More Thoughts on Ideological Confusion

Richard Hofstadter wrote of pseudo-conservatives. Sam Tanenhaus has taken this idea up with his realist versus revanchist conservatives. In the time between these two thinkers, Henry Fairlie was a British journalist who lived in America for the last part of his life. He began his writing career before Reagan and Thatcher came to power. It is interesting to read Fairlie explaining conservatism in that earlier time, a conservatism that once was more trusting of government than capitalism.

Fairlie called himself a Tory, but his Toryism made him closer to a Democrat. American conservatives often trace their tradition back to Edmund Burke who was a Whig and he was a liberal for his time. Burke argued against British imperialism and for the rights of Catholics. This would be the equivalent of an American politician arguing against American imperialism while arguing for the rights of Muslims, a hard thing to imagine a Republican doing.

There is lots of ideological confusion. While Tea Partiers point fingers at supposed RINOs, another group of conservatives have taken the left’s criticism of false conservatism and made it their own. Many moderate Republicans have seen their party taken over by the Tea Party which  is really just the inevitable result of the Southern Strategy. Conservatives liked how this strategy initially won them power, but they have come to question the price they paid for power.

Two books I’ve read this year offer moderate and moderating conservatism as true conservatism: The Founding Conservatives by David Lefer and Constitutional Conservatism by Peter Berkowitz. I don’t find their arguments overly convincing, but I just like that there are conservatives making such arguments. Of the two, Lefer makes the most original argument, partly basing his definition of conservatism on the example of John Dickinson. The only problem is that, if Dickinson is a conservative, most Republican politicians aren’t conservatives and many Democrat politicians are.

The other perspective is that of Corey Robin with his reactionary conservatism. He doesn’t see this as false, but as the real deal. He includes Burke among these reactionary conservatives. I’m sympathetic with this view. Burke after the French Revolution is like Reagan after the Cold War began, reacting not just to liberalism but more specifically their own liberalism or former liberalism. I suspect reactionary conservatives are often nothing more than liberals who become cynical about change? This makes them cynical liberals for sure. I don’t know that it makes them conservatives, reactionary or otherwise.

I must admit I’m fond of the notion of conservatism as moderation. However, this seems less about conservative ideology and more about conservative-mindedness. I’ve commented about the fact of American liberals being rather conservative-minded, defending what traditionalists once stood for.  This distinction between conservatism and traditionalism is important, but maybe it has less to do with conservatism. Such things as moderation and radicalism seem less to do about specific ideologies. Robin is maybe wrong to solely identify conservatism with reaction.

I honestly don’t know what conservatism is or could be under different conditions. I’d like to believe in a moderate and moderating conservative. People sometimes ask what do conservatives seek to conserve? The main problem I have with Lefer and Berkowitz is that they have a limited knowledge of history. If you don’t know the past, you might repeat what is less-than-desirable but you also won’t know what could and should be maintained. This is how conservatives constantly fail or even actively threatens traditional.

This brings me to two other books: Liberal Beginnings by Andreas Kalyvas and Ira Katznelson and The Magna Carta Manifesto by Peter Linebaugh.

Conservatives like to make a misinformed distinction between classical liberalism and modern liberalism. Progressive liberalism goes at least back to Thomas Paine’s “Agrarian Justice”, and it was Paine who inspired the US Constitution by suggesting Americans needed their own Magna Carta. Paine came of age when the enclosure movement was hitting hard those who were dependent on the commons. Besides food riots, one thing this led to is the first labor unions. The world during Paine’s life was the beginning of our modern political order.

Someone like Paine wasn’t simply attempting to create something new. He was trying to save what was being destroyed, the commons along with the rights of Englishmen. This relates to a long English tradition going back to the Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest. Liberalism arose not just in envisioning new liberties but in defense of old liberties. Such things as the commons are what modern conservatives would like to conveniently forget. Conservatives want to pick and choose what they want from the past and discard the rest.

A genuinely moderate and moderating conservatism would not be so blithe about the past. It isn’t just that they dismiss important traditions. They don’t even bother to learn the history that would inform them about why these traditions matter. I have a natural inclination toward moderation, but it seems to me that moderation can only exist to the degree that knowledge is embraced. I want to conserve what is good in the world because that is the first step to increasing the good.

If what goes for conservatism is somehow false, it is because it has become a hollow label.

6 thoughts on “More Thoughts on Ideological Confusion

  1. I was just now reminded of another book that shows this new tendency of greater number of conservatives running from the ideological extremes. The book is JFK, Conservative by Ira Stoll..

    When conservatives try to claim someone like JFK, you know they are getting desperate to rebrand themselves. Conservatives seemingly want to be a little bit of everything. So, no matter which way the wind blows, they can claim that they were always going in that direction and that they like going in that direction.

    It would be as silly to call JFK a radical left-winger as to call him a conservative. He is the essence of modern progressive liberalism, both good and bad.

  2. If conservatism is about conserving and hence moderation, then I am a conservative. I don’t say that flippantly. I’ve come to recognize a conservative-minded strain within me, but it is never been clear to me that conservative-mindedness has anything inevitably and directly to do with modern movement conservatism.

    I’d be fine with being a conservative and even being called a conservative. What I care about isn’t just conserving but what is conserved. To conserve one public good is to sacrifice others. To conserve one tradition is to sacrifice others. That is something many conservatives don’t understand. To be a self-aware and informed person of a conservative-minded bent means knowing what is lost, even by one’s own actions.

    I’m no different than many other liberals and left-wingers who are more conservative-minded than conservatives would like to admit. Most people want to conserve something, defend it and uphold it, promote it and strengthen it. My complaint against conservatism isn’t all that different from that of many other liberals and left-wingers. I criticize conservatives for knowing so little about the past and hence so little about what is worthy of being conserved and what inevitably gets sacrificed.

    Liberal or conservative, left-wing or right-wing, I support all people of good conscience who seek to base their views on knowledge. Even with those I disagree with, I seek to support anyone who is a worthy opponent. Politics lately, however, hasn’t been a struggle of worthy opponents. It has been a game of realpolitik, of disinfo and spin, rhetoric and propaganda.

    The commons is what I seek to conserve. It is part of our Anglo-American tradition that goes back for longer than written history. The commons was the basis of Lockean land rights. Peasants were practicing and defending their Lockean land rights for centuries before Lock was born. The commons belonged to the people because they used it. The same attitude was held by the Native Americans when the land they used was stolen from them.

    If conservatives disagree with conserving this ancient tradition, they ought to do so with knowledge and fair debate. After so-called conservatives learn more history, I’ll listen to their arguments and take them seriously.

  3. Here are two books that are of interest:

    Here is a good summary about Burke in terms of American politics:

    “When conservatives evoked Burke, it was out of fear that stability, order, tradition, or hierarchy, were at risk. When liberals evoked him (which was less often and less urgently), they recalled his own reform efforts and humanitarian sensibility. The “real” Edmund Burke was often in the eye of the beholder. Liberals were less compelled to cite his legacy because they drew from a larger list of “heroes,” “fathers,” or ideological predecessors than was available to conservatives—especially in a nation founded by revolution and devoted to freedom, equality, and the personal pursuit of happiness. When Americans contested the philosophy of Edmund Burke, they were really debating alternative moral visions, historical interpretations, and national ideals. In short, citizens’ opinions about Burke reflected their own conceptions of what it meant to be an American.”

    Here is a decent article but an even more important comment following it:

    Reinhold says: ““customs that had developed over centuries….were at root an expression of enduring principle.”
    Someone needs to explain this fundamental ‘conservative’ notion to me, because it seems, at face value, historically amnesiac and a priori stupid and absurd. Slavery is a custom that developed over centuries; its enduring principle is the slavishness and indignity of certain people or peoples. So it’s my assumption that no conservative will defend bad traditions; and if that’s the case, there’s nothing separating a conservative from anyone else, since it’s also my assumption that nobody will defend traditions which they consider bad, only those they consider good, and anyone is a traditionalist in that sense, and thus a ‘conservative.’ So why isn’t conservatism, embodied in this proposition, either trivial or self-defeating?”

    And here are a bunch of other interesting articles. The first one is by the author of the first book linked above. The second is by the author of the second linked book and it is criticism of the first book. The third one is also a review of the first book. The fourth is more general.

  4. There was a point I meant to make in this post but forgot.

    Polls and research shows that most Americans are symbolic conservatives and pragmatic liberals. This means they self-identify as conservatives when given a forced choice (between liberal and conservative while all other choices are excluded), but when it comes to actual issues they tend to side with what are considered liberal positions.

    Maybe mainstream views of politics are wrong. Maybe this pragmatic liberalism is the real conservatism. Maybe people know what they mean when they self-identify as conservative. Maybe it is the political elite who are clueless about the reality of American conservatism.

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