Andrew Sullivan's one-dimensional analysis

The two hottest books for thinking persons are Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion (currently #2 at and Andrew Sullivan’s The Conservative Soul. I don’t have a lot to say about Dawkins’ book, beyond noting that I admire and agree with almost all of it. (Check out his website for various comments, pro and con.) So how about Andrew Sullivan?

I’d been thinking how best to frame my opinion of Sullivan’s core idea when I read David Brooks’ review in the New York Times. The following observation leapt out at me:

Sullivan’s next guide is Michael Oakeshott, the great British philosopher, who brilliantly exposed the limits of rationalism. As Sullivan says, “There is no way, Oakeshott argues, to generate a personal moral life from a book, a text, a theory. We live the way we have grown accustomed to live. Our morality is like a language we have learned and deploy in every new instant.”

Politics is not an effort to find solutions and realize ideals, in this view. It is merely an effort to find practical ways to preserve one’s balance in a complicated world. An Oakeshottian conservative will reject great crusades. He will not try to impose morality or base policy decisions on so-called eternal truths.

Of course neither would this kind of conservative write the Declaration of Independence.

Exactly so. Sullivan is so consumed with this single idea – an idealized conservatism – that he fails to recognize that creative genius is rooted in two great impulses: the conservative, and the liberal. Great political and social – and artistic – achievements spring from the tension between these two.

So obsessed is he with his one-dimensional view that Sullivan event tries to attribute to pragmatic conservatism such initiatives as the extension of the franchise to working men and then to women. As Brooks notes, this won’t wash. The great social and political leaps of imagination and courage did not spring from conservatism, and it’s silly to pretend otherwise. Yet in Sullivan’s world view, liberalism is squeezed out: it’s either an economic aspect of conservatism (in the spirit of The Economist, perhaps), or a barely-restrained flavour of socialism.

Over the last two hundred years, we have seen plenty of examples of conservatism uninspired by liberalism, and of liberalism spinning out of control for want of the steadying skepticism of conservatism. The key is balance. However Sullivan keeps hopping on one bad leg, unclear on how to fix it. Blogging today about the Washington Post review of his book, Sullivan writes:

But he’s right on the second point. I see no easy political way to get the soul of conservatism back in the near future. McCain is, at best, a tenuous hope. But I do try and describe a positive, skeptical conservatism that is a vibrant alternative to what “conservatism” has now become: a “conservatism of doubt” and a “politics of freedom”.

Sullivan has misunderstood the situation. The problem is how to restore the soul of the polity, not the soul of conservatism. Fixing conservatism is a means to that end, but it cannot be achieved without confronting the larger question.

Sullivan and many others misdiagnosed the disease back in the 1980s: like Margaret Thatcher, they thought that there was no such thing as society, identified liberalism with socialism, and concluded that everything apart from conservatism should be flushed down the drain. What we can now see is that conservatism without liberalism cannot stand: it is too easily warped by the forces of reaction, just as it has been for the last two hundred years.

The challenge is simply this: how do we restore the creative balance between liberalism and conservatism: between compassion and prudence, between idealism and skepticism, between inventing the future and learning from history? Andrew Sullivan has grasped part of this. It is, perhaps, ironic that he pins his hopes upon a politician – McCain – who has not.

UPDATE: Sullivan’s response is here.