(This isn’t part of our Walton seminar, though it’s got Plotinus in it.)
What is liberalism? What is conservatism? If you are interested in getting answers to these questions, you (probably) want the answers to do two things for you:
1) Give you the best possible version of this thing. What is the best liberalism/conservatism could be, as political philosophy? The truest, most valuable, most-defensible-in-argument versions. All that good stuff. (Obviously if you think one or the other, or both, are very, very bad and hopeless, that is your answer.)
2) Give you insight into what’s going on in real politics. What constructions of liberalism/conservatism, as philosophies, give me the best handle on what’s going on in the US election cycle, say?
There is a non-trivial risk of 1 & 2 coming completely apart. No one thing gives you both. It’s obvious why, but let me illustrate.
Suppose you think the best, most defensible philosophical conservatism would be G.A. Cohen’s conservatism.
Intellectually, that might be rather fine, yet useless for getting a grip on real U.S. politics. You can’t make sense of the Republican candidate line-up by measuring relative degrees of departure from what a British post-Marxist academic philosopher thinks conservatism ought to be. You could, of course, say something short and sharp: if Cohen is right about the good in conservatism, US conservatives are no-good conservatives. That seems right. (I think US conservatives should agree with it, if they are logical. They just think the antecedent of the conditional is false.) But this short, sharp tool doesn’t do descriptive work. You couldn’t build a ‘Cohen scale’, I don’t think, and use it to map, let alone explain, let alone predict, electoral results in Republican primaries (or whatever). It’s not that there is no relation whatsoever. Cohen is defending ‘existing value bias’ as rational. US Conservatives talk about how they are ‘losing the country’. But, seriously: if what you want is, primarily, a practical handle on US politics ‘conservatism’, for political science or journalistic or plain ordinary ‘I’m interesting in US politics’ purposes, Cohen-on-conservatism is not your go-to guy.
But, to repeat, maybe Cohen’s is the best of all possible normative political philosophies of conservatism. That no ‘actual’ conservatives believe it would not refute that proposition.
(What’s that you say? You think US conservatives really are more sensitive to ‘existing value’ than liberals? I think that’s nuts. The most you can say is that politics is positional; people get upset when they lose ground; sometimes the losers are conservatives; but that doesn’t make them Cohenesque. But, fine: believe your nutty belief. My point stands. I just need a different example. Joseph de Maistre. Maybe he is the best conservative philosopher ever, in your book. But if you read his complete works as tea leaves, to predict the 2016 Iowa Caucus results, you are seriously doing it the hard way.)
So that’s settled. 1) and 2) could come totally apart if actually existing liberals and/or conservatives are so non-ideal that thinking about what they would be like, ideally, doesn’t give us a rough template of what they are like, actually.
So assuming 1) and 2) will be jointly satisfied, to a significant degree, by any correct answer to ‘what is liberalism/conservatism?’ is a fallacy.
I call this fallacy Weak Normative Panglossianism: the partisan political world is close enough to ideal that a perfect map of the ideal partisan map (fantasy electoral football between ideal liberals and conservatives) is a rough sketch of the actual muddy scrum between actual, non-ideal liberals and conservatives.
Like I said, a fallacy.
It gets committed in two ways: Galtonian and Plotinian. That is, bottom-up, and top-down.
Galtonian Weak Normative Panglossianism
I’m thinking of Galtonian composite photography. I don’t want to say that this New York Magazine article on Iowa caucus voters commits it, but it invites it (down to the photographs.) Basically, to see what conservatism is, you just overlay all these folks and … see what you can see. What distinctive face, or faces, seem to emerge, or predominate, or whatever? That’s what conservatism is. (For now, anyway.) This might be done a couple different ways. For example, you might want to subtract all the pure transactional politics, and pure tribalism, before performing the experimental overlay. (Yes, how could you possibly do that? Indeed.)
Plotinian Weak Normative Panglossianism
Sticking with the New York Magazine article, you may read all this stuff and think of these voters as, qua conservatism, ‘less real’ than, say, prominent pundits/talk radio jocks, who are themselves emanations from think tanks/organizations/groups/movements, which are emanations from Reagan, who was an emanation from the Platonic fountainhead of Conservatism Itself.
I kid, because I don’t think anyone seriously thinks of themselves as thinking this way. (And I don’t think it’s a very sound way to think.) But here is T.S. Eliot, on political parties, sort of thinking this way. (Our Corey quotes this bit at the start of Reactionary Mind, be it noted.)
What its [a great party’s] fundamental tenets are, will probably be found only be careful examination of its behavior throughout its history and by examination of what its more thoughtful and philosophical minds have said on its behalf; and only accurate historical knowledge and judicious analysis will be able to discriminate between the permanent and the transitory; between those doctrines and principles which it must ever, and in all circumstances, maintain, or manifest itself a fraud, and those called forth by special circumstances, which are only intelligible and justifiable in light of those circumstances.
This is Plotinian in my sense. There is some ideal Form of the Political Ideal up there, and this thing – the Party – is an emanation from it. The party descends down from it, tries to rise up to it. The party gets ‘realer’, i.e. less manifest as fraud, the closer to its philosophical origin it gets. Eliot didn’t always and only think about politics this way, not even in this essay. But it’s easy to see how, thinking this way, you can feel you are getting a real handle on the real by focusing on the ideal. You are getting out in front of events, seeing what they aim at, at their most ‘real’, even if they never get there.
When it comes to committing the fallacy, people tend to be Plotinian about their own Party, Galtonian about the opposition (just as Galton was at first inspired to study criminals and other ‘defectives’.) But not invariably.
The Plotinian view might seem more elitist, but you can have Plotinian populism. And Galtonian elitism. (I’m looking at your General Will, Rousseau! At least I think I am. Chris Bertram? What am I looking at here? You are the Rousseau expert, not me.)
Trump is not a conservative on the Plotinian view, probably. But he probably is, on the Galtonian.
And the whole thing is a fallacy anyway, either way.
Just thought I’d mention it, while we wait for the Iowa caucus results to come in.