A reader writes:
I agree with your reasoning in Leaving the Right, but I am confused as to what you have just left. It forces me to question whether the terms we use to describe ourselves and our beliefs are losing their distinctions? If the right is synonymous with Republican, then I think you walked away many years ago, like myself. But I certainly hope that there is still a distinction between the words conservative and Republican, since I have always referred to myself as the former, and attacked the entirely non-conservative policies of latter.
Do you think that individuals like Bush and Palin, or entire movements like Christian fundamentalism and neo-conservatism, have co-opted the term conservative as well? If we say that the conservative movement has left us, have we not conceded the term to its modern twisted definition? And if so then I have to ask what are we? And what are we entering on our way out?
There's been some confusion here, probably because of the title of the post. The only person who just announced a break with the conservative movement is Charles Johnson. My own spur-of-the-moment manifesto was merely inspired by his. And quite obviously, as I explained in the post, I left that movement many years ago, in so far as I was ever a part of it. (Which "movement conservative" backed Clinton in 1993 and Kerry in 2004, as I did?)
But as I quixotically insisted in The Conservative Soul, I refuse to give up the term 'conservative' and any fair-minded reader of that book would understand why.
I continue to call myself a conservative, of the tradition of Burke and Hume and Montaigne and Oakeshott. I suspect that all four of them would regard the term "conservative movement" an oxymoron anyway, as I do, even if they understood it at all. And although I have deep respect for the liberal tradition, I am much too much a skeptic, and an individualist, and an anti-collectivist to join the Democrats. I try to join as few organizations as I can get away with. And I lived under socialism so know how poisonous it can be.
So my reader and I remain conservatives without a home. That happens in life and politics. Perhaps one day the GOP will return to its saner, calmer roots, and we can feel more comfortable supporting them from time to time. But I suspect that the fundamentalist and neocon take-over will prevent that any time soon. So we carry on without a home but with an argument and a tradition instead. Good enough for me.
Moreover, conservatives of the sort I describe should not be dismayed by the lack of a party. It may even increase our leverage to hover between the two, goading each toward the center-right in the long run, while tolerating various adjustments in response to changing circumstances all the while. And it's certainly more symptomatically conservative not to get too attached to any political party. In fact, factionalism and partisanship has helped destroy conservatism in America almost as much as religion. Burke, one recalls, was not a Tory but a Whig. Churchill was a Liberal as well as a Tory. Reagan began life as a Democrat.
The point of conservatism, you see, is not political. Real conservatives get involved in politics because they have to, not because they want to. And they have to to rectify obvious disasters or utpoian assaults on freedom or radical attacks on established modes and orders. We are conservative in politics in part to restrict the claims of politics and to enlarge the claims of life.
So cheer up. I certainly feel less gloomy about America than I did two years ago, and confident that the good sense of its silent center will navigate the treacherous waters ahead. Yes, America is in much worse shape today than a decade ago - but some of that is the dispelling of illusions, the pricking of bubbles and the consequence of hubris. This will not deflate the conservative. There is always something bracing about rediscovering reality, however grim the disillusionment may be. For conservatism begins in a lack of illusions and builds from there.
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