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A Crisis Of Faith?

I've been reading Andrew Sullivan's indictment of contemporary American conservatism (which he's decided to term "the conservatism of faith") and the ensuing replies with some interest. On one level, obviously, Sullivan's arguments position him as to some extent "on my side" so I'd like to be able to embrace his argument. But really wading through the whole thing it seems to me that the entire debate -- and Sullivan's way of approaching it as much as his antagonists' -- is just a symptom of what's really gone wrong with American conservatism: Its near-total detachment from actual policy discussions. Sullivan seems to think that the best way to think about, say, Health Savings Accounts is to ponder whether or not such advocacy of such accounts counts as a conservative position, or to wonder what sort of conservative one would have to be to support HSAs and then wonder whether or not that sounds like the kind of conservative you want to be.

There are certain issues that really should be thought about in this way, but conservative intellectuals of various strikes seem to have taken to applying the procedure willy-nilly in wildly inappropriate contexts. The set of tax and regulatory rules the administration wants to implement around Health Savings Accounts are a quintessentially dull, wonky matter. You need to look at what these changes actually amount to and what the consequences of implementing them are going to be. Whether or not a policy that will serve the wealthy, the healthy, and the young well at the expense of rendering employment-based insurance unworkable and screw over the sick, the poor, and the middle aged should be labeled "conservative" or not has very little to do with anything. A political movement that wants to govern the country needs to involve people who are interested in the business of government and governance and who, therefore, have some understanding of what it is they're doing. A bunch of hazy goals, vague notions, and quotations from the philosophers of yore doesn't cut it. Principles, philosophy, religious precepts, and -- shudder -- ideology are good to have and important in many ways. But a willingness to slog through policy debates is really vital.

UPDATE: To give another example of a different sort of reformist conservative who often seems trapped in the same policy void, here's Reihan Salam reacting to last night's Social Security talk:

As for "voluntary personal savings accounts," Bush never committed himself to a "carve-out." Perhaps he's backing away from that design principle in favor of something along DeLongian lines. That would represent progress. Note that I remain a partisan of the Kotlikoff plan, but half a loaf is better than none.
This is all over the map. The president did so remain committed to carve outs, he just didn't use the word. But even if he hadn't remained committed, Brad's idea for private accounts doesn't bear any resemblance to the sort of thing the President is talking about. Nor is it anything like Kotlikoff's Social Security plan. Nor does the Kotlikoff Plan really have much of anything in common with the Pozen Plan. Pozen doesn't stand in a "half of loaf" kind of relationship to Kotlikoff -- they're just totally different things that happen to involve the words "private accounts" and to have been proposed by men who think Social Security's in crisis.

April 29, 2005 | Permalink


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Ideology is nothing but a tool for achieving results. And the results are, inevitably, redistribution of money (or economic/political power of some sort) from one group to another. There is no such thing as 'governing the country' in real life, other than delivering goodies to your constituency.

Posted by: abb1 | Apr 29, 2005 1:18:35 PM

"Conservative = Good" is Sullivan's first axiom. If a program is good, there must be some way to think of it as conservative. Vice versa, and more relevant to his public agonizing, is that anyone who implements stupid policies that ruin the country can't be conservative, no matter what they claim their beliefs are. He's obsessed with the label rather than the result.

Posted by: SP | Apr 29, 2005 1:21:55 PM

But a willingness to slog through policy debates is really vital.

Please. We've been having a policy debate over Social Security for a long time now - since 1999, at least. Yet, when one side to that debate thinks that a reasonably contribution to the debate is to yell "no crisis, no crisis" in the loadest voice possible - all the while flat refusing to even CONSIDER policy options like personal accounts, that side really has no credibility in demanding the other side engage in more policy wonkery. Sheesh.

Posted by: Al | Apr 29, 2005 1:23:31 PM

When one side in that debate passes the Medicare Prescription Drug Act they have proven themselves unwilling to take policy seriously.

Posted by: theCoach | Apr 29, 2005 1:30:36 PM

Also, to add to my indictment of Matthew's hypocisy, how exactly can he demand from conservatives more policy wonkery in lieu ideology, when he goes and writes today on TAPPED: "for some people the total elimination of Social Security benefits".

What an utter lie!

If anyone in the SS debate is substituting ideology for policy wonkery, it ain't Bush. It's Matthew and his allies on the left.

Posted by: Al | Apr 29, 2005 1:31:42 PM

I'll put this in simplest terms. We are living in the Conservative's 1960's. They win all the elections, they sort of get what they want, and now they cannot understand why their theory fantasy world is not reality. Also, witness the peculiar identity politics. Sullivan advocates for a political party that has the criminalization of his sex life in its platform and is largely run by fundamentalist Christians, yet he cannot comprehend why it does not put the needs of urban 'out' conservative gay men first when making policy decisions. If this really were 1964, Sullivan would be the far-leftist who sits around and wonders why Lyndon Johnson wouldn't tap him for Secretary of Defense. "But I have lots of great ideas about Vietnam. Why would a party run by New Deal Liberals and Labor Unions that just won a huge victory ignore me? I don't get it!".

I firmly believe that Sullivan will never, ever, ever, leave the GOP.

But I can't really improve on what SP said.

Posted by: Alderaan | Apr 29, 2005 1:31:55 PM

What did you guys think of Bush's answer last night on the subject of faith and Judicial Nominations? I thought he was fair and poignant.

Posted by: J. Mark English | Apr 29, 2005 1:32:34 PM

I firmly believe that Sullivan will never, ever, ever, leave the GOP.

Huh? Who did he support in the last election?

Posted by: Al | Apr 29, 2005 1:34:38 PM

Well, Matt, reality is a bitch, and those who follow sophists and false prophts are always the last to admit culpability or failure.

I see no difference between conservative "intellectuals" and their modern political teammates, the religious conservatives. Both place great faith in the grand illusions of certainty--why bother with details and policy when one is of the "true faith"? However, when reality rudely proves their grand illusions are in fact illusions, they cannot retreat from their positions easily or admit defeat.

Poor Sullivan. Like his fellow Brit Hitchens, Sully is a man torn apart by his massive ego and degenerate masochism and self-hatred. Lately he seems like a dog chasing his own tail, incapable of admitting his worst enemy is his inability to admit he's wrong.

I think the funadmental tenet of being a modern liberal is the idea we've already won most of the major battles liberalism fought in the last 100 years, so our ideology in modern times is about administering maintenance dosages of our ideology in governance, not making major changes to the plan. This makes liberalism much more mechanistic than idealistic these days, which of course makes us look "weak" or "bereft of ideas," but makes us much more capable of dealing with the boring details and minutia than the "party of ideas" conservatives.

Posted by: mat | Apr 29, 2005 1:45:54 PM

Amen, Matt.

Posted by: praktike | Apr 29, 2005 2:10:25 PM

Saying that there is no crisis is a perfectly wonky position if there is, in fact, no crisis. There is, in fact, no crisis.

The level of detail in one's policy proposals is not the point of this debate. What matters is whether or not those proposals have any relationship to reality. The Republican proposals do not. The Democratic position does.

Posted by: JP | Apr 29, 2005 2:23:13 PM

Also, to add to my indictment of Matthew's hypocisy, how exactly can he demand from conservatives more policy wonkery in lieu ideology, when he goes and writes today on TAPPED: "for some people the total elimination of Social Security benefits".

What an utter lie!


Posted by: deckko | Apr 29, 2005 2:36:30 PM

This all ties in with the "who's your favorite philosopher" business from a while back. The basic "philosophical" asymmetry between conservatives and liberals is that to self-identified "conservatives" it is a matter of consuming importance whether an idea or policy proposal is what they would consider "conservative." To the self-described "liberal," the analogous question is of no great importance.

Posted by: C.J.Colucci | Apr 29, 2005 2:39:06 PM

The past few days have seen the emergence of what can be called the "Conservative Crack Up Thesis." In the latest New Republic, everyone's least favorite contrarian Andrew Sullivan offers "Crisis of Faith: How Fundamentalism is Splitting the GOP." Simultaneously, University of Oregon professor Garrett Epps delivered "Conservatives in Conflict." And yours truly has written early and often on the potential for the implosion of the conservative movement...

For more, see: "The Conservative Crack Up Thesis".

Posted by: Jon | Apr 29, 2005 2:44:16 PM



Posted by: Al | Apr 29, 2005 2:52:41 PM

Speaking of basing policy on wonkery and evidence, did y'all see this (via Jane Galt):

Private screeners more diligent than government counterparts
Congressional Investigation Results in Finding 'Statistacally Significant' Evidence

WASHINGTON - A congressional investigation found airport screeners employed by private companies do a better job detecting dangerous objects than government screeners, according to a House member who has seen the classified report.

The Government Accountability Office found statistically significant evidence that passenger screeners, who work under a pilot program at five airports, including San Francisco International Airport, perform better than their federal counterparts at some 450 airports, Rep. John Mica, R-Fla. and chairman of the House aviation subcommittee, said Tuesday.

"You get a statistically significant improvement if you go to federal supervision with private screening companies," Mica said.


Now, when Republicans try to re-privitize airport screeners, what do you think all those "reality-based", wonkish, evidence-requiring left-wingers are going to do? How much you want to bet that ideological attraction aversion to privitization overwhelms their desire to base policy on evidence? *snicker*

Posted by: Al | Apr 29, 2005 3:30:55 PM


Not to get all wonky, but the pilot program you're referring to involved companies who volunteered their particpation. As I'm sure you know full scale privatization works primarily on low-cost bidding procedures. Whether we would want our nation's airports protected by companies that found a way to do it the cheapest is, at least, a debatable point.

You also failed to site the relevant part of the article that quoted a Democrat as saying that the differences between the government screeners and the TSA was statistical very slight.

"Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio, a senior Democrat on the aviation subcommittee, opposes private screeners.

DeFazio, who has seen the classified GAO report, said the difference between the private and government screeners was statistically significant but still slight.

"Neither number is adequate or reassuring to me and the difference is not very large," DeFazio said."

Now, I assume when Democrats point out that Republicans spin GAO reports to fit ideology, and extrapolate incorrectly from one case to potential hypotheticals, you'll insists they have their hands in the sand.

But, the case you mentioned is a perfect one in which the available evidence doesn't naturally support your conclusions. Disagreeing wtih your conclusions based on a closer reading of the facts does not a snicker warrant.

That said I sincerely think it's actually kind of nice that you keep posting in a place where you get so much grief. I urge the resident liberal commentarian to treat conservative visitors with respect and deference when we are pointing out how completely wrong they are.

Posted by: Jason | Apr 29, 2005 3:51:58 PM

It has become pretty clear to me that what is important to my party is ideological purity and complete deference to 'principles' (scare quotes, because the principles seem to change every week), rather than the outcomes of the ideology.

Tax cuts are good, no matter what.

Abortion is bad, no matter what.

Government is evil, regardless what it is doing.

Rather than using principles as guides to policy outcomes, we are attempting to instill principles for principles sake. This is echoed in the new relgious fervor- rather than using religion as a source of personal inspiration and a guide for moral and decent behavior, some in my party wish to just codify the teachings of their sect becuase, well, because religion is 'good' and they 'really have faith.'

It is disturbing.

Posted by: John Cole | Apr 29, 2005 3:54:49 PM


"Levittolotry. Yes. He's smart and interesting, but his work isn't that unusual, and he doesn't walk on water. He's a super-clever, McGyver-esque technician, able to conjure up a useful empirical study out of a paper clip, a length of string, and a stick of gum. It's sweet, but not filling. I want theory."

Wilkinson is one of the good ones, like Sanchez.
I am not sure what the difference between good theorists (who can slip) and ideological hacks. Maybe for the hacks the theory exists only to advance policy goals, and so consistency and coherence are actually not relevant. Whereas others are like priests, worshipping a crystalline structure, perfect unto itself, inpervious to facts and better because of it.

Some of us on either side will never be satisfied with empiricism, experimentalism, and consequentialism.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Apr 29, 2005 6:13:49 PM

I forget who wrote in even the liberal New Republic about 20 years ago "Liberals have been looking for heretics and conservatives have been looking for converts, and the results are clear." Now it seems the pattern is reversed.

You (Matt) are too young to remember the good old days of Trotskyites attacking Maoists (I am almost too young). I'm not sure you even remember the middle class feminists against the Black conciousness raisers or even the yuppie doves and the Union organizer hawks.

Once liberals argued over ideology and argued with progressives, social democrats, greens and leftists. Conservatives kept their arguments quite because they hated all of us more than they hated each other. Now we are so weak we are hard to hate, while Bush and Frist and DeLay are so infuriating that I doubt I could manage much engergy in a debate with a Trotskyite (speaking of the ash heap of history).

Also Leftists no I mean liberals no I mean progressives have been running away from ideology for decades. That is part of why the people you work with are so wonky.

The precedent suggests that the conservatives are heading for trouble as they bore people with their theoretical debates on the meaning of conservativism. I hope that even the liberal New Republic managed to get the analysis right for once.

Posted by: Robert Waldmann | Apr 29, 2005 6:15:52 PM

Matt has a good point. Demarcating ideological turf without reference to policy goals or outcomes can quickly render you blind and smug. Despite its flaws, however, Sullivan's essay says something worthwhile about values, and recalls a favorite quote (almost an elevator pitch) that underscores the importance of a distinctly liberal politics (which I think best fits its criterion):
A free society is one where it is safe to be unpopular (attributed to Adlai Stevenson).

Posted by: inip | Apr 29, 2005 9:09:31 PM

Let's get something straight. The long and short of it is that Sullivan is a recovering Catholic, and he abhors the fact that his church abhors him.

That explains everything. What he believed was his church has other economic incentives--mostly in the relatively conservative third world. Sullivan should really get a life. Outside of a church that abhors him.

Posted by: raj | Apr 30, 2005 1:07:07 AM

"Recovering Catholic"? Why did I think you were going to say "masochistic bootlicker"?

Posted by: SqueakyRat | May 1, 2005 2:06:00 PM

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