When I was a conservative, one of my heroes was the wonderfully eloquent right-wing writer, Joseph Sobran. If you’re not familiar with him, think: Pat Buchanan, also a Sobran admirer. Probably more than any single writer, with maybe the exception of the great William F. Buckley, Joe Sobran shaped the way I thought and reasoned as a conservative, and still shapes the way I think and reason as a liberal.
As you might imagine, he was a severe critic of liberals and the liberal mind, of the “malcontents.” The theme that permeated his most philosophical writings was that liberals “fail to appreciate” our “normal life,” a life lived outside the boundaries of politics. To him, a conservative was one “who regards this world with a basic affection,” and liberals simply lacked that basic affection for things.
He was wrong, of course. But I won’t go into that now. What I want to do is bring attention to an important question he asked, which I have never forgotten:
What we really ought to ask the liberal, before we even begin addressing his agenda, is this: In what kind of society would he be a conservative?
This idea—that one’s philosophical views might not be static, might need some adjustment—so bothered me, that I once phoned Mr. Sobran, while he was still working for Bill Buckley’s National Review, before Sobran was given the left foot of fellowship by the serious members of the conservative movement (believe it or not, serious conservatives policed themselves in those days) for his attitude toward Israel and what he considered to be the too-strong Jewish lobby in the United States (I told you, think: Pat Buchanan).
I asked my conservative hero about the idea of finding ourselves, as conservatives, in the kind of society we don’t wish to preserve, don’t wish to “conserve,” and finding ourselves wanting to dismantle the welfare state rather than see it continue. How, I asked him, can we continue to call ourselves conservatives when we essentially are radicals who want to fundamentally change the course of our country?
His answer was underwhelming. In fact, he didn’t have an answer. As I realize now, he could not answer that question because much of what Sobran so eloquently wrote could actually be used to defend today’s “big government” reality, at least in terms of what he called “an appreciation of the role of appreciation.”
Habits of conservation depend heavily on our affection for the way of life we are born to, which always includes far more than we can ever be simultaneously conscious of at a given moment. We speak our language and observe our laws by habit. It would be too much of a strain to have to learn a new language or a new set of laws every day. Habit allows a multitude of things to remain implicit; it lets us deal with ordinary situations without fully understanding them. It allows us to trust our milieu.
Only a madman, one might think, would dare to speak of changing the entire milieu— “building a new society”—or even to speak as if such a thing were possible. And yet this is the current political idiom. It is seriously out of touch with a set of traditions whose good effects it takes too much for granted; it fails to appreciate them, as it fails to appreciate the human situation.
Sobran wrote that in 1985.
That “set of traditions,” to the chagrin of the modern and brutal conservative movement, is now the New Deal and the Great Society, traditions and programs engrained in our way of life, a way of life people are loath to give up. “Conservation is a labor, not indolence,” Sobran wrote, “and it takes discrimination to identify and save a few strands of tradition in the incessant flow of mutability.” Yes, it does take labor. Hard labor.
Sometimes, as we watch the struggle to keep alive the institutions that represent our social safety net, as we watch Republicans try to tear down those institutions of stability, as we watch shaky Democrats try to preserve—conserve—our traditions, it seems like the labor is not only hard, but impossible.
And it seems that in terms of the kind of conservatism that Sobran and Edmund Burke and the Old Guard wrote about, Democrats today are the conservatives, and Republicans today are the radicals who fail to appreciate the things of this—our modern—world.
Just watch Barack Obama as he desperately tries to defend New Deal and Great Society institutions and tell me who the real conservative player is in the “negotiations” on how to save our country from the irresponsible politics of the Right.
You see, we now have the answer to that wonderfully insightful question Joe Sobran asked liberals more than twenty-five years ago: In what kind of society would you be a conservative?
This one. The one we are trying to save from the ravages of a radical Republican ideology, an ideology that inappropriately and inaccurately calls itself conservatism.