Hey, a thoughtful article by a conservative. Who knew?
All kidding aside, it is great to see that variety of conservative that isn’t against reforming things is still alive and kicking somewhere. I don’t agree with everything Michael Charney says (I have some experience of his writing from following the “Coffee Party” feed on Facebook). Occasionally, I think he’s trying to make some of the more moderate-sounding (but not really moderate) Republican rants seem intelligible to his audience.
But in this article, he says a _lot_ I agree with.
To be clear before I get into the sources of agreement – I don’t agree with his premise that the group in American society (and elsewhere) that seeks to portray itself as “socially liberal but fiscally conservative” makes a lot of sense politically. Most of the time it’s pretty clear that being fiscally conservative (as opposed to fiscally responsible) pulls the rug out from under social liberal pretensions. Note, for example, the large number of Americans who have no problem with living in a colour-blind and gender-blind society but manage nevertheless to discriminate against those who don’t have enough green – and what do you know, those who don’t have enough of the green often have skin tones of a pronounced non-Caucasian hue, or more curves to their body profile. We don’t hate you, say this crowd, we just note that you must be a bunch of lazy people, otherwise you’d have money like we do. I don’t think that Charney gets that many of us see “I’m socially liberal but fiscally conservative” as a kind of code for “I’m socially right-wing, but you’ll never actually catch me at it.”
Charney doesn’t do much to improve our perceptions on these matters. He claims that “fiscally responsible” basically takes on a conservative meaning (as many believe it has) because, after all, responsibility and conservative thought go together, while “socially moderate” doesn’t really take on a liberal meaning (as many believe it has) because, after all, moderation and liberal thought doesn’t go together. My fear is that Charney can’t see that conservatives, on the whole, have not been paragons of economic or social virtue, and liberals far more often have been.
But I do admire the amount of space he’s devoted in this article to defending conservatism as a belief in slow, organised reform. This is the part of conservatism I latch on to, and for which I have often tried to make an intellectual case.
Left-wingers like me who consider slow reform to be a virtue tend more often to go by the name “reformist” than “conservative”, but we are making a pitch for a conservatism of a kind. We proceed from our left-wing point of view, which assumes that society, in order to be fair and inclusive, _must_ change. But we don’t go about changing society in a way that undercuts that which the previous social model got right. The ugly left says “throw the bums out” but don’t worry too much about what will come next. A reformist left says to go slow, keep a lot from the past, and get the new stuff right.
Charney uses the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” directive issued by Bill Clinton as an example of this sort of thing – but this would not be my preferred example. I spent Clinton’s terms in office howling in outrage about Clinton’s adoption of this directive, and was delighted when Obama reversed it upon taking office. But I do respect the example, and I think it gives me a good opportunity to reflect on why I opposed Clinton’s move. Yes, it certainly is possible that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” did what was possible, given the constraints of the 1990s, to better the lot of gays serving in the military.
But Clinton’s rolling over to certain bigoted individuals in the military was part of a general pattern of his rolling over to, well, anyone who could possibly vote against him. I won’t harsh on Clinton if he wants to portray “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” as a pragmatic delay, necessary in the 90s, but not in our allegedly more enlightened age. But the way I remember the 90s, reform, of any type, was not something realistically associated with the Clinton presidency. Clinton’s presidency represented full Democratic acceptance of Republican groundrules. For this reason, I look back on eight years of squandered opportunity for reform, not reform, as the legacy of the Clinton presidency. Clinton changed nothing, he merely muddled through, taking problems as things to be mitigated instead of solved. He “felt your pain” because he had given up on trying to stop the things causing it.
The reason I don’t want to give Clinton props for something like “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is that it was part of a characteristic and generalised pattern of inaction, not because it was treading water a tiny bit to prepare the way for more equality…for which real reformers stand.
Obama, by contrast, seems more on the order of the slow reformer Charney claims to want. We have not seen a revolution, nor has this president gone the other way and become a spineless devotee of the über-muddling philosophy of the Clinton/Blair Third Way. What we have seen is a president working out, slowly but effectively, how to reform American society.
A classic example is Obama’s response to the Bush tax cut debate in 2010. He compromised, not because Republicans had convinced him the tax cuts were wonderful, but because he couldn’t win on the argument then – and he was very specific he intended to bring the matter up again later…during the election campaign in 2012. Pragmatism and respect for the idea that everything can’t necessarily happen at once doesn’t mean you give up standing for reform.
I’d like to think, though, that voices like Charney’s can start to make a popular case for a better version of conservative thought to supplant the current version. In my opinion, that voice shouldn’t be uttering platitudes about “social liberalism and economic conservatism”, but should focus more on the conservative case for managed reform being an alternative to hyper-radical extremism. (I say hyper-radicalism is the enemy here, because all real reform aims at change, and change is what defines radicalism. What I’m really defending here is a managed radicalism.)
Anyway, I think what I agree with Charney about overwhelms what I disagree with him about. There are a handful of Republicans about whom I can say this, unfortunately. Indeed, outside of Lincoln Chafee, I don’t think any of the ones I admire are likely to attain public office again – and even Chafee no longer does so as a Republican. But I live in hope this may one day change.