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The Conservative Soul How We Lost It, How to Get It Back Andrew Sullivan HarperCollins: 294 pp., $25.95

October 22, 2006|Art Winslow | Art Winslow's introduction to H.L.Mencken's collected coverage of the Scopes trial can be found in the recently published "A Religious Orgy in Tennessee."

IN his "Grand Old Party" (2003), historian Lewis L. Gould credits Ronald Reagan with "transforming the Republican Party into a conservative unit with a diminishing band of moderates on its fringes. His advocacy of smaller government, deregulation, and private enterprise commanded general assent while he was in office." This conformity of thought may have been the apogee of conservative like-mindedness, despite Republican control of Congress and the White House in the first years of this century. The works of the present-day GOP, Gould notes, would once have been anathema to conservatives: deficit spending, an expanded bureaucracy and a foreign policy whose outsize Wilsonianism yearns to "make the world itself democratic." "How a smaller government would achieve that monumental task has not yet been explained," he comments wryly.

The GOP's dramatic shift away from the conservatism of Reagan or Barry Goldwater toward a faith-based politics both illiberal and anti-conservative has raised a chorus of dismay, and not just across the congressional aisle. Disquiet emanates from such as the American Enterprise Institute, conservative commentator George Will, the pages of the American Conservative, former Republican operatives Kevin Phillips ("American Theocracy") and John W. Dean ("Conservatives Without Conscience") and former neoconservative philosopher Francis Fukuyama (in "America at the Crossroads," he writes that neoconservatism "has evolved into something I can no longer support").

A sense of betrayal is in the air, and it gets additional ventilation from columnist, blogger and New Republic senior editor Andrew Sullivan in "The Conservative Soul," a book he tells us "was born out of frustration." Sullivan takes time to buff the reputations of Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, but his real aim is to parse the differences between his understanding of the conservative perspective and its philosophical roots and what is occurring today under its rubric.

"[C]onservatism has become such a large and sprawling complex of ideas that no one has a monopoly on the term anymore," Sullivan writes in his prologue, although in the Cold War years some of that variety was veiled by the strong, unifying principle of anticommunism. Fukuyama and Dean are better explicators of the complicated history at play. Sullivan's account is more personal, and except when he discusses the influence of "theocons" (theocratic conservatives), that history isn't his focus.

All three explain the conservative flip-flop differently. Fukuyama cites the infusion of neocon principles, including a willingness to use military power for moral purposes, a distrust of social engineering and skepticism regarding the legitimacy and effectiveness of international law and institutions to achieve security or justice. Mainstream conservatism became so conflated with these tenets, he argues, that it was "increasingly hard to disentangle neoconservatism from other, more traditional varieties of American conservatism, whether based on small-government libertarianism, religious or social conservatism, or American nationalism." Dean recalls a question he and Goldwater discussed and that remains unanswered: "Why do those on the religious right act as they do? Are they motivated by religion or conservatism?" Citing a Zogby poll showing that conservative Christians make up 58% of all Republicans, he notes that they subject the rest of us to regressive, authoritarian governance that "now constitutes the prevailing thinking and behavior among conservatives."

Sullivan's analysis resembles Dean's on the influence of the religious right (a term Sullivan mostly avoids), with a semantic twist. What Dean calls authoritarianism, Sullivan calls "fundamentalism," a mind-set he spends much of "The Conservative Soul" differentiating from conservatism. At times, this line of argument smacks of trying to rescue a perspective from its practitioners -- "[F]undamentalism is, in some respects, the nemesis of conservatism," Sullivan writes -- but the account seems heartfelt, and his anger at the swelling religious influence on the Republican Party is clear. He calls George W. Bush "the most powerful Christian fundamentalist in the world" and today's GOP "perhaps the first fundamentally religious political party in American history." He draws loose parallels to Muslim fundamentalism as well.

If you're among the 18% of Americans who, according to Harris poll figures, identify themselves as liberal, or just another disaffected Republican, "The Conservative Soul" will be particularly fun to read. Sullivan -- a gay Catholic conservative who believes in a woman's right to choose, the normality (read: moral acceptability) of non-procreative sex, Darwinian theory and other heresies -- deplores many aspects of the current administration and hints that his brand of conservatism may have "a brighter future among Democrats and Independents than among Republicans."

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