What Conservatives Believe

Andrew Sullivan is my blogfather; it was reading his original blog back in early February of 2002 that prompted me to start Shot In The Dark. 

I stopped reading Sully about the time that Gay Marriage became the Most Important Issue Ever to him. 

But a decidedly non-conservative friend of mine sent me this piece, in which Sullivan asks conservatives which of (what he deems, largely correctly I think, to be) the ten overarching first principles of conservatism to which they adhere.

He follows the piece with a poll asking for people to check off which of the principles they adhere to.  Of course, that’s way too simplistic – the deeper answers are much more interesting, I think.

So let’s try it both ways.  I took the poll.  And I’m going to try to go for the real answers, too:

SULLIVAN:  The conservative believes that there exists an enduring moral order. That order is made for man, and man is made for it: human nature is a constant, and moral truths are permanent. … A society in which men and women are governed by belief in an enduring moral order, by a strong sense of right and wrong, by personal convictions about justice and honor, will be a good society—whatever political machinery it may utilize; while a society in which men and women are morally adrift, ignorant of norms, and intent chiefly upon gratification of appetites, will be a bad society—no matter how many people vote and no matter how liberal its formal constitution may be.

  • MB: I don’t know how a conservative can claim to be a conservative without believing this in some sense.  This presupposes that a society “governed by belief in an enduring moral order, by a strong sense of right and wrong, by personal convictions about justice and honor” would be a small-l liberal democracy, of course; I can’t quite pin the concepts of “enduring moral order” with benevolent dictatorship, for example, together.

SULLIVAN:  The conservative adheres to custom, convention, and continuity. … Conservatives are champions of custom, convention, and continuity because they prefer the devil they know to the devil they don’t know.

  • MB: Personally?  No.  I’m not.  In terms of a conservative society? I think there’s something to this.  But if you know me, you know that beyond my religious beliefs and my conviction that the Bears are the greatest football team every to walk the planet, that’s totally not me.

SULLIVAN:  Conservatives believe in what may be called the principle of prescription. Conservatives sense that modern people are dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, able to see farther than their ancestors only because of the great stature of those who have preceded us in time. Therefore conservatives very often emphasize the importance of prescription—that is, of things established by immemorial usage, so that the mind of man runneth not to the contrary. There exist rights of which the chief sanction is their antiquity—including rights to property, often. … The individual is foolish, but the species is wise, Burke declared. In politics we do well to abide by precedent and precept and even prejudice, for the great mysterious incorporation of the human race has acquired a prescriptive wisdom far greater than any man’s petty private rationality.

  • MB: I agree, to a point.  But if one follows that to its logical conclusion, the next Thomas Jefferson or James Madison – and it seems reasonable that the human race hasn’t spent all of its eternal ration of genius – is pretty well hosed, right?

SULLIVAN:  Conservatives are guided by their principle of prudence. … Any public measure ought to be judged by its probable long-run consequences, not merely by temporary advantage or popularity. Liberals and radicals, the conservative says, are imprudent: for they dash at their objectives without giving much heed to the risk of new abuses worse than the evils they hope to sweep away. …

  • MB: This is absolutely true, to the point of stereotype.  The true conservative is ever mindful that unintended consequences bedevil all “top-down” attempts to perfect this world.

SULLIVAN:  The only true forms of equality are equality at the Last Judgment and equality before a just court of law; all other attempts at levelling must lead, at best, to social stagnation.

  • MB: This, again, is absolutely true. Humans must be equal in the eyes of the law (not just courts, but in legislation – but that’s one of the courts’ legitimate jobs); all attempts to make individuals equal to each other in terms of merit and potential by legal or social fiat is madness.

SULLIVAN:  Human nature suffers irremediably from certain grave faults, the conservatives know. Man being imperfect, no perfect social order ever can be created. … All that we reasonably can expect is a tolerably ordered, just, and free society, in which some evils, maladjustments, and suffering will continue to lurk. … The ideologues who promise the perfection of man and society have converted a great part of the twentieth-century world into a terrestrial hell.

  • MB: I’m not sure how anyone can read any history and disagree with this.

SULLIVAN:  Conservatives are persuaded that freedom and property are closely linked. Separate property from private possession, and Leviathan becomes master of all.

  • MB: Someone tell Cy Thao.  This is an absolute.  Property makes liberty tenable.

SULLIVAN:  Conservatives uphold voluntary community, quite as they oppose involuntary collectivism. … In a genuine community, the decisions most directly affecting the lives of citizens are made locally and voluntarily. … If, then, in the name of an abstract Democracy, the functions of community are transferred to distant political direction—why, real government by the consent of the governed gives way to a standardizing process hostile to freedom and human dignity.

  • MB: To a liberal, “it takes a village to raise a child” – a noxiously-authoritarian ideal.  To a conservative, society is “a free association of equals” – the very basis of a liberal (small-l) democracy. 

SULLIVAN:  The conservative perceives the need for prudent restraints upon power and upon human passions. … It is characteristic of the radical that he thinks of power as a force for good—so long as the power falls into his hands. … A just government maintains a healthy tension between the claims of authority and the claims of liberty.

  • MB: This one got me thinking; “Tension” is a good word.  Authoritarian absolutism is anathema to most of us; libertarian absolutism is naive at best.  I pull hard to the libertarian side (you can take guy out of the Party, but you can’t take…), but the need for prudent, reasonable authority creates a conflict.  And that conflict is an inherently good thing, and it is best that it remain constant; if we “settle” the question, one way or the other, it’ll be a bad thing.  The resolution should not be the goal; the argument should be eternal.

SULLIVAN:  Permanence and change must be recognized and reconciled in a vigorous society. The conservative is not opposed to social improvement, although he doubts whether there is any such force as a mystical Progress, with a Roman P, at work in the world. … He thinks that the liberal and the radical, blind to the just claims of Permanence, would endanger the heritage bequeathed to us, in an endeavor to hurry us into some dubious Terrestrial Paradise.

  • MB: It’s one of the great themes of the past 100 years.  And again, the conflict between the two should be the goal.  I think to most real conservatives it is; “conservatives” who don’t recognize change render their beliefs irrelevant, eventually – but permanence, especially in things like moral order, is what makes progress humanly tenable.

So I think I’ve got eight complete agreements, a “mostly” and a “continuity for ye, but not for me”. 

So leave a comment, already.

19 thoughts on “What Conservatives Believe

  1. Sullivan is on another one of his vacations. The questions were posted by one of his fill-in bloggers. I think Sullivan would have a difficult time affirming at least two of these principals.

  2. I suppose the fact that the piece was generally coherent and doesn’t make any reference to Sullivan’s “lifestyle choice” should have been a giveaway. 😉

    Just out of curiosity though, does anyone who considers themselves to be a conservative but ISN’T in academia or working for a media outlet (e.g. National Review, Weekly Standard, etc) bother trying to compare their beliefs to what Russell Kirk thought?

    Not trying to pick on Mitch here but this piece got me thinking again about something I noticed about American political movements in general and the blogosphere in particular that there is this divide between those of us (politically involved people/bloggers) who are in academia or the media and those who aren’t (those with “real jobs”). The former group seems to spend an awful lot of time talking about each other (what they’ve said or wrote, going on each others programs, blurbing each other’s books or articles) whereas the rest of us seem to be let them lead the debate on any number of topics.

    It’s almost as if the fact that they work for a college or a publication gives them a special status above most bloggers and we’ve just all decided to go along with it. Sullivan IMO is a prime example of someone who generally doesn’t write very well (he’s routinely mocked for his hysterics) but he’s on a lot of blogrolls because he used to work for TNR and now for Time (IIRC) and he gets invited to go on the shows of other media pundits. The Huffington Post got a lot of buzz in the MSM because it has celebrities posting (even though they don’t write particularly well or coherently).

    They’re sort of like the Paris Hiltons of the blogosphere – they haven’t earned any accolades for the quality of the work but they’re “famous for being famous (within the MSM)” and so they get a lot of attention paid to them by the rest of us.

    Sorry for the OT post but am I alone in thinking this?

  3. Three more lefty pundits who are frequently mentioned but in fact talentless hacks: Matt Yglesias, Kevin Drum, and Paul Krugman.

  4. Three more lefty pundits who are talentless hacks: Matt Yglesias, Kevin Drum, and Paul Krugman. Even lower on the list are Helen Thomas and Marianne Means.

  5. This article seems reasonable. I used to consider myself a center-right Republican, but now I’d say I’m a conservative who votes Republican. Whether I agree with them or not.

    And on international matters, todays conservatives are actually liberals by the old definition. We support the liberal socialist-leaning nation of Israel. Todays NRO has an article supporting the oppressed labor movement in Iran. And who on the American right doesn’t wish for Cuba to be a free nation.

  6. Thorley, just curious if you think that the lifestyle choices of Newt Gingrich or Rudy Giuliani would earn the same kind of sneer you have for Andrew Sullivan?

  7. Thorley, just curious if you think that the lifestyle choices of Newt Gingrich or Rudy Giuliani would earn the same kind of sneer you have for Andrew Sullivan?

    I kind of missed the part where either Gingrich or Giuliani have ever declared that adultery should be accepted and celebrated by society or (more to my point) have decided that they’re going to base their decision of whether to support or oppose a candidate based on whether they’re more or less likely to approve of their lifestyle choice.

    Most people understand that there’s a difference between someone doing something in private that they’re not proud of and someone doing something in private and deciding that they’re going to make that the focus of their public life as Sullivan has.

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  9. I am a big believer in “character counts”. I do like Gingrich and Giuliani two, but have reservations over their decesion making capabilities. Especially Newt.

  10. “Thorley, marrying one’s affair partner is not a private act.”

    How do you figure?

  11. Marriages, at the moment, are a matter of public record. One needs to get a license; the contract is publicly recorded.

  12. One of my friends opposes same sex marriage on the grounds that it would give public recognition to those relationships.

    Affairs may be private, but marriage is a public act. Even in religious ceremonies, the state garners a mention.

  13. Despite the overwhelming judgement in this blog that I am a LIBERAL! I am a conservative by these defintitions; I agree with 8 of these precepts and only disagree with one of them.

    Its what missing that is tellling:
    1) nowhere does Sullivan affirm the trememdous capacity for good inherent in the typical human (where is the flip side to “certain grave faults”?)
    2) Laws and rights are natural – not just the product of a Court of Law and God’s final judgement.
    3) Men need to be free of the tyranny and abuse of other men; groups, the powerful, and governments.

    Consider that many of the Founders would not pick these 10 and would, and did, name others upon which they based the Constitution and Declaration of Independence.

    Sullivan is one of the best, most rational and level-headed bloggers; conservative or otherwise. This does not mean (apparently) that he is the most articulate on philosophy, though.

  14. I’m “decidedly non-conservative” but I’m with Mitch on celebrating the tension between authority & liberty, as well as the conflict between permanence and change. Hey, two outta ten ain’t bad. 🙂

  15. Cold:

    Despite the overwhelming judgement in this blog

    That would imply that any of us thinks about you.


    two outta ten ain’t bad

    How DID your school do on the BSTs, anyway? 🙂

  16. Mitch:
    A typical level of discourse in your comment.
    But you are half right; while there is a reaction, somewhere on the continuum of emotion and thought, it is uusually far away from the thinking end. (e.g. typically a 2 sentence “you _________ Lefties should ________” )
    But as the lead spear-thumper of this ragged band, you obviously encourage that tone. You rarely join in any serious discussion, and your responses are either defensive (apparently if the post was too accurate) or you do the insult thing. But it is so much easier being right an drighteous putting out the first diatribe and not looking back (as you said yourself, 10% of your blogging time thinking is too much).

  17. Ha ha ha – The BST’s went the way of the dinosaurs, thanks for paying attention – but on the MCAs, my school did significantly better than its same-demographic counterparts!!! Thanks for asking. 😉

    And how does that relate to my glaring lack of conservative principles?

    Drink soon! 🙂

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