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Why Are You A Conservative (Liberal)?

Conor Williams, a liberal blogger, issues a challenge to his fellows on the left:

The Left, broadly understood, consists of all of the following: 1) liberals who aim at a restoration of broad tolerance for lifestyle choices ranging from drugs to sex to art and more, 2) progressives who believe that it is our duty to build a fairer and better political community than the one we currently have, 3) a crowd of others who are defined by nothing so much as their inchoate frustration with the country’s general direction. There’s certainly some overlap between these groups’ various objectives, but it’s difficult to see it as anything more than incidental.

I’ve asked before. I’ll ask again: If you’re a leftist (of any type), why do you believe what you do? What are your justifications for being a liberal, or a progressive, or a social democrat, or whatever such thing?

It’s not enough to say, for example, “I’m a progressive because I want to make sure that all women have access to contraception.” That’s a lateral move—stating a policy preference isn’t a compelling way to convince anyone to share your preference, let alone become a leftist. It’s akin to saying, “I’m a vegetarian because I want to stop the eating of animals!” It begs the questions we’re really asking: Why should all women have access to contraception? Why should we stop eating animals? Why should I, or anyone, share your mind or join your cause? Do you have a reason?

Williams says that the Right has had this for a long time, and can make a compelling case for why people should be conservative — and that this accounts for the Right’s success. I think that was once true, but I don’t know how true it remains. It seems to me that conservatism is coasting on the narrative that made sense, and made sense powerfully, in 1981, but that has been increasingly detached from actual conditions in recent years.

This blog has an eclectic readership. Williams’s post is an invitation to us all to state why, on a philosophical level, we identify as conservatives, or liberals, or what have you. I’ll take a shot at it here. Let me exhort you to avoid the rhetorical pitfall Williams identifies above. What we’re trying to get at here is why the political camp with which you identify is the one that others should “share your mind or join your cause.” As you answer, try hard not to be gripey, tendentious, or nasty about the Other Side. I mean, it’s find to complain about the other side if it’s relevant to your broader point — sometimes I find that I’m a conservative more because I’m Not Liberal than a positive identification with conservatism — but I’m asking you to moderate your tone such that you invite discussion, not the drawing of battle lines.

OK, below the jump, here’s why I’m a conservative.I am a conservative because I believe that the conservative political and cultural tradition offers the most accurate way of understanding how the world works, and helping people organize their affairs, personally and in community, in a morally sound and rational way. I am a conservative because I am convinced of the reality of the Christian doctrine of Original Sin, and believe that conservatism, broadly understood, proceeds from the understanding that humankind is imperfectible and tragic. I am a conservative because I am skeptical of utopia, and the ability of human reason to comprehend the deepest nature of things. Tradition — however flawed — is the surest guide to the affairs of men, because it has been tested. I am a conservative because I am a Christian, and find that in this time, and in this place, my religious convictions place me, however uneasily, on the side of those who call themselves conservative. I am a conservative because I believe Russell Kirk was right when he said that “the institution that it’s most important to conserve is the family” — and because I believe conservatism offers the best means of resistance against the cultural forces tearing the family apart. I believe that society is better understood as an organic entity, not as a collection of rights-bearing individuals who relate to each other contractually.

I am a conservative in spite of what contemporary American conservatism stands for in some cases. I am more skeptical of the free market than many (most?) of my fellow conservatives, because I believe the market, the most powerful anti-conservative force that ever was, is a good, but a conditional good. I am more in favor of environmental regulations than many (most?) conservatives because I believe that we have a moral and religious responsibility to treat Creation with respect, and to be good stewards of the land, not clever exploiters. I have become far, far more skeptical of the foreign policy views of leading conservatives, because I recognize the Right has given itself over to the crusading abstractions of Nationalism and American Exceptionalism — this, in contradiction to what conservative philosophy and conservative instincts tell us about human nature.

Yet I remain a conservative not only because my philosophical and moral views are conservative, but because I cannot find a home among liberals. I am generalizing here, but I do not share the liberal view that the world can be remade as we desire. I do not have the liberal faith in the inherent goodness of mankind, and in big-r Reason. I believe liberals (and many conservatives) place far too much confidence in science and technology, and in a technological “solution” to our problems. Most fundamentally, I am not a liberal — and I am a dissenter from mainstream American conservatism — for the reason Ross Douthat identified a few years back in a TAC symposium:

The picture is further complicated by the fact that because conservatism only really exists to say “no” to whatever liberalism asks for next, it fights nearly all its battles on its enemy’s terrain and rarely comes close to articulating a coherent set of values of its own. Liberalism has science and progress to pursue—and ultimately immortality, the real goal but also the one that rarely dares to speak its name—whereas conservatives have … well, a host of goals, most of them in tension with one another. … Liberals, on the other hand, dream the same dream and envision the same destination, even if they disagree on exactly how to get there. It’s the dream of Thomas Friedman as well as Karl Marx, as old as Babel and as young as the South Korean cloners. It whispered to us in Eden, and it whispers to us now: ye shall be as gods. And no conservative dream, in the 400 years from Francis Bacon until now, has proven strong enough to stand in its way.

I am a conservative because I do not believe in Progress — or rather, I believe progress is possible, but is always fragile, and usually brings with it a new set of problems. I am a conservative because I believe the only people who question Progress these days are those who call themselves conservatives (and even then they are a minority within conservatism; as Douthat wrote:

[T]he reason for a great deal of recent conservative confusion: the Right actually won a victory in the latter half of the 20th century, after centuries of defeat, and turned modernity away from a particularly pernicious path. This unexpected triumph has meant that many people who became accustomed to calling themselves “conservatives” when the conquest of nature seemed to require socialism or Communism are back on board the Baconian train, racing happily down a different track into the brave new future. These are the people who insist that conservatism ought to mean “freedom from government interference” and nothing more—the Grover Norquists of the world, for instance, or the Arnold Schwarzeneggers. In fact, they are ex-conservatives, because they are no longer sufficiently uncomfortable with the trajectory of modernity to be counted among its critics. They were unwilling to give up freedom for the sake of progress, but they’re happy to give up virtue.

I would say, then, that an open-minded person should consider conservatism because it is realistic, and likelier to come closer to the truth of things than its rivals. Conservatism recognizes the existence of limits, and it alone is informed by the tragic sense of life. This sense causes conservatives to at times be insensitive to wrongs that can be righted, or ought to be more forcefully addressed — segregation is the prime example here — but this is a more reliable instinct than the liberal one that led to the Great Society. It all goes back to how one views human nature, and the nature of truth. I would say to this person to think about history, and what history tells us humankind is, and what Progressive, Modernist ideas about the malleability of human nature and the nature of reality led us to in the 20th century. To reckon with this fairly, I think, is to make one a conservative.

It may not make one a Republican. I would say also to this person that he should not expect that the so-called conservative party in this country is conservative in a real philosophical sense; in most ways, the GOP is the party of conservative liberals. I would say, though, that you can find a home on the Right, however far to the margins you will have to pitch your tent, while among the Left, people who hold the religious views and philosophical convictions that I do will always be in hostile territory.

Finally, I think conservatism, as I’ve described it here, runs counter to the American mind and the American spirit, which is classically liberal (in both its right-wing and left-wing iterations), individualistic, optimistic, and crusading. Liberalism in power gave us Vietnam. Conservatism in power gave us Iraq. Americanism gave us both. The only philosophical ground I can find to make a stand against that sort of thing is on the Right, however alien this kind of conservatism is in this land.

OK, so that’s my story. What is yours? Again, keep the content philosophical, your tone detached. People who write abusively (which is not the same thing as writing critically) of opposing traditions won’t find their entries posted. I’m trying to get a discussion going here, not open another front on the culture war.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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