We ask Andrew Sullivan:
Do you still consider yourself a conservative?
Andrew Sullivan replies:
Absolutely. I wrote a book on my conservatism, ‘The Conservative Soul.’ But in so far as the word has been hijacked by religious fundamentalists and emotionally arrested Randians, I am not one of them. I’d fit easily into a conservative party in any other western democracy. But the GOP is a rogue in the western world – the most extremist right-wing party in any modern democracy by a mile. Banning all abortion and all gay marriages? Denying climate change science?
They’re not conservatives, they’re the loony right.
P.S.: [William F.] Buckley favored legal pot. Where are the celebrations of freedom at [the National Review]?
Live by the shrill, die by the shrill, Jonah. I like Sullivan, and his writing has many virtues, but as I’m scarcely the first to note, the sense of doubt and fallibilism he’s now advocating as central to conservatism has not always been one of them. When he was a booster for this administration and the Iraq war, Andrew was (in print, if not in person) at least as willing to suppose that people who disagreed were moral dunces at best, a threat to civilization itself at worst. He hasn’t changed styles; he’s changed sides.
As for the main argument of the book, Goldberg has two main beefs. The first is that “evil is rarely defeated by people who are unsure they are right,” which Goldberg takes to mean that a “conservatism of doubt” will be too anemic to combat the enemies of liberal modernity: He mocks the idea of a “serious political movement” founded on the slogan “We’re not sure!” But I think this misapprehends one paradoxical aspect of the relationship between doubt and confidence. I know, for example, that science proceeds haltingly, that its conclusions are always open to revision, and indeed, that many of the scientific beliefs of the past have been either rejected or developed to accommodate new facts. And this is precisely why I can be so confident in the scientific enterprise in the aggregate: Because I know there are scores of intelligent and skeptical researchers constantly testing and refining its conclusions. I can be fanatical in my defense of liberal societies, not because (like Islamists) I’m sure they have discovered the One Best Way of Life, but because they embody a process that allows fallible people to seek continual improvement.
.. Moreover, recall that Hayek’s argument is meant to show why tradition’s evolved rules are likely to produce better results than a wholesale constructivist rationalism. But this argument actually depends on people making use of critical reason, which is quite different. In effect, Jonah wants to say: Look what cultural evolution has produced—great, freeze it! But evolution works because of mutation, variation, and selection, and it’s still going on. A tradition that can’t accommodate that kind of variation is unlikely to stay adaptive for long.
Though he calls himself a Catholic, his crisis of conscience, his insistence on the primacy of his personal experience, always has a Protestant ring.
The Conservative Soul is really a kind of bildungsroman of Sullivan in the 9/11 years. For Sullivan, as for so many people, the attack on the towers was a Great Awakening, one that roused the absolutist within. On his blog, he became a poet of outrage, a fiery cheerleader for the war in Iraq, and a fierce attacker of his ideological enemies, searching for doctrinal deviation, barking loudly when he discovered it, dismissing those with whom he disagreed. But his absolutism has dissolved in the past five years—just as it had when he was a schoolboy—and the book contains a mea culpa for his excesses (“In retrospect I find the absolute certainty of my position at the time more than a little worrying,” he writes, before embarking on an exegesis of Bush’s wartime conduct that would warm Howard Dean’s heart).
The political philosophy Sullivan espouses in The Conservative Soul is chastened, based on doubt (as in, say, doubt that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction), desiccated by design. He means to make government a dismal science, so people won’t love it too much. Tradition, he writes, using a metaphor from Michael Oakeshott, the British conservative philosopher about whom he wrote his Ph.D. thesis, is the placement of the pool balls on the table—not exactly a shining city on the hill, or even Mom and apple pie. And Sullivan largely forgoes policy prescription, leaving it up to “political actors, not writers,” in what is liable to be a very short-lived resolution.
.. Sullivan’s conservatism is not a creed anyone currently calling himself a conservative is likely to follow. (Continuing an argument begun in Virtually Normal, Sullivan’s important book on gay rights, he insists that same-sex marriage can come to seem a conservative position. Next up: universal health care?) Which is not to say that he won’t have allies. A humble, ameliorative, tolerant politics of modest ambitions, based on a clear-eyed view of the dangers in the world and pragmatic notions of what can and can’t be accomplished, is what a lot of Democrats now aspire to. The political rhetoric of the past five years seems exhausted, not least on his own blog. He recently announced that he found himself in uneasy alliance with Markos Moulitsas, who, as the Kos behind Daily Kos, has been a favorite target. Both, he says, are approaching libertarianism, but from opposite directions—Goldwater Democrats, he calls them. So the lion lies down with the lamb. Surely some kind of end-time is approaching.
In The Conservative Soul, he attributes his change of heart to a belated return to rigorous Oakeshottian skepticism, and as he expounds Oakeshott, gracefully and in satisfying detail, one is almost won over. Certainly Oakeshott’s strictures on the dangers of overweening government power, harnessed to Rationalist dreams and visions, apply very well to the high-handed, high-spending near tyranny of the Bush administration before the midterm elections checked its progress, and Sullivan deserves thanks for bringing Oakeshott into the argument.
But his journalism belies his vaunted skepticism. There is in Sullivan’s makeup a most un-Oakeshottian quickness to take passionate sides, a schoolboy tendency to hero-worship (Thatcher… Reagan…Oakeshott…Bush…and now it seems he may be warming up fast to Barack Obama), and an Oxford debater’s ready access to the rhetoric of condescending scorn. Where Oakeshott stood self-consciously aloof from practical politics, Sullivan splashes excitedly about in them like a dog in a mud puddle, snarling ferociously at any other dog who challenges his position du jour. He’s less a skeptic than a mercurial, and somewhat flirtatious, born believer.
So it is unsurprisingly on matters of religion that he’s at his most persuasive. The book is grounded in Sullivan’s tenacious Catholicism, and, as a staunch atheist, I’m impressed by his ability to write plainly, unmawkishly, even movingly, of the intermittent presence of Jesus Christ in his life.
I take a few, and largely deserved, whacks at my solar plexus for various hyperbolic blog posts over the years. But I’m grateful that Raban treated the book in its own right as well. I have to say, however, that I don’t believe Oakeshottian political conservatism necessarily requires an even temper in the rest of life, a lack of passion, or disdain for the to and fro of political argument. In fact, the point of being a conservative in politics is precisely to allow for a passionate, energetic, envelope-pushing, un-conservative culture that doesn’t infect sensible, limited governance. In some ways, I am a conservative in politics so I may have the right to be a radical in every other human activity. This is not a contradiction, or even much of a paradox. Oakeshott himself was a very lively, mischievous, bohemian soul – who nonetheless didn’t want his rulers to be like him.