Saturday, November 11, 2006

Liberalism is the "True Conservatism"

(Begun in mid-October. Completed today.)

Ever since the Bush regime began noticeably sputtering near the beginning of its second term, a growing chorus of conservative voices has grown increasingly distressed, and as it has seemed that Bush’s failures would come to tar an entire movement, the cry has increasingly gone forth that Bush is not a “true conservative.” There is a problem in that claim, of course: it was not Bush alone, but his entire Administration, and the Republican majority in Congress, and at times a majority of conservative court appointees as well who were jointly responsible for the increasingly disastrous direction that the country has taken. If Bush was not a “true conservative,” then neither, one would think, were any of the other major players in the conservative movement of the past 30-plus years.

Absurd!

Or is it?

The rhetoric of “personal responsibility” has never applied to movement conservatives themselves. It’s always been for other people. The same is true of “fiscal conservatism”—no one can unbalance a budget like Ronald Reagan and the two Bushes, but let a Democrat, like Bill Clinton, take the helm, and watch out! Fiscal conservatism is back with a vengeance. Judicial restraint is similarly “for liberals only,” as a study of Supreme Court decisions showed the conservatives far more willing to overturn laws than their moderate brethren (rhetoric aside, there are no true liberals left on the court.) Conservatives have not lived up to their rhetoric in a long, long time.

But aside from such signature rallying cries, there is something much deeper going on, something not merely of the moment, or even of a generation, but something fundamental about the very essence of the liberal project and the conservative opposition over the past 500 years. Throughout this period—and one can go back even further, to the Italian Renaissance—conservatives have attacked liberals for undermining the established social order. Liberals, of course, have not seen things that way—with rare, but important exceptions, such as overthrowing the established social order of British colonial rule over the American colonies, or overthrowing the established social order of slavery.

Generally, however, liberals have cared less about the social order, and more about people themselves; and for this reason they have not generally engaged in directly countering the conservative critique. This is quite understandable, really. For conservatives, the social order is much more real than individual people are. For liberals, the reverse is true. And both sides naturally express themselves in terms of what is most real to them.

Yet, in doing so, liberals have made a significant mistake, for the liberal philosophy is actually far superior to conservative alternatives when it comes to a number of key conservative ideals. For example, liberalism is superior in preserving social order and harmony in a dynamically changing, and diverse world—a world in which traditional structures commonly fail, causing widespread chaos and strife. Liberalism is not the cause of such change—as conservatives commonly allege—but rather its facilitator, providing means of managing change so intense that it would otherwise tear societies apart. A prime example is the idea of a modern secular state has proven fundamentally important in putting an end to religious wars, which otherwise threaten perpetual strife.

Of course, liberal ideas do encourage individuals to live their own lives, and claim autonomy, rather then defer blindly to tradition, and to this extent—in a wide array of situations—liberalism certainly does promote change, rather than social stability. But promoting change is not the same as causing it, and a view that is solely based on individuals cannot comprehend the larger forces of history into which individuals are born.

There is nothing new in the human desire for autonomy, nor in rebellion against the dead hand of the past. What is new—as of about 500 years ago—is the pace of historical change, driven by trade, technology and population growth... not political philosophy.

Although liberalism and conservatism have taken various different forms in different lands at different times, there are at least two core constants that seem to endure: (1) Liberals favor broad social equality, while conservatives favor hierarchy. (2) Liberals favor social progress—expanding social equality—while conservatives favor the status quo, in the form of existing hierarchies, or even arguing for a return to earlier times, when they fear existing hierarchies are themselves corrupt.

As wave after wave of liberal reform has established new sorts of rights and/or rights holders, conservative ideology has been reconfigured to normalize what it previously had denounced as socially destructive—religious freedom, competitive markets, free speech, democracy, racial equality, etc. Thus, conservative ideology is riven with deep discontinuities, papered over by apologists and rhetoricians—explaining away past support for slavery and segregation, for example—while liberalism has a fundamental continuity to it, with changes consisting of pragmatic adjustments to new situations and challenges, or to recognizing and redressing previous contradictions.

In the Washington Monthly last summer, Alan Wolfe wrote an article, “Why Conservatives Can't Govern” that summarized the conservative’s historical dilemma in America:
Odd men out in America's liberal political culture, America's conservatives were never very unified. Alexander Hamilton and John Marshall wanted to see a strong national government created to improve America's economic prospects, even if they retained an aristocratic sense that only social superiors should control that government. (John Adams outdid them on behalf of a strong executive; he thought our first president should be addressed as a monarch). But this kind of New England Federalism would go into abeyance once America's democratizing forces were unleashed. Others insisted that this country should embody timeless Christian principles; they, however, soon ran up against the skepticism of the Founding Fathers and conceptions of religious liberty associated with dissenting Protestantism. With the decline of both, the only significant conservatism left would come from defenders of slavery such as John C. Calhoun. Once the advocate of a strong national government, Calhoun, putting the rights of slaveholders first, viewed this country as a compact among states, not as a unified society. His ideas would live on in the voices of those thinkers, primarily Southern, who objected to relying on national power to promote equal rights for all.

As this litany of lost causes suggests, our conservatives, while representing different regions and economic interests, were united by their irrelevance in the face of history. If the term reactionary is too pejorative, let's call them reactive. In this entrepreneurial, mobile, innovative, and individualistic country, conservatism was constantly on the defensive, aiming to preserve things--deference, reverence, and diffidence, to name three--that most Americans were anxious to shed. Deprived of both a church and state to defend, American conservatives became advocates for privileges determined by birth, suffrage restricted to an elite, and rural virtues over urban realities.

And so conservatives faced a dilemma from the moment the first shots were heard around the world. They could be true to their ideals and stand on the sidelines of political power. Or they could adjust their principles in the interests of political realism and thus negate the essential conservative teaching that principles are meant to be timeless. All the conservatives that played any role in America's history since the age of Jackson chose political relevance over ideological purity.

The Whigs abandoned aristocracy to nominate a popular military leader in the 1840s, hoping thereby to out-democratize the Jacksonians. An emerging business elite defended the free market--an 18th-century liberal innovation detested by agrarian-oriented conservatives--to protect the very kind of privileges that Adam Smith hoped the free market would curtail. Isolationists abandoned the cosmopolitanism of Hamilton, perhaps America's greatest conservative, for a populistic nativism suspicious of worldly grandeur. Clergy from evangelical churches played down such depressing doctrines as original sin and predestination in favor of the wonders of salvation for all. European conservatism had defended authority against liberty and social standing against equality. American conservatives used the language of liberty to justify inequality and promoted democracy to stand against change.

A conservative in America, in short, is someone who advocates ends that cannot be realized through means that can never be justified, at least not on the terrain of conservatism itself. In the past, the ends sought were the preservation of hierarchy, even if the means included appeals to democratic sentiment. In more recent times, conservatives promised order and stability through means dependent upon the uncertainties and insecurities of the market.
The great irony here is that America is the most modernist, individualist, change-oriented country over the course of the last 200+ years, but it has produced what is now the most reactionary form of ruling conservatism. The irony is only apparent, however. It is precisely because conservatism cannot practically work in America that it takes on such fantastical, reality-denying forms. And when it fails—as it inevitably must—the self-anointed “true conservatives” will say that it failed because it was not pure enough, by which they mean it was not sufficiently divorced from reality.

About the current incarnation, Wolfe writes:
Contemporary conservatism is first and foremost about shrinking the size and reach of the federal government. This mission, let us be clear, is an ideological one. It does not emerge out of an attempt to solve real-world problems, such as managing increasing deficits or finding revenue to pay for entitlements built into the structure of federal legislation. It stems, rather, from the libertarian conviction, repeated endlessly by George W. Bush, that the money government collects in order to carry out its business properly belongs to the people themselves. One thought, and one thought only, guided Bush and his Republican allies since they assumed power in the wake of Bush vs. Gore: taxes must be cut, and the more they are cut--especially in ways benefiting the rich--the better.
The problem was, once they got into office, people wanted them to do something with government. Conservative ideology notwithstanding, it’s what government is for:
Unable to shrink government but unwilling to improve it, conservatives attempt to split the difference, expanding government for political gain, but always in ways that validate their disregard for the very thing they are expanding. The end result is not just bigger government, but more incompetent government....

If government is necessary, bad government, at least for conservatives, is inevitable, and conservatives have been exceptionally good at showing just how bad it can be. Hence the truth revealed by the Bush years: Bad government--indeed, bloated, inefficient, corrupt, and unfair government--is the only kind of conservative government there is. Conservatives cannot govern well for the same reason that vegetarians cannot prepare a world-class boeuf bourguignon: If you believe that what you are called upon to do is wrong, you are not likely to do it very well.
What’s more, there is a form of historical inevitability about this:
The conservative vision of the world, because it is so hostile to government when government is so essential to the way we live now, remains unattractive to most Americans, which is why Republicans must rely on money to substitute for the large popular majorities they are unable to build and sustain. The idea that it could have been, or can be, different is a fantasy. A New England-based, patrician-oriented conservatism which insists on the importance of impersonal standards of high public conduct is as irrelevant in today's political economy as a Southern-style, gentlemanly conservatism that emphasizes chivalry and honor. The cavaliers and Mugwumps are long-gone from conservatism, and the Duke Cunninghams have replaced them.
For all this, however, conservatism is not wholly irrelevant. If the conservative answers have repeatedly been wrong for America, the conservative questions have not—at least some of them. The question of how to preserve social order is a valid and important one, even if the question of how you keep blacks, women, immigrants, gays, Jews, etc. in their place is not. And it is in this sense—where conservatives have been most correct—that liberalism has shown itself to be far superior in answering the questions:
  • You preserve social order by including the so-called “undesirables.” You grant them the dignity they deserve, simply by being human, and they proceed to act with dignity. It’s as simple as that. (You think gays are hedonistic narcissists utterly destructive to social order? Then recognize their right to marry. And stop treating them like second-class citizens.)
  • You preserve religion’s place as a polestar in people’s lives, precisely by keeping it separate from the vagaries of politics, in which change is the only constant, and compromise a guiding principle. You render unto God that which is God, and unto Cesaer that which is Cesaer’s.
  • You preserve the integrity of local communities and their institutions by engaging the power of state and national government to deal with problems that are too large for them to handle, that would twist and distort—if not utterly break them, if they were left to stand alone.
  • You maintain historical continuity, and respect for the nation’s traditions by rethinking both in the light of new experience, and the experience of new Americans. Self-reinvention is our most hallowed tradition.
  • You command respect for authority by exercising authority with respect for the people, who are the only legitimate source of authority.
  • You preserve the highest levels of personal morality first by granting people the freedom to discover its logic for themselves, and embrace it as their own freely chosen commitment, and second by insisting on the public morality of a just and equitable social order.
In short, you deliver the most legitimate desiderata of conservatism by embracing the practices, policies and ideals of liberalism.

Liberals are the true conservatives. And this fact—fully and consciously assimilated by liberals themselves—is perhaps the surest foundation on which a new and lasting governing liberal majority can be built in America today.