University of Virginia political scientist Gerard Alexander ruffled some feathers back in February when he claimed in a Washington Post op-ed that “Liberal condescension” was very real and politically-problematic; the moment passed, however, and in the intervening months fairly-passive media coverage of the Tea Party movement aimlessly seeking to fill time often had little to dwell on aside from alarming gaffes, such as an angry constituent’s demand to a Republican Congressman to “keep your government hands off my Medicare” and a completely unaffiliated but possibly Depression-driven bigot’s intention to burn the Koran.
Andrew Sullivan recently blogged about this, trying to navigate opposing charges of condescending Liberals and ignorant Conservatives. Sullivan’s argument: Tea Partiers aren’t ignorant so much as rigidly-uncompromising, the consequence of a fear that the culture is changing around them and that they can’t relate to the society that is to come.
The Liberal Ironist can only hope that a sense of irony is sufficient to temper the solipsism or vanity Dr. Alexander purports to find among “Liberals.” My own suspicion is, and has long been, more of a synthesis of Alexander’s and Sullivan’s clashing suspicions: Liberalism and Conservatism may foster different mental pathologies among those who cannot maintain a sense of imaginative sympathy for their political opponents. If Liberals are arrogant, Conservatives are obsessed with their lack of power. Both pathologies exist for the same reason.
Liberals and Conservatives tend to be in tacit agreement that “History” is on the Liberals’ side. This assumption is given as often in the writings of Conservatives as in Liberals, just with a touch of melancholy rather than satisfaction. Consider figures as seemingly-different as Edmund Burke, Friedrich Nietzsche, and William F. Buckley.
Edmund Burke, aghast while writing his Reflections on the Revolution in France in 1789, mourned the loss of the unequal but intimate relations of European chivalry, in a passage that resonates in different ways for Conservatives, Romantics, and ironists:
“This mixed system of opinion and sentiment had its origin in the ancient chivalry; and the principle, though varied in its appearance by the varying state of human affairs, subsisted and influenced through a long succession of generations even to the time we live in. If it should ever be totally extinguished, the loss I fear will be great…
“But now all is to be changed. All the pleasing illusions which made power gentle and obedience liberal, which harmonized the different shades of life, and which, by a bland assimilation, incorporated into politics the sentiments which beautify and soften private society, are to be dissolved by this new conquering empire of light and reason. All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the superadded ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns and the understanding ratifies as necessary to cover the defects of our naked, shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.”
In Twilight of the Idols, published in 1888 and one of his last books, the post-Enlightenment philosopher and Modernity-skeptic political theorist Friedrich Nietzsche wrote a passage entitled “Whispered to the conservatives:”
“What was not known formerly, what is known, what might be known, today: a reversion, a return in any sense or degree is simply not possible. We physiologists know that. Yet all priests and moralists have believed the opposite–they wanted to take mankind back, to screw it back, to a former measure of virtue…Even the politicians have aped the preachers of virtue at this point: today too there are still parties whose dream it is that all things might walk backwards like crabs. But no one is free to be a crab. Nothing avails: one must go forward–step by step further into decadence (that is my definition of modern ‘progress’). One can check this development and thus dam up degeneration, gather it and make it more vehement and sudden: one can do no more.”
Finally the devoutly-Catholic William F. Buckley, in a fascinating agreement with Nietzsche about his historical situation, said that a conservative journalist in his mold “stands athwart history, yelling Stop…” Actually, he said that in his “Mission Statement” for the National Review.
If, as Gerard Alexander says, Liberals are tempted to assume the self-evidence of the proofs for their argument (and thereby the ignorance or excessively-bounded rationality of the Conservatives who oppose them), Conservatives seem to have a sense that they will inevitably lose the argument, somehow. This creates, at a minimum, a sense of wistfulness: It’s interesting to consider the essential fatalism Buckley took towards the key conservative social issues of opposition to abortion and homosexuality in a TV interview about 10 years ago.
The searing eloquence of Edmund Burke, the terse, sweeping lucidity of Friedrich Nietzche, the almost cheerful programmatic noble nihilism of William F. Buckley who is at least trying to halt the pounding surf of “History”…There is an unabashed Absurdist fortitude to these Conservative intellectuals, who champion a social order which they believe is fragile, maybe even dying. The willingness to live with this Absurdist form of discreet opposition to political change is missing from the contemporary Conservative movement.
The Liberal Ironist can draw a contrast between Liberals and Conservatives which makes them more-incommensurable than exclusive: A Liberal is concerned about promoting a certain standard of living and the capacity to do something with it; a Conservative is concerned with promoting the good life. Liberals have an easy time making fact- and logic-based political arguments because their political arguments are more-often exclusively-materialistic in their concerns. This leads to a managerial approach to politics as opposed to one concerned fundamentally with producing a certain type of citizen. As their education often doesn’t provide a vocabulary which would allow them to express their concern that a certain frame of mind is more-fundamental than a guaranteed standard of bodily health, Conservatives lose interest in the material arguments, which leads some Liberals to think of them as ignorant, which leads some Conservatives to become angry. Rinse and repeat.
Actually, the Liberal Ironist doesn’t want to rinse and repeat; he wants to see a Conservative vocabulary which is neither embarrassed by its relative lack of material facts nor unwilling to address whether they think those material facts are the point of the issue. History isn’t marching anywhere; the World isn’t simply changing from a Conservative one to a Liberal one. Changing circumstances refocus the political trade-offs between securing a certain standard of living and promoting the (moral or virtuous) good life. Conservatives literally need to come to terms with the qualities of character they are trying to protect, then we Liberals and Conservatives will gain the immense benefit of knowing when we are talking past each other and why. The Liberal Ironist has a theory that the Tea Party movement has emerged as a result of the obsolescence, for whatever reason, of the Christian Right’s vocabulary for politics.