A Plea for Engagement


Will writes from Washington, D.C. (well, Arlington, Virginia). You can reach him at willblogcorrespondence at gmail dot com.

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21 Responses

  1. This says very well something that I’ve been trying to figure out how to write for quite some time – the lack of engagement between dissident righties and the righty “base” has struck me as quite unusual in recent years; meanwhile the left portion of the blogosphere seems to have quite a bit of engagement between its dissident and dogmatic elements. In fact, there is often more engagement between dissident conservatives/libertarians with all elements of the left than there is with any elements of the right’s “mainstream.” I’ve been trying to figure out why this is. The best explanation I’ve come up with so far is that it’s a function of being out of power vs. being in power for a prolonged period of time. But that doesn’t seem to fully explain it, either. I don’t think it’s at all a function of something inherent in either worldview – there was, IIRC, quite a bit of internal debate on the Right during the ’90s, especially on immigration and foreign policy.Report

  2. E.D. Kain says:

    …out of the ashes, Will. All this will come only after critical mass is reached. But you’re absolutely right. That’s the problem with an echo chamber mentality, when dissent is treated as apostasy rather than simply another constructive vantage point.Report

  3. Katherine says:

    Firstly, I’d like to say that I thought the article about Carter was excellent. He’s a severely under-appreciated person, and the only American president in a century at least who genuinely sought to govern according to Christian principles – humility, belief in treating people decently (and urging our allies as well as our enemies to do the same) and striving for peace. He’s also, relatedly, the only US president in that time frame to have followed a foreign policy opposed to imperialism and Cold War ideology – the “malaise” speech is a big part of that. This may be a big part of why he is loathed by so much of the political spectrum – telling Americans they can’t and/or shouldn’t impose their desires on other nations is deeply unpopular.

    With regard to the lack of inter-right dialogue, I think it is related to the fact that the far-right has a much stronger hold on the Republicans than the left does on the Democrats. The dogmatism and rejection of all critics as hostile enemies that seen in “mainstream Republican” commentators is mirrored in parts of the far left. It comes of having a somewhat Manichean worldview: we are the good guys and must eventually triumph, they are the bad guys. “They” are opposed to society’s best interests and only want to destroy us, so there is no point in engaging “them”. Every critic is an enemy, because instead of trying to figure out what the best policies are and how tradeoffs can be made between different values, the movement is dedicated to some ideal future order, and criticism weakens the movement and decreases its chances of achieving that order. The other side of this is the deep belief that the other side must be acting in bad faith, so there’s no point in trying to convince them of your ideas; with this comes the conviction that if regular people could just hear the truth, they would immediately side with you since your views are so self-evidently right. This contributes to the inability of the ideologues to argue their points in a manner that is convincing to those who don’t already agree.

    The difference is that this point of view has taken over “mainstream” Republicanism, while it’s not even part of the Democratic party, being far to the left of them.

    This isn’t, by the way, intended simply as left-bashing. Many of the people on the left do have good points, and do point out facts that the mainstream press ignores or distorts – but they are chronically terrible at voicing these points in a convincing way.Report

  4. Will says:

    Mark –

    Culture11 is really the only forum I can think of that actively recruited writers from across the conservative spectrum. Its failure, I think, speaks to the inability of the Right to engage in constructive intramural dialogue. Your “out of power” thesis makes a certain amount of sense, but you would think that the 2006 midterms and the 2008 election would have already prompted some sort of reconciliation.

    Katherine –

    You may be right, though I hesitate to psycho-analyze an entire party. I also think it’s worth noting that the Left has suffered through similarly acrimonious debates and patched things up afterward (arguments over the Iraq War come to mind), so I’m left wondering why conservative reconciliation still seems so far off.Report

  5. Will – Agreed, on both counts. Like I said, I find the “out of/in power” explanation to be partial, at best. One weird part about all of this is the way in which Ronald Reagan continues to be idealized by just about every segment of conservatism, including some (though not all) of the dissident elements – to me that doesn’t bespeak a notion that Reagan was the be-all-and-end-all of conservatism (his name gets invoked by both sides of just about every issue that conservatives still manage to disagree about), but it does suggest pretty strongly that his strength as a conservative was an ability to engage each element of conservatism on its own terms. All of which is just my way of saying that internal conservative dialogue and dissent is clearly not inherently anathema to conservatism as a worldview.

    It’s easy to think that the rise of Rush played a role in all this – certainly it did – but that, in and of itself, doesn’t explain why talk radio came to be something more than just a rallying point for a segment of conservatism, becoming instead a rigid definition of conservatism. I’d say, instead, that the rise of Rush as the be-all-and-end-all of conservatism is itself just a symptom of some underlying problem.Report

  6. Katherine says:

    Will – When I talk about the left, I don’t mean the anti-war protestors. The folks I know consider the Republicans and Democrats more or less the same, and are considered by the members of both parties to be wingnuts. They’re outside the political debate.

    Here’s another suggestion. A large reason for mainstream Democratic opposition to the anti-war people was fear of being marginalized as unserious or unpartriotic; you made this point in an earlier post. When the anti-war activists were vindicated in being right in almost every way – the collapse of not only the war effort but of all the justifications behind it and public support for it – the two groups could come together in blaming Republicans for the war.

    With the conservatives, though, in the most important areas of disagreement both groups are closer to Democrats or leftists than they are to each other. Mainstream Republicans condemn the Obama administration for being too soft, dissident conservatives call it too interventionist. Mainstream Republicans defend the national security state (when it isn’t direct at them), dissidents oppose it. Mainstream Republicans hold free-market dogma as a core principle; dissidents questions globalism and free trade. In short, dissidents are making many of the same complaints against mainstream Republicans that Democrats do (or, in the case of globalization, sounding an awful lot like the left). Mainstream Republicans simply can’t recognize this as conservatism, because it involves doing a 180 on beliefs form the core of their ideology. On foreign policy, security policy, trade, the mainstream Republicans have a heck of a lot more in common with Obama than with the dissidents. And the dissidents for their part are uninterested in engaging with Republicans purely on the basis of cries that “we’re fiscal conservatives now, really!”Report

  7. Katherine says:

    One addition – I think Mark’s mention of the Reagan factor brings up another reason, particularly as this post references an article on Carter as a conservative. The conservative dissenters in various ways – Larison’s anti-imperialism, Dreher’s anti-consumerism (we need to come up with some positive ways of framing these ideas instead of always anti-), Sullivan’s opposition to social conservatives – each challenge a basic assumption of the Reaganite worldview. Many of the dissidents themselves don’t recognize this and continue to admire him, but their ideals of conservatism are very different from those of his administration.Report

  8. Jaybird says:

    Fairly accurate analogy I’ve seen is the one of the three legged stool.

    Social Conservatives (and their cousins, the paleos), Fiscal Conservatives (and their cousins, the libertarians), and Defense Conservatives (and their cousis, the neocons). Reagan managed to bring all of these guys together.

    Looking back, of course, there are a number of reasons that pretty much everybody excepting the Hawks (and their cousins) should have been disappointed (ignoring, of course, whether they would have been more pleased with his opponent)… but look at what happened after him. Bush won in 88 pretty dang handily and Perot pointed out to everybody what nobody wanted to admit:

    The Republicans were lying to everybody and the alternative to that was the Democrats who were telling the truth.

    Perot got 1 out of 6 voters to vote for him with that message… costing Bush the election. Clinton, being one of the smartest folks to hold the office in recent memory, learned the lessons of 1994 quite well (and was helped by the Republican who, for a short while, learned the lessons of 1992). Clinton went on to be the best Republican president since Ike.

    Ralph Nader, pointing this out, cost Al Gore the election to a George Bush who ran on a platform of “since we’re both Republicans, why not vote for the Jesusyier one?”

    Bush would have been a one-termer had it not been for 9/11. Why? Because he was weak sauce. After 9/11, 2002 happened and the Democrats went insane and decided that they needed a Vietnam Vet to run against Bush in 2004. This proved to be the dumbest thing that anyone has ever tried to do, like, ever. The problem with it being so dumb is that the Democrats tried to argue that it was not, in fact, dumb (he was the best they had, no one could have done any better, the Republicans were on a roll, Gephardt wouldn’t have won Ohio) and the Republicans were thrilled to hear this as well because they were still stinging from the 2000 election (which, though not stolen, was certainly nothing to be proud of). Not only did Bush win fair and square… he beat the *BEST* the democrats had to offer! No one could have beaten Bush! Permanent Republican Majority!!!

    Well, 2006 let everybody know exactly what they thought of Bushism with 9/11 far enough away. 2008 put the icing on the proverbial cake.

    I think that the three legs of the stool (and their cousins!) are still out there, mostly (there are fewer paleos than there used to be but the fiscons and their cousins have made up for it, I think).

    What the tea parties tell me is this: If a Perot shows up, he’ll change everything. Maybe not get more than 25%… but “the people” are showing that they agree with Nader with the tea parties.

    There ain’t a dime’s worth of difference.

    And the three legs of the conservative stool don’t trust each other because of how they were all treated by the Republicans from 2002 to 2006. The Social Conservatives feel like all Bush did was hold the line but didn’t do anything to either regain ground or make it easier for those who followed him to hold it. The Hawks (much like the Marxists) explain how Bush just wasn’t Hawkish *ENOUGH* for them (and the neocons are thrilled with Obama’s power grabbing because, hey, it’s all about protecting the country and projecting our power, right?). The Fiscons and Libertarians are learning that, huh, I guess that it was possible to be worse than Bush fiscally.

    But the Catholic conservatives don’t trust the Fiscal conservatives (and vice-versa) and nobody trusts the Hawks (that goes double for when they ask “where else you gonna go?”).

    If the Democrats are not scared away from excesses by a Perot-type, the three legs will join up again, tentatively, if only because the bluedogs will win votes by sounding like 1980’s Republicans… and the Republican party loves power too much to not parrot politicians who win elections.Report

  9. Jaybird says:

    Sorry, I kinda rambled there.Report

  10. Sean Scallon says:

    I want to thank Will and all those who have posted for the kind remarks on my piece in TAC. I agree with the arguments as to why those of “Conservative Inc.” do not wish to enagage with dissidents and I wish one other reason as to why.

    Paul Gottfried has pointed out on numerous occasions that those within the conseravtive establishment follow a strategy, whether concious or not, of not even acknowledging the dissent right even exists, unless its to savagely attack it as David Frum notorious did in his polemic “Unpatriotic Conservatives”. This is done basically to monopolize debate. Neither NR or the Weekley Standard want anyone outside their Cosmopolitan axis to be acknowledged by the left or by the regular Comsopolitans in the corridors of power, media or finance as someone worthy of debate and discussion or whose ideas are worth of debate and discussion. They wish to be the ones the politicians and the regular establishment deals with, not those on the “fringe” or oustide Cosmoland. These “provincials” (and it’s telling that many dissidents operate outside D.C., Wall Street and Hollywood) supposedly have nutty opinions about economics and culutre, are filled with conspiracy theorists and are “anti-semitic”, whatever that means. Ergo they are not worthy of being acknowledged, much less have their ideas considered at all. Indeed, just as the Cosmo left would view Jeremiah Wright or Lenora Fulani or Howard Zinn as embarrassments, so too, does the establishment right, Conservative Inc., or Cosmo conservatives, whatever you like to call them, view dissidents as the old crazy aunts to be locked away in basements.

    I would love to have NR or the Standard discuss my article but I suppose as write they’re probably snickering at it and wondering when are we going to invade Somalia again. That’s fine. Pretty soon their monopoly, like all monpolies is going to break up thanks to the internet which makes it easier to publish articles from dissidents; from dissent within their own ranks (Frum, Buckley, Noonan, Parker, Will) and their totalitarian reaction to them; from their own rhetoric which is becoming unhinged from reality as well as irrelevent, from talk show hosts becoming more interested in our ideas even if they are less than credible (Glenn Beck) and from continued losing. How can you claim to be a voice for conservatives when what and who you support end up on the ashbin of history?

    A good example of this sea change going on is with Texas governor Rick Perry. He now supports a sovereignty legislation and even talked about secession. Now granted he’s doing this for opportunistic reasons(he has a primary coming up) and certainly he wasn’t saying such things when his buddy Bush II was in the White House. But he also wouldn’t be saying such things unless there was popular support amongst activists for them. Politicians, as you well know, follow the whims of the vox populi. If sea changes is all ready out there amongst the masses and the politicians, it will certainly start reflecting itself among elite opinion as well, from the bottom up.Report

  11. Rj says:

    The worst part of this whole intra-movement animosity is how it’s framed around old culture-war canards, shifting anyone who isn’t willing to toe the line as part of an Eastern Seaboard establishment, grovelling to get accepted into the better tea parties. No response to the argument, just an attempt to cast off dissenters to “fake America.” Good luck winning outside Dixie with that attitude, guys.Report

  12. Will says:

    Phew. Lots of interesting stuff to respond to. A few quick reactions:

    Rj –

    The irony, of course, is that many conservative dissidents are the antithesis of the Eastern Establishment.

    Sean Scallon –

    Thanks for dropping by. As a self-identified East Coast cosmopolitan, I think you may overstate the cultural differences underlying the conservative split, though many of these mainstream outlets share a certain establishment mindset. Like you, I hope that political reality will eventually force some sort of acknowledgment from the National Reviews of the world that yes, they were wrong and we were right about a few important issues (see Iraq, Invasion of).

    Katherine –

    I hear what you’re saying, but I think we should remember that conservative critiques of the establishment are rooted in a worldview that is very different from your typical progressive/liberal. I’d be careful about drawing too many parallels between dissident righties and leftists. If we really agreed with the Left that much, I suppose we’d already be Democrats.Report

  13. Lighthouse says:

    I dont think you can compare the Left in 2005 to conservatives in 2009. They were at completely different phases of their cycles. In 2005, the left long out of power and marginalized had a new generation of leaders who had never been in power and were willing to at least listen to almost any idea on how to get into power. The old 60’s divisions had largely faded mainly due to the fact the arguments had been going on for 40 years and any one over 40 were tired of them while any one younger than 40 was just baffled by them.

    Conservatives in 2009 are more like liberals in 1981. the differences are too new, the arguments too fresh for there to be any agreement yet. Plus too many people interested in keeping what power they have and too many people thinking that if we only tweak the message we will get back into power.

    Maybe Obama is not a democratic Reagan. Maybe he will be a 1 term president but I think any republican that will win a national election any time soon will be need to a republican Clinton, a RINO. And at this point I cant see how a RINO gets the republican nomination. I think it will be a long time before true conservatism will be in political ascendancy.Report

  14. Will says:

    Lighthouse –

    Pretty persuasive analysis, though I think conservatives’ internecine squabbles are a bit more venerable than you might think. Perot and Buchanan’s break with the Establishment presages a lot of this stuff.Report

  15. Lighthouse says:

    Will –

    Yes but the lefts divides were just as venerable in 1981, going back to 1968. Cracks that appear in a coalition while in power tend to break into full fledge war once the coalition breaks up and drops out of power. Coalitions fall because the moderates leave. That leaves an open field for a war of idealogical cleansing. I wish I could say that this war will lead to a new stronger party but they usually dont. They usually just end when the other side screws up bad enough that the moderates leave the other side and come back to your side. This is what it means to no longer be the ascendant ideology. You no longer drive the narrative. It is the other sides to lose.

    But the tendency for me is to carry this analogy too far. You are right, there are real differences in how this is playing out now compared to 20 years ago.Report

  16. Jaybird says:

    Another dynamic:

    What battles have been won? What battles are there left to fight?

    The left (for lack of a better word) won some *HUGE* victories with FDR and LBJ. The right (again, for lack of a better word) won… what?

    The Iron Curtain fell, maybe. What else?Report

  17. Lighthouse says:

    Jaybird –

    The markets based economy, the idea that markets are the best way to allocate scarce resources. This is huge change from previous years where conservatives argued against more government from a private property perspective, instead of a ‘free markets do it better’ perspective. The free market argument gave conservatism an active solution based ideology. Conservatives went from ‘you really should not be doing this’ nagging on FDR and LBJ to ‘we can help you and we can do it better than the government’ with free markets.

    We need to remember how much the market based economy has changed things. Take something as basic as oil. NYMEX did not start trading heating oil futures until 1978, gasoline in 1981, crude oil in 1983. Until the US started importing oil in the early 70’s, crude oil prices were fixed by the Texas Railroad Commission. Until Reagan removed them, the government maintained price and allocation controls on refined products and crude oil. And this is just oil.

    (As an aside and I am dont want to start anything but I think it is interesting to compare Reagan’s early days to Bush II. Reagan lifted the remaining government controls on oil and refined products 7 days after taking office. Bush II stopped government funding for abortion services. Guess which one had the larger impact)

    The rise and fall of the publics trust in markets mirrors the rise and fall of conservatism. I know not what will replace free markets as a driving force for conservatism but if you tell me that faith in free markets will lead to a new conservative ascendency then I will tell you it will be a long time before the publics faith in markets is restored.Report

  18. Jaybird says:

    As bad as the free market can be (and, indeed, it can be quite cruel at times), I submit that a market under centralized control (where the controllers receive contributions from established players) will be much, much worse.

    But we’ll get to watch that one in real time.Report

  19. Lighthouse says:


    Maybe but you should remember that they entire economic boom of the 1950’s and 1960’s was with an economy under much more central control and with higher marginal tax rates than anything Obama currently plans to do. Yes those were unique times and yes, the control in the end strangled the economy but it took a long time before controls went too far and the 50’s and 60′ s remain a golden economic age.

    Central control or more accurately, a marginal increase in central control may actually improve things. This is not the 70’s economy struggling under the accrued load of 40 years of regulation. This an economy driven by markets running wild after 35 years of deregulation. This is a different world than the one that gave the rise to market based economics.

    And as you say, we get to watch this one play out in real time.Report

  20. seanf says:

    I have little to add to this discussion except to say, as someone on the left end of the American spectrum, it is heartening to read analysis and discussion on the right that is intelligent, penetrating and civil.

    I’ve lived in this country for 15 years and although well aware that thoughtful conservatives exist, I generally see scant evidence of them – or their influence. More power to you guys – I hope your movement thrives.Report

  21. Beaglescout says:

    You all are missing the real problem. You act as if there is an out-of-touch Republican mainstream that holds to “extreme” conservative ideals, while the only Republican dissidents are the nativist anti-war brigade. You’re stuck in the Democrat’s narrative and have lost touch with grassroots Republicans. You know them, the voters. Put this in your pipe and smoke it. Then read this and learn what needs to be done to reconnect with the actual voters.Report