The Branding of Conservatism

1. A friend watched a promotional video for a Washington think-tank and was just stunned by how many times the word “conservative” was dropped. Not “careful research,” not “crafting coherent policy,” not “working toward solutions that benefit all Americans,” not “constructive engagement with other institutions.” God forbid anything about “bipartisanship” should be mentioned.

After all, the purpose of a think-tank now is to win elections. It doesn’t matter what conservatism stands for, or what its vision of the future is. It doesn’t matter whether anyone is actually helped by conservative thought. All that matters is there’s a label we can see and we immediately know what we’re against.

2. I’m not saying the Left doesn’t do this junk. Of course it does – there’s a reason I vote Republican. But tit-for-tat doesn’t get you a better country, a more just people, a serious vision for the future. Notice that none of those things requires winning an election. How do we know that if we elect someone committed to a free market and less onerous regulation the economy won’t tank? We want results and think winning elections gives results. Unfortunately, even doing something as sweeping as health-care reform doesn’t mean we’ll have the money to actually give anyone health care.

Ideology demands the world be a certain way and pretends a good can be had from it. What’s funny about ideology is that it is morality with none of the guilt or fear of morality. When we’re moral, we know full well we might not get anything good. Heck, help the wrong people and you could get robbed or worse. Ideology has no such doubt about the good. Lower taxes? We’ll all get money. Invest in green technology? We’ll all get jobs. Life is better, see? All we had to do was take policy, with its myriad complications, and reduce it to a caricature of itself. One we think that wins elections, but one that certainly makes pundits, media companies, consultants, advertisers, t-shirt salesmen, perpetual candidates and a host of other people money. (Then we wonder why people think we’re really boring at parties.)

3. This isn’t to say ideology or partisanship doesn’t have a use. It absolutely does – heck, its moral use is reminding us that politics is a game, that we can disagree and still get along. It’s supposed to point to higher issues and causes and let them be higher.

Unfortunately, we live in an age where politics is a religion. The Right has always accused the Left of this: “godless Communism” was a sort of confirmation. I remember seeing some televangelist my mother was watching, though, rant about green jobs and linking it with the apocalypse. I do know that back at the time of the Founding, Locke was being preached routinely from pulpits. But maybe that historical linkage between religion and politics doesn’t negate what I’m saying. Once upon a time, people went to church and heard about things like natural rights in the context of complicated claims about Scripture and the authority of a monarch, abstractly considered. Once upon a time, people went to church and didn’t think God was a big genie who gave everything if the right prayer was said. Politics is a religion now, but for reasons we are really loathe to admit.

1 Comment

  1. If you’re curious about the relation between prayer and the good, two things: 1) think about what being “saved” means. 2) e-mail me privately. I’m going to tell you in advance that almost no good done to you or for you compares to doing something terribly unjust.

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