Sam Tannenhaus has a piece on ‘The New Republic’ site: “Conservatism is Dead”, in the February 18, 2009 issue.
I’d mentioned not long ago that there is a movement among formerly ‘liberal’ (and I don’t think it’s an accurate moniker) publications that had since Bush’s or even Reagan’s accession cozied up to the Right: now they’re trying to make nice.
In this instance TNR will demonstrate its bona-fides by declaring ‘conservatism’ dead .
Tannenhaus mentions “the harshly punitive ‘culture wars’ waged against liberal ‘elites’”. I hold not brief for the Right, but how anybody can read the writings of the Second Wave in its heyday, or the extensively (if incoherently) laid out plans of John Rawls for ‘elites’ and their judicial allies to trump constitutional rights … how can anybody read that and not imagine that ‘war’ was implemented, if not declared, by the ‘liberal elites’ (not my term) long before somebody on the Right in the early 1990s actually adopted Bismarck’s ‘culture war’ phrase and tacked it onto what had been underway here for almost a quarter of a century? All those Reagan Democrats started voting for Reagan as early as ’76, and certainly ’80 … so they, at least, realized something was up all the way back then.
Anyhoo, my main purpose here is not to refute this or that in Tannenhaus, whose article offers much food for thought.
He mentions Edmund Burke, whose conservatism was based “not on a particular set of ideological principles but rather on distrust of all ideologies”. Two points come to mind.
First, I’m not sure it’s the ‘ideology’ that’s the problem; I think it’s the ‘ideological mindset’ in human beings that will raise up any set of ideas as a conceptual Golden Calf and thence engage in the most regressive and primitive rigidities and immaturity of thought (and action, oy) in order to sustain their Bubble as to that ideology’s omnipotence. Inside every human there is a reptilian and primitive element waiting to be allowed to be given the steering wheel and take itself out on the highway. Inside every society there is a herd waiting to be allowed to shuffle around in a bunch and perhaps stampede.
This is not a proof for the fatuity of a democratic politics, or a genuine conservatism, or a genuine liberalism, but rather a proof for the importance of a democratic politics. If a deliberative citizenry does not support itself as a commonality and its individual members, by its adherence to reasonable, deliberative processes, then it will undermine itself even as it allows its individual members to yield to more primitive processes.
Second, while ‘ideology’ is indeed something to be avoided, that does not mean that human beings, or a polity, especially a democratic polity, can dispense with an overarching and undergirding consensus, a web of (provisionally but purposely ‘privileged’) ‘answers’ to those burning questions at the heart of the human enterprise, which lie beyond the scope of governmental policy or ‘scientific’ proof. Perhaps, in America’s case, built upon the Christian (not in the Fundamentalist but in the classic sense) worldview.
If the citizens as human beings are not grounded in some Beyond, then they will be at the mercy of any ‘government’ and its ‘elites’ (of Left or Right or both). A citizenry cannot function as The People if it is not first grounded in something Beyond the government it is supposed to manage. If citizens are not grounded in an adequately comprehensive Sense of their own nature as human beings, then they cannot with any hope of success function as The People. Hence the de-Godding pursued by the Left for the past umpty years has proven even more lethal than the repellent ‘Godding’ pushed by the god-addled, powers-that-be worshipping Fundamentalist Ascendancy.
Tannenhaus notes acutely that “most of the most sophisticated founders of postwar conservatism were in many instances ex-Marxists, who moved from left to right but remained persuaded that they were living in revolutionary times and so retained their absolutist fervor”.
I’ve always been suspicious of persons who were once rabidly ‘A’ and then suddenly were rabidly ‘anti-A’ without any pause for serious inward thought. The Nazi judge, Roland Freisler, great proponent of ‘the law at war’ – that concept that he used to justify doing whatever the regime wanted – has always frightened me: he had been a rabid Communist one month and the next was a rabid Nazi, and such a profound and utter change, instantaneous, gave him not pause for thought or doubt at all. People like that, even more than ‘revolutionaries’, seem to me to be possessed of a profound interior moltenness that betokens unboundaried and rabid ‘enthusiasm’ for whatever catches their devotion.
And then of course there are all those first-generation neocons of the 1960s who were 'former' Communists and Leftists who suddenly became avowed right-wingers and 'conservatives', bringing their 'revolutionary' mindset and heartset to the Republican-conservative camp.
Such persons as Tannenhaus describes are also indeed ‘revolutionaries’ – by temperament. They ‘need’ revolutionary activity in order to feel alive; they need to see themselves as ‘being in’ a revolution in order to feel any meaning or purpose; they aren’t reluctant revolutionaries – adults with otherwise successful lives who must for a while put away such things for the sake of a cause. Rather, the ‘temperamental revolutionary’ needs to structure all experience as ‘revolution’ – with him or herself involved in the thick of it – simply in order to maintain a coherent sense of self and of life-purpose.
Too many of this type of folks are not healthy for a democratic politics. And for a democracy to ‘valorize’ and ‘privilege’ this type – under the aegis of Left or of Right – is not going to end well. And for a democracy to de-valorize less arbitrary and ‘excitable’ types as insufficiently ‘sensitive’ or insufficiently ‘patriotic’ is also not going to end well at all.
So you can see where things went seriously awry in the mid-Sixties: both the non-conformist sex-and-luhv googoos of the Flowery counterculture and the fire-eyed ‘revolutionaries’ of the SDS (whose female contingent later split and went into feminism proper), held themselves as far more ‘alive’ than the fuddy-duddies of the ‘50s and before. And they both did not so much refuel a flagging democracy as provide a violent explosive super-burst that made it impossible to steer the thing at all. But that was OK – ‘steering’ was for fogies. It was about this time that America, I would say, ceased to be a ‘serious’ nation. And, really, how can it be said that We have since recovered?
So from the 'Left' you had revolutionary mindset, heartset, praxis, and agenda masquerading as 'liberal' and as 'liberation', and on the Right you had the former Reds of the 1930s with their revolutionary mindset, heartset, praxis, and agenda. What chance did a dem,ocratic politics have once that toxic synergy and feedback-loop got started?
Tannenhaus also notes Burke’s insightful point that “The task of the statesman is to maintain equilibrium between the two principles of conservation and correction”. Alas, the Dems were in no condition to maintain equilibrium, vote-addled as they were in the later Sixties, and by the time they realized just what it meant to be supporting ‘revolution’, it was too late to back out.
Hence, in my vision of things, they took to pandering to the revolutionaries (and their Identities) while enwhoring themselves to the corporate biggies who paid into the PACs and who represented the only chance of keeping up at least the appearances of a functioning economy, especially since the postwar economic hegemony was fading by the early Seventies and nobody knew how to hang onto it or revive it. The Identities were given the Bubble of ‘the dream’, the corporate biggies were allowed to start running economic Bubbles, the citizenry were lulled with the trickle-down effect of these Bubbles, and the whole country was Bubble-icious for a couple of decades. And now at least one of those Bubbles has burst.
Which perhaps might start a trend. It is to be hoped.
“Movement politics” – the earlier euphemism for ‘revolutionary politics’ which was later replaced by Identity Politics – “most clearly defines itself not by what it years to conserve but by what it longs to destroy”. Yes. And this is not the spirit best suited to a democratic politics. Which is why We are seeing and feeling less and less democratic politics, and have been doing so for quite some time. If you get the sense that the trusty old institutions and processes you learned about from American history are no longer ‘working’, well – it’s true. But there’s no mystery about it: We no longer have a working democratic politics and working democratic institutions because ‘revolution’ and ‘movement politics’ became the order of the day decades ago.
And while few of the pols on Capitol Hill are ‘revolutionaries’, they are all pols and they have learned – several generations of them now – to ‘pander’ to ‘revolutionary dreams’ (even as they do whatever it takes to protect those corporate biggies who pay into the PACs).
Wanting to ‘destroy’ things is not something that occurs naturally in a democratic politics. It occurs in imperial politics and revolutionary politics … and so again We can see that democracy has been taking torpedoes on both sides for a long time now. And why it was so easy for this country to slide into its lethal frakkery on the Eastern Front: there was no ‘opposition’ because there was no opposition party, let alone anybody among the pols who still operated on ‘principles’, those things pooh-poohed both by chicken-hawk ‘realists’ and by the cadres of the Second Wave and their spawn. Feh.
William F. Buckley, Jr.’s self-assumption of the term “radical conservative” was not helpful. If he meant ‘radical’ in the classical, Latin sense – from the roots or fundamental – then he might have been OK, so long as he didn’t imagine that being so close to the ‘source’ deputized him to break any laws or principles of thought or decency in order to achieve his goals. But in any case, the word ‘radical’ by the mid-Sixties was simply a lazy way of saying ‘revolutionary’, and that was a reality nobody wanted to really face up to.
In that regard, I can’t help thinking of the movers and shakers of Germany there in the early ‘30s, barons and capitalists and business moguls and so forth, all convincing themselves that Hitler wouldn’t be so bad – even if he had been talking about ‘socialism’ and ‘revolution’ – because they could handle him, could manage him; ‘We’, said Franz von Papen, ‘are hiring him’. Yah. That worked so well.
Conservatism, as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. pointed out, was originally concerned “for the social and moral costs of unchecked industrial capitalism”. It had a sense that government had a responsibility – one might almost say a God-given responsibility – to care for its people; in England, certainly, this was a characteristic charge assumed from the monarchy by the Parliamentary power as England’s political governance changed, and not a bad one. And as devious and shrewd as they were – Disraeli and Shaftesbury and others – they still held themselves as ‘Christian gentlemen’ and as responsible before God. Nor were those empty words.
We’ve come a long way. And not the good way. Instead, the Beltway. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)
“Do the institutions of the state provide the bedrock of civil society?” This was the question the conservatives asked in the mid-Sixties. No doubt, humanity made great strides 10,000 years ago when it had sufficiently mastered the ability to provide food and shelter, and even a little extra; with those essential necessities provided, and the anxieties as to their lack receded into the background, amazing developments began to blossom.
So there is a sense in which the stable maintenance of necessities and the sustaining of both a sufficient stability to assure reliability and a sufficient flexibility to assure change safely, are necessary for the further flourishing of a society.
But those things are not sufficient in and of themselves to generate or nurture that flourishing. Human beings rely on their government, but they can neither be reduced to complete identification with their government or defined by their government.
The danger of the increasingly centralized and involved government is that it will get the idea that it is the source and origin of all its people’s lives. Instead of being their servant it will become their master.
How the Right is going to recapture the sense of responsibility before God for the moral and social welfare of the citizenry while retaining its clubby and cozy connections with the financial elites is as difficult a question as how the Left is going to seek better conditions for the whole citizenry without alienating the Identity bases with which it is now ensnared.
If neither Party is going to be able to solve its problem , then We are going to have to come up with another Party.
While We've still got a country.