Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Misunderstanding Conservatism’s Contradictions

Ken Kersch

There's been a lot of talk this election season about the contradictions within (if not the hypocrisy of) contemporary American conservatism. Pundits have focused most recently on Paul Ryan’s simultaneous fondness for the atheistic champion of selfishness Ayn Rand and his ostensibly fervent Roman Catholicism. But others have spied the contradictions from a broader perspective, noting the tensions between the various wings of the modern conservative movement, comprised of social conservative traditionalists, libertarians, neoconservatives, country-club moderates (still!), etc. The political scientist Theodore Lowi even argued back in the mid-1990s that these contradictions were on the verge of tearing apart the Republican coalition that had earlier been melded together only through the transformative leadership of Ronald Reagan (The End of the Republican Era (1995)). Ideological muddles, Lowi argued, simply can’t sustain themselves politically over the long term. And the sharper the opposed convictions, the more destructive the centrifugal force. Suffice it to say that, though Democrats have certainly served in the White House and controlled various houses of Congress since the 1980s, as liberals they’ve been on the political defensive since Reagan. Even if Obama wins this election, on that, it seems, there’s still no end in sight.

But as Lowi’s failed prediction demonstrates, houses divided against themselves can indeed stand – at least for very long periods of time. Just how important is intellectual coherence to political movements in general, and to the contemporary conservative movement in particular?

Let’s take Rand and Right-Wing Roman Catholicism. Incompatible? Logically, we can stipulate. But politically? Pardon my Palinism, but you wouldn’t know it from the gotcha commentary on this – see, e.g., Frank Bruni – that the conservative movement has long been perfectly cognizant of these precise contradictions, which they've been laboring over intellectually for nearly half a century.  In that period, they've transformed these supposedly fatal contradications from deal-breakers into synergies.

This political magic can be worked several ways. The first is through what Cass Sunstein has called “incompletely theorized agreements.” People allied with each other in political parties (which Sunstein expressly mentions as one venue for such agreements) agree on the end as policy, but don’t push the issue with each other as to the theoretical principle(s) – the “why” -- behind it. And, the other way round, they can agree on the abstract principle (e.g. free markets, anti-socialism, robust religious faith), and downplay differences in the concrete implications they draw from those principles. Parties are forged not only by the forging of intellectual consensus in the style of a university seminar where differences are isolated, forced, and resolved (or not), but also in countless decisions to not push an issue, to shy away from debating or discussing something, or to do so with only the utmost respect and deference to one’s allied interlocutor. Political alliances are complex amalgams of not only actions, decisions, and convictions, but also of silences, evasions, and symbols.

Second, there is bricolage.  Even when they are heavily into ideas, politicians are not political theorists. By what rule is Ryan required to swallow Rand’s proofs for the powers of the market, subscribing to each of his philosophical moves along the way? He might like the celebration of markets and businessmen and her contempt for the state (and the sappers), while either jettisoning or ignoring Rand’s atheism. If Ryan proceeds in this way, he’d hardly be the first politician to do so. Indeed, when it comes to belief systems (including religions), bricolage is not the exception, but the rule.

Third, there are those who endeavor to rigorously and systematically resolve the contradictions. And, in fact, since the 1980s, Michael Novak of the American Enterprise Institute and Ave Maria University – a Right-Wing Catholic theologian -- has devoted almost all of his energies and considerable theological talents to the effort of reconciling Catholic doctrine with a robust defense of capitalism and the free market. See his The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (1982); Free Persons and the Common Good (1989); The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1993); Business as a Calling: Work and the Examined Life (1996); Three in One: Essays in Democratic Capitalism, 1976-2000. Novak’s work has been immensely influential on the contemporary American Right. It has gone a long way in laying the groundwork for the high-functioning political alliance between libertarians, business interests, and the Religious Right.

None of this is to say that it isn’t worth pointing out what one takes to be inconsistencies in contemporary conservative thought. But these liberal rejoinders are far from fresh to movement conservatives: they’ve been aware of these contradictions and tensions -- and managing and reconciling them through both incompletely and elaborately theorized agreements -- for a long time. That is what successful movements, alliances, and parties do.


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