This is another installment in my award winning series of blog posts on “What Ails Conservatism?” (Note: The awards have been of the “RINO of the Day” and “Squish of the Month” variety).
The purpose of this series has been to clarify my own thinking about modern conservatism and it’s relevance in a 21st century industrialized democracy of 300 million people.
Conor Friedersdorf, writing at Andrew Sullivan’s The Daily Dish, has a thoughtful critique of Mark Levin’s huge bestseller Liberty and Tyranny.
It caught my eye because I finished the book last week and was as impressed as Conor with some of Levin’s arguments, especially how he constructed a logical, and coherent framework for applying traditional conservatism to problems associated with modern America. It was a brave attempt to marry philosophy with politics and Mr. Levin should be congratulated for going beyond the usual cotton candy conservatism we get from the Hannity’s and Becks of the right.
However, like Conor, I was troubled by what might be termed, Levin’s problem with “enemy identification:
As I reflect on Liberty and Tyranny’s final pages, however, I find myself unable to respond without addressing a larger feature of the book that I regard as its most consequential flaw: Its every section, including the Epilogue, references few if any concepts as often as “Statism.”
The United States that he comments on isn’t one that pits Republicans against Democrats, or conservatives against liberals, or the center right against the center left, or where citizens of complicated political persuasions — mixing ideology, pragmatism and ignorance — do some combination of participating in politics and ignoring it. Instead Mark Levin’s America is one where the conservatives are pitted against the Statists, or to put things as he would, where liberty is pitted against tyranny.
Freidersdorf never gives us his definition of “statism” so it is impossible to discover why he believes the label is so mis-applied in Levin’s book. Conor quotes Levin’s thesis:
The Modern Liberal believes in the supremacy of the state, thereby rejecting the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the order of the civil society, in whole or in part. For the Modern Liberal, the individual’s imperfection and personal pursuits impede the objective of a utopian state. In this, Modern Liberalism promotes what French historian Alexis de Tocqueville described as a soft tyranny, which becomes increasingly more oppressive, potentially leading to a hard tyranny (some form of totalitarianism). As the word “liberal” is, in its classical meaning, the opposite of authoritarian, it is more accurate, therefore, to characterize the Modern Liberal as a statist.
Do “modern liberals” desire to create a “Utopia?” That is an exaggeration. Liberals are no more enamored of Utopia than conservatives. Both political philosophies seek to create societies that emphasize different virtues; self reliance vs. community; moral order vs. fairness; personal responsibility vs. the collective good.
It is also mis-leading (though not entirely inaccurate) to say that liberals favor the “supremacy of the state.” It is more accurate to say that the modern left favors promoting “the collective good” at the expense of “selfish” individuality. They do not dismiss individual rights. They simply believe that in some instances - more than is healthy for liberty’s sake - those rights should be trumped by what is best for all.
This flies in the face of Kirk’s “voluntary community” but is a far cry of worshiping at the altar of “statism.” And Conor nails it when he takes Levin to task for generalizing and ultimately, mis-identifying the enemy:
Terrible as he sounds, The Statist that Mr. Levin describes—his ill deeds keep growing as the book winds down–would at least play a clarifying role in American politics if he actually existed. Imagine how useful a blueprint Mr. Levin’s book would prove if the primary opponents of conservatives were actually cunning Statists with malign motives and hatred of liberty in their hearts. But re-read all the attributes that describe the Statist. Does anyone in American politics fit that description, let alone a plurality sizable enough to enact their agenda?
In fact, the main antagonists that the American conservative vies with in politics are the independent, the liberal, the center left Democrat, the progressive, even some among the apolitical. The average people who support “Statist” President Obama’s domestic agenda are apolitical African American women who work in cubicles, law firm associates who earn six figure salaries, and working parents who fret about being uninsured—not utopian radicals bent on advancing a counterrevolution that destroys the freedom won by the Founding generation.
Levin obviously has in mind Democrats and liberals who support the agenda of President Obama - an agenda full of “solutions” to problems like health care, climate change, education, the home mortgage crisis, and our economic woes. Is this a “statist” manifesto or an attempt by a political party to curry favor with voters by offering to address their real life concerns?
I have resisted using terms like “socialist” and especially “communist” to describe the Democrat’s ideology because by strict definition, they are not trying to destroy the free market, repeal individual rights (as always, making an exception for 2nd amendment guarantees), set up a dictatorship, or impose “tyranny - soft or hard - on the American people.
Sllippery slope arguments are unconvincing, if only because the logical fallacy involved in the “boiling frog” scenario where we all just sit back and allow the government to descend into a kind of fascism, is belied by the stink being made by conservatives over some of Obama’s more anti-free market actions today. Can you imagine if Obama really tried to take control of the economy? I daresay we wouldn’t need Glenn Beck, weeping on live television about how bad things are with Obama as president to activate conservatives. And we wouldn’t be alone. Moderates, libertarians, classical liberals, and others would be standing with us, side by side, to strenuously oppose any move to socialize the entire economy.
But I too, have been guilty of using the word “statist” to describe what Obama and the Democrats have been doing. My definition is a little more benign than Levin’s in that the agenda being promoted by the left would not lead to tyranny, but rather a highly constricted free market of the sort that is practiced in many European social democracies; over-regulated markets that stifle inventiveness, innovation, and entrepreneurship. With such regulation necessarily comes higher taxes on all: reason enough to oppose the Democrats and thwart their plans for “fairness, transparency, and accountability” in the free market.
But I see Friedersdorf’s point. There may be a small clique on the left that would love to see an America that they could “guide” in a paternalistic sort of way. George Soros and his billionaire buddies come to mind. But in order to kill the free market, enslave the American people, gain control of the media, and destroy liberty, those ordinary folk Conor mentioned would have to be convinced that all of this would make their lives better - a tall order, that.
This problem with mis-identification that Conor writes about as well as the wrong headed definitions of where Obama and the Democrats are trying to take the country, feed what has become a perceived paranoia among many conservatives that is driving people away from the movement rather than rallying them to our standard.
At bottom is the argument I’ve been trying to advance in this series; that the excessive ideology fueling the rage that manifests itself in paranoid rantings on the internet against imagined socialism, the purging of perceived apostates, the obsession with ideological purity, and more recently, shouted down speakers at health care town halls - all of this damages conservatism in the eyes of people who might be inclined to support our cause. It also makes it extraordinarily easy for the opposition to paint conservatives as too emotional to trust with running the government.
Bruce Bartlett has some similar thoughts:
I think the party got seriously on the wrong track during the George W. Bush years, as I explained in my Impostor book. In my opinion, it no longer bears any resemblance to the party of Ronald Reagan. I still consider myself to be a Reaganite. But I don’t see any others anywhere in the GOP these days, which is why I consider myself to be an independent. Mindless partisanship has replaced principled conservatism. What passes for principle in the party these days is “what can we do to screw the Democrats today.” How else can you explain things like that insane op-ed Michael Steele had in the Washington Post on Monday?
I am not alone. When I talk to old timers from the Reagan years, many express the same concerns I have. But they all work for Republican-oriented think tanks like AEI and Hoover and don’t wish to be fired like I was from NCPA . Or they just don’t want to be bothered or lose friends. As a free agent I am able to say what they can’t or won’t say publicly.
I think the Republican Party is in the same boat the Democrats were in in the early eighties — dominated by extremists unable to see how badly their party was alienating moderates and independents.
I don’t think you can accuse Bartlett, Friedersorf, or I for that matter, of lacking principles. I have made the argument that pragmatists are as principled as any ideologue. Where the extremists and I part company is in the application of those principles to real world politics. Not hating your opponent should not disqualify you from being a conservative, nor should dismissing the notion that Obama is a socialist be cause enough to question one’s conservative bona fides. Principled opposition in a republic must be based on the golden rule; respect others as you yourself would like to be respected. No, I don’t always live up to that credo. But I would like to think that I never question the good intentions of my foes. Wrong, not evil.
And on a related note, I would argue with Mark Levin that liberty does not exist in a vacuum, nor can free people exist apart from the community that bred them. There are responsibilities that go along with enjoying liberty that includes the recognition that we are not islands unto ourselves, and that government, however imperfect it can be, is nevertheless not the implacable enemy of liberty some conservatives believe.
A danger at times? Yes. But if conservatism is to triumph again, we must demonstrate that conservative principles can be applied to running government better than the those of the opposition. That is the essence of politics and we would do well to remember it.