Thursday, November 7, 2013

Prudence and the afterlife

Last week National Review published a long but very good piece reflecting on the government shutdown and the lack of prudence demonstrated by the Republicans. Among other things, the writers note:
Conservative groups that have internalized the apocalyptic view of politics believe the most effective model for gaining ground is simply pressuring Republicans to be more confrontational. The first step of the defunding strategy was not to persuade most Republicans that it was a good idea; it was to force them to go along with it whether or not they agreed. So the defunders prevented the majority of House Republicans, who disagreed, from being able to follow a different approach, and threatened to run primary opponents against some of them. Then they began to insist that Republicans who remained critical were dishonorably breaking the party’s (coerced) unity. It turned out that the power to move the House Republican caucus is not the power to move the world. Again and again it has instead been the case that as House Republicans go, so go House Republicans. 
While not working, this approach increases the amount of bad blood among allies. The elevation of tactics to the level of principle means that there will always be new turncoats to purge. In recent weeks, Senators Ron Johnson and Rand Paul, both previously tea-party favorites, have been denounced for not being sufficiently committed to defunding. Constantly generating new turncoats is not a sign of a workable strategy. 
This article prompted Redstate's Erick Ericson to declare that NR was no longer a conservative standard-bearer:
Now, instead of standing athwart history yelling stop, National Review spends 3,591 words to tell conservatives to stop fighting until they win. National Review has individual voices that echo the hunger of conservatives outside Washington. National Review itself does align with those conservatives on a number of issues from immigration to the export-import bank to the farm bill. But in the hard slogs against the establishment of our own side, National Review most often chooses to sit with the establishment or on the sidelines.
However, it was the next paragraph in Erickson's article that particularly jumped out at me. Erickson wrote:
Like much of the Republican Leadership, National Review wants to win majorities before unleashing hell, but history shows us repeatedly that Republicans never unleash hell once they have the majority. They become well-fed denizens of power, using it to reward friends and influence people, instead of willingly surrendering it to shrink the leviathan. More often, these Republicans often have help from the very voices that should be urging restraint and accountability. Accommodation of pro-life statists among the GOP should not be the hallmark of conservatism’s standard bearer.
This is the very "apocalyptic view of politics" that NR criticized in the first place.

One of the strengths of conservatism is its resistance to utopian ideology--those plans that attempt to create heaven on earth. There is a healthy reaction among conservatives to anyone who wants to fundamentally transform or remake society. Politics has its own limits. And this fits well with my Christian political philosophy as well: politics is the art of pursuing the common good. Heaven is in heaven, not on earth,

Conservatives today need to be especially cautious here. They need prudence, as the original NR piece pointed out. There is a tendency to say if we only have the right candidate, if we only can get so and so out of office, if we can only rewrite the rules, then we can have our conservative society. The appeal of the conservative (or libertarian) utopia is held as being just out of reach, yet blocked by whatever the target of the day is. Hence the need to "unleash hell" on "them."

This is not utopia in the positive sense, where a beatific vision is sold to the people. Instead this is negative-utopia, where support is garnered by the appeal of tormenting the opposition. It's actually not unlike the hell that utopias always fall into, with loyalty tests, purges, exiles, and executions. It just short circuits the attempted utopia and aims directly for hell.

I'm not interested in creating heaven for those who agree with me or imposing hell on those who don't. Both strategies replace an idea of the "common good" with something neither common nor good. And besides being impossible and subject to backfire, both inclinations attempt to pull the afterlife into the present and are consequently fundamentally neither conservative nor (more importantly) Christian.
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