16 October 2015

Conservatism's self-betrayal

The follies of the House Republican Caucus have driven David Brooks, one of the New York Times's house Republicans, to despair. In one of his columns this week, Brooks condemned the GOP representatives as incompetent to govern even themselves and blamed their incompetence to "a thousand small betrayals of conservatism" dating back approximately to when "Rush Limbaugh came on the scene." Republicans, Brooks laments, have come to believe their own apocalyptic rhetoric, yet contradict their avowed contempt for politics by promising radical solutions to the nation's ills through political action. Their radical ambitions and rhetoric practically disqualify them from the "conservative" label in Brooks's analysis. We've seen the neocons excommunicated from "conservatism" because of their radical nation-building and (more important) nation-smashing foreign policy, but now Brooks proposes to excommunicate the Tea Party. At this rate no one in the Republican party will be "conservative." If that doesn't seem to make sense, that's probably because those doing the excommunicating -- Brooks vs. the TPs, the American Conservative magazine anti-interventionist crowd vs. the neocons -- depend on an idealized Burkean definition of conservatism as the opposite of "radicalism." Brooks attempts such a definition here:

By traditional definitions, conservatism stands for intellectual humility, a belief in steady, incremental change, a preference for reform rather than revolution, a respect for hierarchy, precedence, balance and order, and a tone of voice that is prudent, measured and responsible. Conservatives of this disposition can be dull, but they know how to nurture and run institutions. They also see the nation as one organic whole. Citizens may fall into different classes and political factions, but they are still joined by chains of affection that command ultimate loyalty and love.

Let me modestly suggest that this definition of conservatism has been outmoded for at least 200 years. It may still suffice to define a certain temperament that Brooks admires and still may exist today, but in historical and political terms this definition's orientation around a prudent resistance to radical change is anachronistic. Criticizing the French Revolution after merely regretting that the American Revolution had to happen, Edmund Burke still saw radical change as an imminent threat rather than an accomplished fact. Today's self-styled conservatives still perceive constant threats of limitless radical change, but many also perceive themselves living in a society or polity in which radical change has already taken place, for the worse. This changed situation requires different strategies and tactics. While intellectually humble conservatives like Brooks may still envision conservatism as a holding action,  "radical" conservatives want to roll back history and reverse changes from which, to them, nothing good has come. They are counter-revolutionaries and thus inherently radical. Theirs is a mission of necessary destruction that long predates Rush Limbaugh. Brooks believes that such people have succumbed to hyperbole. "Civilization was always on the brink of collapse," he writes of their perceptions, "Every setback, like the passage of Obamacare, became the ruination of the republic."They lack a certain detachment that Brooks credits to himself, and they might concur snarkily that Brooks is too detached for his own good. Before he judges them, Brooks might ask himself whether he, the presumably authentic conservative, doesn't actually believe that the nation needs to reverse course on any domestic front. To demand a reversal of course may not be textbook conservatism, but that's what conservatism has come to mean in the United States, whether Brooks likes it or not. I suppose it might be more etymologically correct to call our conservatives "reactionaries," "counter-revolutionaries" or "traditionalists," but it's too late for that. "Conservatism" expresses their reverence for something about the way they live, or want to live, that they want to preserve, restore or recapture. However we define the impulse, it requires them to take the offensive and refuse retreat, and the impulse only grows stronger once they feel there's less left to lose. If Brooks doesn't feel that way it's actually to his credit, but it may also mean that he's not a real conservative today.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"...Citizens may fall into different classes and political factions, but they are still joined by chains of affection that command ultimate loyalty and love."

Given this part of the definition, I don't think this form of conservatism has ever existed. There is no "affection" between the wealthy and their peasants, and from my observation, their idea of "loyalty" is one-way.