Andrew Sullivan: The Conservative Soul

Sullivan, Andrew. The Conservative Soul: How We Lost It, How to Get It Back (New York: HarperCollins, 2006)

I'll begin my review of Andrew Sullivan's The Conservative Soul by noting other reviews of the book, and follow up with some further comments of my own. Glenn Greenwald referred to Sullivan's book as the "hollow conservative soul," and--title aside--his assessment parallels my own:

I think Sullivan is an excellent writer and a commendable and insightful political thinker. As is evident from his book and his blog, he explicitly examines and frequently re-visits the first principles underlying his beliefs, which is why he is open to rational opposition and to changing his mind about his political views, even on fundamental questions. That is a trait that is all too rare.

That is what makes The Conservative Soul worth reading. It highlights the true philosophical and psychological roots of the Bush movement -- its first principles -- and reveals just how rotted those fundamentalist roots are. It does this as well as, if not better than, any other book has done. And it makes a unique and compelling case for the virtue of doubt, something from which anyone with strong political convictions would probably benefit.

(Sullivan's response to Greenwald is here.) David Brooks reviewed The Conservative Soul for the NYT Book Review last fall, and Sullivan responded with a piece about Oakeshottian doubt.

Bryan Burrough reviewed the book here at the Washington Post, describing it as "not only too polite but too high-minded to galvanize anyone without a graduate degree in philosophy," and referring to it as "a fine intellectual effort that, for all Sullivan's clear thinking and clear prose, probably won't change any minds that fundamentalist beliefs haven't already ossified."

Burrough underestimates Sullivan's audience, the broad American citizenry that worships at the altar of neither Fox News nor Air America; this expansive middle of the electorate is willing to think about deep subjects, if a helpful voice--such as that provided by Sullivan--can speak with vision rather than vitriol.

As valuable as I consider Sullivan's book, The Conservative Soul is marred by several logical and factual errors of the types that are ubiquitous is other pundits' work, but unexpected and jarring in Sullivan's. A few examples follow:

* When Sullivan argues that adults "look around them in the twenty-first century and they increasingly see no stable cultural authorities to tell them what values to instill in the next generation," (p. 12) he unintentionally identifies a primary difference between liberals and conservatives: we do not need a "cultural authority" to tell us "what values to instill" in our children. There is certainly no shortage of people telling us what to do--from Dr Spock to NAMBLA to unhinged wingnut James Dobson--but we aren't about to kneel down before yet another would-be authority whose values (blind obedience, blind faith) are anathema to ours. Sullivan softens the authoritarian-leaning implications of this stance a few pages later in discussing the media:

The truth was once delivered daily to our doorsteps in a single newspaper or declaimed in the authoritative tones of Walter Cronkite or Alastair Cooke. Now there is a cacophony of bloggers and podcasters and viral videos and cable channels and indie movies and online petitions. Each has its meaning and small piece of authority; and in response, we each have to try to develop our own. (p. 15)

* He argues that "conservatism is ascendant as a political philosophy and cultural force in the West," (p. 15) but I would respond that, after a retrenchment and reevaluation beginning in the Clinton era, American liberalism is poised to utter a few polite words at the graveside of Nixon/Ford/Reagan/Bush/Bush conservatism before returning to the task at hand: competent governance of our great nation.

* On page 41, Sullivan describes James Dobson as "the most influential fundamentalist in America;" ten pages later he refers to Dubya as "the most powerful Christian fundamentalist in the world." Is he drawing a distinction between influence and power, given that both men are Christian fundamentalists?

* When discussing Thomas Paine, Sullivan writes: "The man who actually came up with the name of the new nation, the United States of America, was, after all, an atheist." (p. 131) Actually, Paine was a deist; the following passage from Part II, Section 16 of The Age of Reason illustrates this:

...the only true religion is Deism, by which I then meant, and mean now, the belief of one God, and an imitation of his moral character, or the practice of what are called moral virtues--and that it was upon this only (so far as religion is concerned) that I rested all my hopes of happiness hereafter. So say I now--and so help me God.

* This passage, while it makes a good point about the secular nature of marriage, also contains a potentially confusing error:

Bush formally met with no openly gay people in his term of office, said that such individuals would not share his philosophy, and publicly described civil marriage as a "sacred institution," conflating any distinction between the secular and the religious. (p. 153)

That's a clear misuse of "conflating;" I suspect Sullivan meant "erasing." He used the word correctly a few pages later:

But again this doesn't fully explain the rigidity of the Bush White House, its imperviousness to empirical criticism, its insistence on the inerrancy of its leader, and its ruthlessness toward critics. What does help explain it is the fundamentalist mind-set. A strong inerrant leader is typical of such religious groupings; deference is regarded as the natural response to such a hierarchy; criticism is immediately conflated with sin or weakness or treachery. (p. 163)

* Sullivan opens Chapter 5, titled "The Conservatism of Doubt," with a quote from Montaigne and this definition: "The defining characteristic of the conservative is that he knows what he doesn't know." (p. 173) He repeats a similar formulation later, claiming that "A conservative is defined primarily by his profound grasp of the limits of human understanding." (p. 250) This is quite a surprise to me, as most conservatives I see and hear are filled not with doubts but with certainties. They are certain not just about how to order every aspect of their own lives, but ours as well. Perhaps all those conservatives are really fundamentalists--at least in Sullivan's formulation.

* Continuing to discuss Montaigne, Sullivan writes:

Montaigne, mind you, isn't asking us to disparage the past from the comfortable certainty of the present. He is asking us to question all of it, to ask each question anew, to take nothing for granted, to be careful of generalizing, and suspicious of dogma. (p. 190)

Not only does Sullivan sound as if he's describing liberalism, his remark is also quite similar to this statement from Bertrand Russell from his 1950 essay "Philosophy and Politics:"

"The essence of the Liberal outlook lies not in what opinions are held, but in how they are held: instead of being held dogmatically, they are held tentatively, and with a consciousness that new evidence may at any moment lead to their abandonment. This is the way in which opinions are held in science, as opposed to the way in which they are held in theology. [...] Science is empirical, tentative, and undogmatic; all immutable dogma is unscientific. The scientific outlook, accordingly, is the intellectual counterpart of what is, in the practical sphere, the outlook of Liberalism."

* I was astounded to hear Sullivan describe jazz as a "conservative" genre in this passage: "There are even rough and ready rules for jazz, the most purely conversational and therefore conservative of musical forms." (p. 202) Next to the often contrived anarchism of punk, I can think of no musical form less conservative than jazz. The spontaneity of jazz--and the individual freedom upon which its foundation rests--necessitates an outlook at odds with contemporary conservatism. On the basis of conservative policies, excellence would be judged by its adherence to an unchangeable musical score: the most conservative musical form would be something thoroughly regimented, such as the Gregorian chant.

* This passage also raised my hackles:

The point [of the Constitution] was to stop anything collective from being done too easily. And the premise of this intended frustration was the founders' grasp on the limits of human wisdom. In that critical sense, they were conservatives. And in that sense, American is a conservative nation. (pp. 250-1)

Let's look at the details, shall we? No monarchy; no aristocracy; no alliance between church and state; an egalitarianism (except for slavery and some property requirements) and small-r republicanism radical for their time; and strict limits on governmental power. In all these senses, America's founders--and America herself--are profoundly liberal. A conservative Constitution would have had Houses of Commons and Lords, presided over by King George Washington the First.

* This statement on the post-9/11 moment also went astray in the second sentence:

The spontaneous outburst of patriotism and resilience after 9/11 showed that a secular, liberal democracy knew what it stood for and what it stood against. It took the toxic combination of religious fundamentalism, leftist anger, and political incompetence to tear the country apart over Iraq. (p. 264)

Any anger borne by the Left is not some free-floating, amorphous animus; it is a response to the religious fundamentalism (and political incompetence) of the GOP's conservative misrule. Had the Bush administration been less disastrous, we liberals would have had much less to be angry about.

* When he gets into fiscal policy, Sullivan goes off the rails again:

So a conservative will favor as simple a tax code as possible, and will be suspicious of any government's decision to tax some people at different rates than others. Such "progressive" taxation is better described as unequal taxation, the treatment of some citizens as inferior to others and therefore subject to higher levels of taxation. The fact that their inferiority is related to their success or enterprise makes the whole enterprise look remarkably fishy. (p. 272)

This is a weird parallel to the "death tax" trope; there is, of course, nothing particular about the person of Bill Gates (to choose one example) that is singled out for higher taxation. People are not taxed, although their incomes, capital gains, purchases, estate transfers, properties (etc.) are subject to taxation. Sullivan may not consider this an adequate distinction, but I do.

I don't with to overemphasize such relatively minor flaws in a largely rewarding book; Sullivan has done an excellent job and is to be commended for doing so. His book will outlive the other election-season volumes whose relevance is limited to their particular moment in time; The Conservative Soul tackles larger themes of longer-lived significance. When Sullivan's book was discussed in the New York Review of Books, Jonathan Raban had this to say:

What is so timely about Sullivan's book, and why it should be read closely by liberals as well as conservatives, is its embedded firsthand report on the widening ideological cracks in the house that Rove built--a building that Rove used to boast was permanent and impregnable, and that Sullivan now makes look like a tottering fixer-upper.

Sullivan responded to Raban's review, observing that "in general, a writer could not ask for a smarter, fairer or more engaged review:"

I have a feeling the book's actual moment was not its pre-election publication date - but now, as the implosion of conservatism becomes steadily more apparent, and people are beginning to ask themselves far more seriously why.

Sullivan is probably correct: When 2006's electoral embarrassment for the GOP becomes 2008's landslide, I suspect that his book will be diligently examined. As more conservatives try to understand how their dream of a permanent majority was so thoroughly dashed on the rocks of reality, a look into the substantive past of conservatism--rather than its degenerated present--will do us all some good.


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