Good G-file this week. Longish excerpt:
EXTREMISM FOR THEE, NOT FOR ME
I won’t explain my original point about Democrats becoming extremists on immigration; I’ll just assert it to save time (and because it’s true). Here’s the thing, though: While some politically literate liberals might understand how rapidly the Democrats have moved leftward, I suspect that most run-of-the-mill activist Democrats don’t really see it. They see the Republican party as having moved farther and farther away from them. And the farther the Democrats drift, the more “extreme” they think the Republican position is.
You can see a similar dynamic on all sorts of issues. As I’ve written 912 times (an admittedly rough estimate), progressives — not conservatives — tend to be the aggressors in the culture war. Gay marriage is the best example. Twenty years ago, the standard conservative position on gay marriage was that gay marriage isn’t a thing. That was the same position conservatives (and nearly everyone else) had had for a couple thousand years. But liberals, and the culture, moved wildly to the left on the issue, and Republicans stood still. Yet, from the perspective of progressives and the media, it was the GOP that became more extreme simply because it didn’t want to get dragged along.
(I should note that some argue that the left–right formulation here leaves much to be desired, since you can make an argument that, in many respects, the move toward gay marriage was a rightward thing. The sexual-liberationist Left in the 1960s and 1970s wanted to destroy the institution of marriage, not rope gays into it by arguing that marriage is such a vital institution. Twenty-five years ago, the stereotypical gay character in popular culture was flouncy and flamboyant. Now he’s a harried dad trying to install a car seat. But you get the point.)
This model holds for feminism, civil rights, and lots of other things. It also works the other way around. Conservatives have moved the GOP rightward on law and economics since the 1960s, while liberals for the most part stayed locked-in to New Deal and Great Society thinking. Both sides called the other “extremists,” but it was the Right that did most of the moving, and eventually the Democratic party moved with it. Bill Clinton did indeed move his party to the right both rhetorically and on many issues, and the early Republican freak-out response to that had more to do with the rage that overtakes partisans when their opponents agree with them and, in the process, take away their favorite issues…
Anyway, the problem with one party veering too far to the right (say, Goldwater in ’64) or the left (McGovern in ’72) is that when one party moves very far in one direction, so does the other party. That’s because in a two-party system, elections tend to be won by whichever party captures the center. If party A moves leftward, abandoning the center square, it leaves it open for party B to take it. Thus both parties move leftward and the political “center” moves with it. There are exceptions stemming from special circumstances, but as a rule of thumb, this dynamic has a lot of explanatory value.
WHAT CONSERVATISM IS FOR
This rule of thumb should be drilled into the brain pan of every sentient conservative. Under George W. Bush, conservatives got too invested in running interference for the GOP. Part of it stemmed from the perceived need to rally around a wartime president. Part of it stemmed from disgust with how Democrats treated a wartime president. But there were other reasons, too. Indeed, to some extent, this sort of thing always happens to some people who are invested in politics.
The point of the conservative movement, however, was never simply to make the GOP more conservative, it was to move the center of gravity in American politics in a conservative direction. One of the first steps in that project was to gain intellectual influence or control over one of the two parties. It wasn’t supposed to stop there — but everyone seems to have forgotten that. Frankly, if I could make the trade, I’d rather the GOP became liberal if in exchange we could have the universities and Hollywood become conservative. But that’s a subject for another day.
A lot of people make all sorts of clever remarks about how Buckleyite conservatism is insufficient to the times. They invoke that famous line from our mission statement about how National Review “stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.”
The critics make it sound like yelling “Stop” was all Buckley and Co. were interested in. That was never the case, as his entire life story attests. The point about yelling Stop was that the country was drifting away from timeless principles and too few noticed or cared, and too many wanted the drift accelerated.
Buckley wanted to establish a platform — a landmark, if you will — that illuminated a fixed point in space, by which people could judge who was moving and in what direction. When you’re caught in the undertow, the thing you need most is something to grab on to. That was supposed to be National Review.
Now, as I’ve written countless times, National Review back then was wrong about some important things, including, most famously, civil rights (even if that story is more complicated than some claim).
But the larger point is that conservatism is supposed to be rooted in certain truths, even when the rest of society thinks those truths are lies. That is why conservatism is realism: It takes into account the permanence of sin, the crooked timber of humanity, and the inevitable contradictions and trade-offs that are inherent to living in this imperfect world.
Truth isn’t something you vote on. You can vote to treat a falsehood as a truth, and everyone can act like it’s the truth, but that doesn’t mean it is. The only things that can topple a perceived truth are reason, science, or God, because the first two are the means of discovering what exists outside our own perceptions and God can do any darn thing He wants.
Being rooted doesn’t require opposing all change — how any movement dedicated to the free market could be accused of unyielding fixity has always been a mystery to me. Rooted things can grow and change, but they remain attached to the soil all the same.
Rootedness does, however, require skepticism about new ideas, untested by time.
Conservatives believe in progress, but we don’t poll the mob for what constitutes progress, nor do we reflexively defer to whatever definition of progress is fashionable these days, on the partisan left or the partisan right. Nor do we define or decide what is true, or conservative, by the pronouncements of a party or a politician.
Longtime readers will recognize this passage from C. S. Lewis as one of my favorites:
Progress means getting nearer to the place you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer.
If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.
I’d change it only slightly. The truly progressive man, the one who cares about his fellow men and women, doesn’t merely turn around and live out his life in isolation, as part of the remnant. He yells “Stop!” and makes an argument for why everyone else should turn around with him.