26 July 2010

Is Conservatism Trans-National? Can Americans Learn From Britain?

At Slate, Ned Resnikoff favorably compares the Conservative Party of Great Britain to its American counterparts. In Britain the Tories are back in power, their party being the main force in a coalition government. Resnikoff is impressed by the fact that David Cameron's government is now submitting plans to reform the government. He doesn't think the plans are great, since they cut back on the state stimuli he deems necessary for full economic recovery. But he understandably thinks that any plan is more than the Republicans in America have offered. Resnikoff characterizes the Republican position as "shrieking nihilism" and sees it as proof of a divergence of the two national strains of conservatism. In the years of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, Republicans and Tories seemed to be on the same page, the Brits embracing American-style entrepreneurial conservatism. Since then, the Americans, Resnikoff thinks, have "abandoned...conservative principles." What he means is that they're no longer willing to think responsibly about the present or the future. By his standard, denying global warming is irresponsible, and so is denying American accountability for human rights violations and other wartime excesses. The British conservatives earn better marks in both categories. Resnikoff encourages Republicans to emulate Tories, but doesn't seem optimistic about that happening.

It may be that the Thatcher period was an exceptional time of affinity between Republicanism and Toryism. As I've often written, any declaration of conservatism begs the question, "conservative of what?" and the answer will inevitably differ depending on where it's asked. Toryism predates Republicanism and taps into even older traditions of culture and philosophy. Republicanism, meanwhile, is really rooted no deeper in time than the 1950s and the entrepreneurial backlash against the New Deal. I don't know if the modern Republican emphasis on entrepreneurs as society's rightful leaders and its pathological aversion to government have ever been important parts of the British tradition. It may be that even a British conservative, with some inevitable exceptions, will look like a liberal to many Republicans. As well, Republicans may reject Resnikoff's criticism and claim that their proposals and recommendations are well known. I doubt greatly whether their chauvinism would let them learn from any other country, even an ostensibly conservative state. It seems to be part of their pathology that they, as free men, shouldn't have to listen to anyone else.

Resnikoff claims that the country as a whole, and the Democratic Party in particular, would benefit if the Republicans did learn a few Troy lessons. "Liberalism needs conservatism," he writes, "Democracy is nothing...when subject to effective one-party rule." But debate for the sake of debate isn't good enough. A real, constructive debate between two (or more) sides would not be a matter of "mindless obstructionism" but a meeting of "good-faith rivals with coherent arguments."

I have to question Resnikoff's reasoning a little. Liberals may need conservatives as a matter of self-definition, but do we really need to assign liberal and conservative impulses exclusively to different factions of people? The conservative impulse, understood as a mindfulness of the past's lessons and inherent limits to our aspirations, can serve a useful purpose, but not necessarily so long as people see it as their job to be exclusively conservative, to do nothing but say no without any regard to the long future. Just as the radical who thinks nothing of the past or of limits is often seen as a dangerous unrealistic extremist, so should his reactionary counterpart who doesn't think of the future or of possibility. Society needs people who are conservatively progressive more than it needs division into conservative people and progressive people. That wouldn't automatically mean one-party rule. It could just as well mean representative governments in which every legislator speaks for himself or herself and contributes an original thought to the ongoing debate. Resnikoff's recommendations sound better than what we've got in this country, but we can still do much better.


Crhymethinc said...

Indeed we could...we could tar and feather, then ride out on a rail every dirtclod, ignoramus who makes up the majority of the current crop of "conservatives".

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