Saturday, October 6, 2007

The Problem With Conservatives

Did anyone else read that opinion piece by David Brooks in the NYT today (Friday)? I thought it was pretty good. It’s not really anything new, per se, and I know that articles on how the current trend of mainstream conservatism in the United States is betraying conservative roots are about a dime a dozen. However, rarely do these pieces really delve into where the roots of conservatism lay short of digging up the corpse of Ronald Reagan or diving into some quasi-anarchist-libertarian tirade.

I’ve never really considered myself a conservative, in any sense of the word. I like Locke and Rousseau when it comes to the classical liberal-conservative schism, and I like New Deal Welfare Liberalism over Herbert Hoover stand-offish neo-liberalism (i.e. “small government” Reagan/Thatcher rugged individualism). However, I think there’s an important role to play for classically conservative (and hell, maybe even neo-liberal) factions when it comes to developing public policy. As much as I prefer progressivism as a general rule, the restraint offered by Burke and Oakeshott do, I think, provide a framework for maintaining a “steady ship of state” and “strong social fabric.” While Burke is a little too elitist (and generally undemocratic) for me, and Oakeshott defends the status quo, I think, to a fault, it is important to remember that if something “ain’t broke” one shouldn’t try to fix it.

The problem with Republicans, though, according to Brooks and, as he points out, Andrew Sullivan, George Will, and William F. Buckley, is that they have forgotten what it means to be a conservative. Instead of focusing on steadying the nation (and indeed, touting the idea of an American nation), they have adopted revolutionary methods to effect change, no matter the possible negative externalities. It’s too bad, really, because when one half of the political culture goes bat shit, it bodes poorly for the entire polity. But, I suppose, that’s what happens when the Republican leadership refuses to challenge the neoconservative factions lead by Bill Kristol, and that nut job Norman Podhoretz.

I think, though, that one of Brooks’ more significant points is when he points to the creedalization of conservatism in America:

When conservatism came to America, it became creedal. Free market conservatives
built a creed around freedom and capitalism. Religious conservatives built a
creed around their conception of a transcendent order. Neoconservatives and
others built a creed around the words of Lincoln and the founders.

The problem with creeds, though, is that they are non-negotiable. Conservatives have made every point of policy these days a part of their most basic political philosophies; they’ve elevated these policy positions to a religious status. It’s no longer a matter of debating the most efficient income tax rate to promote responsible public budgeting while giving the middle-class room to grow. Tax policy has become a commandment: thou shall not progressively tax, for it is the flat tax which pleases Steve Forbes. Everything is a fight to the death; everything is about undercutting substantive fairness. Nothing about the modern conservative movement touts incremental change – start wars to (ostensibly) promote democracy, or trade, or to open new markets, over turn 50 years of racial integration policy in one fell swoop, and deport 12 million human beings who are integrated into our communities, society, and economy.

While I empathize with Andrew Sullivan in this regard, that’s what happens when one fails to balance principles and convictions with political success and party identification. We progressives, though, would do well to remember that as we select our nominee for 2008.

(Hat Tip: Tzepish)

Note: I had some problems posting this the first time. The time stamp reflects the updated version.