Sullivan’s Travels

by zunguzungu

I occasionally read Andrew Sullivan because he’s a smart conservative, and there are so few of those in the United States. For so many conservatives, if I may generalize, conservative “principles” are just majoritarian identity politics dressed up in pseudo-intellectual costuming. This is not to say that the same is not often true of liberals, of course; it is, of many, who define “majoritarian“ in slightly different ways but still observe the same logic. We are a lazy people, we Americans, and with the courage of our conviction that we are the smartest and most important people in the world, we boldly stride forth to meet every intellectual challenge with the most personally emotionally satisfying answer we have to it. Perhaps that’s true of people everywhere, but I would suggest that we bring a certain talent to the endeavor.

It would be, however, pernicious to pretend that there is any kind of parity to ways in which liberal/conservative or left/right do this, though. Which is why its worth noting how mainstream it is on the right to live in a non-reality based community, whereas most of the technocrats live in the liberal center: political philosophy simply has no necessary correlation to ideology. There are all sorts of historical and political reasons why it’s the right that engages in the most wild fabrication and mystification these days, but it was not always so and need not always be so.

Which why I was struck by this bit of silliness from Sullivan yesterday, where in talking about Obama’s “big government” approach to the financial crisis (ostensibly in support of a conventionally odious column by David Brooks), he wrote that:

I can see how easy it was for the FNC-RNC to wheel out their exhausted tropes of anti-government rhetoric and for Paul Krugman, say, to wheel out his own pro-government radicalism…I happen to think that Krugman has much more of a case right now, because the circumstances almost require the drastic measures he favors. But, yes, the comfort zone of all these advocates is well within the abstract and kabuki world of “freedom or tyranny,” more government or less.

He wants to argue that left and right alike have their ideological extremists. And they do. But while the radical leftists have little or no real public standing, snake oil salesmen like Palin, Limbaugh, and Beck actually do run the republican party. Which is why equating Krugman — apparently the face of public liberalism — with the Republican National Committee is an egregious category error. Economists debate the things economists debate, and yes, you can place Krugman in a certain place within the ideological spectrum that is taken to define the ongoing argument between Keynesians and Free Marketers. But while Krugman not only has an argument, a Nobel in Economics, and all sorts of empirical evidence from recent events to bear out his Keynesian account of economic theory, the RNC has little other than sideshows, mendacity, and a zealous commitment to the idea that Markets Will Save US. Which is why calling Krugman a mirror-image to conservatives in the RNC, as if he’s a wild “more government” zealot driven by an abiding Leninistic love of state power, is not only ignorant but actively pernicious: it makes it seem like “moderates” however defined (and I suspect that he defines them as “Andrew Sullivan”), are the only people not blinded by ideology.

After all, “ideology” is something only those other guys have, right? And if you imagine that the far left and right (as you define them) are blinded by ideology, and if your sense of political possibility is so warped that someone like Krugman appears to be a wild pro-government leftist, then it suddenly become reasonable to regard a very highly regarded economist whose economic theories are  (in contrast to the mainstream of economic theory) not directly contradicted by recent events as blinded by the “abstract and kabuki world” of “more government.”

As usual, though, what Sullivan is really trying to do is carve out a niche as anti-Palinite real conservative. As he writes:

This administration’s actions are defensible for the large part from the perspective of the actual circumstances we face: a collapse of the extreme free market capitalism of the last twenty years and the implosion of a neo-imperial post-Cold War foreign policy in the mountains of Afghanistan and the deserts of Mesopotamia. To recognize this, and to defend it from ideological attacks, is, in my view, the real conservative position today.

But one difference between the terms “conservative” and “liberal” is that while the former describes an tactical political attitude relative to a society assumed to be in flux — less revolution and more status quo, originally — the latter actually describes a coherent worldview of where the world should be going. “Liberalism” is an actual political philosophy, after all, and a book like Paul Krugman’s Conscience of a Liberal describes the ways, as he sees it, that reality demonstrates the functional fitness of that philosophy to our goals and principles as a society.

In short, say what you want about the tenets of Keynesian liberalism, dude, at least its an ethos. “Conservativism” is not, and making them into mirror images of each other is another kind of category error. Which is not to say that conservatives like Sullivan don’t have a political philosophy. They do; everyone has an ideology, even if you want to pretty it up by calling it a political philosophy. But while “liberal” helpfully describes both the politics and the philosophy behind it for someone like Krugman, “conservative” only describes the politics of someone like Sullivan or David Brooks. And while they might believe in less government intervention than Krugman in pursuit of their visions of an ideal society (a political difference), those actual visions of what an ideal society will actually look like tend to be very different from each other, precisely because their underlying political philosophies are different. Sullivan’s is (like Krugman‘s) a basically liberal vision of a market society dominated by individual liberty and the enshrinement of free choice as the highest good. That’s actually what wild ideological liberals like Adam Smith believed, you know? In this sense, what Sullivan describes as a “conservative defense of liberalism” might be derived from a different constellation of influences and traditions than Krugman, but it’s still liberal in a way that Brooks is not and never has been. What drives people like Brooks — and I judge only from the things he writes — is something much more like the kind of political philosophy that liberalism was originally articulated as a critique of, the kind of naked power worship and antipathy for the weak that made a rising class of bourgeois capitalists redefine social good in terms of market logic in the first place, producing a political philosophy they called “liberalism.”