Friday, June 17, 2011

Sullivan and the strange death of conservatism

Andrew Sullivan is a thinker I admire very much, not least for his ability to change his mind, as in the matter of the Iraq War, which he once fervently supported. Of more fundamental importance, perhaps, has been his agonizing reappraisal of what conservatism has become in this country,

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

“ . . . 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.



Blogger Burk Braun said...

Thanks again...

I think a key point is that reality is more complicated than the homo economicus so beloved of today's conservatives. Their model is that greed is good, and those who are greediest and most successful at greed are to be feted (CEOs). They are giving the most to society, by their economic success.

In reality, however, it turns out that they are not at all, and brought about terrible bankrupcy, and that the economic inequality so prized by today's conservatives is deeply corrosive to society generally.

I am reading "bowling alone" at the moment, which is part of a large trend of research that says that reality for humans is more than greed and me-ism. We are social species, with natural inclinations to altruism as well as greed. Founding a social system entirely on atomistic greed will end in tears. We also need and want to build community and social supports.

An important ingredient in this is some mechanism to create economic egalitarianism. The most healthy and happy societies the world over are those that are more equal. One doesn't want to do it by totalitarian fiat. One mechanism in the ancient world was the competition for glory and gifts to the common good. That doesn't seem to be as practical today. But some mechanism needs to be found, so that we become again a cohesive society all pulling in the same direction.

9:02 AM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

These comments are interesting, Burk Braun, but I don't think that they reflect (if you'll excuse my saying so) any thorough study of libertarian and conservative thought, which cannot be reduced to the Gordon Gecco bumpersticker of "greed is good."

Many libertarians emphasize the importance of forming associations, stressing that this is a natural human function that needs to be given full play.

Economic inequality is a serious problem in this country. But devising a mechanism to "create economic egalitarianism" doesn't fit the bill. You say "the most healthy and happy societies the world over are those that are more equal." Some are and some are not: in Burma wealth is supposed to be capped so that the richest person can only earn three times as much as the poorest person. Burma is not a happy place.

As for the Bowling Alone book, its thesis has been refuted in my own experience. Some years ago I had to stop going to various organizations I belonged to because they were taking up too much of my time. That problem was discussed a hundred and twenty years ago by Oscar Wilde in "The Soul of Man under Socialism." To be sure the new organizations, focusing on feminism, ecology, gay rights and so forth, are not the Kiwanis Club, but they do show that people are still capable of organizing spontaneously for social change. I used to run one such org myself.

9:52 AM  
Blogger Burk Braun said...

Let me reply in a couple of ways. That you ran out of time is hardly a refutation of the value of social capital, which is the general thesis of Putnam.

Secondly, the greed is good mantra is simply a marker for the general philosophical position that specially valorizes freedom, independence, autonomy. That conservatives are "for" association and community is very nice. The question is whether their philosophy in practice actually leads to what they putatively favor.

It does not. The prime focus of conservative freedom has been to unleash corporations from government regulation, and rich from taxation and other impingements on their freedom to use their money and power as they wish. What they typically wish is to use their money to gain more money and power, leading to the current income and wealth inequality.

It has also led to the rampant fraud in the financial industry that led to the current crisis. It has also led to the profusion of "choice" on the cable and TV dial which does little more than rot minds as it advertises the virtues of corporations.

Citing Burma does not, as you will surely understand, amount to a counter-argument. How about citing societies that have democratic government, but less inequality? The correlation (i.e. data, rather than anecdote) overall is strongly towards the egalitarian countries being happier.. other things equal.

The issue is whether one of the communities we are members of- the national political and governmental community- is sovereign to promote the public welfare, which sometimes runs against the atomistic philosophy and corrupt practices of conservative ideology. Such things as public media, public support for arts, public management of economic conditions, not only on behalf of the rich and financial sector, and public promotion of education .. and on and on. There are many communitarian needs and necessary public goods that the private sector and even benevolent rich (for community) philanthropists do not achieve.

Public management is surely subject to its own corruptions and problems. So the question is which is the greater evil, in any particular case, and how can each be managed to best effect. My basic case is that Sullivan is very correct to call for more balance, and especially on the issue of wealth inequality, which is the conservative ideology's crowning achievement.

10:58 AM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

I don't disagree with most of this--except for one thing.

Whaddaya mean wid this "bowling alone" stuff. Haven't you seen "The Big Lubowski"?

Seriously, maybe there is a problem here: some group activities are just not that rewarding. And time spent alone can be essential in its own way. This afternoon I went all by myself to see "The Tree of Life." That was a profound experience of a kind that no starchy public meeting can provide.

3:42 PM  
Blogger Burk Braun said...

I completely agree- there is plenty of importance to the individual artist and solitude and so forth. Even buddhist meditation. But the buddhists have their sangha as well to complement the solitary practice.

All Putnam was saying was that, over the last half century, our overall level of sociability has declined, resulting in many bad effects, like worse health than we would otherwise have, idiotic politics, weaker communities, worse education, etc... the list goes on. The typical solitary person in Peoria isn't painting landscapes, they are watching TV when they used to participate in bridge clubs, knights of Columbus, church, and the KKK. As you say, it was not all so great. At any rate, it is not clear that the internet really makes up for this particular loss, though these blog discussions are quite delightful!

4:20 PM  
Anonymous said...

Quite worthwhile material, thank you for the post.

1:56 AM  

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