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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.

Root for Us You Liberal Moron 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.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Bithead says:

    James, you missed a rather large clue, I think;

    Movement conservatism started off as a racket. Movement conservatism has always been about exacerbating and then profiting from existing cultural, social, and economic resentments.

    Consider these words for more than a moment, and it will occur to you that the left has in fact been the ones to profit from such differences. Consider the racism and sexism in the Clinton and Mabama camps this cycle.

    As to the language issues you mention, I too can make a Sgt Major wince, when the situation calls for it. Yet, I seem to get by, for the most part without it.
    (Aside: It’s interesting to me; I have been recently accused of harboring much anger. Yet what can be said for a group of people whose every post is a mild re-write of the four letter serenade? )

    To the larger point, however; I do not see a level of divisiveness as a negative. These are serious times which are not going to be lived through by everyone joining hands around the sacred campfire, singing a rousing rendition of KoomByYa.

    As a reference to how well such works, you’re quite right; Clinton was successful at getting votes that way. But what we ended up with once s/he got into power was anything but.

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  2. TJIT says:

    The other blog said

    “Intellectual movements” that end up unable to cope with empirical scientific data (global warming)

    Illustrates the hubris that causes everyone lots of problems when liberals / progressives policies are unleashed on the real world.

    The fact of the matter is that the end result of the vast majority of policies enacted to fight global warming have.

    1. Increased carbon emissions

    2. Caused massive environmental destruction

    Once again the liberal desire to

    1. Take government action to do something right now to fix a problem

    2. Combined with their utter refusal to evaluate the possible negative results these actions might create

    3. Leaves the original problem in place and creates new ones.

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  3. TJIT says:

    The liberals are not to be taken seriously on the issue of global warming.

    1. Their candidates are promising to enact policies to lower fuel prices.

    2. At the same time they are promising to do something to lower carbon emissions.

    3. While whistling past the fact that the only effective way to reduce carbon emissions is to increase the cost of fuel.

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  4. Hal says:

    Interesting post, James. I think you’re missing some big points, but then that is always my position. Just to bring up a few, I’ll note that you seem to have fallen back on comparing apples and oranges. Yes, divisiveness is not missing from any campaign, but I’ll just note that by all economic measures, there actually *are* two Americas. Now, you can take the position that we should actually not bring this up, nor should we actually try to change that. That is, I believe the position on the right. However, there’s a big difference between bringing up this difference and trying to change it than what is happening with race. Yes, there are different colored people and race can cause division, but unlike economic issues, it’s pretty disgusting and downright pathetic to use race as a political issue. You bring up that the democrats – i.e. Hillary – are the ones doing this this cycle. I’ll point out a few things. First, it’s recognized as disgusting and turns off a lot of democrats precisely because of that. Second, race has been a common tool in the past Republican politics, so Bill and Hillary bringing it up in a primary doesn’t really count for a *party* using it as a handy tool in their political toolbox which they use without fail. Finally, what was the Southern Strategy of the Republican party? Where did the dixiecrats go? Point being that the people Bill and Hillary were trying to persuade with race are the most conservative and right leaning of the left. So, I think you’re making Thers’ argument with your argument.

    On torture, I’d really like to find out where you’re assertion of a mass, bipartisan consensus comes from. Pretty much every poll I’ve seen on the subject, shows the exact opposite. In fact, what the break downs almost always show is that self identified republican support torture by a broad majority. Heck, as the anecdote by Klein, watching a focus group on a Republican debate shows, bitchslapping the poor and pro-torture seem to be core republican values at this time in our political history

    In the next segment–the debate between Romney and Mike Huckabee over Huckabee’s college scholarships for the deserving children of illegal immigrants–I noticed something really distressing: When Huckabee said, “After all, these are children of God,” the dials plummeted. And that happened time and again through the evening: Any time any candidate proposed doing anything nice for anyone poor, the dials plummeted (30s). These Republicans were hard.

    But there was worse to come: When John McCain started talking about torture–specifically, about waterboarding–the dials plummeted again. Lower even than for the illegal Children of God. Down to the low 20s, which, given the natural averaging of a focus group, is about as low as you can go. Afterwards, Luntz asked the group why they seemed to be in favor of torture. “I don’t have any problem pouring water on the face of a man who killed 3000 Americans on 9/11,” said John Shevlin, a retired federal law enforcement officer. The group applauded, appallingly.

    It’s important to remember it’s still May and due to the battle in the democratic party the national election has yet to begin. I like to think that McCain won’t follow in the footsteps of previous Republican campaigns and adopt their strategies, but considering that he’s got all the same people basically working for him, I don’t hold out high hopes for the matter. Basically, given the polling trends – as you’ve pointed out – he’ll have a fantastically uphill battle to fight and quite frankly when you’re against the ropes I think it’s going to be hard to resist pulling out racism. I mean, heck, his current strategy of dealing with Obama wrt national security hasn’t been anything but a campaign of fear and resentment. I mean, Bush in the Knesset? McCain piling on that? Really, James, that’s just a taste of what’s to come…

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  5. James Joyner says:

    [B]y all economic measures, there actually *are* two Americas. Now, you can take the position that we should actually not bring this up, nor should we actually try to change that. That is, I believe the position on the right.

    I think by any reasonable measure, the living standards of Americans has been rising at a fantastic rate. It’s true that a tiny handful at the top have fantastical incomes and lifestyles that are beyond the reach of even those of us who are relatively affluent. But, really, so what? Bill Gates’ ability to afford his own island doesn’t impact me and he has managed to endow a huge charitable organization with his bucks.

    It’s not true that conservatives don’t want to do anything about true poverty, it’s just that we take a different approach. For the most part, we want to create opportunities and remove barriers rather than confiscating and redistributing.

    On torture, I’d really like to find out where you’re assertion of a mass, bipartisan consensus comes from.

    A recent Pew poll asked “Do you think the use of torture against suspected terrorists in order to gain important information can often be justified, sometimes be justified, rarely be justified, or never be justified?” 15% said often, 31% said sometimes, 17% said rarely. That’s 63% compared to 32% who say never. A 2005 AP poll had similar findings: “61 percent of those surveyed agreed torture is justified at least on rare occasions.”

    Cringing at torture is near-universal. So, though, is thinking it’s justified when used against really bad people who might harm the country. Those of us who are near-absolutists the other way are in a minority.

    I don’t fully understand the visceral reaction to illegal immigration, even though there’s a part of me that shares it. As a matter of practical policy, I think Huckabee and McCain are right. But there’s a serious fear of illegals overtaking the culture, siphoning off pubic resources, and so forth.

    I’m pretty sure race will be exploited by both sides in November.

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  6. Hal says:

    But, really, so what? Bill Gates’ ability to afford his own island doesn’t impact me and he has managed to endow a huge charitable organization with his bucks.

    I think you’re simply making Thers’ point here, James. You don’t think there’s a problem. That’s fine, that is the republican party line, after all. However, this is quite a different thing than race. There simply is no argument about race. Reasonable people can argue as to whether there is an economic divide in the country and it seems like fair game to use it as a political position. Race, on the other hand is no such thing. Not even in the same category. So saying that “See? Democrats using economics as a divisive issue and the Right uses race as a divisive issue are really the same thing” is just not correct. It’s an “apples and oranges” argument. Just because they are both “divisive” doesn’t mean they are morally equivalent.

    For the most part, we want to create opportunities and remove barriers rather than confiscating and redistributing.

    Again, a statement that can be interpreted many ways. As I said, it’s a legitimate part of the discourse of our elections. Race, not at all. And that was Thers’ point.

    Cringing at torture is near-universal. So, though, is thinking it’s justified when used against really bad people who might harm the country. Those of us who are near-absolutists the other way are in a minority.

    Again, I think when you make the question framed with “really bad people”, you get one answer. When you frame it as it should be, considering the rather large number of people in Guantanamo which have – you know – turned out to not be really bad people even by the admission of our own government, you get quite another. However, Thers’ point – if I may be so bold – isn’t that there’s a consensus to torture “really bad people”, it’s that one party – i.e. the republicans – contain a frightening proportion of people who go way beyond that. Indeed, they see no problem with breaking international treaties on torture (it’s tying America’s hands), don’t think water boarding is torture (again, see the polls I linked to) and – as a party – have made torture a political issue. Rather, making *not* torturing a political issue.

    The democrats, while perhaps timid and disgustingly milquetoast on the subject, are not – as a *party*.

    I’m pretty sure race will be exploited by both sides in November.

    Again, moral equivalence on your part. I always do find it odd that using the fact that there is racism, that it’s ugly and that it shouldn’t exist is considered to be morally equivalent to exploiting racism, itself. Is that what you’re asserting here?

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  7. yetanotherjohn says:

    2004 48.27% – 51.73%
    2000 48.38% – 51.62%
    1996 49.23% – 50.77%
    1992 43.01% – 56.99%
    1988 45.65% – 54.35%
    1984 40.56% – 59.44%
    1980 41.01% – 58.99%
    1976 50.08% – 49.92%
    1972 37.52% – 62.48%
    1968 42.72% – 57.28%

    These numbers represent the percentage of presidential voters who wanted the democrat (number on the left) compared to the number who wanted someone other than the democrat (number on the right) over the last 40 years. You will notice that only once did a majority of voters favor the democratic brand compared to all other possibilities.

    In contrast, the republicans had clear majorities 5 of those 10 elections.

    If you go back 60 years, the democrats have only garnered a majority of votes twice (1964 and 1976). Both majorities can at least in part be accounted for in things beyond the ideals of the democratic party (Kennedy assassination in 1964 and Watergate in 1976). Both majorities were followed by a Republican in the White House. Out of those 15 elections (1948 to 2004), republicans have had majorities 7 times.

    Now explain to me again how the liberals really represent the majority of the country? The democrats haven’t really represented a majority of the country since FDR.

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  8. James Joyner says:

    I always do find it odd that using the fact that there is racism, that it’s ugly and that it shouldn’t exist is considered to be morally equivalent to exploiting racism, itself. Is that what you’re asserting here?

    I think both parties do both of these things.

    I fully agree that aspects of the conservative agenda are also appealing to racists and even that some Republican strategists knowingly make use of that fact. So, too, Democrats actively exploit black and Hispanic fears of racism by smearing Republicans with that label.

    What the Democrats do is, in my mind, more odious: Frame any disagreement with the “civil rights” agenda as “racist.” There can be no reasoned opposition to affirmative action, bilingual education, hate crimes, or any number of things; opposition is deemed by definition racist.

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  9. James Joyner says:

    In contrast, the republicans had clear majorities 5 of those 10 elections.

    Is that right? Or did “other than Democrat” have the majority?

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  10. yetanotherjohn says:

    James,

    ‘Other than democrat’ has had the majority on every presidential election starting in 1948 to 2004 with the exceptions of 1964 and 1976 (and I noted the unusual events that helped produce those majorities).

    In the last 10 election 1968-2004, the GOP received a majority of the votes in 1972 – 60.67%, 1980 – 50.75%, 1984 – 58.77%, 1988 53.37% and 2004 – 50.73%.

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  11. steve says:

    It seemed to me that on torture, Republicans were just blindly supporting Bush at the urging of the radio blow hards. It was certainly possible to find torture opposition amongst the more thoughtful conservatives. It is a difficult issue to poll as the questions ahead of it tend to set up a scenario. It also depends a lot on when one last saw an episode of 24 where every week there is a ticking time bomb.

    I would like to see people address the definition of fiscal conservatism. It seems to have become “cut taxes”. Whatever happened to fiscal responsibility? What about the debt? If I just look at the data since conservatives started in office (Reagan), I have to conclude that their idea of making the economy run is deficit spending.

    Steve

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  12. Dave Schuler says:

    I think I have to disagree on the subject of conservatism. There are very, very, very few conservatives out there these days, particularly in the blogosphere. The only prominent conservative I can think of in the blogosphere is Stephen Bainbridge.

    Really, truly conservatives fit William F. Buckley’s characterization: they’re standing athwart history yelling “Stop!” To whom are they yelling? Practically everybody else.

    The problem today is that so many people who aren’t actually conservatives are whittling off chunks of conservatism and pasting it on themselves. Religious fundamentalists (“social conservatives”). Minarchists (“fiscal conservatives”). Libertarians. And so on.

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  13. Dave Schuler says:

    BTW, I think that profanity, scatology, and crude language functions largely as a shibboleth—it discourages anybody but the likeminded from reading farther.

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  14. Our Paul says:

    James, you really know how to stir a pot. In the hissing laboratory of my mind, I visualize you in your subterranean dimly lit lair, a hooded figure tabulating on your abacus how many liberals you have sent into a low orbit with your latest post.

    But really, this answer to Hal comment is just a bit too much:

    I think by any reasonable measure, the living standards of Americans has been rising at a fantastic rate. It’s true that a tiny handful at the top have fantastical incomes and lifestyles that are beyond the reach of even those of us who are relatively affluent.[ Posted by James Joyner | May 26, 2008 | 10:38 am ]

    Now then, I am not an economist, and I prefer not to quote Wikipedia unless it really simplifies matters and provides enough references for the inquiring mind to ponder.

    Let me present you and your readership with the Gini Coeffecient. The statistical data clearly shows mounting income mal distribution in the US over the past 20 to 30 years in the US. There is a ton of data out there that supports this contention.

    In your April 10th post, “Middle Class Blues”, you pooh-poohed the mounting evidence of income mal distribution, and the increasing house hold debt of the populous. Did not understand it then, but I think I am getting it now.

    First, you set the middle class income at between 75,000.00 to 120,000.00. Next, you ignore regional differences, fixed expenses which may be increasing at a higher rate then inflation or earned income, and accrued debt which has to be serviced. Finally go for average income rather than the median income, and mirabile dictu, there is no problem, once again proving the magic of the market place!!!

    Now then, to simplify. Either there is, or there is not mounting income mal distribution. A prudent conservative, in examining this possibility, would favor a worse case scenario. After all, to become a Bill Gates, we would have to drop out of college!

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  15. James Joyner says:

    The problem today is that so many people who aren’t actually conservatives are whittling off chunks of conservatism and pasting it on themselves. Religious fundamentalists (“social conservatives”). Minarchists (“fiscal conservatives”). Libertarians. And so on.

    There’s probably not much of a true conservative moment in the U.S. We use it as shorthand for a lot of different things — especially the social cons — but more generally for the Ronald Reaganesque message. I’m not a SoCon or a Burkean but I don’t necessarily reject that “conservative” label in the American context.

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  16. Casey says:

    Best Post Ever.

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