On Conservatism

Today's most emailed article on the New York Times' website comes from Frank Rich. After citing the allegedly (ahem) incendiary rhetoric from the likes of Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, Frank Rich points to Shepard Smith as a possible moderating voice among conservatives. Rich writes,
The question, Shepard Smith said on Fox last week, is “if there is really a way to put a hold on” those who might run amok. We’re not about to repeal the First or Second Amendments. Hard-core haters resolutely dismiss any “mainstream media” debunking of their conspiracy theories. The only voices that might penetrate their alternative reality — I emphasize might — belong to conservative leaders with the guts and clout to step up as McCain did last fall. Where are they? The genteel public debate in right-leaning intellectual circles about the conservative movement’s future will be buried by history if these insistent alarms are met with silence.
And since I've been feeling quite skeptical about the Obama administration lately, I thought I'd try to participate in filling the void that Rich has identified.

First, I'll concede that voices like Newt Gingrich's and Rush Limbaugh's would grate on anybody's eardrum, if only because they're so long-accustomed to "having the stage." So a repackaging may be necessary. Anything that smacks of sexism or racism has to go, immediately and altogether. Nevertheless, the core principles will remain almost precisely the same, and conservatism will be reborn (if it is) when these principles are articulated in a way that convinces America's middle class... there's nothing else to it.

Here's what I think will work:
  • Keep the emphasis on tax cuts. Liberals will accuse tax-cutters of being "one-trick ponies" or "ideologues," but the tax cut must remain the central feature of conservative politics because it reflects a philosophical/theoretical commitment to a particular understanding of economic realities. I won't go further in the defense of those realities here, because I've done it many times before. But this time: go further and cut government programs too. Yes, you can't have tax-cuts without cutting "benefits." So cut these alleged "benefits," at least the most dubious of them.
  • A return to "isolationism." With the disheartening exception of the Mexican-American war, America's 19th century could serve as a model here. Imperialism is not conservative, and conservatism is not imperialistic -- or at least it shouldn't be that way. One more point: "isolationism" does not mean economic isolationism: the world is obviously shrinking, and open trade everywhere will help. But our military should be positioned defensively. At the very least, end the "Bush Doctrine"/first-strike mentality.
  • Cultural libertarianism. Okay conservatives, you've talked about small government long enough. Now it's time to live by your words: if what I do doesn't harm anyone else, leave me alone. That means smoking pot. That means having whatever kind of sex I want. Those points should sound good to liberals, heathens as they are. This one won't: conservatism should also be skeptical of things like the FDA... yes, yes, you want someone to make sure that the meat you eat is really the meat the package says it is. But most of the three-letter bureacracies like the FDA tend to swell, and we're way beyond the point when these agencies can automatically be said to make life better. If a restaurant wants to welcome smokers, let it.
  • Continue to resist legalized racialism. It may be a while before this becomes a selling point for conservatives, but there's no use joining liberals on questions like affirmative action: people who favor affirmative action will vote liberal even if conservatives "sort of" favor affirmative action. So take that "All men are created equal" ideology and extend it to mean every-single-friggin'-body.
  • Stop regulating business. You've long been the party of "laissez-faire," but for too long, that's only been a popular notion. Be more serious about it: if a huge entity goes belly-up, let it: that will create new and dynamic opportunities for economic growth, even if it temporarily incapacitates certain industries (and investors!). The source of wealth in all civilizations is profit -- let that motive remain. It needs no encouraging.
  • Drop religion as a cause. This is a long-shot, but it's necessary. Real conservatism is about widespread material-well-being. The Holy Spirit has never relied on a government mechanism to get its work done. If this means the party fragments into "Religious Zealots" and "Libertarians," by all means let it.
  • Oppose Utopianism. This should be a real strong suit for conservatives right now. Liberals feel as if they're just one more "czar" away from making a perfect world, and conservatives know that that world-view is at the very least naive, and has often turned dangerous.
  • Be better educators. One thing that Rush always said remains true: conservative ideas are more difficult than liberal ideas. Anyone can "feel" that everything should be equal. It takes real discipline to understand what human choice really looks like in practice, and it takes serious courage to trust freedom as an ideology. Find new ways to articulate the inner workings of the captalist mechanism: until a new generation understands why it works, conservatism will not find its way to power.
And maybe most importantly: be a genuinely loyal opposition. Do not hesitate to criticize those who would turn violent in the name of politics.


Insignificant Wrangler said...

Great post Casey. And your list of values reflects much of my political stance when I lived in Massachusetts, before I encountered some of the minority Rich described. Mainstream conservatism might be able to drop religion and endorse a more libertarian perspective, but the neo-con movement has many dedicated supporters... it reminds me of the debate between Lt. Col. Tom Devoe and Dr. Julia Kelly in Mimi Leder's movie The Peacemaker: "I'm not afraid of the man who wants ten nuclear weapons, I'm terrified of the man who just wants one." The threat is not 99.9999% of the conservative party--the problem lies at the fringe of politics and humanity, in someone completely absorbed into a misguided and irrational narrative.

I especially liked Rich's treatment of this small segment of the right-wing: "A sizable minority of Americans is irrationally fearful of the fast-moving generational, cultural and racial turnover Obama embodies — indeed, of the 21st century itself. That minority is now getting angrier in inverse relationship to his popularity with the vast majority of the country. Change can be frightening and traumatic, especially if it’s not change you can believe in." I think I've mentioned Jim Corder before, and this is a great echo of Corder's work on rhetoric and narrative.

Its on these grounds that I would dismiss Rich's argument that the "Hard-core haters resolutely dismiss any “mainstream media” debunking of their conspiracy theories. The only voices that might penetrate their alternative reality — I emphasize might — belong to conservative leaders with the guts and clout to step up as McCain did last fall. " If anything, a change in the voices they trust would only amplify their rage--it would likely seem as if even their most trusted figures had succumbed to the liberal threat. In all probability, the only way to deal with these people is to increase security around the president.

Casey said...


You're right about that fearfulness of the 21st century. Every day I wake up in Matthews, NC -- a quaint little progressive suburb of Charlotte with an excellently preserved (and still used) old-time downtown area, etc. Farmers markets, Priuses, and healthy diversity.

Then every day I drive to work out in the country, somewhere thirty miles east of Charlotte: and it's like time-travel. When I stop in the gas stations, it's like a scene from a Flannery O'Connor novel: three people standing around talking in a language I can only sort-of understand. Usually one is doing something with his hands, and another is smoking. I'm not sure I'd describe these people as "fearful" of the new century and the new culture -- but they are not hip to it at all.

All of this makes me feel like LOST understands something with its emphasis on time-travel... it really is all about generational change right now. Still, I believe it will be a very interesting time in a few years when the conservative movement is reborn into the new era.

Insignificant Wrangler said...

I have an ironic experience everyday that I think best represents the paradox we call America. Everyday I drive from Riverview to Tampa, up Interstate 75. And everyday I pass Martin Luther King Avenue, exit 261. And, flapping in the breeze right next to the highway sign announcing Martin Luther King avenue is a gigantic, and I mean gigantic, Confederate flag.

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