June 12, 2008

Douthat: Rhymes with Oakeshott?

Bramwell’s First Law continues to hold true, and the latest person to hold forth on the nature of conservatism is Atlantic house blogger Ross Douthat:

We tend to take the Kirkian (and, I would submit, ‘70s neoconservative) view that conservatism ought to be inherently anti-ideological, and we view the ideological turn on the American Right—the confusion of policy positions, which by definition ought to be open for debate and alteration, with “moral absolutes” that no true right-winger should deviate from—as a serious problem for conservatism, both in the Bush years and before.

. . . my own (highly provisional) definition of American conservatism would run something like this: A commitment to the defense of the particular habits, mores and institutions of the United States against those socioeconomic trends that threaten to undermine them, and those political movements (generally on the left, but sometimes on the right) that seek to change them radically in the pursuit of particular ideological goals.

I sympathize with those who want to define conservatism as the rejection of ideology, but, given that the forward march of history can never be stopped, conservatism will only ever be helpful insofar as it can influence its direction as well as its speed.  Those who fail to hitch their conservatism to principle inevitably wind up endorsing something like Michael Oakeshott’s definition of conservatism as that sad feeling you get when your favorite clown dies and sentence themselves to being forever on the losing side of history.

But maybe the losing side of history is where Douthat wants his conservatism to be.  He has earned plaudits from the Left for owning up to American conservatism’s darker moments (“support for segregation…simply was the conservative position in the 1950’s”), but the way that Douthat disowns these past errors is only slightly better than having just ignored them:

. . . liberals were right that the injustice of [segregation] required a deeply un-conservative response, as they have been right (and will be right again) on other points as well. Having conceded this, I would go on to argue that self-identifying as a conservative, under my definition, doesn’t require taking the conservative position on every issue; it merely requires taking the conservative orientation as one’s general approach to politics, and believing that we’ve reached a pass where America’s distinctive “habits, mores and institutions” are more in need of defense then renovation.

The Catholic Church is willing to admit that people outside the faith can be saintly and even holy, but it would be strange to hear the Pope declare that sometimes being ethical requires taking the anti-Catholic position.  To say that there is no conservative case against segregation is like saying that there is no Catholic case against indulgences.  No one believes that conservatism must encompass everything good in the world, but Douthat seems willing to embrace a conservatism that, if applied throughout history, would be wrong as often as right, which raises the question of why he wants to claim loyalty to it at all.  I understand that Douthat’s resistance to change has a lot to do with the culture he wants to preserve at this particular place and time, but if Douthat is a conservative because he likes the American system, he should tell us why he likes it.  His answer to that question probably has more to do with his political orientation than a general impulse to preserve.

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