May 24, 2012
As I point out in After Liberalism, “liberal” refers to the ideology of the nineteenth-century bourgeois, including the demand for constitutionally limited government, an aversion to universal suffrage, and a sexist social ethic. How it came to refer to the advocates of transvestitism is a long, depressing question. Today’s “liberals” have no more right to their stolen self-description than Goldberg does to the “conservative” moniker.
This was all brought home to me while reading social theorist Robert Nisbet in preparation for lectures that I recently gave at Lingnan University in Hong Kong. One of my auditors from a Canadian university expressed astonishment that anyone could believe, as Nisbet obviously did, that inequality is natural to the human condition and helps create the “social bond.” According to Nisbet”a onetime NR contributor”tradition, hierarchy, and well-defined gender roles comprise the conservative worldview. Although this mix may not be to everyone’s taste, we should try to understand what conservatism is before we accept or dismiss it.
Goldberg and his friends at NR complicate the matter further when they insist that a majority of Americans are “conservative.” Are we to assume that gay-marriage advocates and a majority of New York and California’s residents stand in a line of thought going back to the French Revolution’s aristocratic opponents?
Nisbet said that what he called the “sociological tradition” owed a great deal to conservative critics of the French Revolution. These enemies of progress had analyzed the value of hierarchical relations and the link between community and custom. But Nisbet, who was an old-fashioned Taft Republican in American politics, did not believe this conservative legacy was alive and well in the US. And it wouldn”t seem from anything he wrote that he thought that either the conservative or traditional liberal legacy had much to do with the American present.
One can learn from Nisbet’s work on conservatism more than one ever could from the made-to-order GOP polemics that pour out of the Rupert Murdoch empire. One does not draw significant ideological distinctions by accusing the Democrats of not playing fair in the communal sandbox. Getting paid for throwing back sand at the other toddlers is a nice gig but hardly a scholarly activity.
I am amused to learn that Democratic sociologists imagine that Republicans are suffering from some mental disorder. I had hitherto assumed that Republicans were people addicted to zombie-like centrist presidential candidates, all of them resembling Bob Dole. Perhaps the “psychopundits” have something to teach us after all.