Here are some insights from a spectrum of writers, excerpted from a lengthy piece here in the American Conservative.
Reading it, I found a lot of support for some of the things I’ve always thought we needed more of – less partisanship; less politics and more of the fundamentals behind politics; secession from the state, metaphorically and literally; conserving the past and the environment. And most of all, opposing the state and the pretensions of the group. That would be my starting point for a “new world order” that wouldn’t be either imperial or collectivist but a network of small, free-wheeling, self-selected communities, like nodes in a network.
The real divide today occurs between those who buy into the myths of the American Century and those who see those myths for what they are: once useful contrivances that have become a source of self-delusion endangering the national interest.
The American Century is a morality tale. It instructs and inspires but also warns. It tells of how Americans, having lost their innocence on Dec. 7, 1941, rose up in righteous anger to smite a succession of evildoers. The American Century began when the nation finally embraced its providentially assigned mission to spread liberty around the world. Present-day adherents to this school—self-described liberals like Peter Beinart no less than self-described conservatives like William Kristol—do not doubt that the events of Sept. 11, 2001 simply inaugurated the next phase of this grand undertaking.
If there is ever to be truth in our political labeling, we need conservatives who will go home, or at least make homes somewhere, conservatives who will abjure Washington and New York and pick up the struggle in their own burgs to help (re-)build real communities, work to conserve the land and its resources, and ally with their naturally like-minded brethren in order to revive—locally—the religious and historic traditions that might sustain us. In fact, those are the only conservatives we need.
Rather than feeling responsible for the consequences of its actions, it may be that the conservative movement today, in Weber’s words, “feels responsible only for seeing to it that the flame of pure intentions is not quelched.” One may think of this attitude what one will. It is not, however, right-wing.
In the foreword, Donald Davidson wrote that his friend had, upon reading John Crowe Ransom’s God Without Thunder, been taken with the idea that an “unorthodox defense of orthodoxy” might be feasible.
Weaver “was suddenly troubled by his realization,” wrote Davidson, that “many traditional positions in our world had suffered not so much because of inherent defect as because of the stupidity, ineptness and intellectual sloth of those who … are presumed to have their defense in charge.
I am much taken with modern theories of brain function that describe our mental processes in terms of functional modules. One theory postulates (1) a “socialization” module that handles membership of groups: being accepted, defending the group, being aware of other groups, and (2) a “status” module that evaluates and promotes our status in the group (and other people’s statuses too), handling emotions like envy, ambition, humiliation.
If that is right, I would guess that liberals have more strength in their socialization module. They are more focused on co-operative action, group values, leveling, assigning importance to subgroups. Conservatives are stronger in the status module, not minding that some individuals stand above others and emphasizing individual action to enhance status.
The picture is further complicated by the fact that because conservatism only really exists to say “no” to whatever liberalism asks for next, it fights nearly all its battles on its enemy’s terrain and rarely comes close to articulating a coherent set of values of its own. Liberalism has science and progress to pursue—and ultimately immortality, the real goal but also the one that rarely dares to speak its name—whereas conservatives have … well, a host of goals, most of them in tension with one another.
Buying your meat directly from a local farmer might just be a more noble and useful political act than writing a check to the GOP. The work my politically liberal friend David Spence does in Dallas—buying abandoned historic properties in the inner city and restoring them lovingly for office and residential space—strikes me as one of the most authentically conservative things anybody in the country is doing. There is nothing ideological about it, either, but to grasp the real meaning of what David is doing, and what the Hale and Hutchins families—Christian fundamentalist farm families who raise meat organically, as they believe God intended—are doing out in rural east Texas, you have to think beyond superficial ideological categories.
However it is ultimately judged by posterity, the war in Iraq is not, and cannot properly be called, a conservative war. It was dictated and justified in the first instance not by political principles but by an extra-ideological perception (correct or incorrect) of imminent threat. Thus the war, controversial though it is, does not re-draw the red-blue state divide that exists independently of it and for other reasons.
In his underappreciated 1955 masterpiece, The Decline of American Liberalism, Arthur A. Ekirch Jr. wrote that American history from the colonial period on has been a struggle between forces of centralization and decentralization in politics, economics, and culture. He fretted that the “liberal values associated with the eighteenth-century Enlightenment—and especially that of individual freedom—have slowly lost their primary importance in America life and thought.”
The Left assumed a new identity when its working-class base began to dwindle and when it traded that base for yuppies and self-assertive Third World constituencies. The Left then proceeded to move in a culturally radical direction, a development whose consequences we are now seeing.
In the Reflections, more than a year earlier, Burke had not been Burkean enough. The complexities of society can include, as well as complex institutional structure, complex social forces that become irresistible: the French monarchy had been doomed by the accumulation of such forces.
Burke was a conservative in the sense of William Buckley’s definition of conservatism as the “politics of reality.” Unfortunately, many supposed conservatives—I will echo T.S. Eliot’s phrase—“cannot bear very much reality.”
Nicholas Von Hoffman:
In lieu of political parties based on stately essays by the great thinkers of the past, we can continue with what we have—which is crisis politics. Whoever comes up with the most frightening crisis wins. Of late it has been the Republicans, whether conservative or not, who have delivered the knockout punches. Dead babies, dirty bombs, men exchanging wedding bands with other men, toppling skyscrapers, evil Arabs, girl bishops—they’ve swept the Democrats, whether liberal or not, out of contention. Not that the D’s don’t have hopes. It has been said that the Democrats are but one Katrina away from seizing power.
Nevertheless, what is true of all kinds of conservatives is that they are trying to preserve, to conserve, an existing and established state of affairs, be it involving the social, the security, or the economic realm. And what is true of all kinds of liberals is that they are trying to change this state of affairs, normally but not always in favor of more freedom for the individual (the exception being some kinds of regulation of the economy). The confusion arises from the fact that, as Tocqueville observed as long ago as the 1830s, in America what has always been the existing and established economic state of affairs has been free enterprise or the freedom of the individual. And, as Marx observed as along ago as the 1840s, it is the nature of this economic freedom, of capitalism, to undermine and eventually destroy the existing and established state of affairs in every other realm, including the social and security ones. Thus, in America, conservatism means conserving a liberal dynamic that is constantly in conflict with conservatism. American conservatism thus is simultaneously both conservative and liberal.
And what of ideologues in this ethnically-based political system? There will still be libertarians, social democrats, greens, populists, and others. If they have any strategic sense, they will not try to take over one of the two parties. Instead, they will organize themselves as non-partisan movements that seek to influence both of our identity-based national parties.
Most conservatives disliked liberals more than they liked liberty. Serial marriages, divorces, consumers of pornography, barbaric households with mannerless children were as frequent among conservatives as they were among liberals. Worse: conservatives came to believe in Progress even more than liberals; their inclinations to conserve shrank to near nothing.
So maybe religious conservatives should stop assuming that they alone occupy the field. Maybe they should cut back a bit on their religious triumphalism. Nonbelievers are good conservatives, too. As Michael Cromartie of the Ethics and Public Policy Center has advised, it should be possible for conservatives to unite on policy without agreeing on theology.
When the United States has embarked on a course that may blacken its name for a generation, one must acknowledge that illegal aliens and their supporters had absolutely nothing to do with it.
When one sits down with a liberal, the aforementioned issues become something that can be discussed without rancor or passion, or simply ignored. Next to the war, they hardly seem more important (though surely they are) than whether the Yankees return to their rightful place in the World Series. On the Right, one has good conversations with those who are either antiwar or good friends of long standing. But it has become hard to imagine striking up a new friendship with a pro-Bush “let’s invade the world to make it democratic” type.
There is, to be sure, some utility is seeing a division between supporters of the more or less triumphant Washington status quo and those doubters, erstwhile liberals and conservatives alike, who increasingly disdain a failed bipartisan national leadership and its policy handiwork. But this is not a broad enough definition either—and perhaps there really isn’t one
James P. Pinkerton:
So that’s how the two big lumps are subdivided. Mostly libertarian Republicans preside over a populist-conservative base on the Right, while on the Left, mostly libertarian Democrats preside over a motley crew—everyone from Luddite socialist Greens to what Europeans would call “right-wing social democrats,” a teeming mass united by little except, paradoxically, anti-libertarianism.
Yes, war is a great clarifier. As the Bush administration sinks deeper into the Iraqi quagmire and the neocons plot another foray, this time into Iran, the geopolitical, financial, and domestic political consequences of our war-crazed foreign policy are all too apparent and whatever else one may say about them, what one cannot say—with a straight face—is that they are conducive to conservatism in any way, shape, or form. As, one by one, the pillars of our old Republic fall away—or are hacked to pieces—and the bloated grandiosity of an Empire rises above the ruins, real conservatives (and libertarians, such as myself) look on in horror—and are labeled “extreme leftists” for our trouble.
Llewellyn H. Rockwell:
But it’s never been as bad as it is today. They sometimes invoke the names of genuinely radical thinkers such as F.A. Hayek and Ludwig von Mises. But their real heroes are talk-radio blabsters, television entertainers, and sexpot pundit quipsters. They have little intellectual curiosity at all.
In many ways, today’s conservatives are party men and women not unlike those we saw in totalitarian countries, people who spout the line and slay the enemy without a thought as to the principles involved. Yes, they hate the Left. But only because the Left is the “other.”
This is why they fail to see that the Left has been making a lot more sense on policy issues in recent years. It is correct on civil liberties, on issues of war and peace, and on the critical issue of religious liberty. By “correct” I mean that in these areas the Left is saying precisely what the liberals of old used to say: as much as possible, society ought to be left to manage itself without the coercive intervention of the state.
Claes G. Ryn:
The word “conservative” was always problematic. It seems to imply that conservatism is all about conserving something already achieved. But conservatism wants to conserve the best of the humane heritage because the latter is an indispensable guide to finding and promoting the good, the true, and the beautiful in the present. The spirit of civilization must forever adapt to new circumstances.
Today highly destructive social trends have themselves become traditions of a sort. Hence the spirit of civilization will have to assert itself in sometimes radical-looking ways, not least in politics. It must free itself of incapacitating habits. One such habit is the increasingly philistine obsession with politics.
I am convinced, believe it or not, that secession—by state where the state is cohesive (the model is Vermont, where the secessionist movement is the Second Vermont Republic), or by region where that makes more sense (Southern California or Cascadia are the models here)—is the most fruitful objective for our political future. Peaceful, orderly, popular, democratic, and legal secession would enable a wide variety of governments, amenable to all shades of the anti-authoritarian spectrum, to be established within a modern political context. Such a wide variety, as I see it, that if you didn’t like the place you were, you could always find a place you liked.
Bush ran as a conservative, but he has been steadily (some might say stealthily) trying to remold the conservative movement and the Republican Party into the Bush Party. And the Bush Party stands for so many things alien to conservatism, namely, war as an instrument of foreign policy, nation-building overseas, highly concentrated executive power, federal control of education, big increases in social entitlements, massive increases in legal and illegal immigration, forcing American workers to compete with low-wage foreigners (under deceptive enticements such as free trade and global economy), and subordinating U.S. sovereignty to a North American community with open borders.
But 217 years after it accidentally imposed itself, a nomenclature devised for the semi-feudal society of late 18th-century France is bound to make a hash of describing American political life.
But after the Evil Empire’s downfall, I saw a different America—not one dedicated to defending freedom but an empire out to exploit friends and imaginary foes alike. Why, for example, are we surrounding Russia with NATO bases? Why are we in Iraq? Why are we threatening Iran and Syria? Why are we not restraining Israel? Why is Bush inviting the Saudi head kleptocrat to Texas and holding his hand like a long-lost brother?
What are Right and Left any more? Who is a liberal and who is a conservative? When Madeleine Albright proudly announces that the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children via the sanctions on Iraq were worth it, even God becomes suspect. Which liberal or conservative can explain to me the difference between an Iraqi insurgent’s roadside bomb that kills civilian passersby and a U.S. bombing raid that also causes the deaths of innocent women and children? Both are acts of savagery: in both cases one knows in advance that civilians will most certainly be killed. Bush and Americans in general claim the moral high ground, but both are terribly wrong. War is a barbaric business. Only defensive wars are justified.
I marched against this war. I’m grateful for the company I’ve now gotten from American conservatives, and I see my own views as coming out of an estimable American tradition: tolerance, laissez-faire, don’t-tread-on-me values. There seems to be a lot of cross-pollination at work. Strands of isolationism and realism and fiscal conservatism have influenced me, while I sense that the Left has been able to persuade the Right on the importance of global warming and even affirmative action.
Those conservatives have other ideological baggage I don’t particularly care for. I think of myself as pro-Hispanic on immigration issues, and I’m pro-abortion. I can well imagine having clashes with my new friends over these issues some day. Not now. The country’s in crisis. Inasmuch as we can make any headway together, I don’t think we would allow these issues to jam the spokes. And by the way, when it comes to abortion, I’m distressed that so many Democrats seem to have whittled all their most urgent concerns down to that one issue. I don’t think it’s that important.
To the extent that “conservatism” is meaningless, that is because the word has been dishonestly used by modern conservatives with the conscious intent to deceive. Not so with liberalism, since liberals never attempt to pass themselves or their ideologically pure ideas off as conservative (except when they are running for something and want the conservative vote under false pretenses), since to do so would be to abdicate their intellectual and moral status as infinitely compassionate demigods and philosopher-kings.
On behalf of the imperial bureaucratic regime, the Democrats absorb and defang whatever liberal inclinations remain in their constituency, and the Republicans do likewise for the conservatives. The only difference is that the Democrats institutionally are wired to keep up the momentum of an already liberal state, while the Republicans’ conservatism has always been a pure fraud.
In one sense, the Left/Right dichotomy is like those chemicals that are so simple that they’re toxic. Why, when discussing the panoramic landscape of theories about how man shall live in community, should we choose a one-dimensional model—which offers no up or down, much less a diagonal? Can you imagine imposing such a primitive scheme on any other field of human life? Picture a Left-to-Right spectrum of painters, poets, or national cuisines. You could draw one up according to arbitrarily chosen qualities—such as realism, rhyme scheme, or wasabi content. It can be done, but why bother?