Friday, December 4, 2015

What Is Conservative?

In the middle of the eighteenth century philosopher David Hume famously asked which came first: experience or ideas. Thereby he summarized the two great traditions in Western intellectual history.

Deriving from Plato the idealist tradition placed ideas before experience. You can hear it today in those political thinkers who are constantly criticizing our nation for failing to fulfill one or another ideal. Against ideals like equality and justice, idealists tend always to find reality lacking.

Thus, they are constantly criticizing and finding fault. They pay lip service to successes and accomplishments, only to revert to their default mode: something is wrong with a nation that has failed to live up to their ideals.

Those who make experience primary value tradition and custom.  Tradition is the record of successes and failures, of what works and what does not work, of trials and errors. Tradition is also embodied in the verdict of the marketplace. The market is like a laboratory where new products and new ideas and new customs are tried out and judged.

One of the French words for the English verb, to experience, is: experimenter.

Idealists begin with a narrative. Then they cherry pick facts that affirm the truth of their narrative, ignoring the rest.

Those who believe in experience begin with the facts, formulate a potentially explanatory hypothesis and then test it experimentally. They accept the verdict of reality. If the experimental results contradict the hypothesis, the hypothesis will be rejected.

As a rule, those who place ideals ahead of experience are liberals while those who place experience ahead of ideals are more conservative. One political party is concerned with whether a policy brings the world closer to its idealized vision. The other one judges policy in more pragmatic terms: does it or does it not work? 

One would imagine that the more conservative political party would choose candidates on the basis of their experience. And one would imagine that the more liberal political party would choose candidates on the basis of their belief in the right ideas. Or better, on their making a political point by being the first member of a disadvantaged group.

Apparently, this is not what is happening in today’s political circus. Especially on the Republican side. For reasons that remain to be ascertained, Republican voters seem to be completely disinterested in candidates who have extensive political experience. Their conservatism shows itself in their belief that extra-political experience trumps a career in politics. They seem to have no interest in whether a candidate can really do the job.

To which Michael Kinsley-- in an essay that seems mostly to be directed at Carly Fiorina’s withering campaign, but that can easily be applied to other candidates-- responds:

Only one business titan has ever been elected. That was Herbert Hoover, a mining magnate who traded in an enviable reputation as overseer of humanitarian work in Europe during and after World War I for a reputation he will never shake, whether justifiable or not, as the hopeless loser who needed to be ejected from the White House in order to make room for F.D.R., the professional politician.

I have in the past noted that if we compare two leftist politicians, an amateur like Barack Obama and a professional like French president Francois Hollande, we see clearly that the latter has been up to the task of facing down Islamist terrorism while the former clearly has not.

For those who are enamored of the idea of putting a professional real estate developer in the White House, I would note that the country is currently being run by a professional real estate developer named Valerie Jarrett. How’s that working out?

Republican voters believe in experience, but not political experience. Apparently, they do not understand the nature of the job of POTUS. Are they coming to their senses? Currently, they are having second thoughts about the candidacy of a neurosurgeon who has no political experience at all. You have to wonder why any of them ever had first thoughts about Dr. Ben Carson as a presidential candidate. You understand why the cognoscenti of the conservative movement are losing their collective minds.

In any event, Kinsley-- no conservative he-- makes the case for political experience.

For any other job I can think of, experience at the job is considered to be an asset. Obviously no one can truly have had experience at being president except for an incumbent running for re-election. There are certain jobs, however, that prepare you at least for a small part of the job of president. I would have thought, for example, that being secretary of state is pretty good training for a future president. So is being vice president, to take another example.

True enough, secretary of state is one good qualification for the presidency. Kinsley does not mention it, but the job is qualifying only to the extent that one produced diplomatic successes. A failed secretary of state, an individual who has never really accomplished anything, has no business running for president. Unless of course her party’s electorate wants to fulfill an ideal and strike a blow for equal rights by electing someone with XX chromosomes.

Obviously, governors have the most executive experience. Kinsley notes that governors have little experience in foreign policy, which is not true of governors who have served in Congress.

But, experience has a downside. Kinsley adds, interestingly, that the longer you have been in public life, the more gaffes you are likely to have made. This year, the gaffes do not seem to be working against the leading Republican candidate, however, but it is certainly true that real experience, as a governor or a senator must have put a candidate in the position of having made any one of a number of compromises. It is the only way to get anything done. From the perspective of today’s Republican electorate, this seems to be disqualifying.

One understands that conservatives have an affinity for negotiated compromises. They believe in social harmony and know that people do not live harmoniously in society unless they know how to compromise. They cannot do it by engaging in constant drama and conflict.

So, this year, the Republican electorate is agog over a candidate who apparently knows how to negotiate real estate deals. Which is a good thing. It does not seem to care that he has never negotiated a political deal and cannot possibly know enough about the issues to do so.

As for governors, Kinsley explains the pros and cons:

Governors running for president like to say that the governorship experience is valuable because their state is larger than 63 members of the United Nations, or has an economy the size of the moon, or something along those lines. The analogy between running a sovereign nation and running a state government is not perfect. A nation has to field a military force or at least have some theory of what happens if neighbors invade. It must do something about the currency and the economy in general. It must have a foreign policy. Nevertheless, the mandate of a governor remains larger than that of, say, a senator. But with the voters of 2016, this sort of experience cuts no ice. In fact, experience like this is a negative. It’s not your long record of loyal service that counts. It’s the gaffe you committed last week. The newer you are in public life, the less likely you are to have committed a career-compromising gaffe. That’s why experience of any kind—in politics or in business, successful or unsuccessful—can be a disadvantage in politics.

And yet, conservatives seem to believe that running the country is like running a business. It is not. If I may repeat myself, consider the case of a real estate developer who has done considerable business with banks. He had come to believe that all bankers are fools and idiots. Do you think, on the basis of his experience, that he should be made CEO of a major money center bank?

Kinsley argues that there are two kinds of experience, in business and in government. He should mention that CEOs have only to answer to their boards. If they own the company they do not have to answer to anyone. Politicians have to answer to their political parties, the opposition parties, to world leaders and to the people of the country. 

Kinsley also notes that politicians are much closer to the real lives of everyday people than are CEOs:

But voters have somehow gotten the impression that experience in business is closer to the real world than experience in politics. In terms of lifestyle—how you get to work, where you buy your suits, whether you know how your dishwasher works, what you do on weekends—this is almost certainly not true. C.E.O.’s live on a cloud of assistants, standing ready to satisfy their slightest whim. Think of the Smithers character on The Simpsons. Or think of another cartoon character, Donald Trump. When was the last time he rode the subway? Giving too much weight to this kind of symbolic populism, which we do, is foolish. But to assume that a congressman leads a lifestyle that the C.E.O. of even a small business would envy is na├»ve. It’s the other way around.

Republicans ought to be looking for a candidate with extensive knowledge of the issues and extensive experience dealing with them. It would help if he had a record of success and achievement in government.

Apparently, it’s too much to ask.


priss rules said...

Both the right and left died with the rise of the neo-aristocratic bobo cult of the homo/tranny agenda.

Talk about killing two birds with one stone.

(The homo agenda is NOT leftist. There is a reason why it is loved by Wall Street and Walmart.)

It's all about globalist oligarchic privilege now.

Ares Olympus said...

What a horrid introduction to a universal tension. Can't two things ever both have values? Why must one be virtue and one be vice?! It looks to me that you're being "idealistic", defining terms to fit your narrative! Who says liberals are all idealists and conservatibes all experimenters?!

It seems to me that BOTH liberals and conservatives are at their purest level idealists. Anyone who has to make an intentional decision without sufficient information is an idealist. The only question is whether they are ONE idealist or MANY idealists in one. How many ideas or ideals can you balance on the head of a pin?

We can consider Robert Kennedy's quote, going back to George Bernard Shaw's play, Back To Methuselah: “You see things; and you say, ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say, ‘Why not?’"

So you might say the Experimenter asks "Why?" and the Idealist asks "Why not?" but you could as well say they're both looking for a narrative, and people who ask why are just as likely to settle on an early single narrative and cherry pick as someone who asks why not might also settles too early on one narrative.

We can consider conservatives in general are distrustful of the wider world, and prefer to keep their influences closer to home, where they can see the consequences of their actions, and perhaps learn more quickly, but they can also get caught up in "one way of doing things" that works, becauase it has worked, and so more distrustful of experimenting and finding out "what they know for sure that just ain't so".

So if you look at how things really happen, you might see the conservatives defending "the way things ought to be" based on how they were, and then someone has a bright idea and tries to change things, and gets resisted, but with persistence eventually demonstrates the advantages and eventually it takes over. Then the conservatives adopt that last, and then that becomes their new status quo which they defend against the next advancement that looks like trouble.

I might consider myself a conservative because I don't have a cell phone (much less smart phone), and no interest in one, just seems like giving more money to phone companies, while taking away my freedom of being aware of my surroundings when I'm going places, and I don't have to be bothered by being "on call" to distant people every moment of the day.

But now it sees like every family has "family plans" so even 6 year olds get their own cellphones, and I imagine if I grew up in this generation, it would seem natural to carry a phone with me everywhere, and stay continually in contact with friends and family via texts, etc. At least I don't know how I'd resist that pressure if I was in such a family.

But as an adult I ask "Why?" when people say I should have one, and I don't really want to do an experiment and get myself use to be being dependent upon a cellphone. And I can think of plenty reasons against it, most of all it just seems like something expensive I can lose or break or forget at home.

But if I did grow up with one and grew to hate it, then I'd be a "liberal" to try to reject what I'm used to, to see if I could live without constant connectivity. I'd be a true experimenter, and test my two narratives "I need one" and "I don't need one" and see which one is more true.

But I guess this blog topics is about politics not personal preferences. And what we're learning really is that Conservatives are experimenters, willing to see if business experience is a good place to learn how to be the leader of the free world.

And we know the answer is no, but tea partiers are so pissed off, they're acting like liberals, willing to allow the leader of the free world to "on the job training" which in practice means someone who is over his head, and will defer to the experts, and let the fox guard the henhouse. So this is how fascism thrives.

priss rules said...

Triggered by cookie or lack thereof.

I think ideology matters less than attitude and habits.

Celebrity culture is trashy and politics has become hysterical.

So, people just act like self-centered jerks all around. Political or apolitical, self-centered vulgarity is the rule in our world.

sestamibi said...

We had one: Scott Walker. I wish he had stuck around at least until the first primary.

flynful said...

Might I suggest that you walked into the briar patch with this essay and you don't know how to extricate yourself.

A conservative is, I suppose, someone who wants to conserve whatever it is that he or she believes in, including the traditions, customs and policies that are the foundations of those beliefs. In this country a conservative is someone who believes in individual rights based on the founding documents which stated the basis for those rights and guaranteed them to our citizens. A conservative is not a reactionary, who refuses any and every change. We just want to make sure that a proposed change will do what its proponents claim it will do.

What does being a conservative have to do with experience? I don't get it. (By the way, a person not uncomfortable being called a conservative in this country would be deemed a revolutionary and treated as such if suddenly removed to a socialist or fascist country. In fact, in a socialist or fascist state the conservative is the person who wants to conserve socialism or fascism.)

Like the opinion writers at the WSJ, I believe in free men and free markets. I also find the preamble to the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights forming the first ten amendments to the Constitution as the most revolutionary and important documents in the history of mankind. If this defines me as a conservative in this country, then I welcome the title. In Europe, where tepid state socialism is the norm and ideal, there is no counterpart to a conservative living in the USA. In some countries I would guess that a conservative would be a moderate socialist or fascist, which is where they define their history on a country by country basis.

Conservatives are often called far right in this country because we believe in the founding documents and laugh at "progressives" who believe in magical and nonsensical things (like the war on women, the rape crisis on our campuses, and climate change, as examples). But, we are just conservatives. But, that "far right" label is deliberately used by progressive and the MSM to define us as if we were in some way similar or identical to the far right in Europe, where the term clearly means fascist. And, I have been called a fascist by someone who had no idea what a fascist is or believes in.

In order to win the war on words we have to take back the meanings of words that define us and not fall into the trap of allowing someone calling us "far right conservatives" without clarifying just what we stand for,  such as, "Yes, if by that term you mean that I believe in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution."

I don't care if a candidate for office has no experience or lots of experience. I do care what they believe in and how well they can express those beliefs. That's why I fell in love with Sara Palin the first time I heard her speak. Same for Carly Fiorina and Ted Cruz. They get it!!!! So long as I believe that they will fall back on the basic principles that define conservatism in this country, they have my whole hearted support and my vote.
Steve Goodman

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I wanted to introduce some serious philosophy into the discussion... from Aristotle and Plato to Hume and Co. I see that some of you know nothing about it and don't really care to find out. Please don't blame me for what you don't know.

Dennis said...

Might I suggest a book by Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind," as a thoughtful book on what a conservative tends to be. NOTE, that conservatism is difficult to define except in the general terms discussed by Steve Goodman.

These terms lack true meaning because academe has been pushing all definitions to the right so as to claim the middle for themselves. As a classical liberal I find myself being defined as a neo-conservative/conservative which I believe misses the mark. I would love to believe people have read John Locke, St. Thomas Aquinas, David Hume, Arthur Schopenhauer, et al, but I would suggest that the Humanities departments in most of academe are not meeting those expectation.

I would also suggest that we are in the mess we are in because of the so called "experienced" people who have dominated the politics and government of this country to its detriment. I would also suggest that Stuart, myself and a large number of people who meet the qualification defined in the Constitution have the intellectual wherewithal to do a far better job than what we are being sold as the only people, the elite who deserve, to serve, I use serve lightly here, this country.
A president defines the overall direction of this country within the boundaries of the Constitution, not transforms it. Selecting good people to advice the president is a primary concern. What one needs to be is a leader, something we have not seen for quite some time. Better someone who will make decisions and lives by them than someone who leads from behind.
GOD save the country from those who think they are better qualified and more intelligent than others. Just the fact that we have bought into the idea that the vast majority of us are not qualified scares the death out of me for we are making ourselves subjects vice citizens to the elites and monied interests.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Stuart, I agree with what you've said here completely... from the Enlightenment thought to Kinsley's realpolitik.

I fear you and I got on a bad track with Trump, principally because I didn't think he was as much a danger or buffoon as you did at the time. However, as I stated many times, I do not want to see Trump elected president for all the reasons you and Kinsley offer. Business is about getting stuff done. Government is about interests and compromise. To paraphrase Shelby Foote in Ken Burns' "The Civil War," he said something important: "It was because we failed to do the thing we really have a genius for, which is compromise. Americans like to think of themselves as uncompromising. Our true genius is for compromise. Our whole government's founded on it. And, it failed... and led to a great catastrophe."

Government today is a different animal, and morphing into a beast that's become a tool, serving one side of the political divide. The problem is that people don't see that compromise works anymore, because political actors are so idealistic and their ideals becomes actionable through government. Government as a delivery mechanism. That is the "business" of government today: it's about driving your ideological agenda home, as quickly as possible. It's government as the simple solution to all of life's complex problems. And the scope of government is so much larger, and its tentacles invade our lives unabated. And it will result in another catastrophe if things continue along the current trajectory. That is why Trump is doing well. And he's been a prominent figure for many years on the Glowing Box, so he has lots of name recognition. What I believe Trump really, truly represents for people is an antidote to the phony political correctness that has so constrained our national conversation in the Progressives' favor. They want it to stop. That's their experience, and the politico/media complex's response to the Farook's terrorism is case in point. And the Administration's Syrian refugee absorption plan continues astride, as though nothing has happened. Trump wants to build a wall. An America with walls is not an ideal for conservatives. But their experience tells them that politicians will not deliver on the immigration issue. The political class obfuscates the issue, conflating a sound immigration policy with bigotry. Who wants to be a bigot? That's the conservative experience in today's America.

The issue is as you see it: idealism and experience. What I see with Obama is the amateur. Yet what we are seeing is a ruthless pragmatism that really is Chicago smash-mouth politics. And yes, Valerie Jarrett is POTUS. Our American Rasputin.

But the drama and conflict you cite is the currency of today's politics. It is quite dangerous. And it's largely brought to us by the Glowing Box in a whole host of ways. We are like idiots, like moths around a light. The box glows, and we believe what it tells us. Yes, we could read. And yes, we could listen to the radio. Yet today, few take time to read, and the fading of radio as a medium seems to mirror the loss of American imagination.

So I see where you're going with this, and the serious philosophy is important. What I see is that the government has expanded so far beyond its intended boundaries, and there has been so much social change in the past 50 years, and I don't think people see it as very democratic, nor in their interests. Priss speaks of an oligarchy. Well, there is so much power concentrated in Washington today. Flynful just wants to be left alone. Dennis sees himself as a classical liberal. Ares is prattling on about whatever he's prattling on about, criticizing away about how awful and small-minded people are talking about bogeymen while he himself blames it on his own bogeymen.

Cont'd below...

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Cont'd from above...

The federal government has become too powerful in the age of television. The presidency has too many advantages in the age of television. We are feeling constrained. We have politicians to tell us about their ideas and values, but once they get into office -- particularly executive office -- they're not willing to give up their options, their executive power. Whether it's idealism or experience is the academic discussion. What we have in Obama is a lot of idealism and no experience, and it's been a disaster.

When I think of what a "conservative" is, whether in ideals or experientially, I think it is a suspicious view of power, the human condition, and how power should be used. More than that, it should be distributed so no one federal/state/county/municipality structure or separate powers (legislative, executive or judicial) should have too great an advantage. That's what scares conservatives today. I think conservatives see lawlessness, they see their freedoms under threat, they feel no one in government cares about their interests, nor appreciates the separation of powers and distributed power structures. They want to be able to have their own experiences. And in the tradition and history of this country, they don't see their ideals as all that wacky... they see the "hope and change" as the wacky insurgency, trying to change the country by any means necessary. They're scared. And when people get scared, they gravitate toward certainty. I suspect that is what they believe Trump offers.

So, to your point about the idealist -- yes, it's easy to be a critic. But from the experience side, it's easy to get into trends and belief systems that shape what we see as being experientially possible. That's where the DC political class is stuck: groupthink. And there are lots of very fed-up conservatives who don't like the way that group thinks, and they're mad as hell. Great door for Trump, and he's walking right through. But I still believe WHY he is successful is instructive, as it is a reflection of where we are as a nation: we love celebrity, we're soft, and we're falling over each other to be nice. What's really happened is that we're entertained, cowed and silenced. We don't trust each other. Life is politicized in every dimension. Peggy Noonan captures this topic beautifully in her WSJ column today.

priss rules said...

PC has to be trolling at this point.

Colleges are no longer about ideas. They are about slogans.

'Inclusion' is the magic word now.

Funny since the very nature of higher education is to exclude those who can't make the grade.