This article originally appears on The Moderate Voice.
Who owns the “conservative conscience?” Is it necessary to have one?
After all, there is no identifiable “liberal conscience” - at least no one who comes readily to mind. There’s plenty of criticism of Obama from the left but weirdly, the president is being taken to task for not being “liberal enough.”
This presents a delicious dichotomy; conservatives taking other conservatives to task for being too conservative (or not conservative at all) while liberals are taking other liberals to task for not acting liberal enough and being too centrist.
Flip the philosophical identifications and you have a mirror image of the way internal critical debates were conducted during the Bush era. It seems that ideologues belonging to the party in power are never satisfied that the leadership is “pure” enough while those on the “outs” are advised by apostates to be constrained in their criticism so as not to terrify the great middle of American politics.
How many times have we seen over the past decade “a liberal who gets it” or “a conservative who gets it” appear on opposing websites, describing a critic who skewers his own? Apparently, those who criticize their friends using some of the same arguments as the opposition achieve the status on the opposing side of being “the conscience” of one ideology or another (while being described as a traitor by their putative friends) - until they revert to form and criticize the opposition. Then, they are no longer the “conscience” of anything but rather a member of the echo chamber that parrots the talking points of the day for either side.
If I sound a little bemused by it all, I beg forgiveness. Having been accused of criticizing some conservatives in order to garner adoration and praise from liberals, I have experienced this process first hand. But it raises the interesting question; what kind of criticism makes one a “conscience of conservatives?” (I invite someone from the left to ask that same question and respond to it. I have no expertise - or desire - to take on the question myself.)
Perhaps a better question would be is a conscience for conservatives even necessary?
In the last fortnight, we have seen several respected conservatives wonder about the craziness of some in the movement and the general abandonment of reason and logic that has resulted in conspiracy theories, exaggerated and over the top criticism of the president and the Democrats, and an incoherent rage that suffuses the movement with a patina of paranoia that scares these observers about the direction the right is taking.
These critiques were roundly rejected by most conservatives. What is it, then, that these conservatives find wrong with the right?
I don’t think I am overgeneralizing when I say that the primary criticism of the right offered by most conservatives today is that those in positions of power are simply not conservative enough, that they are not true to conservative principles (as they understand them), and that such squishiness makes them “Democrat lite” - a pale echo of the other party.
Since this appears to be the dominant criticism of the right from the majority of conservatives, are those who can best elucidate that theme acting as a “conscience,” illuminating what needs to be changed for conservatism to stay on the straight and narrow and succeed as a viable alternative to liberalism? Or is the meme just another part of the “epistemic closure” described by Julian Sanchez and others?
The idea that just because a majority of conservatives believe its leadership (and those who don’t agree with their worldview) are squishes does not necessarily disqualify them from winning the title of “conservative conscience.” They have a point - of sorts. One of the problems of conservatism is that we continue to elect those who swear allegiance to conservative values and philosophy while running for office, but then discard, or even apologize for the label when they get to Washington.
But the tendency to lump everyone who fails to toe the very strict, very narrow line that most of these critics require of their leaders is very much reflective of the kind of epistemic closure described by other conservative critics. And the further tendency to dismiss those critics who show how this narrow-minded obstinacy creates impossible performance standards that are in danger of condemning politicians to the political fringes only reinforces the notion of conservatism being an echo chamber that admits no deviation from scripture.
My guess would be that the majority of conservatives who adhere to this worldview would be dismissive of the very idea of a “conservative conscience.” To their way of thinking, it smacks of more elitism and top-down management of the movement, not to mention that they are the targets of this criticism. No one likes being told they are the problem, or an obstacle to fixing what ails a system.
In this case, the pushback against those who rail against the illogical and unreasonable criticisms of the Obama administration and the Democrats - that they are “socialists” who are hell bent on “destroying America” - is often incoherent and irrelevant, based as it is on the notion that the critic is only trying to curry favor with the liberal media, or seeking to gain status in the elitist conservative hierarchy, or even that the critic is angling for a job in the MSM. This too, represents a kind of closure, as Sanchez pointed out:
To prevent breach, the internal dissident needs to be resituated in the enemy camp. The Cocktail Party move serves this function particularly well because it simultaneously plays on the specific kind of cultural ressentiment that so much conservative rhetoric now seems designed to stoke. Because it’s usually not just a tedious charge of simple venality—of literally “selling out” to fetch better-paying speaking gigs or book deals. You can clearly make a damn good living as a staunch conservative, after all, and Bruce Bartlett doesn’t exactly talk as though he’s gotten a big income boost out of his apostasy.
No, the insinuation is always that they’re angling for respectability, because even “one of us” might be tempted by the cultural power of the enemy elites, might ultimately value their approval more than that of the conservative base. It’s a much deeper sort of purported betrayal, because it’s a choice that would implicitly validate the status claims of the despised elite. You’re supposed to feel as though you’ve been snubbed socially—discarded for “better” company—which evokes both more indignant rejection of the quisling and further resentment of the liberal snobs who are visiting this indignity on you. In a way it’s quite elegant, and you can see why it’s become as popular as it has.
Sanchez believes that rejection of legitimate criticisms offered by “dissidents” is also a sign of insecurity on the part of the movement. He thinks it self defeating “because it corrodes the kind of serious discussion and reexamination of conservative principles and policies that might help produce a more self-assured movement.”
Would a “self-assured” conservative movement recognize or accept “dissident” critiques of conservatism as legitimate and thus grant them the status of being a “conscience of the right?” That will never happen. Sanchez dances around the idea that this is as much a cultural battle within the conservative ranks as a conflict being driven by ideology or policy differences. The movement likes to portray the differences as a fight between “ordinary” Americans and those who went to the best schools, had the advantage of class, or, as Stacy McCain has pointed out, are looking for career advancement by trying to separate themselves from the “rabble.”
In fact, the support for Sarah Palin, whose very ordinariness is what recommends her to many on the right, is a living example of how closure has warped the conservative movement and turned it into something not recognizable as a philosophy embraced by Reagan, Buckley, Kirk, and other more practical, less ideological adherents. The thinking goes that the smart folks have blown it and now its time to give an ordinary American a chance. The fact that this reasoning is thought sound by so many is indicative of why “dissidents” will never be taken seriously by those who most desperately need to be reintroduced to logic and common sense.
Having the left, or the media, identify anyone as a “conscience of conservatives” is meaningless. The source of that label is instantly disqualifying among the majority on the right. Who, then, will take it upon themselves to bring a measure of responsible opposition and a coherent set of principles under which the right can govern to the majority?
In order to offer a solution, you have to see a problem first. Since the Becks, the Limbaugh’s, the Hannity’s, the Coulter’s, and other cotton candy conservatives have no intention of risking their own status as movement icons in order to bring a measure of sanity to their acolytes, it seems probable that the simple answer to that question is nobody.