It Has That Nixon/Kennedy Smell To It


The League hosting a debate between Dan Riehl and Conor Friedersdorf, moderated by Scott H. Payne. A partial transcript is available at Federalist Paupers.

Robert Stacy McCain

I’m listening to the debate now and a big part the problem is, Conor wants to define conservatism as “what I like,” or, “a philosophy espoused by writers I like.” He cannot separate his admiration of, inter alia, Andrew Sullivan from his own self-conception as “conservative.” It’s fan-boy politics.

Sully is a student of Oakeshott, therefore Conor name-checks Oakeshott. Dreher constantly invokes Russell Kirk, therefore Conor name-checks Kirk. It’s as if Conor has been studying his pledge book in preparation for initiation into a fraternity.

Why is it that none of these “dissident” conservatives can be bothered to read Hayek or Mises? Why do they never seem to take any interest in the basic questions of political economy and limited government? Why must they seek out this conservatism that, they assert, transcends mere politics — a conservatism of “temperament,” as Conor calls it?

Dan Riehl on McCain and the debate:

But what I think in that regard is that many are people who want to catch the latest popular, or even faddish wave by making conservatism whatever they want it to be to some degree. Conor said he didn’t want there to be a conservative movement. He just wanted it to turn into some great mass of thinking that included everyone – or something to that effect.

Sounds pretty righteous to me, dude!

Conor Friedersdorf on the debate and McCain

Wait, I’m confused. Isn’t behaving as if I’m pledging a fraternity the Robert Stacy McCain test for being a real American? Just a few weeks ago, I was told the cool kids wake up at 6:30 am on the porch of the ATO house. Now I’m being mocked for being a good pledge?

I won’t take offense, since it’s transparently dense to think that the only reason anyone would name check Russel Kirk in a conversation about conservative philosophy is because Rod Dreher invokes him. Or let’s talk about Michael Oakeshott. Political theory books deem him one of the most important conservative philosophers of the 20th Century. He was the guest of honor at National Review’s 20th anniversary celebration. But anyone who invokes his name as one among many diverse thinkers in a centuries old tradition? Well, they must just be doing it to mimic Andrew Sullivan.

RSM goes on to ask, “Why is it that none of these ‘dissident’ conservatives can be bothered to read Hayek or Mises?” For heaven’s sake, I haven’t merely read Hayek, I’ve read him four times, and written a white paper for The Claremont Institute that invokes him in every section. Of course, it’s really more fair to call him a classical liberal, seeing as how that’s what he called himself, going so far as to write an essay called “Why I am Not a Conservative.” (Given the concessions he made to the idea of social welfare I wouldn’t be surprised if Mark Levin called him a socialist.) Hayek made a powerful case against socialism, didn’t attend Harvard, and isn’t invoked by the people who most rankle Robert Stacy McCain, thus he becomes one of the two philosophers it’s okay to cite when trying to define conservatism. Or something.

Riehl again

In our recent debate, Conor invoked some of the more frivolous boilerplate Leftist talking points to defend his positions: that hundreds of thousands of innocents died in Iraq due to Bush’s war; that America shouldn’t be off building “empire” around the world, including in Iraq; and that military intervention didn’t work as a means of altering a nation.

These are so old, sub par and mostly debunked, I was amazed that he would even employ them. I refused to let him get away with it. By the time we finished that segment, Conor went from hundreds of thousands, to tens of thousands, to scrambling for Google to support his claim. I told him to try “end the war dot com”. Ultimately, Conor admitted he didn’t know at all and asked me if I knew, at which point I reminded him it wasn’t my argument.

On Bush’s “empire building”, I pointed out the definition of “empire,” and Conor conceded Iraq wasn’t quite that. I also pointed out that, while far from perfect, democracy in Iraq has taken root and seems to be growing, so how is it he can insist such efforts can not work. At that point he started invoking Abu Ghraib.

E.D. Kain

I think the problem with defining “Empire” in a more classic sense of the word is that previously – during past empires – there was no such thing as globalization.  Even under the British colonial empire globalization was essentially occurring only in those places that British empire (and other European empires) had reached.  Essentially even under Rome, the purpose of territorial expansion was the fact that it was a necessary prerequisite to economic expansion.

We can no longer define empire this way.  Nor do we need to come up with a new word to describe what has inevitably the same results.  America doesn’t necessarily need territorial expansion – indeed, it could very well be a hindrance, and an entirely unnecessary cost – to achieve economic expansion.  Sometimes we feel that where vital economic interests are concerned we ought to maybe run a coup or topple a regime and chalk it up to national security.  But for the most part our empire is one that has developed along economic lines, underpinned by an extraordinarily effective and expensive military.

In every other sense save perhaps the “conquer and colonize” we are imperial, reaping even more effectively the economic benefits of our expansion than any empire that came before us.  America has made of empire an art form.

John Schwenkler

I haven’t found the time to listen to the Riehl-Friedersdorf-Payne Skypecast on the future of conservatism, but if Dan Riehl really did say that the defining character of a conservative is favoring “an economy free of government interference”,* then Conor’s frustration is entirely appropriate. As even the most amateurish historian of the American conservative movement should be able to tell you, the intellectual mashup that we call by the “c”-word was the consequence of an unlikely union between economic and political libertarians on one side and social and cultural traditionalists on the other; and the people who formed it had no illusions about the extent to which these two sides differed. (Hence Conor helpfully reminds us that Hayek, whom Stacy McCain invokes as someone whom “dissident” conservatives ought to be reading, actually wrote an essay titled “Why I Am Not a Conservative” (emphasis mine).) More than anything else, it was the threat of international communism (the History which, in Buckley’s famous formula, we were supposed to stand athwart) that made this alliance possible, by providing a common enemy against which men and women from both camps could define themselves and so conveniently align their quite different goals. Now, absent such a common enemy, the old alliance has fractured, and all that is left for those who wish to hold it together in anything like its original form is to replace the spectre of Buckley’s “History” with – well, you know…

EARLIER: Load Up On Guns, Bring Your Friends…

UPDATE: John Triolo

UPDATE #2: Dan Riehl on Schwenkler:

The point I was making was that, one could take the conservative notion of a free market to an extreme to where one argued there should be no government intervention at all. I also pointed out how foolish it would be, but said it would be hard to say the position wasn’t a “conservative” one in a broad sense, albeit extreme. All much theoretical crap takes is for someone to write the book. It’s lost on Conor that that’s precisely what Dreher has done. It doesn’t make it worth considering as a practical political position. The ultimate point was that between no intervention and total control there were a host of positions an honest group of conservatives might come together around, but now we were leaving the realm of the theoretical to enter the political debate. And if anyone was being asked to not identify as conservative, it is politically, not theoretically


Such a position would indeed be foolish and extreme, but in fact it is not at all hard to say that it would not be conservative in any significant sense. Depending of course on how one defines intervention in the market – as things stand, the “conservative” view is that funneling hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars annually into the military-industrial complex does not count as such an intervention, but of course such a claim has no basis at all in principle – the position Riehl is hard-pressed to identify as unconservative would be best describable as anarchy, which of course would not be an especially conservative state of affairs at all. Moreover, what is clearly overlooked in such an equation of free markets with freedom from government intervention is the fact that real freedom requires oversight and intervention, though perhaps of different sorts than the ones we usually see.

H.C. Johns:

If the meaning of “conservative” is to be explicitly political, and any variance from that political definition is duplicitous, then the door is closed, not only to political reform, but also to the broader cultural sensibility  that supposedly underpins the political dimension.  That kind of small “c” conservatism, the conservatism that calls our attention to the small inescapable givens of life, must of necessity have a larger field than politics. This is because there is no simple political answer to the questions we face daily, be it how we treat ourselves, our families, our surroundings, our traditions, or those we are in community with.  Conservatism at its best is about how we square these questions with the big picture, but denying their complexity by over-politicizing them them drains the politics of ideas and the ideas of vibrancy.  This all but guarantees a hidebound ideology, not a vital force in the culture.


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One response to “It Has That Nixon/Kennedy Smell To It

  1. Pingback: What We’ve Built This Weekend « Around The Sphere

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