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November 15, 2006

Re: Email from Montana

[Email response to Email from Montana, 11/15/2006]

Andrew -

I find the right’s own puzzlement about the current state of the right to not be so puzzling.  It seems to me the fundamental tenets of conservatism create the very contradictions that are its own undoing.  Recalling Russell Kirk, as summarized by the Heritage Foundation:

Kirk described six basic “canons” or principles of conservatism:

• A divine intent, as well as personal conscience, rules society;
• Traditional life is filled with variety and mystery while most radical systems are characterized by a narrowing uniformity;
• Civilized society requires orders and classes;
• Property and freedom are inseparably connected;
• Man must control his will and his appetite, knowing that he is governed more by emotion than by reason; and
• Society must alter slowly.

Promotion of divine intent (#1) and a hierarchical ordering of society (#3) leads by definition to authoritarianism (as those with leadership power will be likely to perceive themselves as closer to that intent and will be telling others what to do and think) which runs in counterposition to conscience (#1) and emotion (#5) and which is exacerbated by materialism(#4 -- especially in today’s free-market fundamentalist view of that canon).  An unrealistic utopian ideal of how society should evolve -- that man will control his appetites (#4) and society will evolve slowly (#6) -- which like any such utopian ideal, is as bound to fail as Karl Marx’s utopian claim to know how society should evolve.

Many of these may fine as personal creeds, but have limited applicability to government and governing.

Conservatism’s guiding principles were laid down in an intellectual pursuit of a justifying structure, but were formulated to work from the perspective of an oppressed outsider critiquing the rest the world.  It was not set up as governing mechanism.  By reinforcing the group’s identity and supporting the hierarchical structure (“carrying the water” as Rush Limbaugh put it recently), it builds an effective insurgency but it doesn’t have the means for handling power responsibly because those forces for accumulating power tend to be much stronger and have momentum than the countervailing powers (that is, assuming that most people in power will be able to “control his will and his appetite”).  In fact, just the opposite -- it creates an authoritarian structure of perceived superiority which when it has power will naturally continue to accumulate them as fast as possible.

You can see the ignorance of this in Roy Blunt's speech at the Heritage Foundation last week, in which he unabashedly promoted the idea of going back to conservatism's roots and why they got elected in 1994, without recognizing that the very ethical and other sins he identified in today’s Republican party were sown as soon as they took power in 1994: seizing the reins of power to implement the “K Street Project”, a desire to use the power they now had to implement what they “knew” was right and to exclude the minority (actually just barely a minority) of Democrats, representing almost 50% of the country, from any meaningful participation in our democracy.

Finally, this sense of superiority and insider-outsider mentality that only conservatives know what’s right and are oppressed, does not lead to a culture of reflection but does lead to a culture of exclusion and bigotry.

So, the roots of movement conservatism contain the seeds of its own destructive failings because the consequences of following those principles do not fulfill their intentions.

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