Clarifications on “Conservatism”

Andrew Sullivan (approvingly) quotes Stewart Lundy’s gratuitous fluff on the beautiful, sanctified, glory of “conservatism”:

Conservatism is both like water and the stillness between the waves—the waves are not the water acting, but being acted upon; stillness is the default state of conservatism:

Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity.

What a joke. That has to be the stupidest description of a political ideology, especially such a miltant, aggresive, and stubborn one, that has ever been published. John Cole at Balloon Juice agrees:

After getting hammered in two national elections, the rehabilitation of conservatism takes the form of these flowery paeans about the timeless wisdom of an ideology that is the “negation of ideology.” What a load of gibberish. At what point will these clowns realize that they sound like the Soviet apologists in the late 80’s and 90’s who wanted to tell us that communism didn’t fail, it just wasn’t properly implemented? …

Don’t be fooled by the reformation efforts by Frum and Dreher and Douthat and the rest of the crowd of snake oil salesmen, because when the chips were down in November 2008, they still all saddled up and went to battle for a know-nothing ignoramus from Alaska and her geriatric side-kick.

What a great point. I’ve seen a ton of this lalala-conservatism interpretation out on the web, with various writers attempting to convince readers (and themselves) that the idea of “conservatism” in America has anything to do with coherent, cogent philosophy. A commenter at Balloon Juice does a great job of running with that thread:

The “conservatism” that Sullivan is always going on about is a philosophical construct, not necessarily a political one. A philosophical construct that he has carefully crafted after many years of introspection and study*, and one that has little to offer in purely political terms; at least, not nowadays….

The philosophical ideal of “Burkean conservatism” [Reliance on monotheism and other traditional institutions for social stability while very, very gradually modifying the existing system is preferable to any “radical” popular change based on ideology, due to a prudent fear of societal collapse and the blood of innocent people running in the streets] is not the same thing as the political ideal of American “conservatism” [which seems to me to be a bizarre amalgamation of anti-tax sentiment, frontier individualism, nationalism, corporate interest, anachronistic cultural sentiments (e.g., racism, sexism), and biblical fundamentalism].

The “Burkean conservatism” that the commenter writes about sounds pretty good (albiet without the explicit monotheism as necessary bit; I still believe that many monotheistic moral traditions are largely still informative and relevant but the religion itself, I feel, is expendable). In fact, it seems much more like the modern notion of “pragmatism” than reactionary, bull-headed conservatism. Pragmatism involves an attempt to divorce procedure from preexisting ideology, and enact laws, rules and changes that are empirically the most useful, helpful, and productive. President Obama has shown his willingness to be a pragmatist by listening to all sides and generally being open-minded yet critical in decisions, and this is a welcome development, even if it may be classified as “Burkean.” Conservatives sticking to stubborn positions without any real explanation about how it is good for Americans (e.g. gay marriage), is certainly not pragmatic or “conservative”; it’s thoughtless and out-of-touch. 



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