Wednesday, April 01, 2009
On a business trip last week, I finally had the chance to finish The Conservative Soul. It's Andrew Sullivan's political analysis of the last couple of decades, on where he thinks the "right wing" has gone off the rails, and what he thinks true conservatism ought to be. Even though it's a couple years old now, his analysis is still very relevant and astute (in some ways even more so, as we watch the crack up of the right in the wake of their 2008 losses). Though he touches on many particular hot-button issues by way of example, his focus is more on philosophical underpinnings and the motivations for broad political trends and alignments. Starting from an assessment of the particular vacuums after the collapse of the "old left" that enabled the rise of the "new right", he diagnoses the "fundamentalist psyche" (a need for absolute truth arbitrated by central authorities and authoritative texts), the "theoconservative project" (to "recapture" the public square from the "false neutrality" of secular liberalism), and its ascendancy in the "Bush crucible". He then sets out to propose an alternative "conservatism of doubt" and a "politics of freedom". While some details of his account are anchored in the specifics of American politics in a particular time, some of his philosophical work, particularly in the chapter about natural law and in his latter positive chapters, are quite profound and less tied to this moment in history. His dissection of natural law (as it is wielded today) versus the implications of Darwin and "nature" is keenly argued and very insightful. His presentation of his preferred understanding of conservatism, as articulated in Montaigne and Oakeshott, leading to his political philosophy manifesto, extrapolating from Hobbes, is compelling. (Makes me want to work through his bibliography of those classic philosophers.) In his classic style, Sullivan writes eloquently, deftly weaving deep philosophical argument with crackling contemporary examples and personal experiences and insights. Full of thought-provoking ideas from his distinctive perspective, lucidly expressed, this book was a pleasure to read.