67 of 78 people found the following review helpful
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In the first chapter Andrew Sullivan works to earn his Conservative credentials by launching a measured attack on liberalism but most of the rest of the book is one long critique of the current evolution of American Conservativism. The bread and butter of the modern Conservative movement are gays, guns and abortions. Ironically this `Conservative' author produces perhaps the best defense of pro-choice I have ever read as well as a wonderful defense of secularism. Combine that with the fact that the author is gay (and British) and you have a rather unique voice among Conservatives.
The point where Mr. Sullivan lost me was in his distinction between true Conservatives and radicalized Conservatives. He writes, `It [conservativism] never seeks to return to a golden age or a distant past' Really? Returning to the past is generally one of, if not THE defining feature of Conservativism. The author might want to read `The Conservative Mind' by Russell Kirk or `The Conservative Intellectual Movement' by George H. Nash to see an endless parade of Conservative intellectuals pining for some bygone era. Later, the author states that, "...Conservativism's great philosophical advantage over liberalism [is that] it can be more flexible." William F. Buckley famously stated that Conservatives `stands athwart history, yelling Stop'. Conservatives have stood in the way of civil rights, woman's suffrage and now gay rights. To a Conservative the American family is mom, dad and 2.2 children. Understanding of right and wrong can only be derived from Judeo-Christians teachings and moral relativity is the bane of an ethical society. Sounds about as flexible as a brick. One final jaw dropper is Mr. Sullivan's claim that `Conservatives, after all, hate war.' Somehow I think that the modern Conservative movement has completely left Andrew Sullivan behind. He considers neither religious fundamentalist nor libertarians to be true Conservatives when in fact they are the base.
Another argument that the author uses is that George W. Bush isn't a true Conservative but this leads back to the question of what a true Conservative is. John Dean and Bruce Bartlett both used this same tactic. My opinion is that George W. Bush is the reductio ad absurdum of Conservativism. Bush is anti-intellectual, pro defense spending and singularly obsessed with lowering taxes. He also shares the paleo-conservatives love of religion as a panacea for society's moral failings. No man could possibly meet all definitions of a Conservative because many are mutually exclusive. The problem with Bush is that he is a classic ideologue who surrounds himself with like minded ideologues. Even Reagan who was the prototypical Conservative was pragmatic enough to raise taxes when it needed to be done. Bush on the other hand would stick to his agenda until the world came crashing down in a smoldering heap. This doesn't make him non-Conservative it just makes him inflexible.
Despite my criticisms this is a really terrific book and a pleasure to read. In an age where the spokespeople for Conservativism range from repugnant (Tom DeLay) to psychopathic (Ann Coulter) and all points in between (Limbaugh, Hannity, O'Reilly etc) it's refreshing to see a Conservative with class, dignity and actual writing talent. I could see myself sitting down with Andrew Sullivan and having an enjoyable conversation, agreeing on some points and disagreeing on others. The only real demerit I give the book is that the most interesting writing is in the first half of the book and it loses steam in the second half. Still, I have no qualms about giving it a solid five stars. It would be wonderful to see Andrew Sullivan's brand of Conservativism replace the current toxic blend.
99 of 118 people found the following review helpful
on October 12, 2006
Sullivan's writing is ultra-accessible, and transforms previously dry and boring academic philosophies into something anyone can understand. His critique on the state of conservatism in America is refreshing and much needed. He presents a viable argument for doubt and faith to exist side by side, soemthing I didn't think possible.
His commentary on the current Republican party is insightful and brutally honest. A must read.
22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on March 24, 2007
This is one book that has had a huge influence on my political philosophy. Both the author and I grew up in conservative homes, grew up in Christian homes, and voted for G.W. Bush in 2000. Before I picked up the book, that's where the similarities ended.
Sullivan is truly a fascinating man. A homosexual, British, Catholic who voted for John Kerry in 2004. Sullivan lives with HIV and I say that only to say that it doesn't stop him from living life to the fullest, from speaking passionately about the America he still believes in, his adoptive country. That is where the differences begin. But as I read his book I felt his ideas resonate with me strongly.
The term conservatism has been taken over in the last 15 years or so and abused and Andrew Sullivan's mission is to take it back. If you lament what conservatism used to be, and dream of what it truly can be, this is the book for you. His main theme is that our politics should be a politics of doubt, that is, a realization that individual humans don't have all the answers for everyone else at any point in time. Thus the beauty of the freedom that has been written into our constitution here in America.
If you know of a conservative or a fundamentalist, who is thick-headed, blindly passionate about their views, not willing to consider error in their own perspective or listen to sound reason, this is the book that just might break them down. So do be careful.
Other Information: It is a quick read with large margins and double-spacing and it is a page-turner. It is the kind of book you will want to pass on to your friends and family.
77 of 97 people found the following review helpful
on October 14, 2006
Sullivan does excellent work in showing how far from traditional conservatism George W. Bush is with his emphasis on heavy government spending without commensurate taxation, his unconscionable expansion of executive power at the expense of other branches of government and against the U.S. Constitution, as well as his putting religious ideas, themselves without rational basis, in the place of reasonable, skeptical inquiry. The only fault of the book is that it makes Reagan a more competent president than in fact he was: Reagan's fiscal profligacy in expanding defense spending while cutting taxes doubled the national debt in the eight years of his administration.
Sullivan's book joins Bruce Bartlett's Impostor as a debunker of Bush's supposed conservatism.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
Andrew Sullivan is a conservative after my own heart. Having written his doctoral dissertation on the famed British conservative Michael Oakeshott, this book is an attempt to articulate a vision of Oakeshottian conservatism. That said, this book fails at the task.
What Sullivan wanted to say, as I understand him, was this: his vision of conservatism - the 'conservatism of doubt' - has it that government should intrude and plan as little as necessary to preserve order. This is because conservatives, as distinct from liberals, see human knowledge as constrained and, thus, human attempts at large-scale planning to be frought with pomposity and difficulty. Conservatism should be about letting individuals control their own lives as much as possible becuase they will know better how to do so than politicians. Unfortunately, as Sullivan sees it, conservatism has gotten away from such principles and become a 'conservatism of faith,' that holds values to be absolute and knowable and, thus, the politician's job as legislating the good.
The problem, as I've already said, is that Sullivan doesn't really make that case very cogently or well. He is abstruse, repetitive, and not very organized in his case. As such, this book comes off as unclear and unimpressive.
Take the chapter on the Bush administration's alleged adherence to the "conservatism of faith" (The Bush Crucible). Here, Sullivan attempts to tie the Bush administration to a plethora of "theoconservative" beliefs. While his take is hard to disagree with, Sullivan's argument is weak precisely because he hardly quotes or cites many of the Bush administration's players. He quotes congressman Rick Santorum at length, and several editors/talking heads for cosnervative politics quite a bit. But to make a case that the Bush administration is agressively pushing theoconservative policies, he needs to make direct connections with the Bush administration. (I am embarassed to say that I've read many liberal writers like Cris Hedges make this case way more convincingly and directly than Sullivan).
Another huge mistake Sullivan makes - a mistake that, if avoided, would have negated most of this book's negative reviews - is his omission of a chapter tying his conservative vision with that of other prominent past conservatives. Had he made more of his similarities with such conservative legendaries as Burke, Oakeshott, Reagan, and Thatcher, people would be much more hesistant to grumble that Sullivan is simply not a conservative. While Sullivan alludes a few times to his having been a young Reaganite and Thatcherite but might have been wise to devote a chapter to explaining how his vision of conservatism - small government, fiscal responsibility, skepticism of government planning - was once the dominant strand of conservatism. That way, it would be hard indeed for critics to dismiss Sullivan as simply "not a conservative."
All in all, I wanted to give more stars to this book. I admire Sullivan and share many of his conservative sympathies (and antipathies to what currently passes as conservatism). But in the end, this book was too abstruse, disorganized, and poorly argued for me.
34 of 44 people found the following review helpful
on December 25, 2006
Being 40, the only Conservatism I have grown up with has been, in one way or another, affiliated with religion. The most pronounced strain of religious conservatism has always seemed ideological, fundamentalist, bigoted, narrow minded, anti-environmentalist and, ironically, anti-conservationist... Indeed, if you look up the antonym of Liberal, it is not Conservative, but "hateful, hurtful, malevolent, malicious, mean, misanthropic, selfish, unkind".
So... I picked up this book to find out why, "in God's name", anyone would be a conservative. If a gay man, Andrew Sullivan, can be conservative, then there is obviously something I am missing.
However, having read the book, I am still as perplexed as before. By the time Sullivan is done, he has also painted the "fundamentalist" strain of modern conservativism as "hateful, hurtful, malevolent, malicious, mean, misanthropic, selfish, unkind"... explicitly, in some passages, less so in others.
So what is Sullivan's conservative soul?
He writes: "The radical alternative to all these options is conservatism. As a politics, its essence is an acceptance of the unknowability of ultimate truth, an acknowledgement of the distinction between what is true forever and what is true for the here and now, and an embrace of the discrepency between theoretical and practical knowledge. It is an anti-ideology, a nonpogram, a way of looking at the world whose most perfect experession might be called inactivism." P. 230
And yet when he discusses gay marriage, his inactivism isn't quite so inactive. "[The Conservative] might think it's wise to try this out in a few states first. But he will understand that some adjustment is necessary because the world changes..."
Of course, this is precisely what Liberals like Howard Dean initiated in Vermont. Sullivan would like to identify this kind of Politics as " true Conservatism", but it's the Liberals who are demonstating exactly the kind of "flexibility" he would like to co-opt as a Conservative value.
His last chapter, wherein he defines "true" Conservatism, as opposed to the fundamentalism he excoriates in the first two-thirds of the book, is so diffuse that it could be applied to *any* political system that is *not* fundamentalist.
And that's the rub. Can Sullivan really separate fundamentalism from Conservatism and still call it Conservative? I'm not convinced. I remained unconvinced by Sullivan's conservatism. According to my reading, he is a closet Liberal.
19 of 24 people found the following review helpful
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This is a philosophical essay, not a political diatribe. This is a very educated, articulate, thoughtful, and practical book. It is so good it probably needs to be read more than once.
As an estranged moderate Republican who believes in a balanced budget, smaller government, and minimalist interference in state, local, and individual rights not assigned to the federal government by the Constitution (and also the elimination of central banks that are NOT authorized by the Constitution), I found provocation, solace, and humor in this book (the discussion of the role of the penis and its eternal sperm, in relation to fundamentalist strictures and fears, is alone worth the price of the book).
Gifted turns of phrases as well as erudite references to both ancient and modern philosopher-kings abound. I especially likes "Immoral decisions, in other words, are like environmental pollutants" (page 125), and on page 209, "In this nonfundamentalists understanding of faith, practice is more imporant than theory, love more important than law, and mystery is seen as an insight into truth rather than an obstacle."
The author's real life as a gay man who has survived AIDS no doubt infuriates the fundamentalists and the less hypocritical evangelists, but this is part and parcel of his qualifications--he completely trashes both the incumbent President and the Christian extremist fundamentalists that have substituted dogma for dialog.
This is a personal essay. It is neither a summary nor a substitute for the many other books I have reviewed on both the left and the right, and so I end by saying that the book gets five stars for its extra leavening of philosophical reasoning, but I urge those who find favor in this book to throw a wider net, or at least read my reviews of the last 25 books on ideology, religion, faith, Iraq, and the impeachable offenses of Bush-Cheney.
21 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on November 24, 2006
PLEASE READ THIS BOOK. Andrew Sullivan travels the talk show circuit as an engaging political thinker with penetrating insights and the courage to openly debunk the leader of his party. But one cannot know the depths of this 40-something British immigrant without reading The Conservative Soul: How We Lost It, How to Get It Back.
Sullivan is refreshingly honest, about his own life and his journey to today, and about what has happened to the Republican party and the American people.
"I think of my own analytical errors in the past few years. Looking back, I can see that my outrage at the atrocity of September 11, however merited, may well have blinded me to the intricacies and dangers of a subsequent war in Iraq...We were all wrong."
But this is far more than a confessional about a war gone wrong, or about "the ineptness and neoconservative recklessness I saw in the Bush administration." This book is an exploration of how the conservative movement was led into a "rival form" of religious, political fundamentalism and why the resultant loss of constitutional freedoms and America's moral high ground was the logical next step in the seizing of power by ideological fundamentalists.
"The essential claim of the fundamentalist is that he knows the truth....It isn't an argument from which he could be dissuaded by something we call reason....The values of the fundamentalist are facts. God has revealed them in a book that is inerrant, whether that book is the Bible or the Koran; or he has entrusted them to hierarchy whose interpretation of scripture and tradition and history and nature is authoritative and even, in some cases, literally infallible."
Sullivan revisits the founders of the American constitution and finds they were "well aware of the dangers of religious fundamentalism allied to government power, hence the First Amendment."
"The Founders, [to the dismay of fundamentalists like former Senator Rick Santorum], did not write a Constitution dedicated to the inculcation of virtue. In fact what is stunning about the American Declaration of Independence and subsequent Constitution is how morality and virtue are all but absent as a primary concern. The tripartite goal of the American founding was "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." They did not write, "the pursuit of virtue or the pursuit of morality....Americans insisted on freedom first."
In Sullivan's analysis, the lurch toward George W. Bush's theocracy violates the foundations of conservatism. "Tax cuts were simply a matter of faith," and accompanied a "staggering expansion of government power and spending [which] increased by an astonishing 38 percent since 2000" resulting in "a bankrupting of the American government" so that "by the end of one term, President Bush had more than doubled [the US Government's future spending commitments] to $43.3 trillion [with] absolutely no way to finance it." Sullivan details the Bush excesses in fiscal, social and foreign policy as "intransigent recklessness" accompanied by "a refusal to account for reality, to acknowledge error, to prepare for all contingencies." In place of Constitutional safeguards and limited government "came a new theory of [presidential] constitutional powers [in which] the president had the right to ignore the law." This has led to a "decision to end decades of humane warfare in the United States military" and to sanctioned torture.
This is not conservatism, Sullivan asserts. "The conservatism I grew up around was a combination of lower taxes, less government spending, freer trade, freer markets, individual liberty, personal responsibility....The defining characteristic of the conservative is that he knows what he doesn't know."
Sullivan, himself, avoids the errors he finds in the theocratic Bush administration, by admitting up front that "this book...is an attempt to explain what one individual person means by conservatism." Sullivan suggests "there is more to life than politics [but] the best form of politics is that which enables us to engage in nonpolitical life more fully and more freely."
By reaching back into the wisdom of the American Founders and of observers like the fifteenth century Montaigne, and by carefully, thoughtfully analyzing the strangeness of recent years, Sullivan has returned reason, quiet analysis and civility to the public discourse and brought hope to those who, like Sullivan, "have felt like throwing in the towel and simply saying: all right, I'm not a conservative if that's what it now means."
14 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on November 16, 2006
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Andrew Sullivan was born in 1964 and grew up in Britain during the Thatcher years. The conservatism of this period meant low taxes, less government intrusion, more individual freedom, a robust market economy, and a strong anti-communism. Being gay and Catholic, this philosophy seemed to be agree with his outlook on life. After graduating from Oxford, he came to the United States where he picked up his doctorate at Harvard and became editor of the "The New Republic" at age 27. Sullivan has always been a conservative in principle but not always as a Republican; he voted for John Kerry in 2004. This book is about how far the current Republican party has drifted from conservative principles.
The conservatism that he remembers - this book is a philosophical memoir -from the Thatcher years is no longer recognizable in the policies of the present-day Republican Party, neither in Congress nor at the White House. The GOP is now the party of deficit spending, big government, bribery, corruption, sex scandals, foreign wars, nation building, and more federal involvement in healthcare and education. The direction of the Republican Party has alienated many of the traditional conservatives that I have previously reviewed in this space such as Kevin Phillips and Francis Fukuyama. Even though Sullivan supported the war in Iraq, he now feels that it has become something he can no longer support.
Sullivan argues that the conservative movement - if you can call it that - has been hijacked by religious fundamentalists. When I reviewed Kevin Phillips' "American Theocracy," I felt that Philips was overstating the threat of fundamentalism. I thought fundamentalists were pandered to during election years and forgotten in between. However, after reading this book, I can see how the fundamentalist mindset has taken hold and is leading this country in the wrong direction.
The category of fundamentalism, as Sullivan uses the term, is a very broad one. A fundamentalist is someone who sees only one truth - his or her own - and will not tolerate any dissent or political pluralism. With this definition he lumps together Communists, Nazis, Islamic jihadists as well as extremist Jews and Christians. Religious fundamentalists reject not only liberal democracy but the very notion that religion should be relegated to the private sphere. Admittedly there are many shades of extremism, but this is the virus that is now afflicting the Republican Party.
In this book Sullivan argues for a more modest and temperate brand of conservatism, one that is more open-minded, sceptical, and tolerant of political diversity. This conservatism of doubt borrows heavily from Michael Oakeshott, a British Philosopher who was the subject of Sullivan's doctoral dissertation at Harvard. According to Sullivan, "the defining characteristic of the conservative is that he knows what he doesn't know." (Not to be mistaken with Rumsfeld's known unknowns, they were empirical unknowns rather than metaphysical.) Think of the conservatism of William F Buckley or George F Will, both of whom feel very secure in what they don't know. Conservatives don't know what change or reform will bring so they are against it. (To "stand athwart history" as Buckley would say.) A conservatism of doubt believes that there are few things the government can correctly, therefore things are better left to the private sphere. Minding one's own business, is a very modest philosophy.
With the results of the midterm elections, I think the Republican Party will rediscover the modesty and the open-mindedness that Sullivan is arguing for. I hope that the Democrats also retain some of these values that they should have learned during their 12 years in the wilderness. So far they are not yet your parents' Democrats.
13 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on November 14, 2006
So traditional conservatives are finally waking up to the Bush masquerade. Yet the evidence of fakery has been piling up for some time: skyrocketing deficits, expanding bureaucracy, dwindling rights, politicized religion, and so forth. It's well known that 9-11 silenced liberal criticism; less understood is that conservatives too faded into the woodwork. For four years there's been a deafening quiet in the face of a radical redefinition of the Republican Party. It appears constitutional conservatives have been pointing their guns leftward for so long they forgot the possibility of a right-wing radicalism.Yet here it is, hand-in-hand with the religious right.
Sullivan spares no niceities in distinguishing traditional conservatism from the fundamentalist mind-set. That's the main value of the book. For too long, fundamentalists have been getting an intellectual free pass. Yet their embrace of unquestioned cosmic absolutes remains incompatible at a basic level with the precepts of democratic government. Thus, the growing clout of true believers threatens not only liberal muti-culturalism , but the very basis of democratic diversity itself. Sullivan shows how thoroughly the two bodies of thought with their attendant mind-sets conflict. These chapters should serve as a proverbial wake-up call for conservatives who may have been carelessly savoring 12 years of a Republican congress.
But Sullivan's book has ambitions beyond refuting the outlandish claims of the literalist mentality. The last third proffers an updated philosophy for putting conservatism on a new footing, now sharply distinguished from its rightist rival. The roots of the renewal lie in a pervasive doubt about our ability to grasp the monumental complexity of the world surrounding us. Off hand, this sounds like a truism beyond question, yet he correctly asserts that many powerful political movements, both secular and religious, have their roots in one form of denial or another. By exalting doubt (and contingency), however, he's sharply reduced the role of reason in fathoming the complexities of life. And though he wants to distinguish skepticism from relativism in order to avoid a leveling of all beliefs, he really offers little epistemological basis for doing so (outside of a poetical version of Platonic transcendence, which I believe ends in religious mysticism).
Now, it's important to point out that consistent with his skeptical outlook, he rejects Natural Law in pretty categorical fashion. And with that rejection goes a rejection of Natural Rights, at least in the version deriving authority from Natural Law. But it's this version of Natural Rights that sustains those rights spelled out in the Constitution. Thus whatever refounding of conservatism his skepticism yields, it differs in an important respect from traditional Constitutional conservatism. It's also worth noting that for a model of state authority, Sullivan reaches past John Locke's Natural Rights version to that of the arch-conservative Thomas Hobbes whose theory of governance also shuns Natural Rights. This is consistent with the shrunken role Sullivan has assigned to reason. Both he and his mentor assign the state only one responsibility, namely, that of providing the citizen with security, which they see as basic to all other citizen endeavors. That too is consistent with the generally cynical view each ascribes to human behavior, neither placing much faith in the protective bonds of community.
However, there's one well-known and overriding problem with Hobbes' approach, particularly acute for a traditional conservative. Namely, by what agency is the sovereign (government) prevented from exercising its monopoly beyond the bounds of simply protecting the citizenry. Without some sort of safeguards, such a monopoly is easily abused as history shows. With Locke and the American Constitution, it's the assertion of inalienable rights that constrains the authority of government. But no such recourse is available to Sullivan. And rather surprisingly, try as I might, I can't spot where Sullivan addresses this key issue. Perhaps it's not fair to require the author to take up the details of a theory in a short span of pages. Nonetheless, how this question is resolved remains a paramount issue for anyone wishing to safeguard against abuses by the state, particularly for Sullivan.
For a long time lefty, I found the book an easy and stimulating read, well-worth the time for anyone concerned with the future of American democracy. However, there's one point for me that's especially revealing. Sullivan's subtitle expresses a need to re-endow conservatism with a soul, presumably those core principles gutted by Bush and Co. Considering that the present administration's "compassionate" conservatism often resembles a Frankenstein walking, that's a colorful way of exposing the problem. Yet nowhere in the author's nearly 300 pages, with its thousand-fold mentions of liberty and property, did I find a single mention of the word justice. Which, I suppose, is one reason I'm no longer a conservative.