What's Tony Thinking

Soul-Searching on the Right


I’m tempted to call this post, “Can Anything Good Come Out of Nazareth . . . ‘er I Mean the Political Right?” to adapt a line from the Gospel of John. But that’s probably a bit snide.

In the weeks before and after Christmas there was a cascade of articles suggesting something is happening on the right, or at least parts of it. Some healthy soul-searching.

That in itself seems important. But it may also suggest, as does one of the articles I cite to below, that there may be some basis for hope for a more sane centrist politics in our future.

The most recent of these articles to pique my interest was forwarded by a friend from the journal Law and Liberty. 

The article is titled “Trump and the Habits of the Conservative Heart.” The author says that while Trump may be in trouble, he can — and will — take of himself. Worry about James Madison and Alexis de Tocqueville. Meaning, worry that the values of those two seminal thinkers are at risk. Conservatives worth their salt should be concerned, argues Greg Weiner.

I’ll leave it to you to explore his discussion of Madison. Here let me quote Weiner’s about Trump and Tocqueville:

“That brings us to the Tocquevillian danger. Tocqueville’s emphasis on the mores of democratic life—both the “habits of the heart” and the “ensemble of ideas from which the habits of the mind are formed”—belies the idea that Trump’s tweeting, falsifying, vulgarity and the mercurial impulses are irrelevant as long as he continues to allow the Federalist Society to advise him on judicial nominees.

“What Tocqueville grasped was the key role of mores in maintaining democratic life. It is true, as Charles Kesler has persuasively argued, that there are good mores and bad mores. But unless Publius was wrong about the presidency, a proper constitutional distance from the people, a basic devotion to truth-telling within the reasonable confines of electoral politics, and dignity in manner are good mores. None of these entails polite deference to the establishment or to the administrative state. Nor do they require the President not to respond when he is attacked, even if he could do so more parsimoniously.

“They require the basic elements of civility, a conserving virtue. They involve telling the truth rather than being a serial fabulist. They probably mean not spending hours in the living quarters of the White House with tweeting thumbs. And it would be nice if they entailed the dignity of presidential addresses rather than demagogic, campaign-style rallies.”

In other words, the fact that Trump is a bad human being matters.

The second piece has the intriguing title of “I Have Seen the Future of A Republican Party That is No Longer Insane.” It’s from Jonathan Chalit in New York Magazine.

Chalit sat in on a conference at the libertarian Niskanen Center. He reported on the ways that this think-tank is questioning the dogmas of conservative and libertarian ideology, as for example, that shrinking government is always and everywhere good. Here’s a bit from that piece, referencing a Niskanen scholar, Will Wilkinson:

“Last year, Will Wilkinson argued against “small-government monomania” and in favor of a social safety net to “increase the public’s tolerance for the dislocations of a dynamic free-market economy,” and identified libertarianism with hostility to democracy, resulting in persistent Republican efforts “to find ways to keep Democrats from voting, and to minimize the electoral impact of the Democratic ballots that are cast.” Brink Lindsey attacked “the notion that downward redistribution picks the pockets of makers and doles it out to layabout takers.”

Whoa, big shifts there. Government has a role in addressing “the dislocations of a dynamic free-market economy.”

David Brooks also picked on the report from Niskanen in a column titled, “A Manifesto for a New Centrism Should Give Us Hope.”

Here’s a snippet from that column:

“But Niskanen thinkers like Ed Dolan, Samuel Hammond and Will Wilkinson made a simple and empirically verifiable observation. The nations that have the freest markets also generally have the most generous welfare states. The two are not in opposition. In the real world they go together.”

Heresy that!

The fourth and final piece is one by the intellectual historian Mark Lilla on developments within contemporary French conservatism. Lilla starts off by describing a speech by Marion Marechal Le-Pen at CPAC, the big event for U.S. conservatives. Marion is the granddaughter of Jean-Marie Le-Pen, the founder of the ultra-right National Front. But Marion isn’t a clone of her grandad or her aunt, who now leads the NFP.

Here’s Lilla:

“But then [after slamming the European Community/ Common Market] she set out in a surprising direction. Before a Republican audience of private property absolutists and gun rights fanatics she attacked the principle of individualism, proclaiming that the “reign of egoism” was at the bottom of all our social ills. As an example she pointed to a global economy that turns foreign workers into slaves and throws domestic workers out of jobs. She then closed by extolling the virtues of tradition, invoking a maxim often attributed to Gustav Mahler: ‘Tradition is not the cult of ashes, it is the transmission of fire.’ Needless to say, this was the only reference by a CPAC speaker to a nineteenth-century German composer.

“Something new,” argues Lilla, “is happening on the European right, and it involves more than xenophobic populist outbursts. Ideas are being developed, and transnational networks for disseminating them are being established.”

All of the four pieces above are evidence that Lilla’s observation about France — “idea are being developed”– may be more broadly true of conservatism. New ideas. Ideas for conservatism after Trump.

There is some ferment, some soul-searching, some questioning of fixed ideas. One hopes for something similar on the left.



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