A Politics of Doubt

Twenty years ago in his novel Roger's Version, John Updike wrote, "The Devil is the absence of doubt." That's a sentiment that Andrew ...

Twenty years ago in his novel Roger's Version, John Updike wrote, "The Devil is the absence of doubt."

That's a sentiment that Andrew Sullivan can agree with. Sullivan, one of the earliest and most prominent of bloggers, wanted to step back from "responding willy-nilly to minutiae" and look at deeper trends in conservative thought. The result is his new book, The Conservative Soul.

Sullivan believes that the conservative movement in this country has lost its way. A conservative himself, he is openly rooting for Democrats to take control of Congress next month in order for conservatives to regain their footing.

He's not alone in this. The Washington Monthly devotes its current cover
to seven well-known conservative writers making the case for why "it's time for us to go."

Conservatives, Sullivan argues, must always remain flexible and aware of how society is changing. Early conservatives -- and here he reaches back to figures such as Hobbes and Burke -- developed their ideas at a time when religious wars were tearing Europe apart. As a result, they grew fearful of institutions that were too certain of themselves.

Sullivan finds a pervasive influence of this line of thought in the U.S. Constitution. The Constitution, he argued yesterday at a Cato Institute forum, is "primarily designed to stopping people from doing things." The resulting system of checks and balances may be inefficient, but it's also a good way to prevent tyranny.

More from the Cato forum after the jump.

"The Constitution acts as a fantastic brake on the anthropological reality of this country," he says. What he means by that is Americans are prone to embrace strong creeds, including deep religious beliefs, but our system of government is designed to prevent them from imposing such beliefs on their fellow citizens.

Sullivan's diagnosis is that this particular set of brakes is failing. He argues that Republican leaders are either too certain that they are right, or too willing to cynically manipulate the staunch beliefs of their followers, and could do with a good dose of doubt. "Our current president is very frustrated that any other branch would prevent him from doing anything he likes."

Some of Sullivan's points were refuted by David Brooks, the house conservative of The New York Times
. Brooks shares Sullivan's belief that contemporary conservatives have lost their way, but argued that the problem is the opposite of zealotry. Brooks maintained that Republicans, having lost the argument over limiting the size of government with its 1995 shutdown, today lack a coherent governing philosophy.

He also took issue with Sullivan's characterizations of the intersection of faith and politics, saying that evangelicals are much more diverse than Sullivan suggests and that they "are not out there in some parallel universe with radical Muslims."

The person most absent of doubt in the Bush administration, Brooks said, is Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld -- himself a regular target on Sullivan's blog -- who is not an evangelical Christian. Policy is not always driven by Christian activists, Brooks said.

"It's partisan tribalism -- those who think they're always right and the other side is wrong." That seemed, to my ears, a restatement of Sullivan's essential point -- that modern conservatives are too certain of their beliefs and therefore too rigid and too willing to impose their will on others.

Neither Sullivan nor Brooks stands exactly at the fulcrum of current Republican Party doctrine. Still, at a moment when House Republican leaders are tearing each other apart, it's interesting to hear what self-styled conservatives think is going wrong.

Alan Greenblatt is a Governing senior staff writer. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.