"Gated Community" Conservatism.


(x-posted from U.S. of J.)

Not to rag on Andrew Sullivan too much, but if I were looking for something that perfectly captures my problem with Sullivan’s policy analysis and his brand of conservatism, I would be hardpressed to finds something better than this:

But Obama is right to ask back: so what do you propose? On energy, I’d say a gas tax hike balanced by a payroll tax cut. On healthcare, I’m not so sure. It’s hard to oppose the upgrade in information technology as a cost-saver. I can see the merits of getting more people insured. As long as any reform is careful to prevent the private sector being squeezed out of business, I’m open to persuasion. But I’m more cautious on this than most, I guess. I value the private healthcare system in the US, that, for all its faults, has innovated medicines that have saved my life. Education? Sure – but only if there’s real accountability for bad teachers. [Emphasis mine]

Almost everything Sullivan turns his attention to is filtered through the lens of “what is best for Andrew Sullivan?”  More often than not, especially in the case of his writing on conservatism, that makes for some fairly interesting reading.  With regards to policy though, this approach is terrible.  The measure of a health care system isn’t whether or not it generates innovations which benefit Andrew Sullivan, it is whether or not it adequately serves the majority of health care consumers.  And at this point, it’s virtually incontestable that that’s the case.  Sullivan might understand this on an intellectual level but it has yet to pierce through his elitism, which at times makes for very frustrating reading.

In fact, I’m bothered by Ross Douthat’s output for similar reasons.  Both him and Sullivan have a “gated-community” outlook; “acceptability” is regularly defined as “what’s best for me.”  And again, while this can make for compelling reading on issues which are quite personal, it also leads Douthat to – for example – describe our incarceration heavy approach to crime as “largely vindicated by events,” completely oblivious to the immense costs saidapproach has had on poor communities and communities of color (Which Ta-Nehisi Coates illustrates with a heartbreaking story of a friend gunned down by police).  Indeed, it’s precisely because of their “gated-community conservativism” that I’m skeptical of their long-term project of revitalizing conservatism by means of turning its attentions to minorities, and working-class American.  Doing so requires approaching policy concerns with a broader public in mind, and neither of them has really reached that point (though, in fairness, Douthat is making progress).

(photo used under a creative commons license from flickr user Mr. Greenjeans)


Jamelle Bouie is a writer for Slate. He has also written for The Daily Beast, The American Prospect and The Nation. His work centers on politics, race, and the intersection of the two.

You can find him on Twitter, Flickr, and Instagram as jbouie.
  • Ron

    Their argument might be, that conservatives are more concerned with individual liberty. That said, the past decade has been a time where the right has squeezed out almost anyone who has any sort of nuanced opinion on much of anything. So the people who’ve been coughed up by the fringe as reflective of the real feeling of grassroots conservatives ignores pretty much any progressive tendencies that would reflect a sense that they understand or appreciate policies that aim at ordinary people.

  • tql

    Very well said. Of all things I learned in my master’s level policy classes, “remember who your client is” was the most memorable in terms policy analysis. For me, both in my work and my general worldview, my “client” is always those on the margins. Sullivan’s outlook is incredibly narrow and doesn’t really provide any meaningful analysis. I would rather him say or imply he’s looking at things from the priviliged, white, (gay) male perspective. I still wouldn’t really embrace his perspective, but at least I would know it isn’t self-motivated, and it would make countering his perspective a lot more intellectually challenging. Without that, what he’s doing is not policy analysis, it’s just providing commentary from his very limited perspective, of which I have really no interest…

  • PG


    Some people would say that folks who are HIV+ are “those on the margins,” and the millions poured into HIV research are what saved Sullivan’s life.

  • I think you are overanalyzing Jamelle, because gated-community conservatism, as defined by its mercenary self-interest, is kinda indicative of politics as a whole (liberals and progressives do it all the time). I am pretty cynical obviously, but linking Sullivan to an overarching political philosophy has always been difficult. I kind of like that because the sort of automatic implied connection of politics (rhetoric?) to policy is always more complicated than people make it to be.

    and TQL, not that I want to get into the ol’ oppression olympics or anything, but being gay has to count for something in terms of privelage. I mean, unless we invent a “matrix of oppression indicator” and assign point values based on identity (gay = 10 points, female = 5 points, etc) you can basically find privelage in almost anyone if you look hard enough (probably not the girl from Push though…). Just thinking out loud.

  • Scott

    I think Sullivan’s point is that it is this country’s capitalist economic system and the resulting quest for profit that has led to a pharmaceutical industry that is second to none.

    Not to mention that most people’s view of the world is through the lens of what is best for them. Why do you think communism, while seemingly a great idea, doesn’t really work in practice?

  • Sullivan’s reflecting the individualism enshrined in liberalism (as a political philosophy, not party identification) – personal freedom, personal responsibility, personal benefit. He’s just exposing his class and gender privilege more clearly than most.

    Either way, I love the term “gated community” conservatism. It’s great; did you coin it? If I use it, I want to credit you/this post.