John Holbo writes:
"In the New Yorker piece Feeney sketches ‘the ideal conservative’ like so: “This figure is a dreamy quietist of peaceable disposition, who savors apolitical friendship, nurses a skeptical outlook, and looks to an anti-theoretical politics of homey tradition and humane, but chastened, sentiment to guide him.” Close enough for government work, as a thumbnail summary of conservative political philosophy. But not nearly close enough for government work if Trump is elected. Obviously not. But that just shows Trump isn’t a conservative, not that conservatism was always already Trumpism. If ‘conservatives’ substantially go Trump, it goes to show that they weren’t conservative. There were fewer ‘real’ conservatives, after all.
It’s fair enough to say conservative political philosophy is a normative position. That’s a reasonable way to use words. But if conservatism is a normative position unmoored from real US politics, to the point where it has no bearing whatsoever on election results, and election results do not reflect on it, then it seems self-defeating for a different reason: namely, it’s just some abstract philosopher’s game. It’s a paper plan for some utopia. That’s nuts. Because the paper plan is to be smug about how other people – the liberals – are always making paper plans for utopia. A utopia in which everyone is smug about how they are the only non-utopians is a stupid utopia.
Putting it another way, terms like ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ have many uses, potentially. They are foci for theorizing about ideals. We want to know what is the best that liberalism could be; the best that conservatism could be. It makes sense to try to see the best in competing values. We also want these terms to serve as socio-electoral shorthand. If you want to understand what is going on in politics, ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’ are terms for tagging groups and movements and so forth. Deploying these terms is supposed to make politics less, rather than more, baffling. Using one word to do both jobs – limn the ideal, track the real – is optimistic. It depends on the real groups and movements being approximately ideal. The way things are actually going needs to be not waaaaaay off the way they ought to be going, in order for a theory of ideal conservatism to do reliable double-duty as a rough map of actually existing conservatism."
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