Friday, May 23, 2008

You govern with the party you have, not the party you wish you had

There's been much discussion around the blogosphere on this piece from George Packer entitled, "The Fall of Conservatism." It's a fairly interesting piece though I found it a bit unfulfilling. As my friend Rusty noted elsewhere - Packer doesn't really spend anytime looking at what the Democratic Party leadership is planning to do to capitalize on these fissures and push a progressive agenda.

Beyond the article itself though there has been some quality discussion spurred on by the article. Notably we have some attempting to distinguish themselves as conservatives first and pushing the meme that the GOP has somehow failed conservatism. It's a very convenient argument to make - conservatism itself has not failed, conservatism has been failed by its leaders and practitioners. Such a rationalization allows the purveyor to avoid any sort of messy introspection about their core philosophy. The logic goes something like this- the ideology is not flawed we just need better ideologues, or something.

Kevin Drum does great work dismissing this all too convenient rationalization. I think it is worth quoting him at length,

No political ideology lives in isolation. We judge communism by how Mao and Stalin implemented it, we judge 60s-era liberalism by how LBJ and the Democratic Party implemented it, and we judge social democracy by how Western Europe has implemented it. That's how you judge movements: by how their real-life adherents put them into practice, not by reference to a utopian vision of how they should be implemented if only we lived in the best of all possible worlds.

Nonetheless, now that the Republican Party has been brought low, an awful lot of conservatives are jumping ship, claiming that it really doesn't represent them at all. But look: when the GOP made common cause with evangelical extremists, conservatives cheered. When the GOP accepted Grover Norquist's tax jihad as sacred writ, conservatives cheered. When Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay all but declared the GOP the party of corporate welfare, conservatives cheered. When George Bush declared war on the Middle East, conservatives cheered. Somehow Burke never really entered the discussion. But now that it turns out these positions have been pretty much played out, Burke is back in and Karl Rove is out. That's just a little too convenient.

Of course, conservatives point elsewhere, to the rise of pork and the rise of corruption and the rise of government spending, as signs that the GOP is no longer a true conservative party. But pork has been part of politics since politics was invented, corruption has nothing to do with ideology, and discretionary domestic spending hasn't gone up that much. The real problem is that people have gotten tired of war, they've gotten tired of the relentless and cynical defense of economic privilege, they've gotten tired of a refusal to even attempt solutions of real-life problems, and they've gotten tired of preachers banging on endlessly about abortion and teh gay. But these are all things that, in real life, the conservative movement and the Republican Party agree on.

A Republican Party that was more competent, more honest, and more principled would obviously also be more popular. And certainly there's room on the margin to complain about the modern GOP's conservative bona fides (Medicare, spending, immigration, etc.). Still, on the big issues the Republican Party is pretty damn conservative, at least as actual existing modern conservatism is practiced — and after 30 years of putting it into practice it turns out that actual existing modern conservatism doesn't have much appeal left. That's the problem, not the fact that George Packer pays more attention to Nixon than Buckley.

We live in a world where politics is practiced by imperfect humans. We call these specific humans politicians and when they act in our name and in general accordance with our principles we cannot, in good faith, claim that any subsequent criticism is unfair or that the true ideology is not being adhered to. It's something to keep in mind as we will no doubt see more rats fleeing the sinking GOP ship after the November elections. It would be refreshing to see some of that "personal responsibility" that conservatives are constantly harping about applied to their own actions. Absent that unlikely development though it is important that we don't accept their "Fair Weather Burkean" protests at face value.

1 comment:

rusty said...

Quoting Drum:

"That's how you judge movements: by how their real-life adherents put them into practice, not by reference to a utopian vision of how they should be implemented if only we lived in the best of all possible worlds."

I certainly agree with Drum's central thesis that political theory can never be applied perfectly in an imperfect world and in imperfect structures of government. The historical examples are clearly on the side of Drum's argument. American conservativism, even in its most idealistic form , is a cheap bastardization of many of Burke's best ideas, just as communism was a bastardization of Marx's best ideas, and modern neoliberalism is bastardization of Keynes, Galbraith, and others.

Modern American Conservatives also fail to adequately modify and update what was relevant and insightful in 18th century anglo/norman/franco europe to a vastly different nation 200 years later with transnational problems.

I think Drum, Packer, and others may be understating or missing an important distinction here though. Presently, American Conservativism should really be divided between Executive/Legislative Branch Conservativism and Judiciary Conservatism.

Executive/Legislative Conservativism (hopefully) operates within democratic limits and when its policies and policy implementations fail, it is eventually subject to some sort of consequence at the ballot box.

The SCOTUS is not subject to these same limits. With our other branches failing to govern due to increasing partisanship, gridlock, and corporate control, the Supreme Court is the last true front in the war of ideas. It is that institution which has the greatest power to enact, as Drum writes, "a utopian vision". Currently, we have the most conservative court in 70 years. All votes by Scalia, Thomas, Roberts, and Alito cast in the current and previous sessions have been 100% consistent with so-called conservative or originalist interpretations. This recent record suggests that these nominees are not interpreting/evaluating/clarifying the law, but rather are making predictable, political rulings driven by idealogy.

Lifetime appointments and the young age of these justices make this a very frightening, very serious situation. While Conservatives in the executive and legislative branches may be forced to update both their ideology and methods to satisfy the changing will of the people, the SCOTUS could be upholding a rigid, outdated, unadaptive ideology for decades.

Can you tell I'm still reeling from the Scalia 60 minutes interview? My god......