3/8/09

Conservatism Is To Conserve As Dogma Is To Dog
By: Mark W Adams


Joe - @JoeNBC - Scarborough told me (and all of his Twitter followers) to go read a long and wonkish "autopsy" of the now deceased conservative movement at TNR: Conservatism Is Dead. (Yeah ... I KNOoooW!)

Sam Tanenhaus traces the evolution, or rather convolutions of what conservatism used to mean in the time of intellectual giants like Burke and Disraeli to something utterly foreign to anything they would recognize -- now in its death throws as Limbaugh's nihilism, Boehner's reflexive (and irrelevant) opposition for its own sake, and 13 year-old fascists fight over the necrotic scraps of a movement gone wrong.

Current orthodoxy in right wing circles insists that our recently relieved Commander in Chief was in no way a "true" conservative. I, like Tanenhaus, find zero support for this whimsical notion in the historical record or my own jaundiced memory. This is because the recent incarnation of the modern conservative movement is as far removed from the classic 19th Century conservatism of Burke as could possibly be imagined. Only by denying what conservatives are can they possibly identify with some far-off idealized philosophy that barely existed in 19th century Britain, and has nothing to do with the conservative movement as it has developed in 21st Century America.

By their lights, they are right to do so. Bush, so often labeled a traitor to conservative principles, was in fact more steadfastly devoted to them than any of his Republican predecessors--including Ronald Reagan. Few on the right acknowledge this today, for obvious reasons. But not so long ago many did. At his peak, following September 11, Bush commanded the loyalties of every major faction of the Republican Party. The big central domestic proposal of his first term, the $1.3 trillion tax cut, extended Reagan's massive "tax reform" from the 1980s. Shortly before the Iraq invasion, Martin Anderson, Reagan's top domestic policy adviser, told Bill Keller (writing in The New York Times Magazine) that Bush was unmistakably Reagan's heir. "On taxes, on education, it was the same. On Social Security, Bush's position was exactly what Reagan always wanted and talked about in the '70s," Anderson said. "I just can't think of any major policy issue on which Bush was different." The prime initiative of Bush's second term, the attempt to privatize Social Security, drew directly on movement scripture: Milton Friedman denounced the "compulsory annuities" of Social Security in Capitalism and Freedom. Buckley noted the advantages of "voluntary" accounts in his early manifesto, Up From Liberalism. So did Barry Goldwater during his presidential campaign in 1964. Bush went further than Reagan, too, in the war he waged against the federal bureaucracy. And his attacks on the "liberal-left bias of the major media" were the most aggressive since Nixon's.

And then there was Iraq, the event that shaped Bush's presidency and, by most accounts, brought both him and the movement to ruin. It was also the event most at odds with classic conservative thinking. It is customary even now to say that the architects of the Iraq occupation failed because they naively placed too much faith in democracy. In fact, the problem was just the opposite. So contemptuous of the actual requirements of civil society at home, Bush's war planners gave no serious thought to how difficult it might be to create such a society in a distant land with a vastly different history. Those within the administration who tried to make this case were marginalized or removed from power.
Bush was the epitome of what conservatives have become, exactly what they insisted was the correct way to manage our society. He represents a completely failed ideology which results in a crippling cognitive dissonance within the right that can only be resolved when they not only abandon Bush the man, but also reject the evolution of conservatism over the last 50 years, pretending that Goldwater, Nixon, Bush I and II and even Saint Reagan never happened.

To gain any credibility beyond the likes Joe The Plumber, history must be revised to reflect a fantasy world where it was not just "moonbat leftists sounding the alarm that Bush/Cheney were crafting a Kafkaesque police state. Bush the Big Spender is roundly denounced, yet putting the cost of the war back ON the books is chichanery, not transparency by the Obama administration. Reagan raising taxes after he lowered them is never discussed in polite company, and neither was his contribution to the national debt and exponential growth of government.

No doubt part of what we are witnessing is the politics of partisan convenience, the time-test rule of IOKIYAR. However, the incomprehensible nonsense from Republicans also reflects a movement that if not dead, is utterly confused. Lost. Easy prey to those who insist that tax rates designed to return to 39.5% according to the Bush administration's own plan becomes a radical socialist plot when the folks who make $350,000 a year have to pay an extra $4.10 a day more in taxes two years from now. Eat the Rich indeed, for the price of an extra latte.

Those whose tribal instincts require a continued conservative identity have no direction, no leaders untouched by the despotism and disgrace of the last few decades, blame for a nation left in shambles with their guiding principles exposed as merely convenient platitudes to consolodate power for its own sake, and a defining ideology found to be as maleable and thin as an oil-slick.

Sad to say, until they can muster an electoral win around which to rally, the untested, untainted young man who at 13 years old "wowed" them at CPAC has as much authority on the definition of the future of conservativism as the likes of Bill Kristol or even Rush Limbaugh. Jonathan Krohn defines the four principles of conservatives as:
  1. Respect for the Constitution
  2. Respect for Life
  3. Less Government
  4. Personal Responsibility.
If you look at this list with any type of critical eye (accepting as did the CPAC faithful that this boy was imparting wisdom from on high) you cannot escape the notion that just like every other conservative leader of the last 50 years their core positions are vague to the point of being meaningless, or a laugh-out-loud lie. Yet few Republicans would refute any of these notions, unless they were honest with themselves. I guess that's why even while agreeing with several if not all these principles in the abstract, liberals call themselves the reality based community -- because the the Republicans violated all of these principles when they had power, at every turn. Their governing style was the polar opposite from principle of any kind whatsoever.

I suppose young Master Krohn can be forgiven his youthful exuberance, yet I fear that he like so many of his fellow travelers is quite delusional and has a cynicism far too great for one so lacking in real world experience.

"Respect for the Constitution" should by definition not only require an abhorrence of indefinite detention, mistreatment of prisoners and blanket surveillance of American citizens without warrants as perpetrated by BushCo, but also reject and renounce conducting warfare not condoned by Congress as both Reagan and Nixon did with impunity in Central America and Cambodia. At least George W. Bush tipped his hat to the legislative branch by securing an Authorization to use Military Force in Iraq, however his "respect" for the judicial prerogatives embodied in the 4th, 5th, 6th and 8th Amendments leave much to be desired.

"Respect for Life?" Unless this notion is strictly construed to mean only an anti-abortion position, the bloodlust of Republicans' insistence that we not only pump most of our national treasure into the military but also take every opportunity to use it -- not to mention the time-honored affection of the right for the death penalty -- brings this rule down to the level of the Pirate Code: more like guidelines than an actual law.

"Less Government" is more a Libertarian than Republican ideal, a joke both those on the right and left acknowledge hasn't been seriously attempted by any administration since Herbert Hoover. The delusional part of standard GOP rhetoric is that they can "return" to a fiscal responsibility they never practiced. Moreover, as one of the very few heretics honestly attempting a self-appraisal, conservative David Frum notes the shrinking appeal of such notions in a time of dire economic emergency:
Government is implicated in many of today's top domestic concerns as well … But the connection between big government and today's most pressing problems is not as close or as pressing as it was 27 years ago. So, unsurprisingly, the anti-big-government message does not mobilize the public the way it once did.
Implicit in Frum's analysis is the idea of limited government's appeal as a campaign device as opposed to an actualy governing tool. Nowhere can any serious political scientist or campaign hack ever say such a thing has existed, at least since FDR. Frum also touches upon the last of the core conservative principles announced by the future's answer to Newt Gingrich (who still won't be old enough to vote in the next presidential election).

"Personal Responsibility" can mean many things to many people. It can be something as innocuous as not taking bribes or uncontroversial as keeping one's sexual indiscretions out of the public eye. As in so many things however, it can also serve as code to the rabid GOP base. In this case it masked their agenda for elimination of all forms of welfare and destruction of the social safety nets of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security while opposing anything resembling universal health care, a progressive tax structure or even minimal regulation of the jungle laws of free marketeering.

Frum points out that the conservatives have lost the high ground on this part of the debate even if one ignores the culture of corruption by Tom DeLay's K-Street Project, the rash of Republicans implicated in sex scandals that often as not push well beyond the occasional tawdry affair, or the GOP Congressmen who spent more time in prison than on any campaign trail the last few years. And let's not forget the burning of CIA agents when they are politically inconvenient.
On the one side, the president of the United States: soft-spoken and conciliatory, never angry, always invoking the recession and its victims. This president invokes the language of "responsibility," and in his own life seems to epitomize that ideal: He is physically honed and disciplined, his worst vice an occasional cigarette. He is at the same time an apparently devoted husband and father. Unsurprisingly, women voters trust and admire him.

And for the leader of the Republicans? A man who is aggressive and bombastic, cutting and sarcastic, who dismisses the concerned citizens in network news focus groups as "losers." With his private plane and his cigars, his history of drug dependency and his personal bulk, not to mention his tangled marital history, Rush is a walking stereotype of self-indulgence—exactly the image that Barack Obama most wants to affix to our philosophy and our party. And we're cooperating! Those images of crowds of CPACers cheering Rush's every rancorous word—we'll be seeing them rebroadcast for a long time.
Frum is fighting an uphill battle against El Rushbo's megaphone, but will be redeemed in the long run despite his heresy. At least I hope so. No, really.

It serves no one, especially the ideals of a robust republic designed for the victory of the best ideas over well financed tactics and transparent stunts winning the day. We cannot afford an opposition party, even while in the minority, to be relegated to the ridiculous and extreme lest the party in power indulge in the excesses the checks and balances institutionalized by the Founders were designed to prevent. If they are to retain a legitimate voice, let alone the power to filibuster, they owe it to us all to be more than the party of "No."

Ironically, for now, it has fallen to the liberals of this country to perserve and honor -- conserve if you will -- the institutions and customs that have made this nation great. Glad to do it, even in the face of the usual slurs from the right that us Dirty F'ing Hippies hate America, because right now we are the best hope for the future for all Americans. Even for the fake plumbers and moose shooters who think their world would be a better place without us, or determine they have to teach us a lesson and go John Galt on us. It's our responsibility to make their lives better too. It'd be a lot easier if they grew up and stopped playing games though.

1 Comment:

cindy said...

Great one this morning Mark.

Unfortunately, the Republican party faithful take their "leaders" words at face value. The majority lack an intellectual curiosity and if pressed with facts that go against their republican worldview- they insist it is a Liberal Media plot. I've tried showing Republicans the figures about R Admins big government (how it is a campaign tool not a practice) , specifically citing Reagans numbers and they just can not believe it. They switch the topic to abortion and tell me Democrats are going to hell. I have come to believe the Republican Base, are mostly single issue voters who are just embarrassed to admit they are single issue voters.

Frum is fighting an uphill battle and while I too hope he will be redeemed, I just don't see it happening. The Republican electorate is not so nuanced, "The Party of NO" is just easier for them to grasp. Sadly, Americas future, is just a football game to them, only one team can win, the spirit of democracy is lost on them.