Monday, October 28, 2013

NR Takes on the Radicals (A Little)

Sometimes, the twitter machine just spits out perfect material for items to write. So this morning I wound up opening tabs on Ramesh Ponnuru and Rich Lowry's epic (five-screen) condemnation of radical Republicans, along side a nice takedown of Russell Brand's recent political babbling from Alex Massie. One of them was about "an adolescent extremist whose hatred of politics is matched by his ignorance" -- want to guess which one?

OK, it's the one calling all politicians frauds...from the Left, where liberal democracy, including the "left" parties, looks like a conspiracy against the True Revolution. But one could pretty easily write exactly the same critique of Tail Gunner Ted and his radical allies. Of course, the key point is that in the US, the radicals have a powerful hold on one of the major political parties. Which is a bit of a problem.

Massie is far more direct and effective. Does he have the easier target? Not really, but he does have the harder argument, perhaps. After all, Massie doesn't care at all that those sympathetic to Brand will consider him Not Left Enough, but National Review certainly cares a lot about being considered a True Conservative publication.

Indeed, Ponnuru and Lowry's five-screen attack on the radicals is packed full of "on the other hand" and "to be sure" qualifications, so much so that at times it's hard to tell whether the point is convincing convincable conservatives or if it's to do just enough to be able to claim credit for being on the side of sanity. Is that unfair? Perhaps. But there sure are a lot of caveats here. "The tendency arises from legitimate frustrations." "The Republican consultant class has often seemed to suffer from an almost clinical deficit of imagination." "It’s not as if the Republican leadership handled this episode especially well." And they endorse the silly Fox-ready spin during the shutdown, the minibills and the Battles of the World War II Memorials, as "smart tactical moves," while calling the Tea Party "one of the wonders of American politics" which they claim, implausibly, would be impossible anywhere else in the world.

Nevertheless, it's good to see a flat-out attack on the radicals from NR.

Even as qualified and caveated as this one is.

I do think the problem is a bit deeper than Ponnuru and Lowry want to pretend it is. They really only attack the obviously suicidal: the awful Senate candidates, the shutdown strategy that had no chance of victory. Their solution is that the party should work hard to win elections in order to implement their agenda, which is all very well and good. However, it also masks something real going on here. The "True Conservative" agenda that the radicals and most mainstream conservatives claim to want, at this point, has become so radical that it probably is at least a modest electoral problem -- and even more so, it would be a massive governing problem, both in practical and electoral consequences. I'm thinking here about the Ryan Budget, with its complete elimination (if you take the budget math literally, which is what we're supposed to do with budgets) of all non-defense discretionary spending. I'm thinking, too, about the "47%" rhetoric, and about Medicare (and presumably Social Security) "reform." Or about the farm bill, where Ponnuru and Lowry are on the side of the "reformers" and ignore that the main reform in the bill is slashing food stamps.

In other words, really detaching themselves from the radicals and healing the GOP might require some rather more difficult choices for mainstream conservatives than just jettisoning Christine O'Donnell. No matter how enthusiastically and (I suspect) repeatedly they're willing to do that.

Still, it's a start, I guess.

20 comments:

  1. Wow that Brand stuff was just terrible. Let's crowd source good stuff about democracy because its Monday. Along with JB's "Hard Boards" classic I want to quote this Yglesias gem from back in the day:

    "I also think the post is very typical of what’s wrong with “The Left” in this sense. What’s needed is less whining and more doing. Doing what? Doing politics, of course. That means that every time there’s an election you’re eligible to vote in—be it a primary election or a general election—you look at which are the two candidates most likely to win and you vote for the better one. And you encourage your friends and coworkers to do the same. You should donate money to the PACs of politicians who you like. You should volunteer in person to do election work near where you live. And you should donate money to organizations that you like. When there are issues being debated, you should write to your elected representatives. You should consider running for local office, and you should urge good people you might know to consider running. If you have local elected officials who you like, you should encourage them to run for higher office.

    At any rate, this is getting to be a long and boring list so I’ll stop. It’s dull because it’s obvious and it’s dull because participating constructively in politics is dull. As Max Weber said it’s like “the strong and slow boring of hard boards.” One strategy that works well for wealthy interest groups to is to spend money hiring other people to do a lot of the boring legwork. If you’re not a wealthy interest group, this is going to be hard to execute and you’re stuck with just doing a bunch of boring stuff yourself.

    The alternative, I guess, is that you could try a civil rights movement redux strategy. But that’s not “protests” it’s open defiance of the legal order, complete with subjecting yourself to massive violence by the state and by formal and informal terrorist organizations."

    http://thinkprogress.org/yglesias/2010/12/03/199262/constructive-advice-for-the-left/

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  2. I read both articles and - wow - great response here from Bernstein. I agree that it's a real problem that the sane folks on the right feel hamstrung in aggressively pushing back against the wackos. And I'm glad when I see people on the left calling out their own radicals/imbeciles for what they are.

    The "despair" that Ponnuru and Lowry identify as driving the radicals' assault reminds me of the attitude of the Weather Underground back in the day. Many of these right-wingers really believe that Obama is a tyrant and Obamacare et al is "tyranny" for which "Second Amendment remedies" may be required. To me, this sounds an awful lot like the justification which idiot blowhards like Mark Rudd used (and STILL use!) to promote violent protest. The extreme right should be castigated, delegitimized, and uprooted as thoroughly as the loony left was.

    The problem is that the Tea Party extremists are doing their thing from inside the system. And so far this has given them a huge amount of power and certainly adds an air of legitimacy. But as their frustration grows and when the political process eventually fails them - as I'm sure it will - look out. Some of these people are spoiling for a fight. A real one.

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    1. " I agree that it's a real problem that the sane folks on the right feel hamstrung in aggressively pushing back against the wackos."

      I don't see how this is a problem.

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    2. Remember the shutdown and debt-ceiling threats?

      This crisis was a direct result of sane conservatives being afraid to aggressively push back against the radicals in their own party. That is a problem.

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  3. Shorter Ponnuru/Lowry: "Learn to count votes, you dimwits."

    Here's what I found striking about it:

    The need for greater purity, the ever-present danger of betrayal: These have been long-standing themes on the right. When our people get power, they immediately stop being our people, the great conservative journalist M. Stanton Evans quipped decades ago. Yet this assessment of what ails conservatism has grown less and less true with time.

    The Rockefeller Republicans who once ruled the party have long been vanquished. Today’s Republican party has a bolder plan to rein in our fastest-growing entitlement program, Medicare, than Ronald Reagan did, and that plan has the support of such establishment Republicans as John Boehner and Mitt Romney. What they don’t have are the votes to enact it.


    Yes, they have a bolder PLAN to rein in Medicare. And what happens if they had the power actually to implement that plan, rather than just cast symbolic votes for it? Am I crazy to think that their people would, once again, stop being their people? This possibility doesn't occur to Ponnuru/Lowry, even though it's clearly implied right there in their own discussion.

    Asked at a town hall a few months ago why we couldn’t impeach President Obama, [Cruz] said that we didn’t have the votes. By his logic in the defunding fight, though, why should it have mattered? Leave aside, as the senator did, whether impeachment is desirable. If it is an important way to vindicate the Constitution, why not ram it through the House and see if making the case for it would flip enough red-state Democrats in the Senate to convict Obama? If opponents of defunding were “defeatist” for counting too few votes for it, wasn’t he a defeatist too?

    Now this is a very interesting point. (They give another example as well.) Nobody's really standing squarely on principle and fighting come what may; they're just drawing the lines differently. Cruz and his ilk are willing to force one kind of showdown but not another. So, why does the base buy this? What is the alchemy that allows a guy to say on Tuesday, "We can't do X because we don't have the votes," and then on Thursday present himself as Horatio at the Bridge, a walking rejoinder to all his party's squishes, head-counters and shameful sellouts? I sense that Ponnuru and Lowry don't understand this either, and are basically dismayed that Cruz has had this meteoric rise even as everything he does is objectively counterproductive. What's he peddling that the rubes are buying? Is it just that he's big and loud? Is it some kind of right-wing Bulworthism, where he's believed to be saying what his colleagues are too clubby and chummy to be willing to say? If Ponnuru/Lowry are puzzled by this, I don't entirely blame them.

    As to whether they dilute their message with too many caveats, it looks from a quick glance at their comment thread that NR readers get what they're saying and are predictably dividing over it. My question is, who's their ultimate intended audience? If it's the teahadists themselves, they're wasting their time, because they write in the language of the reality-based community -- speaking not only of results and effectiveness but even, at one point, of "evidence." That's not going to persuade the guys in the 1776 getups. Meanwhile, the Rove contingent already agrees with them. So, is it some kind of memo to donors and party actors who aren't committed yet for the 2014 primaries? That's my best guess.

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  4. The reason that the Lowy/Ponnuru piece is filled with what you describe as "to be sures" is that NR is a genuinely Conservative publication and so they actually believe in conservatism. And they are, of course, quite right that a genuinely pro-freedom movement like the Tea Party could never occur anywhere but America. In Europe, in particular, freedom is understood essentially as the freedom to steal money from someone richer than you.

    The basic problem - and it is a problem acknowledged throughout the article - is that the system is rigged against freedom. The very people who decide on how much freedom to allow the populace - politicians - are the same people who benefit from stealing that power into the hands of the state. So the consequence is that even Republican politicians often act cynically, betray their constituents, etc. So there is a constant balancing act between the need to elect more Republicans, and the need to keep Republicans honest. The Tea Party, after all, was founded in opposition to a disgusting piece of lawlessness and theft taken by a Republican President.

    As for the problems with the agenda - of course it's not going to please Paul if you stop robbing Peter. But that's the whole point about freedom and justice. What is the point of electing Republicans in the first place if they aren't going to "slash food stamps" i.e. reduce the vast number of handouts for the ne'er-do-wells.

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    1. " And they are, of course, quite right that a genuinely pro-freedom movement like the Tea Party could never occur anywhere but America."

      No, they really aren't.

      "In Europe, in particular, freedom is understood essentially as the freedom to steal money from someone richer than you."

      No, it's not.

      "The basic problem - and it is a problem acknowledged throughout the article - is that the system is rigged against freedom. "

      No, it's not.

      "The very people who decide on how much freedom to allow the populace - politicians - are the same people who benefit from stealing that power into the hands of the state."

      The politicians are elected by the populace, who can also vote them out. And the power was given to the state by the Constitution, long before those politicians were born.

      "So the consequence is that even Republican politicians often act cynically, betray their constituents, etc."

      You don't say?

      "The Tea Party, after all, was founded in opposition to a disgusting piece of lawlessness and theft taken by a Republican President."

      No it wasn't. The Tea Party didn't appear until after Obama was in office and was primarily founded to oppose Obama being President.

      "But that's the whole point about freedom and justice. "

      No, it's not.

      "What is the point of electing Republicans in the first place if they aren't going to "slash food stamps" "

      First sensible thing you've said....


      "i.e. reduce the vast number of handouts for the ne'er-do-wells."

      ....guess I spoke too soon.

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  5. Jonathan, I'm wondering what it would take for you to call Obama a radical, extremist, crazy, etc. I mean, we now know that his administration obtains general warrants covering over 100 million people at once. We know that the head of the NSA lied about this under oath. And the man who exposed all this is being hunted down as a traitor.

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    1. I'm all for reining in the federal security apparatus, Couves, but you're going to have to stop leading with phrasing that claims Obama came up with this crap.

      Are you bummed that he doesn't kidnap brown people off the streets like Bush II, and outsource their torture?

      In a more productive vein, Google the recent actions of the Solicitor General regarding warrentless wiretapping. There's a little ray of light there.

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    2. Right, the answer to Couves is that -- especially from a political-science perspective -- doing things that most leading political actors agree with is not "radical" or "extremist." It may be horribly WRONG, but that's a different issue.

      Obama should be doing a lot more to crack down on the NSA and the whole intelligence-security apparatus, and maybe he's starting to figure this out now that its excesses are getting him an earful from Angela Merkel. But he's never been good on these issues, and the reason for this is not that he's "crazy," it's that he's not crazy enough. He arrived in Washington and found a system that already had several decades of experience ignoring the Fourth Amendment, and he signed on to join it when he was still a senator. That's not extremism, it's establishmentarianism.

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    3. Hi Pat,

      That's a fair response. The tone of my initial comment perhaps suggests a partisan motivation that I guarantee you isn't there -- I'm not trying to say that anything the Republicans did was good because what Obama did was bad. Rather, I'm just trying to hold Obama accountable -- and what better time than when JB is in the mood the throw around superlatives?

      Jeff, bipartisan support for Obama's treatment of Snowdon may be an indication that the neocon radicals have truly won the day, but it doesn't change the inherent extremism of the position (ie, they're extremists relative to the Constitution and the normal workings of a free society).

      I agree that Obama does not seem totally on board with his own administration's policies -- but that doesn't make him any less responsible. If anything, that makes him more responsible, because he knows that what he's doing is wrong. And personally, I think he's getting away with more than Bush would, because many of the civil libertarians are partisan enough to give him a pass. Which is unfortunate, because I think it would be very easy to force his hand on these issues if more partisan actors like Jonathan would speak up.

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    4. Couves, I agree entirely, especially with your last paragraph, and was not trying to excuse Obama in any way. I was just trying to explain why I think what he's doing doesn't get labeled extremist even if (by many standards) it plainly is.

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    5. Jeff, withholding the "extremist" label is itself a political decision -- that's why I'm pushing Jonathan on it. Remember, opinion polls show that voters overwhelmingly disagree with the Washington consensus that Snowden is a traitor. The people think he's a whistleblower, and they're right.

      Sometimes both parties manage to hold an extreme position in opposition to the people they represent. That, more than ever, is when we should speak the truth without equivocation or apology.

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    6. Jeff's first comment above (5:53) is pretty much what I would say.

      FWIW, I've said many times that I don't think that the problem with Republicans is that they (or some of them) are too conservative and therefore out of the mainstream; my criticism of them is almost completely about process, not public policy positions. On policy, I'll call out (what I see as) factual inaccuracies, and at times I'll talk about policies that are popular or unpopular, but that's about it.

      Is the Obama Administration "extreme" on civil liberties issues? I'm really not sure I can see an argument for it. Wrong, sure; I happen to agree with that, for the most part. But the history of the republic is one of trampling on civil liberties, especially during wartime. Is that contrary to the spirit of the Constitution? In my view, absolutely so. Is it "extreme" or "crazy" or "radical"? Not in the way I use those words here.

      What I think makes "radical" a good word for the Cruz-ites, or for Newt and his followers, has to do with rejection of the norms of the polity, in particular a strong aversion to accepting the legitimacy of others in the system. I don't see the civil liberty violations of the Obama Administration as really similar to that. I wish there were stronger norms about civil liberties, but if they don't exist, then they aren't being violated, whether I like it or not.




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    7. Jonathan, thank you for the response. Violations of our fundamental constitutional freedoms are indeed a "rejection of the norms of the polity."

      Has obtaining 100 million person warrants been a common practice by past Presidents? Probably (at least in the case of GW Bush). Of course no one knew about it at the time... and if you only get upset about novel violations of our freedom, then there's other things we could talk about.

      Regarding Snowdon, if our system can't protect someone who reveals really big lies by our own government, then it's failing a fundamental test of a free and democratic society. Unless you take the position that "9/11 changed all that, blah blah..."

      "I wish there were stronger norms about civil liberties, but if they don't exist, then they aren't being violated, whether I like it or not."

      Huh? So the Constitution doesn't exist, just because it's been violated? And all of the other norms of a free society just go out the window as soon as they've been transgressed? Wow, I don't know what to say.

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    8. Couves, again I'm probably talking out of turn here, but I don't think the rules of the Constitution, in the abstract, are a "norm" in the sense meant by a political scientist like JB. He's referring (I think) to the actual ways that political actors act. As an analogy, I lived in Los Angeles for many years, and it was pretty clear that there was a difference between, on the one hand, the official speed limits and other rules of the road, and on the other hand, the way people actually drove on the freeways. The latter would be "norms." Everybody kind of knew them and knew (more or less) what their limits were. It would have been unhelpful, in describing LA traffic, just to point to the official manual of the California Department of Transportation; if we were going to analyze the reality (as political scientists aim to do with political reality), we needed terms that allowed us to distinguish between rules and norms.

      No, this doesn't mean that the written rules cease to exist when they're routinely violated. Sometimes they're still brought to bear in a particular individual case (a speeding ticket; Watergate), or they can be revived and revivified in a more general way as the climate of opinion changes. That's kind of what happened with drunk-driving laws, I think -- they were largely disregarded or soft-pedaled for a long time, until a movement emerged (Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Friends Don't Let Friends, etc.) to enforce and strengthen them. The same could happen at some point with gov't surveillance -- people could rediscover the Fourth Amendment, and with any luck the Snowden leaks are helping along such a rediscovery.

      But again, it's useful to be able to distinguish between a substantive critique of government actions and a scientific description of what they are and how they're arrived at. That's what "norms" are all about.

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    9. Jeff, Obama has violated both the rules and the norms of a free society.

      You can use whatever language you'd like to criticize the President -- my point is, Jonathan doesn't. And it's because partisan actors largely remain silent that Obama can get away with this stuff.

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    10. ". And personally, I think he's getting away with more than Bush would,"

      You are suffering from amnesia then. For example Obama who is the first black president has had his initiatives filibustered more than every other president in the last 2 centuries, combined.

      "Remember, opinion polls show that voters overwhelmingly disagree with the Washington consensus that Snowden is a traitor."

      There's multiple falsehoods contained here, I will only point out that no, Snowden doesn't do nearly as well in public opinion polls as you are claiming.

      "Obama has violated both the rules and the norms of a free society."

      No he hasn't. Furthermore, no honest person would claim that he has. You just don't like that he's black and a Democrat.


      "Has obtaining 100 million person warrants been a common practice by past Presidents?"

      Has any past president had to preside over a widespread packet-switched network that requires you to sift metadata to do any form of warranted surveillance in the first place? People who are mad about metadata collection can't explain how it is technologically possible for the government to fulfill it's 4th amendment warrant power without mass metadata analysis. Far as I know it's impossible.

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    11. I'm not going to debate someone who calls me a racist. But I will correct myself on one point where, it turns out, unknown is correct -- the polls. My information was from earlier polls:

      http://www.quinnipiac.edu/institutes-and-centers/polling-institute/national/release-detail?ReleaseID=1930

      More recent polls show that public opinion has actually turned against Snowdon.

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    12. Cenk Uygur has an interesting video on the pro-surveillance bias of the media. That probably helps explain Snowdon's waning poll numbers.

      http://youtu.be/t8ar2KPu8Vs

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