Saturday, May 06, 2006


The Great Conservative Walkback: Res Ipsa Loquitur Edition

Sat May 06, 2006 at 01:53:42 PM PDT

Glenn Greenwald's musings on the conservative-isn't-really-conservative-anymore walkback is intriguing (and, for the record, I'll agree that Digby is indeed probably the most prescient proto-observer of the phenomenon.) Glenn devotes his post to an argument from Jonah Goldberg.

Here's the brief part where I gratuitously insult Jonah Goldberg: though a rich target, to say the least, I generally ignore Goldberg as being uninteresting -- if we had editions of The Great Conservative Walkback on every instance that Jonah Goldberg demonstrated those principles spectacularly, the ersatz series would be dozens of entries long by now and smell like a high school gym locker. Jonah defends himself from Glenn by asserting that what he wrote didn't mean what it meant, which, in the case of Goldberg, is a valid defense, since Jonah is a poor enough writer that it is generally impossible to decipher just what the hell he is talking about, in any given column or post. And he's likely to contradict himself within a week anyway.

But I suppose I will disagree with Glenn on one specific point, here, and to be honest I'd like to hear some general discussion among the blogs about this point:

I happen to agree that, in most areas of significance, Bush has never governed as a conservative -- to the extent conservatism is understood as being devoted to principles of restrained federal power rather than an eagerness for expanded authoritarian force -- and his policies rest on premises wholly antithetical to core conservative principles (the most notable exception being judicial appointments, which have been consistently geared towards appointing and elevating conservative jurists to the federal bench).
I have to take continuing exception to the notion that Bush never governed as a conservative, even in these narrowly defined areas. Even if you say that he never actually implemented what conservatism espouses... hmm. I'm not even sure I'd agree to that, because I think it's an intentionally misleading argument.

The defining premise usually used (in these days of tanking and now near-thirty-percent approval ratings) to disassociate the failures of Bush, the House, the Senate, all their advisors, all their supporters, and the cats they loved as children from so-called true conservatism is primarily that true fiscal/governmental conservatives suppose themselves to value "restrained federal power", aka small government, which Bush allegedly does not. This, though, is a load of horsehockey. Fiscal and other conservatives may say that they value small government, but it is a fact of the movement that when in a position to actually implement those policies, they do not. And that is not a unique phenomenon: it is a traceable pattern of the movement.

They shuffle the tasks of government around, yes; they close so called "liberal" governmental tasks such as environmental protections and citizen welfare and safety programs, while hyper-boosting "conservative" governmental tasks such as defense spending and business-based "incentives" and other sops, and they outsource basic government tasks from government to for-profit industry without actually removing those tasks from the mandates (or budgets) of government, but post-Nixon conservatives have been remarkably consistent in their actual actions: increase spending; increase deficits; increase government; increase interference in citizen lives under banners of "religion" and "morality". At no point in the modern-day movement have conservative adherents actually implemented this notion of small government or fiscal responsibility that they supposedly carry around with them as guiding force. It's the label on the package, yes: but it's not in the candy bar.

Conservatism (and liberalism) must be defined by its actions, and its effects, not by the rhetoric with which adherents paint rosy and fanciful pictures of themselves. On the front of actual actions, Bush is, indeed, following the footsteps of Reagan and Bush before him. His advisors are, with microscopic exception, culled fully from the most conservative of conservative ranks, and the policies resulting from those advisors -- both foreign and domestic -- fully reflect modern conservative government ideals, as they themselves defined and espoused them. Period.

If the "results" are not considered "conservative", then that does not negate the conservatism of the inputs. It just demonstrates that "conservatism" is, like many aspects of the Trotskyite movement so admired by some of its top strategic thinkers, an unmitigated failure in actual practice. It is unsustainable. It exists only as a periodic break on ongoing social and economic liberal progress -- its only historic goal -- and when conservatism actually arises, transcendent -- as in Reaganism or Bushism -- it rapidly stalls into, well, what we're currently seeing.

Put simply, a car with all brakes and no transmission isn't going to go anywhere, at least not under its own power.

There is this luminescently self-serving notion floating around, on the right, that conservatism was "failed" by Bush through general incompetence, and that we can hardly blame conservatism for that. It is noteworthy that, in fact, no conservative has yet been able to fulfill the supposed success of conservative ideals.

The incompetence is true enough, but from the days of Cal Thomas onward, I'd say that incompetence is part-and-parcel with the conservative movement in general, in that "competence" is not high on the rating scale when it comes to "conservative science", or "conservative policy implementation", or "conservative staffing". It is an ideological movement so utterly and religiously convinced of its own brilliance that actually implementing brilliance has always been an exercise left to the imagination of the observer.

Part of modern conservatism is the assertion that conservatism is being "oppressed" or "discriminated against" by the rest of the world -- academia, science, government, media, music & Hollywood, etc., etc., am I leaving anyone out? -- which is not only liberal, but unwilling to "tolerate" conservative ideas. Therefore, "forcing" ideological conservatives into positions of power in each of these areas (often through the gawdawful power of childlike whining) is a prime conservative goal.

In other words, purity of ideology quite specifically trumps substance or experience, in "conservative" staffing efforts from academia to the White House; incompetence follows soon after as expertise is cast aside in favor of loyalty to the movement. Porter Goss may be out on his ear, but his rabid partisanship at the expense of actual intelligence and investigation efforts was legendary even before he was nominated for his latest clusterfuck -- and in fact, his rabidity and willingness to "purge" those seen as unfriendly to the conservative administration was the reason he was selected for the job, as all parties acknowledge.

It is something a bit more than simple cronyism: yes, that plays a part, and we've been playing match-up-the-Brooks-Brothers-rioters-with-their-current-trophy-jobs for six years now. But more than that, it's an explicitly endorsed ideological litmus test required for any job in a conservative government, and insofar as it is praised, endorsed, and demanded as absolutely necessary by conservatives, I'd say it's a core part of the movement. So the obvious and necessary outcome of that is also a core part of the movement: general incompetence. Incompetence dictated by an almost religious devotion to the purity of the ideology -- and I hesitate to even put that "almost" in there.

From Porter Goss to Jonah Goldberg, it's pretty demonstrably true that ideological loyalties are what gets you a job, and not, say... talent.

So it is a nagging fact that, once again, those conservative ideals have proved to be utter failures once given even the tiny reign of a mere four or six years let loose. Reagan and H.W. Bush accomplished the same rough outlines as this Bush, and then -- as now -- the outcome proved unsustainable from the start. Reagan and Bush, to their credit, softened their tax policies in the wake of ballooning deficits, and at least pretended at notions of fiscal responsibilities, and were in comparison (and out of self-preservation) even slightly more modest in the sops they granted the Moral Majority and other hard-fundamentalist movements -- thus flirting with alleged "liberalisms" decried in their times by the conservative die-hards of their own coalitions.

This Bush, however, is if anything not quite sufficiently interested in the actual tasks of government to be aware of where the failures of his own policies lie, and we have therefore been able to have a rather more spectacular demonstration of Conservatism, Unbound. He is uninterested in critique or analysis, and therefore intentionally ignorant of anything but the glowing conservative rightness of his wisdom: his conservatism is pure and unadulterated by pesky details such as economic figures or on-the-ground results. The results are uncut neoconservative foreign policy, (a now-proven fiasco), religious conservatism as overt as possible (without utterly fracturing his own coalition and causing many to doubt his sanity) and a conservative fiscal policy that burps out, with I will point out again full conservative House and Senate encouragement and one-upsmanship, deficit spending so absurdly and obviously buffoonish as to be worth nothing short of full mockery even by those coming up with the plans.

In that conservatism would appear, at this point, to be nothing but kleptocracy of the upper class coupled to whatever faux issue can be dreamed up to provide the rallying cry for the "base", I'm not sure in what aspect Bush is not the full and complete embodiment of the movement.

He does what his unapologetically and impeccably conservative advisors tell him, can we all agree on that point? And can we all agree, furthermore, that these economic, social and foreign policy advisors are all as conservative as a president could possibly manage to intentionally achieve, short of gunpoint purges? So if the advisors are unabashedly conservative, and the think-tank generated policies are from long-term conservative sources, and the Congress is controlled by conservatives, exactly where is this notion coming from that the failures of that entire collection is somehow outside the responsibilities or explicit actions of the conservative policymakers involved?

Bush's foreign policy, especially, is founded on several unapologetic cornerstones of the conservative movement: fear and dismissal of the international community, fear and dismissal of international law and treaty, and the dedicated notion that United States military power can act as forceable agent of spreading pro-American interests. Neoconservatism takes that further, to the premise that United States military power can and should in fact reshape anti-American regions into pro-American regions, through mere expenditure of bullets: it is a profoundly Stupid premise, but it rooted quite firmly only in conservative notions of international "policy".

Similarly, the corporatist premise that private industry must be removed from government intrusiveness is another critical cornerstone of the conservatism -- and is being followed, enthusiastically, by the Bush administration. Divesting government responsibilities into the hands of for-profit business, also conservative to the core. Not just "sortof" conservative, but fundamentally and unambiguously a central conservative tenet. Reducing tax burdens of the wealthy, on the oligarchic and Randian notion that the piteous blokes have enough to worry about what with the full weight of industry on their shoulders, and really can't be expected to contribute personally to the government whose very laws and infrastructure made that wealth possible -- please. You couldn't get more "conservative" than that if you shoved Reagan, Noonan, Gingrich, Buckley and Hume into a sausage making machine and fed the results to George Will during a Yankees game.

There's nothing here that's not "conservative". Calling the natural and obvious outcome of those choices as being, whoops, not what we meant is, in the case of Goldberg, Noonan, and others, tawdry and roundly dishonest.

You puts your money in; you gets your prize back out.

It is the uneasy new observation among some of the founders of modern conservatism -- actual conservative thinkers, as opposed to the mere cheerleaders we are subjected to in the usual press outlets -- that none of this is actually going very well. To their credit, many are rethinking the policies. Others, like Goldberg et al, are claiming that the Kool Ade simply hasn't been filtered down to sufficient purity yet, and when it is, you just wait, it'll all just work. The Goldberg model is basically the Iraq War model; (1) it is working, (2) it should have worked, and (3) it would have worked if only we had the discipline to be more ruthless in implementation. This is also the Vietnam model; the Drilling Our Way out of Peak Oil model; the Republicans Will Reduce Government Spending model; the School Voucher model; the Gays Can Be Converted out of Gayness model; the Star Wars Missile Defense model; the We'll Find Something On Clinton If it Kills Us model; the Contract With America model. Jim Jonesian, yes, and nobly Quixotic. If something doesn't work, do it more, dammit, and assume it'll work then.

I think the fracture of the conservative thinkers are an important point, but coupled with the natural instability of the coalition that currently passes for the movement... I think people are correct to ponder whether or not this ship is leaking from mulitiple holes, at this point.

Modern conservatism of course exists, and most of Republicanism with it, as a cobbled collection of (1) the wealthy and other tax-averse "economic" conservatives, (2) remnants and new adherents to the Southern Strategy, e.g. simple bigots, and (3) religious fundamentalism, which is becoming increasingly and intriguingly linked to low-level Christian Identity beliefs. You can spice or splice it any way you wish, or you can put nicer and more historically noble descriptions to the Southern Strategy parts, or attach sublabels such as "neoconservative" or "Randian" or "Straussian" or whatever, but the "base" of the party, such as it is, is a balsamic triumvirate of these three backwards-yearning core segments.

This is not a long-term stable coalition, by any stretch of the imagination, and the current odd equilibrium of the players is a true testament to the ability of admittedly quite brilliant Republican strategists to keep all these plates spinning on these poles at the same time. You may call it an accident of history, but it was an engineered accident, and one not dissimilar to other rightward-thinking coalitions of monarchy and religious opportunism before it. But it has problems, to say the least.

The southern strategy is slowly receding in power, as bigotries become less and less tolerated by the general public, and as such the allowable rhetoric to sustain the strategy becomes more and more obscure and watered down. We no longer have debates over whether black Americans should have the right to attend schools or drink from "white" fountains; instead, we speak of whether or not Confederate battle flags should fly over state buildings, and that is a weakened placeholder for the older, now taboo debates. Now that the battle flag is itself a war largely won, the ground has shifted to debating affirmative action. Same debate as the first, but increasingly played out on more and more modern, progressive playing fields.

The rise of religious fundamentalism -- as a phenomenon with intriguing similarities to Muslim fundamentalism, as many others have pointed out -- is similarly not a long-term stable phenomenon. The paradox of the Religious Right is that they are indeed a minority of the country, and the more success they achieve, the more hostility they stir among non-fundamentalist voters. Overturning Roe, institutionalizing pure-fundamentalist educational goals, or any other of the dreams of Dobson et al are indeed praised by the Religious Right, but would spell chaos in the ranks if actually accomplished. It is self-limiting, as the more oppressive the requirements of fundamentalism become, the fewer warm bodies will fill its ranks.

What I'm saying here is that, long term, conservatism can't particularly "win", as two of its most basic planks are simply reactions to progressivism, any more than communism could win against basic premises of social and economic freedoms. Except as momentary brake, is a failure in basic premise. They can slow social progress, yes, but historically I'm stumped with regards to coming up with any historical example of conservatism increasing over the historic scale. It's just redefined down to battling different chunks of progressive victories, while generations of conservatives themselves adapt the progressive ideals (less racism, more recognition of basic human rights) that they had fought bitterly against in the last generation.

(That last part is a very crude reading of history, mind you. I'm sure someone, somewhere, will provide examples of conservatism holding out to the last dying breath.)

So Bush is not a conservative if you define conservatism down, as Goldberg and others are doing, to a specific (heretical!) subset of the larger movement, and discard it as momentary apostasy. This is convenient for those with financial or ideological motivations for declaring their discredited ideas merely Insufficiently Followed -- after all, there are still a hell of a lot of remaindered books to be shoved out somewhere.

But if "conservatism" is to have any shred of basic meaning whatsoever, than we can clearly decide that Bush most certainly is one; the Congress is certainly conservative-led as well; the policies are conservative; the results are conservative. The premise that it isn't "conservative" if you've got big government, again -- it's not a new phenomenon. Both Reagan and H.W. Bush spouted the rhetoric of small government, but neither followed through. You could argue at the time, conceivably, that that was because of Democratic interference -- but you simply can't argue that with George W. Bush, because the entire elected conservative movement is following his big-government lead quite explicitly. The talk is one thing; the walk is very consistently another.

This is, unambiguously, the most conservative federal government in most people's personal political memories. In that conservatives have control over both the entire legislative process and the executive powers of the presidency, there's no filter here. If "small government" conservatism has even in these circumstances never been put into practice in a fashion worthy of the "purity" of the movement apologists, then perhaps, like the other variations, that is ample enough demonstration of its utter political unsustainability. It is a failed movement. It is a sound bite, nothing more: not even its own advocates, once elected, dare actually practice the anti-progressive implications of it.

I think it quite fair to judge that, too, as part and parcel of the movement.

The failure of these movement ideals when put into actual practice, and their subsequent reshuffling and rebranding, is itself an ongoing and cyclical phenomenon. I'm still waiting for the next "iteration" of the discredited conservative label to appear, the rebranding that tacitly admits the failures of the last aborted iteration, and recasts the whole thing to seem vaguely plausible again. We've had neoconservatism and the creaturelike Compassionate conservatism, and both of their heads seem quite decidedly to have been lopped off, at this point. "Crunchy Con" is a hilarious new entry, attempting to latch onto the immensely popular environmental and other liberal concerns in the same faux, ultraBranded way that Compassionate attempted to attach Reagan-era conservatism to basic premises of human decency. Crunchy Conservatism is essentially environmentalism as overscripted reality show: now, you can eat branded, agribusiness-produced "organic", and save the planet through bumper stickers.

What will be next? Likely, some play on the notion of coupling Conservative to some actually-competent foreign policy... "Competent Conservatism" or "Responsible Conservatism" come to mind, as methods for distancing the movement from their latest dungpile of world-butchering empire gone awry, or the stink of a strictly conservative-based deficit not likely to be closed for a generation. If the fundamentalist right gets even the slightest actual progress in anti-Roe or pro-prejudiced legislative success, on the other hand, I expect "Tolerant Conservatism" or "Progressive Conservatism" to mount a counter-challenge, to assure the wider public that no, all that religious nonsense really wasn't what we meant all this time, don't be silly. Vote for us again, and it'll be entirely different this time: we've got a new name for it. Same policies, same think tanks, same advisors, same pundits, same coded messages, and same political machines, but it's different this time, damn it.

Modern conservativism seems a movement quite dedicated to rebranding itself away from the constant and cyclical failures of its past. It doesn't matter what name you attach to it -- or in the case of the Great Conservative Walkback, what name you carefully deny it. It's the same car as always, and the color of the paint or which stations the radio is set to doesn't really enter into it.

And P.S., Goldberg -- the tires are flat.

The tires aren't flat but you sure wore down a lot of tread trying to explain conservatism in backwards fashion. Quite interesting though.

Too many people make a big fuss about the neocons and their influence on W. I wish he listened to them more often than the panty-waists in Foggy Bottom. I'm not a warmonger nor do I believe all the neocons are either. They just believe that a muscular foreign and/or defense policy stature is far superior than wasting our efforts in handwringing and wishing we had taken action sooner.

We had too much handwringing during the Seventies and too many people died as a result of our inactions and defeatist behavior(s) in Vietnam all the way to Tehran.

There's nothing intrinsically wrong with viewing the US as an "empire" for good. Think of what the British left as their legacy in the nations they ruled. By and large the legacy of the British Empire was very positive.
And I say that from the perspective of an Irish Catholic.

We're not perfect but we're a hell of a lot better than any other nation on earth in terms of our capacity to spread democracy and civility throughout the globe.

If my views are chauvinistic...well I'll plead "guilty as charged."

yep...the ends always justify the means, don't they.
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?