- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 25, 2000

Seattle Determinism: a relatively new means of predicting the future. Basically, it holds that whatever happens in Seattle will be headed your way soon enough. Software, coffee, e-commerce, WTO riots, and now … postmodern conservatism. In one of the most liberal, unchurched, and Beltway-unimpressed parts of the country, conservatism's next iteration is forming.

And it's a splendid example of a virtue the Founding Fathers called prudence: the ability and willingness to apply general principles to specific situations.

But before getting into principles, parameters, and prophecies, a brief sketch of conservatism's present disarray, as it appears to We Happy Few (Very Few) out here.

It's dying. It's going the way Latin went: busting up into mutually incomprehensible dialects. From here, we tend to view the Republican Party as merely one-half of a permanent establishment, not to say racket, known as the Republocrats or, if you prefer, the Demolicans. Reaganism expired when Steve Forbes beat feet back to New Jersey. From here, the Beltway Commentariat also shows two halves. Talking Heads is Talking Heads. Do we really care that much who explains to us how we're being spun?

Not hardly.

Then there's the cliques and crowds we view from afar. The America's Purpose crowd; the Stop the Planet I Want to Get Off crowd; the remnants of the Religious Right; the sundry whiners and moaners about this, that, and the other … from here, it all seems so dull, flat, weary, stale, repetitive, redundant, and repetitious.

Conservatism out here coalesces around disgust with what passes for conservatism elsewhere, especially Washington. It coalesces around a few local personalities and issues. But there's also an interesting new buzz in Seattle, the vaguest start of an intellectual melding of sorts. It begins with a simple yet (for conservatives) elusive realization. Whatever its horrors, the left ain't entirely wrong. It didn't reach its present heights and depths because everything in America was copacetic. In some ways, it's far better attuned to reality "21st century reality" than the putative competition. And let us never forget: Even a broken clock is right twice a day.

And postmodern conservatism is starting to emerge from a melding, still not quite conscious, of enduring conservative principles and leftward sensibilities which capture the age now upon us. The principles are relatively easy to enumerate: primacy of the individual over and against both the state and the group; limited at least less than unlimited government; a preference for civil society and its works; free exchange of goods and ideas. And personal liberties exercised with civility and tolerance.

A leftward sensibility, as it blends into postmodern conservatism, is harder to define. Perhaps it might go something like this:

The Age of the Wars of Ideology is over. Its ending coincided with a Culture War at home. The Culture War is also over, with a winner that was not conservatism. The Wars of Ideology were about political and economic organization, practical matters with immense moral aspects. The Culture War was a clash of virtue quests, essentially moral issues with immense practical implications and consequences. Conservatism failed because it never developed its principles in a manner relevant to the age now upon us, preferring instead to mutter its self-evident truths, step back, and wait for the miracles that never happened.

Conservatism failed also because it insisted on viewing the Culture War in Manichean terms; emotionally satisfying perhaps, but also grievously wrong. It missed the virtue quest of the other side, the bumbling, often vicious, often destructive attempt to get at a single question: What does it mean to be human … and more fully human … in the world as it is now? And this single question What does it mean to be human? will be as central to the 21st century as ideology was to the 20th. It's already everywhere, from traditional life issues such as abortion and euthanasia to human rights, trade practices, limitations on national sovereignty, even decisions concerning which countries we succor and which we bomb. The answers will be worked out in a conflict I've come to call the Wars of the Ways. Will human life and freedom be advanced and expanded, or restricted and confined?

In this conflict, everything about being human and more fully human will be subject to question, to attack, to validation and revalidation.

And neither left nor right, as presently constituted, holds a monopoly on either virtue or error.

Yes, conservatism believes in the primacy of the individual … or of just those individuals of whom conservatism approves? Yes, conservatism believes in limited government … and the law forbids both rich and poor to sleep in the streets. Yes, conservatism believes in free trade … but does it not matter how your Nikes get made, or that ecology transcends national borders? Yes, conservatism believes in liberty … but we're irrevocably embarked on an experiment to determine if a nation can live without a dominant, normative culture.

What kinds of liberty, now? Ike got it right. You can't face the future by marching backwards into the past. Conservatism must go postmodern. And it's starting to happen in Seattle, a thoroughly postmodern place, wealthy and productive, tolerant and civil and diverse … and not that easily dismissed.

Philip Gold is president of Aretia, a postmodern conservative think tank.

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