Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Bad Boy Perlstein

John Moser below draws our attention to Rick Perlstein’s comments at the Princeton conference on the conservative movement. I was present for the conference and can add a few details.

Perlstein, a delightful fellow in person, affects a fascination and respect for conservatives and conservatism, but he seems to relish playing the bad boy role when he appears at conservative conferences. His argument seems to boil down to this proposition: examples of bad behavior by conservatives in power suggests an intrinsic hypocrisy in the conservative movement. In the discussion period I challenged him sharply on two points: first, whether he could establish an organic link between conservative ideas and the instances of bad behavior that he cited, or whether bad behavior wasn’t endemic to politics since at least Alcibiades. (Couldn’t I, I said, compile an inventory just as long of bad behavior by liberals in power? In other words, isn’t he really just vindicating Acton, and therefore saying very little of signficance about the character of conservative ideas?) Second, I challenged him on his entirely typical use of the "southern strategy" charge against the GOP, arguing that if he was going to play that card he ought at least to acknowledge which party invented it in the first place and note instances such as Jimmy Carter’s blatant racial appeals as late as Carter’s governor’s race in 1970 (Perlstein nodded in agreement at this), and moreover that the pattern of GOP ascendence in the South (i.e., winning first in the border states and winning last in the deep south where racial sentiment was strongest--the case Gerard Alexander made so superbly in the Claremont Review a while back) suggested that the story of the political realignment in the south had more to do with broader cultural issues, such as Democratic hostility or indifference to religion. In reply, Perlstein merely repeated himself rather than grapple with my arguments. To repeat, I like Perlstein, but I wonder whether he feels the need to protect his left flank when he is slumming it with us, or whether his own ideological partisanship gets the better of him sometimes.

Discussions - 4 Comments

Steve, you are no doubt correct that the list of liberal dirty tricks is at least as long as those of conservatives. However, it seems to me that our side needs to be particularly careful, for two reasons: 1) we’re supposed to be the ones who agree with Acton, and therefore dedicated to reducing the power of the state (and hence the temptation of corruption); and 2) we have been the ones consistently arguing that noble ends ("social justice," for instance) to not justify ignoble means.

Now, the big problem with all this--and with all those who romanticize the old days when conservatism was blissfully unconcerned with power politics--is that these were also the days when conservatism was so marginalized as to have no measurable influence on national policy. Our challenge, then, is a modern version of the old Puritan dilemma--how to live in the world (in this case, Washington or Columbus) without being of the world.

Agree, agree, agree. I’m not sure Rick quite put the question in this acute form, though it is where his argument heads. I’ve invited him to participate in the discussion here.

I could not agree more strongly with John’s post here. Our belief that power corrupts should make us more careful to erode the power of the state, rather than "improve" it by making it more Christian, more compassionate, more whatever. We must always remember that Leviathan’s principle drive is simply to become "more," and ours must be to prevent that from happening.

I also agree with John’s invocation of the ascetic’s curse. In the middle ages every time a monastic order succeeded in separating itself from the world in some new way the world became all the more avid to "reward" this separation with land, money, and influence. Conservatism has been "rewarded" with power and influence by voters tired of the same old collectivist policies. We will either re-discover Goldwater’s ideas about divesting ourselves of power or we will become yet another populist party which grows government to please some factions at the expense of others.

Nice going, Steve.

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