Tuesday, March 13, 2007


The Coherency of Conservatism

(N.B.: when I refer to a "conservative" in this post, unless it's stated otherwise or at least clear in context that it's otherwise, I'm referring to those who are both libertarian and religious conservatives -- i.e. the "base", but not maybe the most rabid, reactionary elements thereof, of the GOP. Of course, there are many other kinds of conservatism, e.g. Progressive Conservatism, some of which are also forms of liberalism, at least for the purposes of the dichotomy set up in this post. E.g. by "conservative" I'm not referring to the word as it's used in "Conservative Judaism", which would be considered a liberal movement in religion -- even as there are individual Conservative Jews across the political spectrum, within the liberal/conservative dichotomy explored in this post. It might be interesting to consider how religious and libertarian conservatives might respond to other forms of conservatism -- it's beyond the scope of this post, but not the comments -- hint, hint ;) ).

Even as we liberals, in terms of strategy, tend to underestimate the degree to which the various trends in the conservative movement, e.g. libertarian vs. religious conservatism, and fail to exploit opportunities for divide and conquer, we liberals somehow manage to also under-estimate the degree to which it is possible to have a coherent position that is both socially conservative and "libertarian".

"How?", you might ask ... well, the idea is that if society can enforce a degree of morality upon its members (righty-tighties -- pronounce that phrase as I would with my slight problems pronouncing the good-ol' midwestern cupped 'r' -- tend to use the phrase "social fabric" or something like that, in this regard), then you don't need to have government regulations, e.g. of business, that deprive people of liberty -- i.e. if people would behave, then gummint wouldn't be called upon to step in.

Indeed, I grew up with the "non-coercive" form of these views spouted by my dad (whose views in today's terms qualify him as a moonbat lefty, but when he soaked up his political views from his maternal grandparents, they were considered all but right-wing-nutty views): where the likes of my dad break with conservatism is that while someone like my dad accepts these ideas in a "one rotten apple spoils the barrel" form -- "if gummint's having to regulate us, it means we've failed morally so if we loose liberty from it, it's our own damned fault" (not that I agree with that sentament, FWIW) -- conservatives accept these ideas in a "coercive" form -- if only government would sanction and encourage private morality (*), there would be no need for other gummint regulations, so we can have more liberty by regulating private morality.

This came to mind recently when I read a short description of the ideas of Robert Nisbet, who held a somewhat similar position: that religious institutions, etc., form a social fabric, so to speak (is that his term?) which prevents people from being isolated -- and it is such isolation that engenders totalitarianism. So encouraging religiosity, etc., is a preventative to totalitarianism.

Now, I don't agree with these points. E.g., I think history shows the sense of causation in these arguments is wrong. Also, what about the hypocrites? Does religion, e.g., really do what it's supposed to do? As a vaguely religious person myself, I would hope so, but I've met enough hypocrites of all religious stripes not to be sanguine about it. Still, arguments as to the mutual compatability of social and libertarian conservatism are far more cogent than for which we liberals tend to give them credit.

We liberals do need to do a better job of "divide and conquer" when it comes to politics: after all, social/economic liberalism make a far more, IMHO, coherent ideological package than social/economic conservatism do, and look at how the GOP has been able to drive a wedge (largely, as I have pointed out on this blog and elsewhere, do to class issues: many working class folk simply feel they cannot afford the luxury of social liberalism, and the GOP has been able to effectively portray social liberalism as a luxury) between social and economic liberals. However, we should not think that such a strategy would be easy: even if particular social conservatives might worry about the corrosive effects of the un-restrained market supported by economic conservatives while individual economic conservatives might worry about social conservative intrusions on liberty -- and thus both might be attracted to, respectively, economic and social liberalism -- there are many people who are both social and economic conservatives; and they are not as incoherent in their thinking as we liberals might think.

So let's try "divide and conquer" -- 2006 shows we Dems. have a chance if we fight. But let's remember we will never be able to get everyone voting for us. Indeed, part of the problem the DLC wing has created for our party is that they try to please everyone and end up pleasing no-one, while making us all look effete in the process. So a little bit of realism about our prospects, far from dampening our enthusiasm, might push us over the edge to trying tougher strategies as we'll cease being overly concerned about trying to please everyone.

* Update: of course, many religions (in particular the Dharmic religions as well as Judaism -- especially the proto-Judaism of the Priestly Code -- and Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Pietist Christianity) hold that spiritual discipline is a particularly effective means of becoming the sort of moral person who does the right thing on a larger canvas. Indeed, one can argue that such spiritual discipline leading to one's becoming a better citizen and otherwise being better tied in with society is the very essence of religion, even in terms of the etymology of the word religion. But we liberals of such faiths don't make the leap that religiosity is either necessary or sufficient for people to be moral enough that government can let go of the regulation reigns.

Moreover, e.g. in Judaism, to the extent that the coercive version of the "encouraging religion leads to greater liberty" thesis is supported in Torah, it's supported, as in the Priestly Code, along with the construction of a very redistributivist state. So one can argue that, e.g., Judaism does agree with conservatism in it's assessment that private moral discipline can lead to greater liberty, but only when such discipline is also accompanied by acts of wealth redistribution -- by leaving out the latter, conservatism doesn't adaquately represent the point of view of the theocracy described in the Priestly Code, even as some have claimed religious conservatism to be "Levitical" in nature due to the common ground of mandating certain moral codes to be legislated. And anyway, the Levitical theocracy explicitly applies only to the Chosen People living in the Holy Land under the auspices of divine consent (which does not apply to the current State of Israel, for example -- and certainly not here) ... otherwise, Jewish political thought is arguably more in line with secular liberalism than with religious conservatism, as the political affiliations of many Jews demonstrates.

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