Philosophy, Politics

Pluralism’s Brilliant and Damning Complexity

Though it’s only been (officially) over for a few days, the autopsy is already underway. Just what did Rick Santorum’s campaign mean for the GOP? For the United States?

The going analysis mostly dribbles into the “Can Mitt Romney snag the social conservative vote?” trench. Can he? Probably. Will he? Probably. Will this be enough to win? Probably not. Can he hold them while attracting independents? Probably not. Are most of these answers contingent upon economic trends and immeasurable quantities of fortune? Certainly.

(There. I’ve saved you a few weeks of reading mainstream horserace coverage. You’re welcome. Spend more time with your kids. Read more books. Tune in again in October or so.)

More interesting, though, is what Santorum and Romney have in common. While (perhaps) it used to be interesting to distinguish them in terms of political moderation or conservatism—let alone fiscal or social conservatism—there’s not a whole lot of water left in that well.

However much the content of their convictions differs, both men are united in their determined monism. In other words, they’re equally incapable of thinking reflectively about political issues. In their own way, both Santorum and Romney are perfect examples of what I recently called the “frictionless” ideological mind. In other words, each man has his preferred lens for understanding political issues.[1]

Santorum views all existing conflicts against the standard of a lost American fantasy culture. He measures political success or failure against the yardstick of approach to or departure from a never-existent past when the men were men, the women were women, the skin colors were sorted, and sock hops were all the rage.

Though Romney changes positions about as frequently as most Americans change the oil in their cars, there’s no doubting that he views politics almost completely through the lens of the old Reaganomics equation. He thinks of politics exclusively in terms of its relationship to free markets.

Whatever else you think about their particular positions, it’s worth pointing out that this is a deeply inadequate approach to a complicated set of problems. The modern world is more pluralist than we commonly acknowledge. Everyone recognizes cultural, racial, and religious diversity as a political fact. We less commonly consider how modern politics requires a flexible, plural turn of mind. It demands an awareness of nuance and tragedy. It requires us to be unsure of all facts except the fact of our uncertainty. It requires us to periodically privilege liberty above equality, or public health above prosperity, or the reverse, or some new and unpredictable amalgam of all of these. Pluralists resist easy explanations (and political solutions) because they know too well that it’s damned difficult to solve big problems. Romney and Santorum have shown none of this cautious refinement of mind.

It’s not wholly their fault: were they even minimally pluralist, the contemporary Republican Party wouldn’t have them.  This needn’t be the case. Contra periodic studies “showing” that conservatism is the product of intellectual laziness, there is nothing specifically anti-plural about it as an ideology—see Michael Oakeshott’s treatment of pluralist politics, for one good example.

But…whether it need be the case or not, there’s no question that contemporary American conservatism has a long way to go when it comes to thinking carefully about the biggest challenges we’re facing.


[1] Yes, despite the well-documented ephemerality of Romney’s convictions. Hang on a second.

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About CPW

Conor P. Williams writes and teaches in Washington, D.C. Find him on Facebook or Twitter. Here’s his email. Here are his credentials.

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