On a gut level I care a lot more about my friends and family than I do about the masses. I view with skepticism people who want to preach to me, from on their high horse, what I should be thinking and doing in the name of justice. I see our political system as being, on balance, one of the more half-decent ones that history has produced, and I’m somewhat horrified by radicals who think that its very real and deep flaws and sins justify tearing it all down. I think human societies, like human beings, are flawed, imperfect, frail things, and as such deserve both idealistic prods to be better than they are and some measure of tolerance and compassion for the many ways in which they’ll inevitably fail.
These are all perspectives that fit comfortably under the rubric of “conservative.” Yet my overt politics are democratic socialist.
At the most conscious, explicit level I would like for the U.S. to move (democratically, with moral urgency but not haste) in the direction of those lovely Scandinavian countries, or at least my fantasy of them, where a vibrant market economy co-exists with high taxes, a generous welfare state, strong unions, tough but well-engineered regulations, appropriate urgency about climate change, egalitarian views about sexuality and gender, and a general aversion to war and imperialism.
As a young man, I used to enjoy reading hair-splitting discussions of atheism and theology. Having long since become bored with all that, I now enjoy reading attempts by other questioning folks to pin down some sort of ontology of political identity. Perhaps we can start identifying as politically queer, or politically trans, even? Poli-fluid? Stop oppressing me with your political binary! Anyway, this is the first of what will apparently be a multi-part dialogue between Oppenheimer and a couple other people, so I don’t want to read too much into what must, of necessity, be very general and broad statements, but a few things do jump out at me right away.
Here, he presents his situation as a standoff between his conservative heart and his democratic socialist head. The problem, as I see it, is that this particular formulation is one big ol’ begged question. I would suggest that “even conservatives” are in favor of “appropriate” urgency about climate change, “a general aversion” to war and imperialism, and other noble-sounding ideals. The question is not about whether we all, right and left, would like to see a world full of Good Things; the question is whether these things are obtainable at a reasonable cost. Contrary to many progressive polemics, conservatism is not inherently opposed to change no matter what. Even Edmund Burke allowed that societies had to be flexible enough to adapt to new circumstances. The tendency of conservatism to err on the side of caution and inertia is not the first step on a slippery slope to the social vision of Joseph de Maistre. Progressives may not dream of an actual utopia in which all problems have been eliminated, but they do seem credulous toward the possibility of optimizing our way toward a perfect balance between liberty and security, individuality and equality, and other competing goods which may very well be incapable of occupying the same social space at the same time. Conservatives, in contrast, are more likely to insist that life is nothing but trade-offs, each unsatisfactory in its own way, and to rest resignedly with the assumption that not all social ills can be cured through policy solutions.
The optimism bias, also known as the valence effect, describes the common tendency of idealists to imagine the best-case scenario resulting from their actions. The fallacy sneaks in with the next step, which is to assume that the best-case scenario is also the most likely result. What you should do, instead, is try to imagine alternatives. What happens if your actions fall short of their goals and result in unintended consequences? What sort of backup plan do you have? How do you calculate whether the possibility of failure outweighs the urge to act? A conservative might ask Oppenheimer: what happens if an increasingly-powerful welfare state becomes invasive and oppressive, and how would a citizenry which had allowed its civic spirit to atrophy find the resources to resist it? What happens when the unions become corrupt and obstructionist? What happens if taxes and regulations become detrimental to the economy? What happens if platitudes about egalitarianism turn into Harrison Bergeron-style schemes of Procrustean leveling? These sorts of questions don’t have a priori answers, which is why we shouldn’t be cavalier about making significant changes.
But speaking of the progressive fascination with the supposedly-greener grass elsewhere, another problem presents itself. As I wrote elsewhere, those who would like to see the U.S. transform into a Scandinavian social democracy have to consider the implications of the fact that a numerically small, ethnically homogenous population seems to be a requirement for such a system to work. How would it translate to a nation of 320 million, bitterly riven by separatist identity politics? The obvious suggestion would be a civic creed that transcends ethnicity. Unfortunately, the only thing currently less popular among the American left than white male privilege is the idea that there was ever anything noble or worthwhile about the founding myth of America as a land of freedom and opportunity. So, if social democracy is unlikely to germinate organically from a deeply-felt common American identity, it seems that the left would have to settle for imposing it in the Saint-Simonian fashion. Hopefully, one doesn’t have to be a doctrinaire conservative to look at that and say no, thanks.
This 21st century American left, which I suspect is on the rise, and will wield more influence over the next few decades than it has in the past few decades, is one I feel comfortable supporting. I think it’s a far better bet, in terms of humanizing and stabilizing American society, than the right, and felt that way even before the right attached itself to Donald Trump, who truly scares the bejesus out of my conservative self. I can imagine a future in which the left becomes powerful enough, and indulges its worst instincts enough, that I’d turn against it, but to my eyes that isn’t now. As we go forward I’ll just have to do my best to remain flexible enough in my thinking, and secure enough in myself, that I can ally with the right side, whatever that side is.
Well, fair enough, that’s all anyone can really ask. Other writers whom I respect have surveyed the scene and come to the opposite conclusion. Intelligent people can amicably disagree. However, I think it may well be too early to predict exactly what Trump’s effect on the right will be, especially if he loses, as seems likely. The right is hardly unified right now. A best-case — but not necessarily most likely! — scenario might lead to a more mainstream conservative party no longer primarily beholden to the religious right or the neoconservatives. And in addition, I see nothing to reassure me that the left won’t continue its post-Marxist withdrawal by continuing further down the dead-end road of grievance-mongering and identitarian fragmentation while making reflexive gestures in the direction of revolutionary salvation; if anything, Trump’s likely defeat will only lead to more hubristic excess. I agree with the widespread perception that progressives are primarily concerned with their image as “the good people”, happy to consider themselves members of a new cognitive elite, superior to the reactionary masses. I’m even sympathetic to the idea of writers like Joseph Bottum that this tendency is largely displaced religious yearning, a lingering desire among the mostly-godless to sort the world into the saved and the damned.
All of which is to say, I remain agnostic and noncommittal. But I’m looking forward to the rest of the exchange.