Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Real conservatism is not wrong

A theme for opinion pieces that got its start in 2015 - namely, what Trump is doing to conservatism - has taken on new contours now that we have a few months of an actual Trump administration under our belts. These contours have been sharpened a bit in the wake of DJT's blatant middle finger to McConnell and Ryan in the debt-ceiling meeting, at which he went for the Schumer-Pelosi proposal without so much as one counter-volley that would have made it an actual negotiation.

Two of the most recent pieces I've seen, which come to the same assessment, that conservatism has been marginalized as it hasn't been since perhaps before the 1952 publication of Buckley's God and Man at Yale, are penned by observers with markedly different biases.

Will Rahn of CBS News is a classic Acela-corridor news-media careerist, with all that that entails. In short, he is noting a phenomenon in his latest column, but not with any wistfulness. In fact, there's a readily discernible I-told-you-it-was-destined-for-the-sidelines tone to it:

The most overrepresented ideology in American politics today is conservatism. You see conservatives everywhere: on cable news, in opinion columns, in their magazines and most importantly in Congress. But as Donald Trump continues to show us, conservatism is at best a marginal ideology, a very junior partner in the GOP it once controlled. 
The Republican civil war is over, and the conservatives lost. We saw yet more evidence of their defeat last week, when Trump sided with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer over the debt ceiling. This is now the Party of Trump, and its dominant ideology is a right-wing populism that puts the emphasis on style and not substance. 
Trump will make deals with the Democrats when he can and he finds it expedient. He'll indulge in some ideological adventurism on economic issues because he knows his voters will back him up. The much-heralded Republican resistance to Trump in Congress will remain small and ineffective when it comes to obstructing his agenda, regardless of how many op-eds dissident senators publish in the Washington Post.
At NRO, Jonathan S. Tobin has much the same set of circumstances to report, albeit from the other side of the spectrum, the side that Rahn sees as being regarded with overinflated relevance.

rump’s not becoming an independent. His deals with Democrats and Bannon’s threats are signs that the hostile takeover of the GOP is just getting started. There is no precedent for President Trump’s political maneuverings at the expense of his own party. Only a president with no longstanding ties to the GOP or political experience would have even considered something like his astonishing ambush of the Republican congressional leadership last week, in which Trump cut a deal with the Democrats at the expense of his supposed allies.

Tobin's point is that rather than an obliteration of the two-party system, the Trump phenomenon represents the transformation of the Republican Party.

It's been transformed before. The most obvious and recent example was the Reagan groundswell, which, as it built to the moment when it gave birth to Reagan's actual presidency, posed a threat to the status quo which GOP power-brokers had a vested interest in protecting. Recall the tension at the 1976 convention, and how uneasy party leaders were about the prospect of Reagan upsetting the Ford coronation.

The 1980 coalition that sealed the deal was really pretty precarious, a coming-together of free-market champions, devout Christians concerned about what has come to be called "social issues," the policy leaders whose focus was Communism (a component of the coalition that brought a number of former Democrats, most of them New York Jewish intellectuals, but also including some Catholics and others into the fold), and still-Democrat union members.

Go back twenty-five years from that, to the original coalescing of the modern conservative movement, and you see a similarly fragile coalition, some elements of which eventually had to be told, as tactfully as possible, that they didn't fit - namely, Objectivists and the John Birch Society.

So the evolution of a movement is one way to look at how the definition of this term, conservatism, got honed and distilled over the years.

I'm starting to consider that this emphasis on "movement," however, has a couple of problems that don't serve conservatism, when considered as a worldview (that it behooves anybody and everybody to embrace). For one thing, efforts over the years to shore the movement up, to optimize its cohesiveness, have often been really boneheaded in tone (not unlike the boneheadedness at the core of Trumpism). Secondly, it lends itself to tribalism, to an overemphasis on jockeying for position in the political realm, and therefore obsession with poll numbers and myopic focus on particular issues.

The coalitions that led to the growth and success of conservatism as a movement may have been tenuously holding together disparate elements of various inclinations, but there is a worldview called conservatism the facets of which are quite unified into a whole that makes imminent sense. We know the heritage: John Locke, Edmund Burke, Frederic Bastiat, Richard Weaver, Albert Jay Nock, James Burnham, Russell Kirk.

I've laid out the three pillars of conservatism as I articulate them before, and it's probably useful to repeat them here:

1.) Free-market economics, which begins with the premise that a good or service is worth what buyer and seller agree that it is worth - period. No other party has any business being involved in that agreement - certainly not government.

2.) An understanding that Western civilization has been a unique blessing to humankind. (Judeo-Christian morality, Greco-Roman model of representative democracy, the great scientific and artistic achievements.)

3.) A foreign policy based on what history tells us about human nature. This plays itself out as our allies knowing we have their backs, our adversaries respecting us, and our enemies fearing us.

These encompass pretty much anything one would go on to say in an effort to flesh out the picture, but some fleshing out is useful indeed.

For starters, on the level of personal conduct, conservatism is about decorum, a sense of propriety, the cultivation of gracious engagement with fellow human beings. I don't doubt that this is why, from a popular-culture standpoint, conservatives are often regarded as hopeless squares.

There's also the way conservatism resolves the tension between freedom and reverence. I realize that certain figures have, at least apparently, successfully crafted a conservative foundation for themselves while holding fast to the claim of being atheists, but they pay homage to an actual religious premise by their lauding of the traditions and institutions we all agree are vital to Western civilization.

The conservative puts freedom front and center among the values he or she embraces, but believes that a person ought to rely on providential guidance in the use of his or her freedom. John Adams's insistence that the American Constitutional form of government is of no use to anyone other than a moral people regularly consulting God applies here.

There's also conservatism's instinctual wariness of collectivism. Any kind of ideology that sets great store by some kind of "common good" is going to wind up imposing someone's will on the rest of us. We've seen it over and over again.

I don't doubt Tobin's conclusion that the Republican Party is going to look a lot different in the wake of the Trump phenomenon, and, as much as I don't want to agree with Rahn, he's probably not wrong that conservatives have been marginalized. (I do take exception to the permanence he ascribes to that.)

But, with everybody who wears the conservative label wondering what happens on the movement level, and what the political-prospects for that movement can possibly be, I would offer the worldview that gives life to the movement as a ray of hope.

For one thing, conservatism is correct about everything. It is the answer to the questions that perpetually vex our species.

And because it is so, it finds itself in reaction mode to the cacophony of erroneous and dangerous ideologies that so much of the world finds attractive.

We find ourselves much of the time in the position of pointing out what runs counter to the making of a happy, productive, advanced, free society that pleases God.

Omitting God from human life is wrong. Collectivism is wrong. Deigning to ignore the natural design of the universe is wrong.

I briefly considered that my purpose here was to fend off the despair that might come with a full realization of the point Tobin, Rahn and many others are making. But I have rejected that.

Here's why: none of these other ways of proceeding work. Identity politics doesn't work. Denial of the male-female duality that characterizes the human race and indeed most species doesn't work. Making "rights" out of things that by definition can't be a right, such as health-care care or a job, doesn't work. Searching for "lasting peace" on the world stage doesn't work.

Most relevantly to the present moment, the incoherence of Trumpism doesn't work.

So hang in there. It isn't pretty to watch flawed worldviews get disproved, but it tempers the essence of what we know, and what, eventually, will be once again realized by enough people that sunnier days will prevail again.

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