[Note: This post is part of the “On Conservatism” series.]
Because the purpose of this series is to explore the “the contours of conservatism” the majority of the posts will focus on the ideas and perspective of the past. But it is also useful to be aware of the trends that conservative thought are more current and are shaping the future direction of the movement. One of the most disturbing trends is the direction exemplified by Andrew Sullivan.
We tend to discount the impact of our contemporaries, particularly when we disagree with them. Not surprisingly, most conservatives scoff at the notion that Sullivan is all that influential. I too once underestimated his importance as a thinker. Although I have always considered him an entertaining blogger, for many years I failed to recognize his transpositive genius.
I had failed to recognize that like many profound theorists, Sullivan doesn’t always use words in their generally accepted usage, choosing instead to imbue them with his own nuance. Take, for example, his use of the term “conservatism.” In a post in 2005, Sullivan quotes Glenn Reynolds, “coming to terms with what the religious right is doing to conservative principles.” Sullivan adds,
The important point is that religious zealotry cannot be incorporated into conservatism. It is the nemesis of conservatism. And it has to be purged in order for conservatism to be revived.
While it might not be an ideal, there is, of course, nothing incompatible about “religious zealotry” and conservatism. In fact, as Russell Kirk noted, one of the first principles of conservatism is a belief “that there exists a transcendent moral order, to which we ought to conform the ways of society. A divine tactic, however dimly descried, is at work in human society.” Taken at face value, such a comment by a man with a doctorate in Political Science from Harvard would be worthy of nothing more than ridicule. But Sullivan should not be so easily dismissed.
Obviously, his use of the term in no way resembles the philosophy of Russell Kirk or Edmund Burke. When Sullivan talks about conservatism, particularly when he uses the label in reference to his own beliefs, he is redefining the term to apply to his own odd mix of radical individualism and Oakeshottism, a philosophy that could best be described as Sullivanism
Sullivanism attempts to provide an intellectual foundation for peculiar pseudo-ideologies, the bastard children of Michael Oakeshott and the free-love culture, that have sprung up over the past few decades — the South Park Republicans, Republican Party Reptiles, and Maxim-cons. Before Andrew Sullivan came along, there didn’t appear, as Jonah Goldberg claimed, to be “any such thing as a unifying set of beliefs among them.” But Sullivan is providing formal structure to this form of cafeteria-libertarianism. He is providing a framework for people who aren’t really conservative but would still prefer to be associated with William F. Buckley, Jr. rather than with Michael Badnarik.
Conservatism tends to believes that old fogies like Tradition, Prudence, and Religion have something to tell us about how to live and build an orderly society. Adhering to the ideals of Burke and Kirk, though, make it difficult to argue in favor of gay marriage or against profanity on the public airwaves. That is why South Park Republicans and other Sullivanites reject the core principles of conservatism; Maxim-cons simply don’t trust any political philosophy over thirty.
Sullivanism is also an ideal compromise for those who can’t quite risk the social stigma of becoming full-fledged libertarians. “Libertarians,” as the Christian Libertarian John Coleman admits, “are crazy.”
Most became Libertarians because they have some social quirk that disallows them from participation in normal society — picture excessive drug use, Dungeons and Dragons play or fascination with the word “metrosexual,” for instance. They are strange. You can’t take them home to your parents, unless, of course, your parents are members of some druid cult. They frighten small children.
Sullivanites, by contrast, crave acceptance. They don’t want to be lumped in with the radical Paulites who argue that we can immanentize the Eschaton by banning fiat money and repudiating the 9/11 Commission Report. They prefer to use libertarian as an adjective, rather than as a noun because pure, uncut libertarianism skirts the edges of extremism.
But while public acceptance is important, the core of Sullivanism is the idea that conservative ideals can be unmoored from the past. Whereas true conservatism relies on the wisdom of our ancestors to guide us into the future, Sullivanism relies only on the quasi-omnipotence of the autonomous individual. Like Wiccans, their highest ideal can be summed up in the aphorism, “Do what you will, so long as it harms none.”
Although disconnected from the past, Sullivanites can still embrace religion and tradition to salve their existential angst. But because these institutions often rely on objective moral norms, they cannot be allowed to impose their views on politics. As long as no one gets hurt — at least under the Sullivanites definition of harm — the individual remains free to pursue their own bliss. Sullivan sums up this point in his exposition on the “pursuit of happiness”:
Here [in America], happiness is an end in itself. Its content is up to each of us. Some may believe, as American Muslims or Christians do, that happiness is still indeed only possible when allied to virtue. But just as importantly, others may not. And the important thing is that the government of the United States takes no profound interest in how any of these people define their own happiness. All that matters is that no-one is coerced into a form of happiness he hasn’t chosen for himself – by others or by the state. Think of this for a moment. What America means is that no-one can forcibly impose a form of happiness on anyone else – even if it means that some people are going to hell in a hand basket. [Emphasis Added]
Like his use of the term conservative, Sullivan has redefined happiness to make it mean whatever a person chooses. Happiness is no longer a matter of human flourishing but rather a subjective state defined by the autonomous individual. Such a notion would have been deemed the height of absurdity by our ancestors — including the man who penned the Declaration. But it rings true for the Sullivanites, a group whose “conservatism” is more likely to reflect the views of Eric Cartman than of Edmund Burke.
We will be tempted to dismiss Sullivanism as a niche heresy that will have a short shelf life. Indeed, that may very well be the case (I certainly hope so). But what if it is not just an intellectual fad but a “third way” libertarian offshoot that outlasts its creator?