Ideal Conservatives, Real Conservatives, Authentic Conservatives

by John Holbo on October 3, 2012

Andrew Sullivan writes. “When you see an unexpected and sharply upward trend in inequality and want to accelerate it some more, you have ceased to be a conservative.”

As Sullivan goes on to confess, there was a time when he himself saw such an inequality trend, and cheered it on. He now wants to say this was ‘complacency’. But I don’t think he would go so far as to say that he has only in the recent past converted to conservatism, having only since 2007 or so shed a view that previously disqualified him from holding that position. So why should Erick Erickson, say, be disqualified from being a conservative?

I found my copy of Rossiter, finally. (It was hiding under a comic book on my shelf!) Per that post, I’m going to try to find a few choice passages to illustrate his nice style. But for now I’ll quote a plain vanilla bit for the sake of its sheer typicality in any discussion of conservatism. Rossiter does the necessary: list, in a rough and ready way, the things conservatives basically believe. Near the top of the list:

The natural inequality of men in most qualities of mind, body, and spirit.

The superiority of liberty to equality in the hierarchy of human values and social purposes.

The inevitability and necessity of social classes, and consequent folly and futility of most attempts at leveling.

The need for a ruling and serving aristocracy.

The fallibility and potential tyranny of majority rule. (65)

Obviously I could have gotten this out of Kirk, or Buckley, or Burke. No one doubts these are the hallmarks of conservative thought, for as long as there has been such a thing. (I just don’t know which one of my comic books my copies of Kirk and Burke are lurking under at present.)

If you believe such things, there’s no reason why a sudden increase in inequality need trouble you, or seem like something politicians should try to do something about. Sullivan will, of course, want to see the rest of Rossiter’s list and on it he will find many items he will say are the true, conservative basis for his current concerns about inequality (no doubt starting with that crucial ‘an aristocracy that serves’ clause in what I quoted above.)

And he will not be disappointed. But that is not to the point. The point is: a high degree of indifference to, or at least complacency about, inequality is a hallmark of conservative thought, going back at least to Burke. Those conservatives who are annoyed that Sullivan is saying they aren’t true conservatives are right: they’re conservatives. If it turns out that being indifferent to, or complacent about, severe inequality is a mistake, then what follows is not that it isn’t conservative, after all, to be indifferent to inequality, but that conservatism has a strong tendency to be mistaken when it comes to issues of equality/inequality.

This is sort of what Sullivan himself says, but in an unhelpfully ideology-insulating way. “Enoch Powell, a very high Tory, once said that every political career ends in failure, because the problems that they have solved will have inevitably ceded by then to new ones, and new exigencies and new times.” But this is a perverse way of immunizing true conservatism against criticism that it goes wrong: namely, making over the inevitability of erroneousness as the hallmark of a higher infallibility. Even when you are wrong, in the end, you are right, in the end, because you said you were going to be wrong, in the end. (I’ll leave you to think through this High Tory formulation of the liar’s paradox.) In practical terms, the sensible thing is to say is just that a lot of the time true conservatives are going to go badly wrong, not because they betray conservatism, but because they don’t. This is a better way to warn against the limits of ideological thinking. The point of emphasizing these limits is, after all, to lessen, not exacerbate ‘if I can only find the true philosophy I’ll be safe for sure!’-style hubris. (It says something, I think, that conservatives often do treat ‘what’s the most authentically conservative thing to do?’ as a proxy for ‘what’s the best thing to do?’ whereas liberals don’t treat ‘what’s the most authentically liberal thing to do?’ as a proxy for ‘what’s the best thing to do?’)

That said: Sullivan is, of course, quite right to be doing his best to craft some version of conservatism that can deal with the world we live in. He sees, correctly, that Romney and National Review and movement conservatives have nothing to say that isn’t, on the most generous construal, preposterously past its sell-by date. But, since what is blinding them to reality is a set of strongly-held, conservative beliefs, it hardly follows that they are any less true conservatives than Sullivan himself. They just show us true conservatism gone wrong. Sullivan wants to find true conservatism going right.

Conservatives pride themselves on the prudential looseness and practical flexibility with which they weave together the sorts of beliefs that end up on these inevitable lists of things conservatives believe. As I said, there are things on Rossiter’s list that Sullivan is sure to point to as evidence that conservatives should care about inequality - at least in a situation like the one we are in today. “Dignity, authority, legitimacy, justice, constitutionalism, hierarchy, the recognition of limits - the marks of good government.” Sullivan will say that conservatives should see how extreme inequality undermines these values, in the present social and political circumstances. As a liberal, I’m hardly going to disagree. But, for a conservative, this point should cut both ways. The fact that conservatism is such a stew of ingredients, and no strict recipe about how to combine them, means that conservatism can truly make for terrible stew. The flexibility that assures Sullivan there must be some way that true conservatism can go right is a feature that also guarantees that true conservatism can go badly wrong. At the very least, it guarantees that there are a lot of things that can hardly be ruled out, in principle, as truly conservative.

Erick Erickson holds conservative views that are worse than the conservative views that Andrew Sullivan holds. In a sense, this makes Erickson a worse conservative. But it does not make him a less authentic one.

The moral of the story: if you get too caught up trying to assess political philosophies along an axis of authenticity, as it seems to me Sullivan tends to, you muck up your handling of a basic dilemma that really shouldn’t be much of one. Here’s how it goes.

On the one hand, it’s bad practice to immunize your political philosophy from criticism/refutation by always saying ‘of course true communism/conservatism/liberalism/progressivism has never been tried!’ On the other hand, it’s pointless to abstain from making improvements to your philosophy, just so it can stand trial for past mistakes.

Obviously the solution is to do ideal philosophy, but not in a way that is untethered from a realistic sense of how things actually go - have gone - in practice. We are all interested in conservatism and liberalism not just in heaven but also on earth. Authenticity - true conservatism! - equivocates between ‘most ideal’ and ‘most real’, in a confusing way, at precisely the point when we should be keeping these separate. The conservatism we want is the best one, whether or not it has been, to date, ‘real’ (i.e. pursuing a successful career in politics). The conservatisms we have gotten, to date, have been ‘real’ enough, whether or not they have been for the best.

Authenticity is a jealous God, as philosophical Gods tend to go. It does not insist on monism, but has a Hegelian tendency in that direction. Conservatives like Sullvan try to finesse this awkwardness - conservatism is not supposed to be so abstract and severe - by playing up how theirs is a philosophy of personal virtue, which gets us back to solid ground. But I don’t buy it. Hence, I thought about titling this post ‘The Jurgen of Authenticity’. But that might have been a bit la-dee-da.

“Now ONE, or the monad,” says Jurgen, “is the principle and the end of all: it reveals the sublime knot which binds together the chain of causes: it is the symbol of identity, of equality, of existence, of conservation, and of general harmony.” And Jurgen emphasized these characteristics vigorously. “In brief, ONE is a symbol of the union of things: it introduces that generating virtue which is the cause of all combinations: and consequently ONE is a good principle.”

“Ah, ah!” said Queen Dolores, “I heartily admire a good principle. But what has become of your concrete example?”

“It is ready for you, madame: there is but ONE Jurgen.”

“Oh, I assure you, I am not yet convinced of that. Still, the audacity of your example will help me to remember ONE, whether or not you prove to be really unique.”

In the end, I’m very glad I didn’t title the post “The Jurgen of Authenticity”. That would have been a serious mistake.

{ 106 comments }

1

shah8 10.03.12 at 4:20 am

Ah, please, this post is too long…

All that really needs to be said is that authenticity consists of a dialectical relationship between the tactics of promoting ones own opinion and posturing of ones own purity (motives, stature, whatever, just so long as nobody questions why you got yours in the end).

The difference between conservatives and liberals doesn’t have a thing to do with ideals. Just goals. Most conservatives are narcissists in one nasty way or another. That’s in part why John Stuart Mills said that “Although it is not true that all conservatives are stupid people, it is true that most stupid people are conservative.” Liberals, on the other hand, have widely diverse interpretations of self-serving, and more diverse styles of attending to that beat.

In sleepy good humor…This should be a fun thread.

2

FredR 10.03.12 at 4:20 am

I find the quotation to be wildly inappropriate, and will be reporting you to Anthony Comstock.

3

John Holbo 10.03.12 at 4:23 am

“will be reporting you to Anthony Comstock.”

Yes, when I think about who could use a little la-dee-da in their life, Comstock’s corpse springs to mind – if not to life.

4

John Holbo 10.03.12 at 4:24 am

“authenticity consists of a dialectical relationship between the tactics of promoting ones own opinion and posturing of ones own purity”

Quiet! You are going to Bob McManus all worked up and denouncing Lloyd Dobler all over again!

5

John Holbo 10.03.12 at 4:29 am

Thinking back, I think I actually wrote a post about “Jurgen” at some point in the past 10 years and used this pun before. So that’s another reason not to use that title. Whew! Dodged that bullet.

6

john b 10.03.12 at 4:36 am

There’s an echo in your criticism of what Sullivan says of Cory Robin’s wider critique of the Conservative movement (ie that it has *never* really been conservative in the ‘prudently keeping things as they are’ sense of the term, so much as fiercely and radically counter-revolutionary).

7

js. 10.03.12 at 4:40 am

It says something, I think, that conservatives often do treat ‘what’s the most authentically conservative thing to do?’ as a proxy for ‘what’s the best thing to do?’ whereas liberals don’t treat ‘what’s the most authentically liberal thing to do?’ as a proxy for ‘what’s the best thing to do?’

I’d tend to think that this says something more interesting about liberals than about conservaties. Surely, if you have a worldview—a Weltanschauung if you will—and then what’s best according to that worldview is simply what’s best overall. Unless your worldview is somehow value-neutral (whether in general or about itself), which, at least according to the traditional understanding, is rather weird.

8

John Holbo 10.03.12 at 4:46 am

“I’d tend to think that this says something more interesting about liberals than about conservaties.”

Can’t take their own side in an argument, yes. It’s an old complaint, because there’s something to it.

9

ben w 10.03.12 at 4:56 am

In the end, I’m very glad I didn’t title the post “The Jurgen of Authenticity”. That would have been a serious mistake.

I would like to register my disagreement.

10

RDT 10.03.12 at 5:00 am

I’ve always figured that the comfort with inequality was a sort of collateral damage in a “prudently keeping things as they are” conservatism (to quote 6). I think Sullivan is coming to the conclusion that not doing anything about growing inequality is more dangerous (and therefore less prudently conservative) than the sorts of mitigations liberals might consider these days.

But maybe the key difference is whether you view “true” conservatism as a cautious skepticism about the possibility of successful change (while sympathizing with the desire for change), which seems to be Sullivan’s view or whether it is an active defense of the status quo (even if change were possible, it wouldn’t be desirable) or the status quo of an earlier era, which seems the more common view.

11

Sebastien 10.03.12 at 5:08 am

At least it’s less strained than his argument that being for gay marriage is a conservative position. Let’s make this easier: Conservatives seek to CONSERVE the existing social structures and institutions. Liberals seek to LIBERATE us from the constraints of the existing order, i.e., they want to change things. Those definitions served us in high school and years later, they suit me just fine.

I don’t see why you need to run around quoting Burke, Niebuhr and God knows who else creating new definitions of terms that were already in common use and had an accepted meaning. It makes sens to distinguish between those who seek out change and disruption, and those who resist it, since it is how people will be divided in just about any conflict. It also corresponds roughly to a fundamental difference in temperament between people. It also is nonjudgemental. Historic changes can be good just as easily as they can be bad.

If Sully thinks the liberal positions on gay marriage and inequality are the right positions, he should simply say so, instead of coming up with these irrelevant arguments about whether if you take this obscure quote, and look at this historic fact, and squint your eyes, all good things will look conservative.

12

William Timberman 10.03.12 at 5:10 am

An aristocracy that serves. Anything but itself, that is. Despite the fond recollections of conservatives, this has always been a rare bird indeed. Which is probably why the Tea Party’s definition of elitism is so telling. By their lights, a person who tells you you’re wrong is an elitist. A person who tells you to put your back in it or feel the lash is just doing what they would do if they’d had a bit of luck.

13

John Holbo 10.03.12 at 5:37 am

“Conservatives seek to CONSERVE the existing social structures and institutions. Liberals seek to LIBERATE us from the constraints of the existing order, i.e., they want to change things. Those definitions served us in high school and years later, they suit me just fine. “

But this is obviously just wrong – descriptively false. Both conservatives and liberals want to keep some things the same and change some things. The question is: which things and why?

14

ben w 10.03.12 at 5:56 am

That’s also a terrible etymology. What if I were to say that liberals seek social structures and institutions fit for LIBERI, while conservatives want social structures and institutions fit for SERVANTS?

15

bad Jim 10.03.12 at 6:16 am

Righty-tighty, lefty-loosey. Liberals are generous, conservatives greedy; the etymology is straightforward. Liberty on the one hand, on the other the greatness of the past.

Of course, in the U.S., our hallowed heroes were revolutionaries, so even reactionaries do obeisance to dead radicals while traducing their memories by claiming that they were somehow pious slaves to current conventions.

16

GiT 10.03.12 at 7:47 am

What’s the optimal joke in this title?

Something like…

An authentic conservative conserves tradition.
A real conservative conserves his interests.
An ideal conservative conserves the space in his burial plot.

17

Phil 10.03.12 at 8:03 am

The natural inequality of men in most qualities of mind, body, and spirit.

I always find it peculiar – and frankly a bit galling – when the Right claims this as a key insight of theirs. Take it away, Karl:

The right of the producers is proportional to the labour they supply; the equality consists in the fact that measurement is made with an equal standard, labour. … This equal right is an unequal right for unequal labour. It recognizes no class differences, because everyone is only a worker like everyone else; but it tacitly recognizes unequal individual endowment, and thus productive capacity, as a natural privilege. It is, therefore, a right of inequality, in its content, like every right. Right, by its very nature, can consist only in the application of an equal standard; but unequal individuals (and they would not be different individuals if they were not unequal) are measurable only by an equal standard insofar as they are brought under an equal point of view, are taken from one definite side only — for instance, in the present case, are regarded only as workers and nothing more is seen in them, everything else being ignored.

Claiming that humans are naturally equal wouldn’t be utopian, it’d just be silly – has anyone in fact made that claim? (Rousseau? Fourier? Saint-Simon? Anyone know any more French utopians?)

Furthermore…

The inevitability and necessity of social classes, and consequent folly and futility of most attempts at leveling.

Levelling may be out, but apparently lumping is fine. Everyone was different a minute ago – how do we get from there to the inevitability (and necessity, by jingo) of the rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate? Everyone’s unequal, but some are clearly more unequal than others.

Of course, in the U.S., our hallowed heroes were revolutionaries

When I first heard of the DAR I thought they must be something like Weather (and that it was a very cool name) – I automatically located the American Revolution in the future, where The Revolution generally is.

Back on the OP, I think you’re a little too hard on Sullivan, although it’s hard to be sure – he’s got an advanced case of Orwell’s Disease (the generalisation of an idiosyncratic personal trajectory into a coherent and valuable political position, whose precise outline remains unclear to others). It’s true that all conservatives believe in social inequality, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that Mr Burns (or Paul Ryan) is an authentic conservative. You could argue, for example, that conservatism is a member of the family “political philosophy”, and as such it’s concerned with the governance of an entire nation over an extended period of time. And that Randianism isn’t, and isn’t – going Galt is not an option for the vast majority of people, and wasn’t intended to be. Romney/Ryan would then represent, not bad conservatism or even inauthentic conservatism, but conservatism combined with something nihilistic and inimical to conservatism.

18

Alex 10.03.12 at 9:05 am

Enoch Powell, a very high Tory, once said that every political career ends in failure

Like most things he said, this is much less interesting than it sounds. Every political career ends in failure, because failure is what ends political careers.

19

Greg 10.03.12 at 9:16 am

This is why we have the distinction between conservatives and neo-cons / neo-liberals, no? So yes, Sully is completely right, for old-school conservatives, radically growing inequality should be a great concern as it threatens overall stability and undermines values of decency, honour, etc and whatever-the-fuck. And you know what, for me this alone is enough to give them a break for now on the internal consistency, integrity, ethics and wisdom of their ultimate position (the quality of their recipe for stew).

In terms of the principles at play, I don’t know anyone on the left who doesn’t actually approve of personal responsibility, just not past the point where it precludes collective responsibility – and there is a big overlap before they become mutually exclusive.

Maybe I’m naive but I see very few reasons why conservatives could or should not be our natural allies at this particular historical moment – in fact I can see many reasons why it’s crucial that they are. We should all be on the same train, they can get off when we reach their stop (if they still want to, some of us can be quite persuasive you know).

20

Alex 10.03.12 at 9:19 am

I don’t know anyone on the left who doesn’t actually approve of personal responsibility

Well no, but a lot of us are habituated to the assumption that anyone talking about “personal responsibility” is bullshitting.

21

Latro 10.03.12 at 9:44 am

I’m all fine with the inequality in mind and body (spirit, I leave for the believers), but I fail to see a mention if we are all equal or not in dignity, which seems to me that by the insistence on the need of classes, we arent, in that worldview.

Also, if the inequality in mind and body means A can use, say,his better business instinct, and take advantage of B and that is the natural order of things, then the inequality in number of bodies means that if B, C, D and all to Z can apply their natural advantage of inequality over A – being more than him and of a like mind- and beat the crap out of him and take his stuff. Somehow, that approach is not considered natural and desirable for order, but the other is. Is like not all natural things are equally natural, or that “natural” may not have the last word in what shape should human societies take…

22

Richard 10.03.12 at 9:51 am

I always thought Melbourne’s sayings that ‘I wish I was as cocksure of anything as Tom Macaulay is of everything’ and ‘Nobody ever did anything very foolish except from some strong principle’ are as succinct definitions of conservatism as I could find.

23

Greg 10.03.12 at 10:58 am

Alex, agreed there is plenty of bullshitting about personal responsibility, but at some point you have to take people at their word, if only to force them to be honest about what they really think.

I know I’m out of my depth in this company but as I see it, current hardline conservatism narrowly defines personal responsibility to mean that a) you are only responsible for you and your family, and that b) only you are responsible for you and your family. But there is another sense of personal responsibility that is also very popular: the idea that you are responsible for the consequences of your actions both to yourself and to others. This is where personal responsibility is socialised, and it’s an idea we should encourage conservatives to reclaim because it’s one we can at least have a conversation about. It’s also the area that Sullivan is fumbling around in when he talks about the responsibility of the elites not to increase inequality.

24

Daryl McCullough 10.03.12 at 11:28 am

In the United States, conservatism has gotten all mixed up with capitalism and libertarianism, even those three ideologies don’t necessarily have anything to do with one another. Among non-rich white people in places like the south and the midwest, the sort of conservatism that is common doesn’t really have anything to do with class (I don’t think). I think a lot of them have an idea of the rugged individual, working hard and practicing self-reliance. They don’t view natural hierarchies as an important part of conservatism.

25

rootless_e 10.03.12 at 11:58 am

Conservative:
Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.

Liberal:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

26

Watson Ladd 10.03.12 at 12:18 pm

The elephant in the room here is the industrial revolution. What Holbo is calling for is a kind of Young England agreement between agrarian conservatives of the genuinely nasty variety, and the worker’s movement. But that’s complete bullshit: That todays politics is a choice between 1798 and 1917 is a good thing: it means that everyone is arguing about freedom and history rather then other things. (If of course there was a left).

27

John Holbo 10.03.12 at 12:22 pm

“What Holbo is calling for is a kind of Young England agreement between agrarian conservatives of the genuinely nasty variety, and the worker’s movement.”

Why would I call for that?

28

Barry 10.03.12 at 12:33 pm

Sebastian: “Let’s make this easier: Conservatives seek to CONSERVE the existing social structures and institutions. “

Which is odd, because the people who call themselves ‘conservative’ in the USA are all about tearing down large swathes of existing social structures and institutions.

29

Watson Ladd 10.03.12 at 12:48 pm

JH: I read your post and the one before as calling for conservatives to embrace tradition over freedom. I may have been wrong, so some clarification might be in order. Personally I would much rather have a rank capitalist by my side then an agrarian. The rank capitalist at least believes in freedom, justice, and the American Way!

30

MPAVictoria 10.03.12 at 1:40 pm

“Maybe I’m naive but I see very few reasons why conservatives could or should not be our natural allies at this particular historical moment “
Canada used to have a species of conservatives known as Red Tories who would seem to fit this mold. They are sadly extinct these days.

“I read your post and the one before as calling for conservatives to embrace tradition over freedom.”
Where on earth did you get that from?

31

bianca steele 10.03.12 at 2:16 pm

John: Interesting argument about Sullivan. Kind of tangential to why I stopped reading him, but yet another reason not to, at least for me.

I think @7 is interesting. Also, there’s something . . . I think “odd” is a word that covers this kind of thing . . . about a conservatism that is serious about inequality in the sense Rossiter seems to be talking about it, and at the same time says everybody’s worldview is conservative and good from a conservative point of view. I guess the OP’s “conservatism accepts being wrong as the right thing to do” covers this, as it covers a conservatism that takes a society founded by Englishmen who felt their traditions were being trampled upon by an encroaching government, and imposes on it an attempted “return” to the personal opinions of a Frenchman with limited sympathy for themselves.

I’d tend to think that this says something more interesting about liberals than about conservaties.

I don’t personally think it’s that liberals don’t have something called “liberalism,” even, that they’d be able to refer to. Not that I think either JH or js. were suggesting this.

32

bianca steele 10.03.12 at 2:20 pm

William Timberman @ 12: By their lights, a person who tells you you’re wrong is an elitist.

I’d emend that to “a person who tells them they’re wrong is elitist.” They’re perfectly happy, I think, to tell others they’re wrong, and presumably would have no problem with someone like themselves saying they’re wrong. I wonder what would happen if they were put, say, some kind of anonymous situation, where they didn’t know who they were telling off and didn’t know who was telling them. Presumably hilarity would ensue.

33

John Holbo 10.03.12 at 2:34 pm

“I read your post and the one before as calling for conservatives to embrace tradition over freedom. I may have been wrong, so some clarification might be in order.”

No, it’s more a call to embrace sanity over the paranoid style. I don’t really believe in a school of conservatism that favors either freedom or tradition, per se. (That is, I don’t believe such a school exists.) Conservatism is the attempt to preserve privilege, either under the guise of freedom or the guise of tradition, after the will to assert privilege outright has failed. As such, I’m agin’ in. But I’m more agin’ it the more paranoid and the less moderate it gets. The thing that’s interesting about Rossiter and Viereck, apart from the fact that they are fun to read, is how free they are from extremist cant and the paranoid style. They aren’t agrarians, incidentally. They’re the sort who might vote for Adlai Stevenson. Not the same thing by a country mile.

34

Antonio Conseilhero 10.03.12 at 3:13 pm

As I said, Hofstadter claimed that liberal Democrats, staring with Adlai Stevenson, were the true conservatives, and quoted Stevenson to more or less that effect. He called Joe McCarthy a pseudoconservative and apparently borrowed the term from Adorno.

Rossiter and Hofstadter’s dream, as far as I can tell, was to have the professoriat and the highbrow media to function as a wise elite. Various radicals have also wanted to use the university as a power base, and look how that turned out. Actual conservatives always had some sort of power base — landed property, the state Church, and the military. Without a power base conservativism is just wishful. Where propertyownership is an absolute value unrestricted by anythin and where the political system is partly majoritarian what the power base would be.

No true Scotsman.

35

John Holbo 10.03.12 at 3:20 pm

“Rossiter and Hofstadter’s dream, as far as I can tell, was to have the professoriat and the highbrow media to function as a wise elite.”

What makes you think that Rossiter wants a professoriat plus highbrow media elite to be the center of gravity, power-wise?

36

Antonio Conseilhero 10.03.12 at 3:24 pm

Can there such a thing as powerless conservativism? Is conservativism just a cluster of sentiments? It would seem that by definition it is not; how can you conserve from a powerless position? So where would the powerbase be?

37

John Holbo 10.03.12 at 3:26 pm

But surely you admit that professors are not the only people who wield power, Antonio. Why assume that, just because you need power, you have to run to the ivory tower?

38

Antonio Conseilhero 10.03.12 at 3:27 pm

I was mostly thinking of Hofstadter, with whom I am more familiar. But Rossiter as summarized seemed much the same except that Rossiter was more insistent. Hofstadter wanted intellectuals as such (which he distinguished from experts) to have an important and essentially conservative political role, with the New Deal synthesis being the thing conserved.

39

John Holbo 10.03.12 at 3:30 pm

“But Rossiter as summarized seemed much the same except that Rossiter was more insistent.”

What summary are you referring to?

40

Antonio Conseilhero 10.03.12 at 3:31 pm

Where else would it have been? You had various power bases in American society at that time, and none of them were conservative except some of the Republicans and the white supremacists. Perhaps the cold war military and intelligence services were candidates. Big business and finance worked with Roosevelt during the war, but that was a very fragile alliance that started to disintegrate immediately.

41

Antonio Conseilhero 10.03.12 at 3:34 pm

“Theirs was a conservatism of high culture, moderation, and communal aspiration, skeptical of the market and anchored in the writings of Edmund Burke.”

Hofstadter wasn’t so much into Burke but the others apply. Hofstader was big into Niebuhr on the limitations of political possibility.

42

John Holbo 10.03.12 at 3:38 pm

You’re almost there, Antonio. “Big business and finance worked with Roosevelt during the war, but that was a very fragile alliance that started to disintegrate immediately.”

And so: conservatives could potentially look to the business community for support.

43

John Holbo 10.03.12 at 3:41 pm

To be fair to Rossiter, his argument is, more simply, that America is a country in which the center of gravity will be business. So an American conservatism will, for better or worse, be a conservatism of businessmen.

44

Antonio Conseilhero 10.03.12 at 3:43 pm

It was a wartime alliance, though, and not completely voluntary on the part of business. Roosevelt and Truman’s war powers gave them a lot of leverage, and business still remembered the organized agitation of the 1930s.

Business’s natural ideology is McKinley Republicanism, except for the switch to free trade.

45

Antonio Conseilhero 10.03.12 at 3:48 pm

Even Eisenhower-Nixon Republicanism was too far left for actual businessmen, and it was noncultural and middlebrow at best. As far as I know McKinley was noncultural also.

There always was a hard anti-New Deal core — the 36.5% who voted for Landon. The New deal was never unanimously accepted. So while conservativism of a sort never disappeared, it wasn’t much like anyting Rossiter was looking for.

46

William Timberman 10.03.12 at 3:56 pm

bianca steele @ 32

I could have been clearer, yes, but I find that really hard to do when I’m pissed off. The point is that the authoritarian sadomasochism indulged in by most in the U.S. who call themselves conservatives these days does respond much more negatively to condescension than it does to outright oppression. I’d like to think that this has more to do with a guilty conscience than the subtleties of dialectical materialism, but frankly, I think both are involved.

The signals sent by the educated, and despised by the good burghers of the Tea Party are, I suspect, a consequence of the fact that our educational system has preserved the vocabulary and some of the mannerisms of a vanished aristocracy well past their sell-by date. A real bourgeois kingpin, like one of the Koch brothers, has no need to pretend to any distinction other than those which are a direct result of the power he wields. This was best summed up for me by an interview with a Texas oil wildcatter who had been remarkably successful in actually finding oil, rather than drilling dry holes, and had become a billionaire in record time as a result. The interviewer asked him if he’d ever regretted not getting a degree in economic geology, or whatever it it that you’re supposed to know about to find oil successfully. His response: Why, hell no…if I wanted a PhD, I’d hire one.

No doubt the Tea Partiers would love to have a beer with this very regular guy. With John Holbo, not so much.

47

Antonio Conseilhero 10.03.12 at 4:03 pm

My point really is just to say that Rossiter and the others weren’t far removed from a major trend in the Democratic Party of that time, the Stevenson Democrats and anti-populist liberals, but that the problem with all of them is that they divorced themselves from the Democrats’ popular powerbase without finding a sufficient powerbase elsewhere. Business was never going to go that way. To begin with Democrats and liberals could rely on the institutional power they built up during the New Deal and WWII, but the other side has been chipping away at that ever since 1945, and in 1968, 1980, 1994 (Majority Leader Gingrich) ad 2000 they scored major victories until now there isn’t a lot left.

48

bianca steele 10.03.12 at 4:10 pm

I haven’t read the whole exchange between Antonio C. and John H. yet (I tend to think AC often makes quite a lot of sense), but I thought of this while I was driving: I tend to think of “liberalism” as the ideology of professors and thinkers. There’s something called “philosophical liberalism,” for example, which is I think not exactly coterminous with unphilosophical liberalism. But it’s also true that liberalism existed befor professors started describing it. If that’s the case, for professors and the media to function as a wise elite, doesn’t mean they’re the touchstone of liberalism. It means they’re criticizing liberalism, or drawing people away from liberalism and toward something else.

49

Jeff R. 10.03.12 at 4:18 pm

There comes a point where the fiction that Andrew Sullivan is or ever was in any meaningful way a conservative becomes something similar to belief in the Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus. (Actually, that point came more than a decade ago…)

But the Rossiter quote is interesting. Points 1,2,and 5 are, of course, all axiomatic or self-evidently true (do non-straw-based non-conservatives actually dispute 1 or 5?) and are a good description (although there is a Burkean reluctance to tamper with long-standing institutions that Rossiter appears to be missing entirely), but 3 and 4 at best represent one side of a faultline, with the other side being populists who utterly reject 4 and half-reject 3. (Holding that social classes are meaningless or obsolete while still considering attempts at leveling futile and foolish.)

50

LFC 10.03.12 at 4:29 pm

From the OP:

The point is: a high degree of indifference to, or at least complacency about, inequality is a hallmark of conservative thought, going back at least to Burke.

Yes. But some types of inequality have been positively promoted, not just passively accepted, by (some) conservatives. Thus it might be worth distinguishing between inequality in the sense of (1) an unequal distribution of income and/or wealth, i.e., economic inequality; and (2) a social order rooted at least to some extent in a hierarchical class system (in which the upper class is seen as having the obligation to govern and thus ‘serve’ society as a whole), i.e., a certain kind of social-political inequality. The two are related, to be sure, but not the same, and (2) has a firmer historical grounding in Britain, say, than the U.S., which is why Rossiter’s “inevitability of social classes” and esp. his “serving aristocracy” arguably don’t sound that American, so to speak, even though the title of his book is Conservatism in America.

Inequality-as-social-hierarchy, i.e. sense #2, encompasses old features of British conservatism, “ancient tenets of Toryism” as Beer put it, that survived and were adapted to the era of universal suffrage. (S. Beer, British Politics in the Collectivist Age, pb. ed. 1969, p. 94)

Of course American politicians as a group are personally wealthier than most of the population (in the case of, e.g., Romney, hugely more wealthy) and there are many “career politicians,” but the idea of a ‘governing class’ (“trained — perhaps even bred — for the task” [Beer, op. cit.]) is more British than American.

51

Sebastian H 10.03.12 at 4:35 pm

There is something weird about authoritatively quoting a writer you admit makes almost no impact on modern thought, but anyway…

“The need for a ruling and serving aristocracy”

In the US, you can’t distinguish between conservatives and liberals on this basis. The only question presented to voters is “which group of mandarins will appoint which people from Harvard and Yale to the Supreme Court”. We live in a world where the liberal elite are just as happy as conservatives to go to an ivy league school, move to Washington DC where their ivy league compatriots will hire them, and plan to rule the other 280 million people without ever having to deal with them socially for the rest of their lives.

How is that not aristocracy?

And so far as I can tell it is worse in some very major countries in Europe. See especially France and the UK. (please note I’m pretty damn sure about my characterization of the US. Less so in Europe. )

52

Antonio Conseilhero 10.03.12 at 4:41 pm

“Indifference to, or at least complacency about, inequality” assumes that inequality is not intrinsically good, whereas many conservatives think that it is. Good things about inequality: it punishes the sinful and lazy, weeds out the gene pool, motivates effort, strengthens the position of leaders, encourages humility and devotion. Less acknowledged, more primal advantages: it can give sadistic pleasure to the rest, and it makes manifest the triumph of the victors. A surreptitious whiff of schadenfreude is part to conservativism.

53

Anderson 10.03.12 at 4:49 pm

49, I don’t see that # 2, “The superiority of liberty to equality in the hierarchy of human values and social purposes,” is self-evident. They’re both desirable; indeed, inequality can limit freedom. What is the cash value of this “superiority” to Rossiter?

54

jonnybutter 10.03.12 at 5:00 pm

#Holbo: Authenticity – *true* conservatism! – equivocates between ‘most ideal’ and ‘most real’, in a confusing way, at precisely the point when we should be keeping these separate.

Exactly right. Conservatism is essentially romantic (in a pejorative sense of that word) – it’s what accounts for so much of its appeal. This kind of romanticism obviously needs very heady rationalization – the rationalization in this case being a forever churning cloud of excuses for the preservation of privilege. Sullivan is up the wrong tree insisting that conservatism is essentially practical. That is particularly what it – like romanticism generally – is *not*. There is a reason Prof. Robin referred to the *reactionary* mind rather than the ‘conservative’ one. Conservatism is and has always been about reaction, counter-whatever. It’s for its own sake.

17 – @Phil I fail to see a mention if we are all equal or not in dignity, which seems to me that by the insistence on the need of classes, we arent, in that worldview.

Phil puts his finger on the problem with the kind of ‘nice chap’ conservatism Sullivan exemplifies. The private graciousness/public beastliness split you might see in other conservatives you are considering liking, is transformed in Sullivan to a kind of ideally authentic nice-chapiness. The ideal – which plays at the ‘more authentic then thou’ game with a vengeance -doesn’t have to include equal dignity as a principle, since, as noted above, when push gets to shove, conservative values have a way of re-combining themselves depending on the day. Authenticity is a kind of Ideal-as-nostalgia, as Mr Holbo suggests; the Ideal is not a fixed thing. This is very slippery stuff!

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Lee A. Arnold 10.03.12 at 5:04 pm

JOhn Holbo: “Obviously the solution is to do ideal philosophy, but not in a way that is untethered from a realistic sense of how things actually go – have gone – in practice.”

Then realistically: what is the source of inequality?

The basic motor of the various political philosophies appears to be what to do about the existence of inequality, or at least, how to frame it properly. The difference in the philosophies is due to the different theories for the source of the inequality. The reason for the great emotional and intellectual attachment to these philosophies is the self-justification of the individual in relation to the crowd of others.

Here is the problem: if there is one source of inequality, then it has not been identified yet. Inequality isn’t always due to natural differences, it isn’t always due to greed, it isn’t always due to the lust for power, it isn’t always due to capitalism, etc. — there are occasions of inequality in which any one of these may be absent.

You could say, “In practice, inequality is always due to one of these things, or a combination of them,” but that will lead you to a different philosophy than any we have now, wouldn’t it? Or you could choose, as a default, classical Enlightenment liberalism, which at least leaves the hope that scientific application will find the solution in each case. But that is not the same thing as an ideal philosophy; it is a patch job.

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Bruce Wilder 10.03.12 at 5:15 pm

“If you believe such things, there’s no reason why a sudden increase in inequality need trouble you, or seem like something politicians should try to do something about.”

Somehow, I tend to think that only loser liberals greet a sudden increase in inequality as something “sudden”, and not the outcome of something that politicians have been doing. A conservative, who regards the domination and exploitation of many by some, in hierarchy, as natural and desirable, may, indeed, greet a sudden increase in inequality as a good thing, but, surely, also, is likely to regard it as the natural outcome of successful political efforts to remove the leveling effects of artificial political institutions and policies, burdening or restraining, say, “economic growth”, or whatever euphemism conservatives are using to disguise their desiderata. Only a loser liberal will greet a sudden increase in inequality as some great mystery, and seek to trace its origins to impersonal forces, say, of globalization or technology, with no relation to the political agenda of conservative political movements, and then wonder aloud, whether some special type of conservative, will share his concerns, and wring hands with him, as an interlocuter — anything to avoid a respectful conservation with anyone to the Left of Brad DeLong.

As the OP implied, and other commenters have said, conservatives regard inequality as a good thing, by definition of “conservative”, and, duh, their political agenda is aimed squarely at increasing inequality.

Historically, the wildcard is political solidarity. When the would-be aristocracy feels dependent on the masses, for productive wealth or military security, the conservative may seek a more productive order of society, topped by a competent and serving aristocracy of merit, and serving to followers in the lower levels of the hierarchy, security and paternalistic care. But, when that sense of depending on those below erodes, the aristocracy reverts to its natural role as a criminal and parasitic conspiracy to squeeze the masses. The promise of old age pensions is replaced by debt peonage imposed from adolescence. On the lee side of peak oil and global resource constraints, under a Pax Americana of drone strikes keeping the terrorists terrorized, as the pie is shrinking, the only opportunities to add to the wealth and power of the one-tenth of 1% must rest on depriving the masses, their population still growing, of their claims on the diminishing resources of the earth.

That political conservatives recognize reality and anticipate it with reprehensible policies is only to be expected. What needs commentary and analysis is the tendency of the center-left to be surprised and helpless.

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Jeff R. 10.03.12 at 5:20 pm

@53: That was the axiomatic one. Most political philosophies boil down to an answer/ordering as to which of the civic values[1] should prevail when two or more are in conflict.

(And an argument or two about how maximizing their favorite value will have very good results for several of the others.)

[1] Liberty, Equality, Stability, and Prosperity being the most popular choices for the top, with Fraternity and Piety less in style, at least in the West. I’m sure that list isn’t comprehensive.

58

Bruce Wilder 10.03.12 at 5:48 pm

A fundamental distinction, in analyzing the sources of the wealth of nations, that identifies the role of hierarchy in impoverishing the masses in an extraction economy, would seem to me to be a first step, in fully grasping the criminal and parasitic nature of conservativism in the 21st century.

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2012/jun/07/what-makes-countries-rich-or-poor/?pagination=false

59

Anderson 10.03.12 at 7:35 pm

57: I’m not sure that metaphysical arguments about one capitalized word vs. another are of much use when these conflicts come along, though they are handy for rationalizing a conclusion one has already reached. But YMMV.

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LFC 10.03.12 at 7:53 pm

@58: Jeffrey Sachs reviews Acemoglu/Robinson somewhat critically in current Foreign Affairs, fwiw. Haven’t read it closely yet.

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Bruce Wilder 10.03.12 at 9:03 pm

“Jeffrey Sachs reviews Acemoglu/Robinson somewhat critically . . . “

There’s something that wouldn’t violate my expectations of Sachs.

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Ben 10.03.12 at 9:04 pm

“liberals don’t treat ‘what’s the most authentically liberal thing to do?’ as a proxy for ‘what’s the best thing to do?’”

Bwahahahahahahahahahahahahaha!!

Hahahahahahaha!

Yeah, right.

63

Dr. Hilarius 10.03.12 at 9:15 pm

Conservatives don’t really believe in the natural inequality of man. If they did they would favor social mobility and meritocracy. In practice they favor the abolition of inheritance taxes, nepotism, and cronyism. It’s social Calvinism, prosperity gospel and the mandate of heaven all balled up. We have it because we deserve it.

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Bruce Wilder 10.03.12 at 9:16 pm

Yes, I am saying I wish the center-left would reclaim the paranoid style for its own, and be quick about it.

65

KT 10.03.12 at 10:01 pm

Samuels Huntington’s classic article in the APSR and Murray Rothbard’s response out to be referenced.
http://www.anthonyflood.com/murrayhuntington.htm
” As Dr. Rothbard recognizes and deplores, American liberals are tending toward conservatism. Such a development, however, is not a sign of doom but of maturity. John Dewey and Henry Wallace were appropriate for the 1930s; Reinhold Niebuhr and George Kennan are required in the 1950s.”

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John Holbo 10.04.12 at 2:10 am

“Bwahahahahahahahahahahahahaha!!”

Just as some folks are doomed to play without a full deck, some folks must type without a complete keyboard.

Google results:

“true conservative” – 727,000 results

“true liberal” – 179,000

Furthermore, if you look at the kinds of top hits you get for ‘true liberal’ they consist substantially of attempts to argue that the true liberals are the classical liberals, i.e. the phrase is not being used as a self-description by the folks we ordinarily call ‘liberals’ but as a self-description by others, trying to claim the label for themselves. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that!)

“True progressive” gets you a bit more, actually: 199,000. But that’s still not a lot compared to the results for “true conservative”.

I am sure this is no sort of historical constant. If you tried this in the 1930′s or 40′s, I’m sure ‘true liberals’ would outnumber ‘true conservatives’. But today it is definitely the case that conservatives have a sense that conservatism cannot fail them. They can only fail it. Liberals do not have an analogous relationship to their philosophy, such as it is.

Take Sullivan’s book title: The Conservative Soul: How We Lost It, How To Get It Back.

A comparable liberal title would just sound weird. The Liberal Soul: How We Lost It, How To Get it Back. That just sounds strange. It’s a joke, like Austin Powers having his mojo stolen. But conservatives, at least at present, have a stronger sense of conservatism as a category of personal authenticity. Hence the point of my post.

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john b 10.04.12 at 3:58 am

The Google search being skewed a little by the fact that only one anglophone country uses ‘liberal’ to mean ‘left-wing’, whilst they all use ‘conservative’ to mean ‘right-wing’ – particularly when combined with the fact that US mainstream politics consists of a weakly-centrist movement and a conservative movement. For what it’s worth, I can easily imagine a UK book “The Soul Of The Left: How We Lost It, How To Get It Back”.

68

Phil 10.04.12 at 6:41 am

Indeed. Nick Cohen’s What’s Left: How the Left lost its way was actually retitled for the US as What’s Left: Who the Hell is Gerry Healy and Why Should I Care?… oh, my sides. No, it was retitled What’s Left: How Liberals lost their way, which rather bears out John’s point.

69

Phil 10.04.12 at 7:07 am

@54 Phil puts his finger on the problem with the kind of ‘nice chap’ conservatism Sullivan exemplifies

- actually this is a quote from & response to Latro @21.

No takers for my characterisation of Randianism as nihilistic when scaled up, and hence quite genuinely not a true conservatism?

70

bad Jim 10.04.12 at 7:28 am

We might as well view the distinction as primarily psychological, and class conservatives as authoritarians. This would explain why modern American conservatives, like their slave-owning predecessors, claim they’re defending the faith of the founders, while a century or so before they proclaimed the virtues of autocracy. The specifics of policy are largely beside the point, so long as they include piety and punishment.

Conformism is a defining characteristic of authoritarianism, and is egalitarian to the extent that it justifies whatever stratification of society happens to exist.

In this view, liberals are whatever is left over. They tend to tolerate considerable variation of behavior and belief, but it’s hard to generalize about such a motley assortment. Members of certain tribes, like academics, are most typically found in their numbers, but they are vastly outnumbered by people who, though not conformists, simply aren’t very interesting.

Psychology ought to be enough to distinguish between de Maistre and, say, Roosevelt.

71

Scott Martens 10.04.12 at 7:42 am

Someone (and unfortunately the most qualified person is probably me) should write an article on how the meaning of the word “liberal” managed to get its current connotations in the US. I know of no other place in the world where it has such a pejorative leftist meaning. I like to think I understand how words get and change meanings quite well. But how that happened has always eluded me.

72

Antonio Conseilhero 10.04.12 at 12:21 pm

My understanding is that liberalism became left in the US between 1912 and 1932, especially with the New Republic liberals. In Europe business freemarketers were also culturally liberal because they had to fight traditional forms of aristocratic, religious, and military conservativism, whereas the American tradition was already free-market. (Even the religious tradition, John D Rockefeller was a devout Baptist).

So the New Republic liberals had to find somewhere to go, and they made a sort of alliance with labor. During the New Deal FDR shoehorned a kind of weak socialism into American ideology via the Four Freedoms , which included “freedom from want” which is emphatically NOT a traditional liberal freedom. Most 19th century European liberals took a hard line against labor, and even though urban workers played major roles in the 1779, 1830, and 1848 revolutions, they were always suppressed afterward (to say nothing of the Paris Commune).

73

Mao Cheng Ji 10.04.12 at 1:00 pm

Liberals too are into equality of opportunity mostly, not of the outcome. And if equality of opportunity is what you care about, the actual inequality shouldn’t be a big problem for you either. As long as extreme poverty is ameliorated and various identity teams are proportionally represented on every level, of course.

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Scott Martens 10.04.12 at 1:26 pm

Antonio, since I have an intensely boring writing project right now, I did do some cursory searching for an answer. “Liberal” definitely did not mean “left” in America in the 1950s. American texts setting “liberal” in opposition to “leftist” are easy to find from the 50s. I found one from Arthur Schlesinger in 1956 that says outright that America is basically a liberal country, but has never had a strong left because it came by its liberalism without having a revolution.

Rockefeller ran as a “liberal” Republican against Goldwater in 1964. As late as 1980, Ted Kennedy ran on being a “liberal” against Carter, and credibly avoiding any strong leftist associations.

“Pinko-liberal” goes back at least to the 1920s. It’s been used in some sectors as a leftist epithet since before the New Deal. I note that people dragged up before HUAC would deny they were Communists or leftists of any kind, but quite ready to claim to be liberals. The kinds of institutions that had a lot of “liberal” supporters and denied any “leftist” connections tended to be things like the NAACP, the ACLU, the B’nai B’rith… Josh White’s HUAC testimony gives a whole list.

My provisional thesis is that “liberal” and “left” only became seriously associated in America through opposition to the Civil Rights Movement, and had taken root in Nixon’s “Silent Majority” between 1950 and 1980 because of their opposition to liberal social reforms.

At first glance, it only seems to have gone mainstream after the 1980 election because it was something Reagan kept pushing. By 1988, the elder George Bush – who was very much from the self-described “liberal” wing of the Republican party and had run credibly on his liberal credentials in 1980 – was clearly trying to recast himself as a conservative. And Reagan seems to have started seeing liberal as a sort of feeble communism in the early 1960s when he was the frontman for the anti-socialized medicine forces. He was very fond of misquoting Norman Thomas as claiming that America would happily adopt “socialism” as long as it was called “liberalism”.

In short, it may be opposition to things that are actually liberal that turned the word into an epithet in America. But its association with the left may be mostly due to Ronald Reagan.

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garymar 10.04.12 at 1:35 pm

Seventy-two comments in and still no mention of irritable mental gestures.

76

Watson Ladd 10.04.12 at 2:12 pm

So would all the commentators arguing for a metaphysical difference care to explain why the two candidates will both cut Social Security and Medicare spending despite such huge differences? It seems that the people we are talking about here are quite powerless.

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Antonio Conseilhero 10.04.12 at 2:41 pm

The difference between European so-called “classical liberals” and American political liberals is what I said, and it is a right-left difference. More government intervention in the economy, social welfare spending, support for unionization, etc.

“Liberal” still doesn’t really mean “left”. Liberals are accused of being socialists and Communists by teapartiers, etc., who don’t know the meaning of any of the words. In the absence of a real left, “liberal” is the catch-all term.

After WWII when we switched alliances from Eastasia to Eurasia, the actual left was purged from the Democratic Party and the third parties disappeared, but the left had been a factor before, in uncomfortable alliance with liberals, technocrats, etc. This culminated in the 1948 election where the Progressive Party got 2.4% of the vote.

The Democratic Party was pretty aggressively anti-Communist and anti-leftist after that, but not enough so for McCarthy and many others. It still was America’s left party, though, whereas European liberal parties were center-right and a bit like our Libertarians.

In 1948

78

Uncle Kvetch 10.04.12 at 2:47 pm

We might as well view the distinction as primarily psychological, and class conservatives as authoritarians. [...] The specifics of policy are largely beside the point, so long as they include piety and punishment.

Very well put.

79

Jeffrey Davis 10.04.12 at 5:03 pm

The fallibility and potential tyranny of minority rule, though, is of scant concern for conservatives. For example, say, rule by an actual tyrant.

So, what we’re looking at, if the present day righties get their way, is Spain under Franco. Or maybe one of the tawdrier South American strong man regimes.

Just don’t let the majority get in control or they’ll never give it up.

80

Antonio Conseilhero 10.04.12 at 5:15 pm

The fallibility and potential tyranny of minority rule, though, is of scant concern for conservatives.

Just as every majority is a coalition of people with varying interests, so is every minority. Minorities are just smaller coalitions. The idea of protecting minorities as such is as incoherent as the idea of majority rule. What you can do is protect certain designated minorities against all other minorities and all majorities. Or you can protect every individual against certain kinds of things from whatever source.

The only relevant minority in the Constitution is propertyowners, and the majority they’re being protected against is the propertyless.

The Constitution did not protect black Americans, native Americans, or (after the Mexican War) Mexican Americans. It did protect slaveowners, though, who were a class of propertyowner and a minority both in the South and, even more so, the nation as a whole.

81

bianca steele 10.04.12 at 5:32 pm

“Liberal” still doesn’t really mean “left”.

It’s very difficult to understand what it could possibly mean, if it doesn’t mean “left.” When George H.W. Bush called Michael Dukakis “a liberal,” it meant left. When Ann Coulter complains about “liberals,” she means people on “the left.” She is not saying that she would prefer CPUSA members. When people within the Democratic Party talk about the Ted Kennedy liberal wing of the Democratic Party, they mean the left or progressive wing.

You can tell me the Republicans who use “liberal” that way are trying to tar the center as farther right, and you can tell me that if I use “liberal” the same way politicians and reporters do I’m falling victim to advertising culture, and you can tell me that even Ann Coulter is (quite deliberately) deducing from L1 wants P, and A is L2, that L2 wants P. Doesn’t help me much, unless my goal is to make you like me.

82

bianca steele 10.04.12 at 5:35 pm

To be clear, obviously, it means something more like centrist, and these days, now that “liberal Republican” is once and for all an oxymoron, it means left-center. But the usage is still unexceptionable that makes “liberal” a respectable synonym for “left” (similar to how “pink” has changed).

83

Antonio Conseilhero 10.04.12 at 5:42 pm

Scott and I were talking about two different things. I was talking about the difference between American liberals and European liberals, and he was talking about the transformation of the word “liberal” into a pejorative meaning something like “Communist”. I think that it’s all about the rise of the right wing. The John Birch Society made that identification in the 1950s, and while they were fringe, a lot of people did think that way, and they eventually became dominant in the Republican Party.

84

mds 10.04.12 at 5:43 pm

No takers for my characterisation of Randianism as nihilistic when scaled up, and hence quite genuinely not a true conservatism?

This yet again comes back to the problem that no one resides in Scotland anymore. In the US, currenntly the most visible poster child for Randianism / Objectivism is Congressman Paul Ryan, who is also the Republican vice-presidential candidate. Very few Republicans or other American conservatives would suggest that he is somehow not a true conservative.

Granted, the US scene skews this somewhat, as Ryan and most of his fellow American Rand fetishists adhere to a bizarre fusion of Objectivism with far-right religosity. So I suppose one could still say that Rand’s actual atheistic philosophy would scale up into something other than true conservatism. But the bulk of American right-wing Christians are already sort-of nihilistic due to their Dominionist or premillenial dispensationalist strains, and I don’t think we can safely write them out of conservatism on those grounds.

85

Substance McGravitas 10.04.12 at 5:50 pm

I’m not sure the “when scaled up” qualifier is necessary either.

86

bianca steele 10.04.12 at 7:09 pm

Antonio:
Well, certainly, round about 1900 or so a German or Austrian liberal wanted to expand the suffrage a bit more drastically than a US liberal did. Not sure how that helps. I’m pretty E.M. Forster and Karl Marx had a lot more influence on how Americans used “liberal.”

87

Antonio Conseilhero 10.04.12 at 7:24 pm

I know literally nothing about German or Austrian liberalism, a lot more about French liberalism, and a certain amount about British liberalism. Based on France and Britain I think of liberals as being anti-labor Gradgrinds and Scrooges.

88

bianca steele 10.04.12 at 8:59 pm

Very roughly (I’ve already lost a version of this comment, it’s been a while, Wikipedia isn’t all that helpful)–also, “round about” means “+/- 20-30 years”–the Liberals were the rightmost reform-requesting party in parliaments that, when they were on, still had almost no power: liberal still meant trying to move the government to be more parliamentary. Individual members, at least, were often Anglo- or Francophilic, thus culturally cosmopolitan . Farther right than the Social Democrats or Communists, and in Marxist terms, I guess, already in power, but in context “left” and possibly even “dangerously left” (for instance, in danger of being censored).

I’d anticipate two objections: first, that I’ve gotten something wrong here, which is possible; second, less reasonably in my opinion, that the Liberals must have been some kind of right opposition, which vis-a-vis the actual government of Germany at the time, strikes me as implausible, but it’s possible I’ve gotten something wrong.

89

Mao Cheng Ji 10.04.12 at 9:18 pm

81: “It’s very difficult to understand what it could possibly mean, if it doesn’t mean “left.” When George H.W. Bush called Michael Dukakis “a liberal,” it meant left.”

In the eye of the beholder. A supporter of constitutional monarchy is to the left of a supporter of absolute monarchy, but to a republican they are both right wingers.

90

Leinad 10.04.12 at 11:19 pm

Lacking a labor party, the US still has a liberal left, so it’s still Whigs v (post-revolutionary, avowedly capitalist) Tories over there, down to the ancient, creaking electoral system and property qualification (admittedly by stealth, and with a racial animus).

Sorted.

91

liberal 10.05.12 at 1:55 am

Lee A. Arnold wrote,

Here is the problem: if there is one source of inequality, then it has not been identified yet.

There’s not one single source of inequality, but in terms of doing meaningful normative political economics there indeed is: parasitic rent extraction.

Henry George understood this over a century ago. It’s very strange that no one these days seems to know it.

92

purple 10.05.12 at 2:16 am

I can’t anyone seriously who takes IQ tests seriously.

93

LFC 10.05.12 at 2:37 am

I’m pretty [sure] E.M. Forster and Karl Marx had a lot more influence on how Americans used “liberal.”

?? Forster of course was mainly a novelist; I doubt all that many Americans read his ‘Two Cheers for Democracy’ or whatever political writings this remark refers to. Marx was not particularly influential in the U.S. during his lifetime, and not all that much more thereafter.

94

bianca steele 10.05.12 at 2:18 pm

@93

The line about conservatism being “a series of irritable gestures” is from Lionel Trilling, for whom IIRC E.M. Forster was a paradigm case of a liberal. Presumably he’s had some influence over the education of young people in the past fifty or sixty years, over the media, and so forth.

95

LFC 10.05.12 at 2:29 pm

@94
I didn’t recognize the line as being from Trilling, though it sounded sort of familiar.

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Harold 10.05.12 at 3:08 pm

My grandfather, a small businessman and first generation immigrant, idolized Teddy Roosevelt and hated Franklin. His bête noire was Woodrow Wilson. Grandpa used to say, “A liberal is a man with his two feet planted firmly in the air.”

Or so my mother told me. I confess I never heard him say this, and I was closer to him than she was, since they quarreled violently about the Spanish Civil War when she was fourteen and were never on really good terms again.

On the internet this quote is attributed to Winston Churchill, though unsourced. In my grandfather’s day one could be a conservative and still preserve some of the now apparently completely obsolete ideals of gentlemanly behavior. Grandpa was appalled by the revelations in the Watergate tapes and particularly Nixon’s vulgar language, though he had voted for Nixon and had sported flag decal on his car.

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UserGoogol 10.05.12 at 9:36 pm

I’d say there’s a difference between the left and The Left. American Liberalism is of the left in the sense that it’s on the left half of the political spectrum. (Well, depending on how you draw the line. It’s left of the median American voter, anyway.) But it’s certainly not leftist in the sense of having any serious ideological connection with socialism. It’s obnoxious that the word has these two meanings, especially since the terminology of breaking the political spectrum into left and right predates the rise of socialism as a serious political movement.

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Aristocratic Asshole 10.06.12 at 3:14 pm

Of course conservatives don’t believe that humans are inequal by nature. Natural equality is the reason to create institutions of inequality. If you don’t have an aristocracy liberated from the need to labor, you don’t get Mozarts or Darwins or Newtons doing great things with their privilege. Nobody is so superior that he can achieve greatness without a good amount of privilege (and the more, the better). Since we can’t liberate everyone from labor (without starving — since nobody would make the bread), there needs to be inequality. The alternative is an equality where nobody is liberated. And no Mozart.

It’s true that not everyone who is freed from labor becomes Mozart. But that’s a difference within the leisure class. Nobody actually believes that the leisure class is by nature (e.g., genetically) better than the working class — as if a field-worker could produce a Mozart, if only his children had the talent. A leisure class is better than a working class because the leisure class does not have to labor, and thus can provide for its young a fuller realization of potentials.

In other words, wealth is not a product of personal merit; personal merit is a product of wealth. In this way, conservatives are correct in claiming that meritocracy exists.

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bianca steele 10.06.12 at 4:51 pm

me @ 88
If I have time I’ll see what Hobsbawm says about the German-speaking Liberals and the Austrian and German parliaments, I have The Age of Empire lying around somewhere around here.

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rootless_e 10.06.12 at 5:19 pm

But it’s certainly not leftist in the sense of having any serious ideological connection with socialism.

the left has given up socialism but remained sectarian – Bob Fitch, paraphrased.

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Harold 10.06.12 at 6:16 pm

Some time ago, in looking up what scholars had formerly said about Rousseau, I was struck by this passage from the (at one time) very influential political scientist Sir Ernest Barker (1874-1960). I wondered to what extent writings such as his had influenced the proponents of the so-called “Vital Center” which lives on in vestigial (zombie?) form in the writings of the Washington, DC, pundit class:

“You can find your own dogmas in Rousseau['s Social Contract] whether you belong to the Left … or whether you belong to the Right.. .. The only dogmas which is is difficult to find are those of the Center — the Center to which the English Whigs, whom a later generation called Liberals, have really always belonged, though they have always professed to belong to the Left. There is no comfort for the Center in all the shot fabric of Rousseau’s book. That is why it is natural to prefer the hodden gray of Locke’s cloth to the brilliant but parti-colored silk of Rousseau . . . Yet what a magic has style– above all when the language is French.” Sir Ernest Barker, Introduction to Social Contract: Locke, Hume, Rousseau (c. 1960) pp. xxxviii-xxxix.

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Bruce Wilder 10.06.12 at 6:17 pm

liberal @ 91: “There’s not one single source of inequality, but in terms of doing meaningful normative political economics there indeed is: parasitic rent extraction.”

Henry George understood this over a century ago. It’s very strange that no one these days seems to know it.”

Indeed. Twice.

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Harold 10.06.12 at 6:22 pm

Someone has written a definitive study on Barker’s influence: J. Stapleton, Englishness and the Study of Politics: The Social and Political Thought of Ernest Barker (Cambridge, 1994).

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chris 10.07.12 at 1:35 am

“Enoch Powell, a very high Tory, once said that every political career ends in failure, because the problems that they have solved will have inevitably ceded by then to new ones, and new exigencies and new times.”

Doesn’t this assume that the person in question is incapable of responding to new exigencies and new times? That may be true for a conservative, but it needn’t be true for everyone.

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moron 10.07.12 at 3:46 am

There’s no mystery to why Sullivan keeps defending “conservatism” as disconnected from anything recognizable by that name. “Conservatism” is his schtick — in the 90s, being “the gay Catholic conservative” was an irresistably counter-intuitive niche for an ambitious young journalist and aspiring pundit of Sullivan’s level of talent and intellect — which is not huge.

Then of course, the American right devolved into the kind of nakedly insane, borderline fascist clown-car the rest of us mostly understood it was destined to be all along, but Sullivan didn’t really have anything else interesting to say or do. If you take away his “gay conservative” schtick, there’s not much remaining to distinguish him from dozens or hundreds of more interesting people one could be reading. He’s not a terribly insightful commentator (certainly not about politics LOL!). He’s a decent writer, as the Brits make sure their top university graduates at least know how to write well if not think very clearly… but he’s no Christopher Hitchens, that’s for sure. If he doesn’t keep riding the hobby-horse of “conservatism”, what’s he got left?

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John Holbo 10.08.12 at 2:46 am

That Barker stuff sounds good. I’ll have to check that out.

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