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Conservatism in four parts

"Conservatism in four parts" Continued...

Let me end with a tribute to the political genius of Ronald Reagan. Reagan appealed, and still does appeal, to all four heads. (It is slightly anachronistic to ask whether Reagan was a neoconservative, but the ideas are old, even if the label is new, so I hope this anachronism will be overlooked.)

Anyway, let’s take each head of the four-headed conservative coalition and see whether or not Reagan could pass as a legitimate member of each one. Traditionalism? He was a friend of William F. Buckley Jr., the founder of National Review. Check. Neoconservatism? “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Check. Libertarianism? Think Reaganomics. Check. And, finally, the religious right? Look at Paul Kengor’s God and Ronald Reagan: A Spiritual Life. Check.

Now you may resist the notion that Reagan was really part of one head or another, but you have to ask yourself your reason for resisting the claim. I imagine that it’s either because (1) you don’t like that head of conservatism or because (2) you don’t think that Reagan was sufficiently dedicated to your particular cause. So, e.g., you don’t want to think of Reagan as part of the religious right, because you find the religious right disagreeable, or, e.g., Reagan wasn’t sufficiently libertarian for you. He didn’t go to church enough, or his economic policies were actually Keynesian, etc.

But think about what his opponents said about him! They certainly did not think that he was a progressive who was sheepish about rights and a big government taxer who loathed religious faith. Reagan was enough of a believer in each part of the conservative coalition to qualify as a member, but never so zealously dedicated to one cause at the expense of all the rest. That makes dedicated enthusiasts of one head of the coalition understandably skeptical of various aspects of Reagan’s presidency. But that doesn’t mean that Reagan belonged anywhere else.

And I don’t think Reagan was playing a role; I think he was genuinely a member of each. If so, then liberals have it all wrong. Reagan wasn’t dumb. He was a genius. He didn’t have just one head; he had four.

Who wants to be hornswoggled?

I want to add to Ceaser’s theory by proposing that there’s an intellectual attitude that all four heads share; there’s something on which they all agree.

There’s a common intellectual commitment: a deep suspicion of what I’ll call long-term extrapolation. By long-term extrapolation I mean taking discrete, finite data points and extending them either logically, in the here and now, or chronologically, into the past or the present. Progressivism has, I think, a great fondness for long-term extrapolation. Even the name of the movement suggests that there’s a progress to be achieved, based on what we know now, and can know about the future. Conservatism, by contrast, is more skeptical about the experts peering into their crystal balls and telling us what is going to take place in the future, took place in the past, or should occur now. Don’t buy it? Let’s look at three examples.

But first let me offer an explanation for why I think this analysis is important. Conservatives, libertarians, et al. regularly dismiss what the experts have to say, but it’s rhetorically difficult to challenge the experts. After all, how can a politician confront the scientists, or a businessman the economists? Even worse, it may be all too easy for the casual observer to conclude that the conservative coalition is largely anti-intellectual, concerned not so much about the truth as they are concerned to defend their dogma, either secular or religious. In fact, some conservatives support this view by their blatant anti-intellectual rhetoric or by rhetoric that could be taken as such.

The four heads ought to offer a unanimous response to this challenge: Conservatives aren’t anti-intellectual. They just don’t want the country to be hornswoggled by someone who claims to know something but does not actually know anything at all. The controversy isn’t a question about particular, commonly accepted facts but is instead about whether the further claims are justified by the data. What’s often in question is whether or not we can conclude something in addition to the comparatively small amount of information that we actually have. Progressives are more optimistic about our abilities to do so; conservatives are more skeptical. Skepticism by itself isn’t anti-intellectual; caution and care over what we believe is surely a hallmark of an educated mind, not evidence against it.

Anyway, though “we don’t want to be hornswoggled” probably isn’t a winning campaign slogan, that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. After all, who wants to be hornswoggled?

Reprinted with permission of James E. Bruce. © 2013. All rights reserved.


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