[Preface: I started writing something in the discussion on James Poulos's summoning post, "Who's Failing America: the Elites or America?," viz., my thoughts on what constitutes the great cleavages between liberals and conservatives. It got a bit, well, augmented, so I'm posting this to Member Feed.
The steamy subtitle: "Why the moral-political is determinative of the economic."]
"Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other." --John Adams
Self-reliance is the principle of our regime, according to Paul Rahe. Self-reliance implies that the great cleavage or breaking point between liberals vs. conservatives will center on personal responsibility. Personal responsibility means: Human freedom is not absolute, but must be ordered to proper ends.
Same-sex marriage and illegal immigration, etc., are signal cases of personal responsibility.
- The essence of conservatism: a conservative is more likely than a liberal to hold a person accountable for that person's immediate circumstances or feelings of deprivation (material or otherwise). This is what makes a conservative a conservative.
- Possible implication of that essence: deciding for or against taking up the fight for "controversial" social issues (on which elitists, whether liberal or "conservative," call for a truce; failing that, call for agitators to be shamed into silence) is determinative of whether or not the welfare state can be turned back.
Conservatives tend to see human beings primarily as moral-political beings. This contrasts with, say, libertarians who tend to see people primarily as economic beings. Conservatives therefore tend to understand self-interest in a more comprehensive way than do libertarians. (Conservatives are libertarian on those issues on which libertarians are most intelligent. Libertarians are half right).
Insofar as our public dialogue centers on issues of efficiency and economy to the exclusion of the "controversial" moral issues, the republic loses. The first step in making sense of this is to consider that the defining characteristic of modern economies is the problem of dependency: the sense that people aren’t in control of their own destiny. Greater flexibility in the economy, 401K’s, etc., all of these things outwardly fit a more "libertarian view of the world."
But the result is simply a greater level of anxiety. We therefore fail to see any real political realignment. We're locked in a kind of stasis, neither conservatives nor liberals breaking out decisively in one direction or another. So when it comes to the broad economic policies -- which are what most political debates are about -- conservatives and libertarians simply cannot win against liberals. Or such is my nauseating fear.
The more obvious reason for this is inherent to democracy itself with its endemic vice against which the ancients warned: the people are self-interested and they will simply vote for welfare. Indeed, the only reason why popular, democratic government became at all plausible in the modern world is because of capitalism -- that's to say, because of the notion of the development of material increase, through the unleashing of acquisitiveness.
Our elites today are the opposite of elites of the ancient polity. There the elites tended toward virtue. The demos (common people) somehow tended toward "nihilism." (That the demos tends toward "nihilism" is an important subtext of Thucydides...). Our elites, on the other hand, tend strongly toward nihilism. They are apolitical. Say what one will about Nazi Carl Schmitt, it would be difficult to deny one of his key insights: politics in late modernity takes the very peculiar form of the apolitical against the political. Ordinary, conservative-leaning Americans more or less embody republican virtue and thus are possessed of a certain kind of aristocratic quality of which our elites are bereft; I say "aristocratic" because they are more political, or at least want to be more political. They are more political because they are more particularistic: they are clued-in to "Americanness" whose hallmark is self-reliance. Wisdom more often than not is inversely related to sophistication: "[W]isdom is shown sufficiently in competence to run one's life and thus in the maintenance of freedom" (Harvey Mansfield, review of Kenneth Minogue's Servile Mind).
Nihilism means, most broadly, the belief that right and wrong are humanly created. More specifically it means open-ended individuality. Here perhaps it's fitting to dilate further on the peculiar overlap between abject libertarianism and liberalism, alluded to earlier. (I must hasten to stress that it's abject libertarianism which is my whipping boy. Most ordinary people who self-describe as "libertarian" or "libertarian-leaning" simply think of themselves as "strongly pro-limited government," or "I'm firmly pro 2nd Amendment," and such. That's fine. That's basically how I think of myself too. The absolute first thing I want to know about a person is where they stand on guns. This is a better quick n' dirty read on a person than God or any other issue. "Pro-gun" = more likely to be realistic about good and evil, as self-preservation is our most primary right).
Politicians and elites of a libertarian bent often tend to vote for bigger government. (Anyone thinking me nuts for venturing this claim, please see: Newt Gingrich, Arnold Schwarzenegger; see also, especially, the brief discussion here). This actually reflects the general libertarian view of autonomy, which denies the existence of any standard of good higher than the individual will ("autonomy," after all, means self-legislation). If there is no law higher than that asserted by my will, then why not make common cause with others like me to get what we want through government? It makes little difference whether this leads to a less productive economy overall, at least if I am clever enough to get what I want. Such open-ended individualism is really at the root of left-wing demagoguery (identity politics) and tyranny.
What is needed today is a coherent understanding of personal responsibility across the issues. This is basic conservatism, as distinct from libertarianism: education in personal morality and dedication to free markets.