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Clothes Make The Conservatism?

A ‘social conservative’ in my view is not a moral authoritarian Evangelical who wants to push people around, but an American gentleman, conservative in a social sense. He has gone to a good school, maybe shops at J. Press, maybe plays tennis or golf, and drinks either Bombay or Beefeater martinis, or maybe Dewar’s on the rocks, or both. ~Jeffrey Hart 

But it’s hard to escape the impression that he [Hart] mainly objects to modern conservatism because it doesn’t know what color shirt to wear to the regatta. There’s a place for that kind of snobbery, I suppose, but as political analysis it’s just horseshit. ~Ross Douthat

Well, I guess Jeffrey Hart’s remarks on conservatism of a couple months ago, which originally appeared in Dartmouth’s alumni mag and were put online here, were not all together well-received at the Scene.  Ahem.  I had noticed this section in the article, and I had thought about commenting on it late last year, but I became more focused on his knocks on populism and evangelicals and didn’t return to it.  On the latter, I remarked about his Dartmouth alumni magazine comments and his earlier WSJ op-ed, much in the vein of Ross’ “regatta” crack:

Hart’s op-ed did also elicit strong reaction over his somewhat cavalier treatment of opposition to abortion (in which he rather unimpressively cited vague irrrepressible “social forces” on a matter of fundamental moral principle), and in his disdain for evangelicals one often gets the sense not so much of a High Church man whose mind boggles at the shallowness of Enthusiasm but of a Northeasterner who finds people from much of the rest of the country rather drab and miserable yokels whom we should ignore as often as we can.  

The quote from Hart that elicited Ross’, er, disapproval seems to meet with the hearty approval of Andrew Sullivan, which should always worry the person being thus favourably quoted, but I do not take that as ipso facto proof of the foolishness of the statement.  Actually, I doubt my competence to point out the flaws of Mr. Hart’s prescription for classy quasi-aristocratic social habits, since I associate all of that nonsense with the numerous Midlothian kids named “Trey” (their real names were things like James Richard Norbert III) driving around in their Benzes and (if they felt like it) marrying horse-obsessed women from Sweet Briar and I intentionally avoided that scene as much as possible when I was in Virginia.  These people were reflexively Republican, of course, but if they were “socially conservative” in any meaningful sense they hid it awfully well.  These were George Bush’s people by upbringing, background and habits.  Some of them probably played tennis and maybe even some of them would not have been out of place in Match Point.  Maybe when people act like this in the Northeast it doesn’t seem pretentious and excessive.  Perhaps the climate is better-suited to it.  I don’t know.  In fact, I typically leave all metrocon-ish and other fashion questions to Michael, though I was recently complimented–at least I assume it was a compliment–on my overcoat as being in the tradition of Lord Raglan, so perhaps I have something to say about it after all. 

What Would Lord Raglan Say?

The problem with Mr. Hart’s list is, of course, not the particular list of what a good “social conservative” of this type would wear or drink or do, but that it does not even attempt to claim, as “crunchy cons” or agrarians would plausibly try to claim, that there is a humane and tradition-guided purpose behind inculcating certain habits related to consumption, aesthetics and way of life.  Mr. Hart takes a string of things that the discerning “man about town” should prefer and calls it social conservatism, because the things actually aimed at the preservation of a sane Christian ethos are all together too controversial and liable to force you to get into arguments at the yacht club–the members of the club are the “social forces” that might be more worrying to such a “social conservative.”  Whatever the potential snags in a paleo, “crunchy,” or traditional conservative concern about the concentration of wealth and power, factory farming, soulless mass consumption, environmental degradation or the sheer ugliness of many parts of post-modern American life in their lack of grace, balance and proportion, among many other things, these are assuredly much more pressing concerns than what kind of scotch a man drinks.  To the very limited extent that “crunchy conservatism” appeared to be or actually was just a manual for how to be a right-wing wine-and-cheeser, it deserved to be ridiculed.  A respect for festivity and a spirit that understands that wine maketh glad the heart of man are important things to embrace; striking a Paul Giammati-esque pose about the virtues of “cab franc” or pinot grigio is worse than irrelevant–it is absurd.  Give me an evangelical Bryan who eschews any kind of drink to the Northeasterner with his martini and his refined sense of style any day–it is Bryan’s sort of America that I come from, at least in part, and his sort of people, whatever their flaws, who might still have it in them to create a living and sane culture. 

What was always so frustrating about the “crunchy con” debate, and every debate that touches on a conservative modus vivendior so-called “lifestyle conservatism,is that critics normally would match the superficiality of this limited part of the argument with their own fairly shallow perceptions of the rationale behind the entire appeal.  When they were not attacked for being forerunners of yuppie fascism, “crunchy cons” were accused of making personal preferences and tastes into important, principled standards, which I think was (for the most part) untrue, but here Mr. Hart states very plainly that social conservatism is really not much more than having a sense of good taste in fashion and drink and attending the right university.  Good show, what!  Let me just say that there were more than a few folks who graduated my alma mater, which still is a fairly good school, who would have passed these tests with flying colours who would nevertheless not understand the meaning of what it is to be a gentleman.   

The idea of an aristocratic republic does not at all offend me, nor does Mr. Hart’s disdain for populism always irk me (my blog is called Eunomia after all).  But there is populism, a la John Edwards, and then there is populism.  As I said in December, there is a very real possibility for an aristocratic populism, the forerunners of which were none other than Bolingbroke and Jefferson.  In the former, this aristocratic populism was avowedly non-democratic, in the latter decidedly more democratic, but their political ideals remain surprisingly consistent across the century.  It is an appeal to these ideals, rather than the idea of rallying the mob itself, that makes up a serious, reasonably conservative populism. 

There is actually a great deal to be said for following in the tradition of those somewhat eccentric classicising aristocrats who, like Bolingbroke, fought for the broad distribution of property, the landed interest, the classical ideal of the “mixed constitution” and the diffusion of power away from the center.  It was possible for the same Old Whig principles that were embraced by oppositional aristocrats in the early eighteenth century to be championed by the Democratic Republicans and populists in the nineteenth.  This may not sit well with some of our New England and Northeastern friends, but it is far more integral to the history of American republicanism, constitutionalism and conservatism than a modish preoccupation primarily with style and cultivating a socially acceptable image.    

So there is even more to be said for adhering to the American Jeffersonian tradition that drew heavily on these aristocratic Opposition views of the Country tradition, and so there are good reasons–rooted in the finest Old Whig and High Tory hostility to corruption, the moneyed interest and centralism–to deplore the Northeastern centralising politics more or less inevitably associated with the social habits Mr. Hart holds up as ideals.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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