Dec 27, 2003 6:43 am


One of the major shifts in American politics over the past 40 years is the revitalization of political conservatism. Since the Goldwater debacle of 1964, conservative Republicans have scrambled to a dominant position in American politics. Both a Republican and, in many respects, at least, a conservative, I should be celebrating all that. I don't because I don't recognize what it represents as conservative in any meaningful sense of the word.

From the ruthless partisanship of a Tom DeLay, which knows no restraint, to the reckless fiscal policies and the crusading foreign policy of this administration, I see nothing but repudiation of core conservative values. The genius of Charles Dickens and Mark Twain combined couldn't have made up a better name for a conservative American republican. Alas, he isn't one. Balanced budgets? All too briefly remembered. International restraint? Please. Several days ago, I wrote about the dilemma of American liberalism, caught between the competing values of freedom and equality. The problem of"American conservativism" is that it isn't conservative at all. It is, in fact, quite radical and, I fear, recklessly so.

As I see it, the new American" conservatism" is an alliance of two core constituencies: A) believers in an unbridled capitalism as productive of the greatest good for"me" and B) religious traditionalists who feel threatened by social change. It is an uneasy alliance because the purposes of A do not well serve the needs of B. Ten years ago, I wrote that "industrial capitalism" has been"the radical force in American society, generating social change of unforeseen consequence, heedlessly disruptive of human community." We have no reason to think that post-industrial capitalism is any less so. Witness a jobless economic recovery that winks at illegal immigrants working for less than minimum wages here at home and outsources middle income jobs for 1/10th of their domestic cost abroad.

The very unconservative nature of American conservatism appears in Michael Crichton's critique of contemporary environmentalism. It is currently widely cited in" conservative" circles, by Richard Jensen's Conservativenet, by Glenn Reynold's Instapundit, by David Beito on Liberty & Power and elsewhere.

My colleague, Oscar Chamberlain, may comment on the"science" in Crichton's address. I have no expertise in it. What fascinated me was Crichton's attack on the"religion" of environmentalism. That might even give religious traditionalists some pause. Crichton apparently believes that merely because one can discern in some environmentalists' operative assumptions a belief in a primal rightness of things which was somehow and subsequently relentlessly damaged that their beliefs can, in the name of"science," therefore be dismissed as"religious." Well, welcome to much of the whole western intellectual tradition, Mr. Crichton. Sure, the myth of a primal nature of things has its origins in the early Biblical narrative, but it is elemental to the western psyche. Variants of it are found in every major western intellect since Augustine. Hobbs, Locke, Marx, Darwin, Freud argue about the character of our primal selves and society, but they all take our primitive condition as a benchmark. Doing so isn't essentially unscientific. Science wishes to discover what that primal condition was and how it has changed.

What passes for" conservatism" in America isn't conservative at all. If it were, it would take the lead in efforts at" conservation." Don't count on unbridled post-industrial capitalism to do that.

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