Intellectual Conservatism Isn’t Dead: Would You Buy a Used Car from a Liberal? (Part II)
[Editor’s Note: This post is revised and republished from earlier today to correct a series of typos in the original, caused not by the author’s hand but by the transfer of digital copy from one medium to the next. No material changes were made to the content. — PMA]
By Rick Moran
Should conservatives pay any attention to liberals who attempt to critique us?
I actually sympathize with those conservatives who reject out of hand any effort by a liberal to tell us what’s wrong with us. Sympathize – but neither do I brush off such criticism without reading and digesting it for myself.
There are a few liberals who actually make a living looking seriously at the intersection of politics, philosophy, and ideology and, through rigorous examination, while using logically sound arguments, have something important to say that I believe conservatives should take very seriously.
I should note that I don’t necessarily believe it when a liberal says they are offering their critiques because they believe it important that their philosophical opponents get back on their feet intellectually or politically so they can “challenge” liberalism. That’s stretching things a bit, boys. Let’s just leave it at acknowledging a sincere attempt by reasonable people to honestly look at history and conservative philosophy, and, in an academic sense, offer reality based criticism from their point of view.
I am in the process of writing a long, hopefully readable review of Sam Tannenhaus’s Death of Conservatism. I wish I could have done it sooner but I am a slave to time, and such an interesting, thoughtful, although ultimately flawed book deserves a serious effort. Besides, I get to crib from best conservative reviews of the book since I am so late to the party, thus making my job a little easier.
But today’s lesson comes to us via Jacob Weisberg, editor in chief of the Slate Group, former editor of Slate Magazine, and author of the book In Defense of Government. His liberal credentials impeccable, Weisberg wrote a piece a few days ago in Slate that mourned the loss of Neocon Irving Kristol and the fact that the intellectual conservatism he represented died off decades ago:
In the heyday of Kristol’s influence in the 1980s, Republicans styled themselves the party of ideas. Whatever you thought of those ideas—challenging Soviet power, cutting taxes, passing power back to the states, ending affirmative action, cutting off welfare benefits to the undeserving poor—they represented a genuine attempt to remodel government around a coherent vision. Today, as during the pre-conservative stage of Kristol’s career in the 1950s, the Republican Party takes itself much more lightly. It has fallen back upon what Lionel Trilling once called “irritable mental gestures”—crankily rejecting liberal attempts to come to grips with the country’s problems without offering any plausible alternatives. Since the last election, it has been the brain-dead home of tea parties, pro-life amendments, and climate-change denial.
Are tea parties any more “brain dead” than anti-war protests? I had my doubts that any kind of mass protest movement at the grass roots could ever arise among the highly individualistic conservatives. At this point, I have been proved wrong although I am waiting for the inevitable absorption of the tea party movement into the Republican party. All that energy has to be channeled somewhere. And since a 3rd party would be futile, there’s really only one place for the movement to go; a de facto alliance with the GOP in 2010.
Already there are signs that tea partiers are endorsing candidates for office, raising money, and will no doubt supply volunteers to some of these candidates.
I doubt there will be many Democrats on the list of tea party endorsed candidates.
I have written often of what I believe the tea party groups are really all about. It’s not really about taxes, or even gargantuan deficit spending. It is something that few liberals can grasp, although I have seen some analysis on the left come close. The kind of “change” that Obama seeks to bring to America may seem overdue to many on the left but is seen by most conservatives as an attempt to replace an America they know with an another America, one that rejects the values of their ancestors and substitutes what appears to them to be an alien vision of what America should be.
I disagree with conservatives who say the president’s race doesn’t play a role with a small, but significant minority. But those who issue blanket condemnations using that meme are clueless about what is driving this protest; it is the abandonment – or seeming abandonment – of what conservatives see as “First Principles” that includes a basic outline of the Constitution.
It can be argued that fear of change is a fact of life for conservatives but I reject that as a primary motivation because what the president has done is, in fact, revolutionary. Perhaps not to the educated and urbane who believe us far behind the social democracies of Europe in creating a welfare state. But to millions of patriotic, god fearing Americans, they feel they are losing their country and will fight to keep it.
Is this brain dead? No more so than anti-war protestors who believed that Bush was in league with big business to bring perpetual war to our shores. Or that Bush went to war in Iraq to enrich his friends and cronies. Or that the Terrorist Surveillance Program was riotously abused and that the government was spying on Bush opponents wholesale. Excessive ideology leads to excessive paranoia on both right and left. That is the lesson of America in the modern age.
In fact, Weisberg acknowledges this – at least on the right:
How did this prudent outlook devolve into the spectacle of ostensibly intelligent people cheering on Sarah Palin? Through the 1980s, the neoconservatives became more focused on political power and less interested in policy. They developed their own corrupting welfare state, doling out sinecures and patronage subsidized by the Olin, Scaife, and Bradley foundations. Alliances with the religious right skewed their perspective on a range of topics. They went a little crazy hating on liberals.
Over time, the two best qualities of the early neocons—their skepticism about government’s ability to transform societies and their rigorous empiricism—fell by the wayside. In later years, you might say Kristol and the neoconservatives got mugged by ideology. Actually, they were the muggers. “It becomes clear that, in our time, a non-ideological politics cannot survive the relentless onslaught of ideological politics,” Kristol wrote in 1980. “For better or for worse, ideology is now the vital element of organized political action.”
Reformists – and I include intellectual conservatives in that mix – have, as neoconservatives have done, accepted the New Deal and many elements of the Great Society. But their overall critique of both lies not in a rejection of the role the state must play in a modern industrialized society as so many movement conservatives do, but in the belief that value based reforms as well as more efficient allocation of resources can be achieved without destroying the “safety net” while promoting virtues such as self reliance and independence. In short, conservative reformists want to alter the liberal culture in the bureaucracy that seeks to expand their clientele rather than reduce it.
Is this a “liberal lite” approach to government? Is there enough contrast with Democrats to parlay these ideas into a successful political platform? Movement conservatives do not think so. But I believe they are viewing those toward the center through a darkened prism where attempting to address the many serious problems in our country by working with the opposition is tantamount to a betrayal. How can the application of conservative principles to the serious business of government be a betrayal – unless you believe either there are no problems to solve or the solution is to be found in dismantling government hell bent for leather.
I have been asked several times if I understand the 10th amendment or whether I believe in federalism. Sure I do – and a realistic application of the 10th as well as a healthy federalism when it comes to dealing with our nation’s problems can go a long way toward easing the crushing presence of the federal government in our lives.
But you’re kidding yourselves if you believe it will result in lower taxes or even less government. The more responsibility you pile on the states, the higher the taxes go. It would not be logical to expect as the federal tax burden is reduced, the state tax burden wouldn’t increase.
We all believe that there are many programs at the federal level that could easily be transferred to our state legislatures. Just don’t expect taxes to go down because most of those programs have constituencies of ordinary Americans that depend on them. Weaning people “for their own good” from government would be received contemptuously – and well it should be – from those who benefit directly from federal programs some would wish to do away with.
Sorry for the digression but I think part of the problem with movement conservatives and their attitude toward reformists is that they misunderstand motives an d intent. The widespread belief that reformists have no principles is laughable – and fighting words if you try and accuse me of such a ridiculous notion. Applying conservative principles to the operation of government is a worthy and – dare I say – principled goal. The confusion comes in identifying “issues” as principles – a trap ideologues fall into regularly. Substituting dogma, which by its nature can be transient responses to momentary openings offered by the opposition, for immutable principles which, by definition, are unchanging, is what ideologues in the movement are all about.
In short, it is not I who lack principles, my ideological friends.
Weisberg correctly, I believe, diagnoses the switch from intellectual principles to ideological dogma and gives us a turning point of sorts while incorrectly observing the reason why a principled conservative could never support Obamacare:
There was no clearer sign of that shift than the effort by Kristol’s son, William, to prevent any health care reform legislation from passing in 1993—on the theory that the political benefit would accrue to the Democrats. Today, that sort of Carthaginian politics has infected the entire congressional wing of the GOP, which equates problem-solving with treasonous collaboration. Though the president has tried to compromise with them in crafting the last missing piece of the social insurance puzzle, even allegedly moderate Republicans are not interested in making legislation more effective, less expensive, or in other ways more conservative. They are interested only in handing Obama a political defeat.
That’s a pretty shallow, partisan analysis of why Obamacare is being opposed. I agree there is that partisan element to the opposition, but it is obvious Mr. Weisberg lives a sheltered life. Otherwise, he would have noticed that health care reform town hall meetings held by Congressmen were just chock full of people who could care less about Obama being defeated, and cared a great deal more about liberals fiddling with the most intimate, and personal part of their lives; their own health.
I have argued that there was much fear mongering on the right (and some on the left as we have seen with Mr. Grayson and several liberal ideologues) that contributed to the anger. But Weisberg is only fooling himself if he didn’t recognize the underlying reason why people who had never taken a stand on anything in their lives showed up at these meetings and howled bloody murder. If it comforts Weisberg and other liberals to believe it was all astroturfed mobs of rabid, enraged, fearful conservatives – fine. Fooling oneself is not a fault confined to the right.
But Weisberg has a point about how political opposition has deteriorated into a mindless nihilism that offers little in the way of alternatives (although the GOP health care reform plan was both substantive and ignored by the media and Democrats) on issues that need to be addressed.
For health care, as long as Democrats insist on offering a “solution” that will ultimately result in a single payer system of insurance and decisions made by government that are better left to a patient and his doctor, conservatives will oppose them with every fiber of their being. We do not see national health care as the “the last missing piece of the social insurance puzzle” but rather as an insidious attempt by government to control the personal lives of citizens – as fundamentally against conservative principles and our concept of individual liberty as anything that has ever been proposed by an American congress.
I agree with much of what Weisberg has written about intellectual conservatives and their failure to either fight the ideologues politically or challenge their dogmatism. Richard Posner saw this months ago:
My theme is the intellectual decline of conservatism, and it is notable that the policies of the new conservatism are powered largely by emotion and religion and have for the most part weak intellectual groundings. That the policies are weak in conception, have largely failed in execution, and are political flops is therefore unsurprising. The major blows to conservatism, culminating in the election and programs of Obama, have been fourfold: the failure of military force to achieve U.S. foreign policy objectives; the inanity of trying to substitute will for intellect, as in the denial of global warming, the use of religi ous criteria in the selection of public officials, the neglect of management and expertise in government; a continued preoccupation with abortion; and fiscal incontinence in the form of massive budget deficits, the Medicare drug plan, excessive foreign borrowing, and asset-price inflation.
By the fall of 2008, the face of the Republican Party had become Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber. Conservative intellectuals had no party.
Nor, I trust, will they have one anytime soon.