On conservatism and such
There have been a number of reactions lately to my decision to no longer consider myself a ‘conservative’. Few have been exactly favorable. Perhaps that is because I have not been clear enough or because I have been perceived as saying things I did not mean to say exactly. Perhaps not.
I’m sorry to say that I find Erik’s post to be very close to the flip side of the argument that mainstream conservatives have deployed against dissident conservatives for years, which is that we associate with the wrong kinds of people, tolerate “liberal” arguments, and generally fail to be good team players when it comes to organizing for electoral politics and reinforcing absurd ideological claims. In other words, we are too close or insufficiently hostile to the other “side.” From what I can gather, Erik is telling everyone that he isn’t a conservative so as not to be mistaken for “one of them,” which is almost as depressing to watch as it is when a thoughtful person feels compelled to jump through a series of ideological hoops to prove that he is “one of us.”
I had to grimace a little when I read Erik talking about his cultural affinities. The point is not that I object to most of his cultural affinities. When I’m in my car on long road trips, I listen to NPR, too, and I have several friends to the left of Russ Feingold (as well as friends who are dyed-in-the-wool Republicans). I’m sure I could rattle off a list of other such “heterodox” behaviors, but I had thought that Erik agreed that these affinities have or ought to have no bearing on political coalitions. All of this reminds me of the ridiculous political categorizing that people wanted to impose on everyday habits during the debate over “crunchy” conservatism, as if eating organic vegetables or shopping at a co-op were proof of left-wing convictions.
A few points before I tackle this head-on.
First of all, I consider Daniel to be absolutely conservative in the best and most meaningful sense of the word – as conservative as they come, in a way that is at once consistent and admirable. If I were a conservative, I would want to emulate Daniel’s brand of that ideology – both in his clarity, consistency, and in his grounding of politics in his deeply held religious beliefs. And indeed I have learned a great deal from him especially on foreign policy matters (not to mention rhetorically and stylistically, as he has few peers in the blogosphere in that regard). There was a time when I very much began to think of myself as in the mold of the paleoconservatives over at The American Conservative.
But I am simply not conservative in the way that Daniel is, and I don’t think it’s a very accurate description of my politics even if the entire conservative movement were Daniel Larison clones rather than the hawks and liars that run the Republican Party (and no, I’m not trying to conflate conservatism and the Republican Party here). I’m not a paleocon, however much I enjoy writers like Larison or McCarthy.
I am probably 100% in agreement with Daniel’s foreign policy views – or very near that – and I do consider these views quite conservative; a dovish, pragmatic, and ultimately “America first” foreign policy is essentially conservative even if the modern conservative movement holds no such views. But I am not socially conservative enough to describe my social politics as such, and I’m tired of thinking of things in terms of “the conservative case for gay marriage” etc.
Furthermore, I find that I am essentially unconvinced by conservative arguments against the welfare state (though I am more convinced by many arguments about how to improve upon it). Even among dissident conservative circles this is, as far as I can tell, fundamental to calling oneself a conservative. But if that can be overlooked, then something has to define a person as a conservative. For instance, a number of writers at The American Conservative have stated their basic acceptance of government run healthcare or at least their resignation to it or their empathy with it – for them, perhaps, their religious conservatism trumps concerns about state-backed healthcare; a number of dissident conservatives I’ve read have stated their support for things like public transit and other stances not widely viewed as conservative; amidst the dissident circles there is support for a whole assortment of varying beliefs, but something about each of them defines them as conservative specifically – not Republican, in many cases, but certainly conservative. Either a deep social conservatism or a foundation in paleolibertarian thought – something. Something that, when I stare hard into the mirror, I don’t see in my reflection. What defines me in this way?
Perhaps Daniel is right that views about decentralized power structures in politics are not all that acceptable on the left, and maybe I’ve just come to a place where I think reconciling liberalism with its less-statist roots, rather than trying to reform conservatism, is a more worthwhile task and one I’m better suited for and more comfortable with. The liberal-tarian project looms large for me these days; conservatism, not so much.
Nor am I trying to say that we should not associate with conservatives or not tolerate them or any of that. Daniel writes, “From what I can gather, Erik is telling everyone that he isn’t a conservative so as not to be mistaken for “one of them,” which is almost as depressing to watch as it is when a thoughtful person feels compelled to jump through a series of ideological hoops to prove that he is “one of us.”” I can see how I might come across this way, but it was not my intent. My intent was simply to say, look – this isn’t me. It isn’t honest of me anymore to call myself this. It doesn’t sit right with me. I’m sorry if this is how I came across. I can be careless at times, and perhaps this is one such time.
In any case, this is also why I bothered to explain my cultural affinities – not to suggest that all conservatives must hate NPR or the Daily Show, but to further explain myself (to myself perhaps) and to try to better understand why it is that I have felt so uncomfortable with the conservative label lately. If I don’t feel at home voting in a political coalition, don’t share enough ideas in common even with dissident conservatives that could be identified as uniquely “conservative” and generally don’t share many cultural affinities with conservatives, what business do I have calling myself one? Even if my belief in a more social-democratic society (free trade, healthy safety nets) can be framed as conservative to me – and I think it is, actually, because I think conservatism is more about a stable society than about low taxes – I still don’t see the conservative label as very fitting. It seems inaccurate regardless of whether I am speaking of Republicans or of conservatism as a philosophy.
As Daniel notes earlier in his post,
I understand what Erik wants to do here, but it seems to me that it has been quite clear where he has stood and what side he has picked in all the many debates over the years. It was no secret that he was basically sympathetic to the health care legislation, to which I was opposed, and he was furiously hostile to the Arizona immigration law, which I find basically unobjectionable. The label he chose for himself was essentially irrelevant in both of those debates, and there was no danger that he would be confused with the people aligned on the other side of the argument.
But I’m not sure Daniel does understand what I want to do here, and perhaps that is my fault. I’m not trying to join up with one of the major parties. He writes:
As far as the major parties are concerned, a “pox on both your houses” attitude is generally a very healthy one, and it is frankly one that we need more people to embrace. The last thing we need is more people accepting the two major parties as the inevitable political coalitions that must always exist. There are already too many people who give in to the idea that you have to become a reliable team player for one side or the other.
I’m not signing on, carte blanche, to the Democratic party here or to its platform though I am choosing to align myself with that party and with liberalism more broadly. I’m sure I will still find plenty of things the Democrats do that deserve a pox or two. But I did feel as though I was boxing myself in by calling myself a conservative and then finding every way under the sun to undermine that description. My “switch” is not about adopting a brand new pre-packaged ideology. No, I’m much more interested in creating new ways, third ways maybe, alternatives to the accepted left/right divide. But I found myself more and more interested and compelled by the liberal-tarian project. But I’m not a libertarian either, and so perhaps the term ‘liberal’ fits me better. In fact, I’m quite sure it does.
Perhaps I am still a rather conservative liberal (I’m not really sure), but at a certain point I just have to stop trying to come up with new contortionist tricks and taxonomical experiments to make my politics fit inside that particular label. If I were more conservative – if my beliefs on immigration or marriage were more to the right, or if my religious beliefs were very traditional in the ways that Daniel’s are, or if I distrusted government more – if any of these things were the case, I wouldn’t give a damn about the inclusiveness of the conservative movement, or the Republican party, or any of that – I would still call myself a conservative. But I am simply not all that conservative. And if the left is too statist, if liberals really do have a deep distrust of free markets or competitive federalism, or any of those other things that I think are important and good for society, well then perhaps they can be convinced otherwise (and, for that matter, perhaps I am becoming more convinced that I put too much stock in these things to begin with). Perhaps in the end, only the ideas matter. Hopefully Daniel’s ideas about American exceptionalism and the limits of our nation’s power will be accepted by all political stripes. Hopefully good ideas will rise to the top of whatever ideological coalitions exist, and we will all evolve for the better.
As Conor notes in his post on the matter, there are many, many admirable, smart, honest people out there working to reform conservatism. And perhaps they will. One thing I noticed about myself was that I followed the British elections very closely, and was quite enamored with David Cameron’s Toryism – a rather liberal, modernized conservatism. I thought to myself, I could be a conservative like that. But then the coalition with the Liberal Democrats made me think even harder – would I fit in even better with that group? And the answer was yes, I probably would. I’m probably more the liberaltarian Lib-Dem than the modernized Tory. And even still, I’m probably leaning even further toward social-democrat than the current Lib-Dems, so…I have to follow what I think is right, even though it can be hard to shake older ideas, beliefs I’ve held for a long time.
I have nothing against conservatism the way I understand it, the way I wish it were represented and practiced in this country. I just don’t think that label belongs to me anymore.