Conservatives should remind themselves that they do not live by politics alone. Conservatism is a way of life, of which electoral politics is only a part and not the whole. ~Lee Edwards
If conservatism is to be relevant again its adherents must give up their perks as Washington insiders, or stop listening to those who won’t. They must demand an end to corporate-welfare policies that hide behind claims of “privacy” and “free markets.” They must reject the claim that “big government is here to stay” and insist that Washington cede back to the states and localities the power to control their own lives — from what their towns look like, to what can be done in the local public square.
Conservatism’s roots do not lie in facile slogans about natural rights and free markets — let alone angry, dismissive rhetoric that casts aside the poor and treats rich people as above the law. They lie in our attachment to families, churches, towns, and small businesses. It’s time to remember who we are and who [sic] we should be defending. ~Bruce Frohnen
These are very good points from both. To which I would add the following question: if you aren’t defending a way of life and a vision of order as a conservative, what exactly are you defending?
After all, it’s nice to think that your particular political ideology isn’t just a good way of running government, but also a good way of being a person. ~Peter Suderman
Each time I read over Peter’s post, the bit about ideology always brings me up short. On why preserving a way of life focused on natural loyalties and guided by a spirit that values restraint, prescription and prudence, among other things, is not an ideology, see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here. It has long seemed to me that ideology is that sort of abstract commitment to a proposition or theory that one makes that has little or no relevance to how you live. Being a good liberal involves accepting a number of rather dubious claims about the nature of man and society and setting policy accordingly. Allegedly, what you do in your own, “private” life is no concern to anybody. Likewise, being a good communist or fascist ideologue has everything to do with toeing party lines and supporting the right kinds of policies. Living ethically is neither here nor there, except insofar as it comes into conflict with policy. One of the most disappointing parts of Austin Bramwell’s thought-provoking article in TAC was when he lamented the lack of clear policy implications from the ideas of Voegelin, Kirk, Weaver, et al. This made their statements of principle to be of little value for making policy. To which I expect Voegelin would have replied, “What did you expect? That the ground of being would endorse your tax legislation? Do you take me for some sort of gnostic maniac?” Except that he would have said it better than that, at greater length and with far more impressive erudition, none of which is very useful for setting policy. This is because philosophers and men of letters, unless they are mad or extremely arrogant, do not typically presume to provide blueprints for policy (they rather assume this is what magistrates and princes do) but are very interested in questions of what is true, what is just and what is beautiful. They are interested in reflection or the creation of literature or living the philosophical life as they tend to their own gardens. Their example does the Karl Roves of the world no good at all, because their example suggests that most of what Rove has spent much of his life working on does not matter all that much.
Yet ethics is the heart of real politika, the things concerning the polis or community. One’s ethos, one’s way of life and habitual practices, defines what kind of politics a man has, and what kind of community he and his will create and maintain. To speak slightly dismissively of ”lifestyle conservatism” is to accept that a way of life is a question of style rather than substance, when there is nothing, save revealed truth, that can seriously be considered more substantial for men than their own way of life–even though such an attachment to something so substantial is deemed “subversive” to princes and potentates and grandiose systems. Consequently, there can hardly be anything (except for questions of revealed truth) more important than questions of how we live and why we live that way.
Politics are the nuts and bolts of organising the life of a community or a number of communities according to a vision of order. Power is a fact of life, as is the unequal distribution of it, and a conservative politics would try to prevent that power from doing damage to the things, people and places that you love in your natural affinities and loyalties. It would presumably stress principles of legality, legitimacy, authority and precedent, and seek to disperse power to as many different centers as possible to prevent its corrosive and corrupting power from overtaking any single community or any number of communities together.
You have to have politics, just as you must have the nuts and bolts to hold up your desk so that you can write your correspondence, read your books and put up pictures of friends and family, but you do not spend much or even most of your time tinkering with the structure of the desk. It is only when the desk stands in need of serious repairs or somehow threatens the truly valuable things that you keep on it that you attend to it with much concern at all. I think that a conservative would really pity the silly people who sit on the floor as they awkwardly try to write a letter on the ground in resistance to all kinds of desks and the even sillier people who believe that someday no desks will be needed, just as much as he would pity the people who are simply obsessed with managing the desk or with turning the desk upside down (when it becomes useless, but no matter).
I don’t expect that everyone who calls himself a conservative will share precisely the same vision (homonoia is difficult to realise and we can sometimes substitute drab conformity for genuine oneness of mind), but I do assume that all of them, if they are serious about conservatism, will expect that such visions are central to our understanding of the world and that they encompass our pre-political loyalties and the stuff of everyday life where most of real life is lived out. Or, rather, if they do not expect as much right now, I would very much hope that they begin to expect it very soon. If conservatism is simply a way of organising people to squabble over scraps from the high table of government or as a means of getting “our” kind of people up to the high table, not only is there no terribly interesting future for it but I would not be all that interested in being part of such a thing in the first place.
I am drawn back again to a powerful line in the very clever film Max, in which the title character, fictitious art dealer Max Rothmann, says to a young Hitler about art and politics, “What would you rather do? Change the way that people see or the way they pay their taxes?” By the end of the movie, Hitler has made his choice. The challenge of instilling a conservative ethos (which, at its best, is not a conservative ethos as such but one that would be recognised as humane and sane by all, regardless of party or policy preferences) is much the same as the one posed by the character of Rothmann: do we concern ourselves with a way of life, an entire vision of what constitutes good order for our communities or do we focus on narrow questions of policy and politicking?
There are undoubtedly also important questions of policy to be tackled, and I don’t belittle the hard work and imagination that this kind of work takes and the necessity of having people who do this kind of work. However, if there is something we all need to remember before we can start undoing the damage of the last few years it is that a conservatism that places high priority on living an ethical life and shaping the life of the community to be as conducive to that sort of life is what intellectual conservatism has always aspired to present. As problems of ethics, aesthetics, meaning and a well-ordered everyday life have taken a back seat to the struggle to dominate the greasy pole, conservatism has lost much of what used to make it genuinely interesting and what gave it such intellectual vitality.
This is an old argument. Frank Meyer once belittled the New Conservatives for lacking a “program.” Don’t bother us with all this talk about virtue and community–give us something we can use! Be more programmatic, he urged them. This made a certain amount of sense in narrow, party-political terms. But to become programmatic was to take a step towards the ideological and the world in which taking “positions” on “issues” became the defining activity of so many conservatives. Again, there is a place for such politicking, but even this is not the whole of what we used to understand as the whole of politics, much less the whole of life, about which, if conservatism is a worthwhile state of mind and persuasion, conservatism ought to have something important to say.