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Learning From Conservatives

Saturday, October 23, 2004
Today I'm going to wrap up my discussion of conservative political philosophy. If the number of hits is any indication, people are tired of it anyway :)

If conservative ideas are so bankrupt, why have I wasted so much time on them? There are a couple of reasons. First, we now have a bunch of ready-made arguments to use whenever we meet one of these people. If you get into an argument with a right-winger, you pin down what sort he is pretty quickly if you ask the right questions. If he or she is "generic" conservative, you can have plenty of fun pointing out the contradiction. Beyond mere debating points, there is always the possibility you could persuade someone. I had a pseudo-libertarian friend that I hammered away at for years. Finally he turned into a good liberal democrat. (Hi Steve!)

These arguments are not just for debating, however. In strategic terms, it always helps to know your enemy. Having grown up in the deep South surrounded by conservative ideas, I feel I have a pretty strong grasp of the nature of my opponent. Sympathy and understanding does not mean you approve of a school of thought, but it sure helps figure out how to fight. In short, "know your enemy."

Finally, the flaws in conservative thinking provide instructive guidance of liberals. There are perfectly valid concerns that animate modern conservatism, concerns we should address if we are to fashion a new majority. Some might think that all the intellectual stuff is just mumbo-jumbo, but I think that ideas are the horse that pulls the political cart. If you read E.J. Dionne's Why Americans Hate Politics, you can see how intellectual debates rooted in real-world concerns paved the way for the conservative ascendancy. We have to take the intellectual challenge seriously if we are to prevail.

We need to learn from conservatism. Each form of conservatism has its potential contribution. Libertarians have an honorable commitment to personal freedom, and its errors warn us to beware of ideologies that do not carefully examine the consequences of their policies. Cultural traditionalists teach us about the power of nostalgia. It also suggests to us that our new modern world may not be as friendly to communal values that we hold dear. There may be a hard price to pay for our new world. Its intolerance also teaches us that we should never subscribe so wholeheartedly to our ideals that we exclude the views of others.

Corporatism demonstrates the dangers of intellectual rigidity. Just because something worked in the old days does not mean it will work now. Substantively, corporatism does have a valuable pro-growth focus. Liberals have been so concerned about distribution that we have taken prosperity for granted. This was perhaps permissible when the U.S. was in a position of unquestioned economic hegemony, but today we face many new challenges. A new liberalism need to devise a developmental strategy something like that of the Federalists and Whigs if we are to adapt to new economic conditions. This challenge will be much greater than in the earlier era given the detachment of the elite and division of corporate interests from that of the body politic, but it is a challenge we must meet if we are to preserve the American middle class.

Finally, neoconservatism has an admirable belief in the importance of spreading democracy and a useful respect for the importance of power in foreign affairs. But, like libertarianism, their methods are self-defeating. Neocons are probably right in asserting that a world of capitalist democracies provides the best avenue for U.S. security. They are wrong in their assumption that this world can be created by force, or that this vision will be consistent with U.S. dominance. Liberalism mus work out its own method of broadening the circle of democratic nations while accepting the limitations of our own strength. We must work with the democratic nations, and yes, lead them, but we cannot expect unquestioning obedience. We must use democratic means to achieve democratic ends.

What do all these conservatism have in common. They are all somewhat simple-minded, and do not have the intellectual rigor required of a genuine public philosophy. Conservatism is the ideology of intellectual fundamentalism. Each one takes an important idea and pursues it to the point of absurdity, neglecting every other consideration. It is this characteristic which both makes conservatism an intellectual failure and gives it such rhetorical force. The right is very good at constructing an argument because they have a simple idea to express. We liberals have a much tougher task because we appreciate the complexities of life. This is another hurdle we must overcome. I think we can. We have done so in the past. We just need to do the work.

But we can take out of the failure of conservative thought important lessons. A new liberalism must have a fair regard to individual liberty, particularly in ways of life which we dislike (you may not approve of guns or smoking or McMansions, but they are essential to others). We must create room for small town life in what is primarily an urban vision of the future. We must work out a coherent strategy for economic development rather than just re-distribution. We must devise a foreign policy that advances democracy without over-extension or backlash. And we must integrate these changes into a liberalism which can be enunciated clearly and speaks to deeply held aspirations. We need a New Liberalism.

The historic role of liberalism has been to adapt our core egalitarian convictions to historic change. We must transcend the liberalism of 1960 and 1980 because those eras are past. We need new solutions, or need to adapt old ones to the new circumstances. And as everyone now knows, we need to learn how to talk about the problems and our solutions in comprehensible ways. It is to this task I will turn in the following days.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 6:53 AM
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