Reihan: Ideological Conservatism

While reading David Brooks terrific column on the creedalization of American conservatism, I thought to myself, "Self, is creedalization so bad?" I'm not so sure.

To my mind, Ideology per se isn't the problem: we all use frameworks and heuristics to understand the world. And creeds have value. The trouble comes when they calcify. That is the value of coalition politics, and the creative tension coalition politics engenders. Yuval Levin puts this extremely well in a smart critique of the Brooks column:

Brooks applies his abstract critique of abstractions to essentially all the threads of the conservative program of recent years. He says that social conservatives are not Burkean enough because they seek a politics of applied principles, and that libertarians are not Burkean enough because they pursue excessive individualism, and that neoconservatives are not Burkean enough because they think societies can be reformed at will.

But to some extent surely these criticisms of each conservative strand answer one another. Social conservatives believe deeply (at times surely excessively) in precisely the kind of social cohesion and unity Brooks finds so lacking in individualist libertarians.

Libertarians, in turn, push against the excesses of social conservatism and refuse to abide a politics of theological abstractions. And the neoconservatives, finally, have been from the beginning concerned with culture on the one hand and with data and empiricism on the other. Their belief in the importance of a culture’s internal institutions, and in the notion that over long spans political reform can help spur cultural reform, are hardly the stuff of the French Revolution.

To be sure, I tend to think US conservatives get the balance wrong. I'm thus far more sympathetic to blue-green "Cameron Conservatism," and to Europe's Christian Democratic traditions.

Late last year, I wrote a longish post on Christianism and Christian Democracy that I was kind of a fragment of a reaction to Andrew Sullivan's important critique of creedal conservatism, The Conservative Soul. (Let me just preface by saying that there are few things lamer than quoting yourself, but this will save me some paraphrasing.)

So is Christian Democracy, a particular kind of big-government conservatism that embraces the welfare state for purposes of Christian-inspired "soulcraft," in fact best understood as the Contintental variant of Christianism?

If so, I think Christianism has suddenly become far less objectionable. Why? Well, when you look at postwar Europe, the humane Christian Democratic politics of a Konrad Adenauer were crucial to combating the twin demons of fascism and communism. By drawing on the shared ethical tradition of Catholics and Protestants, big-tent Christian Democratic parties helped legitimate market economies by softening the (alleged) rough edges of laissez-faire.

Now, it's obvious that evangelical and fundamentalist Protestantism are very different from the Lutheranism and Roman Catholicism that defined the Christian Democratic movement of Germany, and certainly from the Christian Democratic movements of southern Europe that have splintered into movements of the center-left, center-right, and far-right. But it's safe to say that this political tendency represented the "fusion of political ideology and religious faith." And I think it was a healthy and constructive part of European public discourse.

It could be that America's Christian Democrats -- or rather, America's Christianists -- are uniquely poisonous and dangerous. But then that's less a necessary function of this political fusion than of other factors, including perhaps the cronyism and corruption of the particular Christianists Sullivan and Stuttaford have in mind.

I still think this is roughly right. Of course, this is kind of an awkward position to take. "I think Bushian conservatism is totally bankrupt. But wait ... I don't think it's bankrupt as a matter of principle." The danger is that you look like an apologist for something you emphatically reject, and I strongly argued for Bush's defeat as early as 2003. And yet there's a danger on the other side: that you let some decent ideas be exclusively claimed by people who are fundamentally corrupt and incompetent.