Conservatives – We’re Not Evil.

September 20, 2014

(Fair Warning: If you are going to read this post, you need to read it through to the end)

The question of societal and political polarization in America is one over which a great deal of ink has been spilled. Many discuss the “big sort” – the migration of individuals into areas where they only speak to those with a similar worldview – and perhaps this has causal value. After all, I live in Seattle – it’s rather well sorted. Still, I’m not sure. One thing I am certain about is the fundamental inability of both sides of the spectrum to understand one other. I propose the following contention: the political Left in America does not understand the political Right. Specifically, there is a highly limited reading/understanding of conservative philosophy and scholarship which has impeded and continues to impede dialogue between the two sides.

Now, before you close this window and grumble – give me a moment, let me set out my case. This is a hypothesis after all – evidence must be provided. Yes, one can make the argument the other way round – and it indeed has value – political polarization is a two sided coin after all. But that’s a question for a different post and a topic which I have had and continue to have perpetual discussions about with conservative colleagues. I think the contention I am making here does has significant empirical support and is worthy of consideration. So, if you will kindly indulge me …

First off, as I always tell my undergrads: nothing can be done until there is a conceptualization. A clear understanding of what one is discussing, a solid definition as to its meaning is essential – absent that, everything is rubbish. Garbage in, garbage out – words to live by. So we must begin by defining “the right.” And I ask those readers on the left how they define it? What is “the right?” What is “conservatism?” Is the “right” necessarily conservative? If not, what is it? What ideas or approaches comprise contemporary conservative thought? How does conservatism relate to those on “the right” who are not “conservative?”

I’m serious. I would like an answer. Take some time with it – pour a glass of wine, turn on some music (the standard Strauss or Wagner or Bruckner for European conservatism or Country music for the American variant if it helps) and prepare a definition/set of answers. I can wait. Here’s some stereotypical conservative music by which you can reflect…

Ready? Okay …

If I can subdivide and discuss the differences in the branches of one small and increasingly obscure variant of the Left, Marxism (Trotsykism, Maoism, Marcusian Eurocommunism, Bukharinism, Stalinism, etc), it’s only reasonable to expect that those on the other side of the spectrum can set out a definition of conservatism. And let’s be serious here, none of that anti-choice! homophobic! privileged! nonsense. That’s just a subjective conclusion as regards a perception of a policy position. That’s not a definition of this belief system. That in no way sets out the underlying philosophy, the axioms, the corollaries, the assumptions, etc. Rather, if that is one’s definition, that is, I am sorry to say, what we call: lazy. It is abdicating one’s responsibility to understand the world in favor of a shallow, self-referential response. And I don’t think anyone I know (well, anyone I know and respect) wants that. Let’s go a bit deeper …

What is the philosophy of human nature of conservatism? How does human nature inform the understanding of decision making? How does agency impact political outcomes? Is there any role for structure? How is structure understood and shouldn’t that be a point of commonality? If not, why not? What is “the good?” How is that practically understood? How can it be achieved? How does it relate to the state? How should politics then be organized? How should the state be run? Why that way? Are there different variants? I could go on for page after page after page.

There are a myriad of questions and indeed a myriad of answers. However, my point (and I do apologize for beating it into the ground with the litany of interrogatories) is that in my experience many on the intellectual left cannot answer these questions about the basics of conservatism. And even if an answer can be provided it is generally one which is based off of a “via negativa” approach from one’s own belief system rather than a reading of what conservative philosophers and theorists actually say themselves. This leads to serious misunderstandings.

I’ve enjoyed many interesting discussions while in graduate school about the finer points of Marx and Foucault etc. I have very rarely had the benefit of a chat with a colleague on the left who could/would discuss conservative thought in detail (with the exception of allusions to Robert George or Antonin Scalia – although it’s always their conclusions, never how they reached their conclusions). And I don’t blame them. It’s not their fault. Conservatism is simply not referenced/taught today other than as a shibboleth. An impediment to be overcome. Conservatism is essentially a non-entity (despite the 40% of the American population who identify as holding the view). Thus, most conversations I have about conservatism entail spending an absurd amount of time explaining “that is not actually what we believe.” For example, conservatism and neo-liberalism are not synonyms and the less we throw around the word “Straussian” the better. Libertarians have a similar problem with the whole “It’s all about Ayn Rand!” thing. It’s exhausting.

Myriad college courses are offered on scholars from the left but I have yet to see a course on “The Political Philosophy of Edmund Burke” or “20th century Conservative Thought.” The closest we get is perhaps modern meditations on Medieval philosophy or right Classical Liberalism. Many people I know teach politics and run through the basics of Burke or Kirk – but a week or two in a seminar course is certainly insufficient to understand it, let alone lecture on it. I would never presume to teach, say, Judith Butler, after reading a couple of her articles. I would give a horribly shallow perspective on her work.

This is a problem.

I am a conservative. I find a great deal of thought on the left to be disconcerting because I see it ending in tears, causing pain, hurting individuals, and I reject the assumptions which underlie it. However, I’ve taken the time to learn the various schools of thought on the left and the diverse approaches – and the diversity is seriously impressive (just as it is on the right). And that taught me something. It taught me that my interlocutors are not evil. The people who disagree with me are not bad, they are not morally bankrupt – rather, they have a different approach for achieving “the good,” as they see it. I might disagree with an argument but I can respect it as a well built (although flawed) philosophical system and I can see someone from that side of the spectrum as motivated by good intentions. Is conservatism respected? How can it be if it not taught and not understood? Are conservatives understood as motivated by a desire to achieve “good” outcomes? How can they be when their conceptualization of the good is not even understood?

Thus my concern – particularly over years hearing and reading comments by colleagues, well educated colleagues, on the left – is that those of us on the right are seen as “bad,” as “mean,” as “heartless,” as “ignorant.” After years of that sort of thing – I honestly worry that people believe it.

Well, we’re not. And it’s pretty darn presumptuous to say that we are. We have an idea of the good – and at an abstract level of understanding as to “happiness” and “human well being” and “opportunity” I believe the right and left actually agree. We just disagree about getting there. However one cannot understand that on anything more than a throw away, superficial level unless one actually reads, studies, and learns conservative scholarship. No conservative author starts off with some sort of Montgomery Burns-esque “How can I hurt people today? How can I keep poor people poor? How can I oppress women and minority groups?”

We do not seek to oppress anyone. And I get it – many think that we DO oppress people – either intentionally or unintentionally. Everyone has a right to their own perspective, but we see it differently. Simply saying “X is bad. X is an outcome, therefore replace all that precedes X with Y” doesn’t work. There’s a chance conservatives aren’t too thrilled with X either. In fact, it might be good if X were not an outcome. However, while X is bad, Z is also out there and Z is worse and Y is likely to cause Z. What often is seen as approbation of X is in fact a recognition of a prior need to avoid Z. So why do we prioritize avoiding Z? Well, to understand that it is necessary to go into all those questions I asked earlier. In other words, it is necessary to understand the philosophy of conservatism and the implications thereof for particular questions at particular times and in particular contexts.

Thus I would like to make a request of my friends on the left – pick up the “Cambridge Companion to Burke” or another anthology of writing on conservative philosophy. Learn what we believe. Learn our philosophical system. I doubt you will be converted but I guarantee we’ll have better conversations, better interactions, and – if your position is in fact correct – you will have much better criticisms of our worldview than before. We’re going to keep reading your stuff (well, some of us – the ones in higher ed at least –  we are sort of obligated so to do based on your numbers) – it would be cool if you could meet us half-way.

Aquinas defined evil as “the absence of the good” – by accepting that conservatives do (with intent) strive for the “good,” albeit in a different way, maybe we can move forward towards more constructive and useful discussion and debate. And I promise to keep working on those on my side of spectrum – as noted earlier, it’s a shared problem.


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