Monday, December 05, 2011

Deep Thoughts, by George Will

Having read and re-read that Will article, I really believe this paragraph is the core of it. I've removed the references to Gingrich, because it makes a deeper philosophical point about the nature of conservatism:

[A] Marxist believes everything is related to everything else and only he understands how. Conservatism, in contrast, is both cause and effect of modesty about understanding society’s complexities, controlling its trajectory and improving upon its spontaneous order. Conservatism inoculates against th[is] hubristic volatility..."

Conservatism is not, historically speaking, a "movement" aimed at reform, revolution, or upending the nature of things. It is status-quo-ism. It is trimming the fat, restoring things to a state of equilibrium, moving beyond the hubris of trying to legislate fantasy in the face of reality. This is a conservatism that would appeal to Edmund Burke or Russell Kirk. Or possibly John Calhoun.

And therein lies the potential criticism of it: Calhoun was committed to preserving a status quo institution that needed to be destroyed. His brand of conservatism preserved, it did not overturn. Unlike Calhoun, today's movement conservatives no longer believe we can merely preserve the valuable institutions that form the core of our society. They believe that our most important institutions, which may vary depending on the type of conservative you are talking to (e.g., our Anglo cultural heritage, our common-law protections, religious institutions in the Judeo-Christian tradition, a town/locally-centric body politic), have already been trampled beyond recognition. They believe a restoration is needed, which would be transformative in nature, and destructive of the status quo built by liberals over the past 80 years. If this restoration is wrenching and full of conflict, so be it.

This is the opposite view of the traditionalist conservative, who sees more value in preserving stability, gradually steering society away from excess and harmful measures that may have accumulated over time, and working incrementally. One might also compare this to the difference between Clarence Thomas conservatism and Anthony Kennedy (or David Souter?) conservatism. Or to the difference between Reagan Republicanism and Rockefeller Republicanism, although both are imperfect analogies.

Note that this distinction does not apply perfectly to the candidates in this race. Gingrich espouses so many different views that he cannot be neatly defined as either an incrementalist (despite wanting a less audacious plan to entitlement reform than Ryan's "right-wing social engineering"), nor a restorationist (despite his views that he is leading a cavalry charge against the status quo).

Mitt seems to fit more clearly into the role of incrementalist. This obviously does not bother Will greatly, who seems more concerned with Romney's likeability, than with his preference for managing, rather than rolling back, the continued creep of liberal-statism.

Huntsman likewise can't be pigeon-holed, but is clearly more of an incrementalist and a valuer of stability. For example, look at how his approach to the debt ceiling crisis contrasted with the rest of the GOP candidates in the field: he voiced conservative priorities, but wanted to the brinkmanship that he felt had unknown consequences. Yet he also has some bold proposals (politically speaking), like the elimination of cap gains and dividend taxation. I presume that Will's main calculation is that Huntsman is more likeable than Romney, and thus a better candidate, while still hailing from a similar conservative tradition--one that Will is more comfortable with.

Will seems to ignore in this article, though I'm sure he's aware of it, that there are whole segments of the American right that are no longer incrementalists. Which is odd, because when Reagan and Thatcher were wresting of conservative political parties here and in England, I'm pretty sure Will sided with them over the status quo. I'd be interested to know if Will sees our current trajectory as closer to a "natural equilibirium" than was the case in the '60s and '70s.

In any event, these movement conservatives believe that societal institutions need to be upended, just as liberals have believed for centuries. They are focused on upending the institutions of the Great Society, the New Deal, and the Warren Court, whereas liberals have been focused on the Church (purveyor, in their view, of patriarchy and ethnic supremacism), strict property and contractual rights (resulting in wealth inequality), and the belief in homogenous cultural and moral values.

For these political warriors/movement conservatives, currently most associated with the Tea Party, Gingrich's personality, and elements of his ideology, seems to be a fit, even if his long record may not align with their goals when closely scrutinized.


ManBeast said...

Nice analysis Fredo. I'm definitely more in the movement conservative camp. Partly because debates these days always begin with comprise on degree of change with our current position as a basis. In other words, if there's a debate about tax rate, the Ds say we want a 10% increase and the Rs say we don't want any, and 5% ends up being the compromise. This is especially true with the size and budget of the federal government. We can't afford an incremental decrease - we need a drastic one.

I forget which candidate said it, but I really liked the premise of starting all foreign aid at zero each year.

Newt definitely has his problems and he certainly has a high opinion of himself, but he's actually gotten results. They were not just incremental ones either.

Fredo said...

Thx, Beasty.

I'm with you on being more closely aligned w/ the movement conservative camp, but probably won't support Newt in the primaries.

Ponnuru's piece today explains why:
if you dislike W's "compassionate conservatism" and "deficits don't matter" philosphy, Gingrich bears some of the blame. He so poisoned the well for supporters of small government with erratic behavior, childish complaints, the government shutdown, and ethics charges, that it took 15 years for the tea party to resurrect small-gov't republicanism.

I love Newt, but he's going to have a hard time convincing me to vote for him in a primary--I just don't think he has the steady hand of a leader, and as Will said, is taken up by intellectual fads. Ultimately, he serves his ego first, which just doesn't work. He's pitching himself as a "new Newt", and talks about how he's "more mature" than 20 yrs ago. I'm not buying, based on the campaign we've seen so far.

I'm also more "movement conservative" than "traditional conservative", but I just don't see a movement conservative out there who can the job of President done. And I'm tired of second tier leaders in the job. We've had that for at least 12 years, maybe more.

Luckily, just over the horizon, one sees Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, Eric Cantor, Pat Toomey, as rays of hope for movment conservatives...

Fredo said...


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