The best kind of conservative understands how fragile civilization is, that we're all walking through history on a thin sheet of ice which separates us from the barbarism that lies beneath. Occasionally a society breaks through the ice. We saw it in Germany in the thirties and the Balkans in the nineties. We saw it in Rwanda and Somalia. We saw a glimpse of it as parts of our society broke through in New Orleans. The best kind of conservative understands that you have to tread softly. That the ice is composed of religious, political, and economic traditions and institutions that keep barbarism walled out.
The barbarians aren't at the gates; they are us. We are all barbarians once the ice breaks and we plunge into what lies below. We won't think of ourselves that way, of course. We will think of ourselves as doing what it takes to survive, of protecting our property and our family. We're all potential Michael Corleones--idealists until our "interests" are threatened.
Conservatives tend to be pessimists about human nature. They see themselves as attuned to how precarious and insecure our civilized life is. They understand how important it is to shore up those traditions and institutions that prevent the awful rather than promote the good. Since they don't believe that politics can do much good, they are inclined to support only those policies that will do the least harm. Conservatives are profoundly distrustful of any top-down engineering projects. But they are not averse to modestly scaled progams that meet real needs. But they are allergic to an ambitioius Jacobinism that seeks to sweep away the old to make way for the new. This kind of conservatism is healthy and has an important role to play in our social life.
Liberals are more optimistic about human nature and believe in ambitious programs designed to improve the human condition. Liberalism is the spirit of modernity, and as such the spirit of progress. The Liberal spirit can point to amazing things that it accomplished over the past five hundred years. It can rightly claim credit for so many of the benefits we westerners have received and take for granted. It gave us the freedom, individuality, and the idea of universal human rights. It gave us a standard of living unimaginable to medievals. It gave us significant advances in biological sciences and medicine and with it longer, healthier lives. It gave us all manner of conveniences and entertainments with the clever development of new machines.
But we have paid a price. Its materialist cast has made us superficial and spiritually tone deaf. We have become hollow-chested, missing our middles. More and more people are feeling We have lots of choices, but few deep connections. Our lives are fragmented jumble, and sure some people thrive in the chaos, but there are lots and lots of people who just feel disconnected, lonely, and confused. The right wing backlash in this country is in large part an understandable, if futile, attempt to say No to the social forces that are at the root of every thing that they find confusing. The fact is that most people don't like change; they don't like feeling out of control; they don't like having to adapt and grow.
The curious thing about our present situation in America is that the Liberals are the conservatives and the conservatives are the Jacobins. The Liberals in the Democratic party are the stodgy party of stability, and the radicals in the Republican Party are doing everything they can to dismantle the domestic infrastructure established by the coordinated effort of both Democrats and Republicans in the last seventy years. And they are working to destabilize the multilateral international order that had been developing since the fall of the Soviet Union.
So the political choices that are available to us are on the one hand the stodgy conservative/liberalism of the Democrats, and on the other, the unhinged destructiveness of the Republicans who are doing everything they can to jump up and down on the ice so that we will all have the pleasure of a plunge into barbarism. And yet so many frightened, confused Americans vote Republican because they believe Republicans will keep them safe.
So it is to be hoped that Americans will come to their senses and in the Congressional elections vote conservatively for the Democrats. These Republicans are drunken good old boys that have driven the country off road and into the swamp. They are reckless fools, and they need to be reined in. That's the first order of business, but assuming we are able to push these guys out of the pickup truck of state and get the rig back on the highway, then what?
I would say then that the focus shifts from the political sphere to the cultural. I don't mind having stodgy, conservative leaders running the political shop. I'm fine with its having the primary responsibility for keeping us from plunging through the ice or into the swamp. Where the important stuff needs to happen is in the culture, and politics will follow. And my quarrel with Liberalism is not for its role in shaping what happens in the political sphere--it's fine there. I think that it is decadent in the cultural sphere.