Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Meaning of Conservatism and the Republican Crack-up

If anyone was wondering why the volume of posting on the Daily Duck hasn't picked up with the New Year, as promised, then one explanation is that I've been spending a lot of time debating Joe Carter and others at Evangelical Outpost over the conservative bona fides, or lack thereof, of Joe's candidate Mike Huckabee, and what it means to call oneself a conservative.

Joe started with an attempt to identify some original, defining event in conservatism which we could all turn back to to measure our own conservative principles against:
Herein lies another difficulty: Too many of us believe that conservatism began with Goldwater and ended with Reagan. Although these men were indispensable towering figures of the "conservative movement", they are not the sole actors that have shaped our heritage (indeed, one of them wasn't a conservative at all).

As for the "leading conservative thinkers", most of us are wholly unfamiliar with Edmund Burke, Richard Weaver, Abraham Kuyper, T.S. Eliot, or Erick Voegelin. Instead we learn about "conservative thought" from talk radio(!).

To which I replied:
Joe, there was no "original meaning", just a series of interrelated theories and opinions through time. Conservatism wasn't handed down on carved tablets from God.

Funny that you would include Richard Weaver. Weaver thought that the decline of the West began with the triumph of Nominalism over Realism, going back to the days of William of Ockham. So all the accomplishments of western science and learning that developed in its wake is a sign of decadence. He pegged the downfall of music with Beethoven, not jazz or swing. You don't get any more paleo than that. His ideal for society was the antebellum South. So how do you reconcile such a figure as Weaver, who had no problem with slavery, with your family first conservatism that takes the dignity of every human being as a first principle?

Joe is posting his thoughts on other brands of conservatism, including Family First Conservatism, Waughian Conservatism and Sullivanism.

I don't think you can define conservatism as a particular political philosophy, but more as a philosophical temperament. It can't be defined out of the context of the social and political values that one chooses to conserve. Likewise Liberalism. One temperament looks to limit change, one seeks change as an end in itself.

As many people have observed, when such temperaments are expressed in their extreme measure they tend to resemble each other. Take the example of the extreme paleo-conservative that I identified with respect to Richard Weaver above, who wrote the book which many consider to be the conservative Bible "Ideas Have Consequences". His strain of anti-modern traditionalism is reflected in the Agrarian School, and their contemporary offspring, the Crunchy Conservatives.

Weaver's conservatism is not so much a desire to preserve the status quo as it is a call to restore a past tradition that has been lost. But overthrowing the status quo to restore a past order is a revolutionary, not a conservative, act. It's a "back to the future", or more accurately a "forward to the past" scenario. So it isn't surprising to notice how much the Crunchy Con Manifesto resembles the liberal litany:
1. We are conservatives who stand outside the conservative mainstream; therefore, we can see things that matter more clearly.

2. Modern conservatism has become too focused on money, power, and the accumulation of stuff, and insufficiently concerned with the content of our individual and social character.

3. Big business deserves as much skepticism as big government.

4. Culture is more important than politics and economics.

5. A conservatism that does not practice restraint, humility, and good stewardship—especially of the natural world—is not fundamentally conservative.

6. Small, Local, Old, and Particular are almost always better than Big, Global, New, and Abstract.

7. Beauty is more important than efficiency.

8. The relentlessness of media-driven pop culture deadens our senses to authentic truth, beauty, and wisdom.

9. We share Russell Kirk’s conviction that “the institution most essential to conserve is the family.”

10. Politics and economics won’t save us; if our culture is to be saved at all, it will be by faithfully living by the Permanent Things, conserving these ancient moral truths in the choices we make in our everyday lives.

Which brings us to the present crack-up of the Republican party. The much vaunted Reagan Coalition of Neo-Conservatives, Religious/Social Conservatives and Economic/Small Government Conservatives and Libertarians has run its course. The early Republican primary successes of Mike Huckabee, a Social Conservative/Populist in the Crunchy Con mold, and John McCain, who is more like a Scoop Jackson Democrat than a Reagan Republican, forebode a major reordering of the political landscape for conservatives. The political pundits, by their abysmal failure to predict the rise of Huckabee and McCain, as well as their total cluelessness in calling the results of the early primaries, have underlined the magnitude of the shifts in the political landscape that are underway in this election cycle. The results will be interesting, but as the ancient Chinese wise men knew, living in interesting times is no blessing.


Blogger Ali said...

I wouldn't call it a crack-up. The mud-slinging so far has mostly been limited to the candidates' own records. Everyone running knows they can't afford to seriously annoy any one GOP constituency if they're to win in November.

January 19, 2008 8:07 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Hi Ali,

I think its different this cycle. For one thing, the Reagan Coalition is long in the tooth. It's been 28 years since Reagan's election. That's the age of a generation. There will be voters in this election who were born after he left office. Voters who were born after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

After spending time at Evangelical Outpost I'm realizing that the rise of Huckabee is more due to his appeal to younger evangelicals. None of the "establishment" Christian Conservative activists support him. The older evangelicals are locked into the Reagan Coalition. The younger ones aren't. They're less hawkish and less concerned with small government. They want more of a populist, activist Christian leadership - Compassionate Conservatism. They are also very identity conscious, very distrustful of the Republican "establishment".

I can see many of these younger evangelical voters sitting out the election if Huckabee isn't the nominee. And if Huckabee is the nominee, then there are a whole lot of Reagan Republicans who will sit it out - including me.

I think that we will see a Democrat win the presidency this year, and with it the Republicans will be a minority in both branches of government. It will be the second bookend on the Reagan coalition.

January 19, 2008 8:56 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

'One temperament looks to limit change, one seeks change as an end in itself.'

True enough, but American politics is a funny animal. I certainly have no difficulty sorting conservatives from liberals in a European context.

America started as a radical revolutionary government, the most abrupt shift in history. We are supposed to think, and I do think, it was the best system yet devised.

So, we want to conserve the good parts, no? Yes. Does that make me a conservative?

Sorta, but my orientation is classical Liberalism -- I am not interested in change for change's sake.

I am antimonarchical, antiaristocratic, egalitarian, antislavery, irreligious (personally but in this context governmentally is what counts), proprivate property, proexperimental knowledge. All that sort of stuff.

That makes it hard to find a party to feel comfortable in.

As for being surprised by McCain or Huckabee: I think the appeal of McCain has been the same right along. Whether the pundits recognized that or not, I cannot tell. I tend to think they discounted his ability to come back because they thought he couldn't raise money and because of his age.(How quickly they forget how Reagan advanced and how old he was when he did it.)

That Huckabee would be the standard bearer of the Christian bigots was unpredictable. That the bigots would have a standard bearer in the GOP was a given. They always do: Robertson, Buchanan.

January 19, 2008 11:27 AM  

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