I have long felt in public policy as if I were shifting from one side of a tossing ship to the other, trying to stabilize it. That’s exactly the metaphor in which I thought about it, and I wondered if that meant I was more centrist than conservative, despite my self-identification as a conservative (pronouns: Your Royal Majesty, Your Royal Majesty’s, His Royal Majesty).
So I was delighted to hear that one of our greatest conservative luminaries heartily approves of this disposition, and that there’s even a name for it!
The greatest recent philosopher in this tradition, Michael Oakeshott, described the kind of conservative politician he favored, and he used George Savile’s term for such a character: a “trimmer.” His account reads pretty much like Anthony Kennedy:
The ‘trimmer’ is one who disposes his weight so as to keep the ship upon an even keel. And our inspection of his conduct reveals certain general ideas at work … Being concerned to prevent politics from running to extremes, he believes that there is a time for everything and that everything has its time — not providentially, but empirically. He will be found facing in whatever direction the occasion seems to require if the boat is to go even.
No figure is more mocked or ridiculed in our contemporary culture than this kind of moderate. And yet no one right now is more integral to the survival of our way of life.
This matters. The displacement of this kind of conservatism by political ideology, religious fundamentalism, and constitutional recklessness should not just be of concern to those on the center-right. It should concern Democrats as well, whether liberals or leftists.
Andrew Sullivan, writing of “trimmer” Anthony Kennedy (but he would, now, wouldn’t he?).
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The waters are out and no human force can turn them back, but I do not see why as we go with the stream we need sing Hallelujah to the river god.
(Sir James Fitzjames Stephen)
Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.
(Philip K. Dick)