Can This Marriage Be Saved?

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conservatism, Republican Party

The political coalition loosely called “movement conservatism” continues to unravel. James Kuhnhenn writes for Knight Ridder that the resulting political upheaval is forcing the Republican Party to re-evaluate its relationship with George W. Bush.

The conservative rebellion against Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers is widening the split between the White House and Republicans, sowing fears among party strategists that President Bush is jeopardizing 10 years of GOP congressional dominance.

With defiance unseen since he’s been in the White House, Senate Republicans already have reined in the administration on the treatment of foreign detainees, forced it to jettison no-bid post-hurricane reconstruction contracts and given Miers a tepid welcome as Bush’s choice to replace Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

Behind these emboldened stances lie growing unease over Bush’s Iraq policy, dismay at the federal response to Katrina and Bush’s sinking public approval ratings.

The parting of ways signals a loss in Bush’s clout after five years that is likely to have consequences for the remainder of his term and possibly beyond.

For all its famous message discipline, contemporary conservatism was always an improbable beast made up of myriad political movements with often conflicting agendas. Somehow, the movement patched together small-government conservatives dedicated to limiting the federal government’s ability to encroach on citizens’ lives with social conservatives dedicated to using government power to enforce morally correct behavior. It married isolationist paleo-conservatives to neocons–quoting Ian Welsh, “trotskyites who decided that their utopian vision required an iron fist and spilling a lot of blood, and that the rest of the left wing didn’t have the stomach for it – but that the right could be convinced by appealing to their militarism and worship of strength.”

Cracks have been forming for quite some time. For example, most small-government conservatives were genuinely alarmed when Republicans in Congress tried to intervene in the Terri Schiavo controversy in ways that were blatantly unconstitutional. And the social conservatives revealed they had no interest in the federalist and constitutional principles dear to the hearts of the small-government group. Social conservatives are on a mission from God, after all.

Recently I wrote about an interview of neocon Bill Kristol by Bernard-Henri Lévy. Lévy observed that Kristol had sold out some of his own principles for the sake of the coalition–

Don’t jump to the conclusion that I believe in it, he seems to be saying. That’s just the deal, you understand—supporting a crusade for moral values is just the price we have to pay for a foreign policy that we can defend as a whole.

It’s one thing for a party to take a “big tent” attitude and agree to disagree, but I don’t believe that’s what most movement conservatives have been doing. I think most of ’em have been in denial about the very real ideological differences represented in movement conservatism. Or, like Kristol, they’ve mouthed agreement with views they don’t actually hold as a kind of ideological quid pro quo; I’ll support your agenda if you’ll support mine. But now some are waking up, like the once dewy-eyed bride who finally admits to herself she’s married to a jerk. At long last they’re taking a hard look at the Bush Administration, and thinking, this isn’t what I signed up for.

The question at hand is, are we about to see a major political realignment on the Right, or can the coalition patch itself back together? To answer that question, I think, one needs a clear understanding of whatever it was that has held the coalition together all these years.

Over at Washington Monthly, Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson are discussing their new book, Off Center, in which they tackle this question. I haven’t read this book yet, but here’s what they say in their blog post–

In the face of a puzzle like this, the temptation is to search for a one-size-fits-all explanation. In response to Kevin’s post on Friday, a fair number of participants thought they had the single easy answer (“it’s framing!” or “it’s the use of cultural issues as a wedge!” or “it’s because Democrats are bumblers/cowards/sell-outs” or “it’s race”). There were probably a couple of dozen factors raised by one person or another, which strongly suggests that there’s more than one thing at work. To us at least, it also suggests that what’s crucial is how these different plausible GOP advantages actually come together in reinforcing the party’s power.

Our own emphasis lies on the organizational and social foundations of political power, rather than on the character of personalities or particular rhetorical moves. In particular, we think a central source of GOP success lies in the unprecedented (within the contours of modern American politics) capacity of conservative elites to coordinate their activities and operate in a unified fashion.

Movement conservatism is, I think, essentially a faux populist movement controlled and manipulated by conservative elites. These elites have been with us, in one form or another, throughout American history. But IMO the present coalition began to take shape from the white backlash against the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The elites recognized that this backlash was something that could be exploited for their own ends. The elites learned to fan the flames of resentment and victimhood to get “their” candidates elected. They were quick to seize upon fresh issues–e.g., the Vietnam-era antiwar movement; affirmative action; feminism; abortion; gay rights; and the old standby, Communism–to keep the resentment fires burning as anger over desegregation cooled.

As any propagandist will tell you, there is no easier way to unify people than to give them a common enemy.

The conservative elite benefited from the rise of mass media and learned ever more sophisticated ways to take their unified message to the nation. And as they gained greater control of mass media they were able to prevent opponents from getting their message to the American people.

(For years it’s been an ironclad law that no progressive is allowed to speak on a television political talk show without having a rightie goon at his side, shouting him down. I once decided that if I ever saw Joe Conason appear on Hardball and be allowed to finish a sentence without interruption I could die happy.)

The conservative elite can still manipulate mass media pretty much at will and remains a powerful force. But other elements in the political landscape are changing.

One of those elements is support for George W. Bush. I believe it isn’t just some movement conservatives and rightie bloggers who are having second thoughts about his “leadership.” I suspect at least some of the elites may have decided he is no longer useful to them. If so, mass media will no longer wrap Dear Leader in a rosy glow. And if my suspicions are correct, there is no way Bush can recover. That duck is dead.

As for the coalition itself, that’s harder to say. Surely the elites will try to keep it together. Events over the next few months may determine if they can succeed. In particular, if the Democrats continue to flounder around and fail to present a clear alternative to Republicanism, the Republicans will keep the loyalty of voters.

In conclusion–we’ll see.

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