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September 14, 2012 11:06 AM Liberal and Conservative Impulses

By Jonathan Bernstein

I think I’d classify this one as amateur ideological interpretation; I don’t want to claim much for it, only that it seems to come in handy for me when I try to make sense of things.

Anyway, I wrote recently about the liberal impulse:

[I]f the liberal impulse is “we can do better,” and the liberal danger is a hubris that trying to do better is always an unambiguously good idea, the threat to liberals is a cynicism that we really can’t do better. That trying to do something difficult is inherently something to be mocked. And the truth is that anti-liberal cynicism isn’t without some merit at times, and it certainly isn’t without some political appeal.

So I’d want to extend that a bit, and to say that if the liberal impulse is “we can do better,” then the conservative impulse is “don’t make it worse.” The conservative danger is allowing injustice to go unchallenged, and the threat to conservatives is the suspicion that caution and prudence are really masks for indifference.

Or something like that. The basic idea is that both of these impulses are valuable and necessary in any polity, and perhaps especially in democracies. And I guess I’d also say that both those impulses don’t always map easily onto public policy positions that we associate with those who call themselves liberals and conservatives.

And the problem with American politics is that the “conservative” party post-Reagan really doesn’t seem to possess the conservative impulse. The party of Paul Ryan, George W. Bush, and Newt Gingrich is a party of neither the conservative nor the liberal impulse, but a radical one. They are the party who not only embraces, as Ronald Reagan did, Thomas Paine’s claim that “We have it in our power to begin the world anew,” but that often doesn’t seem to temper that grandiose attitude with any of Reagan’s FDR-worshiping liberalism that ground their idealism in the real world (okay, Reagan’s version of the real world, which caused all sorts of problems, but it was real to him at any rate and therefore imposed limits). Anyway, it leads them to absolutes, which everyone from Andrew Sullivan to Hannah Arendt could tell you aren’t very healthy when it comes to politics.

Again, this is all sort of doodling; if you really want to know about ideology, you’ll want to read Hans Noel. Just saying that it helps me sort things out when I think about it this way.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.