Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Reviews of Sullivan

The WaPo review of Andrew Sullivan’s The Conservative Soul is an embarrassment. The less said about it, the better.

The NYT, to its credit, commissioned David Brooks to write the review, and it’s a good one. A snippet or two:

The Conservative Soul” is imbued with Sullivan’s characteristic passion and clarity. And yet I must confess, if I hadn’t been reviewing this book, I wouldn’t have finished it. I have a rule, which has never failed me, that when a writer uses quotations from Jerry Falwell, James Dobson and the Left Behind series to capture the religious and political currents in modern America, then I know I can put that piece of writing down because the author either doesn’t know what he is talking about or is arguing in bad faith.


As for Sullivan’s conservatism of doubt, I’m sympathetic. I know only two self-confessed Oakeshottians in Washington — Sullivan and me. And yet Oakeshott’s modesty can never be the main strain in one’s thinking, though it should always be the warning voice in the back of your mind.

Sullivan notes that Oakeshott “couldn’t care less about politics as such, who wins and loses, what is now vulgarly called ‘the battle of ideas.’ ” His thought was poetic, not programmatic.

Well, if you want to sit in a cottage and bet on horses, fine. But if you actually want to govern, such thinking is of limited use. It doesn’t make sense to ask how an Oakeshottian would govern because an Oakeshottian could never get elected in a democracy and could never use the levers of power if somehow he did. Doubt is not a political platform. Hope is.

Oakeshott was wise, but Oakeshottian conservatism can never prevail in America because the United States was not founded on the basis of custom, but by the assertion of a universal truth — that all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain rights. The United States is a creedal nation, and almost every significant movement in American history has been led by people calling upon us to live up to our creed. In many cases, the people making those calls were religious leaders. From Jonathan Edwards to the abolitionists to the civil rights leaders to the people fighting AIDS and genocide in Africa today, religiously motivated people have been active in public life. They have been, in their certainty and their willingness to apply divine truths, fundamentalists — if we want to use Sullivan’s categories. You take those people out of American politics and you don’t have a country left.

Read Brooks and ignore the WaPo review. And try to finish Sullivan’s book. It’s on my nightstand.

Update: As Steve Thomas helpfully notes in the comments, Sullivan has responded to Brooks here and here. On the basis of what he says here, I’m not convinced that the Constitution is a "Burkean" document, or that his version of conservatism is genuinely conservative. Let me cite one statement as an illustration: "To paraphrase Oakeshott, I am a conservative in politics so I - and anyone else - can be a radical in every other activity, if we so choose." This might explain a certain kind of Straussian, but even most (or at least many) Straussians would profess a greater respect for traditional (gentlemanly) morality than this statement implies, not to mention be more attentive to the interactions between regime and morality than Sullivan seems to be. In this mode, Sullivan seems to be more a product of a certain kind of Enlightenment than of any sort of conservatism, more of a libertarian/Hayekian than a pure Burkean. I’ll grant him some Oakeshottian tendencies, but Oakeshott was not the relentless popularizer, polemicist, and propagandist that he is.

Discussions - 3 Comments

Sullivan has gone off an intellectual cliff and is no longer worth reading.
Brooks has definitely written a good review, and he’s right to point out that Oakeshott, though certainly wise, is of little use in this crisis of conservatism. Also that the introduction of gay marriage, which Sullivan rabidly promotes and judges political leaders by, is deeply un-Oakeshottian.

Good Brooks. Thanks, Joe.

Sullivan has now posted on his website a lengthy response to Brooks, which is also worth reading.

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