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Saturday, April 12, 2008
posted by Kyle Hampton | 12:06 PM | permalink
It’s always interesting when people try to define the conservative movement so as to make John McCain the quintessential conservative. Don’t get me wrong, at this point I see him as the best candidate available and will vote for him over the Democratic candidate or any independent. That being said, John McCain is at best a marginal conservative, and better classified as a moderate Republican. There’s nothing wrong with being those things, indeed McCain seems to have succeeded without a strong conservative identification, but conservative is just an inaccurate description of McCain.

Jonathan Rauch at the Atlantic makes the case that conservative really should mean traditional or incremental.

Burke is the father of modern conservatism, and still its wisest oracle. Tradition-minded but (contrary to stereotype) far from reactionary, he believed in balancing individual rights with social order. The best way to do that, for Burke, was by respecting long-standing customs and institutions while advancing toward liberty and equality. Society’s traditions, after all, embody an evolved collective wisdom that even (or especially) the smartest of individuals cannot hope to understand comprehensively, much less reinvent successfully.
In a sense, Rauch is correct. Conservative in its dictionary definition, and the way that he describes Burkean traditionalism, is slow to evolve and incremental in its change. By this standard, McCain does seem conservative. McCain is hesitant to upset the status quo in the federal government. He is not a crusader against big government and its excesses, but more concerned with political corruption (earmarks, McCain-Feingold). He is loathe to do anything dramatic (or, in my view, effective) on issues like immigration or marriage. McCain is generally content with the current state of the federal government and sees only tweaking at the edges as necessary.

However, Rauch’s arguments to the contrary, conservatism is really a misnomer for the modern conservative movement. Modern conservatism is more correctly viewed as classical liberalism. These are dynamic philosophies that are able to bring about the revolutionary changes that Rauch says are antithetical to conservatism. The marketplace, one of the foundations of conservatism/classical liberalism, is able to bring about dramatic changes to a society. Government, one of the obstacles to conservatism/classical liberalism, is generally resistant to change or is ineffective or clumsy in bringing it about.

Rauch places McCain at the center of conservatism because of his resistance to change:

And then there is McCain. As eclectic a reformer as he has been in the Senate, he has been consistent in his incrementalism. Though he was known to sound hot-headed on campaign-finance reform, his legislative work produced a reform that was mostly modest in its aims and that mostly attained them. He has been an old-fashioned budget balancer, not a newfangled supply-sider. He defends his global-warming efforts as gradualist and as modeled on emissions-trading systems that have already been tested. In the presidential primaries, he showed little interest in grandiose promises.
This concept of conservatism misunderstands what the aims of modern conservatism are. It is not about incremental change, but about empowering the individual, generally at the expense of the government. This is why McCain is viewed skeptically by conservatives. It is not that his reforms have been modest, but that his aims have been towards more government at the expense of individual freedom. If his reforms had modest but had been to remove government rather than expand government, I believe McCain would be more favorably viewed by conservatives.

Rauch’s article is also derogatory towards conservatives more generally.

Partly, however, it grew from narcissism: no less than their left-wing peers, right-wing Baby Boomers liked to suppose it was their destiny to reshape the world.
This imputation of motive is devious, not to mention disingenuous. This is the same type of equivalence that we saw in Barack Obama’s speech. Rev. Wright’s pronouncements of anti-Americanism and hatred for whites were the same as a private expression of fear after being haggled. Likewise the social upheaval caused by liberal ideology was the same as resistance to those ideas. “We were all radicals,” is what Rauch is trying to say. This is factually wrong and devious in its crass equation of two very different types of people and ideas.

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I will not vote for McCain just so he can kick me and other conservatives in the head, yet again.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at April 12, 2008 at 11:43 PM  

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