I’m On Hold With My Agent Now

by John O’Sullivan

Having moaned privately to Rich yesterday about the ghastliness of Gerson’s article, I might as well add my two cents to what has been said on The Corner.

Gerson’s analysis, as contained in his Post column, is simply silly.

Libertarians in any serious sense are few in number. They constitute an ideological ginger group within the GOP rather than a main trend.

They command about the same percentage of votes nationally as . . . the Libertarian party. That kind of libertarianism is a heresy of conservatism, being the exaggeration of liberty from part of a true political philosophy into its whole.

Libertarianism in a looser journalistic sense (i.e., fiscal conservatism, free market economics) is an indispensable part of any conservative philosophy as Burke and Adam Smith both agreed. It is a philosophy that attends to the needs of the poor and that has generated any number of practical solutions (educational vouchers, negative income tax) to their difficulties. In my lifetime no one has done more than Milton Friedman (surely a libertarian in this sense) to improve the lives of ordinary people, including the poor. Conservatives need both kinds of libertarianism as constant reminders not to let their other ideas produce an over-extended or intrusive state.

Catholic social thought is an important intellectual tradition — I am a Catholic and I take it seriously — but it is marginal to American conservatism. That won’t change because Gerson has embraced it. Along with the Protestant tradition of the social gospel, it will be an influence helping to shape social policy. It will not have to battle the looser kind of libertarianism to do so as the work of Friedman demonstrates. Rather it will amend, correct, and add to it. And Jonah is right on the main point: both Catholics and Evangelicals (and other conservative religious groups such as Orthodox Jews) exercise their main political influence in defense of the ecumenically moral traditions of American society.

Finally, there are three large constituencies constituting American conservatism (and other Anglosphere conservatisms), not two. In addition to “libertarians” and moral traditionalists, there are what I call “patriots” and what Mark Krikorian identifies as “nationalists.”

They may even be the most numerous group in the broad center-right coalition. They exist in both major parties. And in both parties the leaderships have tended to alternate between patronizing and demonizing them(“rednecks,” “nativists.”) Gerson and his former boss, the president, tried to ride over them in the immigratoin debate and failed.

Whether or not Mark is right to predict that the next great divide in American politics will be between nationalists and post-nationalists — and he can make a strong case for this — the GOP simply cannot win unless it gets all three constituencies to support it. Gerson seems to think that the way forward is to ignore the patriots and their concerns, to relegate the broad libertarian tradition to a minor restraining role, and to appeal to moral traditionalists on issues of secondary concern to them in the light of an important but minority religious tradition in American history.

Whatever else this is, it isn’t politics. And if it passing for thought, I can see I’m going to have to write a book!

Sorry for the length of this post.