Monday, July 3, 2017

Whither classical conservatism? Part I: What is classical conservatism?

I am starting a new series, which will probably be broken up as news breaks, but this one needs to be written.

One of the most striking features about how the Republican Party has gone about its efforts to "repeal and replace" Obamacare is how fundamentally un-conservative their methods are, in the "classical" sense of the term, and in fact, how completely absent "classical conservatism" seems to be from American politics today.  In a lot of ways, that is troubling because even those who aren't at all classically conservative should recognize the value of having someone in the system adopt that role.  Right now, nobody plays the role of the "classical conservative," and that's a problem.  This series will address the issue.

At some point, you may have come across the quote from William F. Buckley that the conservative is "one who stands athwart history and yells, stop!"  Then, of course, we can add the Robin Williams quote, "or I'll say stop again!"  Time and tide wait for no man.  Wow, I'm on a cliche kick today.  I suppose it's less funny if, instead of standing athwart history, you stand at the schoolhouse door, but I'll get to that...

The etymological root of "conservatism" is "to conserve."  It is based on aversion to change, and that is Buckley's impulse.  The conservative, in Buckley's terms, is definitionally on the wrong side of all good change, but definitionally on the right side of every attempt to fuck something up.  Every bad idea that anyone has ever devised?  The conservative tries to stop it, and there are a lot more bad ideas than good ideas.  Why?  Because people are fucking stupid.  If you are reading a professor's blog, you probably don't consider yourself especially conservative, but you also probably have some kind of intellectual elitist sneer.  To paraphrase George Carlin, think of how stupid the median person is, and realize that half of the population is even dumber...  If you understand that, you are now thinking, yup, there may be something to this stuff...  And that's my point.  Bad ideas outnumber good ideas because the world is filled with stupid people, and bad ideas need to be stopped.

Of course, William F. Buckley was a racist piece of shit, and while he wasn't personally the guy standing in the schoolhouse door, the intellectual leader of the conservative movement from the 1950s onward was a hardcore racist who took a looooong time to drop his opposition to desegregation, and if you want to go on youtube and watch him be an antiquated scumbag, you can see the downside of classical conservatism staring you in your modern face.  Like I said, the conservative, in Buckley's terms, is definitionally on the wrong side of all true progress, but definitionally on the right side of all attempts to block a monumental fuck-up.

So, to what is the classical conservative attached-- the past or the present?  Those who romanticize the past will be fine with change as long as it is change towards the past that they romanticize, while those who are averse to change will accept the present for the sake of stability.  These two forms of classical conservatism have historically been in conflict with each other within the Republican Party, and it is worth noting here that neither impulse is really playing out in the Obamacare repeal efforts right now, and I'll address that in more detail later.  Few in the GOP advocate straight-up repeal without a replacement (Rand Paul, sort of...), and nobody accepts anything like the status quo, even though smaller changes could be made to stabilize the individual markets in the counties where all of the insurers have pulled out.  I'll get to that in later parts of the series, though.

The basic point, though, is that the distinction between the types of classical conservatism is the distinction between acceptance of the present when it is different from the recent past, and a desire to return to the past.  Those most insistent on returning to the past are often called "reactionaries," depending on the rapidity and method they would use, but nobody who can be called a "classical conservative" would ever advocate a big, new, untested policy.  EVER.  Experimentation on a big scale, rapid movement on policy, refusal to listen to the CBO or policy experts, that kind of thing?  This is so far from any conception of classical conservatism that it is worth pointing out how far the GOP has strayed from the roots of that ideology, and how different modern conservatism is from classical conservatism.  Where I'd like to go with this series is what has gone wrong, with the GOP, and with politics more generally because of the lack of anybody playing the role of the "classical conservative."

Tomorrow is the 4th.  I think I'll write about Edmund Burke and the roots of classical conservatism.  I'll try not to get distracted by whatever stupid shit Trump tweets.  Then again, he's capable of bigger disasters than that.  This...  this is our world now.  Tomorrow, I'll write about Edmund Burke, and I'm trying to think about what Edmund Burke would say about Donald Trump.

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