Charles Cooke of National Review is one smart cookie. His cover story on the cult of charlatan Neil deGrasse Tyson is a must-read for anyone dubious of progressivism. Like many of his polemics at Bill Buckley’s legacy publication, Cooke deftly tarnishes the idol of simple, left-wing secularists who scoff at Bible-toting bumpkins in flyover country. Truly, few things top a good takedown of a cultural icon.
With such talent, I was disappointed by the title and subject of Cooke’s forthcoming book. Don’t get me wrong: I’m sure the thing will be well-written and full of keen insights laced with erudite quotations. But the name turns me off. Cooke is calling the book, The Conservatarian Manifesto: Libertarians, Conservatives, and the Fight for the Right’s Future. It sounds like a cool, promising subject brought down by a neologism that will fit shoulder-to-shoulder in an ocean of increasingly pedantic political labels.
To be sure, Cooke is far from the first thinker to utilize the term “conservatarian.” His “manifesto” seems like an attempt to pioneer its launch into the popular lexicon though. The book’s synopsis describes Cooke’s offering as a “call to arms” that can “help Republicans mend the many ills that have plagued their party in recent years.” That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I also don’t find anything wrong with libertarians or conservatives. From a political perspective, I easily identify with the non-aggression principle of libertarianism. When it comes to worldly matters and personal disposition, I hoist my flag with Tory conservatism. And on some issues, such as the plight of the poor, I can be a downright bleeding heart liberal.
But what’s the difference? And should it really matter what label we use?
These are questions that constantly come up when discussing political matters. Matters of governance are often talked about in terms of ideology, rather than the utility or ethical nature of the law. Balancing the budget is called a “conservative” policy. Easing punishment for drug offenders is seen as “liberal.” Rarely is public policy talked in terms of common sense. That’s because ideological labels are a tribal contest. Each has their cheerleaders and detractors, similar to professional sports. The difference is that Nancy Pelosi’s collagen-stuffed face can’t be fixed with a skirt and pompoms, and Karl Rove is about as agile as an obese penguin.
Lumping ideas into firm categories leaves out the messiness that follows public policy. Just like spouses, there is no perfect government. Logrolling exists for a reason. Democracy, whether representative or pure, is a give-and-take system. Laws come out of the legislative process with all kinds of inputs from people with varying perspectives. No policy embodies the core philosophy of Edmund Burke or Paul Krugman. Compromise is the only universal in representative government.
With that in mind, doesn’t it still make sense for someone like Cooke to combine the principles of conservatism and libertarianism into an all-encompassing creed? Perhaps; seeing as how Frank Myers did a well-enough job of articulating the cause while boosting fusionism at National Review. But what did fusionism accomplish in the end? It may have propelled Ronald Reagan to the White House, but it certainly didn’t reverse the growth of government. By all measures, Myers’ fusionism has been an abysmal failure. Washington D.C.’s authority is bigger than ever. Liberal moral relativism has permeated the popular culture. If fusionism between conservatives and libertarians was to be America’s saving grace, the Dark Ages won out. Deliver us from evil, it has not.
That said, Cooke’s attempt to combine the best practices of Rothbard and Kirk will likely have a hard time getting off the ground. Conservatarianism has been tried already with little success. Perhaps the hope is that a new set of independent thinkers will hold the Republican Party’s feet to the fire by…calling themselves conservatarians? Meaningful political change is hard to come by. I highly doubt a wardrobe change will foster the urgency needed to return the Grand Old Party to, say, its Taftian roots.
Achieving results is not the only alarming issue with the fusing of political labels. There’s an irritation that comes with the use of another political label that will, in all likelihood, get used for a few years before fading into obscurity.
No one talks about “constitutionalists” anymore because that term has little meaning. The Constitution has been amended numerous times since inception; sometimes for good and some for ill. Speaking to the original intent of the Founding Fathers is a frail platform given that, as statesmen versed in Enlightenment thinking and caution over concentrated authority, they had varying opinions on what makes good government.
The same goes for so-called “greens” that love to bicker over the best means to wipe humanity from the Earth and let vegetation reign supreme. On one hand, the environmentalists trumpet the rise of windmills and other renewable energy sources. On the other, they decry the deadly impacts on wildlife. These crypto-communists can’t get their act together and decide which means are best to destroy civilization. That’s why few people look upon self-described “greens” with anything but scorn.
Political labels are rarely accurate because of one simple truth: people are complicated. They don’t subscribe to just one set of ideas and apply it to all of life’s ups and downs. More often than not, they adopt favorable aspects of competing ideologies. Conservative embrace the collectivism of communal activity. Liberals love autonomy in the sphere of sexual relations. Each adopts the countervailing philosophy to suit its needs. Hitching one philosophy to another in hopes of bringing folks together is a dorm-room philosophical game. Ideology can exist in a vacuum, but reality doesn’t always form to established principle. Hence the difficulty of putting one’s worldview into a conjoining of terms.
I recently ran across a fairly comprehensive political quiz that’s supposed to give an 5 dimensional gauge of temperament. After completing the test, I was defined as an “objectivist, anarchist, total-isolationist, nationalist, reactionary.” I certainly jive with the anarchist and reactionary label. As for objectivism, I have plenty of qualms with Ayn Rand’s philosophy. And I don’t think of myself as an isolationist of any kind.
Clearly, these comprehensive political tests are filled with gaps and logical errors. Yet we can’t help but use labels to somewhat organize ourselves into groups that share a common view. At best, these descriptions help focus energy into feasible tasks. To chop up and mix already existing terms in the hopes of establishing a new philosophy is an exercise in abstract banter. Why not keep it simple and use already existing designations? Liberal, conservative, and libertarian seem to suffice. Why not leave them be?
American political advocacy is going to exist in the two party paradigm for the time being. The donkey and elephant duopoly will survive because each is composed of varying worldviews that crowd under a big umbrella. According to a recent paper by political scientists Matt Grossmann and David Hopkins,
“the Republican Party is dominated by ideologues who are committed to small-government principles, while Democrats represent a coalition of social groups seeking public policies that favor their particular interests.”
The modern American political systems is based on the liberal-conservative divide. Libertarians and constitutionalists tend to go with the GOP when it’s convenient (or waste their time on the useless libertarian or constitutionalist parties) and radical socialists vote Democrat. At best, political labels aid in corralling varying worldviews toward one major political party. They aren’t pernicious by any means, just simple. And life is often times far from simple.
I’ll take a quick guess at what a Charles Cooke conservatarian is: a Republican voter who doesn’t fully line up with the party platform. I suppose there are worse things in life. I have my doubts on the political effectiveness of a broad conservative and libertarian coalition. But then again, I could be wrong. To paraphrase Mencken, few ever lost money betting against novel political strategies. Good luck with the ethos Charlie. Let’s see if gets any takers.