Debating intellectual conservatism in the age of Trump may be like debating ethics in the face of an angry bear. Perhaps the bear will do some good. Perhaps the bear will feast on people who deserve to be consumed. But the bear is a creature of instincts, not ideas, and is immune to any kind of intellectual persuasion. What ideas can do is help us deal with the bear, and help us to envisage a post-bear world. Should conservatives harness Trumpism or reject it in toto? The first option is reflected in Julius Krein’s excellent magazine American Affairs, and the second is maintained by, among others, Andrew Sullivan.
Andrew Sullivan has been a feature of Western political debate for three decades. As an editor, blogger and polemicist he has been in the forefront of arguments about sexuality, race and war. He is an emotional thinker – as vociferously supportive of the Iraq invasion as he was soon vociferously opposed to it – but an independent one. He enraged leftists with his qualified endorsement of Charles Murray’s book The Bell Curve, liberal hawks with his criticism of Israel and Conservatives with his admiration for Barack Obama.
Given these emotional and independent-minded tendencies it is a shame that Sullivan’s explanation of his conservative views is so lifeless and flaccid. Republicans, he claims, in a column for New York Magazine, have deformed conservatism, and his article is an attempt to reclaim it. Fair enough. Yet “Sullivanism”, as I shall refer to it, is a milquetoast modernised form of the conservative tradition.
There is some good stuff here. Sullivan correctly observes that it is anti-conservative to idealise free markets or oppose environmentalism. He justly asserts that it foolish to resist all change. Yet his next sentence reveals the limits of Sullivanism in its implication that all change is, in fact, to be welcomed. “The goal is not to stand athwart history and cry “Stop!”, as William F. Buckley put it.” he suggests, “It’s to be part of the stream of history and say: slow it down a bit, will you?”
It is not. G.K. Chesterton, in a famous allegory, suggested that one might remove a fence in a field once one has realised its purpose and found it wanting. Sullivanism, on the other hand, implies that one can remove the fence as long as one does so piece by piece. Abolishing gender norms? Fine, but not too fast. Mass immigration? Good. Just rein it in a bit. Eroding the institution of marriage? Fair enough. Just remember that erosion is a gradual process.
Sullivan is a great admirer of the English philosopher Michael Oakeshott, who upheld the value of a “conservative disposition”, which, as Sullivan quotes without attribution in his New York Magazine article, prefers “present laughter to utopian bliss.” Much as I share Sullivan’s esteem for Oakeshott there was always a risk of the philosopher’s ideas collapsing into a vulgar kind of presentism that encourages would-be conservatives to welcome each new form of progressive society as the status quo, like a man lying on his bed and murmuring “there’s no place like home” as his flatmate repaints his walls and destroys his furniture. Oakeshott also said conservatives generally prefer “the tried to the untried,” and the least that a substantive conservatism should accept is that traditional institutions can be so valuable that conservatives should defend them against progressives regardless of how slowly or rapidly they want to undermine them.
Sullivan is right that conservatives vary from place to place depending on their cultural heritage. He is right that Anglo-American civilisation has some measure of liberalism baked into it. Sullivan just is a liberal, though, writing, for example:
The conservative approach to a multicultural and multiracial society is to keep our focus on the individual and do what’s best to help every individual, regardless of their race, gender, or whatever, to be part of our shared liberal democratic inheritance.
There is a danger of conservatives who oppose progressive (and Alt-Right) conceptions of racial and gender identity embracing the liberal rejection of identity itself. Conservatives support local, national and religious or at least moral norms, and the encouragement of those norms as features of a citizen’s perspective. While they have different beliefs on the extent to which those norms should be encouraged, they oppose, as T.S. Eliot put it, “dissolving their natural collective consciousness into individual constituents.”
Sullivan has some amusing asides. He says conservatism “relishes humour in all its forms.” Does it? Or does he? Much as I too believe that laughter is essential to life, I have not read Burke on obscene puns, Eliot on religious satire or Oakeshott on rape jokes. Sullivan concludes with a more specific program for Sullivanism. The conservatism he upholds, he claims, would be a conservatism that can:
…tackle soaring social and economic inequality as a way to save capitalism, restore the financial sector as an aid to free markets and not their corrupting parasite, a conservatism that will end our unending wars, rid the criminal justice system of its racial blind spots, defend liberal education and high culture against the barbarians of postmodernism and the well-intentioned toxins of affirmative action, pay down the debt, reform the corruption of religious faith, protect our physical landscape, invest in non-carbon energy, and begin at the local level to rebuild community and the spirit of American civil association.
Not everything here is bad, of course – though that might have something to do with its vagueness – but does it contain anything Hillary Clinton would disagree with? There is no mention of fatherlessness, divorce, abortion, drugs, crime, jihadism, pornography, attacks on religious freedom, transgenderism, feminism or, indeed, anything about which conservatives and social liberals disagree. Sullivanism is just liberalism stroking its chin and biting its nails.