Pragmatic Conservatism?

Andrew Sullivan has a powerful piece on the state of American conservatism, especially its alliance with the Republican Party.  Two key excerpts from a very long piece:

In contemporary America, the right is now in an almost parodic state of ideology. There isn’t just a rigid set of beliefs, indifferent to any time or place (e.g. tax cuts are right in a boom and a recession, in surplus and debt); it is supported by a full-fledged organization or “movement”; this “movement” generates journals and magazines and blogs designed fundamentally to buttress the cause; and the most salient distinction discussed in these circles is between those who are for the cause and those against it (with particular scorn for any dissidents).

[…]

One reason I admire Oakeshott is simply his understanding that the two deepest impulses in Western political thought – the individualist and the collectivist – need each other to keep our polities coherent. He, like me, preferred the individualist, and so my own leanings are toward smaller government, lower taxes, balanced budgets, individual freedom and prudent strength in foreign policy. But I also see when the alternative might be needed. There are times when the government does indeed need to make a big infrastructure investment or beef up its security technology or address an emergent and vital threat to a settled way of life, like climate change or Jihadist terror. Finding the best way for government to act at those times is a pragmatic and often difficult task; but I have no issues with such action. Government exists in some measure to provide a collective response to a newly felt need.

The first part of that strikes me as exactly right. Too much of today’s conservatism is based on litmus tests stuck in the 1980 campaign against Jimmy Carter.   If conservatism is about preserving a precise set of policies now thirty years out of phase, then it’s a dying movement.

The flip side of that, though, is in the second paragraph cited above and Andrew’s general sense of issue-and-time-dependent policy analysis.  Yes, hard choices must be made and desperate times sometimes call for desperate measures.   Still, if conservatism is nothing more than a Potter Stewartesque “I know good policy when I see it” feeling, then it’s neither an ideology nor in any sense conservative.

While conservatism, like any ideology, should be organic and evolve over time, avoiding being mired in programatic dogma, it should still hue to principles that abide over time.  Andrew’s list — smaller government, lower taxes, balanced budgets, individual freedom and prudent strength in foreign policy — isn’t a bad one, so long as they’re considered preferences or instincts rather than absolutes.

Some examples from the longer essay:

[A] conservative should have no objection to major pragmatic attempts to prevent this depression taking on a life of its own and perpetuating pain more than necessary.

True. But a conservative should 1) be incredibly skeptical of government’s ability to do so and 2) be mindful of longer term consequences of policies enacted in the effort.

[I]t might even be the case that the vastly growing social and economic inequality of the last three decades could justify redistribution via spending or taxes. The point is to sustain social order by buttressing the middle class – a conservative objective if ever there was one – not to construct an abstract notion of a just society.

Helping the poorest amongst us is a conservative value.  Socially engineering a leveled society?  Not so much.

I don’t see the attempt to roll back all legal abortion after forty years of Roe as a conservative move. It’s a counter-revolutionary one.

As a pragmatic matter, I don’t see abortion rollback as feasible, let alone a smart plank around which to try to win elections.  But working to protect innocent lives is absolutely a conservative principle — if not its most fundamental one.   This doesn’t mean dogmatic insistence that a fertilized egg is a human being, crass behavior towards desperate teenagers trying to enter abortion clinics, or, goodness knows, murdering doctors.  Conservatism is about behavior, not just policy outcomes.

Andrew’s larger essay is well worth the read. It includes a bevy of links to debates and other writing on the subject, too.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Bithead says:

    Still, if conservatism is nothing more than a Potter Stewartesque “I know good policy when I see it” feeling, then it’s neither an ideology nor in any sense conservative.

    Oddly, you may have just found the nib of the problem most conservatives have with Sullivan.

  2. My apologies for lacking the time to give this a full treatment, but let’s look quickly at one sentence.

    [A] conservative should have no objection to major pragmatic attempts to prevent this depression taking on a life of its own and perpetuating pain more than necessary.

    1. A conservative should have every objection when the adjective pragmatic is used, especially to justify something which is at its essence not conservative. Without setting pragmatism up as an antonym for ideological, pragmatism is frequently the hoariest beast out there used to justify omelette making.

    2. You gotta love Andrew telling his opponents what they must and must not believe. No matter how much he wants to be, Andrew is not a conservative.

    3. So, it’s already a depression, is it? I guess that makes it easier to be pragmatic about making those omelettes.

    4. Andrew wants to decide how much pain is necessary? Oh my. As if there is a scale we can accurately measure pain on and draw a clear, discernable line on to begin with? Please.

  3. PD Shaw says:

    the most salient distinction discussed in these circles is between those who are for the cause and those against it (with particular scorn for any dissidents).

    Yes, the true believers’ scorn for Sarah Palin and her sexuality was beyond reproach.

  4. tom p says:

    Charles:

    2. You gotta love Andrew telling his opponents what they must and must not believe.

    That is not a criticism of Andrew, after all, aren’t all of us here guilty of that as well?

  5. Scott Swank says:

    James,

    Here is where you and I diverge. I would prefer that you had substituted the word “credibly”.

    [A] conservative should have no objection to major pragmatic attempts to prevent this depression taking on a life of its own and perpetuating pain more than necessary.

    True. But a conservative should 1) be credibly skeptical of government’s ability to do…

    Scott

  6. Scott Swank says:

    The above meant tongue-in-cheek. I read you for your credibility.

  7. Steve Plunk says:

    What policies are thirty years out of phase and what does the opposition offer that is more contemporary? The problem for conservatives is simple, when one believes smaller government is better how do you get elected and stay elected when campaigns are geared towards promising something? That basic ideological tenant of conservative thought will always handicap conservatives candidates. Those who promise the world will always appeal to the masses.

    This whole process of nitpicking self examination is going nowhere. The conservatives and the Republican party need to just do a better job of getting people to understand the differences and how history supports conservative ideals.

  8. sam says:

    A conservative should have every objection when the adjective “pragmatic” is used

    Perhaps. But the most successful conservative politician in my lifetime, Ronald Reagan, was famously pragmatic, and in this, he was like his political idol, FDR:

    Both presidents faced historic economic crises. Roosevelt’s crisis was defined by unemployment lines and deflation; Reagan’s, by gasoline lines and “stagflation.” Both men were eternal optimists. President Roosevelt’s line “We have nothing to fear but fear itself” set the tone for his administration. President Reagan’s constant invocation of the “shining city on a hill,” and “you ain’t seen nothing yet” marked his approach. Moreover, throughout their careers, both were willing to compromise—on outcomes, not principles—because of confidence that they would prevail in the end. For example, in negotiating with Congress, President Reagan would often get much less than he asked for, but he would take half a loaf, thank Congress, and then plan to get the rest the next year. [Source].

    What marked both of them, too, and was a corrollary to their optimism, was their lack of hatred for their opponents. This optimism and unwillingness to see evil in their opponents rose out their understanding that American politics, as James has pointed out, is played between the 40-yard lines. Far, far more unites us as a people than divides us. FDR and Reagan knew this–but they were of an earlier generation. I’m afraid a lot of us have lost this knowledge.

    Andrew’s list — smaller government, lower taxes, balanced budgets, individual freedom and prudent strength in foreign policy — isn’t a bad one, so long as they’re considered preferences or instincts rather than absolutes.

    Our politics on both sides has become, in large part, a politics of absolutes. And this makes much of our political rhetoric incoherent–because we are still, and always will be, moving the ball back and forth between the 40-yard lines.

  9. tom p, no. I don’t tell you what you need to believe because you are a liberal or progressive or whatever you choose to call yourself. I may well tell you I believe your ideas are not good to pernicious because of x, y, or z, but that’s not the same thing. Andrew is trying to shut down any argument by nothing more than defining his opponents as wrong before the conversation begins, ergo, his strawmen require no heavy lifting or burdensome facts.

  10. sam, your truncation of my statement changes its meaning entirely. Conservatives are generally quite pragmatic — dealing with reality has that effect on people — but using pragmatism as a rationale for violating your core beliefs, as Andrew tries to do here, is just an excuse to make omelettes. Andrew is offering pragmatism up in a greatest good for the greatest number manner at the expense of the individual, IMHO.

  11. odograph says:

    For what it’s worth, the thing that have come to me in light of SEC Madoff hearings and etc., is that the conservatives scorned “good government” at all our peril, and lost.

    Yes, reduce government. Yes, cut taxes to match.

    But if government is doing a thing, keep the pressure on to do it well.

    I mean, is it any wonder that after 10 years of “government is the problem” as a mantra of the government these chickens came home to roost?

    Again, I prefer small government, but if government is doing a thing, get someone in who takes his job with serious pragmatism. Not someone who looks to inflate his mandate, but neither someone who thinks his job is to look out the window and count pigeons.

  12. odograph, that is pure, unadulterated BS.

  13. sam says:

    sam, your truncation of my statement changes its meaning entirely.

    Fair enough, Charles. I was just prompted by the mention of pragmatism to get in my semiannual plea for a return to comity. Sorry if I ill-used your words.

  14. odograph says:

    I saw your attack on “pragmatism” Charles.

    Let me look that word up for you:

    a practical approach to problems and affairs [tried to strike a balance between principles and pragmatism]

    Pretty horrible, eh?

  15. tom p says:

    tom p, no. I don’t tell you what you need to believe because you are a liberal or progressive or whatever you choose to call yourself.

    Just to let you know, I call myself a “left of center fiscal conservative”… I no longer call myself a Dem because of how they rolled over in late 2002. BUT…

    I may well tell you I believe your ideas are not good to pernicious because of x, y, or z, but that’s not the same thing.

    Part of the whole give and take of telling people they are wrong, is trying to convince them, they are wrong… in other words, “What they should believe…” including trying to bend their world veiw more closely to ones own.

    This is not a bad thing. My own world view is pretty narrow (I am after all, only one person), which is why I enjoy reading your narratives. They are intelligent, well thought out, and make me re-think my own. I don’t often agree, but your thoughts are always challenging.

    I can honestly say the same of Andrews. He and I quite often disagree…. but he makes me think.

    That is why I read him. And read James and Steve and Dave and Alex….

  16. odograph, I did not attack pragmatism per se, but how pragmatism was being used to justify the violation of core principles. If that was to subtle or nuanced, my apologies. Note to self — do not digress into Pierce, James, Dewey, Rorty, et al.

  17. sam and tom p, gosh, I’m not sure I know how to respond when I’m not be attacked. I appreciate your kind words and thoughtfulness. I concur on a need for greater civility, at least with those who are civil and argue in good faith. I have always made a point of trying to read more things by people I didn’t agree with than those I did, but that has become much more difficult the last few years. I’m sure some of it is my fault, but not all. Mani is forcing a polarization that only seems to be growing stronger.

  18. odograph says:

    I understand the meaning of the word “especially” Charles:

    A conservative should have every objection when the adjective pragmatic is used, especially …

    Now did you not mean “especially,” but “only,” or something?