Saturday, January 17, 2009

Review - The Conservative Soul

About a week ago, I referred to Andrew Sullivan's The Conservative Soul: How We Lost It, How to Get It Back (2006). Since I read it back then, but never reviewed it in those pre-blog days, I thought I would revisit it by writing a kind of mini-review.

Essentially, Sullivan would like to reclaim the "conservative" label from the fundamentalists who, he feels, have co-opted it in the United States under the banner of the Republican Party. To do that, he defines fundamentalism, and does so as accessibly and well as I have ever read. He's talking mainly about religious fundamentalism (I had some thoughts about other types here and here), and while I'm sure there are many who would resent the connection of Christian millennialists to Moslem Wahhabists, Sullivan provides a good case that there is a mind-set common to both communities.

And he doesn't like it one bit, not when they try to appropriate the word "conservative." How has that happened? Sullivan tells us through, primarily, two lengthy chapters dealing with sex and George W. Bush. In the end, he tells us what he thinks "conservative" means and what it implies.

It is here where the book becomes less convincing. In reading the final chapter, I came to the conclusion that Sullivan, long ago, defined himself as a conservative, and he's extremely unwilling to give that much so that he takes his beliefs (most of which I agree with, by the way) and shoehorns them into the label "conservative." The problem is, most people would not define it that way, no matter how much an author might reach to do so.

I have stated before here that I consider myself a moderate Republican, tending toward the conservative, but I recognize that those vague terms have changed their meaning dramatically over the past few decades. I don't know that there is room for a moderate in today's Republican party, and, in a world in which any deviance from free-market ideology is unthinkable, I'm not sure what it means to be conservative.

Had Andrew Sullivan accepted this, that he can no longer be a conservative, the book would have been stronger. As it is, it is fascinating and worthwhile; the reader is simply unlikely to buy into his attempts to, as Humpty Dumpty said, make a word "mean just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less."

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