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Posted by on Sep 4, 2010 in Politics | 0 comments

The Isolation of a Heterodox Conservative

In light of E.D. Kain’s recent jump from conservatism, Conor Friedersdorf responds to my assertion that so few people seem interested in taking up the mantle of reforming conservatism:

That isn’t quite accurate. In my estimation there are a lot of people who are committed to reforming conservatism, and who’ve pursued a different path. Reihan Salam and Ross Douthat co-wrote a book laying out a policy agenda a reformed right might embrace going forward. The Tea Party is earnest about repudiating the K Street style conservatism that prevailed for much of the Bush Administration, as are writers like Tim Carney and Matt Continetti, who disappointed me with his over-wrought defenses of Sarah Palin, but did great work prior to it, and has since penned an excellent critique of Glenn Beck’s oevre.

The American Conservative, George Will, and even Ann Coulter are among the voices calling for the conservative movement to renounce its imprudent forays into nation building. Gene Healy is still working on the cult of the presidency. Yuval Levin, Jim Manzi, Ron Paul, Paul Ryan, David Frum, and Andrew Sullivan are just some of the people who’ve explicitly set out to reform the right or infuse it with new ideas, many are working more quietly, and you’d be surprised by some of the e-mail I get from staffers at places like National Review and even Human Events encouraging me to persist in my own quixotic campaigns, whether against conservative entertainers or intra-movement writing that isn’t defensible. (Sometimes I suspect that talk radio hosts are about as powerful as East German leaders in the months before the wall came down, but no one has realized it yet.)

Naturally, I’d like to see more conservatives call out popular talk radio hosts and powerful movement writers when they say things that are factually inaccurate, especially intemperate, or analytically indefensible. It’s a project I’ve taken up, so naturally I think it’s important. Some people disagree. Others think I’m right, but understandably deem my crusade to be less important than working on their own projects, which would be jeopardized by alienating powerful conservatives and the institutions they run.

And Conor is correct, of course. But as I was reminded of those who are performing the Sisyphean task of reforming conservatism, I was also reminded of something else: the sheer loneliness one feels in being a heterodox conservative.

Maybe it’s easier for Conor because he is so well connected to major institutions where there are people cheering him on even if it’s quietly. But I also know how it feels to be isolated, not feeling welcomed by conservatives and having liberals just not understand you. From where I stand, I see many a friend or acquaintance, who gets tired of the isolation and just gives up.

But of course, this isolation that one who doesn’t fit neatly into the “conservative” label feels is partly movement conservatism’s fault. Conor says this earlier in his post about Erik:

Unlike me, but like a lot of politically active people, Mr. Kain finds value in associating himself with a political/ideological team. It ought to trouble movement conservatives that they’re losing a married father in a red state who champions localism, decentralized power, checks and balances, and not placing too much faith in the state, and especially that in his judgment, “these are positions that are perfectly acceptable on the left in ways that my belief in gay marriage or higher taxes or non-interventionist foreign policy are simply not acceptable on the right.”

Indeed. Modern conservatism seems to not be so tolerant of people who don’t fit into a neat little box. It is not a generous ideology that is tolerant of diversity. What I appreciated from Erik, heck, what I still appreciate, is his ability to take some conservative basics, such as his emphasis on decentralization of power and use towards what might be considered more liberal ends. It is a kind of thinking that deals with the world as it is now, not trying to relive 1980 all over again.

But we don’t have a generous conservatism that could welcome odd ducks like Erik and a host of others (including me). What’s odd is that while so many current conservative leaders hark to Ronald Reagan, they seem to forget the real Reagan was far more inclusive than the one they’ve imagined. This is what outgoing Senator Bob Bennett had to say regarding a meeting with the future President:

The concern I have is that ideology and a demand for absolute party purity endangers our ability to govern once we get into office. A personal story – back in 1976, a dear friend of mine called and said, “Will you interview for a political position in the Reagan campaign?”

I was not a fan of Governor Reagan – I thought he was too far to the right and he was an ideologue and all the rest of these things. And I didn’t really have any interest in working in the Reagan campaign in 1976. But out of courtesy to this friend, I agreed to do that.

So I went to the interview, and it became very clear as the interview went forward that it was going very well and I was going to be offered a job. And I thought, “I better nip this in the bud right away.” So I said, “Wait a minute, before we go any further, there’s one thing I have to make clear – I am not a true believer.” Whereupon Governor Reagan’s campaign manager said, “That’s alright – neither is the Governor.”

And I came to understand that and have now become a huge Ronald Reagan fan, which as I said, I was not at one point. Because Ronald Reagan, in addition to having slogans that could whip up the ideologues and get them working at the polls, had ideas and solutions to our problems. The reason he was one of the pivotal Presidents of American history was not because of his slogans. It was because of his ideas. I met him but I didn’t know him at all well, but the more I read about him the more I have come to appreciate just how deeply he was immersed in the ideas of government and how surely he understood the issues that we faced. As I look out at the political landscape now, I find plenty of slogans on the Republican side, but not very many ideas.

Ideology should be something that guides us and does not force us into straitjackets. It should be welcoming, not fearful of other views.

The sad thing is that Erik was not welcomed because he was different. While that might make conservatives and by extension the GOP more cohesive, it will also make us poorer in so many ways.

Crossposted at Big Tent Revue

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