The Corner

Crunchy and Compassionate Crusades, Reconsidered

Ross Douthat has a really enjoyable rejoinder to my post the other day about compassionate conservatism. He says — in a very short, and therefore crude, paraphrase — that compassionate conservatism’s failures are in no way an indictment of conservative government activism and reform. You should read the whole thing. But I think, he misses my point about crunchy conservatism and compassionate conservatism and thus puts words in my mouth that aren’t there. He writes:

So the idea that the Bush years have represented the apotheosis of “compassionate conservatism,” or “crunchy conservatism,” or a Brooksian “Hamiltonian conservatism,” is at once reductionist and just plain silly, as is the notion that everything save libertarianism has been discredited by the follies of the last six years. To argue otherwise is to indulge in a right-wing version of the kind of crude ideological determinism that produced, say, this Alan Wolfe essay on “why conservatives can’t govern,” which suggested that any sort of conservatism save government-cutting purism is doomed to end in Abramoffian corruption and “heckuva job, Brownie” incompetence. I mean, please. Tell it to Tommy Thompson, or Rudy Giuliani, or Jeb Bush. Tell it to Ronald Reagan, for that matter – the real Ronald Reagan, I mean, not the small-government plaster saint. There’s more to conservative governance than the failures of George W. Bush, and I fail to see how (to take a personal example) “Sam’s Club Republicanism” is descredited by the transportation bill, steel tariffs, or Medicare Part D, when the only thing they have in common is that they aren’t libertarianism.

Me: I did not say that everything save libertarianism has been discredited. Nor have I said that every kind of conservative reform has been gelded by Bushism. I agree that would be silly if I had said that, but I didn’t. I was focusing my comments at Rod and his Crunchy Conservatism (or at least my reading of it), which does share with compassionate conservatism many fundamental assumptions about the nature of “mainstream” conservatism as well as of the proper role of government and politics.

Rod himself also comes to his own defense , though he lets Douthat do the heavy lifting and endorses Ross’s interpretation. And, perhaps as a result, he too misunderstands my point. I didn’t say that compassionate conservatism and crunchy conservatism are the same thing or that Bush has been too crunchy. I said they shared similar assumptions. And they do.

There are differences to be sure and, yes, Bush didn’t execute compassionate conservatism as well as its advocates had hoped and so it’s difficult to tease apart the practical errors from the philosophical ones. But both share a religious/spiritual understanding of the state as the means to impose a grand new vision of American life (one that “mainstream” conservatism is incapable of providing — which is true, thankfully). Both see traditional limited-government and free-market conservatism as “uncompassionate.”  Both see the measures of the individual’s compassion and humanity as deeply tied to a sweeping political agenda. Rod’s rhetoric about the autonomy of home and family is certainly preferable to Bush’s but it’s hard for me to see how this isn’t much more than rhetoric when it comes to actual politics.

Daniel Larison also comes to Crunchy Conservatism’s defense , typically protesting that I don’t know what I’m talking about. Uh huh. I read the book. I participated in endless debates with Rod about it when his original article came out. It seems to me that Larison wants it to mean something other than what Rod has said time again. Maybe this is because Larison thinks that Crunchy Conservatism amounts to a useful marketing tool for his brand of “paleo” conservatism. I don’t know, and I’m not going to try to read the mind of someone who’s shown such unremitting hostility towards me. But he does simply assert that Crunchy Conservatism is what he says it is — i.e. a reformulated anti-statist paleoconservatism which “abhors” federal interventionism — and I find his assertions otherworldly. I know Rod says some nice things about Russell Kirk and the Agrarians (though his use and abuse of Kirk left a lot of people cold). But that’s hardly a compelling presentation of evidence.

Here’s a little of my evidence. Rod agrees with Hillary Clinton that it takes a village to raise a child. Either Rod hasn’t read her book, in which case he shouldn’t have endorsed her views without inspecting them. Or he has, in which case he’s more statist than anyone calling themselves a (paleo) conservative should ever be. In his book, Rod embraces leftwing environmentalism which, last I checked, wasn’t much invested in Burkean little platoons nor states’ rights. In recent columns Rod has called for religious conservatives to form a new alliance with Democrats on the environment and “economic security.” Indeed, he’s adamant about rejecting free market economics, laissez-faire and the rest. Perhaps Larison, who’s constantly opining on how stupid I am, can explain to me how someone can reject free market economics and not be statist in any way.

Anyway, getting back to Ross. While I have specific criticisms for all of them, my common critique of Bushian compassionate conservatism, Brooksian National Greatness, Buchanism and Crunchy Conservatism is the common sense of crusade to all of them. There are times for crusades, to be sure. But I don’t think conservatism should ever be redefined as one lest it become just another populist fever. And I’ll go a step further. The reason Bush pushed me toward libertarianism is because I think any agenda built on the logic of the crusade is either doomed to failure or destined to be very un-conservative. It’s in the nature of things that you will always leave some children behind.

As for specific reforms, by all means go for it! I’m all for fixing what’s broke, when we can, where we can. Thommy Thompson is a hero for his pioneering contributions to welfare reform (which, contrary to popular understanding wasn’t entirely an exercise in shrinking government). Giuliani saved my home town. But he didn’t do it as part of some warmed-over social gospel, to provide “meaning” to people or as part of some vaguely utopian agenda. He did it out of good old fashioned bourgeois notions of public order, right and wrong and the belief that if government gets out of the way people can manage their own affairs. By all means, conservatives should fix the tax code, shrink the federal government, improve the health care system (hopefully with market based reforms), and help families. I’m even for censorship . But let us have no more New Politics and redeeming crusades. They always end in disappointment, at least for conservatives.