Wednesday, November 9, 2011

What America Needs is Some Prominent Conservatives

The title of this post may seem strange but I've been reading a bit about historical political beliefs and structures and it strikes me that America lacks any real conservatives.  Who do we have that promotes the value of existing institutions and seeks to draw on the lessons learned from them to channel the changes forced upon us into existing channels?  I simply don't hear anyone promoting slow, gradual evolution and learning by doing.

Instead, it seems that radicalism dominates our discourse.  I hear nothing but utopianism derived rationally from rather suspect first principles.  It's as if all of our knowledge and all of our institutions must be swept away to prepare for some perfect world derived from a set of axioms no one can agree on.  It's madness.

We hear about throwing out our entire tax code to be replaced by a flat tax, we hear about scrapping Medicare and Medicaid for vouchers, scrapping the Department of Education for vouchers, we hear about having the fracking government define when life begins, and scrapping Social Security.  It's crazy, it's radical utopianism at its worst.  Virtual Jacobism.  I don't understand it.

The Democrats are at least somewhat better, they are advocating building on existing institutions to solve our problems.  But none of them show any real philosophical commitment to this, they're using the tactic because they believe it's all that can be done in our modern political climate.  Free of this, I don't really trust them.

So where is anyone willing to advocate for old school pragmatic conservatism?  I want two steps forward, one step back change.  I want every move forward to be met be a reassessment and course correction before moving forward again.  I want policies advocated for based on previous and comparative experience, not grand ideological schemes based on the mad scribblings of two bit hack op-ed columnists.  I want course corrections when problems come up, like middle class income stagnation and the correlated growth of top percentile incomes, not competing camps of denial based on ideology on one side and irrational ideologically driven rage on the other.  I want leaders that will recognize reality, deal with it based on past experience and examination of what works.

I want leaders that will say Fuck Ideology, the world is too complex for that.  We can't derive solutions rationally from first principles or build a world that will conform to them.  All we can do is rely on the slow, evolutionary method of change and democratic accountability to identify our problems.  We can recognize what works, correct our course when we have problems, and move forward that way.  Every change will bring problems that have to be resolved before making the next change, that's the way it always is.  Sweeping the board clean has never brought anything but grief.

So why is that I hear nothing but radicalism and Jacobinsm in modern American politics?  What is this madness, where is anyone in favor of gradual change?  Why does everyone want to redefine what it is to be American into bizarre caricatures of our history, like the Tea Party?  What is wrong with our country right now?  Where are the freaking traditionalist conservatives who will go to bad for minor course corrections and building on our existing foundations?  Where are you?  Who will denounce this radicalism that we are drowning in?


  1. In the middle of the 20th century, the two parties were defined in ways which meant that they included a variety of points of view.

    Republicans were the "party of Lincoln" (which is why there were essentially no Republicans in the South), but also both the party of Teddy Roosevelt and of Calvin Coolidge. Democrats were the party of FDR, but also the party of the Lost Cause. In both cases, politicians were rewarded for being moderate enough to appeal across the extremes of their party by winning primary elections.

    Today, the Republicans are the party of radical conservatives (is that an oxymoron?) - whether that conservatism is bassed on religion, economic theory, or foreign policy theory. Democrats are the party of, essentually, everybody else -- but voters in Democratic primaries are well left of center, albeit not so radical as Republican primary voters.

    Since ideology, and blind adherence to ideology, is rewarded, that's what politicians do. And because they do, fewer and fewer non-radicals participate in primaries. Which jusst reinforces the problem.

    It may be possible to break the cycle. But the solution is going to have to involve a substantial shake-up of who votes in primary elections. The only approach I've seen which looks likely to work is the Open Primary one. (Reducing gerrymandering will help a little, but probably not enough.)

  2. How did I miss this one? This is my criticism of populism. Movement conservatism these days and populism generally seem to be about alienating the people from their institutions by equating distance with foreignness. Trust the guy who sells you tacos or sends you into the cornsheller with a broom but the FED is run by extraterrestrials.

    I actually think I might be one of the conservatives you are looking for which makes me think the answer to your question is this: There are no prominent conservatives because we have been alienated from the movement and the party.

  3. doug, it's not so much that we have been aliendated from the movement. Rather, it's that there has been a deliberate effort to eject from the movement anybody who does not conform to the most extreme bits of the conservative ideology.

  4. It would be interesting if somehow our politics evolved in a way to at least try some experiments to get more non-radicals into the primaries, sadly it's hard to see how any incumbents have an incentive to do this.

    I also almost feel that we need a new name for movement conservatism, it's a far cry from the kind of institution preserving conservatism of Burke, or even Russel Kirk. It's definitely right wing, and borrows some standard conservative rhetoric regarding things like reaping the rewards of the merits of your own work and such, but it seems to have largely abandoned any devotion to traditions (though it's shameless about inventing traditions for new ideas) and to preserving existing institutions. Other right wing ideologies I'm aware of also don't fit movement conservatism's tenants so I'm a bit stumped. But conservative makes me think of Burke, and Paul Ryan and Herman Cain most definitely don't.