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Monday, October 24, 2005

Conservatism on Trial in St. Louis

Well, it seems that once again I've managed to let nearly month go by without much serious blogging. I guess I'll have to do something about that.

I just got back from a conference in St. Louis--it was the annual meeting of the Association for Political Theory, a relatively new and growing professional academic group--and I was on a roundtable discussing "Prospects for American Conservatism." It was an excellent panel, with some great discussion afterwards--in some ways, a replay of the panel I was on with some of my fellow bloggers at APSA, but in some ways going in a very different direction. For one thing, it was much more personal, reflecting the efforts of four people thinking very hard about how to place themselves and their interests, hopes and fears in relation to what passes for "conservatism" in America today. I can't do justice here to the energized discussion which followed afterwards; suffice to say it was an excellent exchange all around. And there was a lot of material presented worth arguing about: Steve Millies used Burke to thoughtfully explore and critique the highly imprudent and anything-but-traditional Bush Doctrine ; I did my usual Christopher Lasch-inspired social conservative-Christian socialist shtick (our panel chair, the sharp and funny Daniel Pellerin, said after listening to me that he was surprised to find an old-fashioned Red Tory living in the U.S.); Gus Dizerega discussed his break with libertarianism and his suspicion of a totalitarianism lurking within the soul of the Christian right; and Ed Wingenbach reminded us of the danger of getting caught up in a merely "nominalist" argument when the conservative movement in America today, whatever it actually consists of, has been so successful in positioning itself as the party of power.

Ed's comments were particularly relevant given the arguments which emerged in the discussion period, most having to do with the apparent intentions of contemporary imperialists and certain neoconservatives. Does talking about "conservatism" do anyone any good in diagnosing this phenomenon at all? You link this wholesale revision of much of what has long been assumed to be "conservative" (realism, prudence, community, tradition, localism, etc.) with the ambitions of certain religious activists, and what you find is the acknowledgement that the word itself simply doesn't describe the existing movement; as Joseph Bottum himself admitted in a prominent essay in First Things, "this isn't conservatism....But so what? Call it the new moralism, if you like. Call it a masked liberalism or a kind of radicalism that has bizarrely seized the American scene." Daniel's observation that, if Hartz's thesis about the liberal tradition in America has any truth to it at all, then there is every reason to properly read Bush's adventures as a somewhat radicalized iteration of American Whiggery, the liberal imperialist mindset which has always lurked below the surface of America's civic creed and which now, post-Roe, post-9/11, has found a new outlet. I think there's a great deal of truth to that. But, for my own sake, I also think it's important to point out the enduring, oft-misunderstood presence of at least one authentically conservative strand of thought in the current Republican party.

As the discussion turned to the war on terrorism, I confessed that I had drank the Kool-Aid: back in 2003, as most of you know, I was a worried but nonetheless emphatic supporter of the Iraq War. I have long struggled, against my better judgment, with the problem that there is much that someone of my views can plausibly admire about President Bush, and a great deal of that is caught up the way he and those around him intentionally or unintentionally tapped into a deep idea--an idea that, as I put when I finally admitted that I needed to eat some crow, "appealed to me: [one that] made sense, [that] matched what I thought ought and could be possible in a world of danger and oppression where the meaning of sovereignty had changed but the role of national power hadn't." When one member of the audience suggested framing the present condition of conservatism and liberalism in the U.S. explicitly in post-9/11 terms, this is what I came up with--

In the aftermath of 9/11, and reaching all the way to the invasion of Iraq, Bush's and the neoconservatives call to war has ideologically caught up three distinct groups of Americans. The first and largest group responded to the attack on the U.S. and its interests with a straightforward patriotism, the sort of civic and religious pride in America that united many diverse factions all throughout the Cold War when Soviet communism was presented as a legitimate and dangerous threat to the American way of life. Despite the way in which, post-Vietnam, self-described "conservatives" were able to claim this mantle for themselves, there was never anything coherently conservative about it; in fact, to the extent that the "American way of life" is basically a liberal one, than this patriotic reaction is similarly "liberal" in a rather fundamental way. The second group, smaller but highly influential, were the liberal nationalists and internationalists, who resonated to the call to war for reasons of human rights and idealism and the promise of uniting democracy promotion with imperial might. So much has been written about this group (and so much of which, I must admit, I still cannot help but be sympathetic to) that there's no point in elaborating it further, except to note that, whether they called themselves liberal hawks or neoconservatives, this too, at bottom, was just another iteration of liberal reformism and humanitarian imperialism, Gladstonian-style.

The line dividing the second group from the third is thin and hard to discern, but important to speaking clearly about conservatism today. For this third, I think very small group, what happened as we watched the World Trade Center come down on September 11th was the realization, for the first time in a very long time, that one could actually see a boundary, a limit: there really was this place called "America," and it had a culture and a way of life and a meaning, and there was something outside of it, something that wasn't a function of, or susceptible to, the abstract forces o globalization, but instead took the corporate Americanization of the world and shoved it all back into national, historically embedded terms. In other words, all of sudden we could see ourselves as a community, not just a site of media and market exchanges, and a community worth loving as well. And to the extent which the struggle with Islamic fascism and terrorism proceededd on those terms, terms which presumed (and, we fancifully imagined, even encouraged the growth of, despite Bush's refusal to ever talk about any real kind of sacrifice) a solidarity with and commitment to one's own....well, the neocons and liberal hawks ended up leading a number of us national communitarians and Christian socialists around by the nose.

When I was making my remarks, Steve told me later, he scribbled down on his pad "Christopher Hitchens conservatism!"--and that nails it, absolutely. There is something subtly yet authentically conservative about the present Republican party, and it draws on that portion of the left which knows that social egalitarianism, or indeed any social ideal, will never be enough--you need an socially engaged community, a socialist and egalitarian culture, and for that you need a common morality and collective goods. A very small yet real part of the progressive left has, I think, rightly decided that we're the only one's left actually defending the authority of community and tradition, and we'll take any ally we can find in this battle, with the result that religious and communalistic progressives often end up with odd bedfellows. Too bad a lot of us for a long time couldn't see (as some of us, like Hitchens, still can't) that Bush's "traditionalism" appears to involve far more cronyism that communalism, which means that--arguably unlike the more honest imperialists of 19th-century Britain, or even the liberal-yet-still-culturally-traditional architects of America's transformative occupations of Germany and Japan after WWII--he is unwilling to acknowledge, or more likely is entirely ignorant of, what respecting and encouraging a decent culture actually means.

Anyway, since I'm now thinking about all this stuff, I might as well try to get down a couple of other recent, more theoretical ideas I've had related to conservatism, both inspired by a series of wonderful posts written by Lee at Verbum Ipsum a few weeks back. In those posts, he touched a bunch of important and interrelated issues--populism, agrarianism, technology, and the role of the state and the market--all in the context of exploring conservatism. I'll see if I can't them both up over the next day or two.


Anonymous said...

Were there any conservatives in the jury? This sounds like an academic exercise.

I'd be more interested if people who were conservatives back whenever it was the four of you thought there was an authentic conservatism were their to explain why they were conservatives still. 

Posted by Adam Greenwood

Russell Arben Fox said...

Were there any self-described conservatives present at all? I'm not sure. We never seriously got into social conservative or moral issues, Adam, instead focusing almost entirely on terrorism, Iraq, questions of "imperialism," etc. Our panel chair strongly defended the Iraq War--though as he saw it, that wasn't a matter of being a "conservative" as it was a matter of staying true to the principles of liberalism and the necessity of making individual rights an absolute priority. In other words, he was a Gladstonian liberal. Do they count as "conservatives" now? 

Posted by Russell Arben Fox

Anonymous said...

In our defense--while I'm aware "academic exercise" is a borderline pejorative in the rest of the world, if an academic exercise isn't appropriate or potentially-fruitful at an academic meeting, then why are we in this business in the first place??? 

Posted by Steve Millies

Lee said...

This may be a minor quibble, but it's odd to me to associate C. Hitchens with any kind of left-communitarian-cum-traditionalism. He has always struck me as someone who is committed to the Enlightenment Project and sees the "war on terra" as, in part, a war of secularism vs. religious fundamentalism. He may be the only neocon (or ersatz neocon) who really does believe in the Trotskyite revolution from above business that some of the more rabid right-wing critics accuse the neocons of espousing.

In other words, Hitchens seems to me to be closer to the hawkish libertarian types who are wildly overrepresented in the blogosphere (though I suspect Hitchens still has some vestigial left-wing economic notions, and he does still seem to be in the Pro-Palestinian camp).

All of which does lead (maybe) to a more substantive point, namely, that maybe there's a tension between the kind of communal solidarity that you (rightly in my view) see as a necessary condition for any kind of substantive politics of social justice and the "liberal hawk" idea of spreading free institutions via military power. If social justice requires a shared history, culture, values, etc., then the idea that we could unilaterally impose that on a country like Iraq would seem to be doubtful at best, wouldn't it? In other words, the "liberal hawk" position seems to me to sit better with the kind of Enlightenment cosmopolitainism that is really the antithesis of most forms of communitarianism. 

Posted by Lee

Russell Arben Fox said...

"In other words, Hitchens seems to me to be closer to the hawkish libertarian types who are wildly overrepresented in the blogosphere (though I suspect Hitchens still has some vestigial left-wing economic notions, and he does still seem to be in the Pro-Palestinian camp)."

I think you're right about this, Lee; I don't want to put too much weight on my friend Steve's association of Hitchens with the sort of socially concerned traditionalism I'm talking about here. The "culture" that Hitch wants to tend to is clearly a thoroughly secular and "Enlightened" one, in a pseudo-Marxist sense (i.e., being enlightened by a proletarian vanguard, etc.). Hitch probably at least half-believes in Marx's comment about the "idiocy of rural life" too, so not only will his preferred culture be secular and enlightened, but urbanized and cosmopolitan too.

I said in my post that there was only a thin line separating the liberal hawks from us cultural nationalists; maybe, as you suggest, the line isn't really all that thin. Still, I do think there is an important way in which they unexpectedly match up, and Hitchen's career over the last few years is emblematic of it. Those with a communitarian frame of mind know that talking about "civilizations" is not by definition a silly or oppressive way to frame things; in this sense, they simply see things differently from liberal hawks who see only obstacles to individual realization. Hitchens may be a believer in Enlightenment, but he's also thinks in terms of civilizations and cultures, which places at least one of his toes in my "left traditionalist" camp. And, while in retrospect I can see your point about problem that arise from attempts to impose the conditions of shared values, in practice certain strands of such idealistic liberalism can nonetheless appeal to these kind of communitarians; witness how easily Tony Blair, the prototypical Third Way statesman, flipped to liberal internationalism after 9/11.