CONSERVATISMS OLD AND NEW

Everybody seems to have an opinion about Jeffrey Hart’s anatomy of the conservative mind, so I suppose I should as well. The main points of contention seem to be whether conservatives are often inclined to a kind of free-market utopianism (depending on how you define utopianism, of course they are), whether the pro-life cause is hopeless (Hart thinks so; he’s probably wrong) – and the question of whether conservatism has grown, well, dumber over the past fifty years. Hart implies as much, when he writes that the Republican Party

has stood for many and various things in its history. The most recent change occurred in 1964, when its center of gravity shifted to the South and the Sunbelt, now the solid base of “Republicanism.” The consequences of that profound shift are evident, especially with respect to prudence, education, intellect and high culture.

There’s been an interesting back-and-forth on whether the South and the Sunbelt are actually less prudent, educated, cultured and so forth between Ramesh, Matt Yglesias, Jonah, and Ramesh again – but I think it sidesteps the main question. Of course the bastions of intellect and high culture in the U.S. are primarily located in the Blue States, and most of our intellectual mandarins tend to be Democrats and liberals. But this is hardly a change from the 1950s, before the South-Sunbelt shift took place, is it? Conservatism of any stripe has always been a minority view among the American intelligentsia – and if anything, the Southern turn of the GOP coincided with a dramatic increase in the number and caliber of conservative intellectuals, as various once-liberal thinkers abandoned a Democratic Party that seemed to have drifted too far left. (I probably would have been one of them, had I been around back then, and possessed of the same grab-bag of ideas and prejudices that I have now. I suspect I would have voted for Eisenhower and definitely would have subscribed to NR – but I probably would have called myself a Democrat, and a liberal, at least until 1968 and possibly deep into the ’70s.)

So while I don’t mean any disrespect to the Willmoore Kendalls and Richard Weavers, I think that Hart’s nostalgia from a pre-1964 East Coast conservatism is misplaced, and it’s far more reasonable to locate the intellectual peak of conservatism not in the early days of National Review, but after the Goldwater campaign and the Southern Strategy – in the 1970s and ’80s, when the early neocons rubbed shoulders, and ideas, with paleocons, quasi-cons and the emergent Christian Right, and when Ronald Reagan gave the Right an articulate and intellectually serious political spokesman. (How do we know it was a golden age? Well, in part because most of the big-name conservative intellectuals of today are holdovers from that twenty-year span – which speaks well of that era, if not necessarily of this one.)

Now I suppose Hart could argue that the yahoo-ization of the Right had only just begun during the Reagan era, and the drop-off from Losing Ground to The War on Christmas embodies the slow working-out of conservatism’s South-West sashay. But isn’t it more likely that the drop-off is mainly a result of 1) larger cultural trends toward quickie-books, shortened attention-spans and cable news shoutfests, and 2) the exhaustion and corruption of intellect that almost inevitably coincides with taking over the business of governing? There’s a lot more pressure to come up with new ideas when you’re on the outside looking in; once you’ve taken power, it’s easy to become convinced that history is going your way, that your enemies will remain in disarray forever (which they may, admittedly), and that it’s okay to accept a small sinecure from Jack Abramoff or the Deparment of Education in exchange for some columns or radio spots that you would have written anyway. It’s easy, too, to assume that political victories are a substitute for cultural change, to let domestic policy wither on the vine, to substitute populist slogans for new ideas, to seal yourself off from criticism . . . but I don’t really see how any of these Bush Era problems, however real, can be traced directly to the pernicious influence of the Sunbelt or the South.

THE LIMITS OF LIBERTARIANISM: Andrew, meanwhile, uses Hart’s argument about the GOP’s turn in the South to advance a similar but by no means identical claim:

The alliance between conservatism, as it was once understood, and the historically Democratic American South is, in my view, a brilliant maneuver for gaining political power, but something that has mortally wounded the tradition of limited government, individual rights, balanced budgets, political prudence and religious moderation that were once hallmarks of conservatism.

As Ramesh notes, this analysis leaves out the more libertarian Sunbelt, whose Goldwater strain of conservatism is closer to the kind of right-wing politics that Andrew usually champions. But more importantly, it leaves out the fact that the GOP’s geographic shift in the 1960s and 1970s made the party more concerned with small government and individual rights and tax cuts and all the other “hallmarks of conservatism” that Andrew favors, and less inclined to favor the liberalism-lite exemplified by (ahem) northeasterners like John Lindsay and Nelson Rockefeller. This is one of the two difficulties that I see with Andrew’s theory of what conservatism ought to be, and that I hope his book addresses – namely, that the constituency for his preferred kind of small-government conservatism tends to be the same people he regularly attacks, sometimes justly and sometimes not, as religious zealots and betrayers of the old Oakeshottian faith. The small-government purists in the House of Representatives, by and large, are also the people who want to ban cloning and defund stem-cell research, outlaw gay marriage and keep Terri Schiavo alive. If you want a more libertarian GOP on size-of-government issues, as Andrew clearly does, then you have to make some kind of peace with the Religious Right and its concerns.

So that’s one difficulty. The other problem is that a more libertarian Republican Party – and a more libertarian conservatism – probably wouldn’t be able to cobble together a governing majority, at least for the foreseeable future. There’s a reason for the GOP’s big-government turn in the last decade, and it’s not just malice, corruption and incompetence – it’s that some kind of a big-government turn is what the American people wanted from the post-Gingrich Right. Bush defeated (or at least nearly outpolled) Al Gore in 2000 not in spite of, but because of his willingness to promise spending increases, to co-opt Democratic ideas on health care and education, and to invent a silly-but-useful language of “compassionate conservatism.” This move has had a variety of dreadful consequences, from the explosion of pork to the outrageou
sly overpriced prescription drug bill – but it was politically necessary, and still is. The conservatism that Andrew wants would be ideologically pure and intellectually respectable, but the public wouldn’t go for it – and if conservatism expects to govern the country, it needs to find a way (and a better one than Bush’s) to meet the public halfway.

– posted by Ross

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