Andrew Sullivan’s Take On Conservatism And Whether It Can Be Saved

todayOctober 31, 2013 3

share close

Mandeville, LA – Exclusive Transcript – Well, open today’s Pile of Prep and you will find a link and a quote to a blog post written by Andrew Sullivan.  Sullivan writes at The Dish, which is a website that he — he used to write for The Atlantic.  He went out on his own.  He’s one of these guys that’s trying to be an independent and not have to work for the man, as it were.  He has a brief piece titled “Can American Conservatism Be Saved?”  In the piece we find some, I think, worthy discussion.  Check out today’s transcript for the rest…


Begin Mike Church Show Transcript

Mike:  Well, open today’s Pile of Prep and you will find a link and a quote to a blog post written by Andrew Sullivan.  Sullivan writes at The Dish, which is a website that he — he used to write for The Atlantic.  He went out on his own.  He’s one of these guys that’s trying to be an independent and not have to work for the man, as it were.  He has a brief piece titled “Can American Conservatism Be Saved?”  In the piece we find some, I think, worthy discussion.  Of course, this requires to rub brain cells together, and that means if I get into this, the Birzer Effect is going to be in effect for the next hour.  I’m doomed to be talking to the Three Stooges cutout sitting across from me and staring at empty tweets and nothing on the Facebook.

What Lincoln Killed flyer
Hear the story of the United States AFTER the Constitution like you’ve never heard it before

Patrick_Henry_American_Statesman_paperback_cover_DETAILWith great, great trepidation, I dare to enter the “Can American Conservatism Be Saved?” waters.  In other words, the rest of this hour is all on me.  I have to cover the whole dang thing and I know it, but I’m going to do it anyway.  We can turn this into the big business wanting to attack the Tea Party because this is part of it.  Sullivan writes in part:


The best part of Wilfred McClay’s new essay on what Michael Oakeshott could contribute to today’s American Republicanism is a gem from George Santayana, [Mike: Most of you people know Santayana from a very brief quotation or part of a quotation that he’s famous for “those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.”] perhaps the most under-rated conservative writer I know. In thinking of America, Santayana was struck by the vastness of its wildernesses, its gigantic mountain ranges and deserts, its inherent difference from the genteel English conservatism of what Tolkien called the Shire.

But he didn’t draw from this any sense of American exceptionalism, in which this country’s sheer might could empower it to run the world, or to unleash the animal spirits of capitalism. He saw something else in those mountains:

“A Californian whom I had recently the pleasure of meeting observed that, if the philosophers had lived among your mountains, their systems would have been different from what they are. Certainly, I should say, very different from what those systems are which the European genteel tradition has handed down since Socrates; for these systems are egotistical; directly or indirectly they are anthropocentric, and inspired by the conceited notion that man, or human reason, or the human distinction between good and evil, is the centre and pivot of the universe. That is what the mountains and the woods should make you at last ashamed to assert…

“It is the yoke of this genteel tradition itself that these primeval solitudes lift from your shoulders. They suspend your forced sense of your own importance not merely as individuals, but even as men. They allow you, in one happy moment, at once to play and to worship, to take yourselves simply, humbly, for what you are, and to salute the wild, indifferent, non-censorious infinity of nature. You are admonished that what you can do avails little materially, and in the end nothing. At the same time, through wonder and pleasure, you are taught speculation. You learn what you are really fitted to do, and where lie your natural dignity and joy, namely, in representing many things, without being them, and in letting your imagination, through sympathy, celebrate and echo their life.”

For the rest of today’s transcript please sign up for a Founders Pass or if you’re already a member, make sure you are logged in!
[private FP-Yearly-So76|FP-Yearly|FP-Monthly|FP-Yearly-WLK]

[end reading]

Mike:  I’m going to stop right there and just make a point.  You’re not going to find something like that in any conservative rag today, you’re not going to find it.  You’re not going to find very many “conservatives” running about with Santayana and quotes like this in their pockets or on their tongues, ready to pronounce them and share them with the world.  Why?  [mocking] “This doesn’t have anything to do with being the greatest country in the history of Earth, you idiot.  That’s not conservative.  It doesn’t have anything to do.  Mitter Church, Mitter Church, there’s nothing in there about free markets.  There is nothing in that silliness there about us being the greatest country in the history of the Earth and the founding fathers.  What is wrong with this Santayana guy?”  What you would hear would be either dismissal, boredom, or outright denial.  [mocking] “Sounds like a bunch of fruity-tooty, hoity-toity libs wrote that crap,” is what you would hear.

This is part of your conservative tradition.  It used to be — if you really want to delve into this, for many of you asking [mocking] “What book can I read?  What book can I read?”  I always recommend the same book and no one ever reads it, no one ever reviews the damn thing, and no one ever thanks me for telling them to read it.  I’ll engage in the thankless task yet again.  Get a copy of M.E. Bradford’s A Better Guide Than Reason.  You don’t even have to read the whole thing.  I know many of you are going to be bored to tears, I wasn’t but many of you will.  Slog through the first chapters, about four or five, about the ancient Romans, about the Roman Empire.  I think it’s one of the best essays ever written about the Roman Empire before it was the Roman Empire.  What was life like in Rome before the Caesars were unleashed?  Bradford researched this.

Remember, Bradford was not a pol.  He didn’t care about politics.  He wasn’t a party man.  He didn’t care about any of that crap, yet he emerged as one of the better historians of the latter part of the 20th century.  Why?  His writing was grounded in the fact that he was a professor of literature.  That’s why Bradford was able to write in such beautiful and brilliant prose.  He was able to quote Latin just off the top of his head and drop it in the middle of a sentence.  Of course, it made sense to him, but you and I have to look it up because we’s dummies.  We weren’t educated to read that kind of stuff.  Even people that were thought to be illiterate like Patrick Henry back in the 1740s, ‘50s, and ‘60s were handed Latin books by their schoolmasters and told: Go learn that.  Read Gaius Julius Caesar.  Come back and write a report.  Go learn it.

In any event, this is something that you probably would see in a Bradford essay.  If you get beyond A Better Guide Than Reason by M.E. Bradford, the next book in the Bradford canon would be The Reactionary Imperative.  Try to read that and you’re going to be screaming, [mocking] “This guy was no conservative.  He can’t write about that kind of stuff.  That’s fruity-tooty, hoi polloi crap.  That sounds like it belongs in some gay bar in New York.”  Back to Sullivan:


There is a Whitmanesque celebration of America here – but in the service of emphasizing the limits of human activity, the insignificance of so much that rivets us day by day, and the more fruitful option of mere enjoyment of these wildernesses, a giving over to them. And this uniquely American sense of the promising yonder and awe-inspiring West will – and should – shape an indigenous conservatism.

[end reading]

Mike:  Let’s think about this again.  What we’re supposed to be doing today as conservatives, follow me, folks, we’re supposed to be outraged.  We’re supposed to have these little dark clouds over our heads.  We’re supposed to hate everyone.  We’re supposed to be angry that Obamacare is the law of the land and we can’t stop it.  We take to radio and television and Facebook and Twitter and email and we scream and holler and call people Hitler and Stalin and every other hell forsaken thing we can think of.  We don’t stop for a moment to think that there’s anything worth being thankful for, nothing, and that there is anything left on this continent that is beautiful and worthy of conservation or preservation.  After all, we have to live under Obamacare now.  That’s going to control our lives.  Surely it will have an impact on our lives, but does it actually control them?  Remember the story I read you from Alexander Solzhenitsyn?  Even though he was in a Soviet gulag, he had written that the Soviets, the Communists, they took our churches away, they took God out of the public, but they never removed him from our hearts.  They couldn’t do it.  It was impossible.  Remember that as you ponder some of these things today.  Let me get back to Sullivan now.


Why such an emphasis on contingent space and place? Because conservatism in its best sense is about the constant situating of the individual within a cultural and historical context.

[end reading]

Mike:  This is why, stop writing me.  I’ve already told people 157 billion times if you want to start reading great stuff, read Bradford’s A Better Guide Than Reason.  Not that that’s the best book bar none, but it’s easily available, written in the last 50 years, and this is what Sullivan is talking about. If you want to go back and place yourself in an historical context, then read about what the ancient Romans were like before there was the Roman Empire.  Back to Sullivan:


Indeed, the very idea of the individual, an Oakeshottian would insist, is a contingent and unlikely achievement of the modern European and American mind, forged first by Augustine from the moral kindling of Christianity, and elaborated ever since. Individualism can never therefore be an ideology. “I built that” is an excrescent simplification, a form of contempt for tradition and society.

[end reading]

james-madison-gutzman-ad-signMike:  Weren’t many of us “conservatives” obsessed with and running around with T-shirts and what not “I Built That”?  Remember that?  Remember President Obama said [mocking] “Yeah, I built that.”  What Sullivan is saying is that while in the broad sense of the word you didn’t build it.  You stand, as Kirk said, on the shoulder of giants.  It’s egomaniacal to say that you built it.  Of course, ego is not supposed to be part of the conservative canon, but boy is it.


McClay asks the obvious yet overlooked question in our politics today: what is it that American conservatives want to conserve?

[end reading]

Mike:  How many times have I asked that question, Mr. Gruss?  If you had an abacus and you were trying to count this, what do you think you would be up to now?  How many times have I asked that question: Exactly what are you trying to conserve?

AG:  I think it would be spinning off the axis.  I don’t know if I can count that many.

Mike:  You need one of those calculators you had back in college with sine and cosine on it, wouldn’t you?

AG:  Absolutely.

Mike:  “It’s a great question,” says Sullivan.  What is it that American conservatives want to conserve?  I said I was going to be, because this is the Birzer Effect in effect here, highbrow stuff, one of the ways we can open this up and not make it highbrow — you can answer this question, folks.  What do you think?  What is it that an American conservative wants to conserve?  What should you conserve?  I’m curious.  Send me an email,  Send me a Tweet, @TheKingDude.  Make it a Facebook post and tag me in it.  I dare you.  Sullivan says:


I am sympathetic, for example, to some conservatives’ dismay at the decline of unifying cultural events like Christmas or Easter. I am sympathetic to conservative resistance to changes in, say, marriage law, or the cultural impact of mass Latino immigration. There is real loss for many here as well as real gain for many more in the future. But the key to a more productively conservative defense of tradition is, it seems to me, a civility in making the case and an alertness to the occasional, contingent need for genuine reform, as social problems emerge in a changing society.

article-v-pamphlet-adToday’s Republicanism is, in contrast, absolutist, ideological, fundamentalist and angry. It has ceased to be a voice among others in a genuine conversation about our country and become a rigid, absolutist ideology fueled by the worst aspects of the right – from racism to Randian indifference to the many others who made – and make – our lives possible. A lot of the time, it is quite simply philistine. Here’s what McClay gleans from Oakeshott’s writing that could help the cause of conservative reform:

“First, the idea of conversation as the model for civilized life.

“Second, the need to create and preserve appropriate scale in our communities, for the sake of fostering just such conversation.

“Third, the profound human need for release from the burden of purposefulness, which is perhaps another way of expressing the enduring need for transcendence, and avenue that Rationalism tends to foreclose to us.

“And fourth, the irreplaceable mission of liberal learning.”

To translate: civility in public discourse, maximal federalism and subsidiarity, [Mike: That’s what I call republicanism.] a sense of transcendence to overcome the delusions of materialism and individualism, [Mike: Again, the transcendent being what? Homage and humility in the presence of God. That’s what transcendence is.] and a relentless defense of universities as the core places where our society learns to breathe and grow in the light of knowledge and understanding.

[end reading]

Mike:  When he says university, he’s not talking about what we have today called universities.  He’s referencing the ancient model of the university, which had the trivium and quadrivium, I believe, the three and four things that classical education is supposed to teach.  How many people that run universities today even know what the trivium and quadrivium are?  The only reason I even know is because I’ve been reading about it recently.  Back to Sullivan:

Get your republican coffee mug & travel mug at Mike's Founders Tradin' Post
If you REALLY want to anger “Richard from Troy VA” Buy this set of Coffee mugs from Mike’s Store!


Is this an agenda? Not in any sense of the word. And that is the point. There is no fixed set of policies that an Oakeshottian conservative will embrace. It will all depend on the time and the place and the problem. He will question change and reform as a constant necessity – which is what makes him (and me) allergic to the bromides of progressivism. But he will also try and judge when reform is necessary to preserve the coherence of a society. The issue, in the end, is one of prudential judgment about all these questions, a skill and virtue that can never be reduced to an ideology or “ism”.

Understanding the limits of one’s own understanding makes a political conversation natural. It’s what I’ve tried to foster here on the Dish and failed to live by during the more emotional period after 9/11. [Mike: I think we’re all guilty of that, or most of us are.] It’s not just a blogging formula. It’s a way of thinking. And until we revive that manner of thinking, American conservatism will remain defined by its ugliest and dumbest protagonists.

[end reading]

End Mike Church Show Transcript


conservative logo hd web

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
author avatar

Written by: AbbyMcGinnis

Rate it

Post comments (0)

0 0 votes
Article Rating
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x