Let’s Make Sense!

I’ve been out and did not see the Dem debate. If you did and want to discuss it, feel free.

I notice the geniuses at Protein Wisdom have posted a photo of my friend Glenn Greenwald under the title, “Face of a Racist,” but the links that accompany the photo don’t lead to anything about Glenn. If you keep following links (righties have an aversion to linking directly to original sources) eventually you get to an article about a program at the University of Delaware that really does sound creepy and objectionable. But I’m not seeing a connection to Glenn.

If anyone wants to waste time trying to make sense out of Protein Wisdom, have at it. I’ll pass.

Update: I see that my good buddy Bob Geiger is endorsing Chris Dodd for President. Bob makes a persuasive argument, I must say.

Where Next for Conservatism?

Gary Kamiya has an excellent article in Salon that asks if American conservatism can heal itself.

American conservatism is at once absolutist and utopian, and reactive and aggrieved. Which state came first is a chicken-and-egg question, but they reinforce each other. Psychologically, conservatives want contradictory things — both pure freedom and an unchanging Golden Age. Pragmatically, they want things that are mutually exclusive — no social contract and an organic, connected community, untrammeled individual rights and a rigid moral code. The inevitable disappointment results in resentment. The reason that the American right always behaves as if it is an angry outsider, even when it controls all three branches of government, is that it is at war not with “liberalism” but with social reality.

When you’re talking about conservatism you’re supposed to clarify whether you are talking about libertarian conservatism, social values conservatism, America First conservatism, or some other critter. In a logical world, the libertarian get government out of my business conservatism ought to clash with social we’ll make you behave or else conservatism, but it’s not at all uncommon to find righties who take a libertarian view on some issues (e.g., taxes) and an authoritarian view on other issues (e.g., abortion; warrantless wiretapping). Untrammeled individual rights for me; a rigid moral code for everyone else.

Kamiya asks if “the conservative movement is foreordained to remain in its current debased form.”

There will always be substantive issues on which conservatives and liberals will have good-faith differences. It would simply be a more mature conservatism.

The history of American conservatism does not inspire much confidence, however. In spite of its moderate roots, it has succeeded mainly via absolutist, reactionary politics. This approach has enormous emotional appeal for Americans for whom the modern world is a source of confusion, anger and fear, or who simply disdain the social contract . And the Republican Party is now entirely in thrall to it. The current crop of GOP candidates hold uniformly hard-right positions, with the exception of the libertarian, no-chance Ron Paul. The leading GOP contender, Rudy Giuliani, is even more of a maniacal hawk than Bush on the Middle East and national security. These are hardly signs that the right is moving to the center.

FYI, Ron Paul is plenty far to the right on a great many issues.

But sooner or later, conservatives will have to change course or see their movement wither away.

The issues that have been winners for conservatives are fading. White resentment of federal civil rights laws is the ur-conservative issue, the engine that drove the right’s rise. Barry Goldwater, by reluctantly voting against the Civil Rights Act, permanently realigned the South and paved the way for Nixon’s “Southern strategy.” More recently, right-wing strategists successfully mobilized resentment over “values” issues like the “three Gs” — gays, God and guns. These issues still mobilize some conservative voters, but they aren’t nearly as effective as they used to be. Studies show that the electorate, especially younger voters, are moving left on these issues.

That’s the best one-paragraph summary of the past 40 years of American politics you’re ever likely to read. White resentment of federal civil rights laws, desegregation, Lyndon Johnson’s anti-poverty programs, and affirmative action were like a big boulder dropped in a lake, sending waves in all directions, and movement conservatism has been riding those waves ever since. “Values” issues like prayer in school and abortion and “security” issues like the communist threat (now the “Islamofacist” threat) made waves also, but IMO white racism truly was “the engine that drove the right’s rise,” as Kamiya says.

But, although racism is still with us, I think the racist wave is dissipating, and white voters don’t respond to the dog whistles the way they used to. And I think that’s because more and more whites are one missed paycheck away from disaster and barely hanging on to middle class status by their fingernails. A person facing potential financial ruin is not so likely to sneer about “entitlements” and “government handouts.” Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.

In the end, conservatism will have to decide if it wants to be a real party of governance, moving beyond empty labels to engage with real issues, or if it wants to remain a party of reaction, in permanent rebellion against modernity, proffering emotionally satisfying but incoherent policies. Conservatism claims to be a politics of authenticity, but it is actually a politics of impulse and instinct. It is based on unmediated emotions, erupting from the individual ego — Get big government off my back! Keep those civil rights laws out of my white backyard! Lower my taxes! This is ultimately an infantile or an adolescent politics, a failure to come to terms with a world that does not do exactly what the omnipotent self demands. Does conservatism want to grow up, or stay an angry teenager forever?

Preach it, Brother Gary.

The new conservatism would not be liberal. It would still tilt toward small government and lower taxes, would reject policies aimed at equal outcomes, would oppose affirmative action and unrestricted immigration. That’s why it would be conservative (and, anticipating outrage from liberal Salon readers, why I wouldn’t support it). But it would abandon its facile government bashing and appeals to raw emotion. Above all, it would aim at working to build an America that, despite political differences, would pull together, would feel like a united country. It would take seriously that old saw about one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

It’s hard to imagine the party of Karl Rove and Rush Limbaugh moving to the center. But if Americans turn away from the politics of resentment and fear, the GOP may be forced to follow them.

Just as an example of Why Conservatism Is Screwed, consider Jonah Goldberg’s column in today’s Los Angeles Times. Goldberg is an unoriginal thinker and pedestrian writer who got to be a big shot columnist promoting the virtues of taking care of oneself because he is Lucianne Goldberg’s son. Who needs government handouts when you’ve got nepotism? Anyway, today Goldberg writes,

The problem is that conservatism, even Reagan’s brand, wasn’t as popular as we often remember it. Government spending continued to increase under Reagan, albeit a bit more slowly. Today, the U.S. population is 30% larger but government spending is 84% greater (adjusting for inflation) than it was when Reagan delivered his 1981 inaugural address. That was the speech in which he declared: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” and vowed to “curb the size and influence of the federal establishment.”

In 1964, two political psychologists, Lloyd A. Free and Hadley Cantril, famously asserted that Americans were ideologically conservative but operationally liberal. Americans loved Barry Goldwater’s rhetoric about yeoman individualism, but not if it meant taking away their Social Security checks or farm subsidies. “As long as Goldwater could talk ideology alone, he was high, wide and handsome,” they wrote. “But the moment he discussed issues and programs, he was finished.”

The flaw was not necessarily Goldwater’s. As Gary Kamiya wrote in the Salon article linked above,

Conservative ideals are laudable: Who is against freedom, tradition or the preservation of community? The problem is that while they’re beautiful in the abstract, it is difficult to base a coherent governmental policy on ideals alone. Once these principles enter the real world of politics, governance and society, a world that requires compromise and the curtailment of individual freedom for the common good, they are useless as guideposts. If they are taken as moral absolutes, they cancel each other out: The apotheosis of the individual leads to the destruction of community and tradition.

When Kamiya writes “a world that requires compromise and the curtailment of individual freedom for the common good” I believe he’s using the word freedom in the sense of being unrestrained, as opposed to political freedom. But on the Right the word freedom has been drained of all meaning; it is merely ceremonial. We lefties who still care about the Bill of Rights are dismissed as “civil liberties absolutists.”

Goldberg continues,

Liberals have an inherent advantage. As long as they promise incremental, “pragmatic” expansions of the government, voters generally give them a pass. And every new expansion since FDR and the New Deal has created a constituency for continued government largesse. …

… “Liberals sell the welfare state one brick at a time, deflecting inquiries about the size and cost of the palace they’re building,” writes William Voegeli in an illuminating essay, “The Trouble with Limited Government,” in the current issue of the Claremont Review of Books.

Committed conservatives, meanwhile, find themselves at a disadvantage: They advocate smaller government for everybody — when Americans generally (including most Republicans) want smaller government for everybody but themselves.

In Goldberg’s view, people support liberalism because they are greedy. They want largesse. They demand entitlements. But notice that Goldberg defines “smaller government” purely in terms of domestic spending. He famously supports war, war, and more war, and the government spending that goes with war. He has advocated warrantless police strip searches of children. He is OK with criminalizing abortion. “Big government” is fine when it interferes with other people’s personal lives. Goldberg just wants to keep it out of his pocket.

Under all-Republican rule, the federal government got bigger and more intrusive even as it became more corrupt and less competent. I believe that is symptomatic of the inherent incoherence of movement conservatism. Right wingers want to control because they don’t know how to manage. The Bushies in particular seem to think that if they can just get enough control and operate without public scrutiny, they can force events and the world to bend to their will. Then to prove he’s against “big government,” Bush vetoes S-CHIP.

Just call ’em “totalitarians for freedom.”

Update: See also Busy, Busy, Busy.

Nice While It Lasted

Tim Watkin posts at The Guardian web site:

America is out of touch and behind the times on climate change and economic reform. It is mired in a stagnant war that the rest of the west has abandoned or is abandoning. American global influence is in decline, the country having lost the respect of allies and the credibility to lead. As we’ve seen yet again in last week’s brinkmanship by Turkey, American diplomacy has all the vim and vigour of Fred Thompson. For now America remains the world leader, but it’s moving steadily from superpower to first among equals. Nowhere is this more evident than in the sciences. …

… Overseas institutions and companies are increasingly competitive, and federal and state funding for science and engineering has fallen significantly, to just 0.8% of GDP. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are sucking up federal money, with President Bush last week asking Congress to raise the war budget for 2008 to $196bn. That’s quite an opportunity cost.

As Tom Friedman put it in his New York Times column on Iraq recently: “Can we pay for it and be making the investments in infrastructure, science and education needed to propel our country into the 21st century?” The answer, judging from speakers at the TechNet summit at Berkeley earlier this month, is no.

Watkin cites a report titled “Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future,” which was authored by The Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (COSEPUP), a joint unit of the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine.

It’s hard to ignore the scientists and business leaders who wrote the Gathering Storm report when they write, bluntly: “We are worried about the future prosperity of the United States.” As the US slides, other countries are catching up too rapidly. I think Americans will look back at the second half of the 20th century as the pinnacle of American power and influence.

The comments to this post are almost more alarming than the post. A number of American wingnuts responded, claiming that Chinese engineers can’t be compared to American engineers because Asians have no creativity, and hey, we landed on the moon.

We’re doomed.

The notion that America and Americans are intrinsically superior is so deeply ingrained on the Right that no amount of empirical evidence to the contrary is likely to flush it out. Also, American conservatives by nature will ignore and deny an impending problem until it bites their butts, and then they blame Democrats for not solving it.

You’ve probably had this experience yourselves — mention the mere possibility that the U.S. could be less economically dominant at some point in the future, and if there’s a wingnut present he will laugh at you. Nope, not possible, he says. The way things have been in my lifetime is the way they will always be, forever and ever, amen.

American economic dominance grew out of several factors. The United States was one of the few large industrial nations to emerge from World War II without massive war damage and with its manufacturing base intact and productive, for example. Mortgage subsidies helped the new married couples of the Greatest Generation to purchase homes, and the GI bill sent a large part of the population to college, and in turn those college graduates started businesses, developed new technologies, created new products. America dominated the second half of the 20th century partly by circumstance of war and geography and partly because we invested in ourselves.

These days college is prohibitively expensive. Our manufacturing base is moving overseas, and the current POTUS seems to think this is a good thing. A major American city suffers massive damage from floods, and two years later the federal government continues to show a remarkable lack of interest in setting things right. About one in six Americans lacked health insurance for all of 2005, and our elected “leaders” look the other way and talk glibly about fictional “market solutions.” Anti-government conservative ideology so dominates American politics that we can’t even have sensible discussions about using government to address our growing problems.

We’re strangling ourselves with our own stinginess to each other.