There’s an obnoxious conservative trope of referencing conservative thinkers with an air of extreme superciliousness, as if the last intelligent liberal had been Voltaire. The instance that personally offends me the most is when so-and-so has shown that the present greatly resembles Rome and that we are headed for a fall if we do not change course. Jonathan Chait has an essay in the New Republic which asks why the failures of the conservative establishment under the Bush administration have done nothing to dampen this tendency. At it’s worst, we see people gloating about a substantial debate among conservatives over whether we’re winning in Iraq.
What explains the right’s insufferable need to declare philosophical victory at all times? In part, it reflects the natural insecurity that comes with being conservative in a scholarly milieu. If I were an academic or a writer who made his living defending a party that routinely wins elections by appealing to rabid anti-intellectualism, I’d be a little defensive, too.
It tempting to think that conservatives are just trying to save face because they have really embarrassing fellow travelers, but I doubt that’s the major issue. After all, there are a great many embarrassing Democratic voters, but I don’t find myself looking to history to disassociate myself from people who believe in homeopathic medicine.
A more obvious explanation to me is that contemporary conservatism, unlike contemporary liberalism, is a political movement that is dissatisfied with modernity itself. The conservative looks backwards, and sees a steady progression into dissipation and immorality. It’s possible to vote Republican without holding that view, and it’s possible to support many conservative policies on pragmatic grounds. Nevertheless, the full package of antipathy towards government, belief in ‘traditional’ sexual mores, and resentment towards secularism begs for a nice meta-narrative that can attack modernity itself. Anything less feels like unprincipled griping, especially since some of the particular ingredients are so mean-spirited and base by themselves.
In contrast, contemporary liberalism is a very limited idea. It proposes minimum wage increases and universal health care not as initial steps towards a Marxist utopia, but as concrete improvements in people’s lives. It requires nothing more than beliefs about which policies will promote human welfare and a bit of compassion to motivate most of liberalism’s aims. At it’s grandest, liberalism is backed by a sort of Whig history in which we are steadily expanding our sphere of concern for other creatures.
On the other hand, there is a class of people who vote the same way as liberals, but who need more than that Whig history to make sense of their convictions. A substantial undercurrent of people wish to critique modern society but not in favor of a return to tradition. One strand of this thinking characterizes English departments in the 1980s. Part of what motivated it was a desire to link professional concerns (literary theory) to major social issues. Being a traditional liberal academic leaves you with essentially separate political and professional lives, and this is disconcerting if your intellectual heroes are the radicals of previous generations.
Ironically, this approach leads one to look for an explanation of why modern civilization is rotten to its core, why there is an underlying failure to accommodate the reality which you, from your theoretical perspective, can grasp. By the same token, since your enemy is something deep within the nature of modernity, you have a task that is both grand and unending, since society can never be fully cleansed of this influence.
Returning to conservatives, fears that I’m offering a caricature might be allayed by the National Review’s statement that
Meyer contributed to an unfortunate tendency among conservatives toward theoretical maximalism, as in his casual reference to “the totalitarian implications of the federal school lunch program.”
Meyer’s theoretical maximalism stemmed from his goal of uniting the distinct anti-totalitarian, anti-government and religious threads of conservatism, despite little underlying connection between them. The task of blending such disparate strands invites you to find a theory according to which it’s all connected, no matter how improbable the connections are. For the rank and file, it’s enough to know that you’re united in hatred of hippies, but this isn’t enough for someone more reflective.
In contrast, contemporary liberalism is an essentially pragmatic movement, that combines a general commitment to helping people out with views about what political actions will serve that purpose. There are weighty intellectual thinkers who have written to justify this sort of pragmatism against its various totalizing alternatives, and many of us have been influenced by those thinkers. Nonetheless, once you have that sort of pragmatic mindset in place, there’s no need to mention those figures at every turn—there’s a natural sort of coherence to your worldview that doesn’t need constant external buttressing or pretension.