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.