Seeing Through the Unseen
I credit Dan Scotto with acknowledging the mess that is the GOP, that it’s beyond just Trump, and offering solutions beyond ‘disavow him,’ but I wouldn’t be writing this piece if I had only good things to say.
I am not discrediting Scotto’s formulation of conservatism’s problems in toto, but I believe that the problems only arise because of his conception of conservatism: rather than an ideology itself – as we would have it today – it is or should be thought of as a disposition toward other ideologies. Such that one could say, with Oakeshott, that it is perfectly reasonable to be “conservative with respect of government and radical in respect of almost every other activity.” The issue isn’t, then, that conservatism struggles to convey the very real “unseen,” rather it struggles because it relates these unseens to it’s own ideological projects and positions. In other words, the conservative party could theoretically only have a platform of ‘we should be careful,’ but it doesn’t. It’s just as rationalistic and Utopian as the Left, however the Left admits it.
So the problem is that these “unseens” get too mixed up in promoting their own view of the matter – a view that is just as project oriented as the Left. Take Obergefell v Hodges for example: if conservatives were truly worried about governmental overreach or simply pumping the brakes a tad, then that’s what the dissent should have argued. Not, as it were, the traditional definitions of marriage, and how it should be between a man and woman because this is how it’s been for time immemorial. My point is that the conservatives also argued that we shouldn’t give this power to the government to decide – the unseen aspect – but since they argued the other point as well the governmental overreach fear seems like a thinly veiled ‘side-reason’ to usher in the larger point: that they take issue with homosexuality on moral grounds. To be sure, these are the exact grounds on which conservatives believe the government shouldn’t have any authority to speak. There’s an inconsistency within the party that’s more pressing, more sinister than that of trying to figure out how to communicate to others the “unseen” problems that arise when we try to implement grand, sweeping plans.
However, I still quite agree with Scotto when he says of these “unseens” that,
These unintended consequences, or invisible risks, are best mitigated by acknowledging the importance of limits: limited human knowledge and limited human capacity suggest that we should limit our exercises of political power in these complex domains, choosing instead to work with and improve existing structures that have proven their effectiveness over time.
This, to me, is a beautiful rendition of the conservative temperament, but reflecting on this issue he goes on to say conclude that “an emphasis on limits doesn’t make for a great campaign platform.” Though, again, this is why conservatism should be thought of as an attitude toward political parties and policies and not a political party or group of policies itself. Such that, as in the case of institutions like the Fabian Society, one could theoretically be a conservative socialist. Perhaps, my argument boils down to a personal grudge for the continued bastardization of the word “conservative,” as classical liberals should feel about our usage of “liberalism” today. We the People have an awful habit of defining concepts and words out of any conceivable use. And while this may seem a small point, it is not: for extremism breeds when we label a whole slew of philosophically conservative thinkers (Burke, Oakeshott, Kirk, etc.) as mere conservatives or compatriots in the conservative cause here in the U.S. thus allowing the other side to dismiss them with the wave of a righteous hand. But conservatism has the worst deal of all; liberals can properly be called progressives or Leftists, but Rightists sounds odd and Republicans doesn’t really denote anything (as doesn’t Democrat). Reactionary might be better suited for what we call conservatism today – especially the brand, if I am reading Scotto correctly, hinted at in this piece: the idea that most of our problems were solved by the Constitution some 200 years ago.
I even go on to agree with Scotto that “the power of the presidency has expanded over the past century,” however, his true colors are flown by his tongue-in-cheek dismissal of one of the single worst Constitutional abuses since the Alien and Sedition Acts: Bush’s handling of the national security issue. Phrases like “justifiably so” and words such as “unprecedented” should be replaced by words not so slanted to let Bush off the hook for this Constitutional disaster. This is especially egregious due to the fact that he goes on to say – in a rhetorically infused juxtaposition – that Obama’s wrongs are much clearer and less justifiable. Though this, too, is easy to dismiss with the wave of hand: the result of petty party squabbling. Ostensibly the same strategy as punching twenty strangers in the face to make it seem like it was ‘not that big a deal’ that you punched your friend in the face as well.
While I have my own reasons for why I think Trump rose to such heights, I think that, while the ‘why and how’ is complex, there are more obvious reasons than others. Perhaps, obvious “unseens.” And I believe one of those reasons is latent in Scotto’s comment that “the Republicans are the only party that is even rhetorically committed to limited government and constitutionalism.” That is, the rise of Trump is due, it seems, to the two-party system and all of the accompanying problems. Scotto is quite right in this assessment of only one party being even remotely concerned on this front, but the implications he draws are somewhat obtuse and awkward: that people’s religious belief in the unknown and unseen were what allowed people to be more receptive to the foundations for conservatism. In other words, the belief in the Fall of Man found its parallel in politics with conservatism. While I am receptive to this line of reasoning, I’m not sure it was ever easier. For this reads too much order into history for my tastes although the thought could be entertained or researched I suppose.
Sticking with the roller-coaster of agreement-disagreement, I found Scotto’s characterization of this increased secularization to be forceful:
A permissive ethos of instant gratification and “live in the moment” colors much of our popular culture. But it also affects scholarship and study. Enthusiasts for science, for example, may well argue that only the scientific method can get at the unseen: by controlling for variables and running experiments, we can get at causation and start to make the invisible visible. For its part, social science may well be able to determine some of the direct effects of various public policy positions; it may, for instance, estimate effectively the increase in the unemployment rate caused by an increase in the minimum wage. But it cannot, say, estimate the increased collective social despair caused by difficulties breaking into the job market, or evaluate the importance of being active in a community for one’s spiritual health. Those are questions that can only be answered with intuition and deference to received wisdom.
This, to me, is the same critique offered by some conservative thinkers that the Enlightenment-rationalistic project gave us a false sense of having a grasp on things; that we could, once and for all, figure it all out. But, where the conservative party thinks that religious tradition is all that we can fall back on, I believe there is ample space for a secularized version of this. Andrew Delbanco in his short meditation The Real American Dream ponders just that. He claims that when we moved on from God, we glorified the Nation. And now that (mostly) unfounded cynicism about our very own nation runs rampant, we have turned to Self. We are the ultimate arbiters of ourselves and our actions. In this light, the PC culture doesn’t confuse me one bit. But, again, Scotto deduces from all this that claim that since we lost religion and thus a belief in the unseen “our metaphorical vaccine against ‘invisibility blindness’ has gone away.” My journey through Scotto’s piece is much like following a wise sherpa until suddenly he jumps off the edge of the cliff, hoping, of course, that I follow.
In contrast to most op-ed pieces on the internet, Scotto ends with some well-reasoned potential solutions to the problems at hand. Where most tend to live in their own mind, or in the mud of overt political sympathy, our author here walks a nice pragmatic line. However, because implications are drawn and solutions reached, it is susceptible to scrutiny – something people in the ‘mainstream’ immediately see as something negative. If we admit the Fall of Man and our own limited and fallible natures then I imagine Scotto having no problem with some contention.
The third suggestion given is a warning: “If Republicans fail to present candidates and policy proposals that can appeal to non-Republican voters, we will lose elections, and limited government will erode further.” I begin here because this has profound implication for his first two suggestions. The only way to reasonably appeal to non-Republican voters is to actually emphasize – as opposed to Scotto’s insistence that we deemphasize – the “rhetoric of constitutional principle[s].” Scotto claims that Republicans should “focus on the potential harm” of this or that specific policy, but what is actually needed is more scrupulousness in terms of picking battles. When every single policy can be picked apart and shown the potential harm, the Republicans are doing themselves a greater disservice by actually showing every which way the proposed policy is harmful. Furthermore, this finding issues with everything is inherent in conservatism. It is an inherent aspect of our socialness to say nothing of politics specifically. Progressives and Leftist end up saying ‘yeah, but they hate everything.’ Instead, Republicans should not focus on the “potential harm” but rather the potential middle ground between what is (inevitably) being put forth by progressives and while taking into account those very real “unseens.” In other words, seeing that change is inevitable, Republicans should confront this change not with fervent reactionary doom-and-gloom, but principled prudence and compromise. Furthermore, if those “unseens” are really the issue, what does it matter how they get accounted for. That is, if progressives are asking for Z, it would be better that conservatives allow for M rather than entrenching themselves in a stubborn and unflinching defense of A.
Circling back to Obergefell, one can, I think, reasonably see a solution to the issue. If governmental overreach is indeed the issue, then conservatives could have said either ‘we will revoke the benefits the state confers upon heterosexual unions’ or ‘we will work to pass state legislation giving homosexuals the same rights as heterosexuals as long as you don’t take this to the Fed.’ The problem is that the only way for progressives to deal with such glaring inconsistencies and incoherences is to take it higher, that is, take it to a liberal Supreme Court who will rule in their favor. In response conservatives simply gripe about how things are changing, and this, as I said, is a product of reactionary politics and something Scotto lurches delicately toward: thinking if we doom-and-gloom enough about this or that policy, nothing will happen. Hurray!
[The Alabama State Senate passed Bill 143 on March 15th which states that “All requirements to obtain a marriage license by the State of Alabama are hereby abolished and repealed.” It is bills such as this one that conservatives should be celebrating in the streets. I also state this to show that my suggestion to equalize the situation by reducing one’s own rights is not a foolish project.]
Scotto ends his piece with one of the high-points on my roller coaster: I agree that “a conservatism that loses its sight of the unseen and what it tells us about the need for limited government deserves no political power.” However, a conservatism that puts forth a rationalistic plan to bring about peace at last is not conservatism either. A wall on our southern border is not conservatism, but neither are any of the plans from any of the other Republican candidates: they are all progressive agendas if we view progressive as having the answer and knowing how to get there. God knows what the end game for progressives is besides more progress, but I am equally dubious about the Republicans from whom as far as I can tell think a rigid adherence to the doctrines and ideas formed in 1789 are all that we need. Which is why, I say for the last time, that conservatism must be reclaimed as an attitude toward change and government, not itself a specific proposal. Perhaps a distinction between progressive-Republicanism and conservative-Republicanism is all that is needed. If we don’t all die out under Trump’s thumb, surely we will die out due to the increasing divides between people and the incredible frustration brought upon by hair-splitting distinctions like the one I just made.