An evangelical Christian conservative versus a Catholic conservative
There are probably as many flavours of conservatism as there are conservatives. The attempt to categorize them is always going to be approximate. So the recent debates between David French and Sohrab Ahmari are interesting. Both seem to feel that they represent the REAL conservatism. French is the evangelical and Ahmari is the Catholic.
I think both have good points. The emphasis on civility and principle by French does indeed strongly distinguish conservatives from the abusive and unprincipled Left.
Ahmari thinks the times are too urgent to stand on such principles. He thinks we are in a war which we could lose unless we go for the jugular. He thinks we have to use every strategy we can if we are to win. I am inclined to agree with him. My own writings are pretty savage at times.
But I think the great mistake is to claim that there is such a thing as conservative politics. In the last few hundred years all sorts of doctrines have been identified as conservative and many of them would get little respect from modern-day conservatives. There are, for example, still some people concerned about the gold standard but not many. And who even knows about the silver standard?
So conservatism is not an unchanging ideology. It is a tendency. And that tendency can only be described at the psychological level. Liberals and Conservatives may agree or not about political policies but at the psychological level they are as different as chalk and cheese.
To put it most starkly, conservatives are the happy people and Leftists are the miserable people. Stark as that sounds, it is actually repeatedly shown in surveys of happiness. It is always the consevatives who are shown as happiest. So what might seem as a vague psychological statement is actually something verifiable by empirical research
And another common finding of happiness research is that happiness is dispositional: It changes little though your lifetime. As even Gilbert and Sullivan saw, you tend to be born either a liberal or a conservative. So the idea that a conservative is a constitutionally happier person is remarkably well grounded in the research. Conservatives are happier and happiness is dispositional, genetic .
Most people, of course fall somewhere in between but the poles are the ones I have identified. And it is the poles that we mostly encounter in political debates.
And given that psychological basis of politics, how those two types of personality play out in policy prescriptions will vary according to the time and place. So on neither side is there a fixed set of principles from which all policies can be deduced.
And that suits Leftists very well. They usually blame their unhappy feelings on things in the world about them rather than working on themselves. And because they are so unhappy, they want to tear down those things that they blame for their unhappiness. They think that if they could possibly get rid of that awful thing (e.g. Donald Trump) they would be happy or at least happier.
So they put great energies into their tearing-down activities. And the psychological accompaniment of their wish to tear something down is hate. Particularly if something resists being torn down, they come to hate it with a passion, as we see from the Leftist reaction to Trump. They loathe every little thing about him. Even his remarkably successful economic policies win him no praise from them. Their hate has become obsessive.
Because they do not have a fire of unhappiness burning inside them, conservatives, on the other hand, can pay more attention to the full picture and note both the good and the bad in a particular situation or policy. They see, for instance, that limited welfare for the poor is regrettable but also see that more generous welfare provisions would lead to "dole bludging": people who decide to live on the taxpayer's dime when they are perfectly capable of earning their own living. So conservatives seek a middle way. Just tearing down one side of the problem seems brain dead to them.
That is very much in evidence in America right now. The Democrats see a degree of suffering among illegal immigrants held at the Southern border and simply wish to tear down the border as a solution. No thought to how the USA would be overrun by people with little to contribute seems to occur to them. Conservatives, in the person of Mr Trump, take a middle way and say that only genuine refugees and not economic migrants will be accepted.
So that history leads up to where David French goes wrong and Ahmari is right. The old principles of a liberal order have served well in the past but it is now time to move on. New circumstances require new responses -- and conservatives are once again trying to be pragmatic and seek a middle ground. As an example, Mr Trump has responded to the continuing onslaughts on Americans by Jihadis not by trying to keep all Muslims out of America but by keeping out people from particularly troublesome Muslim nations. That was one of his first actions on coming to office.
I am particularly interested in Ahmari's comment on the First amendment. That Amendment must be the most regularly butchered law that there is. It has regularly been used to attack Christians when it says you must not do that and has been regularly defied by speech restrictions on American university campuses. So if the Left can regularly defy it, might not conservatives stretch it too?
I would pass Federal legislation to forbid any kind of political bias on campuses and allow speech and performances that offend public decency and morality to be banned whenever and wherever they occur. New circumstances can require new legal principles and that may possibly be done by modifying old laws. Traditions can be powerfully useful and informative but they are not a straitjacket.
And I might perhaps note in passing that this idea of a middle way being desirable is very Catholic. It underlay two encyclicals a century apart: De rerum novarum and Centesimus Annus. And, yes, I have read both of them, though not in the original Latin.