Thursday, June 1, 2006
Two cheers for conservative liberals.
I see that my friend Thom has preached a sermon — "Is there such a thing as a conservative UU?" — that draws extensively from a comment I attached to a blog entry more than a year ago. I figure if Thom can find something worth quoting in that comment, I might as well dig it out, dust it off, and publish it as its own entry. It's my partial defense of "conservative Unitarian Universalists":
How I sometimes hate the words "conservative" and "liberal." But I use them anyway because they do, in fact, mean something — or several somethings, not all of them well coordinated. Here we go:
I have to appeal to an a-ha moment I had way back in high school, when for some God-only-knows reason I read Clinton Rossiter's 1962 book Conservatism in America: The Thankless Persuasion. (Yes, those were strange, lonely years for young Philocrites.) What stood out for me about that book was Rossiter's contention that almost all major American political movements could be classified as varieties of liberalism, and that conservatism as such had never really flourished in America.
This may strike many UUs as so deeply counterintuitive as to be simply false, but I've never quite shaken off Rossiter’s basic premise. The U.S. is a liberal constitutional democracy; ours is a liberal society; and yet "liberal" is now, thanks to the calculated work of a band of people who ought to be ashamed of themselves, a bad word. (Today's "conservatives" often prefer the word "freedom" instead. Which is a liberal idea. Oops.) My contention is that even those UUs who claim to be conservatives are, in fact, liberals who disagree with the narrowed definition of liberalism embraced by so-called "liberal Democrats." I dare you to find a genuine conservative in Unitarian Universalism; I'd love to know exactly how their individualist, post-traditional religious beliefs line up with conservatism.
A bit of historical review: The early Unitarians — who tended to be Federalists and Whigs — were conservative liberals; they embraced what you might call a pessimistic liberalism. They rejected the idea that an aristocratic or ecclesiastical hierarchy simply deserved to rule. They embraced a constitutional democracy that derived its authority from the consent of the governed. These things made them liberal in their political philosophy. But it's significant that they also embraced a limited franchise, representative democracy, a system of checks and balances, and inalienable individual liberties that neither the state nor the will of the people could take away. They were wary of popular democracy, in other words, and in many other respects were cautious and tradition-minded. But the only way to describe their political orientation as "conservative" would be to take their liberalism for granted, and to say that they were relatively conservative given their liberalism.
On the other hand, the Jeffersonian and Jacksonian Democrats were much more populist and much more radical. They were what you might call optimistic liberals. The Jacksonian revolution introduced a very different variety of liberalism and shocked the staid gentility of the Whigs by significantly expanding the ranks of voters and empowering "rude" people to political prominence. They trusted common people to shape policy directly and generally distrusted intellectuals and elites. But this, too, is a variety of liberalism.
In the last century, the old school Jefferson-revering Southern Democrats — their racism and anti-modernism notwithstanding — were still drawing on liberal themes. We find some of these themes alive and well in contemporary Libertarianism and conservative Republicanism: self-reliance, small government, deference to the legislative branch rather than the judicial branch, etc. I happen to disagree on the substance of a lot of the particular claims, but I can recognize the liberal pedigree of many contemporary “conservative” ideas.
At the same time, the Northern liberal Democrats — the Adlai Stevensons, for example — were elitists, proceduralists, and internationalists — themes that also have liberal roots. For historical reasons, these Democrats embraced the “liberal” label, while Libertarians embraced a variation on the theme, and Republicans over time staked their political fortunes on becoming anti-liberal. It’s an open question whether the Republican Party is also becoming fundamentally illiberal.
Until you make it all the way over to the theocratic (James Dobson) or aristocratic (William F. Buckley) wings of the post-Barry Goldwater Republican Party, you almost could not find a philosophically conservative major political movement in the U.S. Unfortunately, now we have one [or perhaps more than one] with a vengeance. But I bet almost none of our "conservative" UUs identify with these wings of the Republican Party; I'd bet instead that they identify with the socially moderate, fiscally conservative, essentially secular wing of the Party.
If you embrace the idea that individuals can legitimately question and challenge the authority of inherited privilege or inherited submission; if you believe that in political and religious matters people have the moral right and should have the political freedom to reject established doctrines and organize around new ones; if you root the legitimacy of institutions not in their God-given, timeless, eternal Truths but in their responsiveness to evolving human needs; well, if you tend in those directions, you're a liberal whether you want the label or not. Own it, people, even if you're a proud Republican. The Republican Party, after all, is rooted historically in liberal ideals, Barry Goldwater be damned.
I fully endorse your right to be a conservative liberal. (One could make the case that I'm one, although I'd rather not make that case myself right now.) If you're a conservative conservative trying to make your home among Unitarian Universalists, however, I wonder what you're thinking.
Copyright © 2006 by Philocrites | Posted 1 June 2006 at 9:05 PM