Saturday, October 25, 2008

If you can tell someone not to go, isn't there somewhere they'd be leaving from?

John Schwenkler disagrees with me about the divide.

First, Schwenkler is right to say that I would perhaps have been better served, at times, in replacing "conservative" with "Republican". Still, I think it's fair to talk about conservatism in these terms.

Probably due to my own inability to articulate, Schwenkler seems to have misunderstood this point: I'm talking about the common American conservative majority, and the majority of conservative bloggers and pundits. I'm not suggesting that the willingness to exclude ideological enemies is a meaningful philosophical barometer for conservativism. I'm disinterested, in this context, in what is really conservative. What I'm pointing out seems to me to be a simple fact: that among most conservatives, the rank and file, the hoi polloi, the conservative proletariat, the masses, the people-- in the main-- whether or not you express loyalty towards the Republican party is dispositive of whether or not you are a conservative. Thus, when people at the Corner, or at Red State, or PajamasMedia, or similar criticize conservative McCain/Palin skeptics, they are likely to do so by insinuating or stating outright that the person in question is not a conservative. And, being not conservatives, they are a part of illegitimate America. My point, as ragged as it is, is simply that. To a large number of conservatives today, the willingness to divide the world between worthy and unworthy Americans is the meaningful test of whether or not someone is conservative. That's not a statement by me about who is really conservative, about ideology. It's an observation by me (perhaps untrue) about what the conservative center of gravity thinks.

I'm trying to figure out how seriously Schwenkler is arguing that there is no such thing as a conservative center. Look, for all of conservatives' "not an ideology" pretension, conservatism is a movement, that movement has something we might consider a center, and reasonable people can reasonably make observations about that center. Of course that's an enormously reductive notion. There are exceptions, and there are unique situations, and any of these notions are necessarily generalizations of generalizations. But as I took pangs to speak about the general, in that post, I don't think I'm so off base.

He cites Conor Friedersdorf and Daniel Larison and Ross Douthat, etc., as examples of conservatives who don't cotton to the movement conservative party lines. As anyone who reads here often knows, I have offered praise to all three of these bloggers. (And criticism, as they are conservatives, and I am a liberal.) But I think Schwenkler would be served by recognizing that Friedersdorf and Douthat have both also taken pains to swerve back in step at various predictable times in this election season. I think they do so in part because they recognize the damage that could be done to their careers if they don't get in line, and visibly so, at certain intervals. This isn't a suggestion that Friedersdorf or Douthat don't "really think" what they've posted. It merely means that I think they are being particularly vocal about certain issues in which they agree with the broad conservative consensus. It isn't an insult to their integrity to suggest that they are likely to ensure that they stress the ways in which they agree with the conservative consensus out of professional or social need. It's not a question of changing what one thinks about an issue, but simply of being a little more strident in articulating their agreement on issues with the base, particularly in such a polarized and embittered electoral season. It must be difficult to be "every liberal's favorite conservative" in such times. If I had anything resembling a liberal intellectual community that I felt a part of, and I was similarly out of tune as often as they are, I would probably take special care to point out how I agree with the majority of that community myself. It's human nature.

In this effort to be clear about their fidelity to the conservative project, I think two simple facts are suggested: first, that there is such a thing as a conservative mass, or majority, and people have an intrinsic sense of where it stands on issues. Second, that this conservative majority is in the habit of punishing dissent.

There are some thinkers who find loyalty to the project an inherent conservative ideological assumption, and we have been told for a long time that message discipline and party orthodoxy have been among the most important tools of the right in their long ascendency. Conservatism, after all, is an insurgent ideology. Like any insurgency, it inspires near-fanatical loyatly among many of its adherents. The problem comes when the insurgency has become the dominant power. No longer requiring the focus of discipline and loyalty, entrenched power needs instead the critical eye of the free thinker and the inventiveness and playfulness that only come from dissent. That's the sort of thinking that is represented by Douthat, Friedersdorf, and Larison-- and Schwenkler-- but it needs to be nourished and allowed to grow. If people like the crew at The Corner are the gatekeepers to conservative institutions, that won't happen.


Conor said...

Freddie, you wrote: "I think Schwenkler would be served by recognizing that Friedersdorf and Douthat have both also taken pains to swerve back in step at various predictable times in this election season."

Just out of curiosity, where do you think I've "swerved back in step"?

Freddie said...

Poorly worder on my part-- not that you (or Ross) have changed what you've been saying, but that you've been extra clear about the ways in which you support the Republican consensus. I'm not accusing you of towing a line, just that you have extra pressure on you to be vocal about where you agree with the GOP mainstream, because of the anti-dissent mindset in certain circles.