I'm still trying to wrap my head around Sam Tannenhaus's extraordinary essay on conservatism. If you haven't read, please do. And then read Andrew's response. which I actually had to print out to make sure I was getting it all. One thing that struck me was the sense that conservatism isn't so much dead, as was what call conservatism has changed. What appeals to Sam and Andrew seems to be not so much a set of beliefs, but a set of values. Here's Sam on Edmund Burke:
Burke's conservatism was based not on a particular set of ideological principles but rather on distrust of all ideologies. In his most celebrated writings, his denunciation of the French Revolution and its English champions, Burke did not seek to justify the ancien regime and its many inequities. Nor did he propose a counter-ideology. Instead he warned against the destabilizing perils of revolutionary politics, beginning with its totalizing nostrums. Robespierre and Danton, the movement ideologues of their day, were inflamed with the Enlightenment vision of the ideal civilization and sacrificed to its abstractions the established traditions and institutions of what Burke called "civil society." They placed an idea of the perfect society over and above the need to improve society as it really existed.
And then Andrew:
My own stab at this was the distinction between a conservatism of faith and a conservatism of doubt. Another way to look at it is the contrast between partisan Republicanism in the past forty years and the classical conservative temperament, originating in Burke, and celebrated by Kirk and Hart. In practice, few people on the American right fit entirely within one camp or the other. But the distinction still matters. It matters because the core conservative insight is the distinction between ideology and politics, between theoretical and practical wisdom.
This is a conservatism that has militancy and radicalism, not liberalism, as its antitheses. It seems to say very little about specific policy, but a lot about how to think about policy. Martin Luther King was despised by the right-wingers of his time, but by these lights, he was likely more conservative than the people who opposed him. Moreover, Obama would be, almost certainly, a conservative. As, I think, would I.
But party coalitions are built around issues these days--not ways of thinking about issues. It's more policy, than philosiphy. Like I said, in that Burkean sense, I don't have much problem calling myself conservative. I just happen to be pro-choice, to believe government should, and can, help people, to be pro-science, and perhaps most importantly, to have a visceral disdain for bigots and people who try to manipulate bigots to suit thier ends. That goes for small town elitist, gay-bashers, and Mooslim haters.
I'll have more to say on the essay in the coming days. I just need to think about it some.