By David Beilstein
As the cliché goes, great minds think alike—or one hopes so.
It’s been awhile since I perused material posted over at The Atlantic to offer comment—or to share, but Conor Friedersdorf came down with two essays worth gentle readership. Okay, well, I found myself perched on the American Conservative website and they linked to an essay by Friedersdorf, who in turn, linked to one of his own past essays.
I’m not quite sure what I think about the whole non-movement conservative awakening—as a large part of me agrees with Jonah Goldberg that conservatism needs to be persuasive. It cannot simply swallow the status quo.
Especially, given statism’s grim triumph—it’s tyrannical character, and it’s destruction of American institutions.
Still, some lessons can be learned. Friedersdorf comes from the non-movement conservative stream—what the hell that is can be gleamed here—where the empirical Burkean Knight breaks it down for lay political junkies, revealing the problems rutting in G.O.P. ranks.
Elsewhere, Friedersdorf opined of his dismissal of Barack Obama’s first term and why he would not be giving the president another chance. Just because a majority of American voters decided against such wisdom does not mean Friedersdorf’s essay a waste.
It’s spot on journalistic criticism—sans alarmism.
George W. Bush and his team have constructed a high-performance electoral engine,” Suskind explained. “The soul of this new machine is the support of millions of likely voters, who judge his worth based on intangibles — character, certainty, fortitude and godliness — rather than on what he says or does.” Much of the right stopped valuing reasoned debate or empiricism. As a result, huge swaths of an excessively loyal right-of-center GOP coalition supported numerous policies it would later look back on in bemused horror.
Much of the current factions jostling for the reigns of the G.O.P.’s conservative wing are a result of Mr Friedersdorf’s last sentence—“bemused horror” being an apt description.
Come 2008, there was a brief moment of introspection. National Review hosted its “whither conservatism” conference at a Washington, D.C., hotel. Right-leaning intellectuals began dreaming up new journals, Web magazines and blogs to play a part in reshaping the coalition’s future. All the old fault lines reemerged. Did the GOP need to end its experiment with “compassionate conservatism” and return to advocating smaller government? Did it need to better address the needs of the working class?
Did it need to become more conservative or to moderate?
As I said before, one thing that needs clarity from Republican conservatives is unity about what is considered moderate and what is conservative. It would seem (in our day) moderate Republicanism can be anything from big government Republicans anemic to serious limits on federal power (John McCain)—or it could mean (especially in conservative evangelical folds) Republicans who are not socially conservative.
This raises interesting polemical consequences as paleo-conservatives and libertarian Republicans are often socially conservative, privately—but not in the sense of wanting to impose socially conservative (cultural) uniformity on America at large.
Paleo-conservatives, as well as consequentialist libertarians, likewise—such as myself (all about me!), might be socially conservative, but also advocate a robust federalism, seeing localism within communities as the proper boundaries to legislate more elaborate laws affecting public behaviour—which in turn should be directed by states and local municipalities.
True Burkean conservatism should always be working overtime to push government to allow for large swaths of communities being in control of their own lives and the lives of their families, over centralised excess. Such an ideological ethic, is then, radically in-step with the 1oth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution—a largely electable public polity position—and one capable of broad public support (especially in minority communities where Republicans must represent), persuading many to vote “conservative” for the first time.
The long and the short: it is Federalism, plus localism, that should be the acreage social conservatism seeks to apply its character of promoting best practises, gained by learning from “wisdom passed down through the ages.”
A better approach awaits. I would suggest the U.S. Constitutional structure of enumerated powers should be the “norming” canon of what conservatism is and should be, electorally—rather than the tendency by too many cultural conservatives to make extra-constitutional social convictions the basis upon which to rally a concerted conservative battle cry. Part of Friedersdorf’s goodness is how he realises cultural warrior-ism and unreasonable sentimentality animate the life and thought of conservative politics, rather than the philosophy which birthed constitutionalism—the ideological ethic of conserving the 18th century classical liberal document itself within public polity.
What this means is conservatives within the Republican Party will first have to win in the arena of ideas—offering up pragmatic and textured constitutional arguments for why they should lead—and others follow.
Back to Senor Friedersdorth,
But the American right was incapable of adjudicating them. It didn’t matter that Reihan Salam and Ross Douthat wrote a very smart book setting forth one possible political program; that David Frum engaged in the same process; that Bruce Bartlett pressed fiscal conservatives to reexamine their failures; that Matt Welch, Nick Gillespie, and their Reason staffers weighed in with sharp libertarian critiques; that figures from Ron Paul to Daniel Larison offered devastating eviscerations of neo-conservatism; that Tim Carney attacked the right’s penchant for corporate cronyism; or even that the Tea Party grew into a populist force as the Obama Administration began.
Ideally, the right would find a way to incorporate nuggets from all these critiques. Sure, their advocates want to take the Republican Party in dramatically different directions. Winners and losers are inevitable. But respect for empiricism and reasoned, intellectually honest debate could ensure that the best critiques would be aired; the best ideas attempted; and the very worst rejected, whatever their provenance. At minimum, it’s possible to imagine a coalition where sound argument was valued enough to render the most vile ad hominem and the most hair-trigger heretic-shaming beyond the pale.
Some delicious ideological soul food resides here. But it gets better,
Choosing what spot to occupy on the ideological spectrum is not what the right should be worried about, important though it surely is. It scarcely matters if the GOP starts titling three more degrees toward social conservatism, or fiscal conservatism, or libertarianism, or centrism, if that agenda is shaped and pursued by a coalition incapable of adjudicating arguments on their merits, or separating fact from fantasy, or maintaining the most basic ethical standards.
A sense arose during the G.O.P primaries—I know I felt it—conservatism had been overly flirtatious with kookville for the sake of contrariness alone. Gaseous argot—just because. An unwise move; one that nominated John McCain and Mitt Romney. Both men lost and both men found their campaigns unable to arrive at a cogency and ideologically rooted position.
And both proved unable to defeat progressive ideological presumptions which were hardly difficult to defeat in debate.
This truth was evident during the GOP primary, where voters were presented with unacceptable candidates as diverse as the right itself. So broken are the information outlets Tea Partiers in particular use to assess reality that for months they took Sarah Palin, Herman Cain, and Newt Gingrich seriously as potential or actual presidential contenders. They had every opportunity to see the respective character flaws of these figures; they were mostly self-evident, and persuasively described in great detail by the political press. Ah, but that’s the liberal media talking. With that phrase, any huckster can short-circuit the Tea Party reality-assessing apparatus for months.
And while movement conservatism has failed for decades to shrink government, it has succeeded spectacularly in creating jobs for hucksters in the private sector.
Part of the journalistic purpose of Crede, ut intelligas has been to point out the verity of Friedersdorf’s last sentence. It goes something like this: despite massive “conservative” overbite—as in media power and conservative “celebrity” applause—the nuts and bolts of conservative ideological convictions—“a dragging of the U.S. government back to constitutional parameters”—is a goal perpetually unrealised of late.
Ironically, it was during President Ronald Reagan’s first term—an era without an “alternative conservative media”—whereupon the limitation of federal power was discernibly achieved.
While more could have been achieved, one could argue the ship was headed quickly in the right direction. Friedersdorf ends forcefully enough. If the prick hurts, I’d wager it is because his points reach surer footing than one’s comfortable with.
Yes, there will always be hucksters. And spending all one’s time fighting them is a foolish enterprise.
On the right today, they are so numerous, prominent and shameless, their pathologies so ingrained in right-wing media and politics, their wealth so corrupting to young talent, and their pathologies so seldom challenged by those who know better, that Republicans are operating at a persistent information disadvantage. (Too many believe even their own bullshit.)
The Bush Administration showed that it’s possible to win at the ballot box anyway — but that the victory isn’t worth much, save an ill-conceived war in the desert, exploding deficits, and a financial crisis. Improving on this metric won’t solve all the right’s problems, or answer every question about the right way forward, but it would go a long way toward mitigating its least defensible excesses. For some, the resulting improvements would be enough to make the GOP preferable to the Democrats.
As yet, I say to hell with them both.
Readers should bare change does seem in the wind. As stated earlier in the week, Sen. Rand Paul’s (R-Ky) speech during his filibustering rampage proved to be the best defense of constitutional government by a national Republican politician—encompassing a wide-array of topics—in 25 years.
Senator Paul, was, thankfully, listening. And it appears others are following.
But it is equally important to understand—as William F Buckley, Jr. did through National Review—to winnow away the creeps and bozo’s from conservatism daylight—that as sure as the day is long, needs to be ever ready for, and ever serious.
Serious, and ever situated at the foot of the philosophical richness of classical liberalism. Equally important to grasp, too: the need and ability to empower the individual over the state; of free minds and free markets—a nation of diverse sovereign individuals with manumission of voice and mind—riding on the sunlit hilltop of liberty.