Tag Archives: conservatives

Boiling The Frog

Charlie Sykes is a former conservative talk-show host. Very conservative. He is also the author of How the Right Lost Its Mind, and has been one of the most articulate voices criticizing Trump and the Republicans who have been willing to trash their conservative convictions in return for deregulation, tax cuts and ideological judges.

Sykes recently had a scathing article in Time, in which he made an important point.

Political parties do not lose their souls or their identities all at once. Usually, it is a gradual process of compromises that make sense in the moment, but which have a cumulative effect — like a frog being gradually boiled.

The analogy to the frog being boiled applies to more than the transformation of a once-serious political party into a cult of crazy.

What worries me–and a whole lot of political scientists–is increasing evidence that the democratic norms we rely upon to make government work are also being slowly “boiled.” Pleas against “normalizing” Trumpism are based upon the very reasonable fear that by the end of this very abnormal Presidency, the American public will have become accustomed to the petty outbursts and childish behaviors that have embarrassed and endangered us internationally and brought our national government to a screeching halt.

As Sykes points out, Congress’ failure to   discharge its constitutional duty as a co-equal branch of government is wholly attributable to the Republican Party. He understands why:

There are obvious reasons why Republicans have been so unwilling to stand up to President Donald Trump: political tribalism, transactionalism, anti-anti-Trumpism and, yes, timidity. While expressing dismay in private, GOP officials know that the Republican base remains solidly behind Trump. In a hyper-partisan environment, standing on principle can be dangerous for your political health

The problem is, in supporting Trump, they’ve betrayed the core principles that previously defined their party.

The price of the GOP’s bargain with Trump, however, has continued to rise. Republicans in Congress now not only have to swallow Trump’s erratic narcissism, but also his assaults on the very core principles that supposedly define their politics: fiscal conservatism, free trade, the global world order, our allies, truth and the rule of law.

They know that his crude xenophobia, his exploitation of racial divisions, his chronic dishonesty, sexism and fascination with authoritarian thugs pose a long-term danger to the GOP’s ethical and electoral future. But most remain paralyzed by fear of a presidential tweet. So even when appalled by the casual and calculated cruelty of a Trump policy like separating families at the border, few speak out. And despite expressions of dismay, it seems unlikely that Congress will take any meaningful action to confront Trump’s appeasement of Russia’s Vladimir Putin or to limit this President’s power to launch destructive trade wars. This reticence to challenge Trump is especially striking, given Trump’s propensity for caving on issues like paying for The Wall, when Congress refuses to budge.

Ultimately, as Sykes demonstrates, we’re back to boiling that frog:

Yet what Republicans in Congress have found is that rubber-stampism can be addictive and all-consuming; every time they allow a line to be crossed, it is harder to hold the next one, even if that next one is more fundamental. Republicans have made it clear that they have no intention of providing a meaningful check on Trump, and the next Congress could be even worse: from Georgia to Wisconsin, GOP candidates are vying with one another in their pledges of fealty to Trump rather than to any set of ideas.

This reality is what makes the upcoming midterm elections so critical. Whatever differences we may have with the various candidates running as Democrats, voting for Republicans who have pledged their fealty to Trump–or failing to vote– should be unthinkable. Whatever their deficits, the Democrats are still a political party. Today’s GOP is a dangerous, irrational White Nationalist cult.

As Sykes puts it:

Unfortunately, it’s hard not to see this as a watershed. Republicans have not only ceded ground to the President, they have done so at profound cost to the norms of liberal constitutional democracy. Power ceded is difficult to get back; moral authority squandered is often lost forever. (See: the acceptance of presidential lies, embrace of incivility and indifference to sexual misconduct.)

The problem here is not merely political, but also constitutional. The failure of Republicans to hold Trump accountable underlines what seems to be the growing irrelevance of Congress as a co-equal branch of government.

I have major policy disagreements with Charlie Sykes–and with Steve Schmidt, George Will, Jennifer Rubin, Peter Wehner, David Frum and the many, many other principled conservatives who have spoken out strongly against Trump and his corrupt and thuggish administration. But I respect their intellectual integrity.

If America is ever to have a responsible conservative party again, they will be the people who build it.

Fear Itself

Scientific American recently published a fascinating article, titled “Why Are White Men Stockpiling Guns?” It began by reciting statistics most of us now know:

Since the 2008 election of President Obama, the number of firearms manufactured in the U.S. has tripled, while imports have doubled. This doesn’t mean more households have guns than ever before—that percentage has stayed fairly steady for decades. Rather, more guns are being stockpiled by a small number of individuals. Three percent of the population now owns half of the country’s firearms, says a recent, definitive studyfrom the Injury Control Research Center at Harvard University.

So, who is buying all these guns—and why?

The conventional wisdom was that gun sales to white guys spiked when a black man was elected President. The article provided a more finely-grained description of the specific “white guys” who went on that buying spree, citing several scientific studies that have concluded that “the kind of man who stockpiles weapons or applies for a concealed-carry license meets a very specific profile.”

These are men who are anxious about their ability to protect their families, insecure about their place in the job market, and beset by racial fears. They tend to be less educated. For the most part, they don’t appear to be religious—and, suggests one study, faith seems to reduce their attachment to guns. In fact, stockpiling guns seems to be a symptom of a much deeper crisisin meaning and purpose in their lives. Taken together, these studies describe a population that is struggling to find a new story—one in which they are once again the heroes.

Researchers also found pervasive anti-government sentiments among these men.

“This is interesting because these men tend to see themselves as devoted patriots, but make a distinction between the federal government and the ‘nation,’ says Froese. “On that point, I expect that many in this group see the ‘nation’ as being white.”

The entire article is fascinating. It also dovetails with the results of research into political attitudes conducted at Yale.That research built on a decade of political psychology studies that found people who feel physically threatened or fearful are more likely to be conservatives.

Conservatives, it turns out, react more strongly to physical threat than liberals do. In fact, their greater concern with physical safety seems to be determined early in life: In one University of California study, the more fear a 4-year-old showed in a laboratory situation, the more conservative his or her political attitudes were found to be 20 years later. Brain imaging studies have even shown that the fear center of the brain, the amygdala, is actually larger in conservatives than in liberals. And many other laboratory studies have found that when adult liberals experienced physical threat, their political and social attitudes became more conservative (temporarily, of course).

In the research experiment, when subjects were told to Imagine being completely safe from physical harm, their attitudes changed, and their policy preferences became indistinguishable  from those of the liberals in the experiment.

This result may seem far-fetched, but it correlates with social science research that shows lower incidence of social dysfunction and crime in countries with more robust social safety nets.

FDR was onto something when he said we should fear “fear itself.”

 

 

Who Do You Debate?

In a recent column in the New York Times, Michelle Goldberg raised a thorny but important issue: should liberal publications engage in affirmative action for conservatives?

The impetus for the question was a decision by The Atlantic to hire a conservative writer whose opinions would seem to place him outside the bounds of civil discourse.

The progressive objection to Williamson lies in the demeaning ways he’s written about poor people, black people, women, and trans people. He described an African-American boy in East St. Louis sticking out his elbows in “the universal gesture of primate territorial challenge.” Defiantly using male pronouns in a piece about the trans actress Laverne Cox, Williamson wrote, “Regardless of the question of whether he has had his genitals amputated, Cox is not a woman, but an effigy of a woman.” Feminism, he wrote, is a “collection of appetites wriggling queasily together like a bag of snakes.” He tweeted that women who have abortions should be hanged, later clarifying that while he has doubts about the death penalty, “I believe that the law should treat abortion like any other homicide.”

The decision to bring a “conservative voice” in-house is understandable–even commendable. After all, progressives insist that dialogue is good, that minds must be open, that all ideas deserve to be considered. The term “liberal” once denoted open-mindedness and the willingness to engage people with whom one disagreed. But Goldberg’s question goes to the heart of our current political dilemma:

[Atlantic’s] hiring has set off the latest uproar over which conservatives belong in the opinion sections of elite mainstream publications, including, of course, The New York Times. These controversies are, naturally, of particular interest to people who write for opinion sections, and so receive disproportionate media coverage. But there’s a broader significance to these recurring fights, because they’re about how we decide which views are acceptable at a time of collapsing mainstream consensus. The intellectual implosion of the Republican Party, it turns out, creates challenges for liberals as well as conservatives, because suddenly it’s not clear which views a person who aspires to fair-mindedness needs to grapple with.

This issue isn’t limited to publications. Universities are constantly being criticized because a preponderance of faculty–especially at more rigorous institutions–lean left. The accusation is that conservative scholars are subjected to discrimination.

The reality is considerably different–academics are pathetically eager to demonstrate even-handedness, and most of us who participate in search committees would be deliriously happy to discover that a highly qualified candidate was politically conservative.  (In some schools, like business, that does happen.) But search committees look first and foremost for evidence of sound scholarship–and in many fields, the candidates with the impressive resumes tend to be liberal.

Just as the university isn’t going to hire a science professor who insists the earth is flat or evolution is a myth, a reputable opinion journal is courting disaster by failing to distinguish between a philosophical conservative and a purveyor of conspiracy theories and/or racial resentments. These days, it’s hard to find a conservative who hasn’t been co-opted by Trumpism.

As Goldberg notes, it used to be that in order to understand national politics, you had to understand certain conservative ideas.

Trump put an end to that. The field of ideas has gone from being the ground on which politics are fought to a side in politics, which is why it’s so difficult to find serious intellectual Trump defenders. Trump has resentments and interests, but not ideology; he governs more as a postmodern warlord than a traditional party leader. Few things signal the irrelevance of ideas to his presidency like the appointment of John Bolton as national security adviser. Bolton’s relentless advocacy of regime change contradicts the isolationism Trump touted during the campaign. Trump called the Iraq war a “disaster”; Bolton is one of few who continue to defend it. Yet Bolton’s appointment isn’t discordant, because he and Trump are both belligerent bullies, and in this administration stylistic similarities matter more than policy details.

Inasmuch as there are ideas bound up with Trumpism, they are considered too disreputable for most mainstream publications. An opinion section that truly captured the currents of thought shaping our politics today might include Alex Jones, the conspiracy-mad Sandy Hook truther; the white nationalist Richard Spencer; and CliffsNotes fascist Steve Bannon.

The problem is, liberals need to engage with genuine conservatism. Just as the absence of a reputable Republican Party allows Democrats to become fragmented and intellectually lazy, liberal ideas need to be sharpened (and sometimes defeated) by contrary insights.

Giving a platform to people based upon their self-identification rather than their ability to articulate and defend a genuinely conservative point of view does conservatives–not to mention Americans– no favor.

About White Populism

A few days back, I posted a blog praising George W. Bush’s recent speech decrying Trump’s bigotry. The responses were varied–some agreed that such a message coming from a former Republican President whose own tenure was unsuccessful (to put it mildly) was welcome. Others recited the multiple misdeeds of his administration as proof that nothing he could ever do should be considered praiseworthy.

There is a degree of partisanship that makes its adherents loathe to agree with any sentiment, no matter how anodyne, coming from the other “team”–a dogmatism that makes them unwilling to believe that agreement by one of “them” with a position of “ours” could possibly be authentic, let alone grounds for amicable discussion.

That’s too bad, because those partisans will miss an essay in the National Review that is well worth reading. I would be surprised if thoughtful political liberals wouldn’t approve of most of the points made.

A couple of examples:

Conservatives have a weakness for that “acting white” business because we are intellectually invested in emphasizing the self-inflicted problems of black America, for rhetorical and political reasons that are too obvious to require much elaboration…

Republicans, once the party of the upwardly mobile with a remarkable reflex for comforting the comfortable, have written off entire sections of the country — including the bits where most of the people live — as “un-American.” Silicon Valley and California at large, New York City and the hated Acela corridor, and, to some extent, large American cities categorically are sneered at and detested. There is some ordinary partisanship in that, inasmuch as the Democrats tend to dominate the big cities and the coastal metropolitan aggregations, but it isn’t just that. Conservatives are cheering for the failure of California and slightly nonplussed that New York City still refuses to regress into being an unlivable hellhole in spite of the best efforts of its batty Sandinista mayor. Not long ago, to be a conservative on Manhattan’s Upper East Side was the most ordinary thing in the world. Now that address would be a source of suspicion. God help you if you should ever attend a cocktail party in Georgetown, the favorite dumb trope of conservative talk-radio hosts.

We’ve gone from William F. Buckley Jr. to the gentlemen from Duck Dynasty. Why?

American authenticity, from the acting-even-whiter point of view, is not to be found in any of the great contemporary American business success stories, or in intellectual life, or in the great cultural institutions, but in the suburban-to-rural environs in which the white underclass largely makes its home — the world John Mellencamp sang about but understandably declined to live in.

Shake your head at rap music all you like: When’s the last time you heard a popular country song about finishing up your master’s in engineering at MIT?

There is much, much more, and I strongly encourage readers to click through and read the entire essay–not just because so many of the writer’s observations are dead-on, but because those on the political Left who identify strongly with other progressives and with the resistance to Trump and Trumpism need to remember that genuine conservatives also disdain the know-nothings and bigots who have appropriated the conservative label.

Before the GOP was taken over by conspiracy theorists, racists, religious fundamentalists and Big Money, principled Democratic and Republican political figures used to engage in civil conversation and even productive policymaking.

We will never recover the art of civil conversation, let alone policymaking intended to serve the public good, if we refuse to see any merit in anyone who doesn’t agree with us 100%. That sort of political intransigence–prominent among the GOP base and so-called “Freedom Caucus”–is what has destroyed the Republican party. Democrats shouldn’t emulate it.

Read the damn essay.

 

GOP R.I.P.

There is more than one way for a political party to die.

If you ask people of my vintage–the party volunteers, candidates, office holders and party functionaries who populated the Indiana Statehouse and the Hudnut Administration’s sixteen years in City Hall–the GOP we worked for and supported is long gone. We don’t recognize the party that bears the name.

The death of a political party via this sort of transformation into something much darker and different is less visible than the sort of death experienced by the Whigs, but it is no less real.

For the last two decades, at least, I’ve been predicting a split between the GOP’s “business wing”–those we used to call Country Club Republicans–and its far-Right fringe. (Helpful hint: don’t ever bet money on predictions I make; I’m notoriously wrong about nearly all of them.) It seemed inevitable that members of the sober business community, fixated on fiscal prudence and economic issues, would be increasingly unwilling to partner with and vote for the religious fanatics, flat-earthers and white nationalists who had become the party’s base.

If the divorce I saw as likely back in 2000 (the year I “came out” as a Democrat) is ever going to occur, it will be precipitated by Donald Trump–an unstable and self-engrossed con man no rational businessperson would hire for any responsible position.

I may still be proven wrong, but I’m no longer prophesying in the wilderness. Others have begun predicting the fracturing of what’s left of the GOP.

On August 8th–before Trump’s horrifying reaction to Charlottesville–the Guardian devoted an article to the defection of GOP conservatives from the party that had embraced (or at least tolerated) Trump. The article began with the highly visible unhappiness of Senator Jeff Flake.

Jeff Flake of Arizona, among 17 conservative politicians, activists, officials and pundits interviewed over two months, revealed that while the president has given rightwing fringe groups a seat at the table, his alliance with his own party remains highly precarious.

The article proceeds to quote a number of prominent Republicans who shared their disdain for Trump and his enablers. Eliot Cohen, a former state department counsellor to Condoleezza Rice, said:

“This fundamentally boils down to character, and his character is rotten. He’s a narcissist who happens to have taken control of the Republican party. Trump has taken conservatives back to a different era, before William F Buckley drove out the Birchers, the bigots and the antisemites. We’re now back in a different world.

British conservative historian Niall Ferguson agreed:

The Republicans have surprised me in one respect and that was the poor discipline of the party. If you think of this in British terms, essentially we are now in a quasi-monarchy, kind of what Alexander Hamilton vaguely had in mind. But it’s a monarchy in the sense that the White House is a court and Trump is like one of those people who becomes king who’s not terribly well-suited to the role. And so there’s rampant factionalism and infighting and erratic decisions by the king, and Paul Ryan’s the prime minister who’s trying to manage affairs in the estates general. But the problem is that from a British vantage point, the party discipline’s very weak.

The article goes on to quote a significant number of prominent conservatives, some still supportive and others noting that Trump’s erratic and uninformed behavior is inflicting substantial damage on the party, and widening, not healing, the rifts that have been growing for some time. Two of the most critical were Charlie Sykes, a talk-radio conservative, and Michael Steele, former Chair of the national GOP.

Sykes pointed to the obvious danger of “going along”: you end up accepting  “someone who mocks the disabled and insults women because he gets you a social policy win.”

For his part, Steele says out loud what so many long-time Republicans say quietly:

This is my 40th year as a Republican and it is the first time I can honestly say I don’t recognise this party and some of the people who are leading it.

And this was before Charlottesville.

The GOP I once belonged to is already dead. The question for conservatives now is: what will become of its distasteful, immoral, unAmerican remains?