Posted by: captainfalcon | March 9, 2010

Sometimes Andrew is absolutely correct

Andrew is sighing about the state of conservatism again. To his mind, conservatism is a wry, skeptical temperament (characterized by a “resistance to ideology and the world of ideas ideology represents”), not the set of policies and attitudes (a tendentious list of which would include: pro-life, supply side  economics, anti-gay, vaguely nativist, &c.) associated with contemporary movement conservatism.

He complains that “people accuse me of pedantry or semantics in insisting that [movement conservatism] is in fact a sign of the death of conservatism as a temperament or a politics, rather than its revival.” He gives less than persuasive reasons for thinking those people wrong: “But I have been arguing this for more than a decade [so what? – CF]. Conservatism, if it means anything, is a resistance to ideology and the world of ideas ideology represents, whether that ideology is a function of the left or the right [“if it means anything…” so you are arguing semantics! – CF].”

Actually, while I think Andrew expresses himself confusingly, he is right that there is more at stake on the question whether contemporary movement conservatism is conservative than mere semantics. Even if “conservatism” now primarily denotes contemporary movement conservatism, it still carries with it various connotations – of caution, epistemological humility, a willingness, born of the palpable recognition that man is a finite being,* to sit back and let political and social processes take their courses (stepping in only to correct excesses – to serve as the Oakeshottian “trimmer” Andrew likes so much) – from when it meant something very different.

Given that movement conservatism isn’t cautious, epistemologically humble or healthily disengaged, it’s free riding on these antediluvian implicatures. It is thus able to claim for itself a powerful narrative – we are the grownups – to which it is manifestly not entitled.

To misuse a Jamesian term of art, the cash value of that narrative is votes.

* It is an audacious irony that evangelical movement conservatives use this insight as a rationalization for sweeping social planning. Because we are finite we must trust in God. Thus (for humble reasons – we exist to serve Him!) we must overturn Roe v. Wade, use the Constitution to arrest the evolution of attitudes towards homosexuals, bomb Iran and return to an entirely color blind Fourteenth Amendment. God’s will be done. Pretty neat (if also transparently self-serving).



  1. […] Should Know Better Than to Be Wistful for Something That Will Never Be Again In response to Miles’ post on Andrew’s latest harumph at the linguistic mess of the American Right, I think it is, […]

  2. […] – all you’ve done is underscore a necessary component of the problem Andrew and I have identified. Conservatism is now defined as movement conservatism. That is: in ordinary conversational contexts […]

  3. […] an epistemological modesty (hereafter referred to as “classical conservatism”).  Miles agreed with Andrew’s lamentation and went one further, arguing that, because the word retains […]

  4. […] for why Andrew and I fixate on the semantics, it is for reasons I outlined in this exchange’s inaugural post. The semantics have political ramifications. As I put it back then, we aren’t just dealing […]

  5. […] Its argument is that, while the conservative styles himself a man of prudence and moderation (cf. this post), and flatters himself that his reactionary sympathies are grounded in these virtues, in point of […]

  6. […] Lilla and I also have our differences vis-a-vis what a conservative actually is – in our old debate about whether American conservatism has, in any meaningful sense, misappropriated the […]

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