The Conservative Mind Today

Hoover Institution fellow Peter Berkowitz has a fascinating piece on why the right in America is divided and the left is unified. His thesis is interesting, and his analysis deep, but ultimately I’m not sure that the larger point is quite true. Before that, his observations:

This absence on the left of debate or dissent about moral and political ends has been aided and abetted by many of the party’s foremost intellectuals, who have reveled in denouncing George W. Bush as a dictator, in declaring democracy in 21st-century America all but illegitimate, and in diagnosing conservatism in America as in the grips of fascist sentiments and opinions.

A few months ago, Hoover Institution research fellow Dinesh D’Souza published a highly polemical book, “The Enemy at Home,” which held the cultural left responsible for causing 9/11 and contended that American conservatives should repudiate fellow citizens on the left and instead form alliances with traditional Muslims around the world. Conservatives of many stripes leapt into the fray to criticize it. But rare is the voice on the left that has criticized Boston College professor and New Republic contributing editor Alan Wolfe, former secretary of labor and Berkeley professor Robert Reich, New Republic editor-at-large and Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow Peter Beinart, Berkeley professor George Lakoff, and New York University law professor Ronald Dworkin–all of whom have publicly argued in the last several years that conservatives form an enemy at home.

One explanation of the unity on the left is its belief that today’s divisive political questions have easy answers–but because of their illiberal opinions and aims, conservatives are unable to see this and, in a mere six years, have brought democracy in America to the brink. This explanation, however, contradicts the vital lesson of John Stuart Mill’s liberalism that political questions, as opposed to mathematical questions, tend by their very nature to be many-sided. Indeed, it contradicts the left’s celebration of its own appreciation of the complexity and depth of politics.

Another explanation is that blinded by rage at the Bush administration and resentment over its own lack of power, the left has betrayed its commitment to grasp the many-sidedness of politics, and, in the process, has lost appreciation of modern conservatism’s distinctive contribution to the defense of a good, liberty, which the left also prizes. Indeed, the widespread ignorance among the highly educated of the conservative tradition in America is appalling.

I think that ultimately, the left really is more divided than the right in this country. The only thing making the left coherent is their hatred of George W. Bush. In 20 months, the simmering divisions within the left could easily explode — just witness the rapid transformation of Cindy Sheehan from moral paragon to persona non grata for the left. Absent their Emmanuel Goldstein, the left doesn’t really agree on much. Green eco-feminist activists and Ohio steelworkers don’t have all that much in common, and as the “netroots” keep pushing the Democratic Party further towards the left, the vital center in American politics remains up for grabs.

However, that argument notwithstanding, Berkowitz is right that the right appears divided and the left appears unified. I agree that the left has largely lost their ability to see issues without being clouded by their own extreme partisanship, while the right is searching for a legacy that doesn’t involve George W. Bush. The right’s search is a productive one, because trying any intellectual movement to a person who was never a great intellectual leader (and ran on a platform that discarded much of what conservatism stands for) is never a good idea. Conservatives were willing to give Bush a chance to show that “compassionate conservatism” was a workable program — it wasn’t, and it has largely been discredited as being a form of watered-down statism with a conservative veneer. The right has it’s set of first principles: American exceptionalism, limited government, a strong national defense, and a belief in the importance of moral absolutes. However, there are some major disagreements over the application of those principles: immigration being the most significant.

Berkowitz is also correct that the left doesn’t really have a set of first principles — other than the opposition to Bush, what does the left really stand for? The netroots aren’t at all intellectual leaders. Their positions are based on animosity and political brinksmanship, not any real deep-seated political or philosophical conviction. It is based solely on the will to power — and reading any of the major left-wing blogs reveals that the left knows what they hate, but doesn’t seem to have a good idea who they are as a movement. When Bush becomes irrelevant (more so than he is already), what will they have to stand on?

Conservatives, by contrast, are rich in ideas, but very poor in activism. RedState was designed to mirror the successes of The Daily Kos in terms of political activism, but it’s never been nearly as successful. RedState is willing to challenge the GOP and move the party in a more conservative direction, but the influence of the right-wing analogue of the “netroots” isn’t that great. Part of it is because the GOP doesn’t get the importance of online activism in the way that the Democrats did, but the larger part is because the typical GOP voter isn’t an activist. Small-government types rarely are in today’s society. Instead, conservatives are more likely to be focused on intellectual debates than political ones — which is why the major right-wing blogs tend to be more intellectually diverse than the left-wing ones.

All of this supports Berkowitz’ observations. How this will play out in the future is the bigger question. I don’t believe that political movements that are based on nothing more than political power tend to survive very long. Once they attain power, they rarely use it judiciously — just witness the ineptitude of the Pelosi/Reid Congress. A long-lasting political movement has to have some kind of set of strong first principles beyond obtaining power to give it strength. The conservative movement in America has lost steam because they became too enamored with power and lost sight of their first principles. The liberal/statist movement in America has blundered right out of the gate because they never had those first principles to begin with.

Conservatives know what they believe, and are more in tune with their intellectual heritage than their opponents. This is due in large part because the nature of conservatism is to look to the past for inspiration and understanding. The conservative intellectual heritage of Burke, Kirk, Strauss, and Buckley is still as vital for us today as it was in the half-century when it exploded onto the scene. Political power is transitory, and the GOP’s fortunes may wax and wane. What must never be forgotten is the intellectual and moral principles which form the bedrock of conservative philosophy — because losing those is far worse than losing temporal political power.

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