Freddie’s piece on Ross Douthat is top-notch. But more interesting than the critique of Douthat-as-columnist, is Freddie’s analysis of conservatism divided, which after a second and third reading, I can agree with to a point.
On the one hand, many conservatives really didn’t support the Iraq War or torture or the Patriot Act or any number of other Bush policies any more than many liberals supported some of Clinton’s more hawkish moments, or his taste for expensive cigars and cheap interns, or his grand proclamations that “the days of big government have ended”. No political group can ever be held entirely accountable for the actions of that group’s leadership. And plenty of conservatives did oppose the wars or the Patriot Act and shouldn’t be held accountable in some abstract way for that debacle. David Frum immortalized their dissent in his “Unpatriotic Conservatives” article at The National Review. It seems fair for these conservatives to say, “I opposed X, Y, and Z” when they are on the record having opposed X, Y, and Z.
On the other hand, this dissent has become a meme unto itself. Being dissident and pointing out the flaws of the movement and the flaws of its punditry now passes for alt-conservatism, as though being other or being opposed to the style of Beck or Coulter or whoever is in and of itself a sort of substitute for substance. Only, it’s not. It’s no different than the cheerleaders on the other side, touting Limbaugh’s infallibility or demonizing Democrats. Without valid ideas and policy suggestions – without wonkery – I see little good coming from pointing out the innumerable flaws of Mark Levin.
That being said, simply “taking responsibility” for the past wrongs of conservatism rings somewhat hollow as well. Freddie is right to point out that the “endless divisions” within conservatism make it fairly easy for nobody to take responsibility for anything, but I wonder if that’s quite the right way to frame the problem. It’s not so much that people aren’t taking responsibility for the past, but that even those in supposed opposition to the conservative movement aren’t taking responsibility for visions of the future.
Perhaps this is what people like Freddie are really bothered about when they read Douthat’s NY Times column. Once upon a time, Douthat was considered one of the GOP’s young visionaries. Now, one wonders if there are any conservative visionaries at all.
P.S. One problem with being an “idea” person on the right, is that inevitably that will lead to solutions in which government and private entities must work together. Government will invariably play a role in most of our big problems – whether it is health care reform or the environment or economic stimulus – and as soon as any suggestions are made that include government, the stauncher elements on the right pounce, and suddenly you’re a RINO or a liberal in disguise or some other outcast too vile for words. But limited government requires as much work if not more than big government. Conservatives need to realize that even conservative policy-making will have some degree of ‘statism’ involved. Until we can get to that point, any policy people on the right are somewhat limited to saying “Markets will do better!” and “Cut taxes!” (unless, of course, we’re talking foreign policy.)