Two Blogs that Pass in the Night
Yesterday’s exchange with Thers over the state of conservatism reflects a major defect in the blogging medium. For the most part, we write blogs in serial fashion, as a conversation with our readers, and presume that recent posts on the same subject have been read. Most blog readers, on the other hand, parachute into posts based on links from elsewhere and fill in the blanks based on pre-existing biases.
When I saw a post entitled “The Autumn of Wingnuttia” atop the page at memeorandum, with firedoglake as the venue, I expected the worst. Encountering an insult and expletive laden post*, I was not disappointed. I responded with “Conservatism’s Safety Net,” arguing that such hubris and contempt coming from the progressive camp would ultimately ensure a conservative comeback.
Thers responded with “Lose Its Appeal Over Years,” which noted that his first post was “not especially intended to please a ‘conservative’ ear” and explains that, while taking glee in the problems of the conservative Republican coalition, he’s under no illusion that the Democrats won’t make the same sort of mistakes. Instead, his “Wingnuttia” post was about Movement Conservatism.
In turn, Thers makes a reasonable but false set of assumptions about what I think based on my residing in the conservative camp. Obviously, I must fundamentally disagree with George Packer’s “The Fall of Conservatism — Have the Republicans run out of ideas?” the essay that started this round of discussions. And of course I blame the bad things that the GOP does on heretical leaders who have strayed from the One True Path, not on the movement itself. Two posts from last week, “Rebuilding the Republican Brand” and “Going to War with the Ideology You Have,” address those concerns.
What we’re left with, then, is one fundamental disagreement which I have with Packer and Thers: the motivation of the founders of Movement Conservatism.
Movement conservatism started off as a racket. Movement conservatism has always been about exacerbating and then profiting from existing cultural, social, and economic resentments. There was never any fall from an original ideological Eden. The corruption was there from the start. Packer is quite right to emphasize how the political and popular success of movement conservatism owes everything to its legitimization of a politics of resentment that arose in the 1960s. Movement conservatism has nothing without Hatred of the Liberal, a point reinforced not least by the image with which Joyner chooses to adorn his post.
[T]he brute fact is that without accusations like, say, that Barack Obama is an un-American socialist, well, the GOP might as well just concede the election immediately. And everyone knows it. The right just cannot win if it renounces the politics of resentment, and that’s all there is to it.
The adornment was an illustration of the hubris and contempt for the opposition that was at the core of the post, not a commentary.
Yes, there is a sizable contingent on the Right who think those on the Left are, as many warbloggers put it, “Not anti-war, just on the other side.” And, yes, there’s a strong element of resentment at work in conservatism. But, as I wrote in response to Packer’s statement that “[The Nixon] Administration adopted an undercover strategy for building a Republican majority, working to create the impression that there were two Americas: the quiet, ordinary, patriotic, religious, law-abiding Many, and the noisy, élitist, amoral, disorderly, condescending Few,” “A more charitable characterization would be that the overwhelming majority of Americans saw their culture under assault from an urban elite and a sympathetic Supreme Court” and Nixon’s campaign responded to that.
Frankly, there’s plenty of resentment to go around. After all, it’s not just conservatives who exploit the divide between “Real Americans” and an undeserving Other. John Edwards used Packer’s phrase, “two Americas,” to exploit the resentment of lower middle class voters for those higher on the economic ladder. Hillary Clinton is currently touting her success among “working Americans” in an attempt to exploit the same resentments.
Liberal Democrats try to win by pretty much the same tactics as conservative Republicans: exploiting class resentments; recalling a vision of the past that never existed; and just generally spreading fear, doubt, and uncertainty. It’s just a different set of resentments being stoked. Republicans hate people of color and want to see old people starve. They don’t want your kids to be educated. All they care about is the rich! It’s all nonsense. But let’s not confuse the divide-and-conquer tactics by which campaigns are run with political movements. Conservatism isn’t “the Southern Strategy” any more than liberalism is “triangulation.” Much of politics is about exploiting fear and “Who gets what, when and how.” But, to the extent that people vote ideologically, it’s about more than that.
In the American context, there’s a remarkable consensus on politics combined with heated rhetoric. We’re essentially all descendants of Enlightenment Liberalism and the disagreements are on the margins. We pretty much agree on the goals; the disagreement is about how to get there and in which direction trade-offs should go. Conservatives prioritize military power, liberals emphasize diplomacy. Liberals push for diversity and change while conservatives fight for the protection of cherished cultural institutions. Conservatives emphasize private property rights while liberals emphasize fairness and community.
The campaign rhetoric used by the two parties, however, is about putting together a 50 percent plus one coalition to achieve power. Campaigns are usually about whipping the ideological base into a frenzy to increase turnout and trying to persuade the non-ideological mass that it’s too risky to vote for the other side. None of that has much to do with a “movement,” on the Left or the Right.
“Intellectual movements” that end up unable to cope with empirical scientific data (global warming), that end up making excuses for torture, that depend upon self-flattering fantasies such as a belief in a partisan “liberal media,” that delight in the sort of race-baiting nonsense we’ve already seen in this election season, have nowhere to go. It is eminently reasonable to draw the conclusion that there is just nothing to “movement conservatism” except a dead end. “Conservatism” as it is currently embodied just cannot handle the truth. It can’t afford to.
I’d note that most of the “race-baiting nonsense we’ve already seen in this election season” has come from the Democrats. Bill and Hillary Clinton have been positively hamhanded on the subject and the Obama camp has been masterful in crying “racism” even where none exists, essentially casting any vote by a white person against him as only explainable by bigotry.
Yes, a large number of conservatives are skeptics of global warming and especially the proposed solutions. They see environmentalists as an elite who are willing to sacrifice hundreds of thousands of jobs and economic progress to save some fish they’ve never heard of, so they’re naturally suspicious. Then again, John McCain made doing something about global warming a major plank of his campaign and got the Republican nomination.
A sizable number of us have opposed the administration on torture. Again, McCain has been among us. But we’ve been largely overruled by a mass, bipartisan consensus that we have to use any means necessary to protect ourselves against the terrorist barbarians. The liberal stalwart Alan Derschowitz has been leading that charge for years and the popularity of “24” and its protagonist Jack Bauer isn’t owing to some conservative fringe. It’s the basic human instinct for self-protection kicking in.
The “liberal media” trope is overblown but its origin is hardly a fantasy. A generation ago, when the New York Times, Washington Post, ABC, NBC, CBS, and PBS were the entirety of the national media, there was a legitimate sense that a liberal, urban elite set the agenda and skewed the conversation. This was especially the case on the hot button social issues, where reporters and commentators with a metropolitan perspective simply couldn’t understand how anyone could disagree with them on so many issues. Why, they’d never even met anyone who’d voted for Richard Nixon.
The view was furthered by Watergate and its new culture of sensational “investigative journalism” and “speaking truth to power.” That the advent of this took place under a Republican administration and the culture spread during a period of GOP dominance of the presidency didn’t help, because it always seemed that the press was taking the liberal/Democratic side. It became rather obvious during Bill Clinton’s tenure, though, that the bias was toward “gotcha” rather than against conservatives.
And, of course, the spread of multiple media outlets rendered much of this moot. While Peter Jennings and Sam Donaldson and Dan Rather and Katie Couric still had a lot of power, Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, and other outlets were now available to conservatives to get news and commentary from people who shared their perspective. But old resentments die slowly.
In any given election cycle, one or both parties will be using an old playbook. The Democrats were still fighting the battles of the 1960s in 1988 and the Republicans are still far too reliant on Ronald Reagan’s script from 1980. Meanwhile, the issues are either overtaken by events or co-opted by the other party.
Interestingly, Barack Obama and John McCain are both genuinely trying to change themes and forge new coalitions. That’s fairly rare. Bill Clinton pulled it off in 1992, running as a “New Democrat,” and Ronald Reagan did it in 1980, putting an optimistic, forward-looking face on conservatism. If the race doesn’t turn into a blowout, though, we’ll likely see quite a bit of the standard, divisive language.
*As an aside, I mostly disagree with Rick Moran‘s contention that prolific use of the F-word and the spewing of insults renders the author a half-crazed ignoramus. Thanks to my Army training, I can employ colorful language with the best of them and do so more often than I should in oral communication. I choose not to do that at OTB for a variety of reasons, though, not least of which is that it makes conversation with those not already disposed to agree with you much more difficult.