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The Rise of Kakodoxy

Blogging has been light today, as we have a mostly interesting Caucasus conference going on here at Chicago and I am trying to get other things ready for the final weeks of the quarter.  The conference began yesterday, and most of the more relevant medieval and late antique talks were yesterday afternoon, so I have been learning a good deal about contemporary Georgian folk customs and Daghestani Islam, but I don’t have much to add to these discussions.  I am continually fascinated by the perpetuation of animal sacrifice in Caucasian Christian countries.  Obviously, animal sacrifice in the Islamic world continues as part of customary celebrations, but it remains intriguing that ancient Armenian matagh ceremonies and similar Georgian rites of sacrifice persist.  It has reached the point in Georgia that, according to one speaker today, the Georgian Orthodox Church has banned the practice at Alaverdi.     

So, moving swiftly from the sublime to the ridiculous, I give you (via RossE.J. Dionne:

It isn’t always easy to notice, but this year’s Republican presidential campaign has become the occasion for the collapse of conservative orthodoxy.   

I agree with Christopher Orr that it must be difficult to come up with fresh and interesting arguments for columns twice a week on a regular basis, but surely that doesn’t excuse recycling the exact same “new insight” that Dionne had back in August 2006 and then acting as if that recycled “insight” was something as yet unknown.  It’s true that the “is conservatism finished?” column and the “conservative orthodoxy is collapsing” column are not exactly the same, but they make the same argument: conservatism can be said to be falling apart because there are big policy arguments among Republicans, of which the “dissenting” views of presidential candidates are but the most prominent.  This is tempting, but it gets things a bit backwards.  What has happened is that conservatives have hollowed out conservatism and filled the empty shell with Republican policy priorities over the years; these priorities have changed as time has gone by, which has created various rival constituencies of the different policy sets who are now squabbling in the wake of the failures of this or that policy.  The reason why, as Orr notes, the only “plausible” candidates the party can find are “former heretics” is very simply that the “orthodoxy” has shifted and narrowed to such a degree that at least some of the former heresies are apparently no longer the grounds for exclusion or marginalisation that they once were.   

The “collapse” of “conservative orthodoxy” also assumes some general consensus and widely shared agreement about what that “orthodoxy” was in recent years and about what it is today, but such a consensus is something that has not existed among conservatives for years and years.  As different elements of the party coalition and the conservative movement have drifted away from each other over almost everything except foreign policy (we happy few antiwar conservatives being the exception to this last point), the fundamental, non-negotiable things have been reduced again and again for the sake of unity.  It may not be a perfect example, but Hewitt’s statements about the two things where deviation will not be forgiven by his kind of activists are telling for what they say about what “conservative orthodoxy” has become: the appointment of non-activist judges and support for the war are the two things where the Hewitts of the world will tolerate no deviation, no matter how small.  On anything else, they are willing to be flexible and interested in coalition-building.  (To this we might add tax cutting as a core litmus test that threatens to destroy Huckabee’s campaign and which has badly damaged McCain’s–but it is interesting that has not yet destroyed them.)  Giuliani falls within the approved sphere because he has made friendly remarks about John Roberts, while a Hagel or, even worse, Ron Paul is simply too far out there because they are not party-line men on the war.  Thus Hewitt tolerates the pro-abortion candidate, but demands exclusion for the antiwar candidate.  “Conservative orthodoxy” isn’t collapsing so much as it has mutated into something more in line with party priorities.  It is an “orthodoxy” of which people like Dean Barnett are the guardians, which makes it much more like a kakodoxy.  

If “conservative orthodoxy” was already rather muddled last summer (it was) and all the tendencies now on display in the presidential race were fully present (they were), the presidential race may merely confirm the irrelevance of the older, more extensive “conservative orthodoxy” for policymaking while reminding us that all of the candidates feel obliged, most of the time, to pay lip service to most of the tenets of the much-rediced “orthodoxy.”  Another problem with the Dionne piece seems to me to be that “conservative orthodoxy” is taken as a given and its content is supposedly well known to all, when the “torture plank,” if you will, is an entirely new introduction and product of the last five years.  Hey, who said the Republicans couldn’t adopt new positions for changing times?  They just happen to choose the very worst kinds of policies to make themselves adaptable.

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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