It’s perhaps inevitable that when a philosophy transforms into a mass-movement, its subtler points will be lost. It’s difficult, after all, to rally around abstractions that aren’t absolute in nature. There has to be an exciting common denominator; something that is not only new, but bold. Still, the atmosphere that surrounds the Tea Party — just like the atmosphere that surrounded the anti-war protesters of the George W. Bush era — strikes me as particularly intellectually noxious.
I probably agree with Glenn Beck on at least two out of three policy points. He does a lot of good when he gets tens of thousands of people to finally pick up a copy of Friedrich Hayek’s Road to Serfdom. And yet, when I listen to him — or other popular icons of the activist right, such as Sarah Palin or Mark Levin — there’s a dissonant undercurrent that makes it impossible for me to embrace them. It runs deeper than policy disagreements: I’m not a “moderate Republican” and I don’t ally myself with the Olympia Snowes of the world. It’s something more fundamental.
Conservatism proper is a disposition. It’s a tradition that runs through Socrates, Thomas Hobbes, Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, Friedrich Hayek, Russell Kirk, Michael Oakeshott, and Thomas Sowell. These men disagree on as much as they agree on, but there’s a common current that runs through their thought: it is skeptical, wary of claims to alter or improve the human condition, and — as David Frum brilliantly describes Kirk’s thought — offers us a vision, not a program.
Sarah Palin, Mark Levin, and their allies offer us a program. Levin’s manifesto Liberty and Tyranny, for instance, begins with a bullet-point agenda of what constitutes conservatism in the year 2010, complete with demands concerning taxes, immigration, and the welfare state. It’s incredible that anyone could miss the point so utterly. How did conservatism, which positioned itself as an anti-ideological strain of thought, transform into a bullet-point ideology ready to cast out anyone who isn’t a True Believer?
Russell Kirk aptly described ideology as a drug. Meditate on that. Ideology, in the classical conservative worldview, is something that provides a person with a comfortable, affixed set of dogma that serves itself, rather than the interests of the individual and his community. Traditional conservatives, skeptical that anyone can really remake society from on high, want to pierce through these absolute claims, not come up with their own. Those who want to examine their beliefs ought to act as Socrates did, asking questions even about those beliefs that are taken as axiomatic.
Edmund Burke lambasted Thomas Paine’s incredible pretensions that we can “start the world anew.” We can’t make the world anew. We can’t remake society from on high. We can’t fix the troubles of the human condition with a bullet-point agenda.