E.J. Dionne concludes the year in classic Dionnean fashion, in that he calls for amicable warfare in 2016 between conservatives and liberals. I love Dionne, I admire his calm and reserve, I salute his unflappable intellectuality — all of it steeped in, yet somehow removed from, America's quotidian political bloodshed. His column this morning again demonstrates why he airs his opinions in a major newspaper: He'd never survive in the blogosphere, where ideological differences are relentlessly bloody and, it follows, anything but amiable. Dionne's Post colleagues, Krauthammer and Will, would make for superb and prosperous bloggers, for as pseudoconservatives they unconservatively rail against wicked liberalism as though it is thrusting on America no tomorrow. The vast universe of online bloggy consumers of such extravagant fare would lap it up. Dionne's sedate offerings would be a much harder sell.
I have, once again, pointedly deployed the term "pseudoconservative" to describe Krauthammer & Co, i.e.,, modern conservatism. I have done so because a rather disheartened commenter (again) objected yesterday to my repeated usage of this word. Squaring off with dukes up, he coyly and intelligently asked: "If today's conservatives are pseudo because they're not traditionalists are today's liberals fraudulent because we're not laissez-faire?" I am gladdened the commenter wrote "we" rather than "you and I," since ideologically I am no liberal. And that assertion, in itself, helps to answer the commenter's question. Bear with me, please.
Authentic conservatism began its grisly metamorphosis long ago. One can clock its deliquescence from W.'s age back to Reagan's era and then further back to the New Right's hysterics and, before that, to Goldwater's camel-like nose, or even back to the "conservative" fever of anti-New Dealism. This territory we have covered on this site many times; no need to resurvey it. Burkean conservatism — the real thing, so to speak (remember, Burke was a reformer, not a stand-patter) — has, in the United States, been dead or dying for decades. With genuine conservatism's decay has come the rolling destruction of its party port, the GOP. Today, conservatism denotes "radicalism," which, by definition, negates conservatism. Hence today's conservatives are, at best, pseudoconservatives. Will authentic conservatism return? It never left, for it dwells in the Democratic Party.
But back to the commenter's protest: "… are today's liberals fraudulent because we're not laissez-faire?" That is an excellent question — against which, my answer is by necessity far from authoritative, in that labels are tricky things. I would, however, venture this much. Liberalism has undeniably mutated from its original "laissez-faire" form. Yet in liberalism there is and always has been a conservative instinct — and it was that instinct which FDR, the founder of modern liberalism and yet a conservative at heart, retained within liberalism's modifying ideology. That is, Roosevelt saved capitalism by tweaking "the system" here and there. The New Deal was scarcely the "radical" program as depicted (and reviled) by its opponents. It was, rather, a conservative salvation. Liberalism under Roosevelt, then, was a healthy mutation, while conservatism under its modern practitioners has proven self-destructive.
What's more, modern liberalism retains its root connotational significance: the defense of personal liberty. As Dionne puts it this morning, "I think that the New Deal and the Great Society made us more free, not less." Freedom from want and protection from "large and powerful private organizations" are themselves a powerful liberation; nonetheless the protector — government — must be watched. I know of no liberal who would disagree with this fundamentally wary element of modern liberalism, although, of course, pseudoconservative pols are forever accusing liberals of governmental totalitarianism. (And why not? It sells to their fearful, fellow pseudoconservatives who comprehend contemporary liberalism about as well as they comprehend authentic conservatism.)
Just to back up a bit … I wrote above that "ideologically I am no liberal" for good reason, that being that ideologically I am no liberal. There, in the fuzzy category of ideology, I identify as a socialist. Pragmatically, however, I identify as a liberal in the progressive-conservative sense of FDR and Barack Obama's liberalism. Any sudden, aggressive leap to socialism simply will not work in the United States, for Americans are a conservative people. Incrementalism — liberalism — will have to do. In some things, I can be a patient man — especially when only patience will pay off. Hence this socialist abides liberals.
Which is something — patience, that is — we cannot attribute to pseudoconservatives. Dionne wraps today's column with: "The signs are that the rage and frenzy levels will be even higher than usual in 2016. Can’t we at least try to contain them?" Yes we can. But they can't.