Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Douthat on Gerson

Ross Douthat reviews Michael Gerson’s book. While he wouldn’t read Gerson out of the conservative movement, he has nicer things to say about his diagnosis than about his prescription:

Gerson’s central argument is basically correct: American conservatism needs to stand for something besides government-cutting if it hopes to regain the majority that George W. Bush won (and quickly lost). At its best, Heroic Conservatism is a necessary corrective to the right’s mythologizing of its own past, which cultivates the pretense that small-government purity has always been the key to Republican success. By way of rebuttal, Gerson points out that conservatives tend to win elections only when they convince voters that they mean to reform the welfare state, rather than do away with it entirely.

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If Gerson’s diagnosis is largely correct, however, his proposed remedy—the "heroic conservatism" of the title—seems more likely to kill the patient than to save it. Standing amid the rubble of an administration that promised (often in his own flowery prose) far more than it delivered, Gerson summons the GOP to a still-more-ambitious set of foreign and domestic crusades.

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To last, and matter, conservatism needs an agenda that partakes less of Gerson’s evangelical moralism and more of the realism that defined the original neoconservatives. It needs a foreign policy whose idealism is leavened with a greater sense of limits than this administration has displayed; and a domestic policy that seeks to draw contrasts with liberalism, not to imitate it, by emphasizing responsibility rather than charity and respect rather than compassion.

All of that strikes me as basically correct, though I understood that the "ownership society" was the goal of compassionate conservatism. Applied to social policy, the "transformative" promise of evangelicalism (even if it’s read through the lens of Catholic social thought, which, by the way, always leavened the allegedly "militant libertarianism" of "midcentury conservatism") is supposed to cultivate characters who can stand up for themselves, pulling their weight as members of a community.

Is Douthat missing this strand of Gerson’s argument, or is it genuinely absent? If Gerson means to perpetuate a patron-client relationship based upon compassion, then he is indistinguishable from his liberal counterparts.

I know you’re all eagerly awaiting my thoughts on the book. I promise that it will be at the top of my pile over the Christmas holidays.

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