October 22, 2006

"If I am a conservative, and I detest many of the things this conservative administration is doing..."

"... then what kind of conservative am I and what kind of conservatives are they?"

That -- according to David Brooks -- is the question Andrew Sullivan is asking in his book "The Conservative Soul." Brooks writes a strangely good/bad review, in which he agrees with the aspects of Sullivan's thinking that have to do with the "conservatism of doubt" and "epistemological modesty" but takes him to task for failing to understand what religious conservatives are really like and for missing the "complexity" of fundamentalism. Then he praises Sullivan for being at his "wonderful best" when he is "a fervent, passionate crusader" for the things he's fundamentalist about -- like gay marriage and torture.

That doesn't seem too complimentary to Sullivan, but in the end I get the impression that Brooks is criticizing himself, saying that all that doubt and modesty that he himself finds so alluring really doesn't cut it in American politics:
... Oakeshottian conservatism can never prevail in America because the United States was not founded on the basis of custom, but by the assertion of a universal truth — that all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain rights. The United States is a creedal nation, and almost every significant movement in American history has been led by people calling upon us to live up to our creed. In many cases, the people making those calls were religious leaders. From Jonathan Edwards to the abolitionists to the civil rights leaders to the people fighting AIDS and genocide in Africa today, religiously motivated people have been active in public life. They have been, in their certainty and their willingness to apply divine truths, fundamentalists — if we want to use Sullivan’s categories. You take those people out of American politics and you don’t have a country left....

Conservatives need to relearn the lessons of Burke and Hayek — that the world is complex, and efforts to transform it will have unintended consequences, most of them bad. But if American conservatives give up their optimism and their universal creed, they will once again be a small sect at the fringes of political life.


Gerry said...

That last paragraph you quoted sums up quite a large percentage of my personal flavor of conservatism- maybe a quarter of it.

Had he added a few bars about incentives, experience, the nature of man, and the nature of governments, he would have summed almost all of it up.

Bird Dog said...

Great quote. We are linking it.

It occurs to me that perhaps the nation is not becoming more conservative: maybe it always was. Maybe what has changed since Reagan is that it has become more intellectually and socially acceptable.

Editor Theorist said...

What a fascinating and wise review! - David Brooks is something near to a genius IMO, and the US should regard him as a national treasure.

Joe said...

Andrew Sullivan is conservative only in his own mind. When it was fashionable, he parroted some conservative rhetoric, but in the past several years his true nature as a whiny moderate liberal reactionary have become clear.

(Given today's political realities, with a left become extremely left, Sullivan is, by comparison, conservative. But that's as far as it goes.)

Tim said...

"Andrew Sullivan is conservative only in his own mind.

Agreed. Sullivan is no conservative. Contrarian, maybe, and in a bi-polar electorate (no one really counts the Libertarians, and independents are just unregistered Reps or Dems too embarrassed by the parties to claim affiliation, or unclear on their political principals) if you aren't a Left-liberal, you might has well be Conservative, even if you aren't. Nothing about Sullivan save his constant proclamation of his "conservatism" is conservative. Saying it is so doesn't make it so. Finally, outside of Sullivan, no conservative I know anywhere voted for Kerry.

Sloanasaurus said...
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Sloanasaurus said...

I also used to read Sullivan a lot. However, he was so opposed to Bush on gay marriage, that he became opposed to Bush on everything and had a hard time avoiding the gay marriage issue.

Perhaps the main question Sullivan raises is whether or not Bush is a conservative. Sullivan is mostly a conservative from the limited government point of view (which I agree with him).

When it comes to spending, I do not believe there is much a President can do other than do big things or urge tax cuts. In macro economic theory, the size of a deficit matters little to the actual financial position of the national government (a country can borrow or tax, it makes no difference because they ultimately get the debt or taxes from the rich), what really matters is how much the government spends. The main purpose of tax cuts in the long run is to encourage the legislatures to spend less because deficits are politically difficult to maintain. Tax increases, in contrast do the opposite - they generally encourage more spending because the deficit shrinks. However, if you get a congress whose purpose is to cut spending then you don't need tax cuts. The 1994 Republican Congress accomplished this during the late 1990s.

Bush was very successful with his tax cuts - conservatives should recognize this.

Tom Grey said...

Sully is conservative on some gov't tax & spend issues, and liberal on social sexual tolerance issues.

Brooks: "Sullivan notes that Oakeshott “couldn’t care less about politics as such, who wins and loses, what is now vulgarly called ‘the battle of ideas.’ ” His thought was poetic, not programmatic."

Sully is an Oakeshottian ONLY in his own mind -- on gay marriage Sully is a radical fundamentalist. One willing to impose, by force of gov't, an unpopular and democratically rejected social policy upon everybody.
Bush is a centrist -- accepting civil unions.
Most anti-gays have a poor choice: centrist civil unions OR full gay marriage -- no big candidate totally against.

The Iraq war, which Bush-haters love to call a disaster or a failure, has only cost some 3000 US soldier lives. None have the intellectual courage to specify a scale of success -- as I've frequently done:
2500 or less, Bush gets an "A"; up to 5000, a "B"; up to 10 000, a "C".

How can one call somebody's policy implementation incompetent without a standard to measure what competence is?

On gov't spending, all politicians want to get free gov't cash: Other People's Money. But where were the Dems in votes against special earmarks? Usually voting in favor of pork. Obama was a Dem in favor of transparency, why weren't more other Dems pushing this? Because they want even more pork.

The anti-spenders have a poor choice: big spending Reps (who cut taxes), or even bigger spending Dems (who raise taxes -- to support more spending).

Michael Totten notes Ann as a Centrist -- and I pretty much agree.
(I'm a Libertarian Paternalist registered Rep, now.)

Tom Grey said...

Also unmentioned explicitly is how Big Gov't pro-life people, like strong Catholics who want the gov't to end poverty, have been driven out of the Democratic Party.

Many (most?) pro-lifers are NOT "conservative", but are anti-: sexual promiscuity and drugs and poverty; and want compassionate gov't to solve these problems. Many vote Rep (52% of Catholics voted Bush).

Freder Frederson said...

The Iraq war, which Bush-haters love to call a disaster or a failure, has only cost some 3000 US soldier lives. None have the intellectual courage to specify a scale of success -- as I've frequently done:
2500 or less, Bush gets an "A"; up to 5000, a "B"; up to 10 000, a "C".

So, using your brilliant scale how to judge a war, the U.S. has only received a "passing grade" three wars--the war of 1812 (which depending on how you judge it was actually a draw or a loss for the U.S.), the Spanish-American War, and our current adventure in Iraq. World Wars I and II and the Civil War were crushing defeats. Korea and Vietnam were more successful but still failures.

A Menken Moment said...
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A Menken Moment said...

David Brooks observes that there could be no Oakeshottian conservatives in America because America was founded on the general principle Jefferson enunciated in the Declaration, a principle which modern conservatives accept. I find a bit of irony here: Jefferson certainly was not considered a conservative in his day, not by Adams and Hamilton at any rate. His principle was resisted in the South, with intellectual vigor by Calhoun, by "heritage" even after the War Between the States. Yet today all but the most reactionary have embraced it. You could say it has become our custom. Oaskeshottian, theoretical-universalist, or both at the same time?

Fitz said...

A non-conservative runs a review of a book by a non-conservative. Neither of these individuals is actually conservative. They are conservative in the sense of “palatable conservatives of Manhattan.”

Andrew Sullivan was/is no conservative. Conservatives conserve things : any body who supports such a radical redefinition of a foundational social institution can never be called “conservative.” Reading Andrews writing for years now – one can understand the locus of his mind. Neither is the man Catholic in any sense of the word being a belief system. He merely adopts its title (as well as conservative) to confound labels and give his work an edge it doesn’t deserve.

Gadsen said...

I think folks here are being much too hard on Sullivan. I think it is fair to call him a conservative. He favors low taxes, economic freedom, he believes in American exceptionalism. Even on gay marriage, his approach is to allow the states to experiment and see the effects, rather than a one-time imposed solution from above.

I think that the Sullivan-Brooks dialogue is interesting though (there's video from a debate they had at Cato.) Like Sullivan, Brooks and Althouse's recent coblogginghead Dan Drezner, I'm a conservative that has been dismayed by the performance of Bush and the GOP Congress.

I agree with Brooks' criticism of Sullivan's book. Ironically, Sullivan seems to believe that he has found an all-encompassing theory to explain what he does not like about the world. This is exactly what conservatives are not supposed to believe in. Just as Bush oversimplified the analysis of the Midle East in going to war in Iraq, Sullivan seems to have oversimplified the American political landscape. Sullivan's basic insight is right: the problem with the Iraq war is that we forgot the basic conservative truth that societies cannot be taken apart and reassembled like tinker toys. Other problems with Iraq relate to Rumsfeld's desire to prove a theory about light and mobile armies, and a general disregard for human rights. I'm not sure how any of that fits Sullivan's theory.

I also agree with Brooks that the conservatism of doubt, while useful theory, is unlikely to be a great political rallying cry.

Sloanasaurus said...

So, using your brilliant scale how to judge a war, the U.S. has only received a "passing grade" three wars--

Tom Grey has a point. If we ignore for the moment the pain and suffering of losing soldiers, the Iraq war on a statistical level has a very low cost. Consider what we gained in WWII for 400,000 dead? Was it worth it?