Andrew Sullivan may have hauled down the flag on the circumcision issue, acknowledging that respect for religious freedom requires allowing both Muslims and Jews to perform essential required rites of their respective faiths, but he’s taken up another unlikely cause: that people should support President Obama because he is really the ‘best’ kind of British Tory.
Mr. Sullivan has a point, which we’ll get to, but we’d suggest that President Obama’s other supporters might want to try to keep this meme out of the mainstream. Our experiences with Lord North pretty well killed the Tory vote in the United States and from that day to this any candidate effectively tagged with that label has an uphill battle in American politics. Franklin Roosevelt called his enemies Tories and President Obama isn’t exactly looking for comparisons to George III. (The Tea Party, on the other hand, may find itself in a rare moment of profound agreement with Andrew Sullivan on this one. A Tory is exactly what many of them think President Obama is.)
But optics aside, Sullivan is right, I think, that President Obama is in many ways the Tory candidate in this election and a small ‘c’ conservative. He wants to preserve the status quo in the United States: the Great Society and the New Deal. He wants to push them along incrementally (that’s what the health care program is about) and he wants to fight attempts to roll the welfare state back (which explains his decision to allow states to junk the Clinton welfare reforms).
Like the classic British Tory, our current President believes in a strong state that advances a moral agenda for the nation, collective national guidance through the Great and the Good, and he is an instinctive believer in compromise and “one nation” solidarity between the rich and the poor. While not opposed to the use of force in principle, he mostly favors a low-cost, low-risk foreign policy of realist hedging, and, though he will rarely trumpet this conviction, thinks that US foreign policy must be based on a presumption of gentle decline. He is no foe of capitalism per se, but believes that a happy middle ground exists in which a neutered market can be tamed to serve social ends.
Sullivan is correct to say that this very much represents the sweet spot of British politics; what he neglects to note is that mainstream British conservatism (and its slightly pinker twin from the Labour Party side) is a surefire recipe for drift and decline. Stanley Baldwin, Neville Chamberlain, Lord Halifax, Harold Macmillan, Sir Alec Douglas-Hume, Edward Heath, John Major: they were, all of them, honorable men. And under their stewardship, Britain gently but irresistibly fell into deeper irrelevance and decay.
These were all men of good breeding, sound principles, small ‘c’ conservative methods and aims, and committed to ideals of civility and good governance. And under their eminently sane and civilized leadership Britain steadily and inexorably lost its global standing and its economic fire.
Two twentieth century Conservative prime ministers fought the rot, and both of them were deeply hated by the Conservative establishment: Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. Both of them only came to power because the gentle, pleasant drift and comforting mood music of conventional Tory wisdom had brought Britain to the absolute brink of ruin. Both of them were deeply and profoundly loathed by an Establishment that would much rather have marginalized than anointed them.
Arguably, a little bit of Toryism in the White House would be less profoundly devastating and destructive than the long reign of Tory blight was for the UK. America is bigger, brasher, less governable than Britain. In Britain the establishment can aspire, and sometimes succeed, to enfold the whole country in a dim and dismal environment of stale, smug consensus. This trick is much harder to pull off in the United States. One could make a cogent argument that the kind of Toryism that largely stifled modern Britain could be less damaging and more helpful over here.
If that’s the argument Sullivan is making, you can make a reasonable case for Obama’s re-election based on it. Ever since the Reagan presidency, one could argue, America has been rushing forward into the post-blue model universe at warp speed. One could well argue that the body politic needs a break; the US should sit in a comfy chair for a while and enjoy a nice, sustaining cup of tea. People who vote for President Obama on this basis are making an informed decision and expressing a legitimate preference.
But at least as I read Sullivan, he means something stronger and, from my point of view, less defensible. I think he is telling us that he prefers the comfy chair and the cup of tea as a final destination rather than as a pause to refresh. Again, as a human preference, there’s nothing wrong with preferring, say, the political and cultural politics of Stanley Baldwin to those of Andrew Jackson. It’s a fair choice in many ways — almost like a preference for a quiet English country garden versus a truck stop on an interstate highway. Despite the charm (the fatal disease of England as Waugh put it) of this alternative, however, it’s a doomed recipe for the United States of America in our wild and crazy times.
People sometimes write about the Communist Party in China as riding a bicycle; to slow down the modernization process is to risk falling off. That is much more profoundly true of the United States. We can’t afford to potter around the garden; our society has to evolve and adapt to the technological changes that the continuing revolution of capitalism continues to produce. We can’t afford to preserve our current health or education systems in amber, modestly tinkering here and there while freezing existing guilds and professions into place.
It would be nice if we could manage this change in some kind of orderly fashion, but everything about capitalism itself and the American political system makes that impossible. And in some ways the core problem is that we have to clear away the accumulated lumber of the past, not with a clear idea about what comes next, but simply to make room for something new to take shape.
The conventional Tory mind loathes this kind of unplanned, unconsidered change with all the disdain that Ben Jonson felt for Tribulation Wholesome and Zeal-of-the-Land Busy. Like Cromwell’s Roundheads destroying ancient shrines and cathedrals, the zealots of capitalist transformation today are taking the wrecking ball to some of the stateliest structures in American life and President Obama’s small ‘c’ Cavalier resistance to the iconoclasts is part of what Sullivan admires in him.
Tories hated radical leveling and iconclasm when Charles I fought Cromwell, and they hate it now. Andrew Sullivan looks at Sarah Palin with the appalled loathing that his 17th century predecessors had for the Barebones Parliament. This is not entirely wrong — but the larger truth lies with the revolutionaries, wrong headed though they can sometimes be. In 2012, you can be a Roundhead for Obama if you believe that the country needs to slow down for a bit, or you can be a Tory for Romney if you think that the case for sweeping institutional reform is pressing enough to trump your inner caution.
In any case, Sullivan is right that Obama is much more in touch with the mainstream of modern British political and social thought than is Romney. What he needs to reflect on is whether or not that is a good thing.