James Piereson’s “Conservative Nation” Thesis, and the Problem of Liberal Inarticulation

Before launching into an account of the intellectual sources of the contemporary Conservative movement, the Liberal Ironist would like to address the question of what the Conservative movement is.  James Piereson‘s recent essay in The National Interest, a conservative bimonthly that tends to emphasize foreign policy issues, looks like a good place to start.

In “Conservative Nation” Piereson starts with the sort of radical claim which the Liberal Ironist imagines (with full empathy) many writing in popular journals feel a slight but abiding desire to produce:

“Conservatives have in this way created their own ‘nation’ within the nation, replete with its own culture, institutions and prominent personalities. In past generations, class, ethnic, religious and regional cultures have placed their stamps on parties and cause-oriented movements. Rarely has a philosophical orientation in politics been able to shape a unique culture. This is what allows conservatives to span boundaries and borders—be they social or geographical.”

This idea of conservatives constituting a “‘nation’ within the nation” has a certain plausibility to the Liberal Ironist for 2 reasons:

1.) As Piereson claims, there really isn’t a good analogue for the American Conservative movement in most other Western countries.  The idea of something like the popular support base of the Republican Party is difficult to imagine for one of Europe’s parties of the right.

2.) Partly an outgrowth of the previous, many remark (and Liberals lament) that Conservatives tend to approach politics with a greater zeal than Liberals–let-alone Democrats–do.

Earlier in his essay, though, Piereson made a similar though milder observation.  This more-modest claim was far more-threatening to Liberals who wish for their politics to have a proud following:

“…David Brooks has observed that conservatives differ from other political sets in their apparent preoccupation with books, ideas and a handful of influential authors. One rarely hears of liberal groups discussing major works written by the intellectual architects of the welfare state, such as John Dewey, Herbert Croly or John Rawls, or sponsoring programs in honor of leading figures like John Maynard Keynes or John Kenneth Galbraith. One would be hard-pressed to identify an influential book or essay that sets forth the principles of contemporary liberalism as they relate to feminism, multiculturalism, diversity or economic planning…”

This passage, not just invoking David Brooks but also echoing a distinction acknowledged elsewhere by Liberals, is more important and revealing than the broader claim about a Conservative subculture: This passage vindicates the importance of public intellectuals for setting a political agenda.  Liberals need to find their philosophers.  This is not the first time I’ve heard this message; back in 2005 Paul Starobin, an essayist for National Journal, asserted that “(t)he Democrats need to find their philosophers.”  He made this claim in the course of a long contrast between “essentialism” and “contextualism.”  “Essentialism,” as Starobin characterized it, referred to a doctrine of transcendental moral issues at stake in the political issues of our or just about any time.  “Contextualism” is a more-Burkean approach to political theory, the idea that very big developments (Starobin specifically offered the French Revolution and the Civil War as examples) were not the work of History or of Divine Providence but of imprudent policy choices by contending interest groups.  Starobin cited the President George W. Bush’s recent State of the Union Address as an indication that Bush (a champion of both the Neoconservatives and the Christian Right) is an essentialist.  Democrats who criticized the President’s foreign policy for its tone-deafness, alienation of allies and consistent helplessness in the face of contingencies and foreign “blowback,” Starobin asserted, were non-self-aware contextualists.

The idea that we Liberals don’t have a popularized intellectual tradition has a certain plausibility, not because there aren’t Liberal and Leftist public intellectuals–there are, as there long have been–but because we tend not to invoke a single canon of political theory, and even our plausible public intellectuals lack a binding center.  Thomas Friedman would be a Liberal and Noam Chomsky a Left public intellectual–and now the problem is already clear, since these two are inevitably antagonistic on questions like globalization and US foreign policy, political questions of central importance.  Friedman and Paul Krugman (Is it indicative of my own horizons or simply the New York Times profound influence that I’m gravitating towards its op-ed writers?) are compatible as Liberals with a managerial approach to globalization, but “we” lost the always-interesting and forceful Christopher Hitchens to Neoconservatism (due to his Leftist hostility towards religion, strangely-enough) once Bush unveiled his plans for gun-point social engineering in Iraq.

For Liberals to build a larger political base we have to find our place in academic political theory and hone a simple means of expressing its message to the public.  If that sounds both daunting and unnecessary, remember that the Conservative movement has done this–and that Conservatives enjoy a 2-to-1 advantage in ideological identification in a Gallup Poll taken a year ago.  A political theory canon that can serve as a point of reference would inspire greater confidence among Liberals to self-identify (maybe making more of our Thomas Friedmans into Paul Krugmans) and give us a way of discussing ideas so that they can “get into the water.”  When Glenn Beck tells his audience to read F. A. Hayek‘s The Road to Serfdom, Keith Olbermann should have a book to recommend us in retort (and by “a book” I mean anything but A Theory of Justice).

As a first foray into “finding our philosophers,” I say we Liberals make a daring philosophical power play and claim Edmund Burke for one of our own.  “The betrayal of the first Conservative” is a polemical theme, but it highlights the ideological, populist and at times ostentatious (read: very-1960s) animus of guiding lights in contemporary Conservatism, and the passionate late-18th century British defender of both tradition and rights can help to cast an ill-informed mistrust of government and contempt for normal politics in a different light.  These should be principled Liberal concerns.


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