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Defining Away Conservatism

The goal in either case is to restore confidence in--well, what, exactly? Not our own infallible rightness, surely. But neither can we live any longer with the notion of our own infallible wrongness. We need to restore belief in the possibility of being right. There's a reason the leftist Christian magazine Sojourners started life in the 1970s as something called the Post-American. Many religious activists in those days seemed to have reached a point where they couldn't tell an admirable patriotism from the murderous ideologies of nationalism--and, besides, if you squinted hard enough, social defeatism looked like a secular version of the Christian doctrine of Original Sin. The result was hardly what they hoped for: a cynical policy of Realpolitik abroad and a culture of death at home.

In the new fusionism of the pro-life social conservatives and the foreign-policy neoconservatives, a number of traditional issues seem, if not to have disappeared, then at least to have gotten muted along the way. Where exactly is tax reform and social security and the balanced budget in all this? Where is much concern for economics, which once defined the root of American conservatism?

Perhaps they are missing because, however important, they do not bear hard on the immediate question of social defeatism—on the deep changes that might reawaken and remoralize the nation. The one thing both the social conservatives and the neoconservatives know is that this project comes first.

The angry isolationist paleoconservatives are probably right—this isn’t conservatism, in several older senses of the word. But so what? Call it the new moralism, if you like. Call it a masked liberalism or a kind of radicalism that has bizarrely seized the American scene. Mutter darkly, if you want, about the shotgun marriage of ex-socialists and modern puritans, the cynical political joining of imperial adventurers with reactionary Catholics and backwoods Evangelicals. These facts still remain: The sense of national purpose regained by forceful response to the attacks of September 11 could help summon the will to halt the slaughter of a million unborn children a year. And the energy of the pro-life fight—the fundamental moral cause of our time—may revitalize belief in the great American experiment. ~Joseph Bottum, First Things

Caught up as I was in my 'neoconfederate' anger (what's wrong with being neo-Confederate anyway? it's a lot better than being neo-Jacobin!), I neglected to point out one of the more glaring bits of nonsense about American conservatism that Mr. Bottum has provided his audience. The irony was lost on Mr. Bottum that he and his crowd have done a good deal to confuse a "murderous" ideology of nationalism with admirable patriotism, corrupting many hitherto fairly decent Americans with their poison of violent chauvinism. Of course, when the "universal" and "revolutionary" nation rediscovers its "purpose" and expresses its "will" and "resolve" for "freedom," there couldn't possibly be anything amiss with that, could there? The corollaries with historical fascism are all too painfully obvious.

Where could Mr. Bottum have imagined that the pro-life cause and violent interventionism abroad have any connection except for the most accidental of political connections inside the GOP? We are seeing a new attempt to construct some sort of umbrella ideology to provide some minimal coherence to the completely contradictory values of the major constituencies of the Republican Party. But perhaps there is a certain alignment or coincidence, at least in the 'idealistic' and misguided activist rhetoric of the two camps. All too many pro-life activists (as distinct from many pro-life conservatives) have the mentality of liberal activists, meddlers and consolidators (what we might call, with some qualification, a Yankee mentality). They invoke the language of rights (rather than a language of commandments, obligations, natural duties, etc.) and draw many preposterous comparisons to past antislavery activism and the civil rights movement, just as many neocons continue to do with their foreign policy fantasies.

The pro-lifers have apparently forgotten, or never knew, that their proper predecessors in history are the opponents of consolidation and constitutional innovation, namely secessionists and various other obstinate republicans and patriots. But that might make them dangerously 'neoconfederate', and then Mr. Bottum and his friends would have to stop talking to them. Pro-life conservatives should not be engaged in this sort of rhetoric, and this similarity with the utopian fanatics of neoconservatism is something of which they should not be proud, but it does exist.

But when did economics, or, more accurately, economic policy questions "define the root of American conservatism"? Assuming we are not speaking of the group of faux-conservatives who are Republicans simply for the tax relief (Grover Norquist, call your office), this is beyond absurd. When Russell Kirk wrote The Roots of American Order, did political economy preoccupy him at all? Does any economic theory as such have any significant place in The Conservative Mind? No, not really.

I could not imagine anything Kirk would have regarded as less important, in itself, than tax policy. I would also be hard-pressed to imagine that most early American conservatives conceived of increasing the rate of GDP growth as a defining element in their political philosophy. Returning citizens' rightful property to them through drastic tax reductions would have been most welcome and desired, but not for the low, consumeristic, specifically economic reasons that inspire many a Republican: tax reduction, for example, is valued by conservatives because it is a question of justice and ownership, not because lucre and spending money are vital elements to being conservative (evidently, often quite the opposite may be the case). It was always the consequences for prescriptive rights (especially property), social order, cultural integrity and personal independence based in property ownership that troubled these gentlemen about the growth of the state, the burden of taxation and the redistributive policies of socialist administrations.

The New Conservatives were not indifferent to economic questions, obviously, and viewed "market forces" in a very harsh light for their potential to work as a cultural acid and destroyer of small communities (which they have done and still do), but only a neophyte or fool who thinks the Wall Street Journal editorial page is the oracle of conservative truth could mistake fiscal and economic problems in and of themselves as fundamental conservative problems. Only a neophyte or a fool could mistake "growth" as such for a high conservative priority (growth is natural, but civilisation requires that there be gardeners to cultivate fruit-bearing plants rather than wild grass and weeds--to most contemporary "conservatives" it's all the same). Enter Joseph Bottum, who is evidently not a neophyte.

Mr. Bottum's entire article is very strange. The original fusionism at least had some meager coherence because traditionalist conservatives often understood as central to their tradition the Anglo-American heritage of constitutional liberty, upon which the more strictly libertarian figures among self-styled conservatives based so much of their argument. There is no logical connection between pro-lifers trying to save babies in America while neocons support bombing them in Iraq. Babies in America are not "choices," the bumper sticker tells us, but for the neocons children (and any other innocent person) in Iraq are perfectly legitimate "collateral damage"--for freedom! Might Mr. Bottum see a problem in that particularly disgusting position? It is, of course, difficult to reconcile respect for life and unprovoked, aggressive war, but that doesn't mean that a great many Christians aren't doing their very best to square that circle.

Daniel Larison | August 06, 2005


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