Note: Grant Gallicho beat me to the punch in citing the Ross Douthat column below. I feel I need to give him credit for being first to the blog with it!
In the wake of the election, I’ve been pondering the future of conservatism–both philosophical and political–in the United States. In the wake of the election, some conservatives took comfort in the idea that the United States was a “center-right” country and that there would be a backlash if Obama tacked to hard to the left.
Much depends, of course, on what one means by “center-right.” Over the last half century, the Republican coalition has been held together by a combination of anti-Communism (recently replaced by anti-Terrorism) in foreign policy, anti-tax populism, and social conservatism. That combination proved durable enough to win the majority of the last few presidential elections and to secure majorities in the House and Senate for a reasonable chunk of the last two decades.
It has been argued by better minds than mine that all three of these elements have come under severe strain. The debacle in Iraq has discredited the Republicans’ foreign policy credentials. Taxes will never be popular, but faced with events like Katrina and the current economic storm, a large number of voters seem to be of the opinion that government needs to have sufficient resources and authority to do its job. While some elements of the social conservative program do inspire strong passions among the electorate, the long term trend seems to be what Alan Wolfe once called-accurately or not-”moral freedom.”
People of faith who are political liberals may be inclined to rejoice at these developments, particularly those who suffered attacks from their conservative co-religionists during the most recent election cycle. I would suggest, though, that political liberals who take their religious convictions seriously need to understand that those convictions often stand in tension with key features of contemporary liberalism: a deep–at times almost idolatrous–faith in human reason (and science in particular), its tendency to value the claims of the individual over that of the community, and its suspicion of tradition. A state suffused with these values does not co-exist easily with religious communities who operate from a different set of premises, a point raised by thinkers as diverse as Charles Taylor and Cardinal Francis Stafford.
While my personal political leanings are generally more to the (moderate) left than to the right, I would suggest that American culture needs a strong conservative strain to keep the liberal state from becoming imperial and totalizing. The conservatism we have may not be the conservatism we need, however. A conservatism married too closely to a muscular foreign policy easily becomes an apology for social engineering on an international scale. A conservatism tied too closely to populism undermines one of its central claims, i.e. that certain values do not depend on the will of majorities. Even the defense of tradition–surely a central conservative task–can fail if it blinds us to legitimate claims of justice that can also claim deep historical roots.
It will be interesting to see what new voices emerge from the wreckage of contemporary conservatism to take up this challenge. One that I am keeping an eye on is a young man named Ross Douthat who is an editor at the Atlantic Monthly and, incidentally, a Catholic (Paul, make a note). The author of two books, he also writes a weblog that is worth adding to your daily reads. Douthat–whose pro-life convictions are certainly not in doubt–recently took George Weigel to task for a column in which Weigel blamed the GOP’s loss of Catholic voters on “settled patterns of mindlessness” and “tribal voting.” Here is Douthat’s assessment of that analysis:
In 1980, ’84 and ’88, Republican (and pro-life) Presidential candidates managed to capture nearly all of the Midwest and the Northeast, “settled patterns of mindlessness” notwithstanding. Now here we are twenty years later, with FDR and JFK even further in the rearview mirror – and yet Weigel wants to chalk up the Republican Party’s horrible showing in these regions to mindless “tribal voting” among Catholic Democrats? This is self-deception, and it ill-behooves pro-lifers to engage in it. John McCain did not lose this election because the Catholic clergy failed to anathematize Barack Obama loudly enough, or because Pennsylvanians and Michiganders thought they were voting for Roosevelt or Truman. He lost it because his party flat-out misgoverned the country, in foreign and domestic policy alike, and because of late the culture war has mattered less to most Americans than the Iraq War and the economic meltdown. And pro-lifers who see the GOP as the only plausible vehicle for their goals have an obligation to look the party’s failures squarely in the face and work to fix them, instead of just doubling down on the case for single-issue pro-life voting.
No, social conservatives aren’t the problem for the GOP. But they haven’t been the solution, either: Too often, on matters ranging from the Iraq War to domestic policy, they’ve served as enablers of Republican folly, rather than as constructive critics. And calling Catholics who voted for Obama “mindless” and “stupid” is a poor substitute for building the sort of Republican Party that can attract the votes of those millions of Americans, Catholic and otherwise, who voted for the Democrats because they thought, not without reason, that George W. Bush was a disastrous president whose party should not be rewarded with a third term in the White House.
Of course, Douthat’s judgment is not infallible. Several months ago, he urged John McCain to consider a relatively unknown Alaska governor as a possible vice-presidential pick…:-)