Blogger Andrew Sullivan wrote the following of the conservatism prescribed by the 20th century political philosopher Michael Oakeshott (whose own conservatism is derived directly from that of arguably the very first conservative, Edmund Burke): “…Oakeshott requires us to systematically discard programmes and ideologies and view each new situation sui generis [as unique]. Change should only ever be incremental and evolutionary. Oakeshott viewed society as resembling language: it is learned gradually and without us really realising it, and it evolves unconsciously, and for ever.” (…) “…a true conservative – who is, above all, an anti-ideologue – will often be attacked for alleged inconsistency, for changing positions, for promising change but not a radical break with the past, for pursuing two objectives – like liberty and authority, or change and continuity – that seem to all ideologues as completely contradictory.”
This, while it may seem alien to us in America, is far from an illegitimate characterization of conservatism. Oakeshott viewed conservatism—as I, a self-identifying conservative, do—as primarily a disposition, a lens through which to view the world and evaluate it. These characterizations ring true across the globe—look at conservative parties leading major European democracies; the head-on-shoulders pragmatic policies of leaders like Angela Merkel and David Cameron are accurately described by the Oakeshottian/Burkean analysis above.
With this in mind, recall the types of accusations thrown around in G.O.P. primary campaigns. It is frequently the charge from radical populist right-wingers like Ted Cruz and others that one or the other candidate is “not a real conservative.” What, then, is the type of conservatism they’re talking about? It’s not actually any kind of conservatism at all. It’s something more like a three-way unholy union between a sort of hardline traditionalism that rejects basic civil liberties for LGBTQ+ individuals on a religious basis, a sort of Ayn Rand-ish libertarianism that would deny the state the ability to provide for basic rights like healthcare, and a feverish nationalist xenophobia which would build walls, physical and otherwise, to keep out the very job-seekers and refugees whose presence has built America into the great and diverse nation it is today. These radical ideologies are not only not conservative; they are actually antithetical to the conservative disposition.
So what does this mean for the G.O.P.? I think it explains the phenomenon that occurred last week at the Iowa Caucuses: Marco Rubio, who is certainly more of an Oakeshottian conservative (although not really one at all; the true conservatives in America are Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton) than Cruz or Trump, finished third, behind those two, and is now the darling of the G.O.P. establishment. They see a “moderate” conservative, who aligns with the candidates toted by the G.O.P. for the last ten years: McCain, Romney, etc. The problem is that these candidates fail to win general elections because they cannot mobilize the radicalized base of the party. Rubio will lose in the general for the same reason, and reset the cycle once more.
It just might be, therefore, that a reckless, radical right-wing presidential candidate is just what American conservatism needs. That candidate would lose the general, and barring that, would certainly achieve little as president (no radical would). This could conceivably lead to a massive soul-searching and ideological upheaval similar to what we saw from Democrats pre-F.D.R. years.
In order for the Republican party to move past the woes, ideological and otherwise, with which it has been beset since essentially the Reagan years to experience, this kind of trial by fire could be the best possible thing. And out of the ashes might rise a new American conservatism, perhaps by necessity more compatible with the 21st century.
“So why,” readers may ask, “should I, a bleeding-heart liberal college student, care about the status of conservatism in America?”
For two reasons: 1. Read again Oakeshott’s prescription for conservatism. Maybe you, as I did, will discover you are more conservative than you thought. 2. If you don’t think conservatism is an appropriate worldview, maybe it’s worth considering that progressivism needs a legitimate ideological counterpart to get anything done in America. Political systems cannot move forward or achieve progress unless some sort of legitimate, two-sided conversation is happening. Sanders and Clinton are currently undertaking the progressive vs. conservative debate. This intra-party running-to-the-middle is no platform on which to have this crucial conversation play out. It is corrosive to our democracy and our political soul.
If the G.O.P. will persist in its current debacle of right-wing populist debauchery, instead of resetting the warm-glass-of-milk McCain-Romney-Rubio candidacy cycle, I predict, admittedly optimistically, and hope, that its inevitable implosion will give rise to something new, positive, and more truly conservative in our political dominion.