Tag Archives: conservatism

Beyond Left And Right

Bret Stephens–the New York Times columnist– is too conservative for my taste, by which I mean I tend to disagree with his positions on issues. But he is conservative within a traditional American liberal democratic framework.

If that observation seems odd to our contemporary American ears, it is because the language of politics has been debased. Years of Rush Limbaugh and his clones turned “liberal” into an epithet devoid of meaningful content, and the radicalization of the GOP has confused “conservative” with Neanderthal.

Which brings me back to a recent Stephens column with which I do agree.Mostly.

Stephens says the U.S. needs a Liberal Party. He dutifully recites the reasons third parties routinely fail in a system that is set around a two-party duopoly, but he also argues that both the GOP and the Democratic Party are historically weak. I’m unconvinced that things have changed enough to make a third party viable, but in the process of his discussion, he makes a very important–and very under-appreciated–point.

By “liberal,” I don’t mean big-state welfarism. I mean the tenets and spirit of liberal democracy. Respect for the outcome of elections, the rule of law, freedom of speech, and the principle (in courts of law and public opinion alike) of innocent until proven guilty. Respect for the free market, bracketed by sensible regulation and cushioned by social support. Deference to personal autonomy but skepticism of identity politics. A commitment to equality of opportunity, not “equity” in outcomes. A well-grounded faith in the benefits of immigration, free trade, new technology, new ideas, experiments in living. Fidelity to the ideals and shared interests of the free world in the face of dictators and demagogues.

All of this used to be the more-or-less common ground of American politics, inhabited by Ronald Reagan and the two Bushes as much as by Barack Obama and the two Clintons. The debates that used to divide the parties — the proper scope of government, the mechanics of trade — amounted to parochial quarrels within a shared liberal faith. That faith steadied America in the face of domestic and global challenges from the far right and far left alike.

But now the basic division in politics isn’t between liberals and conservatives, as the terms used to be understood. It’s between liberals and illiberals.

Stephens points to the illiberalism of both the Right and the far Left, pointing on the right to  “Stephen Miller on immigration, Steve Bannon on trade, Josh Hawley on elections and Marjorie Taylor Greene on every manner of lunatic and bigoted conspiracy theory.” On the Left, he excoriates excesses of the “Me too” movement and the so-called “cancel culture.” He says that the illiberal Right is by far the most dangerous, because it is capable of winning elections and, when it loses, willing to subvert them.

Whether you agree with his specific critiques or not, I think he is absolutely correct about the need to reinforce and restore the underlying liberal consensus that democracy requires-what he describes as the “capacious” liberal faith within which we can argue in good faith about what “sensible” regulations look like, and the extent of the “social supports” that cushion the vagaries of a market economy.

Today, we characterize those debates over specific policies as “liberal” or “conservative,” but they can only occur within a larger, widely accepted liberal democratic framework that embraces a government protective of individual autonomy, based upon consent of the governed (as reflected by the votes of the citizenry)and committed to equality before the law.

Specific policy debates are, as Stephens says, parochial quarrels within that shared liberal faith.

 

How We Got Here

In late August, Jonathan Chait authored an important essay in New York Magazine,arguing that the Republican Party must be saved from the Conservative Movement. As he admits, to modern ears, this sounds nuts: we all have been brainwashed into seeing “conservative” and “Republican” as different terms meaning pretty much the same thing.

That, however, is an ahistorical belief, and Chait reminds us that the GOP under, say, Eisenhower was a very different animal.

Chait characterizes the current divide among anti-Trump Republicans as an argument between those who just want Trump gone and those who have concluded that the whole party needs to be gone. He provides a memorable analogy for the latter group:

I have immense admiration for my colleagues at New York. Suppose, however, that we appointed an editor who lacked familiarity with terms like circulation and advertising, whose notes to writers were scrawled indecipherably in crayon, and who seemed more interested in filching office supplies than any other aspect of the job. And suppose the staff either actively defended this editor or deflected criticism by pointing to David Remnick’s various foibles.

Well, I would naturally conclude I had misjudged the place badly. And if this editor eventually left, I would be looking for work at a publication whose staff had not been trying to extend his term.

Chait’s point–with which it is hard to argue–is that it isn’t just Trump. but a party that wouldn’t “merely cooperate with but actually idolize” a grotesquely bigoted authoritarian. But rather than burning the party down, he advocates severing it from what passes for “conservatism” these days. As he quite accurately points out, the conservative movement was once a minority faction within the GOP that demanded an “apocalyptic confrontation that would roll back big government at home and communism abroad.”

Chait’s essay is long, but it’s worth reading in its entirety for its history of the radical/conservative takeover of the GOP. The results of that takeover can be seen in today’s party of Trumpists:

It would be an overstatement to paint Trump as representing nothing but the triumph of the conservative movement. In his personal defects, Trump is indeed sui generis. But the broad outlines of his agenda and his style do closely follow the trajectory of the American right: racism, authoritarianism, and disdain for expertise. The movement attracts disordered personalities like McCarthy, Sarah Palin, and Trump and paranoid cults like the John Birch Society and QAnon.

Above all, Trump follows the American right’s Manichaean approach to political conflict. Every new extension of government, however limited or necessary, is a secret plot to extend government control over every aspect of American life. Conservatives met both Clinton and Obama’s agenda with absolute hysteria, whipping themselves into a terror that rendered them unable to negotiate.

And in a particularly insightful observation, he notes that an inability to distinguish reasonable, well-designed government programs that address real market failures from Soviet-style oppression is a congenital defect in conservative thought. As he says, Trump is not even pretending to have a positive second-term program. His only goal is to stop the next Democratic administration because the next liberal program is always the one that will usher in the final triumph of socialism.

So–what should a successful reconstituted, post-Trump party look like? Chait points to the sort of  “pragmatic center-right thinking being developed at the Niskanen Center and by some of the wonks at the American Enterprise Institute and a handful of other places” and he would jettison the conservative dogma that forbids any consideration of new taxes, spending, or regulation.

It will take more than one defeat for the party to abandon what its cadres have been trained to see as the only possible path. But the Republican Party will never stop being a danger to American democracy until it can see the problem clearly. The task is not to save conservatism from Trump. It is to save the Republican Party from conservatism.

Really, read the whole article.

 

Trump’s GOP

Ever since the 2016 election, liberal publications have been bending over backwards to include more diversity of opinion, a project that isn’t going so well. As we saw with the Atlantic‘s recent effort, there is considerable conflict over what sorts of “conservative” opinions should be given a respectful hearing–which opinions deserve to be part of a reasoned and civil argument–and which are so beyond the pale that including them would simply legitimize abhorrent positions.

Vox weighed in on that issue awhile back.

The article considered–and criticized–recent efforts by the New York Times to broaden the perspectives represented by its columnists.

The newspaper’s defense, articulated repeatedly by Bennet, news editor Dean Baquet, and onetime ombudsman Liz Spayd, is that the paper is pursuing diversity of opinion, attempting to challenge its readers. “Didn’t we learn from this past election that our goal should be to understand different views?” asked Baquet.

That defense doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny. As I said in a column on Stephens last year, “it takes a particular sort of insularity to hire a pro-war, anti-Trump white guy as a contribution to diversity on the NYT editorial page.”

As the article acknowledged, Donald Trump’s victory was seen by a number of  people in “elite political circles” as evidence that they had been living in a bubble of their own–that they had utterly failed to understand a supposed “heartland” filled with Trump voters, and that they needed to understand the perspectives of those voters. (I have yet to run across Trump voters who want to understand the perspective of the “elitists” who were unwilling to hand the nuclear codes to a four-times-bankrupt reality star with no government experience.)

David Roberts, who wrote the Vox column, is particularly critical of the conservatives who write for the Times.

Consider, oh, David Brooks. His conservatism, of Sam’s Club affectation, fiscal conservatism, tepid social liberalism, and genial trolling of center-leftists at Davos — whom does it speak for in today’s politics, beyond Brooks?

Or Ross Douthat. He is sporadically interesting, often infuriating, but above all, pretty idiosyncratic. His socially conservative “reformicon” thing — whom does it speak for in today’s politics, beyond Douthat?

Bret Stephens and Bari Weiss are a familiar type of glib contrarian. Their opposition to Trump has given them undue credibility among Washington lefties, whom they relentlessly (and boringly) troll. But whom are they speaking for? What has the Never Trump movement amounted to?

Roberts argues that, although these writers might serve the purpose of challenging liberal thinking, they don’t expose Times readers to the people who voted for Trump–the people from whom they are allegedly alienated.

The signal feature of the 2016 election is that it settled the question of whether US conservatism — the actual movement, I mean, not the people in Washington think tanks who claim to be its spokespeople — is animated by a set of shared ideals and policies. It is not.

For many years, many people have convinced themselves otherwise. A lot of people believe to this day that the Tea Party uprising and the subsequent eight years of hysterical, unremitting, norm-violating opposition to Barack Obama was about small-government philosophy and a devotion to low taxes and less regulation, and had nothing to do with social backlash against a black, cosmopolitan, urban law professor and his diverse, rising coalition.

And therein lies the dilemma. An effort to understand conservative philosophy is irrelevant to the reality of today’s GOP. Whatever one thinks of Paul Ryan, he represents the  “small government, low taxes, anti-social welfare” conservatism with which well-meaning (albeit naive) liberals want to engage. Whatever else his departure may mean, it is a signal that the GOP is now the party of White Nationalism, not conservatism, and it has no coherent or remotely respectable philosophy with which to engage.

At this point, though many people on all sides still refuse to acknowledge it, the evidence is overwhelming: It was cultural backlash, against immigrants, minorities, uppity women, liberals, and all the other forces seen as dislodging traditional white men from their centrality in American culture.

It’s Trump’s party now.

 

Institutional Arson

As I have noted previously, Michael Gerson is one of the very few principled conservative Republicans who have not traded in their ethics (to the extent they had them) for partisanship advantage in the Trump era.

I have become a semi-regular reader of Gerson’s columns, not because I necessarily agree with his policy preferences (in many, if not most cases, I don’t), but because he is intellectually  consistent and honest, and his opinions are for that reason worth considering.

In an otherwise unremarkable recent column for the Washington Post, Gerson used a phrase that struck me. The column itself addressed the all-too-obvious GOP effort to delegitimize Robert Muller and his investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

This quote will convey Gerson’s general approach to that issue–an approach with which I agree wholeheartedly:

Some of Trump’s defenders are claiming, in effect, that the FBI is engaged in a “coup d’etat” (the words of Florida Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz) — a politically motivated attempt to reverse the results of the 2016 election. Their evidence? That some senior investigators donated to Democrats, supported Hillary Clinton and called Trump an “idiot.”

If that last charge were considered a disqualification, we would have the political equivalent of the Rapture (including, apparently, some of the Cabinet).

It was the sentence immediately following this quote that struck me:

Trump Republicans are willing to smear a man of genuine integrity, and undermine confidence in federal law enforcement, for reasons they must know are thin to the point of transparency. This is beyond cynicism. It is institutional arson.

Institutional arson.

That is a perfect description of the current administration’s approach to governing– although, even as I was typing the words “approach to governing,” I realized how misleading that phrase is; it gives Trump and his merry band of vandals far too much credit. Trump is interested in exercising power–and clearly uninterested in governing.

Gerson is certainly  correct when he asserts that the strategy employed by Trump supporters against any institution (the courts, the media, law enforcement) that threatens to expose the administration’s deception and corruption is profoundly anti-conservative.

Genuine conservatives have a point when they claim that Trump voters were not conservatives as we have long understood that term. As data has emerged about the motives of those voters, it appears that racial resentment, coupled with disdain for the enterprise of government and general anger at the “way things are going” fueled a desire to elect someone who would “blow it all up.”

If voters wanted to “blow it all up,” they voted for the right candidate. The only consistent thread in this erratic and ignorant Presidency has been Trump’s obsession with overturning anything his predecessor did. If destroying Obama’s legacy requires damaging the institutions of government, or snatching healthcare away from millions of Americans, or trashing America’s image abroad –well, that’s okay with Trump. No wonder people have dubbed him Agent Orange.

As Gerson noted,

Other presidents would be restrained by the prospect of social division and political chaos. For Trump, these may be incentives. He seems to thrive in bedlam. But the anarchy that sustains him damages the institutions around him — a cost for which he cares nothing.

If history and sociology teach us anything, it’s that anarchy doesn’t work. Institutions–even flawed ones– are vitally important to social stability, and they are a lot easier to destroy than to rebuild.

Ironically, the people who voted for institutional arson are the most likely to get burned.

 

Liberals On Campus

A few days ago, the editorial page editor of the Indianapolis Star wrote an article in which he counseled a “young conservative” on how to navigate Indiana University’s “left-wing” campus in Bloomington.

There are so many things wrong with the consistent right wing trope about “lefty” professors, the perceived persecution of their conservative colleagues, and the imagined “indoctrination” of their students–where to begin?

For one thing, these critics are painting with a very broad brush. The so-called “elite” colleges–Harvard, Yale, etc.–probably do have faculties that are disproportionately politically liberal, but there are thousands of colleges and universities in the U.S. that most definitely do not fit that stereotype. Many of them are religious, and others are small and medium-sized institutions reflective of the communities in which they are located; very few of them are bastions of liberal brainwashing.

What this characterization of the “liberal” professorate actually reveals is the unacknowledged (and often unconscious) extremism of those who employ it. As “conservatives” have become more radical and doctrinaire, they have applied the term “liberal” more and more broadly. Today, “liberal” describes anyone who accepts the theory of evolution and the scientific consensus on climate change, anyone who believes  (along with some 80% of NRA members) that we need more rigorous background checks for gun buyers, anyone who supports (along with numerous faith groups and a majority of Americans) a woman’s right to control her own reproduction; and (again with a majority of Americans) anyone who condemns racism and other forms of bigotry.

Positions that used to be considered mainstream and uncontroversial–positions that were held by Republicans as well as Democrats–have become markers of political liberalism.

I’ve taught at the university level for the past twenty years, and if I had to identify one “ideology” that virtually all my colleagues have in common, it wouldn’t be a political “ism” at all; it would be a belief in the importance of data and evidence. What distinguishes academia –what makes its denizens “liberal” in the original sense of that word–is willingness to examine one’s own preconceptions and change positions when credible research proves those preconceptions wrong.

One of the enduring contributions of the period we call the Enlightenment was the scientific method, and what the early American colonists called “the new learning.” Before the emergence of science and empiricism, education began with “biblical truth,” and consisted of studying how “learned men” had explained and justified that truth. You began with the answer and learned how to confirm it. When science came along, it flipped the process: first, you asked  questions, and then, through repeated rigorous experimentation and observation of the world around you, you tried to find answers that others could replicate.

Today, political liberals and conservatives are both prone to start with the answers, and to become angry when data and fact don’t support those answers. The mission of the academy is inconsistent with political ideologies of all kinds; that mission is to ask questions, evaluate data, and follow the evidence to whatever conclusion it requires.

If the contemporary definition of a liberal is someone who accepts the scientific method and the importance of verifiable fact, then I suppose most of us are liberal. If teaching our students to follow the evidence is indoctrination, then we plead guilty.