alien & sedition.
Friday, July 20, 2007
  Getting Over Bush's Messiah Complex

David Brooks writes a column about George W. Bush's child-like devotion to his own failed war policy. This is not delusion, says Brooks:
Rather, his self-confidence survives because it flows from two sources. The first is his unconquerable faith in the rightness of his Big Idea. Bush is convinced that history is moving in the direction of democracy, or as he said Friday: “It’s more of a theological perspective. I do believe there is an Almighty, and I believe a gift of that Almighty to all is freedom. And I will tell you that is a principle that no one can convince me that doesn’t exist.
This graf sets off a chain of reaction from conservative writers who are ready to pronounce themselves fed up with Bush's self-aggrandizing theological fantasies. Andrew Sullivan writes:
[A]s a political or historical principle, this is dangerous, delusional hogwash. There is a distinction between theology and politics, a distinction between theory and practice: distinction at the core of the very meaning of conservatism. The notion that free will or even human freedom is destined to be humanity's future, and that this destiny can be achieved by a Supreme Leader, is a function not of conservatism in any sense, but of a messianic, eschatological ideology.
Bush, says Sullivan, is not a conservative statesman; he is a "delusional fanatic:"
If you define liberalism broadly as the belief that human society is perfectible, that heaven can be created on earth by force of will, then Bush is one of the most recklesss enemies of conservatism who has ever held high office in America.
Rich Lowry thinks it sounds suspiciously liberal, too:
Bush believes the spread of liberty is "inevitable." If that is the case, why not spare ourselves all the effort and let the inevitable flowering of liberty take hold? Now, he does say that there will be different expressions of liberty and a different pace—"but we've all got the same odds of achieving the same result." That strikes me as flat-out wrong, an otherwordly leveling of all the culture and history that separates various societies.
Rod Dreher says Bush is "living in a dream world," in thrall to a "social engineering ideology [which] is anti-conservative to the marrow:"
Well, look, I believe there's an Almighty too, and that He desires his human creatures to live in freedom. But good grief, you can't start wars based on that messianic principle, and continuing them on the same grounds!
Ross Douthat is a bit more vehement:
I'm fed up with the President's messiah complex, and I don't bloody well want to hear any more about Bush's "theological perspective" that freedom is the Almighty's gift to all mankind, and so history's on our side in the Middle East, and yada yada yada.
Douthat also emphasizes the distinction between theology and politics:
The gift of freedom that Christ promises is far more real than anything else in this world, if Christian teaching on the matter is correct. On the other hand, there's nothing that's political about that promise, and the attempt to transform God's promise of freedom through Jesus Christ into a this-world promise of universal democracy is the worst kind of "immanentizing the eschaton" utopian bullshit.
All of this is very interesting: it's a return to a sort of ur-conservative thinking; it's a revival of Burke in an era when the American right has been driven by a very un-Burkean revolutionary zeal. One of the key tenets of traditional conservatism has been its mistrust of politics. As Burke said:
Wise men will apply their remedies to vices, not to names; to the causes of evil which are permanent, not to the occasional organs by which they act, and the transitory modes in which they appear. (Reflections on the Revolution in France)
Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously defined it thusly: "The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society."

From the traditional conservative view, an over-emphasis on politics as opposed to culture means social engineering at home; Wilsonianism and "nation-building" abroad: all of these things are to be abhorred. But the modern conservative movement, the movement that ultimately brought Bush to power (even if it mistrusted him) succeeded because of its political skill and innovation. The movement has talent for politics, and an instinct for it, and we should hardly be surprised to find that that instinct has eventually found its way into its foreign policy. This is not, in fact, Wilsonianism; it is the traditional interests and preoccupations of the conservative classes cross-bred with a distinctly un-Burkean aggressiveness. That it has learned to broaden its appeal by using Wilsonian language should not distract from its essential nature.

Even when the movement has emphasized culture as a pre-political concern, it has been more Gramscian than Burkean, waging an aggressive war of position to further a transformative agenda that the movement itself understands is too radical for the tastes of most Americans.

This is not to let American conservatives escape by creating a distinction between Bush and "true" conservatism. That's a political version of the "no true Scotsman" fallacy; we didn't accept such excuses when Marxists made them and there's no reason we should accept them from conservatives. American conservatism is what it is, and there are undoubtedly reasons why it seems so frequently to escape the careful bounds of Burkean wisdom. One possible reason is that the United States is not a Burkean state; it is a liberal, constitutional regime, whose legitimacy is derived from popular sovereignty and a dedication to upholding the natural, abstract rights of human beings. Ramesh Ponnuru, in the same debate discussed above, reminds us of this, when he cautions:
Now it may be unconservative to think that an aggressively liberty-promoting foreign policy follows from the idea that all human beings have a God-given right to be free, and certainly Christians are not obliged to believe that it does so follow. But the proposition that our rights are a gift from God is neither un-conservative nor un-Christian; it is a commonplace observation in the context of American political history.
A couple of notes here: for one thing, when Ponnuru says that the observation is not "un-conservative," it is "in the context of American political history." Conservatism in the context of American political history is something very different from conservatism in other contexts. It's a conservatism rooted partly -- but not wholly -- in a devotion to the very kind of liberal order to which conservatives once defined themselves as opposed. This creates all sorts of odd effects, including especially the strange American conservative relationship to politics, which is often enthusiastic but tortured, destructive, and prone to inspire bouts of conservative self-loathing like the ones witnessed above.

The other note, and what should have become apparent here, is that I don't think this is really a debate about theology at all: it's about politics. When these commentators talk about Bush's "messianism," they may be referring to religious expression in an immediate sense, but in more significant sense they're talking about the frightening effects of a conservatism that has too readily embraced politics. The dramatic irony is that they can see the tragic results of such an embrace, but as American conservatives they can't quite disentangle themselves from its legacy.

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Sullivan's got a good handle on it - delusional fanatic is right on the money. Unfortunately, we're all being forced to live in his delusion.
How many sober conservatives are there left in the USA? Is it a considerable political force? Is it more than a few pundits and old-timers?

For sober conservatism and conservative poise and realism the environment may be disadvantageous.

For an understanding of constitutional checks and balances you need some checks and balances in your OWN MIND - impulsiveness and short attention span and Manichean simplicity do not dwell well with conservatism.

Seen with European eyes: the US conservatives of today are the centrist liberals, like Clinton or Obama.
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