Patrick Ruffini’s article “The Joe-the-Plumberization of the GOP” is as fascinating for what it unintentionally reveals as for what Ruffini argues. Let’s start here —
If you want to get a sense of how unserious and ungrounded most Americans think the Republican Party is, look no further than how conservatives elevate Joe the Plumber as a spokesman. The movement has become so gimmick-driven that Wurzelbacher will be a conservative hero long after people have forgotten what his legitimate policy beef with Obama was.
I’ll leave aside how legitimate Wurzelbacher’s policy beef was, and say that otherwise I pretty much agree with Ruffini. On to the next paragraph:
Since its very beginnings as a movement, conservatism has bought into liberalism’s dominant place in the American political process. They controlled all the major institutions: the media, academia, Hollywood, the Democratic Party, large segments of the Republican Party, and consequently, the government. Liberalism’s image of conservatives in the ’50s and ’60s as paranoid Birchers gave birth to a conservative movement self-conscious of its minority status. As in any tribe that is small in number and can’t fully trust its most natural allies (i.e. the business community or the Republican Party), the meta-debate of who is inside and outside the tribe is magnified exponentially.
Is he saying conservatism did not exist before the 1950s? It’s more accurate to say that the current wave of movement conservatism was born after World War II, rising from the ashes of the conservatism that had pushed back against the New Deal and was opposed to taking sides against Hitler until after Hitler’s declaration of war on the U.S., in the wake of the Pearl Harbor attack.
The Right’s climb back to political relevance began with the myth that Roosevelt somehow sold out to Stalin at Yalta (see Kevin Baker’s essential “Stabbed in the Back” from the June 2006 Harper’s). Of course, after the Joe McCarthy debacle had died down the GOP in the 1950s was more or less steered by moderates whose disagreements with Dems were more often in degree than in kind. But you all know the sad story of how the pseudo-conservatives morphed into Goldwater conservatives who morphed into Reagan conservatives, and how these conservatives insist on lockstep ideological purity, so that Eisenhower-style moderates are no longer welcome in the party.
There were, of course, some conservative intellectuals like Russell Kirk and William F. Buckley who managed to slap a veneer of erudition over ideological conservatism. But the rough beast that movement conservatism has become doesn’t know Kirk from mooseburgers, and even Buckley had more or less washed his hands of it before he died.
The legacy of that early movement — alive and well at CPAC and in the conservative institutions that still exist today — is one driven inordinately by this question of identity. We have paeans to Reagan (as if we needed to be reminded again of just how much things suck in comparison today), memorabilia honoring 18th century philosophers that we wouldn’t actually wear in the outside world, and code-word laden speeches that focus on a few hot button issues that leave us ill-equipped to actually govern conservatively on 80% of issues when we actually do get elected.
For whatever reason, conservatives do tend to live in a mythologized past that never actually existed. But I would say that current “movement conservatives” don’t even have coherent issues any more. They have talking points. And the reason they are ill-equipped to actually govern conservatively is that they are ill-equipped to govern at all. “Movement conservatism” is so debased it has no philosophy of government, other than whatever them libruhls is fer, we’re agin’ it.
This culture of identity politics means we get especially defensive about the Liberal Majority’s main lines of attack, because we think of our position as inherently fragile.
There’s a Liberal Majority? Who knew? What happened to the center-right nation?
The truth is, from the 1980s and until about 2006 the Right had thoroughly run true liberalism entirely off the political radar. Genuine liberals, as opposed to ideological centrists who played liberals on TeeVee, were so marginalized in this country we were damn near invisible even to each other. (The Right mistook Bill Clinton for a liberal, but he was not. Clinton never governed as a liberal, but as a triangulator who finessed the Right rather than defeat it.)
But even when they had all the government, all the media, all the attention to themselves, the Right continued to run against the demon liberals they imagined lurked under every bed. Because that’s all they had. Ultimately, when you strip away the rhetoric and the posturing, all they have is resentment of whatever they think “liberalism” is. They have no interest in governing.
Skipping a bit —
This is so different than the psychology of the left. The left assumes that it is culturally superior and the natural party of government and fights aggressively to frame any conservative incursion on that turf as somehow alien and unnatural. (The “Oh God…” whisper being the perfect illustration.) They dominate Hollywood not by actively branding liberalism in their movies, but by coolly associating liberal policy ideas with sentiments everyone feels, like love (gay marriage) or fairness (the little guy vs. some evil corporate stiff).
Well, yeah, people do tend to approve of love and fairness and like to see these things reflected in popular entertainment. This has been true since at least Shakespeare’s time. But it’s not as if liberals get together and plan what values they are going to promote in next year’s films. It’s more a matter of liberalism by nature being more creative, I think. Whenever conservatives try to be creative they come across as either mean or smarmy. Or both. It’s the nature of the beast.
Skipping ahead —
Put another way, Republicans thrive as the party of normal Americans — the people in the middle culturally and economically. This is true of our leadership as well — we have a history of nominating figures who came first from outside politics. Our base is the common-sense voter in the middle who bought a house she could afford and didn’t lavishly overspend in good times and who is now subsidizing the person who didn’t.
That’s how Republicans want to see themselves, but I don’t think that’s been true for a long time. The suburbs didn’t abandon the GOP in the last election because of Barack Obama’s dazzling rhetoric. They abandoned the GOP because the GOP has nothing to offer them except culture war and erosion of the health care system.
This is why Obama’s pitch is fundamentally off-key if framed correctly. People’s first instincts in a recession are not to overspend, but to tighten their belts.
Yes, and a frightened horse’s first instinct is to run back into the stable, even if the stable is on fire. But it is because people are tightening belts that the government has to pump cash into the economy asap.
In these serious times, conservatives need to get serious and ditch the gimmicks and the self-referential credentializing and talk to the entire country. If the average apolitical American walked into CPAC or any movement conservative gathering would they feel like they learned something new or that we presented a vision compelling to them in their daily lives?
A compelling vision is one thing; knowing one’s ass from one’s elbow is something else. The GOP is basically in denial of the nature of the problems we face, which is why they can’t come up with solutions that might work in the real world. The GOP needs to do more than just scrap the gimmicks. It needs to take a deep breath, calm down, and think hard about what government is and what citizens need from it. What is the appropriate role of government? “None” is no longer a viable answer.
This is why I love Newt’s emphasis on finding 80/20 issues and defining them in completely non-ideological terms.
You want to know what “Newt’s emphasis” is? I followed Ruffini’s links and came to this. It’s a bleeping joke. Just a laundry list of discrete right-wing bugaboos like making English the official language and keeping “One nation under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. Please.
Like I said, this is as fascinating for what it reveals as it is for what Ruffini argues.
Update: See also The American Conservative, Daniel Larison, “Needed: Confidence And Wisdom.”
It seems to me that conservatives and Republicans have assumed the GOP is the natural governing party, at least regarding the Presidency and to some extent as it relates to Congress since ’94, which is why so many have continued to insist that America is a “center-right nation” in the face of mounting evidence that it is not and hasn’t been for a while. Symbolic gimmickry does stem in part from a lack of confidence, but it is more the product of a movement and party that have ceased to understand, much less address, most of the pressing concerns of working- and middle-class Americans. The party assumes that all it needs to do is show up, push the right pseudo-populist buttons and reap the rewards, and for the most part the movement cheers. See Palin, Sarah.
The GOP settles for offering “symbolic, substance-free BS” because enough conservatives are already persuaded that Republican policies obviously benefit the middle class, so there is no pressure to make Republican policy actually serve the interests of Republican constituents. It is taken for granted that this is already happening, but voters have been showing for several cycles that many of them do not believe this. Politically Democrats have been gaining ground in such unlikely places as Ohio and Indiana, which would be inexplicable if the GOP obviously and reliably represented working- and middle-class Americans. Of course, lately these voters don’t see it that way, but instead see the right’s pseudo-populists denounce workers for being overpaid, reject measures that would direct some spending to American industries that their free trade zeal has helped gut and even talk about a spending freeze in the middle of a severe recession.