Lest things should be unclear, though, let me remedy that: by my lights, the American conservative movement as it exists is a horrid mess, pure and simple, and it’s precisely for that reason that I’ve taken such steps to (1) dissociate myself from it and (2) make the motivations for that dissociation quite clear. ~John Schwenkler
John was replying to Freddie’s response to this. I don’t know if John’s confession of disgust will satisfy Freddie’s sense of injustice, but perhaps it would be useful to review how the conversation reached this point for those now just joining it. Ages ago (sometime last week), Damon Linker declared that certain “radical” conservatives in league with Andrew Bacevich were possessed of an authoritarian spirit that warred against the human condition, which prompted Ross’ response and led Noah Millman to offer the following advice:
And, by the same token, more humble: recognize that communities with illiberal commitments are bound to continue to exist (and spring up) within liberal societies, and that liberals need these communities as a check on themselves, and cherish them, because they (liberals) are only human, as fallible as any other humans, and as prone to dogmatic certitude. Cultivation of skepticism and doubt will never be enough; you’ll need actual alternative certitudes to push against to be sure that you actually know anything. And, if you’re really a liberal, you have to leave open the possibility of being convinced that one of your liberal truths is actually, well, false.
John then elaborated on the ideas expressed here and called for something of a rough-and-tumble pluralist debate between alternative certitudes:
This pretty much gets it right, right? Recalling the Millman Desiderata, what we get is a liberalism that is at once more self-confident (because it’s willing to wait for its own commitments â€“ to such things as “reason, science, the utility of the extended liberal order, and the authority of the liberal moral sentiments”, to use Will’s list â€“ to prevail in a no-holds-barred battle) and much more humble (because it doesn’t claim the authority to let anything other than small-d democratic consensus choose the victor or set the terms of the fight). We just let things evolve, baby, and trust that selection will do its work.
Clearly, this is more evidence of rampaging authoritarianism lurking beneath the placid “radical” conservative surface.
In any case, what bothers Freddie is the dissident conservative’s habit of discussing and even advising on the future of conservatism while constantly distinguishing himself from the movement and GOP to avoid blame for their failings:
You can’t reform a movement from within when you want to but not be considered at all responsible for its failings when it suits you. That’s the challenge for many conservatives, to be advocates of a radically different conservatism than the one we have while not succumbing to the temptation to wash their hands of what conservatism actually means in practical terms.
This brings us back to Prof. Deneen’s observation that conservatism has not yet been tried. This will elicit even louder howls of protest from Freddie, as it will seem to him to be a case of uncritically accepting “the idea that Bush was just a uniquely incompetent traitor to the right.” In fact, I would be willing to say that Bush was not a traitor to the movement conservatives who celebrated him when times were good, but I would also say that he was obviously never a conservative in the way that Deneen means it. Here is Deneen:
It has become a trope, or “meme,” that the dismal ending of the failed Bush presidency marks the demise of modern conservatism overall. Liberalism is revived and regnant, ready to lead where conservatism failed.
This “meme” should be nipped in the bud: conservatism was never tried. A version of liberalism was implemented, particularly a toxic combination of Wilsonian visions of remaking the world combined with a particular brand of laissez-faire economics that gave particular favor to Bigness. BOTH of these pursuits, perfectly combined during the Presidency of George W. Bush, but present in various iterations throughout the years of Republican rule, are purely distilled varieties of liberalism.
We called it “conservative” because it wasn’t the more potent version of Statism. However, all the same, it relied upon basic liberal assumptions of self-interest, privatism, large and centralized government and growth economics that place a stress upon large scale, mobility, debt, and consumption.
So dissident or “radical” conservatives separate ourselves from the movement and its failings in two ways. We do not merely oppose certain policies and propose others in their place, as some of the “reform” conservatives do, but, like George Grant in his observations on America, we fundamentally reject the idea that the movement promotes conservatism. It is not surprising, then, if we are not inclined to take responsibility for ideas and actions that really do have nothing to do with us or our philosophical persuasion.
Closing on a related note, one of the amusing things about much of the Linker-Deneen debate is the extent to which all of the participants, myself included, tended to retreat to the comfortable space where we are effectively posing as better political liberals. While I think the authoritarian label is misleading as a way to describe our dissident cultural conservatism, both Prof. Deneen and I made a point of emphasizing our political and legal anti-authoritarian credentials, which in practical terms means respect for constitutionalism. I should add that Prof. Deneen has been more careful to emphasize his philosophical opposition to the liberal tradition more consistently than I have, as he did in his objections to defining conservatism merely as constitutionalism. Indeed, I am such a political and legal anti-authoritarian (as these things are usually defined) that I have written against torture at the ACLU’s blog and called for criminal prosecutions of administration officials. See? I’m doing it again.
Linker’s critique of the “radicals,” like his critique of the “theocons,” focuses on the authoritarian or theocratic danger they pose to the liberal order, which greatly underestimates how invested most of them are in the political and legal aspects of that order. The gist of Noah’s critique of Linker is that Linker’s own “liberal bargain” is in its way insufficiently tolerant of illiberal groups. Of course, if Linker were right that “theocons,” “radicals” or, for that matter, Mormons represented existential threats to the liberal order, he might have more reason to warn against their influence, but the trouble with Linker’s project is not its illiberalism–why, after all, should I be concerned if Linker is being illiberal?–but its flawed assessment of the threats to the order he is defending. Indeed, from the thoroughgoing “radical” critique of the liberal tradition Linker probably has the least to fear, because the “radicals” are far more interested in attacking core assumptions that are shared across the political spectrum and we are inclined to criticize precisely the aspects of government and society that are among the most popular and unquestioned.