What to Love About the Republican Presidential Debates

An exchange about society and rights was one of the most interesting of the Western GOP Debate.

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"I disagree in some respects with Congressman Paul, who says the country is founded on the individual. The basic building block of a society is not an individual. It's the family. That's the basic unit of society." —Former Sen. Rick Santorum, at Tuesday's Republican presidential debate in Las Vegas.

"Well, I would like to explain that rights don't come in bunches. Rights come as individuals, they come from a God, and they come as each individual has a right to life and liberty." —Rep. Ron Paul, in reply to Santorum.

Many observers of these primary debates find them pointlessly repetitive; they can't wait until the field is winnowed to one or two viable contenders.

[See photos of 2012 GOP hopefuls on the campaign trail]

For my money, I'm glad for this period of wide-open, freewheeling, occasionally ridiculous discourse. Sure, you have to wade through the vacuous nonsense of Rep. Michele Bachmann ("Hold on, moms out there!"); the vainglorious opportunism of former Rep. Newt Gingrich ( yeah, I supported an individual mandate—but it was in opposition to Hillarycare!); the charming ignorance of Herman Cain; the slimy evasiveness of former Gov. Mitt Romney; the deer-in-headlights ineptitude of Gov. Rick Perry.

But then you get a gem such as the above exchange between Rick Santorum and Ron Paul.

It gets right to the heart of the matter—to the eternally unresolved tensions within conservatism.

In many ways, Representative Paul has been an indispensable voice in these debates. As Ross Douthat notes, he's the only candidate who answers each question with "perfect unblinking honesty."

[Is Ron Paul a Fringe Candidate?]

I love it when he skewers bedrock Republican assumptions about terror suspects ("You haven't convicted them of anything!"), the bloated Pentagon budget ("You can't cut a penny?"), and even the lately dominant and tiresome "class warfare" trope ("A lot of people aren't paying any taxes, and I like that.").

As refreshingly iconoclastic as he can be, though, Paul is the archetype of the kind of rightist I like least—the arid rationalist. He's what poet-historian Peter Viereck called "the unadjusted man" or an "apriorist." He's filled with tidy abstractions about how the world works. He's perfectly secure in his convictions and, like every ideologue, he will backfill every hole that the real world presents to those convictions.

Viereck identified this mentality precisely for what it is—radical:

Old Guard doctrinaires of Adam Smith apriorism, though dressed up in their Sunday best (like any Jacobin gone smug and successful), are applying the same arbitrary, violent wrench, the same discontinuity with the living past, the same spirit of rootless abstractions that characterized the French Revolution.

Santorum, virtually alone in the Republican field, gives full-throated voice to the notion of a "living past"—of individuals situated in and nourished by families and communities, by Burke's "little platoons." But then Santorum engages in some apriorism of his own. Glimpsing the possible disquiet within his own worldview, he rejects the idea that the United States was founded on individual rights (clearly it was) and says "the family" is the "basic unit of society" (clearly it is). It's "the courts" and "government" that are burdening the family—no one or nothing else. He brushes his hands and continues merrily on his way.

[Check out our editorial cartoons on the GOP.]

The guy seems intrinsically incapable of even entertaining notions outside of the box of stale fusionist conservatism. The late Burkean conservative Robert Nisbet, who, in The Quest for Community, saw the "centralized territorial state" and industrial capitalism working in tandem to create "atomized masses of insecure individuals," is there waiting for someone with Santorum's sound and humane instincts:

In the history of modern capitalism we can see essentially the same diminution of communal conceptions of effort and the same tendency toward the release of increasing numbers of individuals from the confinements of guild and village community. As Protestantism sought to reassimilate men in the invisible community of God, capitalism sought to reassimilate them in the impersonal and rational framework of the free market. As in Protestantism, the individual, rather than the group, becomes the central unit. But instead of pure faith, individual profit becomes the mainspring of activity. In both spheres there is a manifest decline of custom and tradition and a general disengagement of purpose from the contexts of community.

Santorum's mind just won't go there.

And neither, it seems, will his party.