September 08, 2008

“All country people hate each other,” wrote William Hazlitt. “There is nothing good to be had in the country, or, if there is, they will not give it to you.”

I wonder what Hazlitt would have made of last week’s convention. I was among those who found it slightly chilling to see America’s Mayor get his William Wordsworth on, and only slightly less chilling when the sentiment was expressed by speakers whose cosmopolitan credentials were less obvious. Has the Republican party really drifted so far towards ruralism? Assuming that conservatives want to frame this election as a question of us versus them, does it have to be that us and them?

The second most obvious irony of Giuliani’s remarks was that, for someone claiming to represent the political ideology most comfortable with elitism in theory, he was remarkably angry with the current elite’s awareness of itself as one. Contrary to what was said in Minneapolis last week, there is nothing contradictory about cosmopolitan conservatism. Anyone who says that city-dwellers are rootless has never met a New Yorker, or seen a Woody Allen film. There are plenty of people who could sing “I love L.A.” without sarcasm, and their love of the city has a great deal to do with a tradition (I invoke the concept to prove how well it works in an urban context) that stretches back in time through the hard-boiled fifties and to the roots of Californian optimism and opportunism. New York, Chicago, and San Francisco are all places with histories; a tradition of cosmopolitanism is no contradiction, because cosmopolitanism is never all there is to it.

There’s even an argument to be made that America’s urban elites have more of a claim to conservatism than Red Staters do. Edmund Burke mistrusted an overly abstract mind, but he mistrusted a narrow mind just as much. Consider his remarks on a colleague who from his late twenties had made Parliament his profession: “Persons who are nurtured in office do admirably well as long as things go on in their common order; but when the high-roads are broken up, and the waters out, when a new and troubled scene is opened, and the file affords no precedent, then it is that a greater knowledge of mankind, and a far more extensive comprehension of things is requisite, than ever office gave, or than office can ever give.” Narrowness of experience is no less limiting for the provincial than for the career politician. As much as I value the humility that small-town residents display, leadership demands a willingness to transcend narrow habits and concerns as much as it demands Burkean modesty.

There is a new kind of cosmopolitan conservatism on the rise in America (and on display in the blogosphere) that the Republican party should stop doing its best to alienate. James Poulos describes these “unclassifiable” social conservatives here (disregard the embarrassing graphic). Those who are skeptical that these urbanites have any genuine sympathy for Sarah Palin-type conservatism should see this Reason interviewee’s remarks on Palin’s own Matanuska-Susitna Valley, which he calls “Upper Wingnuttia” with all fondness. This is not to say that Reason magazine libertarianism is the wave of the future and the old guard should get out of the way. Certainly paleoconservatives should do their best to capitalize on Palin’s prominence by dragging the coalition’s center of gravity rightward. But they should also warm to the idea that such a coalition might put them next to conservative members of the urban elite that the Republican Party spent Wednesday night denigrating.


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