Commentary Magazine


Posts For: September 27, 2013

Conservatives and the Excommunication Temptation

Earlier this week I appeared on a panel discussion hosted by the Heritage Foundation on ”The Conservative Mind at 60.” During the event I highlighted three themes that appear in Russell Kirk’s A Conservative Mind (published in 1953) and made the case for why those insights are still crucial to the health and wellbeing of modern conservatism.

As for the themes themselves, Dr. Kirk was a great proponent of prudence, so much so that he listed it among his canons of conservative thought. He wrote about the importance of recognizing that “change may not always be salutary reform: hasty innovation may be a devouring conflagration, rather than a torch of progress. Society must alter, for prudent change is the means of social preservation; but a statesman must take Providence into his calculations, and a statesman’s chief virtue, according to Plato and Burke, is prudence.”

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Earlier this week I appeared on a panel discussion hosted by the Heritage Foundation on ”The Conservative Mind at 60.” During the event I highlighted three themes that appear in Russell Kirk’s A Conservative Mind (published in 1953) and made the case for why those insights are still crucial to the health and wellbeing of modern conservatism.

As for the themes themselves, Dr. Kirk was a great proponent of prudence, so much so that he listed it among his canons of conservative thought. He wrote about the importance of recognizing that “change may not always be salutary reform: hasty innovation may be a devouring conflagration, rather than a torch of progress. Society must alter, for prudent change is the means of social preservation; but a statesman must take Providence into his calculations, and a statesman’s chief virtue, according to Plato and Burke, is prudence.”

Here is how the aforementioned Edmund Burke put it: “The lines of morality are not like the ideal lines of mathematics. They admit of exceptions, they demand modifications. These exceptions and modifications are not made by the process of logic but by the rules of prudence.”



So prudence – not pugilism, not purity – is the cardinal political virtue. Practical wisdom, practical judgment, the ability to take the appropriate action at a given place and time, was considered by the ancient Greeks, by Christian philosophers, and by statesmen like Burke and Lincoln to be of supreme worth and value.

A second theme that runs throughout The Conservative Mind is the importance of taking into account particular circumstances when applying political principles. Dr. Kirk pointed out that Burke based his every important decision upon a close examination of particulars. Burke detested “metaphysical politicians” and “abstraction” – by which he meant, according to Kirk, “not principle, but rather vainglorious generalization without respect for human frailty and the particular circumstances of an age and nation.” And so, Kirk argued, principles are necessary but they must be applied discreetly and with infinite caution to the workaday world.

This leads to a third set of insights by Kirk, which is that human nature suffers irremediably from certain faults; that to aim for utopia is to end in disaster; that we are not made for perfect things; and that all we reasonably can expect is a tolerably ordered, just, and free society. In other words, we should not expect perfection in a fallen world – not from us, and not from others.

Which brings me to the here and now. There exists what might be called a conservative temperament. To be sure, such a temperament doesn’t preclude one from engaging in debates, with passion and conviction, to advance what one believes to be right. But what I do think is problematic are those who desire to excommunicate from the ranks those they perceive as apostates.

What do I have in mind? One example is the targeting of Representative Pete Sessions of Texas. As this article makes clear, Sessions, a rock-solid conservative who has a 97 percent lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union, is under assault from a super PAC, the Senate Conservatives Fund, for being a “Texas RINO” (Republican in Name Only) and a “wishy-washy” Republican who is willing to “destroy our freedoms.” And what is the grave and unforgivable offense committed by Sessions? He opposed the effort by Senators Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, and others to shut down the government if the Affordable Care Act isn’t defunded. (As the Wall Street Journal points out in this editorial, this gambit is premised on the belief that “if the House holds ‘firm’ amid a shutdown, then the public will eventually blame Mr. Obama and the Democrats, who will then fold and defund ObamaCare.” Which is about as likely as yours truly becoming the starting center for the Miami Heat next year.)

This excommunication impulse is becoming increasingly dominant within some conservative quarters. The issue is framed as a “litmus test” and conservatives are being told by prominent figures within conservatism that any Republican who votes against the Cruz strategy is not worth voting for ever again.

That position strikes me as injudicious. If a similar litmus test had been applied to Ronald Reagan when he was governor of California, when he signed into law a record tax hike and liberalized California’s abortion law, he would have been deemed insufficiently “pure” and unworthy of support.

Senators Tom Coburn, Jeff Flake, and John Cornyn – as well as scores of their colleagues in Congress – are hardly traitors to conservatism and the cause of self-government. They have not, in the words of a FreedomWorks fundraising e-mail, “betrayed you.” They simply opposed what they considered to be a bad (and fated-to-fail) idea. I believe they were right to do so; others obviously disagree. But the disagreement shouldn’t rise to the political equivalent of a capital offense.  

People should be judged in the totality of their acts. And the effort to portray the Cruz maneuver as a litmus test dividing real conservatives from RINOs is misguided. On some fundamental level it is also, I believe, at odds with conservatism as understood by many of its greatest exponents. It’s time to return prudence to its proper place in the conservative pantheon.

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Putting the ‘Mad’ in Maduro

It’s that time of year when the world’s tyrannies flock to the UN General Assembly meeting in New York with all the predictability of birds flying south for the winter. This year, however, their numbers were noticeably depleted.

True, the fork-tongued Iranian President, Hasan Rouhani, was on hand to deny the Holocaust in one breath, while calling for “time-bound, results-oriented” talks on his country’s nuclear program in another. And the aging Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe gave a vintage performance denouncing the “illegal and filthy sanctions” imposed on his brutal regime. But the Sudanese leader, Omar al Bashir, stayed away, fearful perhaps that he would be arrested on war-crimes charges upon landing in New York. And so did Venezuela’s President, Nicolas Maduro, for reasons that will compel us to question whether he has lost his mind.

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It’s that time of year when the world’s tyrannies flock to the UN General Assembly meeting in New York with all the predictability of birds flying south for the winter. This year, however, their numbers were noticeably depleted.

True, the fork-tongued Iranian President, Hasan Rouhani, was on hand to deny the Holocaust in one breath, while calling for “time-bound, results-oriented” talks on his country’s nuclear program in another. And the aging Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe gave a vintage performance denouncing the “illegal and filthy sanctions” imposed on his brutal regime. But the Sudanese leader, Omar al Bashir, stayed away, fearful perhaps that he would be arrested on war-crimes charges upon landing in New York. And so did Venezuela’s President, Nicolas Maduro, for reasons that will compel us to question whether he has lost his mind.

As I noted here recently, in the five months since Maduro won the presidency in an election widely regarded as fraudulent, barely a day goes by without him excitedly unveiling some new American plot to unseat him, or assassinate him, or destroy Venezuela’s groaning economy. Despite all these lurking dangers, Maduro nonetheless decided that he would attend and speak at this week’s 68th session of the General Assembly.

Winging his way to New York from a state visit to China, Maduro got as far as Vancouver. Rather than continuing eastwards, he elected to return to Caracas, where he visited a television studio to explain to a national audience why he was home early

One of the alleged plots could have caused violence in New York and the other could have affected his physical safety, Maduro said in a national address carried on television and radio yesterday. 

“The clan, the mafia of Otto Reich and Roger Noriega once again had planned a crazy, terrible provocation that can’t be described in any other way,” Maduro said, referring to two former U.S. officials he frequently accuses of plots against Venezuela.

Reich, who served as Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs in the George W. Bush administration, was accused by Maduro in March this year of planning the assassination of Henrique Capriles, Maduro’s opponent in the presidential election, as part of a plan to engineer a coup against the ruling chavistas. Reich’s rebuttal at the time is worth citing, simply because it is equally applicable now:

Though Maduro’s strategy is not original, it is not as dull-witted as it appears.  With the election in Venezuela scheduled for April 14, less than a month away, every day that the media focus on non–existent conspiracies is one day less that Venezuelans hear there may be a peaceful, honest, and democratic alternative to the Maduro regime.

Every day Venezuelans talk about foreign devils, they don’t discuss shortages of water and electricity, of cornmeal and cooking oil, of soap and diapers, of antibiotics and insulin.  It is one day less to wonder how Caracas became the third most violent city in the world and about the 150,000 Venezuelan victims of homicide in the 14 years of 21st Century Socialism.

Yesterday, Roger Noriega made much the same point as his ostensible partner in crime. “I think Maduro is under more pressure than I am, and his comments reflect that,” Noriega told the Miami Herald. “He needs a boogeyman.”

In Venezuela itself, there is increasing concern that Maduro’s confrontational stance towards the U.S., which imports around 900,000 barrels of Venezuelan oil on a daily basis, will carry negative economic consequences. In response, the Venezuelan regime is now orienting its foreign policy towards countries that are ideological bedfellows, but that won’t bleed the country dry at the same time—as does Cuba, for years the closest ally of the late Hugo Chavez, and the beneficiary of $7 billion worth of subsidized oil annually. 

Enter China. Maduro’s trip to Beijing quickly followed the announcement of a $14 billion deal with the China National Petroleum Corporation for a project to develop the Junín 10 block in Venezuela’s Orinoco region, an area that holds one of the largest oil reserves in the world. China currently imports 600,000 barrels of oil per day from Venezuela, a figure that Maduro wants to boost to the point where the Chinese, and not the Americans, are the biggest consumers of Venezuela’s main export. After all, breaking the economic dependency on the United States has been a central obsession of ruling Socialists since they came to power in 1999.

The Chinese also perceive important benefits. Suspicious of the Obama administration’s much-vaunted “pivot” to East Asia, Beijing is happy to seize on opportunities in America’s backyard. As the Mexican economist Enrique Dussel Peters noted in a recent paper on Chinese overseas investment, between 2000 and 2011, Latin America and the Caribbean became the second largest recipient of Chinese investment after Hong Kong. Dussel writes that 87 percent of this investment, directed mainly at raw materials, came from state-owned companies that are beholden to the Communist Party and its satellite institutions. In other words, the political imperatives here are as important, if not more so, than any fiscal considerations.

The Obama administration won’t be able to stop Maduro’s fulminations about assassinations and coups. Nor should it want to—the more frequent these accusations, the less that Venezuelans trust him. The real strategic challenge here is the relationship with China, and the lifeline that Beijing is dangling to the proponents of “21st Century Socialism” on the American continent. 

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