It has been alleged — not unfairly — that I’m routinely more critical of conservatives than I am of progressives and radicals. One person has suggested that this is because I’m after a pat on the head: the vast majority of my friends and colleagues are progressives, so it is socially profitable to go after conservatives than the alternative. This greatly underestimates what an atrocious dinner guest I am.
The answer is less sinister. I have more invested in an improvement in right wing politics than I do in the left. I am like the theologian who wants to improve understanding of Christianity regardless of how many atheists I convert.
So why am I conservative?
We should start with a fairly simple observation: I don’t think there are all that many conservative writers in currently in play in Australia. Chris Kenny, Miranda Devine, and Andrew Bolt don’t appear to stand for much except saying inflammatory things for attention. The Sydney Morning Herald did a splash about the new generation of conservatives — Daisy Cousens, Helen Andrews, and Georgina Downer — and we are in a lot more trouble over here on the right if that’s the future of conservatism.
Fundamentally, conservatism has to be more than just saying terrible things for attention. We are trapped in this bizarre public discourse where, no matter how atrocious the behaviour, you will find a right wing pundit ready to go in and bat for it. A generation ago, conservatives would have been demanding that Holocaust deniers and people who advocate rape be denied entry to Australia. Now, you can barely hear yourself think over the sound of right wing pundits writing about how handsome they find the latest deplorable troll. These people have no shame and no sense of civic duty, and yet they introduce themselves as defenders of Western Civilisation and the Burkean tradition.
Conservatism has to be more than its current expressions in particular political parties and media. First, I deny that political parties are the custodians of political philosophies: the incentive is to get elected, not to espouse theory. If there is a conflict between electoral success and ideological purity, ideology loses. Indeed, ‘ideologically pure’ is a pejorative in current politics. Second, the media continues to demonstrate that it is incapable of facilitating meaningful exchanges of ideas. Thus, ‘conservative’ is promoted as an ‘outsider’ or ‘contrarian’ viewpoint. There are few historical accidents worse than the intersection of conservatism and Baby Boomerism.
For conservatism to have any kind of relevance, it needs to reestablish itself as a defender of values, with the ideal State being the one built on moral authority (rather than some prescribed framework of specific political institutions). To do that, it needs to give up being contrarian and shitful.
Conservatism has historically been Traditionalism In One Country. The prevailing idea was that our culture was under attack from other nations. This made conservatives too willing to overlook threats to culture from within — in particular, the threat from the expanding commodification of goods, services, and experiences. Small Market Toryism is the best option for people who look at the world and believe that free market ideologies threaten our social framework. It also made conservatism a refuge for racists who cared less about Western Civilisation and more about the superiority of the white race. The position was only possible through historical ignorance about cultural exchange: how much of our culture was only made possible by exchanges with other cultures.
Contemporary conservatism needs to give up its One Country addiction. There is much more to be gained by affirming everybody’s birthright to their cultural heritage and the opportunity to express that heritage. That is, conservatives in the Western tradition have more to gain by allying with conservatives in other traditions. The future of conservatism is multicultural.
Finally, conservatives need to get to terms with the truth that, in order to make people love their country, the country must be loveable. We need to defend our cultural institutions — including universities and the ABC — to promote the best about our country. And that needs to be an authentic celebration of our country — warts and all — rather than jingoistic fantasy. Right wing media outlets do not advance this cause when they vandalise public debate with outrageous antisocial behaviour.
Conservative thought has a lot to offer the world. At the moment, it is not living up to its promise.