May 30, 2008

Elitehood, Improvisation, and The Meaning of Conservatism

By: Sonny Bunch

Ross has blogged some essential remarks on the meaning of conservatism that bear much further comment. Mark Schmitt implicates Ross in an alleged school of thought that has given up on rediscovering “the moral absolutes of conservatism” in favor of “purely improvisational, tactical positioning.” Schmitt complains that these are “elegant, short term solutions disguised as ideology.” Ross nails much of what goes wrong in Schmitt’s head in this key sequence:

As for whether our proposals are essentially “improvisational” and “tactical” – well, I would submit that there’s plenty of material in our book that could ground a conservative party long after the particular controversies of 2008 have run their course. (It might ground it on a disastrous foundation, but that’s a separate argument.) In another sense, though, Schmitt is clearly right – it’s just that the quality he’s describing is a feature rather than a bug. [Emphasis added.] That’s because my own (highly provisional) definition of American conservatism would run something like this: A commitment to the defense of the particular habits, mores and institutions of the United States against those socioeconomic trends that threaten to undermine them, and those political movements (generally on the left, but sometimes on the right) that seek to change them radically in the pursuit of particular ideological goals. Any politics that takes this sort of conservatism as its touchstone will by its very nature be “provisional” and “tactical,” in the sense that the threats to the American way of life, and the fronts on which it makes sense for conservatives to battle, are constantly shifting around. There are no final victories for conservatives: We are not struggling to “achieve our country,” but to sustain it, and so “elegant, short-term” resolutions are often all that we should aim for.

To put a fine a point as possible on the essential distinction to which Ross rightly alludes, the question for conservatives is not where their moral absolutes have gone off to. Conservatives do not need to ‘rediscover’ their cultural foundations on some sort of corporate retreat vision quest. The question, rather, is in what relationship the conservation of our cultural foundations stands with regard to our political practices. For conservatives, in my judgment, tactical improvisation is a feature and not a bug because our cultural foundations are imperiled and often damaged when we try to practice comprehensive, agenda-oriented, foundationalized politics. There need not be any conservative ‘political absolutes’ in order for conservatives to govern conservatively. Prudence, that byword of the conservative attitude, is the art of sound implicit judgment that slightly, but only slightly, anticipates the practice of tactical improv. The best way to conserve our cultural foundations is to shelter the continuity of their authority from nationally mobilized contestations of political power, and the best way to prevent a quest for powerful political foundations from crushing authoritative cultural ones is to practice the sort of politics that Ross describes.

Viewing thus the contrast between culture and politics, authority and power, and foundational and nonfoundational conservatism, we can try to help refine Ross’s provisional definition of conservatism:

A commitment to the defense of the particular habits, mores and institutions of the United States against those socioeconomic trends that threaten to undermine them, and those political movements (generally on the left, but sometimes on the right) that seek to change them radically in the pursuit of particular ideological goals.

This is pretty good, but we must start out by acknowledging the central importance of the particular habits, mores, and institutions of these United States, and of the sociocultural regions that sprawl across them. Cultural regionalism is both a bug and a feature of the United States of America, and each culture has its own (if overlapping) foundations. Foremost among the trends and agendas that threaten to undermine our national plurality of foundationalist cultures is the desire (generally coming from the left) to deauthorize such cultures via the imposition of foundationalist, egalitarian political practices, by the power of fiat, if necessary. Yet what galls conservatives of several stripes is the way in which the left then finds itself dissatisfied with its own political project: rather than contenting itself with extending the sphere of political justice, the left has typically sought to use political power as a means to social justice. It is fundamental to conservatism that this be recognized as an abuse of politics and an abuse of power.

Unfortunately for conservatives in the old days, this meant having to oppose desegregation and the like. Fortunately for latter-day conservatives, we are stuck with an America in which good outcomes have been obtained by bad means. There is no great risk that the kinds of political practices Ross and I are gesturing toward will ‘turn back the clock;’ conservatives today, like all Americans, have the luxury of having already mainly solved our most deeply rooted problems as a polity. (Slavery and its legacy obviously form the most deeply rooted of them all, and this is because the kind of politics I am advocating here was unable to keep the distance between authority and power from collapsing into public conflict on the slavery question. A nonfoundationalist politics cannot insist, so long as slavery is constitutional and people own slaves, that slavery must be made unconstitutional and people must not own slaves. But after slavery has been destroyed, along with the authority that accredited the old regime, a nonfoundationalist politics can insist that slavery will not return.) So even as a conservative looks ‘backward’ culturally, he or she can and should look ‘forward’ politically. As the founders recognized, the virtuous ability of a nonfoundationalist political regime grounded in prudent tactical improvisation to tolerate foundationalist cultures was reinforced by the need of each for the other. The paradox of modern liberalism is that a nonfoundationalist politics cannot survive if its citizen participants have no foundational culture. Conservatives today must urgently recall that this paradox, again, is not a bug but a feature.

Which brings me to elitehood. Susan Jacoby has a compelling op-ed in the New York Times arguing that ‘elite’ shouldn’t be a dirty word. This is true, but not all elites or types of elites are worthy of equal praise. Christopher Lasch, for instance, has argued persuasively that the system of elite manufacture and accreditation known in the US as ‘upward mobility’ carries profound pathologies and costs that are passed on to its participants. The distinction I want to draw in light of the meaning of conservatism is that between improvisational elites and elites who improvise.

One of the most annoying comparisons made to pragmatic prudence is jazz. Everyone knows that improvisational jazz is incredibly difficult and impressive, and that, even when it’s unlistenable, something intensely nimble yet steeped in discipline is taking place. But virtuoso improvisational jazz is a horrible and gravely misleading metaphor for the kind of politics I am advocating because it is generally and characteristically practiced by improvisational elites, as opposed to elites who improvise. Rather than being expert specialists in improvisation, elites who improvise practice tactical improvisation out of a very inexpert generalism. As I’ve pointed out earlier, the British model for this sort of ideal of the amateur is too inaccessibly aristocratic to be of much more than a mild, artistically inspirational use for American conservatives practicing politics. This is because the origins of the British aristocratic ideal of amateurism are cultural; in the US, whatever vestiges of that cultural tradition were transplanted to America withered long ago. (Not even, by the time of Calhoun, did the Southern aristocracy compare. Something else entirely was afoot, even if sometimes they thought otherwise. Exhibit a: slavery.) But the origins of the American ideal of amateurism reach back to the inception of American politics — even predating American independence. A nonfoundationalist, pragmatic politics — a politics of tactical improvisation — is conservative in quintessentially American fashion. Conservative elites should reconceptualize both conservatism and elitehood accordingly.

There are, of course, complications and problems with what I’ve formulated here; but one step at a time…

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