Friday, June 8, 2012

Who's The Extremist?

You don't often get a liberal and a conservative having a civil discussion about politics, but Hugh Hewitt had E.J. Dionne Jr. on his show to discuss E.J.'s  new book, Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle For The American Idea In An Age of Discontent.

Dionne argues that conservatives have gone extremist in the last ten years, abandoning the "compassionate conservatism" of the early 2000s for a radical individualism.  I've taken strong exception to E.J.'s argument here.

Of course Hewitt and Dionne disagreed about conservatism and liberalism, but their disagreement is illuminating.  Dionne says that the Tea Party is partly a throwback to the John Birch Society, that there is a "Bircher kind of strain within the Tea Party."  Hewitt hates that: "They're just different."

But Dionne is right.  Any conservative populist movement is bound to have similarities with the John Birch Society, and liberals are bound to try to link any new conservative trend with the conspiracy theorists of yesteryear.  Just look at the Wikipedia entry on the Birchers.  The problem with the John Birch Society was that they started looking for Reds under the beds, and that allowed liberals to turn them into a laughingstock of conspiracy nuts.

On the other hand when Hewitt raises the question of reading the left-wing crazies out of the liberal movement, Dionne won't do it.
[S]omeone on your side, and it might be you, has to do to your left wing, the Occupy people, the SEIU and the rest of the radicals what Buckley did to the Birchers. You must throw them out, or your party will die[.]
 That's when Dionne says that he doesn't think that the left has changed, and therefore there is no call to curb the crazies.

Actually, I think that Dionne is right, but for the wrong reasons.  It is true that conservatives have changed their political stance in the last ten years.  We have not really changed our beliefs; we just don't believe that we can get to where we want to go by compromising with liberals.  To Dionne the death of "compassionate conservatism" means that today's conservatives are all radical individualists.
I think they [the Tea Party] emphasize our individualistic side, which is very much part of us, the individual liberty side, to the exclusion of that side of us which both believes profoundly in community, and sees it as essential to preserving liberty.
This, of course is the fundamental divide between conservatives and liberals.  Liberals believe that community means government.  Conservatives believe that community ends where government begins, because government is force and the whole point of humans as social animals is the attempt to reduce force in intersubjective relations.  More government equals less community: that's what conservatives believe.

As David Cameron said in 2005, "There is such a thing as society.  It's just not the same thing as the state."  Talk to your liberal friend about that.  You'll find they just don't get it.

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