I think it has to be said that the book is terribly unfair to fiscal conservatives. It treats them as essentially devoid of principle and idealism and lacking concern for the poor. Mike calls them at one point “small minded, cold, and uninspired.” I think ... this dismissive attitude is really a consequence of something more general that’s missing in the vision that’s laid out in Heroic Conservatism ...
For me, this was crystallized most fully in the last chapter of Mike’s book ... where Mike really lays out, more than anywhere else, what he really means by “heroic conservatism.” He begins the chapter…the first sentence of the chapter is, “At various stages in my life, like many idealists of a serious turn of mind, I have dabbled in despair.” And Mike lays out the ways that he’s seen the partial appeal of a kind of conservatism of deep pessimism – of beauty in the twilight. And I think we all have an idea of what he means and of the kind of appeal that [it] sometimes does have. But he writes that in the end, “My skepticism and pessimism have been confounded by my heroes.” And he describes the heroic deeds and the struggles against slavery and tyranny and on behalf of the weak and the needy that make up so much of the rest of this book.
But here I think is the choice that’s presented to us by Mike most clearly: it’s despair or nobility, it’s the lowest or the highest. And I think that this arrangement of the options lays out a profoundly tragic view of life, that even where it’s hopeful, it’s an other-worldly kind of hope, a hope for the suffering and wretched to be redeemed by dramatic acts of heroism. It’s noble and it’s very inspiring, and I think it has to have a place in our politics, but I think that is can’t be the foundation of our politics.
I think what’s missing here is the middle. I don’t mean the ideological middle, but the middle way between despair and sainthood; the middle time between disaster and triumph, and the middle class between the suffering and their saviors. I think that overlooking the middle creates a vocabulary of tragedy and deliverance, a politics that speaks to the lowest and the most needy and the downtrodden, but that says nothing to the democratic middle, to the democratic mass. And I think that that’s a terribly large oversight.
Speaking to the middle, it seems to me is the crucial task of any serious American political program, conservative or not. And speaking to the middle is not a necessary evil in the politics of a democracy. It’s crucial not just because that’s where voters are, and not just because that’s where political pressure comes from, it’s crucial because that’s where our great strength is – in the great and stable and usually pretty sensible middle. That’s where the culture lives, it’s where economic strength is grounded, it’s where our families are, it’s where idealism comes from, too, and what it depends on. I think it’s where we’re strong and why we’re strong. And Conservatives know that first and foremost, our politics have to sustain the sources of our strength, and to grow from there.
This means, I think, that our politics has to be fundamentally oriented to the middle class; to its needs and to its aims and to its hopes and to its ideals – to its aspirations. That’s not where the goals of politics end – they have to include the kind of goals Mike lists here – but it is, I think, where the work of politics has to start. Humanitarianism is, I think, not an adequate foundation for political life. It’s a worthy and a necessary end, but it can’t do in itself. And it relies on other foundations – on a society that values freedom and family, that encourages self-reliance and entrepreneurial energy and industrious virtues and civic virtues – and all of these depend on a politics that speaks to the middle class in a constructive way about their present and future concerns; that approaches the task of governing in a responsible way, including a fiscally responsible way.
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Ross Douthat is a contributing editor at The Atlantic.