05 March 2014

A global clash of conservatisms?

The American political establishment is nearly unanimous in condemning Russia's incursion into Ukraine's Crimea region, but some Americans have noted an ambivalence on the part of Republicans. They seem to hate Vladimir Putin as much as anyone else, but there's also, to say the least, a grudging admiration for his perceived decisive leadership. In some cases, as with Rudy Giuliani, the point of praising Putin's decisiveness and leadership in general is mainly to show up President Obama, whom Republicans generally perceive as weak and indecisive when not portraying him as an imminent threat to constitutional government. In some respects, most obviously his homophobia, Putin is a conservative by any standard. Some American conservatives, most notably cultural conservatives like Pat Buchanan, have suggested that Putin is really a natural ally for the U.S. in a twilight struggle with Islamism. His support for homophobic measures probably has endeared Putin further with this element. Still, the hostility toward Putin expressed by Republicans like Sen. McCain, who for our purposes definitely is a conservative, reminds us of the ways American conservatism, broadly defined, has evolved away from an older understanding of the term that still prevails elsewhere. The most obvious difference is an American distrust of the state that simply was not a factor in the conservatism of, say, the 18th century. Before the American and French revolutions, the state was taken for granted as the necessary instrument for the enforcement of traditional values, its hierarchies reflecting a divinely-willed order. By comparison, American conservatism, in most cases, shows its liberal roots in its priority on individual liberty, however tempered by persistent moral traditionalism. Many Republicans in this country can never embrace Putin because the Russian leader embodies the oppressive power of the state, and to the extent that Putin is a statist, he's little better than a communist for many American observers. Whatever cultural affinities American and Russian conservatives may share, knowingly or not, an ideological divide persists for the moment. That divide might be expressed in fairly simple terms. One type of conservative only feels big when his government is powerful and can push other countries around. The other only feels big when his government is small, yet can still push other countries around. Someone may object that "conservative" isn't the right word in either case, but I'm sticking with it until I hear a better suggestion.

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