Book Argues for Retaking the 'Conservative Soul'

Andrew Sullivan

Political writer Andrew Sullivan is English by birth, Catholic, gay and conservative. His latest book is The Conservative Soul. Matthew Cavanaugh hide caption

itoggle caption Matthew Cavanaugh

In his new book, The Conservative Soul, Andrew Sullivan examines how the Republican Party has changed and the tensions between two forms of conservatism: historical conservatism and what he calls fundamentalism.

Sullivan argues for getting back to the basics of conservatism: limited government, balanced budgets, individual liberty, rule of law. He says today's Republican-controlled U.S. government has strayed from these fundamental tenets.

"I am asking for a conservatism … that gets back to understanding that we have to restrain government, not empower it, and that faith and politics need to be kept apart for the sake not only of politics, but also of religion, which is being poisoned by partisan politics," he says.

Excerpt: 'The Conservative Soul'

Cover of 'Conservative Soul'

This book was born out of frustration. For almost all my life, I've considered myself a conservative. But in the past few years, I've found myself having to explain this more and more. The questions keep mounting up: How can you be gay and conservative? How can you support banning all abortion? How can you have bought into the Iraq war? How can you back dangerous theocrats? How can you support ... and then you fill in the blank for various politicians whose vacuity and odiousness seem, to the questioner, indisputable.

There have been many times when I have felt like throwing in the towel and simply saying: all right, I'm not a conservative, if that's what it now means. But there have been many other times when I have found myself drawn into long and often interesting arguments about what conservatism can now mean, what it has meant in the past, whether it means the same thing in Britain and America, and whether it now encompasses so many ideas and factions that it can barely be described at all. This book, for what it's worth, is an attempt to explain what one individual person means by conservatism. It's an attempt to account for what has happened to it to cause such confusion and debate, and why the version I favor is one I still believe is the best way of approaching the exigencies of our current, perilous moment.

My conservative lineage is an idiosyncratic one, and it's worth getting on the table here, just so you can see where I'm coming from. My personal journey may, indeed, make my conservatism idiosyncratic in the current American or British debate. So be it. I cannot change who I am and where I came from. All I can do is make an argument and hope you find something worthwhile in it.

I grew up in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s. I was a teenage Thatcherite, excited by a conservative leader who, by sheer force of will, transformed a country's economy and society from stagnation to new life. In an English high school, I also wore a "Reagan '80" button and saw the former California governor as the West's best hope for survival against socialism and Communism. The conservatism I grew up around was a combination of lower taxes, less government spending, freer trade, freer markets, individual liberty, personal responsibility, and a strong anticommunist foreign policy. I was also a devout Catholic, who felt that my own faith was often scorned or misunderstood by those in power. My faith also told me that there was more to life than politics; and that the best form of politics was that which enabled us to engage in nonpolitical life more fully and more freely.

My intellectual heroes in my teenage years were not unusual for a young right-winger: George Orwell, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Vaclav Havel, Friedrich Hayek. Yes, I was a nerd, although I somehow managed to avoid a crush on Ayn Rand at any point. But I was also excited by the battle of ideas, and saw the height of ideological combat in the last years of the cold war as an exhilarating time to be alive and thinking. I became interested in politics because I saw how politics could make a difference in the world. And when I lived to see communist tyranny evaporate, and freedom and prosperity spread so widely in the wake of the last great totalitarian nightmare, I felt I had been a witness to something great and ennobling. I still do.

I came to America at the height of the end of the cold war — a few months before Ronald Reagan's reelection, which I heartily backed — and have happily lived in the United States ever since. In the 1990s, when the battle over free markets and communism seemed to have been resolved into a sharp, unexpected victory for the side I had taken, I felt more able to pick and choose in politics, American and British. I had moved to a country well to the right of the one I had left, and found much to like and admire about the place. I still favored Reagan and the first president Bush. But I managed to find the centrist policies of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair congenial in many ways as well — and saw them both as critical to reconciling what was left of the left to the new market economy. I didn't think backing a moderate liberal as some kind of betrayal of conservatism. In fact, I thought it was a sign of conservatism's success that I could do so with so few regrets.

I've never been a partisan, Tory or Republican, because I'm not a joiner by nature. It has never disturbed me that we have two party systems in the Anglo-American West, and I've often felt willing to back a reformed party of the left if the governing party of the right had become exhausted or corrupt. So I endorsed Clinton in 1992 and Blair in 1997. As a conservative, I narrowly backed George Bush over Al Gore in 2000, because I found Gore's newly statist and populist persona to be fake, and worryingly left-wing. By 2004, however, I felt forced to back John Kerry because of the ineptness and nonconservative recklessness I saw in the Bush administration's first term. Some may call this picking and choosing some sort of "flip-fl opping." I don't. I consider it an aspect of being an individual, trying to figure out the world as it is, rather than as I might wish it to be.

This book explains how I have come to find myself increasingly estranged from the Republican Party, from the policies it now stands for, and from the philosophy it now represents. My discomfort is shared by many to different degrees, but my own journey can only speak for itself. In saying this, I will inevitably come across as some kind of preening purist, claiming the mantle of "true conservatism" for my own wish-list of ideas, while dismissing others in Republican or Tory ranks as somehow phonies.

But that is not my intent. Of course, by favoring one version of conservatism over another, I am not neutral in the argument. But conservatism has become such a large and sprawling complex of ideas that no one has a monopoly on the term anymore. I don't want to get into an emotional and pointless battle over semantics or labels. So let me concede up front that plenty of people who strongly disagree with the analysis and argument of this book are still, in my mind, legitimately be called "conservative."

All I ask in return is an acknowledgment that the kind of politics I favor and argue for in this book is also well within the bounds of the Anglo-American conservative tradition. I may be in a minority these days, but what matters is the argument, not the number of people behind it. Perhaps this conservatism now has a brighter future among Democrats and Independents than among Republicans. But I hope that many disenchanted Republicans — and even more modernizing Tories in Britain — will find plenty to agree with. I also beg forgiveness in advance for the inevitable simplification of very complex events and ideas that are still too close to us for a truly disinterested assessment. This is not an attempt at a definitive account of conservatism. It is an essay in defense of an idea of conservatism now in eclipse.

In that sense, it is doubly conservative. In defending what might seem a lost or losing cause, I have adopted the usual conservative posture of sadness at the pace and direction of current events. I present in this book two rival forms of conservatism. The first I have called "fundamentalism," and it represents both a form of religious faith and a new variety of politics to represent it. The second I call "conservatism," by which I simply mean conservatism as I would describe and explain it. Both have common elements — primarily a suspicion of change and appreciation of the inherited wisdom of the past. But they diverge dramatically in how they see the role of government, how they view faith, and how they understand the intersection of the two. I do not believe this divergence is a trivial or superficial one — in fact, I believe that fundamentalism is, in some respects, the nemesis of conservatism as I have always understood it. I regard its current supremacy not as a continuation of the conservatism of the past, but a usurpation of it.

Rescuing conservatism, I argue, means rejecting the current fundamentalist supremacy in almost every respect. Of course, a Republican politician, trying to lead the current Republican Party, cannot immediately embrace these politics without jeopardizing his chances for power. I am not naive enough to believe that what this book argues for will readily become the Republican or even Tory mainstream. So I understand why this approach may not work today in retail politics. But a conservative writer is luckier than a conservative politician. I have no primaries to win. What follows is simply what I have come to believe — useful or useless, central or idiosyncratic, feasible or out of touch. I hope to persuade you, but if I don't, I aim at least to have helped clarify where we disagree. In such a polarized political climate, that's not such a paltry goal.

Courtesy of HarperCollins.

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How We Lost It, How to Get It Back

by Andrew Sullivan

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