Thursday, April 28, 2005


It starts with an Andrew Sullivan essay in the "New Republic" explaining the staying power of modern American conservatism in its flexibility -- or "incoherence," as he calls it -- and its focus on success, not ideological purity. He divides the modern movement roughly into "the conservatism of faith" and "the conservatism of doubt."

Daniel Drezner responds,saying Sullivan errs in enlisting Hobbes on the "doubt" team. And he says, "The divide between those who put their faith first in their politics and those who prefer to keep it out of government is not responsible for all of the hypocrisies that Andrew listed in his first paragraph -- they're just responsible for many of the obvious ones."

Joseph Britt at Belgravia Dispatch says all this Hobbes talk is missing the point, and personalities and poses matter more to voters' decisions. Probably nine out of ten self-identified conservatives in the last election know "Hobbes" only as the stuffed tiger in the newspaper comic strip. (My line, not his.)

Along the way, Britt has this great line:

Ideological confusion in America is nothing new, and is one reason this country has been spared most of the horrors that ideological clarity and coherence have inflicted on Europe, Asia, and Africa over the years.

Bravo! He also introduces a montage of instances of supposedly "conservative" Americans pursuing goals that were decidedly un-conservative.

There's an obvious, but unstated, corollary to all these arguments. If it were better understood, and kept more in mind, a lot of political stupidity could be avoided:

Conservative is not the opposite of liberal. Liberal is not the opposite of conservative.

I'm taking these as words, not as political applications, whether in the mind of Hobbes the writer or Hobbes the stuffed tiger.

Conservatives prefer things that have endured the test of time. They are suspicious of change, not because it is always bad, but because it unleashes unforseen consequences, and because it often replaces what is known to work, however imperfectly, with what is untried and unsure. They choose change very carefully, keeping an eye on set standards of right and wrong and a belief in an objective universal moral order.

Liberals believe in human freedom -- in liberty, in the greatest possible scope for the human mind and spirit to realize its great potential. Experience is a great teacher, but not the autocrat of all time. What promises greater freedom -- freedom from (hunger, want, fear) as well as freedom to -- is worth striving for, even if old dogmas are overturned in the process. They choose what to preserve very carefully, keeping an eye on set standards of right and wrong and a belief in an objective universal moral order.

Honestly, when people talk about these words -- "conservative" and "liberal" -- in any terms but these, I think they are talking about something else, and dressing it in borrowed clothing.

They don't crash head-on into one another. You may believe that an orderly society is preferable to anarchy because the rule of law allows the greatest freedom for the greatest number of persons, even if a few of them would feel more free in a jungle. You may reject a religious intrusion into a secular government because that change threatens the stability that has allowed freedom, including religious freedom, to exist.

You may fight passionately against change because you are sure it threatens liberty. That is what the American Revolutionists in New England did when the Crown tightened the screws on them.

Or you may rewrite wholesale the laws and social relationships of a nation for the sake of conserving one essential principle that, you believe, all things depend upon: in the case of Abraham Lincoln, the union.

Perhaps that's part of the reason like Lincoln and Washington are regarded as national icons; they transcended the false dichotomy of liberal/conservative: they strode over it for the sake of a national good. They embodied, in a high degree, the pure qualities of both words.

The Revolution began with a bid to turn back the clock on the relationship of the colonies to the Mother Country, for the sake of preserving established freedoms. It ended up setting up an entirely new kind of nation to give those freedoms a firmer foundation.

The sectional crisis of 1860 began with Lincoln as the radical, and the Southern slaveholders preserving an old order. But as soon as the shooting started, the roles reversed and Lincoln fought a conservative war, politically, and kept as his one overarching goal the restoration of the union -- with slavery or with, as it turned out, a new birth of freedom.