Many on the Right tend to dismiss Andrew Sullivan these days. After his fierce criticism of George W. Bush, his enthusiastic embrace of Barack Obama, and his all out assault on Sarah Palin most conservatives now regard Sullivan as a vile enemy.
I refuse to succumb to this mentality for a few reasons, the most important of which is Sullivan’s book The Conservative Soul. When I was still a leftist Sullivan’s magnum opus managed to reframe conservatism in a way I’d never seen before. His conception of a “conservatism of doubt” inspired by Michael Oakeshott would profoundly influence me and prepare me for my engagement with David Horowitz’s means of understanding the Left as a religious movement. And, of course, Sullivan’s blog The Daily Dish remains continually entertaining, witty, and provocative whether one agrees with its views or not.
As such I bristle a bit when those on the Right make particularly harsh cracks about him. Regardless of important policy differences we have, The Conservative Soul is required reading for anyone interested in Conservatism.
So I was a tad disappointed when last night he chose not to weigh in on the Frum Vs. Horowitz debate and instead only snipe from the sidelines. He titled his post, “Dispatches From a Parallel Universe”:
David Frum and David Horowitz have been debating the worth of Glenn Beck. Frum is anti-Beck and thinks he should be cast out of the GOP; Horowitz thinks Beck provides a necessary service and deserves a seat at the table. Unsurprisingly the two are talking past each other.
Then after quoting from Horowitz’s response to Frum, Sullivan asks:
Where does one begin?
Noting Wehner’s statements that,
he [Beck] isnâ€™t the face or disposition that should represent modern-day conservatism… he is not the kind of figure conservatives should embrace or cheer on.
Sullivan replied, basically siding with Frum,
I agree, of course. But I do think that Beck deserves some kudos for putting defense on the table as an issue for small government conservatives. There is no way the US can return to limited government without abandoning its neo-imperial ambitions and its middle class entitlements. The Pentagon, as that limited government president Eisenhower understood, is as much a big government program as Medicare or Social Security. Limited government Americans are rightly skeptical of a government that insists on a massive investment of time, money and human beings in open-ended nation-building in a place where these is no nation and no credible government.
So Sullivan likes that Beck is drifting toward a less aggressive foreign policy. Delightful.
I think one of the major reasons for why Frum, Sullivan, and Wehner do not see the value in Beck is simple: They do not understand the nature of the Left. Because if they did then they would realize that engaging with much of the Left in a friendly, low volume fashion is not going to work.
So instead Sullivan mocks the idea that anyone could have views similar to the fellow travelers of the Cold War. In a post on September 11 titledÂ “Now: Commies!” Sullivan wrote,
The latest Drudge headline describes Putin and Chavez as “reds”. Putin a commie? WND is accusing Valerie Jarrett of being a communist. And Van Jones is also, apparently, a communist. Are we really back in the 1950s?
Now I’ll be the first to acknowledge when conservatives go too far in their rhetoric. I’ve often checked people for labeling Obama a socialist. Obama certainly emerges from the culture of the Left but calling him a “communist”? It just isn’t accurate. (Jones, though, said in 2005 that his radical views had not changed, he’d only adopted moderate tactics.)
What also isn’t accurate is to deny that such people have significant pull within the Democratic Party. What isn’t accurate is to jump on board the Left’s slander that opposition to Van Jones, ACORN, and Obama comes from racist animosity toward a black president and African-Americans.
In a post condemning Rush Limbaugh and Michelle Malkin for racially politicizing a video of a black student beating up a white student Sullivan wrote of Limbaugh,
This man is spewing incendiary racial hatred. He is conjuring up images of lonely whites being besieged by angry violent blacks … based on an incident that had nothing to do with race at all. And why, by the way, does someone immediately go to the racial angle when looking at such a tape?
These people are going off the deep end entirely: open panic at a black president is morphing into the conscious fanning of racial polarization, via Gates or ACORN or Van Jones or a schoolbus in Saint Louis. What we’re seeing is the Jeremiah Wright moment repeated and repeated. The far right is seizing any racial story to fan white fears of black power in order to destroy Obama. And the far right now controls the entire right.
Do they understand how irresonsible this is? How recklessly dangerous to a society’s cohesion and calm? Or is that what they need and thrive on?
(Note how the critique mirrors Frum almost perfectly. Take an instance in which a talker oversteps in their rhetoric or is off base in their analysis and declare them poisonous in the harshest terms.)
I used to be like Sullivan, perpetually disgusted by figures like Limbaugh, Beck, Malkin, and Ann Coulter. I knew that Conservatism could only survive if it vomited them out and labeled them dangerous kooks.
Then I got mugged by reality.
I realized that I cannot sit down and reason with every political opponent. I realized that there are people who reject capitalism and American freedom. There are people more concerned with protecting Islamofascist terrorists than American citizens. There are people who see Israel as equivalent to a totalitarian state. And I realized that we conservatives of doubt are ill-equipped to grapple with them.
Coulter/Beck/Limbaugh/Malkin — those I’ve described as Conservatism’s Rooks — are. And the proper response of we conservatives of doubt (the bishops and knights) is not to try and knock the Rooks off the board, but to pull them back when they go too far. (Ron Radosh wrote about thisÂ yesterday.) And by the same token, the Rooks must push us when we do not go far enough. Thus the founders’ concept of checks and balances is absorbed fully into the Conservative Movement.
I’m discouraged that Sullivan has grown so disillusioned by the rise of Conservatism’s Rooks and the imbalance of influence they’ve developedÂ over the past few years that he’s more or less completely abandoned the Right. Because one thing that I came to accept when I finally caved and joined the Freedom Center is this: one cannot influence the Conservative Movement and try and save it from itself if one is not a part of it. One has little influence over the Becks if one is not friends with them.
Maybe the tide will turn at some point for Sullivan. Maybe he’ll realize that as a conservative of doubt he actually has more in common with Beck than he does with Obama’s inner circle and most fervent supporters. Maybe he’ll discover that the noble gay rights cause he champions with such skill will be best served through a continued engagement with the Right as he had been doing before abandoning the movement. Maybe he’ll realize that the Conservatism being shaped by those of us in Generation Y might be more to his liking (libertarian, gay-friendly, optimistic, less dogmatic) than that fashioned primarily by his Gen X and Boomer colleagues.
If he does have something approximating these “second thoughts” then he should be welcomed back into the Conservative fold. He’s too talented a thinker to be surrendered to the Left.