Monday, April 25, 2005

Conservatism in America: Embarrassment of riches or monolithic evil?

(Hey, two posts in a row and not a papabile in sight!)

A few weeks ago, New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks – one of just two “conservatives” on that lofty, high-falutin’ op-ed page (John Tierney, William Safire’s successor, is the other) – wrote that the recent success of conservatism in America may be attributed to its internal diversity:

“Conservatives have not triumphed because they have built a disciplined and efficient message machine. Conservatives have thrived because they are split into feuding factions that squabble incessantly. As these factions have multiplied, more people have come to call themselves conservatives because they've found one faction to agree with.”

“In disunity there is strength,” he concludes.

I have found two interesting responses from the left to Brooks’s column, one from Mark Schmitt, who blogs as "The Decembrist" (see link, right), the other from Jon Chait, filling in for Noam Scheiber at The New Republic’s "&c." blog. Schmitt agrees with Brooks, Chait doesn’t. Typically, I’m somewhere in the middle.

1) Schmitt – a senior fellow at the New America Foundation (see link, right), one of Washington’s finer think-tanks – makes the following points, inter alia:

"I'm familiar with the right and it's think tanks and magazines, and I know what goes on in them. What goes on is that people argue. They argue endlessly, not just about their philosophies (because, frankly, very few people think in those terms even if they've read all their Oakeshott and Burke and Hayek), but about practical politics and policies. Sometimes they stop speaking to each other, and sometimes, having aired their disagreements, they find a way to work together. They learn, they adapt, they develop their voice. They argue for their viewpoints knowing that no one viewpoint will dominate."

"What I'm talking about here, and what Brooks is talking about, is not partisan unity or disunity, which is a separate question… I'm talking about the process by which ideas and ideology are developed. Many of those who want to build up the "progressive intellectual infrastructure" see the right-wing institutions, such as the American Enterprise Institute and magazines such as the Weekly Standard as simply part of a disciplined message infrastructure. That leads to a particular conclusion about what a counterpart would look like. And it's wrong: those institutions are loci of great internal debate. Does that debate then lead to ideological clarity, which can be the basis for greater partisan unity later? Absolutely."

2) Chait points out that Brooks’s argument "hinges" on his assertion that "[t]he major conservative magazines -- The Weekly Standard, National Review, Reason, The American Conservative, The National Interest, Commentary -- agree on almost nothing". However, two of these magazines, Reason (libertarian) and The American Conservative (populist), aren’t "conservative". So, as is often the case, Brooks has conveniently stacked the deck:

"If you look at the major organs of conservative opinion, you'd start with the Standard and National Review, add in The Wall Street Journal editorial page, and probably include columnists like Brooks, George Will, Charles Krauthammer, and Robert Novak. You could toss in The Washington Times editorial page and, arguably, talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. Depending on your definition, you could add or subtract from this group and have a good sense of all the opinion outlets that wield any significant influence over the conservative movement and the Republican Party.

"So, what major issues do these conservative intellectuals disagree on? They all supported the Iraq war, with the exception of Novak, who has tellingly muted his criticism. They all supported every one of Bush's tax cuts and Social Security privatization. They all clucked their tongues at Bush's Medicare drug benefit but, like the White House, have refused to recognize any connection between the deficit and Bush's tax cuts. They all passionately supported Bush's judicial nominees. They all basically endorse Karl Rove's political strategy. They all see Bush as a towering Churchillian figure of compassion, wisdom, vision, homespun virtue, and basic decency.

"Basically, these organs agree on everything--certainly every major political issue of the last five years."

He concludes:

"[O]n every important debate of his presidency, Bush has enjoyed a solid phalanx of conservative pundits all repeating the same talking points on his behalf. It's a successful arrangement. It also worked for the Comintern, for a while. I'm sure the communist intellectuals who relentlessly backed Moscow's every move liked to flatter themselves by insisting they were a bunch of squabbling freethinkers, too."


Each of these views is partly true. There is a good deal of diversity within the so-called conservative movement. Like Schmitt, I know some of what goes on in that movement because I have been a part of it for many years. Not as a conservative myself – although I am conservative in some fundamentally important ways and do not automatically reject the label – but as a Straussian at the University of Toronto. I have long argued that Leo Strauss was not a conservative as that term is presently understood in America’s left-right spectrum and that not all Straussians are conservatives, let alone neoconservatives, despite efforts on the left to link us all together under one banner. Straussians are actually a fairly diverse, loose-knit collection of academics, policy wonks, public intellectuals, and government officials who have some connection, now via several degrees of separation, back to Strauss (that is, he took a course with so-and-so, who studied with so-and-so, who was one of Strauss’s students way back when…).

Paul Wolfowitz and Bill Kristol are often tagged as two of the most visible Straussians – even though the former is only a Straussian by association and the latter is more of a neoconservative than anything else – but saying that all Straussians agree with them, and their right-wing ilk, is like saying that all Christians agree with the pope. For my part, I might, like Wolfowitz and Kristol, trace a good deal of my academic ancestry back to Strauss, but, unlike them, I would describe myself as a liberal Straussian with somewhat conservative philosophical inclinations. I am enormously indebted to the work of Strauss and his students, not to mention to my Straussian teachers at the University of Toronto, Clifford Orwin and Thomas Pangle, but Straussian political thought, and a Straussian understanding of (and appreciation for) the history of political philosophy, is not inextricably linked to conservative politics. My current affiliation may be with the Democratic Party, but what I really want in this context is for liberalism to re-emerge as an effective counter-balance to conservatism. Simply, the pendulum has swung too far to the right.

Regardless, what I can say with confidence is that what I know of conservatism – beyond the ranting and raving and drooling of the O'Reillys, Limbaughs, Hannitys, Coulters, Malkins, etc. (ad nauseam) – is intellectually diverse and self-reflective. In this sense, Brooks and Schmitt are right. And this regeneration of conservatism stems, I suspect, from being out of favour in American life for decades. After all, it was accepted without much question that liberalism in the vein of FDR and LBJ was America's only true political philosophy. To its credit, the American right rediscovered itself in the '70s behind such influential publications as The Public Interest and with the support of wealthy donors (which always helps mightily when you want to get something done).

To a point, then, Schmitt is right to say that conservatives argue amongst themselves endlessly. And that diversity and tension is indeed a source of their strength. But what conservatives have discovered is that it is possible to maintain diversity of thought behind a unified front. (Schmitt, too, acknowledges that there is much partisan unity among conservatives.) This is how they have been able to translate intellectual diversity and productive debate into political success, as the Republican Party has effectively become the bottleneck for conservative thought in America. Meanwhile, on the other side, liberals have grown smug and self-righteous, and they have not learned to put aside their internecine squabbles for the sake of unity. This is why they often look disorganized, discombobulated, and, at times, simply unelectable.

Contrary to Brooks's assertions – and who is he exactly to give advice to liberals? – liberals do need a more effective message machine, a unified front along the lines of what has worked so well for the Republican Party. In America's bipolar political climate, where it's one side or the other, you need to stand up to force with equal or greater force if you have any hope of winning. That's just the way the game is played.

With Chait, however, I would agree that Brooks overplays the diversity of conservatism. As healthy as it may be, it is in danger of stagnating, if not finally collapsing upon itself or at least breaking apart into warring tribes. The signs are already out there. Power, which corrupts, will do that to any movement, and the evangelical right-turn that the Republicans seem to be taking (moral absolutism, anti-judiciary populism, etc.), even as it continues to wage class warfare on behalf of its libertarian, supply-side wing (the wing with all the money), is nothing if not evidence of almost absolute power corrupting almost absolutely. If conservatism is all about sustaining the electoral successes of the Republican Party, as seems to be the case with such partisan outposts as The Weekly Standard, then it won't for much longer be what Brooks thinks it is. What passes for conservatism in the United States may not be the Comintern, but it’s certainly moving in that direction – which means that it isn’t really all that conservative anymore, it's becoming (if it isn't already) just another utopian ideology bound to wreak havoc on the world stage before finally succumbing to exhaustion and ending up in the dustbin of history. (There's nothing conservative about neoconservatism.)

Brooks, a partisan who has no interest in seeing the Democrats gain ground, advises liberals to focus their energies on introspection rather than on electoral success. Well, that figures. He’s like the anti-religious Machiavelli advising Pope Leo X in The Prince to focus the Church’s energies on prayer and salvation rather than on politics. But liberals need both to follow Brooks's advice (which many are already doing, for the sake of re-energizing liberalism as a healthy, diverse, and profoundly American alternative to the conservative ascendancy of the last couple of decades) and to build an effective "front" that can translate internal diversity into political success.

Liberals want liberalism to succeed in the real world, after all, not just to be a think-tank curiosity. So should the rest of America.

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  • I agree that liberals need to find the common ground(centre)in issues and politics and take a moderate view to appeal to the people.

    Hillary Clinton is undertaking such a view..
    She grew up in the American south from a religious background,she understands the issues of the "Red States" and can "talk their talk", yet her social policies and views have a strong basis in democractic policy and a liberal appeal.
    1)Abortion: "safe, legal, and rare"
    2)Work with Senate Armed Services Committee and visit to Iraq
    3)Work with two of the Senate’s most right-wing members, Rick Santorum and Sam Brownback,to introduce a bill to examine the impact of the effects of media on children

    According to Newsweek, post-election focus groups have identified what concerns parents is how to raise children "in a sex-and-violence-soaked culture"

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:11 AM  

  • Yes, Senator Clinton is looking better and better, more and more presidential. And I never thought I'd ever say that. I wasn't a fan of hers back in the early-'90s, when she was working on Hillarycare for her husband. And I still think that she comes across as a detached eastern elitist (not that that's such a bad thing -- I am, too!). But she's certainly one of the more impressive Democrats out there.

    By Blogger Michael J.W. Stickings, at 1:14 AM  

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