James Santel writes of novelist David Foster Wallace:

Wallace’s writing did indeed frequently express the hope that human beings could transcend the limits of selfhood and language to reach one another in meaningful ways. But it was a hope severely curbed by his bedrock belief that true empathy is impossible, a belief most clearly expressed in his nonfiction, where it often took the form of a small-c conservatism, a deference to individual choice that arises from the inevitability of solipsism and isolation. What makes Wallace’s conservatism particularly disheartening is the extent to which it suggests he had difficulty placing his faith not only in other human beings, but also in the art form at which he was so obviously gifted, an art form in many ways predicated on sociability.

Though born to a liberal academic family, occupied in a traditionally liberal line of work, and outspokenly critical of the second Bush presidency, Wallace was drawn to conservatism. In his recent biography of Wallace, D. T. Max reveals that Wallace voted for Ronald Reagan and supported Ross Perot in 1992. Max has suggested in interviews that these stances were motivated in part by contrarianism, but Wallace’s essays evince a real interest in some of conservatism’s central principles, particularly its valorization of individual choice.

Wait … what? A central principle of conservatism is the “valorization of individual choice”? That’s just not true. That is a central premise of libertarianism, in both its liberal and conservative iterations. Conservatism, traditionally, focuses on what is chosen, and individual responsibility for moral choices.

I don’t mean to discourage you from reading the Santel essay, which is interesting and worth your consideration. It’s just that I think the characterization of conservatism as individualism — a characterization that many Republicans would agree with, thoughtlessly — as if it were an obvious truth is not only unjustified, but serves to contextualize the discussion of American politics within a rigidly binary framework that does not correspond to reality. Sam M. e-mails this comment:

Wait. Deference to individual choice is small-c conservative? Weird, no? This is the critique that almost all the small-c conservatives I know levy against liberalism. In fact, they often charge big-C conservatives with the same thing.


[H/T: Prufrock, the free daily e-mail newsletter about arts, literature and culture, to which you should subscribe right now.]