Friday, September 2, 2011

Understanding Conservatives/Republicans

Ezra Klein is reporting from the APSA meetings in Seattle, and reports on some interesting comments by Stephen Skowronek about conservatives, the New Deal, and liberals.

(Yes, that means that I'm riffing off of a reporter's version of what political scientists are saying. Oh well; he's a good reporter, and I ain't there. So it goes).

At any rate, what Skowronek was saying is that the conservative movement:
has become increasingly constitutional in scope, which challenges government-driven solutions in principle, which seeks to dislodge American government from the accumulated policy commitments and offers to establish a whole new standard for legitimate action in its place. Today's progressives may cast themselves as an insurgency to redirect government after years of conservative dominance. But the situation may be quite different. Republicans may have become a kind of permanent insurgency.
I think that's mostly correct, and I very much agree with Klein's reaction:
Liberals tend to underestimate how much they have accomplished, and how much ground conservatives have ceded, over the course of the 20th century, and even into the beginning of the 21st. Liberals tell themselves a narrative in which the last few decades have been dominated by conservatives, but conservatives look around and see a state that has been substantially shaped by liberals.
What I guess I'd add, and of course I don't know what else Skowronek was saying, is that I see quite a bit of complexity in movement conservativism. Part of it is a more-or-less principled, but at any rate fairly specific, preference for an entirely different way of governing the US, what Skowronek would call a different regime (it's a word I'm not eager to use, but I think it fits here). Then there's another part of it which appears to be based almost entirely on, well, fiction. I don't know how else to put it...take, for example all the stuff you here about "apology tour" and "exceptionalism." That's a major part of GOP campaign rhetoric right now, and it's all just full, 100%, fiction. It's not just rhetoric, either; there are quite a few policy debates that seem fully planted in fiction. And then on top of it all, you have plenty of normal opportunism, such as the 2010 GOP electoral campaign against Medicare cuts.

Of course, you expect plenty of mishmash in any US political party, or even in any ideological movement. What does strike me, however, is how little hard work I've seen from those movement conservatives who do fantasize about some sort of pre-New Deal, or pre-Wilson, ideal. I don't get any sense that anyone has thought through what exactly they're looking for, or how they would confront the various difficulties that their preferred regime would no doubt face. No, I'm not looking for anyone, and certainly not candidates, to have a fully developed, fine-tuned agenda, but if we're to take any of this seriously as a real political program (and not just a combination of fiction and opportunism), it would be nice to see some of it. I think that's what Will Wilkerson is getting to in his attack on Ron Paul in TNR.

I'm not sure exactly where to go with this, other than to say that I do think that it's worth taking movement conservatives quite seriously...but there's a real risk of taking them more seriously than they take themselves.


  1. I think the major issue is that by spinning themselves as a movement, conservatives have appropriated a kind of revolutionary/vicimtized ethos that enables their simple status as a "movement" to act as a warrant which legitimizes any number of their claims, This allows arguments with the movement to be painted as doubts/questions about the sincerity and committment of movement conservatives.

    This is particularly true with respect to the contemporary "Tea Party" as an insurgency of sorts seeking to "take our country back." Because they regularly frame their argument as linked intimately to the concerns of the American people (counterpose this with liberals often too afraid of stepping on any number of multicultural toes in constructing their competing vision of the "American people") they are allowed to produce a virtuous American people as a social movement agitating against injustice, a powerful enough argument for those only casually familiar with our historical imaginary.

  2. So what do you see President Romney and a Republican Congress doing in ways of policy in 2013, given the state of the ideas behind the party?

  3. I'm curious about that first phrase you attribute to Skowronek. Are movement conservatives really "increasingly constitutional in scope," or is that just sloganeering? The constitution gives the federal government an awful lot of leeway to do things movement conservatives don't like, and prohibits many things movement conservatives do like, such as respecting establishments of religion.

  4. There is a deep cultural-partisan divide in this country -- some people will always be prepared to believe the worst about their opponents. That doesn’t excuse fictional claims by conservatives, but it does help explain them.

    Wilkinson makes fair points about Paul‘s philosophy, but doesn’t prove anything other than the fact that Wilkinson subscribes to a different creed of libertarianism, and one that doesn’t seem any less “uselessly abstract” than Paul’s. Wilkinson has said elsewhere that he wants to start a libertarian movement on the left -- a worthy goal, but it’s a bit rich for him to criticize anyone else for being impractical.

    A Ron Paul Presidency would arguably do more to please liberals than conservatives, although I can understand why Paul’s rhetoric is unpleasant to some on the left. Still, it’s an interesting sign of the times that liberals have been spilling ink to convince their fellows that Ron Paul is a right wing nut.

  5. I think JB is on to something here, but you've got to look at party actors. The "intellectuals' in the R party are parasitical. They don't do much for the real donors and have to come up with ways to justify their noise. This is a process that started 10-12 years before the D's got infected.

    There's a segment of American business that would want to return to pre-1970 (clean air act) and pre-new deal (labor protection) but it is a distinct minority. GE? Apple? Even Exxon?

  6. What does strike me, however, is how little hard work I've seen from those movement conservatives who do fantasize about some sort of pre-New Deal, or pre-Wilson, ideal. I don't get any sense that anyone has thought through what exactly they're looking for, or how they would confront the various difficulties that their preferred regime would no doubt face.

    I suppose this is at least partly because conservatism is a matter of temperament, a reflexive rejection of recent developments in favor of the imagined Golden Age of a generation or two earlier. Since it was a Golden Age, all you need to do is go back to it -- you don't need to explain, for example, how you would deal with the reappearance of massive old-age poverty once you had repealed Social Security and Medicare. Conversely, if you understood that diverse, modern, urban-industrial societies tend to leave large numbers of people unprovided for -- i.e. if you based your social vision on analysis, not sentiment, and thus realized that there was no Golden Age -- you would understand the need for liberal programs, and therefore wouldn't be a conservative in the first place.

  7. An interesting, underreported (IMHO) angle on the Great Society: the most stable, successful, 1st world 'socialist' states tend to be either extremely ethnically homogeneous (e.g. Japan), small + densely populated (e.g. S. Korea), or with a ruling class that is ethnically homogeneous, effectively silencing the marginalized (e.g. China).

    You often hear liberal frustration at the loss of working class white folk who were union/liberal stalwarts before the 1960s. This loss can be seen in anthropological/sociological terms, but for me it is better to see it in psychological terms: those folks don't feel like the Great Society is for them any longer. A working class miner in appalachian WV, who reliably voted democrat back in the day, now sees the Great Society as focused on the needs of folks with whom they share little in common. Therefore they no longer vote Democrat.

    For perspective, its a common observation how decidedly non-conservative the Tea Party is. I think this is usually true. What I think folks are observing is a class of Americans who are no friends of capitalism or classic conservatism (as critics often note), folks who would certainly be liberals in a homogeneous society like Japan, but given the great geographic and ethnic fragmentation in the US, don't feel like "The" Great Society is "Their" Great Society. They aren't opposed to the Great Society, philosophically, they just want it to be more for them.

    If I'm correct, I think this presents a big challenge for liberals going forward in the 21st century. For one, it reduces individual participation in a Great Society to selfish motives, which is more or less antithetical to the liberal ideal. Further, there isn't an easy solution to getting isolated populations to feel as though they are equal participants in the 21st century American experiment, especially if they don't now.

    Liberalism may be in for some rough waters ahead, perhaps not because folks are necessarily conservative, but just that important things like geography and culture in the US don't fit easily into the Great Society ideal.

  8. No sense delving into some master philosophical outline. We're borrowing 42 cents of every federal dollar we spend. Our debt to GDP ratio is climbing, currently near 100%, and is about to take off to the moon. Over the past decade or so, federal spending has gone from less than 18% of GDP to 25%... most of that increase under Pelosi and Obama. Not hard to see what's driving their opposition, is it?

    It probably doesn't fit to combine a post about libertarians and conservatives, Mr. Bernstein. It's a valid exercise from a political perspective, because of Paul's and Johnson's presence in a presidential primary, but philosophically? Not much overlap right now. Only a smidge on the federal spending side, from what I can make out. That's why the R establishment hates the Tea Party... they're of a libertarian influence, and the establishment finds them dangerous to their establishmentarianism.

  9. CSH, I mostly agree with your analysis, although I think the Great Society programs that fell victim to the fragmentation you speak of were mainly those that could be construed as "welfare" or "affirmative action." But the Great Society also included Medicare, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, the EEOC, and later expansions (under Republican presidents!) like the Clean Air and Water Acts, OSHA, and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Despite some quarreling at the margins, these measures seem to have pretty solid and enduring majorities behind them. And even welfare and affirmative action are still hanging on, despite decades of concerted attacks.

    Basically, Americans decided over the course of the 20th century that they, like the peoples of other modern states, wanted a national government that worked pro-actively to safeguard their rights, broadly understood. Your archetypal ex-Democratic miner in West Virginia may have voted Republican in presidential races since Reagan, but he also voted for Robert Byrd for all those years, is pandered to by a congressman who delivers federal largesse to the district, turned out last year for the GOP because it (disingenuously) posed as defenders as Medicare, and is very likely no fan of big-business attacks on OSHA's rules for mine safety.

  10. CSH says:
    “For one, it reduces individual participation in a Great Society to selfish motives, which is more or less antithetical to the liberal ideal.”

    The other angle is the protection of our collective security -- they’re trying to protect granny from being “thrown off the cliff.” Of course, both sides are eager to protect us from such depredations of The Other Side, which are conveniently threatening to our personal security in much the same way that terrorism is. (There’s even similar terminology -- food security, health security, etc.) It’s no surprise that the idealistic youth rejects this illiberal rhetoric in favor of Ron Paul’s message. Paul rejects all demands that we sacrifice our liberty, blood and treasure for the sake of “security.” Likewise, he refuses to turn his opponents into The Enemy (see his criticism of Rick Perry’s comments about Bernanke). You know the progressives have a problem when they’ve ceded their humanistic idealism to a crotchety Texas constitutionalist-gold bug ;-).

  11. It’s no surprise that the idealistic youth rejects this illiberal rhetoric in favor of Ron Paul’s message. ... You know the progressives have a problem when they’ve ceded their humanistic idealism to a crotchety Texas constitutionalist-gold bug ;-).

    Couves, progressives have many problems, but youthful enthusiasm for Ron Paul is not one of them. Voters under 30 have been voting overwhelmingly Democratic in recent elections, including even last year's (54 - 39%). In surveys, they also lead other age groups in identifying themselves as liberal, and in saying things like "Government should do more to solve problems" vs. "Govermnent does too much better left to business" (an astounding 69 - 27% on that question in 2008). In the 2008 Iowa caucuses, there was a big surge of young and first-time caucus-goers, and they voted for Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee; you'll recall that Ron Paul came in 5th on the Republican side.

    In short, Paul does have some young enthusiasts, but they are highly atypical of young Americans in general.

  12. I wish I could thumbs-up a few of the earlier comments (I'd do so for Jeff's first 2 and CSH's).

    Anyway, I'm more reluctant to say that movement conservativism is intellectually bankrupt. Buckley and Kristol were marshalling arguments; Cato and Heritage, while being bought-and-paid for, also are composed of folks trying to come up with an intellectual justification for the arguments that their benefactors already believe in. Milton Friedman was no idiot, and neither were a number of prominent economists and political scientists.

    The othe reason I'm reluctant to proclaim it intellectually bereft is my own unfamiliarity with the modern circles. The closed information loop works in another way; because the closed information loop is so damn repulsive to me, I can't stomach it, and I don't get to see if there are prinicipled arguments beneath/around the clearly stupid ones.

  13. Jeff, do you consider Obama and Huck to be liberal idealists? As to the 2008 election results, it won’t be the first time that truth and justice are overwhelmed by mere numbers. ;-)

  14. Couves, I thought you were saying that youthful idealists preferred Ron Paul to left-progressives. The numbers don't bear that out. But if what you're saying is that Paul's policy positions are in fact more idealistic than the left's, you should probably read the Will Wilkerson article that Prof. Bernstein links to above. Ron Paul is an idealist mainly to the extent that extreme solicitude for the wealthy counts as an ideal.

  15. Jeff,

    Already read it -- responded to it in my first post.

    Your own characterization of Paul is absurd. Bringing home our troops, ending the war on drugs, repealing the PATRIOT act and closing Camp Gitmo are not signs of "extreme solicitude for the wealthy." They're positions grounded in libertarian principles and shared by many progressives. In fact, Paul works closely with Barney Frank on these issues, which is not something you can say about most Democrats.

  16. I think Wilkerson's point was that abstract consistency of principle can be harmful to the cause. It's great to want to close GITMO and all that, but you don't have to share Ron Paul's broader philosophy in order to favor such things, any more than you had to be a National Socialist to want to build an Autobahn. Traditional liberalism gets you there just as well, and without the added crankery of a gold standard, opposition to civil rights, or the ridiculous claim that taxes benefit only bureaucrats and special interests. How does it advance the good ideas to weigh them down with that kind of baggage?

  17. Slight aside: I strongly agree with Wilkinson's criticism of the appalling racism that showed up under Paul's banner in his newsletter. I think the propensity for things like racism is probably the worst bug in the otherwise appealing libertarian cannon; Paul's brushoff of association with his newsletter's racism is hardly comforting.

    Of course, libertarians aren't doctrinally racist. That said, in my travels I've come to realize that Woody Allen's famous quote "90% of life is showing up" governs a lot more than we care to admit. It somewhat explains how apartheid systems sustain themselves; once you've decided that "white/(whatever) is right", Allen's quote takes care of much of the rest.

    Its not enough to take a laissez faire approach to this; our worst demons will drift toward apartheid outcomes without some sort of internal controls. Perhaps not government-type controls; certainly not for a libertarian!

    But this is not something that naturally takes care of itself, so seeing signs of racism from any prominent libertarian is pretty troubling, IMHO.

  18. Jeff, I agree, true progressives are civil libertarians and noninterventionists. I mentioned one of them (Barney Frank). Dennis Kucinich is another, although Ron Paul got many times more votes than him. I wish there were more progressives worthy of the name…

  19. Just popping in mostly to say that I'm really enjoying the discussion and wish I had time to participate more.


    I don't think 1970s-era conservative thought was intellectually bankrupt, at all. But that's some 40 years ago, and while I do think there's some interesting stuff out there on the fringes, mainstream conservatives appear to be highly intolerant to it. See Wilkerson, for one, or Frum, or Bartlett, or Sullivan, or Friedersdorf, or Gary Johnson. Or, put another way, look at the policy coming from any of the mainstream conservatives; it's almost all junk. Not stuff I disagree with: just pure junk.

    I mean, term limits was a dumb idea, but it's infinitely more serious than "read the bill." Neoconservative foreign policy was often oversimplistic (and, in view, generally ill-advised), but it was real policy. Now we have "who can use the word 'exceptional' the most?"

  20. Actually, I'd say "read the bill" was one of the more effective messages of the 2010 election. Simple, salient, targeted directly on the opposition, hitting them right where they were vulnerable, attacking their governing style, and piggybacked right on top of the disastrous ObamaCare.

    Good policy is good politics, as they say, and nothing could have better represented the synthesis of bad policy and bad politics more clearly than a House Speaker blurting out "We have to pass the bill before we... etc."

  21. Conservatives may have lost a great deal on the social side of things in the past 40 years, but they've been much more successful economically. Not only has there been a steady erosion in union membership, even such notions as "workers' rights" has come under political assault.

    In terms of movement conservatism, well, what is meant by "movement conservatism"? Is this simply the base of the GOP, or something else? Does this include corporate-funded groups opposed to environmental and safety regulations as well as "family values" and political-religious organizations? What about anti-immigration groups? Is movement conservatism one thing or many things? Is it aimed primarily at the culture at large or at gaining electoral power? IS there even such a thing as movement conservatism, or are there simply a collection of right-identified interest groups?

  22. absurdbeats,

    Conservatives have definitely won plenty of fights on the economic side...but they've lost plenty, too. The biggest win, I'd agree, has been the long-term decline of unions, but even there it's not altogether clear that it's about a policy victory by conservatives (not to mention that the biggest policy win for conservatives on labor was during the Truman administration, not post-1980).

    It's not as if OSHA was dismantled, or the EPA shut down. Is there a conservative win post-1980 that's as significant as the liberal win on ADA?

    I'm not saying that 1980-2011 was overall a great series of wins by liberals; it's just that it's far more of a stalemate than most frustrated liberals realize.

  23. JB: How can we separate GOP politics from conservative thinking in 2011? We'd agree that a party saying stupid populist things doesn't constitute the vanguard of ideological thought from that side, but where does that get us? I mean, in an era of all-campaigning, all-the-time, how can we separate a Heritage scholar saying something as a conservative vs him saying something as a partisan hack?

  24. That's a great question, and I don't really know the answer. What I would say is that at least from what I've been seeing there's a lot more hackery and a lot less serious work coming from Heritage and AEI now than in, say, 1985.


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