Saturday, November 29, 2008

Scottish philosopher offers advice for U.S. social conservatives

A letter of advice to U.S. social conservatives comes to us from Prof. John Haldane, an analytic Thomist from the University of St Andrews. In his Letter to America on the Future of Social Conservatism, published at The Public Discourse, he warns social conservatives not to deceive themselves that Republican failures were not a cause behind their recent defeat in the election. Counseling social conservatives to work within both parties, his letter suggests weaknesses in the political manifestations of American social conservatism but is lamentably weak on specifics.

Haldane writes:
Some American conservative commentators have been eager to press the idea that rather than the Democrats winning the White House election on the strength of their candidates and policies, the Republicans lost the contest because of the defects of the McCain-Palin campaign. While this view has the comforting advantage of simply requiring a better communicator of unchanged positions in order to win the next election, such an idea is distorted to the point of self-deception. Viewed from afar, and I would think that viewed from nearby through a clear glass in broad daylight, it is apparent that voters chose the Democratic ticket on the basis of preferred policies. Voters were tired of what they regarded as a discredited administration led by a confused and ineffective executive that had drawn them into an unnecessary and costly war while yet neglecting domestic needs.

The war in Iraq is one area where Haldane sees conservatives as having supported a bad policy to the detriment of both the common good and their own political success.

He also strikes against the partisan habits of American politics:

Today we face a danger of oversimplifying the structure of political thought to the point of dividing policies between left and right, and then associating these positions with particular political parties. In truth, one may be a social welfarist or socialist and a moral conservative, or equally a free-marketeer or classical liberal and a moral radical: pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, and aggressively secular.

He proposes as a model of complex political engagement the philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe, who criticized capitalism and opposed war crimes and usury while being steadfastly pro-life.

“While it would be wrong to abandon the political parties, it would be equally mistaken to side with one of them,” Haldane continues, adding “Those within a chosen party whose primary interest is pursuing electoral victory may prove fiercer enemies of one’s moral position than political opponents in other parties.”

All well and good. Republican social conservatives must account for, and correct, the ways in which the GOP near-monopoly on their issues has damaged their cause. What’s more, non-partisan social conservatism is necessary for its success.

However, as is common in essays against partisanship, there are considerable structural obstacles to Haldane’s recommended tactics.

There is a definite tendency towards monoculture within U.S. political parties particularly. Advancing within a party requires advancing the causes of fellow partisans on other issues. The American manner of coalition-building has helped produce a situation where most political pro-lifers are military hawks and proponents of the free market while economic progressives reliably preach moral liberalism, if not radicalism.

( An American pro-lifer can only with surprise observe the considerable intra-party debate in the UK Parliament in response to the proposed Human Embryology and Fertilization Bill. Even though its opponents were utterly defeated, they certainly made their voices heard. )

Perhaps as a reflection of coalition monoculture, American pro-life organizations are reliably partisan. Worse, these ill effects are repeated in the media. Aside from Nat Hentoff, has the United States any other pro-life left-wing columnist?

As Ross Douthat has argued, the thorough radicalism of Roe v. Wade removed the possibility of compromise on abortion in the United States, a compromise which under a different legal regime could be reached both between and within parties. Ideological activists filter out any liberal-minded social conservatives in the Democratic Party, while the remote possibility of overturning Roe has spared pro-life Republicans from the hard work of persuasion and practical action.

The situation is even worse on gay rights, where socially conservative Democrats face the wrath of those with the free time and the disposable income for political influence.

What essays like Haldane's require are plausible recommendations suggesting how these obstacles are to be overcome and how social conservatism can be advanced in the Democrats without weakening it in the Republicans, especially in the face of an elite and mass culture largely hostile to their cause.

Haldane offers other criticisms, both suggesting that Republicans’ prosecution of Bill Clinton for perjury helped degrade standards of public discourse and counseling Republicans from engaging in personal attacks on Obama.

Perplexingly, he claims opponents of Sen. McCain and Gov. Palin did not tend to depict them as bad people. It is obvious that he missed the many frivolous and debasing rumors spread by Democratic partisans targeting Palin, to the point that more reasonable criticisms of the vice-presidential pick were crowded out.

While it is likely that Haldane’s misunderstanding of Palin’s candidacy makes for his undue optimism about bi-partisan social conservative efforts, his letter deserves to be read by any concerned social conservative.

(Found via Patrick Deneen, who writes his own thoughtful comments)


W.LindsayWheeler said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
tanyaa said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.