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Phillip Blond played to a packed house at Villanova last night. In the audience was our longtime blog friend Franklin Evans, who turned me into a newt, then joshingly relented. A good time was had by all, I think. Having listened to Phillip speak at length twice about his ideas, I’d like to say a few words about his Red Toryism.
Without question, I’m thrilled that Blond is on the scene, and that his ideas for a decentralized, localist polity have a chance of being enacted, at least to some degree, by the next Tory government in the UK (assuming that Cameron wins). Some Labourites have expressed interest in Blond’s ideas too, so it’s possible that if Labour holds on, Red Toryism in some iteration will find a Labourite expression. It’s not hard to see why. Blond correctly points out that statism has failed, as has a blind faith in the unregulated market. What he proposes is a third way based on the reconstitution of civil society, and the introduction of what Blond calls “a politics of virtue.” Read the basic case for Red Toryism here.
1. It will be all but impossible for him to get a hearing in the US. Our political parties and our media have conditioned us all to think in narrow, binary ways. Something truly creative, like Red Toryism, will struggle to find traction, not because its ideas are bad (they aren’t), but because they’re unconventional, and can’t be easily pigeonholed. That also makes them hard to discuss in a media culture dominated by television, which thrives on simplicity and crude oppositionism, and which rewards and amplifies the extremes. This does not reflect political reality! I know it’s five years old now, but if you dig into the 2005 Pew Political Typology report, you’ll see that we have a rather moderate country, with most people being more or less socially conservative, and more or less economically liberal — but the two parties being defined and driven by ideologues at the far ends of the spectrum, making up no more than 20 percent of the entire polity. This is perhaps a minor point to make in critiquing Red Toryism, but I don’t see how its proponents break through to the wider public in this media environment.
That’s no reason not to try, though. Phillip says he wants to found an American branch of his independent, non-partisan London think tank, ResPublica, to introduce and advocate for Red Toryism in the US. I think that’s vital, and I hope there are enough conservatives and even liberals who are fed up with what each party offers today, and who are more interested in turning communitarian ideals into policy.
2. My more substantive critique of Red Toryism is that we are not culturally ready for it. As I listened to Phillip over these past few days, I kept thinking, yes, yes, I want this to be true, but realizing that for it to be true, people have to not only be virtuous, but to agree on what virtue is. For example, Phillip talks about returning power to the poor who live in housing projects, making them less dependent on the state, and more responsible for their own lives. Yet the problem with so many of the poor, at least in this country, is that their personal and communal lives are in such chaos and disarray it’s hard to see how they would successfully govern themselves. I agree with him that the statist status quo is unsustainable, but for the poor to emerge out of this morass capable of responsible self-government, they need to be remoralized. What the poor need is not a politician, but a preacher.
More philosophically, how do we practice a politics of virtue when we can’t agree on what it is? I am less optimistic about our social/philosophical condition, sharing MacIntyre’s view, expressed here:
It is also the case, according to MacIntyre, that those involved in these philosophical and political debates claim to be using premises that are objective, based on reason, and universally applicable. Many of them even believe these claims, misunderstanding the nature of their particular inadequate modern philosophy, just as the people in MacIntyre’s post-disaster world misunderstand what it means to be doing real science. But what they are really doing, whether they recognize it or not, is using the language of morality to try to gain their own preferences. They are not trying to persuade others by reasoned argument, because a reasoned argument about morality would require a shared agreement on the good for human beings in the same way that reasoned arguments in the sciences rely on shared agreement about what counts as a scientific definition and a scientific practice. This agreement about the good for human beings does not exist in the modern world (in fact, the modern world is in many ways defined by its absence) and so any attempt at reasoned argument about morality or moral issues is doomed to fail. Other parties to the argument are fully aware that they are simply trying to gain the outcome they prefer using whatever methods happen to be the most effective. (Below there will be more discussion of these people; they are the ones who tend to be most successful as the modern world measures success.) Because we cannot agree on the premises of morality or what morality should aim at, we cannot agree about what counts as a reasoned argument, and since reasoned argument is impossible, all that remains for any individual is to attempt to manipulate other people’s emotions and attitudes to get them to comply with one’s own wishes.
MacIntyre claims that protest and indignation are hallmarks of public “debate” in the modern world. Since no one can ever win an argument – because there’s no agreement about how someone could “win” – anyone can resort to protesting; since no one can ever lose an argument – how can they, if no one can win? – anyone can become indignant if they don’t get their way. If no one can persuade anyone else to do what they want, then only coercion, whether open or hidden (for example, in the form of deception) remains. This is why, MacIntyre says, political arguments are not just interminable but extremely loud and angry, and why modern politics is simply a form of civil war.
We are stuck being governed by a procedural liberalism because we cannot agree on what constitutes “the good life.” Moreover, in our liberal/libertarian political settlement, we no longer even consider that a concept of the good life can be arrived at through political discussion. In a heterogeneous, culturally pluralistic society like ours, it’s not enough to point to the Christian tradition. If I’m hearing Blond correctly, he believes this is an inaccurate view of our cultural condition. He’s said that people really do agree on a lot more in terms of basic morality than they may think. At Georgetown the other day, he said it’s very easy to deflate the casual nihilism and skepticism of English undergraduates by showing them that they really don’t believe the things they say they do. Blond’s view is rather hopeful about the resilience of the Western moral tradition, and its recovery in the hearts of people who are told by cultural elites that there is no such thing as right and wrong, only their desires.
I hope he’s right. I have my doubts. And if he’s not right, I don’t see how Red Toryism can work.
On the other hand, as my friend Chris said last night after the lecture, “Do we really all need to agree on what constitutes virtue to agree the big banks need to be broken up?” No, we don’t. And we don’t need to agree on the meaning of virtue to come together to create policies that allow for localist experimentation, and a subsidiarist devolution of power. Ultimately, Red Toryism, like crunchy conservatism, has the most appeal to religious conservatives who are sick of the standard religious-right political line, and who are looking for a more holistic and creative way of living out Christian virtues politically.
Those are my jumbled thoughts this morning. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a train to catch.