The Corner

Sherpa Conservatism Watch — Saletan Edition

A reader sent me this piece by my old friend Will Saletan on Paul Ryan. It’s a very pro-Ryan piece. But this bit caught the reader’s eye — which is why the reader sent me an e-mail titled “Sherpa Conservatism alert.” Saletan writes:

Maybe, like me, you were raised in a liberal household. You don’t agree with conservative ideas on social or foreign policy. But this is why God made Republicans: to force a reality check when Democrats overpromise and overspend.

The term “Sherpa conservatism” comes from a piece I did a few years ago on Sam Tanenhaus’ book The Death of Conservatism. While an interesting book in parts (as Tanenhaus can be an interesting fellow), as political analysis it was fairly absurd. It was like a weatherman proclaiming the recent thunderstorm “the last rainstorm ever, because all we can see ahead in the ten-day forecast are blue skies.” Anyway, I wrote:

Tanenhaus says that the high-water mark of good conservatism was roughly from 1965 to 1975. Not coincidentally, this was also the low-water mark of its political power, when conservatives critiqued the Great Society but lacked the power to do more than heckle. Good conservatives (or Burkean or Beaconsfieldian ones; for Tanenhaus the terms are interchangeable) should know their place and gladly serve as Sherpas to the great mountaineers of liberalism, pointing out occasional missteps, perhaps suggesting a slight course correction from time to time, but never losing sight of the need for upward “progress” and happily carrying the extra baggage for progressives in their zealous but heroic quest for the summit. And any conservative who doesn’t accept his role as Tenzing Norgay to liberalism’s Edmund Hillary will have nasty adjectives like “revanchist” hurled at him by Tanenhaus.

As I noted elsewhere, Tanenhaus was hardly first liberal to make this argument and I’m hardly the first conservative to reject it. Here’s Irving Kristol more than 30 years ago:

It has long been a cliché of liberal discourse that what this country needs is a truly intelligent and sophisticated conservatism to replace the rather primitive, philistine, and often racist conservatism that our history is only too familiar with. This new and desirable conservatism should have a philosophic and literary dimension which would rectify the occasional excesses of liberal ideology. It should even have a nebulous but definitely genteel political dimension, since it is likely that we shall always, at intervals, need a brief interregnum of conservative government whose function it is to consolidate and ratify liberal reforms. The ideal conservative president, from this liberal point of view, would by a Dwight Eisenhower who read Lionel Trilling instead of paperback Westerns, who listened to chamber music instead of playing golf—but who would be, in all other respects, as inert as the real President Eisenhower in fact was.

These are the kinds of Republicans Obama yearns for once the “madness” afflicting the current crop subsides. When he says he wants Republicans who will compromise, he means he wants Republicans who will agree with him.

Anyway, back to Saletan’s piece. I’m a fan of Saletan’s. I think he’s an honest liberal who is willing to venture out of his comfort zone on a host of issues. Which is why I find his wandering into Sherpa-ism so funny. Saletan loves to question the validity of taboos and other forms of received wisdom. Indeed, he’s an exemplary liberal in his desire to get in the head of others and see things from their point of view. Sometimes, I think, he can be so open-minded his brain falls out, but that’s ok. It happens with him less than it does for most.

But here he is conceding that (a) He thinks the normal state of affairs is for Democrats to run things and (b) that the job of conservatives is to provide a “reality check” for Democrats. On the first part, why is it normal for Democrats to drive politics? Why is that received wisdom worthy of respect? Just because he grew up in a liberal household? Appeals to the authority of your childhood indoctrination aren’t normally the sorts of arguments Saletan has much use for. And as for the second part, I think it’s an interesting concession that the dispensers of reality are the folks Will says he disagrees with.


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