On Monday evening, Dan Riehl and I did an hour long Skype debate moderated by Scott Payne at The League of Ordinary Gentlemen. Though Dan and I disagree about the tone taken by certain talk radio hosts, he conducted himself like a consummate gentleman in our conversation, and I thank him for the experience.
One question we discussed: what it is that makes someone a conservative? It isn’t actually a subject I’m passionate about, as I’m inclined to take people at their word when they tell me their political philosophy, but because so many people obsess about the subject, turning half their conversations into a discussion about whether the speaker is conservative, or what the conservative thing to do is, it’s a conversation I’ve had with a lot of people. Naturally, few of them agree on the answer, which only underscores how absurd it is to pretend that there is one universally agreed upon definition, as opposed to a lot of different branches growing from a common trunk.
As best I can tell, Dan thinks that Ronald Reagan was a conservative, that people who favor an economy free of government interference are conservatives, and that religious conservatives who dissent from the Club for Growth orthodoxy are perpetrating a fraud if they call themselves conservative. Never mind that these folks don’t actually hide their supposedly heretical views, and are very upfront about where they stand on any specific matter you ask them about. They are still somehow being duplicitous or at least misleading if they invoke the c-word as a general descriptor.
At least that’s my best guess about Dan’s views. I’m forced to extrapolate a bit, because when pressed he wouldn’t actually offer any precise definition of conservatism, or clarify what it is specifically that make David Frum or Rod Dreher faux-conservatives. It seems to me that Dan doesn’t actually possess any coherent definition of conservatism, which would be fine, as it really isn’t necessary to have one, unless you make yourself an arbiter of the word’s proper use. How is it that he can judge whether anyone is running afoul of the rules when he refuses to articulate and defend any? Until he does better than “conservatives like free markets,” I don’t think he should be taken seriously when he pontificates on matters of ideological identity (especially since David Frum, Will Wilkinson and Denmark also like free markets). Relying on one’s gut rather than clearly thought out guidelines in classifying people is the surest path to irrational mis-characterizations and prejudiced results.
Joe Carter is another guy who I’ve spoken to about what it is that makes someone a conservative. His answer is basically that Russel Kirk’s definition is a good one. He isn’t alone. A lot of people on the right invoke Kirk. But don’t tell Robert Stacy McCain.
Conor wants to define conservatism as “what I like,” or, “a philosophy espoused by writers I like.” He cannot separate his admiration of, inter alia, Andrew Sullivan from his own self-conception as “conservative.” It’s fan-boy politics. Sully is a student of Oakeshott, therefore Conor name-checks Oakeshott. Dreher constantly invokes Russell Kirk, therefore Conor name-checks Kirk. It’s as if Conor has been studying his pledge book in preparation for initiation into a fraternity.
Wait, I’m confused. Isn’t behaving as if I’m pledging a fraternity the Robert Stacy McCain test for being a real American? Just a few weeks ago, I was told the cool kids wake up at 6:30 am on the porch of the ATO house. Now I’m being mocked for being a good pledge?
I won’t take offense, since it’s transparently dense to think that the only reason anyone would name check Russel Kirk in a conversation about conservative philosophy is because Rod Dreher invokes him. Or let’s talk about Michael Oakeshott. Political theory books deem him one of the most important conservative philosophers of the 20th Century. He was the guest of honor at National Review’s 20th anniversary celebration. But anyone who invokes his name as one among many diverse thinkers in a centuries old tradition? Well, they must just be doing it to mimic Andrew Sullivan.
RSM goes on to ask, “Why is it that none of these ‘dissident’ conservatives can be bothered to read Hayek or Mises?” For heaven’s sake, I haven’t merely read Hayek, I’ve read him four times, and written a white paper for The Claremont Institute that invokes him in every section. Of course, it’s really more fair to call him a classical liberal, seeing as how that’s what he called himself, going so far as to write an essay called “Why I am Not a Conservative.” (Given the concessions he made to the idea of social welfare I wouldn’t be surprised if Mark Levin called him a socialist.) Hayek made a powerful case against socialism, didn’t attend Harvard, and isn’t invoked by the people who most rankle Robert Stacy McCain, thus he becomes one of the two philosophers it’s okay to cite when trying to define conservatism. Or something.
The deeper I wade into these conversations, the more I realize how ahistorical, unprincipled and arbitrary are those who’ve appointed themselves the inquisitors of movement conservatism. They complain that certain people shouldn’t call themselves conservatives, but refuse to say why in any detail. Efforts to ground a conversation about a political philosophy by referencing philosophers is mocked… and then other philosophers are invoked as better litmus tests. Worldly, nonreligious conservo-libertarians like me are told that we only think religious, Benedict-option-loving folks like Rod Dreher are conservatives because we define the movement according to the strands we like personally. Huh?
This is the kind of incoherence that results when your impetus for branding someone a heretic is that they criticized Mark Levin, or that they think the GOP’s current electoral strategy is incoherent, or that they wrote an item at The Huffington Post, or because they raise chickens in their backyard and assert that maybe there’s something troubling about corporate farms pumping antibiotics into featherless foul stuffed into tiny cages. This is what happens when you define a good conservative as someone who is hated by liberals, or someone who goes to the mattresses for inarticulate, underqualified vice-presidential candidates because liberals unfairly maligned her… or she’s “just authentic”… or she excites people at rallies.
Am I wrong? Are there actually other standards being used to decide who must not invoke conservatism — or to determine which so-called pseudo-conservatives must not be engaged on the substance of anything, because apparently it is better to plug one’s ears and close one’s eyes when someone you deem to hold a different political ideology speaks? Is there anything beyond gut level judgments and Red Team tribal loyalty guiding these decisions? If so, please share your metrics. If not, please resign as self-appointed arbiters of that which you won’t even take the time to understand.