Friday, January 25, 2008

Why Conservatives Should be Open to John McCain

Benjamin Storey and Jenna Silber Storey explain why conservatives should back John McCain, at the Weekly Standard:

SOME OF THE SHARPEST minds of conservative punditry have lately been whetting their knives on the candidacy of John McCain. The trend of these arguments is disturbing, because it indicates conservatism may be drifting far from its roots. The ire against McCain contains elements of two of the greatest fallacies of modern political thought: the notion that ideology can replace virtue as the mainstay of a decent regime, and the cynical assumption that virtue is not real but vanity in disguise.

The main current of opposition to McCain faults him for departures from strict free-market ideology. McCain's decisions about tax cuts, campaign finance, and greenhouse gas caps may be prudent or imprudent, and it is important to debate their practical effects on our economy and on our nation's well-being. Nonetheless, if conservatives succeed in marginalizing anyone who does not toe the doctrinaire line of their free market ideology, they will lose an important--indeed the most central and precious--aspect of their creed: the faith in the virtue of individuals to make a good society for themselves, rather than the faith in an ideology to make a good society for us.

The modern form of this debate goes back at least as far as Immanuel Kant, who articulated the core of the progressive faith when he argued that "a people of devils" could form a well-governed society, as long as those devils were intelligent--that is, as long as they believed in the correct ideology. Alexander Hamilton knew better. Hamilton warned that when virtue came to be considered "only a graceful appendage of wealth . . . the tendency of things will be to depart from the republican standard." Hamilton was one of the most ardent believers in the benefits of commerce among the Founding Fathers. And yet he was not an ideologue. He knew that rigorous adherence to any single idea was a recipe for political decline. Hamilton argued that a decent political order requires virtuous statesmen because the activity of politics demands moral intelligence, or what the ancient philosophers called prudence. Even the best-designed republic requires prudent leadership, and Hamilton knew there is no substitute for this virtue....

Senator McCain is not perfect, but he has the priceless virtue of believing in virtue. He knows himself to be ambitious, but he also knows that to be honorable he must put his ambition in the service of something greater than himself: his country. Difficult as it is to embody virtue in action or define it in thought, conservatives must have the courage to acknowledge the reality of virtue and its necessary role in public life. Hamilton didn't think that virtue was an attractive ornament; he insisted that it was indispensable to republican government. Free-market ideologues, who pride themselves on their hard-headedness, are insufficiently hard-headed about this stubborn fact.

Storey and Storey might have added immigration, a policy area that has generated some of the right's most vehement anti-McCain denunciations.

It's a good piece, nevertheless, although the argument's at an abstract level of political theory that hardline conservative ideologues won't find compelling. The authors are right, in any case: Unflinching ideology - a driving force for political mobilization - is often disfunctional in terms of resolving society's policy dilemmas.

In contrast,
political science has recognized the efficacy of political pragmatism - a willingness to seek practical solutions to pressing demands - which is seen as the democratic political orientation most conducive to the long-term institutional effectiveness of the regime.