Reflections on an Irony of American Conservatism: More on the Ryan Nomination

In the past week, I have published in Deliberately Considered and posted on my Facebook page a series of reflections on the implications of the nomination of Paul Ryan as Vice Presidential candidate of the Republican Party. And I have explained that the basis of my understanding of the present situation is a conservative insight concerning the dangers of ideological thought. The replies have been quite illuminating. The discussion starts with an interesting American irony: amusing, perhaps more.

Ryan’s nomination, I believe, assures the re-election of President Obama. The basis of my belief is a judgment that Americans generally are guided by a conservative insight, an American suspicion of ideological thought. Conservative insight defeats the conservative ticket.

Yet, on the intellectual front, there are few conservative thinkers who would illuminate this. Exceptions? Andrew Sullivan, perhaps also David Frum. (Anyone else?) But because these two are so guided, few, if any, conservatives recognize them as comrades in thought.

Aron Hsiao in a reply to one of my posts on conservative intellectuals explains the factors involved:

“The essence of the moment is that the mainstream demographic blocs of the Right have, as an ideological move, adopted anti-intellectualism as a central tenet of conservatism. Any marriage of democratic practice and political epistemology at the moment therefore precludes the conservative intellectual; if someone is intellectual in the slightest, the Right will disown him/her. They are the oft-maligned “RINOs” (Republicans in Name Only). To make matters worse, any intellectual at the moment of any value is loathe to be associated with the totality of the present (i.e. recent form of the) conservative project in America and thus tends to gravitate toward the (D) party. My suspicion is that rationally informed self-selection (they have careers and statuses, after all) results in a state of affairs in which few serious intellectuals can be found in the (R) party…”

Aside from the way he uses the term ideology, I agree completely with Hsiao. The implications are indeed scary.  I explained my understanding in my last post. I think it can help us understand the unfolding electoral debate.

Ideologists are more enamored by the purity of the ideological position, than they are committed to factual reality. This week we observed the strange case of the Republican candidate in Missouri Senate race, Congressman Todd Akin. Akin knows about wondrous powers of female biology “from what doctors have told him.” In cases of “legitimate rape” the reproductive system shuts down, according to the Congressman. I wonder what he thinks about the rape war crimes in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and beyond? From such ideologues we also “know” that there is no human induced climate change and that evolution is just a theory, persuasively challenged by creationist “science.” With the incredible power of the ideology induced human mind: fiction becomes fact; fantasy (in the technical Freudian sense of wish fulfillment) becomes science. Human suffering is ignored. Faced with a serious anti-abortion ethical dilemma, a new science is born.

Alvino-Mario Fantini, a conservative intellectual who has contributed to Deliberately Considered, I believe understands the problems here, the need to distinguish conservative thought from right-wing ideology. He responded to a commenter on my Facebook page, which he took to be an unwarranted dismissal of a significant conservative thinker. He asked:

What do you mean when you say “these days, Russell Kirk would be considered an ‘intellectual’ ?” Was he not? His seminal work The Conservative Mind was the work of a deep thinker (not an activist): an elegantly-written overview of literary and political examples of the “conservative imagination.” If anything, Kirk rejected ideology and would likely have very little to do with many of today’s GOP leaders.

Fantini shares my judgment that a serious debate between the left and the right needs to happen and hasn’t. He agrees with Gary Alan Fine that we live in partisan gated communities and that our ideas and our politics are diminished as a consequence. Fantini testifies that an important American conservative would have been appalled. Perhaps the most tragic consequence is that one party is now mired in an ideological fog, seducing a significant part of the public through ideology empowered media, i.e. Fox and company.

It is with this in mind that George Finch, disagrees with my observations and conclusions concerning the nomination of Paul Ryan. Finch noted on Facebook:

With all due respects, this country is very ideological, one that is based in the sanity of private property, individualism, the wisdom of the market, and a god-like capitalism. All are related of course. To top it off government is now seen as incompetent and part of the problem, not part of a solution. Ryan can appeal to this better than Romney, and with the right pr (lies) they may not scare people. Obama like most of the Ds do not help as they are now deficit hawks and have shifted to the Right and their ideology over the years. Obama will cut the safety net , and Ryan and his folk can use this to counter the D’s attacks and confuse people. The issue is not whether there are any Conservative intellectuals, but how far close we are coming to a form of Friendly Fascism.

And I responded:

I am not so sure that the American population is quite as nutty as you think, or that the market is worshiped in the way right wing ideologues hope and you fear. I think, and hope, that these things are in play and that the Republicans have over played their hand. I fundamentally disagree with you on Obama. He is not a deficit hawk and I think he has long fought the shift to the right and it is most clear now. Friendly Fascism is an epithet. I think it warns of the dangers of the rise of the hard right in one party, not both. Here again is a strong reason to vote for Obama and the Democrats.

Finch concluded the exchange by conceding that he has been hard on Obama, hoping that I am right in my electoral prognostication (“I would vote for a stale, bug infested baloney sandwich rather than Romney”), but asserting that Obama may be the conservative I have been looking for, given his commitment to stability and support of existing institutions and realities.

We, Finch and I, apparently, will vote the same way in November, though our reasons will be different. He will vote for “not Romney – Ryan,” holding his nose as he votes for a conservative, while, I, as a centrist who wants to move the center left, will vote for Obama, a centrist who wants to move the center left. Finch as a left-wing ideologist (as he and Hsiao understand the term) will vote against right-wing ideologists and their policies. While I will vote against ideology and a set of political principles with which I don’t agree, and vote for a candidate who I think is principled but also against “isms,” a politician looking for meaningful dialogue with his opponents, but holding to his own positions and visions, as he beautifully describes the reinvention of the American Dream. Finch, I suppose, imagines that the Romney – Ryan ticket is likely to win, given the pervasiveness of right-wing ideology in the American population. I agree that there is a problem, but think and hope that an ideology aversion will prevent this from happening.

I found this discussion here and on Facebook illuminating. It gets me thinking about the tension within conservative thought between anti-intellectualism and opposition to ideology, i.e. as I put it previously, opposition to all “isms.” We suffer from the former, would greatly benefit from the latter, in my judgment. And I am not convinced with Pait, as he responded to my last post, that ideologists get things done, while those who oppose modern magical thinking don’t.  But I agree with him, it is a challenge. More soon.