a sort of positive conservatism. Instead of focusing on simply being in opposition to the liberal agenda – which is, really, a fairly easy task – this brand of conservatism is always perusing the market of good ideas. This doesn’t mean you can’t also be against bad ideas, but only that every oppositional stance should be paired with a positive solution.
The bank tax is wrong – here’s why, and here’s a better idea. The healthcare bill is going to be a disaster – here’s why, and here’s a better idea. Positive conservatism, for it to be effective at all, also must avoid Utopianism if it is to avoid the progressive pitfall. Tax and spend liberalism has its own host of smart, wonky, positive thinkers, but much (though not all) of that project, I think, is built on its own widely accepted but not widely acknowledged Utopian vision.
The flipside to this coin may be the Beckian strand of the Tea Party movement, whose ambitions to repeal the New Deal are anything but grounded in realism. A movement built on the sands of fallacious thinking is no movement at all.
Too often conservatives spend their time pointing out only how those across the aisle are wrong or malicious, and too often soi-disant dissident conservatives spill vast amounts of ink pointing out how wrong movement conservatives are or how loathsome the right-wing punditry can be. I have fallen prey to this many times over.
And I confess, it has never helped me sleep nights. I have never stumbled across a good idea while pointing out how silly Talking Head #1 is, or by turning to straw men whenever I find myself exasperated by a particularly frustrating public figure or pundit. I have never come up with a solution to a problem by painting my political adversaries (on the right or the left) with overly broad strokes.
I think the conservative movement on a whole would benefit from a shift away from ideology and toward ideas; away from Utopianism and its inherent cynicism and toward specific, positive policy solutions; and toward a conservatism at once grounded in healthy realism and rooted in something beyond mere opposition.