Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Centrism and Conservatism

Dennis Sanders has a thoughtful response to my mild rejoinder about the role of centrism in American politics. That rejoinder has its roots in one of my personal favorite posts from last year, The Myth of the Moderate.

Sanders seems to fully understand the point I was making, writing:

So does that mean that those who argue for a more dogmatic conservatism were right all along? No. Mark and I agree that the party need to reach out more, but I think he is correct that we need to stop calling it an appeal to the center, since the center varies so much from person to person. What does need to happen is to look at the times we live and [] try to fashion conservative solutions to them.

This is exactly correct in my view.

Ultimately, one of the biggest problems with the idea of a sort of master dogmatic conservatism isn't just that it comes across as mean and driven by fearmongering, it's that it prevents individual constituent flavors of conservatism from applying their philosophies to the world as it is, which makes it exceedingly difficult for conservatism to appear relevant in the modern world. But freeing the various flavors of conservatism to find their own solutions to modern problems will inevitably create a rebirth of all those flavors both in terms of relevance to modernity and in terms of electoral appeal. To be sure, you need to have some type of dogma to define what varieties of conservatism are and are not in the coalition and, more importantly, to unite those varieties of conservatism - but there is no rule that says that dogma needs to be all-encompassing or extend beyond a handful of core issues upon which there is universal or near-universal agreement amongst the constituencies.

One of the key reasons for the mid-90s comeback of the conservative coalition was not, as it is widely assumed, that Newt Gingrich was an unapologetic across-the-board conservative (whatever that means). Instead, the secret of that success (in addition to piggybacking on Clinton Administration overreaches and a high number of Congressional retirements) was in part the Contract with America, which was based on so-called 60% issues, about which there was broad agreement both within the coalition and within the electorate at large. Notably absent from that Contract, therefore, were issues that would divide conservatives of various philosophical stripes - things like abortion and immigration. The genius of the Contract with America was thus that it sought to find issues that already more or less bound the coalition together and to turn those issues into the sole source of dogma. It did not seek to create a new dogma or to define a sort of "master conservatism."

While the practical effects of the legislation passed under that Contract are certainly debatable, the more important point is that it was an effective way of uniting the party while also appealing to people not already within the party. Meanwhile, the various stripes of conservatism remained free to find their own solutions to problems outside the realm of the Contract.

Put another way, the Contract with America didn't seek to impose a new, bigger (but more wobbly) "seat" on the proverbial three-legged stool; instead, it sought merely to put a shine on the seat that already existed while permitting the legs to stabilize that seat by creating as wide a base as possible.