The Unnecessary Contradictions of a Conservative

Recently Andrew Sullivan offered an elegant and virtuous definition of conservatism:

For a conservative should not be implacably hostile to liberalism (let alone demonize it), but should be alert to its insights, and deeply aware of the need to change laws and government in response to unstoppable change in human society. Equally, a liberal can learn a lot from conservatism’s doubts about utopia, from the conservative concern with history, tradition and the centrality of culture in making human beings, and from conservatism’s love and enjoyment of the world as-it-is, even as it challenges the statesman or woman to nudge it toward the future. The goal should not be some new country or a new world order or even a return to a pristine past that never existed: but to adapt to necessary social and cultural change by trying as hard as one can to make it coherent with what the country has long been; to recognize, as Orwell did, that a country, even if it is to change quite markedly, should always be trying somehow to remain the same.

Obviously, this is an ideal and prescriptive account of conservatism; no such conservatism exists anywhere in practice, even approximately. It’s also idiosyncratic. Sullivan’s conservatism does not mesh with most popular or populist varieties. It is primarily a statement about social conservatism, leaving “fiscal conservatism” (which probably isn’t even a thing) aside, despite economic views forming a crucial aspect of contemporary definitions of conservatism.

The thing that immediately strikes me is that in much of what Sullivan says one could easily switch the terms “liberal” and “conservative” and have a perfectly plausible, though perhaps similarly idiosyncratic, version of liberalism, though it takes on a different meaning.

A swap in this sentence is profound: “A [conservative] can learn a lot from [liberalism’s] doubts about utopia, from the [liberal] concern with history, tradition and the centrality of culture in making human beings, and from [liberalism]’s love and enjoyment of the world as-it-is, even as it challenges the statesman or woman to nudge it toward the future.”

Utopian thinking is not the exclusive purview of liberal thought. Conservatives also dream of utopias; that is what it means to have a political philosophy. For what else is Sullivan’s idealised version of conservatism? It is a political dream that does not exist. Conservatives and liberals merely have different locations for their utopias.

So-called liberals are also deeply concerned with “history, tradition and the centrality of culture in making human beings,” but for the opposite reason as so-called conservatives. Conservatives are preoccupied with these things because they are employed as justifications for various kinds of power and the particular constitution of societies. But argument from tradition should be met with the same scepticism as argument from authority. And this is precisely why those who question the status-quo are concerned with history. Conservatives reify historical contingencies. However, the structure of our current society is not the inevitable result of historical progress. History explains society, it doesn’t justify it. A critical, rather than self-congratulatory, account of “history, tradition, and the centrality of culture in the making of human beings” is not a central characteristic of any prominent expression of conservatism.

Thus, where I fundamentally differ in outlook from Sullivan is with regards to the following:

[Conservatism] is rooted simply in a love of one’s own, in feelings of pride in one’s country or family or tradition. And unlike liberalism, conservatism does not shy from these sub-rational parts of what being human is. They are not to be conquered by sweet reason, because they cannot be. They need to be channeled, not extinguished, guided not fetishized. A conservative will be a patriot, but not a nationalist. He will be proud of his own country but never tempted to argue that it is a model for all humankind, or that it can be exported to distant, different places with vastly different histories.

Why should pride or tradition be beyond the censure of reason? To subdue one’s pride is a challenge, but not insurmountable. In any case, the more crucial rational analysis that need be applied is not to one’s own personal sentiments, but to the justifications for societal and political structures. Such analyses can reveal that most traditions are expressions of power: they function to uphold the social superiority of certain groups and marginalize others. And it can decidedly be shown that a self-critical politic based on questions of power and citizenship is less acrimonious and eminently more reasonable than a politic based on self-congratulatory pride. Sullivan contradicts himself (necessarily, one supposes) when he argues for moderation. Apparently pride can be conquered by reason, though perhaps not absolutely.

Sullivan continues:

This means a true conservative – who is, above all, an anti-ideologue – will often be attacked for alleged inconsistency, for changing positions, for promising change but not a radical break with the past, for pursuing two objectives – like liberty and authority, or change and continuity  – that seem to all ideologues as completely contradictory.

The “necessary contradiction” Sullivan talks about is not a matter of simultaneously held but fundamentally opposed beliefs, but an issue of balance (it isn’t a logical paradox to enjoy eating ice cream and also desire to be fit). And finding balance is not a necessary condition of any political philosophy, but merely a necessary condition of human life.

The peculiar contradictions that lead to distaste for conservatism are not the self-aware challenges of a weighing between authority and liberty that concerned thinkers like Edmund Burke (and essentially all political philosophers of his time, conservative or otherwise), but rather completely unreflective hypocrisies: the propounding of fundamentalist doctrines of “free-markets” while simultaneously using the resources of the state to protect the monopolistic control of wealth by a small number of individuals and corporations; rallying passions around the right to unrestricted individual liberties while opposing the extension of individual liberties to those who do not meet their personal moral standards; the professed love of a constitution that decrees a sacrosanct separation of church and state, while endorsing a Christian theocracy.

Sullivan generally thinks these so-called conservatives are terrible and not worthy of the name. Perhaps (though they’re certainly terrible). But they are not tantamount to strawmen nor are they deviations. They are not marginal. They wield substantial political power.

Let me offer a less-flattering definition of conservatism that is arguably closer to reality. Perhaps conservatives are those that profess a love of law and order when it favours their political, economic, cultural, and social power, but decree it corrupt and domineering when it curbs it. The same can be said for the respect and adherence to tradition that characterises conservatism. Tradition matters as long as it maintains the power structures that serve conservatives. Conservatives don’t care for the traditions of people they seek to disenfranchise.

The responsible and ethically-just citizen questions everything about their political role, not least of which the duties and rights incumbent on their citizenship. They recognise that they might have power, wealth, and privilege that is undeserved and unjustified. They will seek to remedy this injustice; their primary political concern is that every citizen’s enfranchisement is equitable and at a maximum. Such a self-reflexive analysis of power is precisely what I find lacking in modern conservatism. Some conservatives might think that calling for “smaller government” is an example of this, but this is primarily a mechanism to maximize the power of the already extremely powerful, to whom the institutions of government are seen as a threat. Fully critical political thought extends to questioning the limits of your own power, not merely that of others. It is also a view that trivializes the fact the governments that conservatives rally against are democratically elected, and operates with a narrow view that the only kind of power that needs to be kept in check is overt, institutionalised, political power. Conservatives often pretend as if economic, social, and cultural powers don’t exist, or, if they are vastly disproportionate between different groups, that this is entirely justified or natural.

At the core of the traditional difference between conservatism and liberalism are attitudes about change. Liberals yearn for constant revolution, while conservatives fetishize stability. But these stereotypes can no longer have any relevance in a world where a movement like the Tea Party exists, or the Conservative government of Canada is dismantling long-standing social and environmental institutions, and “liberals” make calls for greater political authority in enforcing human rights and environmental protection.

The conservative love and enjoyment of “the world as-it-is” is merely to say that conservatives love and enjoy being wealthy and being in power. They cherish social and cultural superiority. Non-conservatives love and enjoy the world as-it-is as well: they love and enjoy natural environments without exploiting them for profit; they call for the restrained pursuit of economic growth, recognising that ever-accelerating pursuit of financial gain is not necessary for a just world. The fundamentally conservative notion of a “zero-growth economy” is in the domain of the so-called “radical left”; it is the antithesis of the economic views of essentially all contemporary conservatives.

Sullivan argues, “A true conservative will defy the label of party and of ideology as well as a foolish consistency, when times shift.” So why bother with the label then? That Sullivan clings to the label seems to me the only thing that truly makes him a conservative. The label no longer means what it once did, and probably never actually represented what it was supposed to. What purpose can this serve other than rhetorical convenience? And what rhetorical meaning is Sullivan trying to save anyway? What necessary and sufficient conservative values does Sullivan hold? And how convenient could it be to call oneself a conservative but perpetually have to clarify what you meant by the term?

The reality is that idiosyncratic political viewpoints like Sullivan’s are common (though his reasonability is exceedingly rare). The function of political labels is sheer political expediency. They serve to flatten-out differences and herd people into groups so the powerful can get on with the business of fulfilling their agendas. And, in Canada at least, it is the conservatives that want to rush ahead with their agendas, without any debate or patience. A profoundly unconservative approach. This is why I have no respect for such political labels. I am immediately wary of anyone who proudly boasts of being a “liberal” or a “conservative.” I am immediately drawn to people who preface their political discourse by stating their unease or unwillingness to align themselves clearly with some political label, but who nonetheless struggle to remain cognizant of the myriad assumptions that lie behind their political beliefs. Contrary to Sullivan’s assertion, there is no such thing as an “anti-ideologue”; we are all inescapably ideologues. But certainly Sullivan is correct in claiming that the “true conservative” is he or she that postures as such.

(Evasion of criticism: I realize that Sullivan has written a book (which I have not read) on his views about conservatism, and I imagine he probably addresses at least some of what I write here. Apologies for the selective critique.)

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