Andrew Coyne: The answer to left-wing identity politics is not right-wing identity politics

One of Coyne’s better columns:
But if Conservatives think they can save themselves from going down with the alt-right just by pitching its most conspicuous names overboard, they are deeply mistaken. The damage the Republican embrace of Trumpism has done to that party will long outlast Trump, even if His Orangeness were to step down tomorrow. Similarly, it will not be enough for those prominent Conservatives who were so eager, not six months ago, to make time with The Rebel to now suddenly discover their dance cards are full. If they are ever to cleanse themselves of the association they must forcibly renounce, not only the movement’s standard bearers, but the underlying ideology — and more particularly, the extremism with which it presents itself.

Politics is too often analyzed along a single left-centre-right spectrum. Even as a matter of ideology that is too simple, but ideology itself is only one dimension of politics. What the populist surge ought to have taught us is that there is another, equally important: that of temperament. In ideological terms conservatism has little to do with populism: the former is about constraining government to abide by certain rules and norms, while the latter demands to be freed from such restraints in the name of saving The People from whichever force is said to be threatening it. And while modern conservatism is about a society unified around the principle of the equality of every individual, populism is very much about dividing society into Us and Them, or rather several Thems: elites, experts, globalists — or in its darker corners, immigrants, Muslims, blacks, Jews.

But the conflict is even more stark in temperamental terms. For among the norms Trump and his followers reject is the obligation to think through a position, to test it against the facts, to consider any possible drawbacks, to try to persuade the unpersuaded, or to listen to them in their turn. That is the true definition of extremist. It is not the same, though the two are often confused, as radicalism. It is quite possible to propose a radical critique of current policy — radical, in the sense of entailing fundamental change — without being extremist about it. Conversely, Trump’s positions, so far as he holds any, are often far from radical. They are, however, extreme, being advanced without evidence, thought, humility or attempts to persuade anyone beyond his base.

The Conservatives of the last decade, likewise, could hardly be described as radical: their policies were not just “incremental,” as the conceit had it, but incoherent, lacking any guiding principle but opportunism. Yet such was the tone and temperament with which these were advanced — the harshness, the secretiveness, the partisanship, the willingness to demonize certain groups — that many people were nonetheless persuaded they were “right wing” or even “far right.” They succeeded in discrediting conservatism, as I’ve said before, without practicing it.

The alternative to populism, then, is not to “move to the middle.” Conservatives were not partisan because they were ideological, but because they were not ideological enough: because partisanship filled the vacuum where ideology should have been. They pandered to populism because they had given up on conservatism. It is not radicalism, likewise, of which they must be purged, but extremism, of the kind encouraged by the Rebel — from hostility to Muslims to a blind rejection of any serious policy on climate change to an adolescent delight in saying or doing whatever shocking thing entered their heads as a badge of supposed “political incorrectness.”

What conservatism ought to be about — the conservatism that is urgently needed — is the defence, not only of traditional conservative principles of limited government and the rule of law, but of the values that have animated western societies since the Enlightenment: free speech, due process, equal opportunity, and underpinning all, treating individuals as individuals, to be judged on their own merits, rather than as members of this or that social group. Once the subject of broad consensus, today these values are under attack from both the identity-politics left and the populist right — the former, in the name of social justice, the latter, in the name of security and national identity; far from opposites, they feed off each other’s excesses.

The answer to left-wing identity politics is not right-wing identity politics, but a rejection of identity politics altogether, in favour of a renewed commitment to the ideal of a society of free and equal citizens. To defend that vision is the opportunity before conservatives now.

Source: Andrew Coyne: The answer to left-wing identity politics is not right-wing identity politics

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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