Thoughts on America’s Need for a Healthy Conservatism

The link above is Andrew Sullivan’s latest diary entry for New York Magazine (his regular gig since “unretiring” from blogging).  Any analysis of this piece must begin with the picture that precedes the first word.  Behind Trump stand Mike Pence, the current vice president, and Paul Ryan, the current speaker of the House and 2012 vice presidential candidate on Mitt Romney’s ticket.  Any column that purports to discuss the need for a healthy conservatism and fails to even name two of Trump’s key enablers–both long-time members of the mainstream conservative movement–is already falling short of its purported goal.  There is no mention of either man in Sullivan’s column.

Instead, Sullivan puts forward the things he is for as a conservative, and references a book by Roger Scruton that he feels defines conservatism well.  While he references a few of the ideals and people I typically hear from other conservative thinkers, what Sullivan ultimately describes as conservatism is ideal mostly disconnected from both history and its current political expression.  He attempts to separate the Republican Party from conservatism as well, as if a philosophy of how a state should function can realistically be separated from a party in power claiming to hold its ideals dear. But the most telling omission from Sullivan’s hagiographic treatment of conservatism is Barry Goldwater.  Only by not mentioning Goldwater at all can Sullivan allow his false equivalency instinct to take over and blame “the left” for putting his (false) ideal of conservatism under siege and resort to the same tired, pejorative use of the term “social justice” too common among conservatives to describe the advocacy efforts of the left for those who are neither white nor male.

After getting in his requisite dig at the left regarding their attacks on conservatism, I find it especially puzzling that Sullivan’s conservatism is supposedly “anguished when the criminal justice system loses legitimacy, because of embedded racism.”  I’ve seen precious little evidence that mainstream conservatism sees the criminal justice system as somehow illegitimate because of its disparate treatment of people of color.  Other conservatives, like Sohrab AhmariErin Dunne, and David French have publicly rethought certain positions regarding the criminal justice system in the aftermath of Botham Shem Jean’s senseless death at the hands of the police.  Sullivan doesn’t do that here.  Meanwhile, New Yorkers of color alone can point to the abuse of Abner Louima by the police (in 1997), the wrongful death of Patrick Dorismond at the hands of police (in 2000), the conditions of Rikers Island, and other aspects of the criminal justice system to question its legitimacy.

So-called mainstream conservatism is deathly ill precisely because it lacks sufficient diversity of race, class, gender, and faith both among its most high-profile advocates and its rank-and-file.  The small number of its advocates who are neither white nor male are given prominence only because they speak in favor of the status quo–not for a genuine equality.

Sullivan is correct in describing the degree to which the GOP is actively destroying what he sees as the tradition of mainstream conservatism.  They believe in tax cuts to the exclusion of all else–including fiscal solvency.  Their deregulatory fervor will result in an environment that will put our health at risk.  Their unstinting support of Trump lays bare the contempt the GOP has for the rule of law–unless it applies to those they dislike.  Which makes it all the more jarring when he writes: “I also believe we need to slow the pace of demographic and cultural change.”  Whether he intends the statement to do so or not, Sullivan gives aid and comfort not just to the immigration restrictionist, but to Stephen Miller and those like him who seek not to slow the pace of immigration but to reverse it.  When Sullivan writes that “the foreign-born population is at a proportion last seen in 1910″, he effectively endorses the arguments of Jeff Sessions, who spoke glowingly of a 1924 immigration law with the express purpose of keeping Asians, Africans, southern Europeans, and eastern Europeans out of the United States.  He can insist all he wants that seeking to slow the pace of immigration “is not inherently racist”, but when his arguments can’t be meaningfully distinguished from those of Jeff Sessions, he ought not be surprised when he’s not treated as arguing in good faith.

There might be something to the Sullivan argument regarding “elite indifference to mass immigration”, were it not for the fact of a Senate immigration passed with 68 votes in the recent past that didn’t become law because the GOP-controlled House refused to take it up (perhaps fearing it would pass).  No doubt some in the GOP want cheap, exploitable labor.  The Democrats may indeed encourage it because they think it will get them votes.  Neither of this changes the necessity of immigrants to our labor force.  There are plenty of difficult jobs Americans don’t want to do that immigrants will do.

The following passage of Sullivan’s latest diary is a fairly tight summary of straw man arguments and falsehoods:

“A nation has to mean something; to survive, it needs a conservative weaving of past, present, and future, as Burke saw it. And you cannot do that if you see this country as a blight on the face of the earth and an instrument of eternal oppression; or if you replace a healthy, self-critical patriotism with an ugly, racist nationalism that aims to restore the very worst of this country’s past, rather than preserve its extraordinary and near-unique achievements.”

There may be some that see the United States of America as a blight and an instrument of “eternal oppression”, but I have my doubts that the majority of the left believes this as he infers.  The idea that this country ever widely believed in a healthy, self-critical patriotism is laughable.  You need only look at school board battles of what to teach our children as history to know that many would prefer to teach them propaganda than the truth. The ugly, racist nationalism to which he refers was never truly past.  It may have retreated into the shadows or underground, but was never entirely gone.  The continuing battle over Confederate monuments and the endurance of the Lost Cause myth should be sufficient evidence of that.

Sullivan’s idea that somehow a healthy conservatism would rescue the United States from the position it finds itself in is wishful thinking.  Without an honest reckoning with Barry Goldwater’s role in shaping what conservatism has become, and how easily the purported conservative party was taken over by Trump, mainstream conservatism will be fully and deservedly discredited.