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A Response to Ross

Ross Douthat kindly critiques [1] my essay urging a “non-movement conservatism” [2] (if not a non-conservative conservatism). Dan McCarthy makes some of the same arguments [3] [3]here [3].

A few points in response:

– Ross correctly observes that all ideological movements not just conservatism — have both theorists who generate the ideas and disciples who go out and advance them. He cites Rachel Carson and the environmentalist movement as an example. An even purer example might be Jane Jacobs who came out of nowhere and the New Urbanist movement.  These movements all have a clear and distinct idea of what they stand for; hence, they can also distinguish between those issues relevant to their movement and those that are not. In contrast, nobody has any generally accepted idea what conservatism is supposed to mean or what conservatives are supposed to achieve. (The best one can probably do is to say that conservatism is whatever the movement says that it is.) The difference between conservatism and, say, environmentalism or New Urbanism, then, is that conservatives are constantly trying to stitch various disparate ideas together into some plausible whole. My point is that this stitching project doesnt add anything (indeed, it may be counterproductive).  If you want the underlying ideas, or even organizations to advance those underlying ideas, you dont need conservatism or a broad conservative movement.

– Ross also correctly observes that it’s possible both to build a movement and to influence those outside of it. Again, he cites environmentalism as an example. Again, there are crucial differences between the conservative movement and a movement like environmentalism.  Environmentalists have never sought to create a counter-establishment. Rather, they try to supply establishment institutions with environmentalist ideas.  Conservatives, by contrast, have sought to create a whole alternative institutional world.  The movement offers entire career tracks for aspiring conservatives. Moreover, the movement preaches hostility to non-movement institutions. From the moment a movement conservative starts his career at his college conservative paper, he learns to conceive of conservative organizations as the City of God and traditional establishment institutions as the City of Man. The two Cities, he believes, are antagonists. Hence, movement conservatives have not generally succeeded in reaching sympathetic outsiders if anything, they have actively sought to alienate them.

– Finally, both Ross and Dan correctly observe that you can’t get anything done without coalitions, strategists, foot-soldiers – in short, movements. The question is: movements of what type? First of all, it is unclear whether popular movements are the most effective.  Given vast levels of political ignorance, a great deal of policymaking goes on without effective public scrutiny. If you want to achieve a change in public policy, it may be better to create a loose networks of like-minded elites rather than to organize a mass movement. Second, the conservative project of stitching together various disparate ideas may be counterproductive. Sure, its great that pro-lifers have an alliance with foreign-policy [4] Projectarians. [4] But the cost is that the enemies of the Projectarians who are legion become the enemies of the pro-lifers. If youre pro-life, might it not be better to build alliances with all ideological types, whatever their views on other subjects? I would think so.  But conservatism and the conservative movement prevent this from happening.

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#1 Pingback By Conservative “think”tanks | deadissue.com On November 14, 2008 @ 9:37 am

[…] “think”tanks I got this via Andrew Sullivan and I thnk inadvertentely cuts to the heart of the problem with conservatism. […]

#2 Comment By central squared On November 14, 2008 @ 10:37 am

This really does get to the heart of the matter. It seems that conservative “movement” is more a coalition than a unified movement, and most coalitions eventually fail. You had the lower socio-economic strata of conservatives voting against their own economic and sociological well-being because of the jingoistic, fear-based rhetoric, combined with religion. Why should fiscal conservatives be forced to be lumped in with social conservatives? Why would those two groups ever be in the same political circles? As a very socially liberal with semi-conservative fiscal and defense leanings, I would never in my life vote for a party that celebrates the know-nothingness of Palin, or the pro-religious stance of the GOP. I have no choice as to where my vote goes. I’d really prefer a more parliamentary style where a green party could work with fiscal conservatives, a labor party might find common ground with defense types. I know it will never happen, but the ideological divisions being forced upon us, the two-party system, seems to be tearing the right apart, while the left (for the moment) has their act together with a strong president-elect and semi-solid platform/agenda.

#3 Comment By JB Conner On November 14, 2008 @ 10:41 am

Austin’s take on non-movement conservatism simply “does not compute” to movement conservatives.

I believe they see the world at two different levels.

It all comes down to what is the object of conservation: what is it that conservatives conserve?

My understanding of Austin’s view of conservatism (to which I am sympathetic and, to the extent I understand it, in agreement), is that the ‘object’ of conservation is akin to the ‘metis’ of a society (as the term is used by Scott in his book Seeing Like a State). The focus therein being on the informal underlying wisdom and praxis of the society in question. This ‘metis’ serving as the foundation for the more formal rules and institutions that develop. As seen in this manner, a non-movement conservatism makes sense. In fact non-movement conservatism may be all there is. Austin’s comments regarding ‘loose networks’ fit right in: informal ties that serve to explore and propogate this ‘metis’.

However, movement conservatives appear to view the ‘objective’ of conservation as the formal rules, institutions, and policies themselves. As seen in this manner, a movement to conserve may be all there is to advance conservative desires.

Regards,

JB Conner

#4 Comment By piedra On November 14, 2008 @ 11:45 am

Good analysis. It does seem like the only thing holding these groups together is the desire for power, and there’s going to be some jostling as there’s a limited supply of that.

It does make for strange bedfellows. I simply can’t imagine Joe the Plumber in the same room as Bill Kristol, which is why Kristol’s paeans to Palin (more akin to Joe) never made much sense. He’s sensing her power, maybe, but it’s hard to believe Kristol and Palin share any parts of a worldview.

And the more disparate the elements of the “conservative movement”, the less it is in tune with the majority of Americans. is there even one position held by the conservatives which is shared enthusiastically by the majority of voters?

#5 Comment By kayatrythenna On November 21, 2008 @ 8:24 pm

These impossible women! How do they get around us! The poet was right: can’t live with them, or without them! (Aristophanes) 🙂

#6 Pingback By Backyard Politics » Blog Archive » Item – Sensationalist, Brand – Conservative On November 24, 2008 @ 5:00 pm

[…] Austin Bramwell’s ‘a response to Ross’ […]

#7 Comment By verreces On December 14, 2010 @ 4:24 pm

“It seems that conservative “movement” is more a coalition than a unified movement, and most coalitions eventually fail. You had the lower socio-economic strata of conservatives voting against their own economic and sociological well-being because of the jingoistic, fear-based rhetoric, combined with religion. Why should fiscal conservatives be forced to be lumped in with social conservatives? Why would those two groups ever be in the same political circles? As a very socially liberal with semi-conservative fiscal and defense leanings, I would never in my life vote for a party that celebrates the know-nothingness of Palin, or the pro-religious stance of the GOP. I have no choice as to where my vote goes. I’d really prefer a more parliamentary style where a green party could work with fiscal conservatives, a labor party might find common ground with defense types. I know it will never happen, but the ideological divisions being forced upon us, the two-party system, seems to be tearing the right apart, while the left (for the moment) has their act together with a strong president-elect and semi-solid platform/agenda.”
Where else can I read about it?