Liberalism often gets defined narrowly. This is true at least in mainstream American politics, by which I mean the present dominant society with its dominant frame.
It isn’t just conservatives and right-wingers misrepresenting liberalism, as seen with the arguments of Russel Kirk (also, consider Thomas Sowell, whose view of conservative constrained vision is similar to Kirk’s conservative claim of balance, both arguing against the imbalance supposedly expressed by liberal and left-wing extremism). Even certain kinds of liberals will fall into the same trap. Take for example the strange views of Jonathan Haidt.
This wasn’t always the case. In earlier 20th century, liberalism was praised widely by major politicians (including presidents) in both of the main parties. What this implies is that liberalism was seen more broadly at the time.
Consider Eisenhower’s words when he stated that, “Extremes to the right and left of any political dispute are always wrong,” and that “The middle of the road is all of the usable surface. The extremes, right and left, are in the gutters.” Yet, in speaking of extremes, he saw liberalism as part of the moderate and moderating middle:
So that here we have, really, the compound, the overall philosophy of Lincoln: in all those things which deal with people, be liberal, be human. In all those things which deal with the peoples money or their economy, or their form of government, be conservativeand dont be afraid to use the word. And so today, Republicans come forward with programs in which there are such words as balanced budgets, and cutting expenditures, and all the kind of thing that means this economy must be conservative, it must be solvent. But they also come forward and say we are concerned with every Americans health, with a decent house for him, we are concerned that he will have a chance for health, and his children for education. We are going to see that he has power available to him. We are going to see that everything takes place that will enrich his life and let him as an individual, hard-working American citizen, have full opportunity to do for his children and his family what any decent American should want to do.
Even in his brand of fiscal conservatism, he advocated for the wildest fantasies of progressives (unions, social security, etc) and defended a top income tax bracket at 91%. It is obvious that what he considered conservative back then would be considered liberal today. He was much further to the left than today’s Democratic Party. So, his moderate middle was also much further to the left than it is at present.
What stands out to me in Ike’s worldview is how he perceives liberalism. Political ideologies in the US get defined by governance and economics, which he sees as the territory of conservatism but not of liberalism. Instead, liberalism is at essence about people. Liberalism expresses the human quality of a good society. In that society is created by and for people, liberalism is an atmosphere that permeates the concerns for the public good. It is the broader guiding vision, the moral standard for our shared humanity.
* * * *
Let me return to the narrow view of liberalism. I came across a Clark L. Coleman who argued for the position of Russel Kirk. He writes that,
Kirk’s point is that conservatism is based on a balancing of numerous principles that society accepts as social goods. For example, we balance the need for law and order with the desire for individual liberty. We balance the desire to propagate our Christian heritage, and the benefits of having a religious populace, with the desire for religious freedom and the wariness of the problems of having an established state church. We seek equality under the law, but temper that with the recognition that institutions (church, marriage, military, et al.) must be exclusive to some degree to accomplish their missions. We desire the strength that nationalist feelings produce, but recognize that they lead to a warlike nation if untempered by other concerns, etc. A kind of Aristotelian moderation is central to conservatism.
Whatever that may describe, it isn’t the actual existing tradition of mainstream American conservatism. So, what is he describing? I really don’t get the argument being made. Obviously, this conservatism is envisioned as an ideal state, rather than the mundane reality of politics as it is. But what purpose does that serve? If this conservatism doesn’t accurately describe most self-identified conservatives, then whose conservatism is this? Is it just a conservatism for detached intellectuals, such as Kirk?
Anyway, Coleman goes on to offer the other side. He explains what forms the basis of everything that isn’t conservatism, most especially liberalism:
In contrast to conservatism, liberalism is an ideology in which a particular concept of “fairness and equality” is the principle that trumps all others; libertarianism is an ideology in which “individual liberty” is the principle that trumps all others; and Marxism is an ideology in which a certain definition of class struggle is at the center of all policy decisions and all analyses of the world. Empirical evidence to the contrary means nothing to ideologues; telling them that their One True Principle is insufficient to analyze all public policy would require them to undergo a complete change of world view.
I’m not familiar with the details of Kirk’s views. I don’t know if this is a fair and accurate presentation. But I do know it is a common view among conservatives, specifically more well-educated conservatives. It is even found among conservative-minded liberals such as Jonathan Haidt, who sees conservatism as a balance of values in contrast to liberals as inherently imbalanced and hence prone to extremism.
This argument is a rhetorical trick, so it seems to me. It’s a strategy of the Cold War. The 20th century was a conflict of ideologies. Those ideologies can be labeled and categorized in various ways, but this version of conservatism gets safely removed from the entire ideological debate. It is a declaration that conservatism is above and beyond all discussion and disagreement. This is a stance of refusal to engage.
I felt irritated by that argument. It felt dishonest. In response to Coleman, I expressed my irritation by saying that, “If conservatism isn’t an ideology, then neither is liberalism. Only an ideologue would make an argument that one is an ideology and the other not. That would be a classic case of projection. It isn’t helpful to make caricatures of and straw man arguments against opposing views, attitudes, and predispositions.”
Coleman responded in turn with a defense that touches on the heart of our disagreement. He writes that, “Your comment does not engage my explanation at all. Kirk’s definition of ideology was standard until the common usage became fuzzy. It is not a caricature or straw man.” He is accusing me of not engaging because I don’t accept his premise, but I don’t accept his premise because it is an unproven assumption.
That is intriguing. Coleman is so confident that his view is right. He claims that it was only later that “common usage became fuzzy”. Even many other conservatives would disagree with that claim. This would include Eisenhower, who began his presidency the same year Kirk published The Conservative Mind. Of course, the likes of Kirk and Coleman would simply assert that anyone who disagrees with them aren’t True Conservatives, a pointless assertion to make but it sure does end debate.
* * * *
Both Eisenhower and Kirk were arguing for balance and against extremism. It was something in the air at the time. Across the political spectrum, many Americans were seeking a new vision to unify the country in the post-war era. For certain, conservatives like Kirk didn’t have sole proprietorship of this early Cold War attitude. It was the frame of mainstream debate at that time, rather than simply being one side of the debate.
For a while now, I’ve been trying to disentangle the mess of American political ideologies and labels. It’s been on my mind going back at least to the early Bush administration, at a time when I was studying the social science research on personality types and traits, but my questioning has grown stronger in recent years. I began to articulate a new understanding of what liberalism and conservatism mean, both attitudinally and historically (also demographically). I was forced to think more deeply and challenge my own previous assumptions, because the data I was looking at indicated a much more complex social reality.
It is because Coleman and Kirk take a dogmatically ideological stance that they can’t deal with this complexity that refuses to conform to narrow categorical boxes. I didn’t want to fall into the same trap. I want to fully understand various positions on their own terms, even if not on their own rhetoric.
My own views have shifted a lot over time. More recently, I’ve been moving toward the almost the mirror opposite of the Kirkian position, without even knowing that was what I was doing (as I have little direct familiarity with Kirk’s writings):
It seems to me that liberalism isn’t inherently or inevitably opposite of conservatism, at least in American politics. Conservatism has become conflated with the right-wing in a way that hasn’t happened on the opposite side of the spectrum. There is still a clear sense of distance and disconnection between liberalism and the left-wing for the Cold War turned the left-wing into a scapegoat that liberals felt compelled to disown or else be attacked as commies and fellow-travelers. Liberals have instead for the most part embraced the role of the middle, the moderate. I’ve even sensed that liberals have taken up the role of the traditionalists in defending the status quo which is what traditionalists did in the past. I’ve speculated that conservatives or at least reactionary conservatives attack liberals for the same reason they attacked traditionalists in earlier times. Left-wingers are the revolutionaries and conservatives have become the counter-revolutionaries, meanwhile liberals have sought to moderate between the two.
Much of my thought has been driven by social science research. I’ve sought to make sense of the insight that, “It is much easier to get a liberal to behave like a conservative than it is to get a conservative to behave like a liberal” (Skitka et al). That indicates an aspect of the broadness of liberalism. The ease of the liberal-minded to switch ideological positions points to something fundamental to liberalism itself and hence something lacking in conservatism. The liberal worldview is able to cover a larger area of ideological terrain. This isn’t necessarily a good thing, but it demonstrates how little conservatives understand the real weaknesses of liberalism.
One political philosopher that has forced me to rethink even further in this direction is Domenico Losurdo. He is a Continental European left-winger and a critic of American liberalism. His book on the counter-history of liberalism is challenging for any American, for the framework of his thought can feel alien and perplexing.
In my first analysis of his views, I ended up conjecturing that, “Maybe liberalism is more of a worldview than an ideology, a worldview that happens to be the dominant paradigm at the moment. As such, everything gets put into the context of and defined by liberalism.” I elaborated on this point later on, in a discussion with C. Derick Varn (AKA skepoet), the person who introduced me to Losurdo’s work:
In response to Losurdo, I’ve played around with a broader definition of ‘liberalism’ than even he offers. I see ‘liberalism’ in some ways as the ultimate product of the Enlightenment, the basis upon which everything else is built, the ideology everything else is defined according to or against.
Liberalism isn’t an ideology in the way conservatism, libertarianism, Marxism, etc is an ideology. No, liberalism is the ideological framework for all of those ideologies. It is the paradigm of our age.
This connects to why I don’t see conservatism as the opposite of liberalism. Instead, I see conservatism as the opposite of leftism. Liberalism is both the center and periphery of modern politics.
I’m not sure any ideology has yet fully challenged the liberal paradigm. So, I’m not sure any ideology has yet freed itself from liberal taint. We’ll need something even more radical than the most radical left-wing politics to get the thrust for escape velocity.
Now, that is turning Kirkian thought on its head. And I did so without even trying. My purpose was simply to make sense of evidence that had been perplexing me for years. This conclusion emerged organically from a slowly developing line of thought or rather web of thoughts. It makes sense to me at the moment. It has great explanatory power. Yet like anything else I offer, it is a tentative hypothesis.
* * * *
It is now more than a half century since Kirk wrote about his views on conservatism.
It is true that back then, prior to the Southern Strategy, conservatism was a more moderate political movement and may have played more of a moderating role. However, that is most definitely no longer the case, which implies that Kirk’s view of conservatism was historically contingent, at best. He failed to find the heart of conservatism, whatever that may be.
Still, even in the context of the 1950s, it would be hard to take conservatism as some genuinely non-ideological framing of and balance between the ideological extremes. Conservatism, as Corey Robin argues, has always had a central element of reactionary extremism. Or, as I’ve often said, there is a good reason American conservatism is linked to, rooted in, and identified with classical liberalism rather than classical conservatism or classical traditionalism.
My approach is influenced by a larger view. Both larger in terms of historical time and larger in terms of spectrum of positions. The historical is particularly important to my understanding, and I find myself pairing the historical with the etymological. In a comment from a discussion about liberal bias and the meaning of liberalism, I explored some of the background:
If we look at the history of the word ‘liberal’, it didn’t originally relate to an ideology. The original meaning was related to freedom (liber). The earliest use of it was in terms of “liberal arts”, i.e., free inquiry. Another early use was in terms of a free person, i.e., not a serf or slave or indentured servant. In modern history, the main meaning of ‘liberal’ has always directly referred to being liberal-minded: not literal or strict; not bound by authoritarianism, orthodoxy, or traditional forms; etc.
Even in its earliest use, ‘liberal’ meant the same as we mean it today such as being free from restraint, the main difference being that only after the Enlightenment did it take on a more clearly positive interpretation. In the 18th and 19th centuries, people would use liberal in the sense of being free of bigotry or prejudice which has the exact same meaning today. All of these basic meanings haven’t changed over the past centuries since it was first used in 1375. It was only in the mid 19th century that liberalism became a politicized term, long after classical liberalism had become a defined ideology. Limiting liberal to a single ideology is a very recent phenomenon and one that has never been agreed upon since a number of ideologies have been labeled as ‘liberal’.
Conservatism, as a descriptive word applied to people, is a much more recent term. It is for this reason that conservatism has a much more narrow context of meaning than liberalism. So, conservatism always has been defined in contrast and reaction to liberalism, specifically within the parameters of Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thought.
* * * *
An issue that has been gnawing at mind for longer than almost any other single issue is a particular inconsistency in conservative thought. I’ve come to call it symbolic conflation, which is just to say that conservative identity uses symbolic rhetoric that obscures its own real meaning and purpose.
This isn’t meant as a dismissal, but more as a sociological assessment. As I argue about symbolic conflation, it plays a far different role in society than does the liberal approach. I tend to see conservatism and liberalism as psychological predispositions and social phenomena. They are patterns of cognitive behavior, both individual and collective. “Liberals,” in challenging conservatives, “want to loosen up the social order, but they don’t want to pull out the lynchpin.” As I further explain:
This is why liberals can be more conservative than even conservatives, moderating the extremes. The reason conservatives rule to the extent that they do so is because liberals allow them.
Social order is a strange thing. It would seem even stranger that conservatives take social order for granted more than do liberals. I suppose this is the case because for conservatives social order always has to largely play out on the level of unconsciousness.
None of this is meant directly as a criticism of conservatism. Conservatism can be used in the service of beneficial social orders just as easily with destructive social orders. The deal conservatives and liberals have is the following. Liberals won’t do an all out assault on the symbolic conflation that holds social order together and conservatives will incorporate liberalism into the social order so as to strengthen it. Whether this is a good deal, whether this is symbiosis or codependency (certainly not opposing ideologies in a simplistic sense) is another matter. I offer it just as an observation and analysis of how society seems to operate.
In thinking about this inconsistency, I realize how it connects back to the Kirkian theory of conservative balance. It also occurs to me that this goes back to Edmund Burke. The critics of Burke complained about his inconsistency, something I’ve discussed before. That is important since many conservatives, Kirk included, have seen the Anglo-American conservative tradition as having its roots in Burkean politics. Kirk is using Burke’s claim of balance as a defense against inconsistency:
[O]ne who wishes to preserve consistency, but who would preserve consistency by varying his means to secure the unity of his end, and, when the equipoise of the vessel in which he sails may be endangered by overloading it upon one side, is desirous of carrying the small weight of his reasons to that which may preserve its equipoise.
I guess Kirk isn’t necessarily offering anything new.
* * * *
Going by Coleman’s explication, there are two basic ways of thinking about ideology.
The first definition is as a system of beliefs (or ideas). But that isn’t what Kirk’s conservatism is concerned with.
That brings us to the second definition which, “roughly, is a set of one or two principles from which an adherent attempts to see all of life, and which he refuses to broaden even when empirical evidence indicates that his one or two principles are insufficient for deciding correctly all the great matters of life.” Ideology, in this second sense, is directly related to the ideologue as in a true believer who is dogmatic, narrow-minded, and rigid.
The problem with that view is that what is being described is precisely liberal-mindedness. By definition, liberalism is generosity of mind and spirit. Conservative’s are being haunted not by some dark shadow cast by liberal ideals, but by their own imaginings. They project their own fears onto all other ideologies, while denying their own ideological culpability.
If one thinks too long on all of this, conservatism begins to seem like smoke slipping through one’s fingers. Burke was a progressive reformer who belonged to the party on the political left, but was remembered by most for his reaction against the French Revolution. He never settled into principled position that defined his politics. By his own admission, his politics was the shifting of a boat on an ocean.
All in all, Burke was more like a mainstream Cold War liberal reacting to (real and perceived) enemies of the state and of the status quo. Maybe Kirk himself was just another one of those liberals being pulled by fear. Maybe that is what Anglo-American conservatism has always been about.
That reminds me of the quote by Irving Kristol. He said that a neo-conservative, the central form of modern American conservatism, is “a liberal who has been mugged by reality.” There are a number of things interesting about that.
First, he defines neo-conservatism using the same Burkean argument as Kirk, as here described:
an ideology but a “persuasion,” a way of thinking about politics rather than a compendium of principles and axioms. It is classical rather than romantic in temperament, and practical and anti-Utopian in policy.
Second, I sense genuine insight in the admission that conservatism has its origins in liberalism. The liberal in reacting to fear becomes a conservative, but conservatism as such only exists in the reaction. That fits the social science research about liberalism.
It’s possible that, as Corey Robin theorizes, all of conservatism is defined by reaction. The supposed mugging could be literal or metaphorical. The point is that the conservative is responding to something with fear, even if it is only in their own imaginings. Some people find themselves temporarily in reaction while others get permanently stuck. The latter are what we call conservatives.
Permanent reaction is a strange way to live one’s life, for reaction isn’t anything in itself. An independent non-ideological conservatism is a phantom of the mind.
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