Conservatism Isn’t Radical—It’s “Modular”
Though the post-Lugar media tide has subsided, the American Right’s growing radicalism is still a leading theme of American political coverage. Even before Lugar’s unceremonious exit from public life, the Tea Party and other far-right-wing groups were attracting serious attention. Whatever else Lugar’s exit means, it’s clear that the American Right is engaged in a quest for ideological purity.
Isn’t it? Well, yes—like most worn truisms, it is true. However, as is also usually the case, it’s not a very profitable analytical starting point. American conservatism suffers less from radicalism than from substantive exhaustion. The Right is more flummoxed than fringe. It’s more lazy than lunatic.
To begin with, it’s hard to find any single standard against which right-wing radicalism could consistently measured. Sure, conservatives are more dogmatic than ever on cutting all sources of federal revenue—except payroll taxes. They stand united, shoulder-to-shoulder, in their dogged pursuit of federal spending cuts—except for the military, border control, the War on Drugs, and a handful of other pet projects. Suffice it to say that the American Right is hardly a consistent voice for fiscal responsibility, let alone a radical one. These are but a few examples of blithe conservative departures from their own professed creed.
If this is the case, what are the grounds upon which conservatives conduct their ongoing ideological purges? It’s simple: brand loyalty. Today’s Right pledges allegiance to a certain, specific mythology that is as familiar as it is bankrupt. The conservative brand may not be particularly radical on principled grounds—but it is rigid.
That’s why it’s more profitable to think of conservatism as “modular,” rather than “pure.” What does this mean? For every policy sphere, the American Right has a one—and only one—mode it usually uses to set its positions. For example, conservatives view policies relating to sexual behavior through a narrow, particular religious lens. When they turn to economics, they set faith aside in favor of Austrian economists, Laffer Curves, and global deregulation. Where foreign policy is concerned, they trade in their economic globalism for strutting machismo—if only to ensure that no future president bows to another world leader. Conservatives have grown accustomed to the mental jujitsu involved in switching modes as they switch issues, and they are careful never to apply a mode out of turn. That’s why they rarely mention their otherwise-vaunted love of liberty when discussing individual sexual choices.
Why is this a problem? This “modular shorthand” (to coin a phrase) is easy, and it’s efficient, but it’s hardly evidence of intellectual energy or substantive ideas.
If conservatives were more reflective, they might try mixing things up on occasion. It could open up a host of new, interesting ideas. What if, for example, they took a broadly Christian approach to economic policy? As E.J. Dionne never tires of noting, if conservatives really sought to act in Christ’s image, they would take a considerably different approach to today’s “moneychangers.” What if, meanwhile, conservatives tried considering sex through the lens of personal responsibility? What if they applied their cosmopolitan, globalist view of international markets to other cultural questions?
The point, I should stress, is not that Dionne’s position (or any of the others I’ve just suggested) is somehow the conclusive Christian view of human economic life. Nor am I arguing that conservatives necessarily ought to surrender to his conclusions. Rather, I’m suggesting that conservatives badly need to break out of their current state of ideological lockjaw. They need new ideas—and they can only get those by abandoning modular politics.
The Right isn’t truly radical—it’s stultifying. After all, radicals bring capacious intellectual resources to bear upon any number of political conundrums. Their ideas are broad and creative. Radicalism is replete with new solutions, but the American Right is anything but innovative. Though reality proved comprehensively inhospitable to their view of the world over the first decade of this century, most conservatives haven’t bothered to rethink their approach. Only conservative partisans see dynamism in Paul Ryan’s budget. In reality, it’s mostly outworn Goldwaterism mixed with a dash of Ayn Rand. This shouldn’t be surprising, since the American Right is wholly hemmed in by the constraints of modal political thinking. Conservatives are flat out of new ideas.
Extremism in the pursuit of brand loyalty is no virtue. And that brings us back to Lugar. His critical sin, you see, was not that he was inadequately radical—it was that he had a reflective cast of mind that today’s Right finds intolerable. Lugar permitted his religious convictions to bleed into his economic positions. He sometimes dared to think globally on both international trade and immigration issues. This hardly means that his political convictions are less pure. It simply meant that he was a uniquely thoughtful legislator, an impression borne out by his legislative record. Unfortunately—and to the country’s detriment—that sort of statesmanship is something that today’s American Right cannot abide.
UPDATE: I neglected to mention that the conceptual language (and attendant theoretical machinery) in this post is (are) derived from Michael Oakeshott’s Experience and Its Modes.
Conor Williams is a freelance writer. Past work published by The Run of Play, Dissent, The Washington Post, The Center for American Progress, and elsewhere. See more at http://www.conorpwilliams.com or on Twitter: @conorpwilliams.