Sullivan and the strange death of conservatism
Here is a portion of something he said in this regard a couple of years ago: “I cannot support a movement that claims to believe in limited government but backed an unlimited domestic and foreign policy presidency that assumed illegal, extra-constitutional dictatorial powers until forced by the system to return to the rule of law. I cannot support a movement that exploded spending and borrowing and blames its successor for the debt.”
Once upon a time it was said that a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality. And what is a conservative who has been mugged by reality? Not a liberal, I think; perhaps a post-conservative.
Here are some remarks Sullivan made this morning (June 17) at The Dish (andrewsullivan.the daily beast.com):
“ . . . The core reason I became a conservative was government over-reach in my native land [Britain]- try a 98 percent top tax rate and direct government ownership of entire industries and nearly every hospital. I thought this violated a core fact about human nature: that collectivism fails to generate the dynamism that individual freedom and ownership do.
“But as I studied political philosophy more deeply, the core argument for conservatism was indeed that it was truer to humankind's crooked timber; that it was more closely tethered to earth rather than heaven; that it accepted the nature of fallen man and did not try to permanently correct it, but to mitigate our worst instincts and encourage the best, with as light a touch as possible. Religion was for bishops, not presidents. Utopias were for liberals; progress was not inevitable; history did not lead in one obvious direction; we are all limited by epistemological failure and cultural bias.
“So on taxes today, a conservative would ask: what have we learned about the impact of lower rates over the last two decades - now the lowest as a percentage of GDP since the 1950s? In health care, what have we learned about the largely private system the GOP wants to preserve? A conservative would look at home and abroad for empirical answers, acknowledging no ultimate solution but the need for constant reform because society is always changing. On gay rights, a classic social change, he'd ask what a society should do in integrating the emergence of so many openly gay people, couples and families. On foreign policy, he'd move on a case by case basis, not by way of a "doctrine."
“On these terms, today's GOP could not be less conservative. I'd insist it's less conservative than Obama. It does not present reality-based reform for emergent problems. It simply reiterates dogma and ruthlessly polices dissent or debate. . . .
“. . . we hear actually nothing about gays, our existence or our lives. We hear a tautological irrelevance: "I believe marriage is between a man and a woman." What do they propose positively for this emergent social reality that men like Burke or Lincoln or Disraeli would have seen as an opportunity for conservative reform? Nothing. No civil unions, no civil marriage, no military service ... just nothing, but a piece of doctrine: gay is bad. On health care, have you yet heard a single practical proposal to help the uninsured? Or assist seniors with health needs in ways that don't break the bank? Nope. But in a society that won't let people die on the street, these are real and tough problems we cannot just wish away. The Ryan plan solves the problem the way leftists used to: by a radical ideological shift. It just cuts off aid at a certain level and says government is not responsible for the rest. This will never get past the public and would never actually cut costs. It simply places an arbitrary marker on when the government tells you you are on your own. Again, this works as dogma but not as politics."
Before continuing with Sullivan, I trust that I may be permitted to interject a personal note. Back in 1973 I was lucky to be invited to house-sit in a San Francisco apartment owned by a very intelligent woman who had stocked it with libertarian literature: lots of Hayek, von Mises, and Freedman, but nothing by Ayn Rand. It was a bit like a kid finding Dad’s stash of bondage porn: I looked at the stuff with horror and fascination. By the end of the month I was ready to ask my friend for a reading list. I had become a libertarian. A few years later I read some conservative writers--I emphasize s o m e--and found that there was a lot of sense there. Andrew Sullivan is a bit younger than I am, but he captures the excitement of that moment:
“Back in the 1980s, conservatism was a thrilling empirical, reality-based challenge to overweening government power and omniscient liberal utopianism. Today, alas, it has become a victim of its own success, reliving past glories rather than tackling current problems. It is part secular dogma - no taxes, no debt, more war - and part religious dogma - no Muslims need apply; amend the federal constitution to keep gays in their place; no abortions even for rape and incest; more settlements on the West Bank to prepare for the End-Times. Although there were inklings back then - Stockman was right; Iran-Contra should have been a warning - they were still balanced by empiricism. Reagan raised taxes, withdrew from Lebanon, hated war, and tried to abolish all nuclear weapons on earth. The first Bush was an under-rated deficit-cutter and diplomat, a legacy doubly squandered by his son.
“Now it's . . . either total freedom or complete slavery and a rhetorical war based entirely on that binary ideological spectrum. In other words, ideological performance art: brain-dead, unaware of history, uninterested in policy detail, bored by empiricism, motivated primarily by sophistry, Manicheanism, and factional hatred. This is not without exceptions. Douthat, Brooks, Zakaria, Bacevich, Bartlett, Frum, Manzi, Salam, Lomborg, MacDonald, et al. are still thinking. It's just that many of them are now deemed - absurdly - to be liberals. And none will have or does have any real impact on the base of the party.”
Yes, I profit from reading some of the writers mentioned by Sullivan above, and a few others, but I don’t find that they add up to anything like the coherent body of doctrine I discovered in that apartment in SF (of all places) so many years ago.
PS. One minor caveat: I think it's time to retire the crooked-timber metaphor that Isaiah Berlin purloined from Kant. Since the introduction of modern sawmills in the 1840s, timber has not been crooked. Resorting to stale metaphors is, as Orwell noted, usually an indicator that more careful thinking needs to be done. Since Sullivan and I agree that there can be no playing of "Happy Days Are Here Again," no return to the old pieties of standard-issue liberalism, it appears that really A LOT of thinking is called for. This old brain boggles, but I would hope that others will come forward to address the task.