Notwithstanding the left's perception of a monolithic right, there are conservatives of public intellectualism paddling mightily against modern conservatism's indulgent tide of ideological detritus. Earlier this week David Brooks made an admirable if flawed attempt -- he can't quite shake his vestigial ties of partisanship -- but, yesterday, Andrew Sullivan's was pitch perfect.
He opened with some basics:
[A]s I studied political philosophy more deeply, the core argument for conservatism was indeed that it was truer to humankind's crooked timber; that it was more closely tethered to earth rather than heaven; that it accepted the nature of fallen man and did not try to permanently correct it, but to mitigate our worst instincts and encourage the best, with as light a touch as possible. Religion was for bishops, not presidents. Utopias were for liberals; progress was not inevitable; history did not lead in one obvious direction; we are all limited by epistemological failure and cultural bias.
Mr. Sullivan, please allow this observation: The philosophical distance between your old-school conservatism and my pragmatic progressivism is, at its widest point, tissue thin. Although a tenacious socialist in primal ideals, I haven't experienced a utopian thought since my sophomore year in college, and I no more believe in the concept of human perfectibility than would the president of Cynics Anonymous. Indeed, I suffer from borderline misanthropy, albeit like so many misty misanthropists, in the abstract I love unconditionally the human race. My epistemological failures are many, my cultural bias endures, and the inevitability of progress, in my view, remains an open and precarious question.
So we begin, essentially, from interchangeable foundations: yours a kind of progressive conservatism, mine a conservative progressivism -- that, indeed, of old-school liberalism, which is to say, a contemporary pragmatic progressivism of the FDR school of politics. While you may wish to punctuate the conservatism of your progressivism, and I the progressivism of my conservatism, the conscientious student of history accepts that within the FDR exercise of pragmatic progressivism, there is no appreciable, philosophical emphasis on either noun or modifier. Since we live in the real world, each is intrinsically circumscribed by the other.
All of which -- but especially in its blanket rejection of simplistic ideologies -- accords rather nicely with your penetrating exegesis of contemporary conservatism:
[On whatever the issue] today's GOP could not be less conservative. I'd insist it's less conservative than Obama. It does not present reality-based reform for emergent problems. It simply reiterates dogma and ruthlessly polices dissent or debate... [I]t's Levin-land: either total freedom or complete slavery and a rhetorical war based entirely on that binary ideological spectrum. In other words, ideological performance art: brain-dead, unaware of history, uninterested in policy detail, bored by empiricism, motivated primarily by sophistry, Manicheanism, and factional hatred.
In my view the key and incontrovertible words in that delightfully brutal summary are "reality-based" and "empiricism." Those concepts are all the pragmatic progressive asks for when it comes to setting policy. It is more axiom than opinion, I'd venture, that humankind has always striven for progress, which renders that fundamental behavior empirical. Yet as the French and later the Russians proved with exceptional ethnic talent, progress, when overambitious, can be idiosyncratically and profoundly regressive. Without an attentive eye to the deathless inconvenience of worldy realities -- to which ideology, almost by definition, is blind -- excessively rapid progress ensures only squalid backlash and violent backsliding.
If I differ at all with your assessment, Mr. Sullivan, such difference lies in, I suppose one could say, your seeming immediacy:
[T]oday's unconservative "conservatism" is a movement held together by cultural resentment and xenophobic panic. Until it wrests free of this trap, it deserves its Palinesque fate: an ideology wrapped in anachronism, and laced with venom.
I'm reluctant to get into the historical "origins" game, since once begun, one soon discovers there is no chronological end; that is, there is no indisputable, pin-pointable beginning point for virtually any contemporary phenomenon. That said, I would nevertheless suggest that though chronically unwell, authentic "conservatism" is alive, as your essay yesterday, and on frequent occasions before, showed. Yet rather than labeling today's immensely corrupted version of conservatism as "unconservative," might I suggest you adopt historian Richard Hofstadter's 1960s' critical characterization of "pseudoconservatism" (regarding the ideological, radical right of that era). You are correct in seeing what flourishes now as un-conservative, but because its unscrupulous "conservative" practitioners insist on advertising their advocacy of it with a prodigiously pseudointellectual flamboyance, then let us, in turn, properly label their version for what it is: pseudoconservative.