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America desperately needs a healthy conservatism

By Andrew Sullivan From NY Mag

In these fetid times, it’s easy to know what you’re against. And I’ve spent many diaries assailing the dueling Trump and “social justice” cults on the illiberal right and left these past several months. But what am I for?

That’s a harder question but a useful one to ask yourself from time to time. You don’t defeat something with nothing. So I thought I’d take a brief detour from the tribal abyss, and go back to some first principles. I remain a conservative, pretty much where I’ve always been, with the exception of foreign policy where I’ve seen the folly of interventionism in the wake of Iraq. By conservative, I do not mean Republican. To my mind, the Republican Party has become — and not just recently — a cancer on this particular strain of Western thought. To those who believe that this is a cop-out, or a version of the “all true conservatives” gambit, I offer a new book, which sure buoyed my spirits, and helped me regain my bearings. Reading it, for me, was like feeling an unexpectedly cool, dry breeze on a stiflingly humid day.

The book is called Conservatism: An Introduction to the Great Tradition, and it’s by arguably the most acute conservative thinker of his generation, Roger Scruton. It’s a slim, concise monograph, and it begins with the truth that conservatism is a branch of liberalism, and not its enemy. It is the branch that tries to conserve the liberal democratic state against the corrosive effects and flaws of liberalism itself (not to speak of leftism and reactionism, which seek to overthrow liberalism entirely). More to the point, it does not defend liberalism as a function of natural rights, or of human rights, or self-evident truths, but simply as the inheritance of a particular place in a particular sliver of human history: the Anglo-American world in the last two and a half centuries.

Conservatism defends the individual against the state as an evolving tradition born in the English common law from the 12th century onward, a tradition that came to be embedded in the American justice system. What distinguished the American Revolution, conservatives argue, was that it was rooted in a defense of the rights of Englishmen against a monarch’s whims, as much as a novus ordo seclorum. It was not only a liberal revolution, but also a conservative one, seeking to defend a preexisting state of affairs, and buttressing a new egalitarianism with deep conservative safeguards against majoritarianism, mob rule, and direct democracy. The alternative type of revolution — the one that took place in France — was based on a complete erasure of what had gone before, a rupture in time and culture and regime, and one that led, as all such ruptures must, to murderous tyranny. When all tradition and inherited institutions and norms are abolished, there is only raw power to occupy the vacuum.

Conservatism began then as a defense of America and a critique of France — which is the essence of Edmund Burke’s formative argument. He saw the advent of democracy as a challenge — which demanded acute attention as hierarchies collapsed, and society changed, in order to ensure that too much of value wasn’t thrown away. And so it emphasized the importance of a vibrant and autonomous civil society (independent of government), the centrality of federalism, local community, and voluntary association of the kind that Tocqueville marveled at and saw as the indispensable complement to the atomizing, destabilizing forces that America had also unleashed.

Conservatism’s defense of the free market and free trade was therefore never absolute. In fact, there’s more protectionism in conservatism’s past than many would like to admit. But these market mechanisms were nonetheless the least worst way to discern the value of things traded and sold, and were never supposed to be ends in themselves or to be advanced regardless of the impact on society. In fact, for conservatism, society is for no end and no purpose; it is valuable simply in itself, as the combination of traditions, landscapes, communities, and customs that define a nation, bind us together as citizens, and make us feel at home.

And yes, that feeling of being at home is nebulous. It is in many ways sub-rational. Ask ordinary people to describe it and they will often not be articulate. Sometimes, it manifests itself as bigotry, yes. Most of the time, it is about loss, and mourning it, while understanding that change is inevitable. Burke famously saw society not as a contract between individuals, but as a contract between generations: to pass on to the future the good and viable things we inherited from the past. This emphatically does not mean resistance to all change. In fact, it understands some change as critical to conservation. And perhaps that’s where American conservatism began to go wrong. The goal is not to stand athwart history and cry “Stop!”, as William F. Buckley put it. It’s to be part of the stream of history and say: slow it down a bit, will you?

In Scruton’s account, the list of conservative intellectuals is long and distinguished. The respective geniuses of Burke and Hume and Hegel are integral to its formation; they were succeeded by the Romantic era that urged a corrective to mass industrialization, and a hedge to the Enlightenment’s preference for theoretical reason over the practical wisdom that works, as Adam Smith saw it, as an invisible hand in guiding society. Tradition, conservatives believe, is a form of collective knowledge. It can contain wisdom that reason simply cannot grasp.

As a temperament, conservatives are prone to obey as passionately as liberals are prone to rebel. They prefer order to change, stability to upheaval, authority to anarchy. And so a conservative is likely to see, say, the flag as an object of veneration, the Constitution as something to be protected rather than altered, the nation as demanding a loyalty before all other claims, especially those of ideology, tribe, gender, or race. The conservative immediately saw why Fascism and Communism were evil; they were intent on obliterating settled ways of life, destroying the individual in favor of a collective, empowering the state so that it destroyed the civil society that made liberalism thrive. No conservative ever wants to purify anything. It’s the human mess that we love, with its intimations of how to improve it.

And so conservatism became the resistance to socialism, to government planning, and to the abuse of the English language so that it could be forced to reflect an ideology, rather than a lived reality. (In this sense, Scruton shrewdly notes, Orwell was a conservative.) It saw all too well how the good intentions of liberalism could lead to its unraveling. It abhors war as the ultimate change-maker and disrupter; it despises concepts of race or gender that eradicate the uniqueness of the individual; it defends high culture against philistinism and mediocrity; it cherishes norms. It values the particular over the general, prefers present laughter to utopian bliss, relishes humor in all its forms, defends art as an apolitical force, and respects religion as a separate avenue for the search for ultimate truth, and a critical component of the civil and moral society that enables government to be small and limited.

In today’s America, this conservatism is completely under siege. The left will increasingly tolerate nothing that gets in the way of what it calls “social justice,” which far too often reduces individuals to their racial or class or gender identities rather than their merits, or character, or talents. The conservative approach to a multicultural and multiracial society is to keep our focus on the individual and do what’s best to help every individual, regardless of their race, gender, or whatever, to be part of our shared liberal democratic inheritance. Conservatism is about enfolding the new into the old, sustaining a society’s coherence and cohesion, while being extremely tough on particular injustices against particular individuals, vigilant about corruption, and anguished when the criminal justice system loses legitimacy, because of embedded racism.

But conservatism is more deeply besieged by the Republican Party, its alleged harbor. If you consider the themes I’ve emphasized above, it becomes clearer that the GOP is not only not conservative, but actually dedicated to destroying that tradition. Republicans pursue the ideology of free markets and lower and lower taxation, regardless of its brutal assault on fiscal solvency, human dignity, social cohesion, and community life. They have nominated and protected a president who assaults the norms that conservatives revere, has contempt for existing institutions and sees the rule of law as a means to advance his own interests, rather than that of the society as a whole.

This is a man and a party that has such disdain for conserving anything that it is actively despoiling our landscape, enabling a climate catastrophe. It is a party that has generated crippling and everlasting debt — even in good economic times — in a way that makes a mockery of any compact between generations. It is a party that actively endorses cruelty as a policy tool, deploys fear as its prime political weapon, and insists that the opposite party has no legitimate right to govern at all. It is the party of torture, the absolute nemesis of the liberal inheritance, the party of corruption, propaganda, vote suppression, and barely masked bigotry.

I despise it because I am a conservative. I don’t believe that conservatism can be revived on the right (it has been thankfully sustained, by default, by the Democrats in recent decades) until this hateful philistine would-be despot and his know-nothing cult is gone. And by revived, I do not mean a return to neoconservatism abroad or supply side crack-pottery at home. The 1980s and 1990s are over. I mean a conservatism that can tackle soaring social and economic inequality as a way to save capitalism, restore the financial sector as an aid to free markets and not their corrupting parasite, a conservatism that will end our unending wars, rid the criminal justice system of its racial blind spots, defend liberal education and high culture against the barbarians of postmodernism and the well-intentioned toxins of affirmative action, pay down the debt, reform the corruption of religious faith, protect our physical landscape, invest in non-carbon energy, and begin at the local level to rebuild community and the spirit of American civil association.

I also believe we need to slow the pace of demographic and cultural change. It is happening too fast, even for America, to sustain our society’s coherence and cohesion. The elite indifference to mass immigration — especially the illegal kind — is an ugly pact between Republican elites, eager for cheap, exploitable labor, and Democratic elites, who cynically encourage it because they think it will give them a reliable voting bloc. When the foreign-born population is at a proportion last seen in 1910, and as the raw numbers are higher than ever before, it is not inherently racist to seek to slow the pace to integrate the newcomers better, to defuse racial conflict and resentment. A nation has to mean something; to survive, it needs a conservative weaving of past, present, and future, as Burke saw it. And you cannot do that if you see this country as a blight on the face of the earth and an instrument of eternal oppression; or if you replace a healthy, self-critical patriotism with an ugly, racist nationalism that aims to restore the very worst of this country’s past, rather than preserve its extraordinary and near-unique achievements.

I know there’s no place for this in our current political climate. And that is why I believe this country is in as grave a crisis as any since the 1850s. Without a healthy conservatism, liberalism will degenerate. Without liberalism, conservatism has no inheritance to defend. And both rich veins in Western moderation are now under assault from the ideological left and the authoritarian right. We have to brave this pincer attack, conservatives and liberals together, or we will die together.

Curbing Europe’s Far-Right Resurgence

So the Swedish center has survived. My fear that the far right would make huge gains in the recent election was not borne out, thank the Lord. They merely made impressive gains. Ross Douthat had a shrewd column this week, weighing the possibilities of both a far-right-wing wave in Europe, or enough resistance to it to create an enduring political stalemate. I’m obviously not clairvoyant, but I suspect that stalemates, rather than shoring up an existing order, can often lead to a radical move, on the left or right, to end them.

On that front, the great centrist hope of the E.U., Emmanuel Macron, is now polling at 31 percent approval; E.U. sanctions against Hungary as a response to Viktor Orban’s authoritarianism are set to be vetoed … by the Polish authoritarians, kicking the liberal democratic foundations of the E.U. out from under it. Hitler salutes were frequent during far-right marches in Germany at the end of last month, as mobs chanted menacing slogans we thought we’d never hear in Germany again. Merkel herself has ceded the immigration issue to the right of her coalition, and long ago opined that: “the approach [to build] a multicultural [society] and to live side-by-side and to enjoy each other … has failed, utterly failed.” In the fall, as my colleague Heather Hurlburt has noted, Bavaria will vote, almost certainly pushing the CSU, Merkel’s sister party, to adopt much of the AfD’s message. And in Sweden, the reason that the Swedish Democrats didn’t do as well as they hoped was because every other party had begun to echo their concerns and adopt their rhetoric. Per National Review’s Douglas Murray:

Consider the final leaders debate before Sunday’s election in Sweden. At one point in the debate the head of the Moderate party (the Moderate party) attacked the prime minister over integration and its purported ‘successes.’ Which successes was he thinking of, asked the head of the Moderate party? What was the prime minister happiest with? “The shootings? The unemployment?” He went on to list all the negative consequences of mass immigration that his country is experiencing.
In Italy, we have a new government intent on forcible mass deportation and hostile to the E.U. If you want to see how this dynamic has played out in Poland itself since the end of the Cold War, I can’t recommend this essay by Anne Applebaum enough. Britain, meanwhile, the European country where liberal democracy and a moderate conservatism have the deepest roots, is careening toward a constitutional crisis. Right now, there is no majority in the House of Commons for Theresa May’s soft Brexit; and there is no majority for a no-deal hard Brexit. There isn’t, in fact, a majority for any outcome to the Brexit drama. Current polling suggests that even if the government fell and there was another election, the result could be the same. All this is happening as the clock ticks toward 11 p.m. on March 29, 2019, when the transition period under Article 50 expires, as the Labour Party turns into a radical socialist party, and as the Tories embark on a massive internal civil war. No one knows what will happen.

The former Tory Party leader and foreign secretary William Hague — a deeply sane man — recently argued that “complete with an atmosphere of intense recrimination and abuse, it would be no exaggeration to say that this would be the most serious constitutional crisis in Britain for at least one century, and possibly two.”

The well-intentioned fantasies that all of Europe could have one currency, that the rise of liberal democracy was unstoppable, and that mass immigration, with precious little integration, was an unalloyed good, have come crashing down to earth. As the pressure of mass migration from the South continues, if only because of the demographic explosion in Africa and the Middle East, we may end up with rabidly anti-immigrant parties dominating the entire European landscape. Sweden was a breathing space, opening the possibility that moderate liberal and conservative parties can co-opt the far-right resurgence and tame it. But the oxygen levels behind liberal democracy still keep falling across the continent.

The Left’s Dangerous Trumpian Tactics

The clinically delusional narcissist who now occupies the White House really went there yesterday. The idea that an estimated 2,975 Americans did not die as a consequence of Hurricane Maria is an affront to the living, the dead, and statistics. We have two solid, separate studies reaching a very similar conclusion. Of course, Trump isn’t entirely at fault for a hurricane. But he was the president. And the follow-through was terrible. Daniel Dale notes his multiple delusions on this matter before, which defy, well, reality. This is 25th Amendment territory: the self-delusion is so great it qualifies as a form of mental illness. No one who cannot distinguish between fantasy and reality should be president of the United States.

And these lies have prompted an understandable but dangerous echo on the other side. It’s nowhere near as insane, but it seems to me that lies of a different sort, and personal demonization of your opponents, is beginning to creep into the resistance. I would vote against the Brett Kavanaugh nomination if I were a senator, because of the real possibility that Kavanaugh would protect an authoritarian president from the rule of law in our looming constitutional crisis. But it is not true that he “said” that it was his view that contraception involves abortion-inducing drugs. He was clearly referring to others’ views on the subject, which is why Kamala Harris selectively edited a clip in order to distort his words. No fact-checker can defend it. But in an act of glorious self-parody, Hillary Clinton reiterated it two days after the lie was debunked.

ThinkProgress, meanwhile, has refused to acknowledge that its headline — “Brett Kavanaugh said he would kill Roe v. Wade last week and almost no one noticed” — was also false. The piece was a perfectly defensible airing of the real possibility that Kavanaugh would vote to overturn Roe, but the headline said something else. When The Weekly Standard notified Facebook of the lie, the piece was rightly defined as false, which prompted a huge swath of left-liberal media to … demand The Weekly Standard be stripped of its Facebook role in policing untruth.

Trump’s airing of unsubstantiated rumors was similarly echoed by Senators Harris and Feinstein, who gave the impression of having some dubious ethical and criminal concerns about Kavanaugh, but refused to substantiate them on the record. Feinstein’s last-minute claim that she knows something about Kavanaugh that she referred to the FBI has not been verified, but she aired it anyway. It is, in other words, a McCarthyite smear. Here’s how ThinkProgress reported it: “Brett Kavanaugh may have committed a very serious crime —possibly even a sex crime. Or maybe he didn’t.”

Seriously, guys? The NYT reported that “two officials familiar with the matter say the incident involved possible sexual misconduct between Judge Kavanaugh and a woman when they were both in high school.” Later, The Guardian suggested that this was the crime: “According to the source, Kavanaugh and a male friend had locked [a 17-year old woman] in a room against her will, making her feel threatened, but she was able to get out of the room.” Friday morning, the New Yorker reported that this was the alleged incident: “In the letter, the woman alleged that, during an encounter at a party, Kavanaugh held her down, and that he attempted to force himself on her. She claimed in the letter that Kavanaugh and a classmate of his, both of whom had been drinking, turned up music that was playing in the room to conceal the sound of her protests, and that Kavanaugh covered her mouth with his hand. She was able to free herself.” I can’t verify any of this, but if Feinstein had a letter about this incident before the hearings, as reported by the New Yorker, she could have brought it up before now, she could have briefed her Senate colleagues, or she could have forwarded it to the FBI without publicizing it. Throwing it out there at the last minute is beyond lame.

Look: There is no comparison between the lies and smears and personal demonization among leftists and liberals, and the staggering dishonesty and indecency of this president. I’m not what-about-ing or both-sides-ing here. But Trump can corrupt more than just the government. He can corrupt his opposition, who are forced to deal with him on this polarized turf, and can resort to tactics that take us deeper into the post-truth maze. We will not defeat Trump by imitating Trump. In fact, we run the risk of legitimizing the forces that have empowered him.

IMAGE: The decline of conservatism is a loss for liberals, too. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

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