The malleability of political categories


Will writes from Washington, D.C. (well, Arlington, Virginia). You can reach him at willblogcorrespondence at gmail dot com.

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16 Responses

  1. Rufus F. says:

    I can see that argument about public policies to do with global warming or trade. I tend to think of, at least one sort of conservatism as distinguishing between power and authoity and deferring to the latter instead of the former. So, a public policy about global warming would be an expression of power, while expert opinion would be an expression of authority. I do think that scholars still have a certain cultural authority and that conservatives, as far as I know, want to strengthen centers of cultural authority as a bullwark against power. So the knowledge itself? I see it as something a conservative would accept, while the politial application of that knowledge would be perhaps technocratic and statist. And I think this gets back to your question about accepting the scholarly consensus about trade as having a certain authority.

    But, of course, I think a ‘populist’ would disagree because this (incidentally older) version of conservatism is essentially elitist. Can such a thing as populist conservatism really exist though?Report

    • tom van dyke in reply to Rufus F. says:

      Rufus, I think you hit it on the head here:

      “…conservatives, as far as I know, want to strengthen centers of cultural authority as a bullwark against power.”

      To the conservative—and therefore “conservative populism” is indeed possible—society and the state are two different [albeit unavoidably overlapping] entities. The modern project, “statism,” seems to erase that distinction.Report

      • Rufus F. in reply to tom van dyke says:

        Tom, the reason I don’t actually think conservatives should be populist is that populism tends to erase that distinction (state/society) just as often. Some cultural institutions should be ‘elitist’- and thus elevating- but the true populist wants to break down all distinctions between what is higher and what is lower and resist even the ability to make distinctions. The populist urge is inherently transgressive of all orders and thus just as often anti-clerical as anti-statist.Report

        • tom van dyke in reply to Rufus F. says:

          Rufus, my studies of the Founding era show an almost universal anti-clericalism, even as religious sentiment itself survived quite well. Liberty of religious conscience mutated into a general liberty in other areas.

          I do agree about the “higher things,” call it cultural “elitism” if we must, but those elitisms that survive and thrive are the ones that have a resonance with “the people,” and our better angels.

          Any defense of populism here is not a defense for mob rule. That’s no consensus either, it’s a hijacking of the monopoly on force given to the state via law.Report

    • Kyle Mathews in reply to Rufus F. says:

      This answers my question and actually makes more sense than I thought it did originally. Though if there’s an overwhelming societal attribution of power to authority, how much does that affect the importance of distinguishing between them?

      Or are we talking about different kinds of power?Report

      • The state has a monopoly on “hard” power: forcible coercion. Society’s is a soft power, and by its nature is more the result of consensus than mere majoritarianism: prevailing attitudes, what Montesquieu called “manners and mores.”

        “The laws are established, the mores are inspired; the latter are more linked to the general spirit, the former to a particular institution…”

        And so, when the laws [the state, hard power] conflict with the mores [society], we get a conservative populism [and indeed “liberal” populism is possible as well], and indeed that’s at the heart of the current crisis, government not by and for the people, but against the people.Report

    • Will in reply to Rufus F. says:

      Sharp reply, Rufus. Thanks.Report

  2. Kyle Mathews says:

    Pretty much. I’m not sure if Rufus’ comment stems from sociological studies showing that conservatives are more inclined to prefer authority and hierarchy than their liberal counterparts or something else? So that’s a bit confusing.

    In any case, choosing whom we trust is – in my experience – almost necessarily a self-validating exercise. Not always in the direct linkage of inherently trusting people who reach conclusions we like but also in validating a sense of community, class, or what not. Which is actually a big component of my inherent skepticism of liberal technocratic solutions because they so-often rely on the skills and empowerment of liberal technocrats to implement successfully. All of which is to say that deference to experts is never as neutral as it sounds nor for that matter does it seem to have a uniquely ideological component.Report

  3. greginak says:

    I took Rufus’ point that taking action to prevent GW from inflicting serious changes has, at least in part, an essentially conservative core. It is aiming to prevent a bad change to something we have that is good. In cultural terms conservatives are typically saying we shouldn’t change this or that because we don’t know the consequences, what we have works pretty well and new is not necessarily better. Why doesn’t those same points apply to GW. The obvious difference is that stopping GW requires doing something as opposed to just not changing the way things are. But the point still holds about environmentalism often being a profoundly conservative enterprise in many ways.Report

  4. BlaiseP says:

    In our deference to supposed authorities on a given subject, for example, Paul Krugman on economics, it seems to me there’s a difference between accepting their facts and espousing their conclusions. Conversely, let’s take poor old Laffer, he of the Laffer Curve (which he didn’t invent) and how he’s treated.

    Laffer had a point, the same point Keynes had been making for decades: at the happy zenith of a taxation parabola, government has made an optimal Goldilocks just-right porridge. Unfortunately for poor Laffer, the people who espoused this entirely sensible proposition were morons, making a dog’s dinner of it.

    The same is true of AGW. Nobody seriously questions the science. The opponents of AGW dance around and cast aspersions all over it, as the Church demanded Copernicus rewrite his book to say the heliocentric solar system was merely a Hypothesis. Sound familiar, folks? It should. It’s the same fallacious argument every dogmatic jackass has made since the dawn of time.

    Were they honest (and they are not), the opponents of AGW would say, “We accept your facts but we don’t like your proposed solutions.” It’s easier to kill the messenger though the messengers come armed with unpleasant facts those opponents cannot so easily dismiss.Report

  5. Barry says:

    “Isn’t that what a conservative populist would say?”

    From what I’ve seen, ‘conservative populists’ would look first to see what the economic elites want, and then (in general) go along with that.Report