Monday, November 24, 2008

40 Years in the Wilderness: First Look at the End of the Current Brand of Conservativism

Ah now here is a topic that makes my liberal heart sing. I firmly believe that the past 8 years have been the culmination of everything the conservative revolution ever hoped to stand for. And I further firmly believe that the election of Barack Obama as president stands as the verdict on the results of 40 years of conservative ideology. Having spent 40 years fairly systematically acting to dismember the good name, good character, and good money of this country, I now hope the Republican Party and the conservatives it houses spend the next 40 years attempting to reformulate a realistic opposition to liberality rather than the irrational mythology they have pimped on well-meaning citizens all this time.

In 1964, the last man to hold the Senate seat currently occupied by John McCain was even more soundly thumped in the presidential election. Granted, a fair amount of the credit for Lyndon Johnson’s victory over Barry Goldwater could be laid at the dead feet of John F. Kennedy but between the two candidates stretched a yawning gulf between modern liberality and the then nascent conservative movement spawned only a few years earlier primarily by William F. Buckley. As Buckley derived and expounded his ideology by founding The National Review, he focused essentially around the principles of fiscal restraint and social libertarianism. In other words, government should take and use little money and then should leave everyone alone.

At a basic level there is little that anyone can really argue with about those principles. But as is usually the case with such apparently simple concepts, the details and consequences of the application can be a bit more difficult to contend with. But the ideas are indeed so attractively simple that they lend themselves very easily to the spoken word. Over the course of decades, that capacity for easy explication became the hallmark of conservatives and the Republican Party in general. It’s very easy to say you want to keep money in your pocket until the pothole in front of your home doesn’t get fixed fast enough or if your kid has a second-rate teacher because s/he receives second-rate pay and the smart folks who would like to share their knowledge can make (a lot) better money elsewhere. It’s easy to say individuals should be left alone to live their lives unless god forbid it’s two guys kissing each other with love or some hippie at home sparking up a joint after a day’s work instead of slamming a six-pack. We Americans have always been very good at spouting out our principles while failing utterly to live up to them when inconvenient realities challenge us to evolve our personal judgments. And boy oh boy have conservatives ever been good at failing to live up to the ideals they espouse so eloquently.

During the most liberal political years of the 60s, LBJ took FDR’s New Deal and very nearly completed the task with The Great Society. But his ego got in the way and allowed Vietnam to destroy his presidency and the hopes of doing a better job of truly living out our national ideals. While that was happening conservatives worked to devise a platform and a strategy to attain power and wield it with the religious fervor of the most dedicated medieval Crusader.

Their religious fervor was the key to their success. Anyone who can gain the support of a gigantic group of people who otherwise bring little to the table but faith and obedience can go a long way with not much. Hence the GOP since 1980. Buckley and crowd tried valiantly to get ahead with their well-formed ideology but they needed a mouthpiece and found it with Ronald Reagan. He had a well-formed philosophy based on a never-existing mythological land that sort of looks like some new 1950s suburbs with a dose of cowboy thrown in. Fine for an actor who grew up with a mean drunk for a father and he was usually pretty good at delivering his lines. He was especially enjoyable after Jimmy Carter stopped smiling. But Reagan carried with him the unholy coalition of old Wall Street money, southern aristocrats and related thinly-veiled property-grasping race-baiters who were then able to use time-honored rabble-rousing to bring middle-class white-folks along with them as a religious matter, and a small but growing group of the sons of former 1930s American Stalinists turned rightward by the failure of Communist ideology but enamored of the tactics for their cause. A strange crew to be sure but connected by their belief in the righteousness of their cause and disdain for any in their midst who disagreed with them.

Reagan was eventually followed by Newt Gingrich who lowered and continues to lower the intellectual bar from the top end, and then came George W. Bush who did so from the bottom, a genuine empty suit ready to be stuffed by what had become a fully mean-spirited pure power grab completely bereft of any further real world consideration to any policy it promoted or action it took. The past eight years have seen the Constitution ignored in as complete a manner as could be imagined by any of the framers who wrote it to avoid such abuse.

We’re close to the end of dealing with them. Hopefully for a good long while. Even Buckley himself recognized that the movement he started had effectively destroyed itself with the behavior of the GW Bush administration. As a man of faith himself, he probably would not have any trouble with the notion of spending a good long time in the desert in order to confront one’s mortality and identity. And so it shall be for the conservatives and Republican Party in general.

Conservatism is a decent enough way to run one’s life. But not a nation as big, complex, varied, factionalized, open, hopeful, and grasping as ours. Liberalism and liberty come from the same root for a reason. And the openness necessary to succeed in a nation such as ours can’t run our politics on anything other than true root of those words.

[I know that a lot of the statements made above are pretty loaded and not backed up… yet. I’m in no rush to lay it all out now, but it is my long term intention here to pick out many of the phrases from above and work them out in greater detail. Right now it’s a bare skeleton. Meat’s a-comin’. Just starting to tease out the notion of conservativism as an unworkable and hopefully now, discredited ideology. But I’ll stretch out just a bit more to give a sense of where I’m at and where I’m going.]


Philip Smith said...

I wrote a longer reply to this but the Google blog monster ate and destroyed it when I tried to post. So that’s gone.

The essence of it was that I think Left and Right map to Yin and Yang, or some such, and I don’t think it is likely either will ever “win”: they are extremities of a continuum that covers the spectrum of what happens.

The “conservative” writers that I pay attention to tend not to venerate Reagan, and most view the past 8 years with the same horror as anyone else. Nevertheless, there are obvious profound points of conflict that may get worse if the new administration isn't able to contain the economic power skid quickly.

Here's a dose of cynicism from Spengler:

stephwest said...

Yeah, stretch it out! I like what you have to say. "Mean spirited" seems to sum the current administration up nicely.

JT said...

Just as the Hebrews needed some time in Persia as slaves to fully flesh out the concept of a "devil" who is both bad and the absence of good, so must the conservative intelligensia now wander in the penury of a movement bereft of ideas or a framework to effectuate them, other that suddenly discovering fiscal retraint now that there are no more wall street tycoons left to throw money at.

However, the left must not revert back to the old playbook, because the times they have a' economic complexities require new thinking or the old cycle will continue and we will all be speaking Mandarin.

ba said...

i've been honing some recipes featuring sichuan peppers lately but since the chinese have to rely on the continuing viability of our dollar for their holdings to worth anything or there products to be bought in sufficient bulk, i suspect they will do a lot to assure USA, Inc stays afloat. more about that later...

Anonymous said...

Absolutely awesome article - I haven't seen a more eloquently written summary of the conservative regime.