Downstream from Principles

Heritage Action for America is making enemies among conservatives in Congress.

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Last night, a friend was (jovially) interrogating me over dinner about my political principles. He, of a more classical persuasion than I, tends to think of things in terms of principles, and had noticed that in policy conversation I didn’t refer to them much. He thus found me hard to pin down. “I know you have principles,” he said, “but sometimes it doesn’t look that way.”

Most Americans who follow politics think the way my friend does. You’re Progressive or you’re Conservative, you like “limited” government or you like “active” government, and so on. The principles and the ideologies provide boxes into which we can fit people (check out Bill O’Reilly’s interview with Richard Dawkins below to see what this can look like at its worst). So it can be harder to engage someone who doesn’t work on those terms. The boxes aren’t all bad; Michael Oakeshott referred to them as “intellectual shorthand.”

But in practice, they don’t tend to be about which team you’re on in the decision about whether to build a road—they tend to be about which team you’re on in life; whether you’re the good guy or the bad guy. (For much of this, I blame the Enlightenment search for The Best Form of Government for All Times, All Places, and All People, Amen.) We’ll be generous and call this the Principled Approach.

As I’ve grown more conservative since college, and learned more about the complexities of policy, my mind has worked less and less this way. But as I explained to my friend, this didn’t mean I didn’t have principles—rather, it meant that I was working further downstream from the principles.

Any discipline—art or science—works this way. I’ll explain.

A chemist operates under some very basic scientific rules that any decent high school chemistry student could identify. But when he is working, researching, or talking with fellow chemists, he is working downstream from those basic rules. He doesn’t need to quote them incessantly or bring all his arguments back to them. He takes them as a given–they are his foundation, his context–and focuses on more detailed, more prudential issues. Thus, when a colleague disagrees with his hypothesis, the colleague doesn’t accuse him of trying to subvert Boyle’s law—rather, the colleague takes issue with some detail of his research or some flaw in his logic.

The arts might seem like a field less reliant on clear principles, but the field works the same way. You have Conservative Directors (boom boom!) who rightly dislike some of Hollywood’s values, and set out to make Christian Movies, or Conservative Movies. (The movies are usually lousy, but hey, they’re Christian/Conservative, so we’re supposed to go watch them.) Meanwhile, while the Conservative Directors (boom boom!) beat us over the head with their principles and convince nobody except those who already agree with them, Good Directors, masters of the field (as in chemistry), are working downstream. They’re not making high school-level movies that tell us why Boyle’s law is good. Directors like Christopher Nolan quietly make brilliant movies like The Dark Knight and Inception that aren’t so easily pigeonholed, but make us seriously engage moral and philosophical questions.

This example helps illuminate an advantage I have in the policy realm that a chemist might not have.

In politics, as in the arts, we have the added complication that we don’t all share the same values. There is no Boyle’s law for politics, or for movies; at least not one that everyone follows. But in some ways, this makes working downstream from principles even more helpful. If I’m arguing with someone who doesn’t share my values, I can make prudential arguments that might convince him even though we don’t have the same principles, just as The Dark Knight made people engage the nature of evil no matter what their philosophical starting point. And if I’m having a conversation with someone who does share my values, it means we can focus the conversation on accomplishing things rather than on deciding who likes limited government more. In either case, it tends to make finding common ground easier, and disputes less heated and (heated or not) more constructive.

But it also means conservatives like Edmund Burke or David Brooks sometimes get accused of not having principles, or not believing in natural law. My chemist doesn’t need to brandish a sign saying “I believe in Boyle’s law!” Neither did Burke. Conservatism is based on principles, but it deals in the context of place and time. But people who think in more Enlightenment terms just aren’t used to political discourse with any other vocabulary.

Enter my friends at Heritage Action for America, the 501(c)(4) (i.e. lobbyist) arm of The Heritage Foundation. Ramesh Ponnuru profiled them nicely on NRO this morning. The organization’s members think in terms of the Principled Approach. So they rate congressional Republicans on how closely the Republicans have followed their (Heritage’s) policy prescriptions, down to the last detail. And, we discover, nobody in Congress is very conservative. (Eric Cantor’s rating is 59%!) And as Ponnuru points out:

“From the Republican leaders’ perspective, Heritage Action’s behavior is perverse. Cantor, John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, and Jon Kyl are the most conservative Republican leadership team the Hill has seen in the history of the Heritage Foundation. They don’t believe they deserve to be treated as though they were Bob Dole.”

And yet this matches the experience I’ve had with many elements of The Conservative Movement (a term that made Russell Kirk cringe). They operate under the Principled Approach. This doesn’t make them incapable of thinking in prudential terms; most of Heritage’s experts (on both the (c)(3) and (c)(4) side) really are experts, and their policy proposals are often very specific and detailed. But fundamentally, their mindset is with the high school chemistry student, not the chemistry professor—with whether someone agrees with Boyle’s law, not with whether his discoveries and theories have helped the field in the long run.

As a result, Heritage’s 700,000 members get e-mails telling them how bad specific (effective, principled) Republican leaders are. Ponnuru notes that the Republicans under attack by Heritage Action usually agree with the organization’s ideas, and the Democratic obstacle to their enactment. Yet, “What divides Heritage Action from its targets is how to overcome that obstacle. And that division is now defining a relationship of deepening mutual frustration.”

For those with the Principled Approach, like my friend and clearly like Heritage Action, the temptation is to be dissatisfied with things—specific leaders, specific laws or institutions, or even The System. After all, none are perfect the way principles are. (And if you’ve watched Fox News or read conservative popular literature lately, you’ll know our minds are being shaped to think in those terms more and more.) So they want to engage in creation or destruction; smashing things and starting from scratch; getting rid of imperfect people or things in the hope that what replaces them will be better.

But this is not a conservative instinct, nor a bet with very good odds.

Back to my story from last night’s dinner. As our eyes began to steal toward the kitchen where dessert was being prepared, my friend’s wife (in the midst of baking his favorite pumpkin pie) asked if he wanted some apple pie while he waited. He scoffed at the idea. “Why would I eat apple pie when there’s pumpkin pie in the oven?” he asked.

At least his pumpkin pie was real.

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  • Unfortunately, deploying your methodology makes for a poor fundraising campaign for Heritage Action. They’re not in the business necessarily of “moving” conservative principles so much as “selling” conservative principles. This phenomenon you observe happens all over Washington precisely because these groups and think-tanks have to make a buck. Someone always has to be a target and there is a vast nostalgia for “purity” out there. That’s what Heritage Action sells. Like a drug, but legal and far less entertaining.

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