Saturday, December 22, 2012

Putting One Foot in Front of the Other

The way forward (Rankin-Bass)
A little over a month ago, the American people elected President Obama to a second four-year term. Mitt Romney's defeat surprised many conservatives, myself included, who had become convinced that sub-par economic conditions and Obama's mixed record would lead to his defeat.

It didn't.

In the weeks since, Republicans and conservatives have engaged in some helpful soul-searching, as well they should--neither group can any longer claim that 2008 constituted some sort of "anomaly." Something must change. Some of the advice has been good, some not. What follows is what we believe stands out as the best means for the conservative movement to put one foot in front of the other.

Appeal to the middle class. During the election, Romney focused on appealing to entrepreneurs, business owners, and other similarly-positioned individuals. While such people stand as a natural part of the Republican coalition, earning their votes is insufficient. But their employees represent a much larger demographic. Conservative positions can appeal to both groups. One of the easiest methods to do this is through a thorough adoption of "free-market populism," which is skeptical of big government, big business, and the growing nexus between the two. If President Obama wishes to use the wealthy as a political punching-bag, Republicans ought to point out that Washington and its surrounding counties, which create no wealth of their own, have somehow become the richest areas in the country during his time in office. If President Obama positions himself as a champion of business, Republicans ought to respond that, yes, he has become a champion of big business, lavishly subsidizing big corporations as long as they act in government-sanctioned ways. Above all, Republicans need to understand and to make clear that big business is not always an ally of free enterprise.

Make government work. Nearly all conservatives argue that dramatic reductions in the size and scope of the federal government are necessary, for both moral and practical reasons. But the reality of Washington today is that such measures are unlikely. Far more feasible, however, are measures that apply market principles to existing government programs to improve their efficiency, delivery, and efficacy; the success of these measures could then re-validate principles sorely in need of revalidation. Rep. Ryan's "Road Map," is an example of such a policy reform, but practical measures don't even need to be that dramatic. Indeed, measures that reduce or even eliminate the Medicare and Social Security payouts that well-off elderly people receive is one practical measure that could enjoy bipartisan support; if Democrats and progressives oppose policies of that nature, then they find themselves in the awkward position of supporting welfare for the rich. And that's one battle even Republicans could win.

Embrace federalism. For at least the next two years, Democrats will have control of the presidency and the Senate. During that time, Republicans should not expect to achieve much, if any, meaningful reforms of their own--at the national level. But at the state level, it's a different story. One of the most curious developments of American politics revealed by the last election is that America prefers Democrats at the national level but elect Republicans to govern their states. To wit, Republicans now have complete control (a governor and a majority in the state legislature) in 24 states, and governors in 30. This presents all sorts of possibilities; just in the past few weeks, we've seen Michigan become a right-to-work state, and over half of the states in the country refuse to set up the health insurance "exchanges" mandated by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Conservatives should embrace this approach with certain social issues as well, starting with marijuana. Being scientists in the "laboratories of democracy" is a natural position for conservatives--and one of great strength.

Engage in the culture at large. While Republicans at the national level ought to leave most social issues to debates among the states, the conservative movement ought not merely to give up these fights, as some our counseling. If anything, it must redouble its efforts, in large part by expanding them outside of the conservative sphere. The conservative movement, in the decades since 1950, has built itself up an impressive counter-cultural infrastructure: National Review, various think-tanks, talk radio, Fox News, etc. But this is far from enough. Questions of liberalism's ultimate verity aside, it's impossible for conservatives to win politically if they yield the culture to it, as they have largely done--how else to explain the growing acceptance of gay marriage, which--regardless of your position on the matter--was not even an issue when I was born. The existence of niche conservative films and TV shows is not enough; conservatives must try to infiltrate mainstream culture to use it as a medium in the same way that liberalism has, even if not to the same degree. Everything counts.

Start by taking the fight to academia. A useful place for such efforts to begin is the college campus. There currently exists a handful of conservative campuses; on the rest, a culture of liberalism reigns that will subsume, passively or actively, those who do not try deliberately to resist it. Voters aged 18-30 are usually more liberal, and the college campus has been since radical left claimed it in the 60s and 70s, but conservatives simply cannot survive if this aspect of the liberal coalition remains the way it is. Conservatism will probably never dominate the college campus, but an attempt to make inroads there, or even efforts to make students realize that conservatives offer actual policy proposals--either would be helpful.

The above suggestions are by no means exhaustive. Other helpful policies include firing idiotic consultants, learning from the lessons of the Bush years, but not repeating them, and cultivating and recruiting new and better spokespeople for the conservative message. Most important: despite the problem of the Republican brand itself, not communication issues, being the root of the party's continued failure, conservatives ought not to react to the 2012 election by internalizing Mitt Romney's misguided (and probably fatal) remarks about the "47%" and giving up on the United States. There is still hope for conservatism in this country--provided that conservatives believe there is.

Fiscal Cliff-Diving

The stakes
Before this post begins in earnest, please accept this blog's most earnest apologies. We had always intended to take some time off from posting in the election's wake, but over a month is far too long. Such extended absences from posting will no long be commonplace here; the election has demonstrated the need, now more than ever, for serious conservative thought and action. We shall humbly attempt to take part.

Fortunately, not much of note has happened in the political world since the election. For most of that time, the theatrics over the "fiscal cliff"--an already cliche term--have occupied Washington's time and energy. Having actually jumped off a cliff in Jamaica (an excursion from which the pictures in this post come), I am happy to explain what is going on to those who remain blessedly ignorant of it all.

The fiscal cliff refers to the cuts in federal spending, much of it on defense, and the expiration of the so-called "Bush tax cuts" established in a rather odd deal during the summer of 2011. That deal, struck to prevent the federal government from reaching its borrowing limit (the "debt ceiling"), stipulated the following: if the congressional commission created by the deal failed to achieve meaningful action to reduce the deficit, then the cuts being debated today would take place automatically (unless Congress voted to get rid of them when the time came).

Since the summer of 2011, we've had a Republican primary and a presidential election. In the latter, President Obama successfully ran on a campaign that identified two percent of the American population as the source of all of this country's ills, a characterization applied by association to Mitt Romney. Obama's main pitch during that election? "Ask the wealthiest Americans to pay a little more." Now that he's won, that's exactly the pitch he's attempted to translate into legislative action. And he's already largely succeeded. The haggling of the past few weeks has mostly seen members of the Republican House debate amongst themselves how bad of a deal (in their terms) they'd be willing to stomach. A tax increase on the wealthiest two percent is already a given; House Republicans now need to decide how meaningless the spending cuts they'll be forced to accept will be--slightly, as were those achieved by the Reagan-O'Neill '82 compromise, or completely, as in last summer's deal.

Some Republicans in the House, as well as many conservatives outside of it, reject this false choice, to coin a phrase. Last night, the former group showed this by refusing to vote for House Speaker John Boehner's "Plan B," a compromise that, realistically, probably constituted the least bad option for Republicans. Congress and the White House have about ten days to achieve the sort of compromise that would prevent at least some of the worst stuff that happens in its absence. If they don't, we "plunge over the cliff," in the current Washington parlance.

The future?

Got all that? Great, I barely do either. The chaos and confusion that have marked these "fiscal cliff" proceedings says a lot about Washington today. The twisted legislative chronology that has brought us to the current situation stands as one of the clearest demonstrations of President Obama's inability even to understand Republicans, much less to negotiate with them, as his Democratic predecessor was able to do. The negotiations themselves, to be fair, have also shown that many House Republicans lack the strategic division to accept both political reality and defeat; to those conservatives who want Boehner to hold out for a better deal, I ask: how good of a deal do you expect? Obama won the election; Republicans control the House--and barely, after the election. The best Republicans will be able to do in the next two years (at least) is to stop really bad things from happening--you won't balance a budget with spending cuts against a Democratic president and Senate. House Republicans are better off concentrating on the former.

But here's the truest lesson one can learn from these fiscal cliff negotiations : they don't matter. As someone who spent much of the past three weeks procrastinating, I--pace Justice Potter--know it when I see it; these negotiations are classic examples of putting off the real problem. Many politicians (and many voters) remain convinced that this country can somehow maintain European levels of government spending with Singaporean levels of taxation. Sooner, rather than later, we're going to have to choose: one can't have both. Readers of this blog know which choice we'd prefer, but no choice is better than no choice. And until this country definitively chooses what it wants--big government and big taxes, or limited government and lower taxes--then this protracted series of mini-crises will define our political process, just biding time. And the national debt clock will keep ticking upward.

Whatever happens, it's not going to be pretty.

Not the likeliest outcome

Monday, December 10, 2012

Rich's Poverty

My previous links were more placeholders than anything; last night, I had an exam which needed studying, and no Facebook argument is worth that. But now that I have the time for this, I'll try to demonstrate the intellectual poverty of this Rich post.

The statement of Rich you quoted attempts to paint the entire conservative movement as ignorant of the truth using a poll from the website "Right Wing News." My guess is that Rich has chosen that site, in particular, because its name would suggest to a reader who knows little about conservatism that the right wing derives much of its news from there. I, for one, had been on the site maybe once in my life before this fracas. But in trying to find the post Rich quoted, I found this rather helpful link from it, which lists the 50 most popular conservative sources of news and opinion ( Note that Right Wing news is 48th out of 50.

Finding the original post didn't take me long, however, so here it is:
Note that the post's author solicited the opinions of "over a hundred" bloggers, of whom 43 replied, and of whom none were on the previous top 50 list (already, we have obvious response bias. Surely you're not anti-science!?). Here is a list:

101 Dead Armadillos, Argghhhh!, Basil’s Blog, Cold Fury, Conservative Compendium, The Dana Show, DANEgerus Weblog, Dodgeblogium, Cara Ellison, Exurban League, Fausta’s Blog, Freeman Hunt, GraniteGrok, House of Eratosthenes, Infidels Are Cool, IMAO, Jordan Woodward, Moe Lane, Mean Ol’ Meany, The Liberal Heretics, Midnight Blue, Pirate’s Cove, Nice Deb, Pundit Boy, Professor Bainbridge, Pursuing, Liz Mair, Moonbattery, mountaineer musings, No Oil For Pacifists, No Runny Eggs, Right View from the Left Coast, Russ. Just Russ, Say Anything, Don Singleton, The TrogloPundit, The Underground Conservative, This Ain’t Hell, The Virtuous Republic, Vox Popoli, WILLisms, Wintery knight, YidwithLid

Of these, I have heard of exactly two. Do you see any National Review, American Spectator, Weekly Standard, Cato Institute, Heritage Foundation, American Enterprise Institute, or even Fox News sources on that list? I sure don't (I don't see any of them on that top 50 list from earlier either). That is the mainstream of the conservative movement, to say nothing of the Republican Party. These people are bloggers. They are not think tank directors, politicians, or anything like that. Blogging in the modern age, as you might know, has an incredibly low threshold: I have one, and anyone reading this post right now could start a blog to denounce me if he or she so wished (try here). This is not, then, a poll of conservative historians or academics either--a right-wing version of the Schlesinger presidential poll. Nope, just bloggers.

So, in short, you have a not very popular website soliciting the opinion of 100 much less popular websites, and 43 of them reply. This, to Frank Rich, is supposed to represent the entirety of American conservatism. On Nov. 6 of this year, dozens of twitter users called for Mitt Romney's assassination. If you say that twitter represents an even lower threshold than a blog, I'd agree, but remember that twitter is also a more frequented medium than any of the blogs on that list. Does that mean the entire left-wing wanted to kill Mitt Romney? No, it doesn't--the internet has emboldened fringes from both sides of the aisle, fringes by no means representative of the party's mainstream.

But I'm not sure if these people represent a "fringe." The figures Rich mentions, after all, do appear on the lists of some people--even when the post's original author did not specify exactly what kind of "worst" person he desired. If some left-leaning blogger had composed a similar list, without knowledge of the backlash this one caused on both sides of the aisle, I am most certain that George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan would appear near its peak, as would Richard Nixon--and I, as a conservative, wouldn't care. And speaking of Nixon, if you take a look at the list, he's on there! Bipartisanship! And the figures Rich mentions appear there as well, just not below Obama, FDR, and Carter.

Now, I'm guessing that most of you would argue that I haven't assailed Rich's central argument yet: i.e., the right is in a sort of "truth denial" because it thinks that Presidents are worse figures than assassins and murderers. As I said already, the post's author didn't specify what kind of "worst" he wanted: as conservative political bloggers, for what other purpose than political figures who did the most to advance a political vision they disliked would they have divined the solicitation was intended? Liberals should consider it a sort of perverse compliment that conservatives think so poorly of overtly progressive presidents--what do you expect? I'll grant to Rich that Booth, Oswald, and McVeigh are pretty terrible people, but there are certain aspects of even those figures that liberals have often struggled to digest. Booth is pretty straight-up bad (more bipartisanship!); Oswald was a communist ("good people," right?); and McVeigh earned the respect of no less a figure than Gore Vidal. These facts don't necessarily defeat the argument in and of themselves, but they should at least give liberals something to think about.

As for the poll itself, its author came to regret compiling it, and explained why its results came in as they did. Check out his explanation. In the same post, he also lists his own 20 worst figures in history. Here are the first five he lists:

Aaron Burr: Shot Alexander Hamilton in a duel and led a treasonous plot to take over part of the United States.
Aldrich Ames: A CIA spy for the Soviets.
Al Capone: The Chicago mob boss whose name is synonymous with organized crime.
Alger Hiss: Hiss was a Soviet agent who penetrated to the highest levels of FDR’s administration
Barack Obama: His profligate spending, at a time when the United States desperately needed to cut back, imperiled the continued prosperity of the country in a way no previous President ever had before.

But before you get worked up by Obama's inclusion (and possibly that of Hiss, if you are still beating that dead horse) note that the list is alphabetical, nothing more. The author's list still contains suggestions with which you will disagree--but so what? Cory Peters asked what happened to "reverence for our leaders"; to him, I would ask where that reverence was during, say, the Reagan administration, or the Bush administration ("Dissent is the highest form of patriotism," in all its fabricated glory). You guys don't like them, I don't like Obama or FDR (who, among other things, interned thousands of Japanese-Americans, you should recall). No historical figures are without their blemishes--even the best of them are human, just like the rest of us. I don't get "sick to my stomach" when someone brings up Iran-Contra to me; FDR's being considered by conservatives as one of our history's worst figures (a characterization that mostly excludes his World War II legacy, considerable as it was--not entirely due to his own efforts, however [remember Eisenhower and Patton?]) should delight liberals, as it means that he was successful in advancing a liberal vision. What, do you expect conservatives just to roll over when a liberal is successful, to fall in line and worship him dutifully?

Oh wait, maybe so. Or at least, that's the idea I get of Frank Rich. Rich dedicates so much vitriol to attacking the conservative movement by picking out its fringes, its most embarrassing elements, and its mistakes and then playing a game of connect-the-dots to paint it as essentially a fascist, racist organization that I have no other conclusion to reach than that he would rather see it not exist. If his goal were to play a sort of anti-Buckley and purge the movement of its fringes, I might join him, but that is not his goal. His goal is to take the tiniest pockets of thought, to make the most tenuous and dubious connections, so as to color the entirety of American conservatism as a collection of racist, sexist, homophobic, plutocratic ideologues not worthy of debate.

And that is what really bothers me about Rich. A man of his intellect ought to spend his time picking on intellectual targets his own size, such as syndicated conservative columnists with a profile similar to his own. But that would make it a lot harder for him to remove all of conservatism's legitimacy through his audacious game of connect-the-dots. That man will not rest until all of America resembles the left-of-center environment in which he has spent his entire life (Harvard, New York, New York Times, New York Magazine...), until there is no opposition to what he wants to see liberalism enact in America (by the way, how much could such a man know about conservatism in America, other than the caricatures he absorbs of it through interactions with other like-minded people?). I, for one, do not think that way. I do not want Democrats and liberals to disappear from political life. At their best, they are fun to argue with and present thought-provoking ideas on the inadequacies of the free market. But Frank Rich is not liberalism at its best. He is nothing more than a vile partisan, who would love nothing more than to see his opposition wither away, and his pieces are designed to reinforce the prejudices of people who share this view. But don't take my word for it. Here's what the New Republic said in 2011, in a list that also called out Paul Ryan and Ayn Rand:

"As former New York Times columnist Frank Rich’s average word count has increased, his writing has steadily become more predictable. From breathless diatribes on the Tea Party (over the course of two years, nearly 40 of his weekly columns touched on the unsavory patriots) to his fascination with the president’s placid demeanor, Rich writes cultural and political criticism with yesterday’s CNN headlines as his starting point. Rich, now a writer for New York magazine, has never been a brilliant political thinker; he is, in fact, an utterly conventional pundit of the old salon liberal variety. In his radical stance, he reminds us of Paul Krugman, except that Krugman is a scholar whose authority about his subject (economics, not politics) is unimpeachable, whereas Rich only knows what he’s learned from the media this past week. He is a clicker-intellectual."

Bonus read: Christopher Hitchens reviews one of Frank Rich's books: