Wednesday, April 27, 2005
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Andrew Sullivan has a long essay in The New Republic that tries to explain modern-day conservatism's policy schizophrenia over the past four years. Some highlights:
As always, Andrew's stuff makes for compelling reading -- but I'm unpersuaded by his proposed typology, for several reasons:
In the end, Sullivan is dressing up a very simple argument -- "keeping religion in its safest place--away from the trappings of power.... keeping politics in its safest place--as the proper arrangement of our common obligations, and not as a means to save or transform our lives and souls" -- in clothes that don't fit. The divide between those who put their faith first in their politics and those who prefer to keep it out of government is not responsible for all of the hypocrisies that Andrew listed in his first paragraph -- they're just responsible for many of the obvious ones.
The question of whether religious fundamentalists have too much power in the Republican Part and in the Bush administration is a good one to have -- currently Sullivan and Glenn Reynolds are going a couple of rounds on the question. However, I'm not sure that Sullivan's TNR essay provides anything new in answering that question.posted by Dan on 04.27.05 at 04:31 PM
I think it's clear that the religious fundamentalists in the Republican Party would LIKE to enact legislation that is more biblically based. But I see nowhere other than perhaps the Schiavo case where they have succeeded. The divisions and splits within the party - the neocons who are generally more liberal (or less conservative) on social issues or the business types who likewise are more libertarian - all keep the religious elements somewhat under control.
The Party has more heretics and is more diverse than Sullivan understands it. Its clear, for example, that the Democrats are trying, with some success, to exploit these schisms through its concerted efforts to stop SS reform or other Bush initiatives.
It seems to me that Sullivan, like many on the social left, is mistakenly believing that the GOP's opposition to social policies he likes is entirely based on some type of religious law or doctrine. "You're against abortion?" Then, "You must be a rightwing religious type" (Nat Hentoff gets this all the time).
There are substantive secular reasons for the GOP's opposition to gay marriage or abortion or a host of other policies. Sullivan dismisses them by arguing that they're only religious based one.
SMGposted by: SMGalbraith on 04.27.05 at 04:31 PM [permalink]
When a Englishman who voted for John Kerry, who claims Roman Catholisism and yet and has been stumping for homosexual marriage at the cost of all else, for the last two years at least, comes along and tries to redefine what is and is not an American Conservative to fit his own myopic world vision... well...You'll forgive me, that I don't stand up and salute.
His attempts at a public self-justification are no more impressive than are Teddy Kennedy's complaints of simulated drownings at Abu Girabe.
Sully calling the rest of us confused, is one for the record books.posted by: Biithead on 04.27.05 at 04:31 PM [permalink]
To correct an minor point, both interpretations of Hobbes are not entirely correct. I hope you are not teaching this to your students.
1. Hobbes was not "in many way your classic big government liberal." The Leviathan does not set out to show what the sovereign should do in a normative sense, but to outline the extent of rightful sovereign authority. The long quote you provide does not say that the sovereign should transgress property rights, but that he is supreme over property rights and can extinguish them if he wants. This is a jab at Edward Coke and not a political recommendation. Uncovering Hobbes' preferred form of government is far more complex. To give a short answer to that question: it is probably the rule of equity, or what Plato might call the rule of gentlemen. Unlike modern liberalism, this would not be ideologically driven.
Saying that anti-euthanasia conservatives achieved anything resembling success regardig Schiavo is like saying that Ted Kennedy is a tax-cutting libertarian. The goal was to prevent a perceived civil rights abuse by a state judge, and the goal was not met. Bush's so-called intervention was anything but; that piece of legislation was the equivalent of those do-nothing board meetings in the Dilbert comic strip. Wherever one sides on the Schiavo matter, at least recognize that Bush didn't really do anything, and that the Congressional action didn't make future Terri Sciavo executions less likely.
"Today's conservatives support limited government. But..." I can't tell you how many times I see such lame arguments. Anecdotal evidence that conservatives support the very notion of government actually doing something isn't evidence of inconsistency with limited government doctrine. "Limited" does not mean "nonexistent." And the Schiavo example is a poor one, because (from the anti-euthanasia point of view) it is in line with the libertarian notion of the Prime Directive of government: to protect the rights of the innocent.
A consistency check would compare apples to apples - whether a conservative's view of the proper overall scope of government can be described as "limited." There is no obvious line where "limited" ends and "nonlimited" begins. Political philosophy shoudl concern itself with ethics - what activities government should or should not do. Quantity of activity is merely a rough indicator of a government's overall ethics; it does not identify its specific transgressions.posted by: Alan K. Henderson on 04.27.05 at 04:31 PM [permalink]
Although I question why so many continue to treat Sullivan seriously, I'll note a few points.
I would suggest that for all his education in political theory, the Brit still hasn't grasped an obvious fact of American politics. Our system, unlike that of the UK, is structured to favor the existence of two parties. The majority party will necessarily be a large coalition that will almost always have internal conflict and contradiction. I would refer Andrew to the Democrats' coalition in the early-to-mid 20th Century, which contained everyone from Yankee liberals to Southern Dixiecrats. The Democrats used to have prominent figures who were pro-life as well as pro-choice. The Democrats used to have hawks like Scoop Jackson as well as anti-war pacifists.
The Republicans are the majority now because the Democrats were so successful in alienating so many elements of their coalition. I'm sure Sullivan sees the same thing happening now with the GOP. However, while the GOP welcomed former Democrats/Neocons into their coalition, do you see any signs of the Dems throwing open their doors to libertarian-minded Republicans? To tax-cutters? Any sign of reassurance on defense issues to 9/11 Democrats like Glenn Reynolds? Sullivan can raise the Medicare drug program as an exhibit against Bush (though one could argue it may correct distortions in the market created by the original Medicare), but is there any sign that the Democrats would be more fiscally responsible on entitlements?
Schiavo: Sullivan paints it as a conservative-liberal issue, but the law passed was as much the doing of Tom Harkin as it was Tom DeLay. Half the Congressional Black Caucus -- not an affiliate of the VRWC -- voted for it (47 House Dems in total). This didn't stop the elite media from painting the issue as right-left; the allegedly insightful Sullivan grazes with the herd.
Finally, and perhaps most obvious, is that Sullivan is conflating conservativism with the GOP. The Republicans remain the more conservative party overall, but Sullivan has presumably heard of books like Frum's Dead Right, which made Sullivan's case long before he did, only better.posted by: Karl on 04.27.05 at 04:31 PM [permalink]
well...You'll forgive me, that I don't stand up and salute.
What is conservative about Sullivan, other than that he claims to be one? The only issue I can think of is his support for deposing Saddam, but that changed once Sullivan realized wars are ugly, brutal, violent things.
On what issues does Sullivan take positions that are generally considered conservative?posted by: rosignol on 04.27.05 at 04:31 PM [permalink]
The Democrats used to have prominent figures who were pro-life as well as pro-choice. The Democrats used to have hawks like Scoop Jackson as well as anti-war pacifists.
Just a note from reality-based land.posted by: Doug on 04.27.05 at 04:31 PM [permalink]
There is no question Sullivan is right on conservatives of faith. His definition of faith and how one uses ones faith is what no one is willing to look at with the nuance it deserves. He clearly makes the distinction between those whom believe in their religious faith and how this belief allows them to interact in the world and those for whom their faith is the determinant of all their actions in the world, the inablity to render what is Caesars' to Caesar. In short the idea of tolerance that America is built on.
Here is an excerpt of my most recent blogpost on this issue:
Sullivan's analysis of Hobbes & Locke is exactly as he learned it while getting his Ph.D. under Harvey Mansfield (it's a Straussian interpretation). Here is Allan Bloom from "The Closing of the American Mind":
"Hobbes & Locke, and the American Founders following them, intended to palliate extreme beliefs, particularly religious beliefs...In order to make this arrangement work, there was a conscious, if covert effort to weaken religious belief, partly by assigning -- as a result of a great epistemological effort -- religion to the realm of opinion as opposed to knowledge. But the right to freedom of religion belonged to the realm of knowledge." p. 28.
When Bloom refers to "knowledge" he means those "self-evident" Truths upon which we were founded. And one such Truth was that we had unalienable rights of conscience. Because folks differed as to the content of their religious beliefs, respecting the rights of conscience in turn required consigning religion to the realm of "opinion" which government could not touch.
On another note of interest, Drezner also writes:
[Why not discuss Hobbes' big-government social politics, or the importance of faith in Locke's derivation of property rights?--ed. Because I'm trying to keep this post under 5,000 words.]
Regarding the role of "faith in Locke's derivation of property rights" Michael Zuckert, another Straussian, and a very prominent Lockean scholar, would argue that faith played a very little role.
Let me briefly state how I understand Zuckert on Locke. Of course, Locke tied rights to God (as those who would point to the importance of "religious faith" in Locke's theories would note) but Locke first and foremost argued that "reason" and not "faith" had to justify all Truth, or at least all "public Truth." Indeed, the notion that rights come from God was not something one takes on faith, but must be vetted by reason. And Locke argued that in order for Christian teachings to be acceptable, they had to be justified by reason. But he also argued the Christian religion (or at least, his understanding of it), by in large, could in fact be justified this way, hence his book, "The Reasonableness of Christianity."
Zuckert would argue that those who would take from context all of Locke's references to Christianity and the Bible in his political arguments miss a big point: Locke didn't believe that Revelation was ultimate guide Truth; Locke was a Humanist who elevated Reason over Revelation and held Revelation to be true only insofar as it was Reasonable.
Ugh, this issue of whether Sullivan is a "real conservative" or not is a little silly. Is there a secret handshake or something? Let's address his arguments and observations and leave the hunting down of the heretics to others. Sidney Hook had a great line: Before attacking someone's motives, respond to their arguments.
It seems to me that Sullivan is revealing again the tension or conflict between the libertarian and the traditionalist elements of conservatism. The "fusion" that Frank Meyer in NR created nearly a half century ago will no longer hold. Cultural contradictions of conservatism? Perhaps. Anyway, we certainly know where A.S. comes down on this. Viz., traditionalists must either change or retreat from the public square.
But he seems to not to want to readily acknowledge the need for the traditionalist element in having a libertarian polity. For a conservatism of doubt to work in a modern America, where the culture is essentially dominated by the liberal/left, traditionalism must still have a role. He too readily willing to drive it completely out of the polity. Not gonna' work.
Sullivan knows all this (and more). He's a brilliant fellow but I think he still really doesn't understand America. My guess is he wants a traditionalism element but one that is more sympathetic to his views, whether gay rights, abortion, et cetera.
posted by: SteveMG on 04.27.05 at 04:31 PM [permalink]
Hobbes didn't know the United States was coming round the corner when he wrote Leviathan. He wouldn't have written it, had he known.posted by: george on 04.27.05 at 04:31 PM [permalink]
I think the sentence Sullivan is searching for is: "The current incarnation of conservatives in the Republican Party are a flaming bunch of hypocrites".
But then TNR wouldn't publish that.posted by: carla on 04.27.05 at 04:31 PM [permalink]
Most conservatives aren't as confused as Sullivan is. But then he has become a standing joke in the conservative arena.
And remember that not all conservatives are social conservatives. Small government, individual freedom, individual responsibility (the world doesn't owe you a living, or retirement benefits, or a job, or most anything else the socialists would like to claim), strong national defense - ... these are conservative values.posted by: Zendo Deb on 04.27.05 at 04:31 PM [permalink]
I think Sullivan's two groupings are pretty much dead-on, though the bulk of comments so far seem to avoid discussing the nature of the distinction he draws. Neocons and the Religious Right are indeed strange bedfellows, but the combination works because both ideologies (a) envision a future so dreamy that an ends-justifies-the-means mentality dominates among their practitioners and (b) require a heavy governmental hand - meaning they're hardly conservative.
If you ask these pseudo-conservatives about vague principles like "less government intrusion" and "fiscal austerity" they'll be as apt to answer like any paleoconservative (that they're for 'em); but when it comes down to actual policy proposals, they allow conservative principles to buckle beneath the weight of their allegiances to their respective near-term goals. In a word, it's hypocrisy.
It's dangerous to be so disconnected from one's core principles. Liberals are calling it proto-fascist, and I worry that they're right. I for one think Sullivan deserves kudos for pointing this out.posted by: JTex on 04.27.05 at 04:31 PM [permalink]
Jim Henley over at Unqualified Offerings had(at http://highclearing.com/index.php/archives/2005/03/31/4098) , I think, a much better take on what modern conservatism is:
What was a distinctly neoconservative position on “benevolent hegemony” and the primacy of unilateral American military power has simply become Republican Party ideology. The Republicans have become a party of nationalism, traditionalist social values and subventions for its constituents (from “faith-based initiatives” to corporate welfare) and nothing more. For all their carping about “Old Europe” Republicans have transformed themselves into a European-style Christian Democratic Party - at best. You could kick Paul Wolfowitz and Doug Feith to the curb and shutter the Weekly Standard and the broad mass of the Party would still hate France and love war.posted by: Frank on 04.27.05 at 04:31 PM [permalink]
Why is that one is a conservative of faith only now considered to be legislating their beliefs if they are making the same arguments that were made by plain old regular conservatives during reconstruction?
Andrew is applying contemporary trend to political orthodoxy. For the same reason that Wilsonians are termed neoconservatives, conservatives are defined as religious conservatives. The Wilsonians haven't changed and neither have the conservatives. What has changed is the cultural shift to segment groups into subgroups.
Faith based politics are not exclusive to conservative philosophy. Liberals routinely use the politics of faith in expansion of government spending, growth in the regulation of enterprise, and in defense of religious obligation to assist minors in violating state law.
Must there be a god and a good book in order to term someone's politics as faith? LBJs Great Society programs were designed to relieve poverty, but I don't have to walk very far to see housing projects with broken windows, boarded up windows, and windows with jail bars. And these are projects built after the Great Society programs. Sure, LBJ believed his programs would work, but if they don't actually work do we get to call them "faith based" politics?
Somehow I think Andrew might disagree.
I think Andrew misses the point of cultural shifts. Catholics started building schools for Catholic children because they didn't like the trend of education in public schools. In places like the South there was tremendous discrimination against Catholic children in public schools. The trend was so much against the Catholics that many states passed "Blaine Amendments" to their constitutions to disqualify tax dollars from going to religous schools.
Today we see a similar trend with Home Schools. Children are home schooled for a variety of reasons, but one that stands out most is the disatisfaction of parents with the trends in public school.
In my household we never referred to ourselves as religious conservatives. We were always just conservatives. Our parents took us to weekly mass. We helped stuff envelopes for conservative candidates. We never even dealt with the term "religious conservatives" or "conservatives of faith" until people like Andrew Sullivan started defining us this way.posted by: Brennan Stout on 04.27.05 at 04:31 PM [permalink]
On what issues does Sullivan take positions that are generally considered conservative?
The one issue I know of is the need to control spending. He agrees with fiscal conservatives and libertarians that the government is spending money like a bunch of drunk teenagers on Spring Break in Cancun with their parents' credit cards.
(My words, not his. I don't use the drunken sailors analogy cuz sailors use their own money.)posted by: Alan K. Henderson on 04.27.05 at 04:31 PM [permalink]
...okay, there's one. And it's even one that a lot of conservatives are unhappy with the current administration over.
Any more?posted by: rosignol on 04.27.05 at 04:31 PM [permalink]
Let me say first, that I saw Sullivan defend the very same Evangelical Conservatives who got Bush re-elected, on Real Time w/Bill Maher just after the election - the same Dobson crowd that would soon enough string up his prissy, sissy ass if they could corner him at the Republican Convention.
You principled Conservatives can mutter your distaste for the behavior of Evangelicals in your midst, but God forbid if one of your own suggest that acquiesces to their antics has blurred the perception of the kind of Conservatism the GOP stands for.posted by: that colored fella on 04.27.05 at 04:31 PM [permalink]
Thinking the Evangelicals have the right to express their various opinions of how things should be, and the same right to try to bring it about as every other faction in American politics is absolutely not the same thing as agreeing with the Evangelicals on every point.
If I were to assert that the moderate Democrats out there have to buy into the entire MoveOn/ANSWER agenda to work with them on the issues they agreed on, what would you say?
More to the point, if the media tried to portray moderate Democrats as being the same ilk as the MoveOn crowd, what would you think?
posted by: rosignol on 04.27.05 at 04:31 PM [permalink]
Conservativism will have to be rethought becasue Liberalism's imploded. It's as simple as that. Issues and conflicts remain, it's just one side's abdicated and wallows in resentement and cynicism. Serious debate on anything's going to reside now in the conservative movment because the only serious thinkers are there now. This from a guy who's voted Democratic for Prez from McGovern to Gore.posted by: Bill Baar on 04.27.05 at 04:31 PM [permalink]
If liberalism has imploded, Billy, that means those conflicts have already been decied... and the only reason we're still arguing about them is because of the left's resentement and cynicism.
I agree, that there's a lot of resentement and cynicism about in the left. I think it's universally taken.... even on the left... that the left is injured. But I don't think they're out, just yet. The arguments on the right we see at the moment are about how best to dispatch the beast. Such a victory is within our grasp, if we'll stop arguing long enough.posted by: Bithead on 04.27.05 at 04:31 PM [permalink]
I believe Sullivan is in favor of low taxes. It has been famously said that that is in fact the only tenant of the Republican party or conservative movement. I give Andrew credit for being one of the voices reminding the right that implicit in embracing low tax rates is the (seemingly) obvious connection to responsible spending. Sadly that has been competely ignored by the current administration.posted by: Mark Buehner on 04.27.05 at 04:31 PM [permalink]
The late Daniel Moynihan once pointed out that he attended more then 5,000 cabinet and sub-cabinet meetings in his life and that he never once heard a discussion about political philosophy or ideology. No one had the time.
As the mayor (Mel Brooks) in "Blazing Saddles" said: "We gotta do something or we'll lose our phoney baloney jobs!!".
MSposted by: MikeS on 04.27.05 at 04:31 PM [permalink]
Doug notes that there are still pro-life folks and hawks in the Democratic party. I'm sure he's right; after all, bloggers like Jeff Jarvis and Glenn Reynolds are still Dems, iirc. I should have stated that the party is not generally seen as a home for such people and that such people generally do not have any significant power or influence in the party today. And whenever people like Jarvis their views about Iraq, Soros-funded hacks attack him as disloyal to the party -- not a way to win friends and influence people.posted by: Karl on 04.27.05 at 04:31 PM [permalink]
I think Sullivan really is a really a libertarian at home and a neoconservative abroad. In American intellectual tradition (and in the UK, for that matter), thats a somewhat unusual collection of beliefs. His article is an attempt to create an American intellectual category for himself, and populate it.posted by: Appalled Moderate on 04.27.05 at 04:31 PM [permalink]
Conservatism as a source of new ideas and critical thinking is a farce. Look at this bill: http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d109:h.r.00748:
Conservatism has been played. It is like the child that goes to mommy because the child has figured out rightly that daddy will disapprove. And knows that because mommy and daddy put up a united front and will not change their actions in front of the child the child wins. If these are not the actions of the Republican party in regard to issues of faith vs doubt what is it?
One can carp moan whatever in and on the internet but the actions of elected officials is where the rubber hits the road. The Republican party has allowed the Golem of religious intolerance to run the machinery of the party on most local levels and influence the election of its official whom scurry to curry favor with the Golem. The Golem is destroying and exposing conservatism for what it is today a proto facist force in government with Franco as its godmother.posted by: Robert M on 04.27.05 at 04:31 PM [permalink]
Many conservatives would say that it's a leap of faith to believe that one can completely remake a several thousand year tradition like marriage to include homosexual marriages, and that wanting to go slow and being reluctant to change is evidence of conservatism of doubt. However, Mr. Sullivan is extremely eager to cast aside doubt of changing such a tradition, relying on his faith that it will all work out. As you say, different people have faith and doubt about various things.
In general, though, his conservatism of doubt fits into his familiarity with British philosophy Michael Oakeshott, and British conservatism generally. He has always been a Tory at heart. American conservatives have always had a bit more faith in many things-- religion, democracy, and the free market among them-- than their British cousins.posted by: John Thacker on 04.27.05 at 04:31 PM [permalink]
The ascendancy of Conservatism is greatly hyped.
Not every Republican is a conservative, in fact a great many Republicans now in office are not conservatives.posted by: Keith, Indianapolis on 04.27.05 at 04:31 PM [permalink]
As I recall my Kant two things(time and space) are needed a priori to determine anything. Are there any points of agreement that a priori establish what a conservative currently is?posted by: Robert M on 04.27.05 at 04:31 PM [permalink]
Andrew Sullivan is trying to cast differences in terms of principles. Philosophy does clarify a lot of things, including whether people are consistent in their beliefs, but liberals have also been accused of hypocrisy. It may be more useful to understand political life in terms of history.
The historic difference between the North and South still defines American public life. The South has always been socially more conservative, economically more liberal (favoring free trade), politically opposed to strong federal government, but in favor of military service. The North has been socially more inclusive, economically more dirigist, politically more inclined to a strong federal government, but oriented more to careers in the private sector. The Democratic party stood for mostly Southern ideas until 1932, when it began to embrace Northern ones. The Republican party wavered from 1932 until 1968 and then seized the former Southern base of the Democrats. The real cultural divide isn't religion but region.
Since the Pendleton Act of 1883, the major parties at the national level have each sub-divided into two power centers, one reflecting Main Street and the other Wall Street. The influence of Wall Street generally acted to stabilize the country. Since the 1960s, however, the rise of the antiwar movement in the Democratic party and of the religious right in the Republican party, facilitated by the greater participation of voters in the nominating process, have strengthened Main Street and polarized the two parties.
Religion is both a defense and a danger. A defense because the religious right stands against the violence that was part of the radical right in Europe between the two world wars. A danger because fascism takes root in an electorate demoralized by foreign defeat and domestic upheaval. The religious right has both reflected, and served as a firebreak against, the demoralization of the white electorate in America since the Vietnam War.
America could come under pressure as a result of new foreign war and domestic dislocation. In debate with religious conservatives, the concern should be to affirm common ground in constitutional procedure as well as to argue differences. If this seems unnecessary, it is because we take constitutional government for granted.
Harry Reid, the Dem Senate leader, to the best of my knowledge is pro-life. I don't know if he's a hawk, but he's not realy a dove. As far as hawks go, there are a lot of Dems who are hawkish, from Bill Clinton downwards. As far as Iraq goes, I agree that the Democratic party tends to be non-hawkish in general, but that still represents the viewpoint of probably half the American people.
This debate about the meaning (and future) of American conservatism reminds me of the David Brooks column of a few weeks ago -- and forgive me if you've already commented on it -- where he argues that the strength of conservatism is precisely its "disunity". Sullivan may be right that the recent ascendancy of the evangelical right is dangerous for conservatism (and for the Republican Party, which these days seem to act as a bottleneck for conservatism, translating its diversity into electoral success), but there is indeed a good deal of diversity (or disunity) among conservatives.
For my lengthier take on conservatism, from a Straussian perspective, see:
Interesting debate, though. I would agree with the above comment that Hobbes was not a "big government liberal". If anything, he was a philosophical liberal (the founder of liberalism, basically) with secular monarchist tendencies. Sullivan simplifies him to the point where his complexity is lost.
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