Andrew Sullivan writes a precis of his conservatism, in which he reveals how he can be a conservative who loathes Palin and fights for gay marriage and other forms of liberty—a position that has confused many a conservative (and liberal) before.
He argues that economics is not a science and that there is a distinction between practical wisdom and theoretical wisdom. Or, as my dear old ma would say, "don't be so open-minded that your damn brains fall out."
And I do not regard the Scandinavian collectivist states as any place I would like to live in, since I value the economic liberties that such high taxation takes away, and my ability to choose individually how I spend my money, rather than be forced by the majority to spend it the way that majority wants to. I value those liberties, moreover, as ends in themselves and not just as means to any particular ends. I like being free over my own life and decisions. It makes me happy.
Let me make one other point. A critical distinction between liberalism and conservatism, in my view, is the conservative insistence on the distinction between practical wisdom and theoretical wisdom. A mathematical proof cannot be disproven by someone's living experience. But a mathematical proof that tries to predict human behavior will always fail at some point, which is why economics is not a science in the way that, say, physics, is.
The case for free markets and low taxation rests on the idea that people are better judges of what is in their best interest when they have the most practical knowledge and real world understanding of any particular issue; and that human conduct is far too complex and nuanced and changeable to be extrapolated to any single person's theory or any movement's ideology (see Marx and Engels' total misjudgment of the future, even though they possessed some brilliant insights into the past; see neoconservatives' extrapolation of the success of democratization in, say, Poland to, say Iraq).
So the closer you are to the ground and the actual issue, the more likely you are to get it right. And so devolving decisions as much as possible to the people on the ground is conservative, while organizing societies around collective principles that have to be decided at the center is liberal.
Those of us with a stomach for it should try and take the Republican party back from the rabid Christians and the fat cats—there is such a thing as secular, humanist conservatism but you wouldn't know it from looking at American politics.
There were some signs of hope at the Republican National Convention in 2008, where I talked to delegates and hangers-on watching protests through a barricade:
Saul Farber, 22, running for New York State Assembly, and Andrew Abdel-Malik, his friend, watch warily through the barricade. "Shit, I think they want to jump the fence," Abdel-Malik says. "You wearing comfortable shoes?" Farber answers, in all seriousness, "Yeah, I can run in Prada loafers."
Dan Kramer, 40-ish, who owns a PR firm in Sacramento—his previous employer was Nichols-Dezenhall, a spin machine for the former CEO of Enron among others, dubbed "the pit bull of public relations" by Business Week—struts around with indestructible hair and a smug smile. "It's very interesting," Kramer says, after having his picture taken from behind the barricades. "Most of those folks look so well-off, well-to-do." So protesters have to be poor? "Mmm," he non-answers. "If I didn't know better, I'd think some of them were getting paid to be out here. Mmm."
The more we talk, the more typecast they seem: Lennox is the fossil and Kramer is the unctuous villain, but Farber is one of the rare heartening conventioneers. Sincere and friendly, he calls himself a fiscal conservative, not a social one. Farber predicts that the party's base will move away from the religious right in the coming years—that the creationists and the homophobes are facing their twilight. Farber and Abdel-Malik won't go on the record as being for drug legalization and marriage equality. But Abdel-Malik acknowledges: "Conservatism is about keeping the government off your back—and that includes what people choose to do with their own bodies."
And he might have been right: Savage's It Gets Better campaign not only has Clinton and Obama reading from his playbook, it has instigated discussion among sane Christians about distancing themselves from rabid evangelicals (Savage, to his credit, has opened a door they haven't been able to open for themselves). The Tea Party nonsense threatens to split off the craziest wing of the Republican party, leaving a vacuum—now I'm just fantasizing, but bear with me—for the Saul Farbers and Andrew Sullivans to step in and fight for secular, humanist conservative principles.
America needs a sensible conservative party to spar with a sensible liberal party. Instead, we have... well, you know.