England’s “Red Tory”- Phillip Blond- has experienced every political philosopher’s dream in the United Kingdom, where his ideas have fundamentally altered the framework of the political debate on both the right and the left. Now, he’s wrapping up a multi-state speaking tour in the United States, and hoping to replicate his success here. He’s set himself a difficult task.
In England, Blond’s vision has influenced Prime Minister David Cameron’s “Big Society” program as well as the new Localism Bill passed by Parliament. However, Blond faces challenges marketing his ideas in America.
To begin with, Red Toryism is planted in more fertile soil in England’s, often paternalistic, Tory political tradition. A similar legacy in Republican politics does not exist. The most comparable examples we have in our own historical experience are Teddy Roosevelt and the Progressive movement, Jack Kemp’s “bleeding heart conservatism,” and more recently, President Bush’s notion of compassionate conservatism. However, all three have been, in one way or another, resoundingly rejected by conservatives today- indeed, Teddy Roosevelt has become a figure of derision and hatred for the far right. Regardless, Red Toryism is not an entirely natural or organic outgrowth of current American conservative thought or politics; it’s rather more akin to a graft.
Second, Blond’s combination of social conservatism and criticism of the market runs counter to the dominant libertarian trend in American conservatism- a trend that often seems to view markets as inherently good and beyond any reproach and which is devoid of any discernible social conscience. In addition, Blond’s ideas aredrawn from traditional Anglican and Catholic social doctrine. It is unclear whether concepts prevalent in these faiths will resonate with the more Calvinist and fundamentalist elements populating the Religious Right in America. A vast theological distance, after all, separates Canterbury from Geneva.
Last, but not least, there is the fetid state of political discourse and thinking on the American right today- which has become a veritable intellectual desert. The ambit of acceptable conservative political “thought” is set by the likes of Limbaugh, Beck, Levin, and Hannity. Russell Kirk or William F. Buckley, Jr., these men are not.
Despite the challenges, I’m rooting for Blond to succeed.
His ideas might spark the revival of a more intellectually rigorous and comprehensive version of compassionate conservatism- and that would be a welcome development. It would be an alternative to the ascendant libertarianism that dominates much of conservative thought and policy. More specifically, it would provide the right with a lexicon and a theoretical framework for thinking about economic justice and critiquing the negative aspects of the market. It might also help conservatives move beyond the culture wars by reframing moral concerns, such as the importance of marriage and the family, and even abortion, as social justice issues, rather than as questions of personal righteousness.
Blond might also be able to drive our political discourse in a more positive direction. There are times, after all, when a patient really needs a graft. The lack of coherent ideas that transcend the realm of bumper sticker slogans, the cruelty of spirit demonstrated by Republican presidential debate audiences on several occasions in recent months, the rise of figures like Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Herman Cain as legitimate presidential contenders, and the rampant fetishization of Ayn Rand, suggests to me that conservatism has reached precisely such a moment.
In the end, I’m persuaded that Blond’s central thesis about “the current political consensus” is correct- and that his ideas offer a potential solution. They speak to the 99% of us being ground to atomized dust between the twin grist wheels of the market and the state. At the very least, by adding his voice to the fray, Blond may help the GOP grow beyond the cynical ranting and baiting of the carnival-style entertainers on talk radio, and become the “party of ideas” once again.