Clause 61: The Pushback Blog

Because ideas have consequences

Conserve Exactly What?

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I wanted to write something about what Conservatism is and where it is going before the Election Day, so that I was not perceived as being wise after the event. Evidently I was not alone in thinking this way, because I have seen three major thought pieces in the last month:

For context, the reader may also want to refer to these links:

All quotes are from the above.

Continetti

The Continetti article is a good place to start, both because it launched the discussion and because the author attempts a historical review of conservatism. He identifies four waves of conservatism:

  1. The Old Right initially organized against the original progressivism of Teddy Roosevelt and Wilson, and were always marginalized.
  2. The 1950-s era wave of William Buckley, James Burnham and Russell Kirk (among others), who were, in Continetti’s words, “elitist, pessimistic, grimly witty and academic” — and still politically marginal.
  3. The 1970’s New Right, full of political fire and brimstone, who took credit for bringing Ronald Reagan to power (more on that later).
  4. The religious right, whose fire and brimstone is not confined to politics.

Here is the first major problem that I have with Continetti’s analysis. Are the religious right really conservative? Well, it depends on how you define Conservatism, doesn’t it?

The relentless quest for votes.

The relentless quest for votes.

Back in the high summer of collectivism, between 1930 and 1963, Conservatism was not really a vote-winning political brand, so it was easier to keep the definition clear. I don’t believe that you ever would have seen a yard sign claiming a candidate was a Texas Conservative before 1963. Now, because of the perceived success of the New Right, conservatism is a label that can win votes, so we see dilution. As a result, we are not really sure what conservatism is anymore.

The Old Right did organize in opposition to Progressivism — not in reaction to it, as progressives would have you believe, but in principled opposition to its expansive tendencies. They did not accept the claim that human society could be perfected along rational lines. They rejected the expansiveness of Progressivism. If you’re not clear on what I mean by expansiveness, consider the slogan, “Yes, we can,” which is the ultimate expression of expansiveness. That opposition to expansiveness is the real unifying principle of Conservatism. Not, “No, we can’t,” but, “Should we?”

People on the religious right, who want to bring about the New Jerusalem, who want to achieve the Kingdom of God on Earth, are themselves expansive. I don’t want to disparage their beliefs, just to point out that there is nothing “conservative” about them. Conservatives can make common cause with them — or anyone else — but do not mistake the religious right for Conservatives.

So, having established that Continetti really doesn’t have a good working definition of Conservatism, it is hardly surprising that he is willing to grant conservative credentials to Donald Trump. If the religious right can be accommodated, can’t the populists?

Continetti concludes:

 The triumph of populism has left conservatism marooned, confused, uncertain, depressed, anxious, searching for a tradition, for a program, for viability. We might have to return to the beginning to understand where we have ended up. We might have to reject adversarianism [sic], to accept the welfare state as an objective fact, to rehabilitate Burnham’s vision of a conservative-tinged Establishment capable of permeating the managerial society and gradually directing it in a prudential, reflective, virtuous manner respectful of both freedom and tradition. This is the challenge of the moment. This is the crisis of the conservative intellectual. What makes that crisis acute is the knowledge that he and his predecessors may have helped to bring it on themselves.

I am not sure if Continetti meant adversarianism as a portmanteau of adversarial + Arianism = heresy, especially given his use of other religious terms (e.g., chiliastic).

More to the point, isn’t accepting the progressive vision of corporatism and the welfare state as an objective fact what Republicans have more or less been doing, with infrequent lapses, since Richard Nixon? Is this not just another go-along-to-get-along tactic that has fueled frustration with the Republican establishment?

Gerson

Michael Gerson is an evangelical and a neo-conservative. He was George W. Bush’s chief speechwriter from 2001 to 2006. This makes him a somewhat suspect advisor for conservatives, but let’s see what he has to say.

The main point of Gerson’s article is that:

Bush represented a fundamentally different option (still embraced, in more modern form, by many Republican governors). His appeal included the aggressive promotion of economic growth, expressed in support for broad tax cuts. A commitment to compassionate and creative social policy, demonstrated by No Child Left Behind and his support for faith-based social services. A belief in ethnic and religious inclusion, shown by his proposal for comprehensive immigration reform and by his defense of American Muslims after the 9/11 attacks. An internationalist foreign policy, which included not only the war against terrorism but also the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. And a tolerant version of traditionalism, based on moral aspiration rather than judgment. (It is an approach I helped frame while working for candidate and then President Bush.)

Given how post-ideological Bush the man appears to have been, I can understand why Gerson might want to defend the merits of the Bush Administration. The ideas of the Administration might well have been more properly the ideas of key advisors, including Gerson.

A fundamental problem with neocons was their “internationalist foreign policy,” prominently featuring a misguided belief in nation-building. To summarize concisely, neocons originated as disillusioned leftists, such as Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz, who were alienated by the attitudes of the 1970s Left toward Israel, the Soviet Union and the exercise of power by the United States. All that would be understandable, but the neocons kept their expansive Wilsonian approach to foreign policy.

Nevertheless, Gerson has a point when he says:

But here is the reality: There is no reconstitution of conservative influence or the appeal of the Republican Party without incorporating some updated version of compassionate conservatism. And conservatives need to get over their aversion to the only approach that has brought them presidential victory since 1988.

But what we need to do is pick through the agenda Gerson outlines and understand what is worth having and why. David Frum illustrated the problem on the ground:

Owners of capital assets, employers of low-skill laborers, and highly compensated professionals tend to benefit economically from the arrival of immigrants. They are better positioned to enjoy the attractive cultural and social results of migration (more-interesting food!) and to protect themselves against the burdensome impacts (surges in non-English-proficient pupils in public schools). A pro-immigration policy shift was one more assertion of class interest in a party program already brimful of them.

How do we get ethnic and religious inclusion while ensuring that the costs of these policies do not land on the people who are least able to bear them? How do we turn education reform into a meaningful program that prepares Americans for the realities of the 21st century, rather than an empty slogan that affects nothing in the real world?

Domenech

Ben Domenech wrote directly in response to Continetti, and also has some rejoinders for Gerson:

From Reagan through George W. Bush, conservatives largely agreed on the traditional three-legged stool of the fusionist GOP: national defense, limited government, family values. All of that blew up in the aftermath of the Bush years. Conservative intellectuals perceive what’s happening now as a crisis because the political universe has changed so dramatically thanks to Iraq, the Wall Street meltdown, and the lackluster growth that’s followed. But a good part of that crisis mentality could be due to the fact that they still haven’t come to grips with how much the Bush presidency damaged perceptions of conservatism, even among Republicans, and made the old frame of fusionism impossible.

But that fusion was always weak and strained. As explained earlier, there was common cause with the religious right on national defense, limited government and family values, but the religious right had an expansive approach to family values that was not compatible with conservatism or with Gerson’s “moral aspiration rather than judgment.” Meanwhile, there are also the libertarians, who do not buy into the conventional understanding of “family values” at all. Libertarians want more autonomy than the religious right is prepared to grant. Libertarians also want nothing to do with an internationalist foreign policy.

The Republican party from 2008 to 2015 was an uneasy coalition of libertarians, the religious right and Chamber-of-Commerce types. Then Donald Trump came along.

Ask yourself why so many of Trump’s voters, even the middle class ones, are willing to listen when he says even something as big as a presidential election can be rigged against them. All this is happening because American society is in collapse, and no one trusts institutions or one another. It is due to the failure of government institutions, largely stood up by the progressive left, to live up to their promises of offering real economic security and education and the promise of a better life. It is due to the failure of corporate institutions, who have warped America’s capitalist system to benefit themselves at the expense of others. It is due to the failure of cultural institutions, like the church and community organizations, to help the people make sense of an anxious age.

All this is true, but doesn’t tell us how to go forward. And many conservatives have been more than willing to prostitute themselves, by being pro-business rather than pro-market, to green-light the efforts of corporate executives to “warp America’s capitalist system to benefit themselves at the expense of others” by fobbing risk off on others while keeping the reward for themselves. Libertarians have been especially susceptible on this issue.

So, while the institutional problems Domenech cites are very real, institutions are composed of people, who in turn are animated by ideas. Conservatism needs to do the soul-searching, to examine its ideas.

Buckley

Francis Buckley looked at thought leadership on both sides of the political spectrum and found a lot to dislike.

We had thought the Great Chain of Being washed away by the rise of science, by 18th-century philosophes such as Voltaire, by Jefferson and the Founders. But we were wrong. As long as there are elites, there will be people who think they deserve their place atop the greasy pole, that resistance is futile, that the underclass must learn where they naturally belong. And that’s what many of our left- and right-wing elites have come to believe.

Buckley’s criticism of the left is beyond the scope of this essay. His criticism of the right begins with a review of the criticisms made of the Trumpkins.

For George Will, they were “invertebrates.” For Charles Murray and Kevin Williamson, the story is one of white working-class vice, of drug use, divorce, and unwed births. If the underclass wasn’t working, that was its fault. After looking at one town, National Review’s Williamson wrote, “the truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. … Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin.”

I find that Williamson has a point when he says:

If you spend time in hardscrabble, white upstate New York, or eastern Kentucky, or my own native West Texas, and you take an honest look at the welfare dependency, the drug and alcohol addiction, the family anarchy — which is to say, the whelping of human children with all the respect and wisdom of a stray dog — you will come to an awful realization. It wasn’t Beijing. It wasn’t even Washington, as bad as Washington can be. It wasn’t immigrants from Mexico, excessive and problematic as our current immigration levels are. It wasn’t any of that.

If they are victims of anything, they are victims of a progressive education system that said it was OK to dissipate your disposable time on leisure and hitch yourself to the consumption-debt-repayment treadmill. People in the credentialed white-collar middle class who think they don’t have to confront the same problem have another think coming. At the same time, why should the white working class be exempt from the self-examination they would dish out to others: how long are you going to keep on being a victim? At what point do you stop being a victim of your upbringing, your culture and your education and assume moral responsibility for your own continued participation in it?

Charleroi, PA is 21 miles south of Pittsburgh. The town has experienced intense economic distress as a result of the decline in manufacturing in southwest Pennsylvania, The people there want to have their way of life protected in the face of these changes. OK, but if we are going to do that, would we do that for the people who live in the Core City neighborhood of Detroit? If not, where is the justice in that? Would that be racism? It is sure going to look racist to the people in Detroit. The Economist called it, “compassion for us; conservatism for them,” and rightly so.

I have my own take on this. I would have liked to continue to live in northern New Jersey, where I grew up, but I couldn’t afford it. So I had to make choices, and I did so — I moved. Staying is also a choice. You takes your choice, and you pays the price.

There is one more consideration, and it comes from David Wong:

If you don’t live in one of these small towns, you can’t understand the hopelessness. The vast majority of possible careers involve moving to the city, and around every city is now a hundred-foot wall called “Cost of Living.” Let’s say you’re a smart kid making $8 an hour at Walgreen’s and aspire to greater things. Fine, get ready to move yourself and your new baby into a 700-square-foot apartment for $1,200 a month, and to then pay double what you’re paying now for utilities, groceries, and babysitters. 

So it is a complex and messy issue with two parallel dimensions:

  • The ethical dimension, at the individual level, where I am more inclined to side with Williamson;
  • The political dimension, at the community level, where I am more receptive to Buckley. At the community level, there are also public policy issues. Do you want whole communities being abandoned because of economic dislocation? Where do they go?

Even though the specific issue here is more complex and muddy than Buckley probably has in mind, and even though I don’t think it fair to pick on Williamson, his main point is still valid:

Williamson reminds one of the unfeeling strain in contemporary conservatism. It’s something we’ve seen in Mitt Romney, Ted Cruz, Randians, and not a few libertarians. What Romney and Cruz communicated was a perfect fidelity to right-wing principles and an indifference to people.

As they sales proverb goes, “I don’t care how much you know until I know how much you care.” Politics is a people business. Ideas animate people, but the ideas come second to people.

In the interest of not making a long story even longer, I am going to skip forward to Buckley’s conclusion:

My atheist friends who themselves adhere to the highest codes of duty and honor might nevertheless want to consider how often they’ve observed antique republican virtue on display on college campuses or on television. What they’ve seen instead, for the most part, is the detritus of a culture that has lost its religious anchoring and with it any semblance of a moral culture.

They have dispensed with God and for their sophistication ask to be accepted by the intellectuals of the left as fellow members of a privileged elite in our Great Chain of Being. But in abandoning the religious tradition of the West, in their contempt for the invertebrates, the OxyContin sniffers, the takers, they reveal the icicle lodged in the conservative heart.

Before Conservatives can overcome any left-wing bias in the media or any other true-but-incidental issue in being heard, we have to overcome this. The vast majority of the electorate sees “the icicle lodged in the conservative heart,” and wants no part of it.

Is There Anything to Conserve?

What does the term Conservative even mean here in the US anymore? In Britain, at least, they are rigorous about their labels: Liberals were almost completely displaced by the Labor Party by 1924. Here, we are more sloppy with our words, and we pay a price for that.

After eighty-some years of Progressive government (it depends on what you count Herbert Hoover as), there is precious little left to conserve. Meanwhile, we have to come to terms with urbanization, specialization, autonomy and deep pluralism.

We need an ideology that really cares about people, not just one that does a bad job of trying to appear like it cares. We need to put all the productive people first, not just those who can be donors. Sheldon Adelson spent $150 million in 2012 and whiffed completely. His money did not help Romney defeat Obama, and he went 0-for-5 in congressional races. It’s still one person, one vote.

We need to be clear on the difference between pro-market and pro-business policies. We need to remind everyone constantly that a moral foundation of capitalism is that the people who bear the greatest risks have the greatest upsides. There will always be people who want to ditch the risk and keep the reward; it is bad public policy to let them do it.

That means that people who choose to earn a wage or a salary have chosen a lower-risk, lower-reward life. It is unethical to leave them exposed when trade policies change so that others can reap all the rewards in terms of profit and lower-cost consumer goods.

The majority of adults with whom I have spoken do not want those who genuinely cannot take care of themselves pushed to the wall. We need to lead the conversation on what “deserving” means. We are going to have to rebut the schoolmarms who want to take the side of whomever cries first.

We are going to have to face up to intellectual bullies who tell us, “Everyone knows John Rawls said …” We are going to have to push back more and take pushback better. We are going to have to control the language battlefield, or we will always be on ground of someone else’s choosing.

We need to stop the appalling waste of human lives that progressivism encourages. We have a drug problem in this country because we have the demand for drugs. We have a population insulated from risk living lives devoid of meaning, having no higher purpose than consumption and leisure, so they make problems for themselves. Did you ever see those videos on YouTube where they say that, by some year in the near future, India or China will have more honor students than we have students? We can’t afford our current levels of wasting people’s lives in such a world.

We can’t afford to tell people, “We’re not interested in what you can contribute because you have the wrong plumbing.” Or the wrong skin color. We can’t afford to have people who hate to go to work because they expect to be groped or humiliated or ridiculed for being who they are. Actually, we make people hate to go to work for a whole lot of reasons, but that is another essay for another day.

We need to humanize the costs of progressive policies. On Wednesday, the election will be over, but the problems will not. Progressives make more promises to more people, with continually less ability to make good on those promises. A regime based on redistribution will only lead to more intense and ugly fighting over a shrinking pie. A focus on production and the people who make it possible is the only way forward.

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Written by srojak

November 6, 2016 at 8:02 pm

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