Reform Conservatism, Not Conservatives
It’s clear to me that Conor and to a lesser extent Rod don’t understand what Jamelle, Freddie, E.D., and myself have been driving at in our various critiques of reform-minded conservatism. Conor’s misunderstanding is made apparent in this statement from his interview with Scott:
Perhaps we’re getting at what puzzles and galls me so much about recent posts at The League of Ordinary Gentlemen about how dissident conservative writers ought to conduct themselves. The notion is that these writers should assess an ideological subset of the American public, discern their sensibilities, and craft all subsequent writing so as not to offend them. What a fool’s errand. There are times when people react badly to hearing the truth plainly stated. It is a journalist’s job to tell them that truth anyway, as forthrightly and accurately as one can put it.
Although I don’t wish to speak for Freddie, Jamelle, or E.D., this seems to miss the point of our critiques entirely.
Our point has nothing to do with insisting that Conor or anyone else soft-pedal their critiques of Limbaugh, et al, although those attacks may well have the effect of making matters worse. It certainly does not suggest that reform-minded conservatives should refrain from objecting to torture or the conduct of the War on Terror or civil liberties violations by the Bush Administration – quite the contrary, Ron Paul’s growing influence on conservatism shows that it is possible to passionately dissent without forfeiting the ability to move conservatism in your direction. Nor do I think we are suggesting that Conor or any other specific reform-minded conservative is to blame for the current state of the Republican Party.
No, the point is that reform conservatives need to recognize that there is an ideological problem with conservatism as currently constituted as an amalgam of libertarianism, hawkishness, and religious fundamentalism that leaves modern conservatism incapable of governing well or ethically. It is all well and good to criticize the Bush Administration or to take issue with talk radio, but until reform conservatives recognize what caused the Bush Administration’s faults and the hyper-vitriol of talk radio, they will be unable to do anything about it.
The assumption of many reform conservatives seems to be that the Bush Administration and talk radio are just a few bad apples who managed to deceive conservatives into thinking that they were good conservatives and had all the answers. This is wrong, and smacks of a paternalism that assumes workaday conservatives are pliable, easily fooled automatons rather than people who are simply too concerned about putting food on their own plates to ask otherwise unimportant philosophical questions like “what does it mean to be a conservative” or “what would Edmund Burke say.”
The problem instead is that movement conservatism has become an incoherent ideology, in part because of its own successes, but also in part because the issues facing this country simply are not the issues that were facing it in 1978. An ideology that attempts to unite so many disparate sub-ideologies must inevitably become nihilistic and unable to articulate a compelling social or political vision much beyond “we’re not them” after its initial raisons d’etre have become obsolete.
That point had passed by 2000, if not earlier, yet the conservative wonks (who would largely be the forerunners of the reformist conservatives) largely continued pushing for the same old policies, just with different rationales. In the face of relatively low levels of taxation, the Laffer Curve gave way to “starve the beast” and the notion that tax cuts were a panacea for just about any problem. To justify Cold War levels of defense spending and militarism, Saddam Hussein, Iranian Ayatallohs, and Kim Jong-Il transformed from regional pests into an Axis of Evil as threatening to our existence as a fully-mobilized Josef Stalin. Illegal immigration ceased to be solely an economic issue and instead became one of national security as much as anything else. And so on.
If a politician dependent on votes and a talk show host dependent on ratings bought into these narratives and turned them to 11, those who pushed the narratives in the first place deserve a good chunk of the blame (as of course, do the politician and the talk show host).
What conservative wonks needed to do instead of finding new narratives to justify the same old policies was to start pushing for new solutions to new problems that were consistent with their individual visions of what conservatism should be about. They needed to push these solutions not because of their electoral appeal, but because they believed those solutions to be the right thing to do. If this meant annoying a segment of the base or another strain of philosophically-grounded conservatism, so be it.
In other words, they needed (and still need) to engage in a competition of ideas with each other. They needed to (and still need) to bring these new ideas before the base to try to persuade the base in their direction rather than simply criticizing the base for not following their direction in the first place. And yes, Grand New Party is an example of doing precisely this; but a book by a then-obscure pair of young conservatives is hardly going to be adequate to fix the problem.
Instead, what we get are conservative wonks too timid to ask other conservatives to support health care reform beyond the dated conservative hobby-horse of tort reform and, if we’re lucky, tax reforms (which really ought to be part of any health care reform but which are hardly the end of the story). We get conservative wonks who proudly disclaim the growth of the federal deficit under both the Obama and Bush Administrations but who are unwilling to convince other conservatives of the need for massive defense spending cuts, modest tax increases, or even significant Medicare reform to solve the problem.
The power and influence of talk radio thus is not the problem, nor is the fact that talk radio tends to take everything to the absolute extreme. Those facts may certainly be lamentable and troubling, but they are symptoms, not causes. Simply pointing the finger at a handful of entertainers and blaming them for conservatism’s troubles does nothing to solve the problem other than to further alienate the base and leave it even more unwilling to listen to your alternative vision of where conservatism should head in the 21st century.
So this is not a function of asking that conservative reformers abandon their principles or censor themselves. Quite the opposite: it’s a function of asking that conservative reformers fearlessly stand up proudly for their individual principles. Do this, and reformers may or may not convince other conservatives to follow. Focus instead on the low-hanging fruit that is extremist rhetoric and liberal shortcomings and reformers will continue to fail to present a vision of conservatism worth following. Similarly, selling reforms on electoral grounds will do nothing because it places votes over principles.
To be sure, if the primary goal is to put an end to extremist rhetoric, then by all means focus on extremist rhetoric; if, on the other hand, the goal is to reform conservatism and make it a philosophy capable of governing well, then focusing on the symptoms rather than the disease will do nothing.
What it comes down to is this: one cannot reform conservatism if one believes that the problem with conservatism is conservatives, and refuses to challenge core assumptions of conservatism. Indeed, what made Orwell’s critiques so effective and important was not that he publicized the evils of individual actors; it was that he drew the connection between evil and ideology in an attempt to reform that ideology. Conservative wonks and opinion journalists should be introspective enough to do likewise rather than merely seeking to blame conservatism’s problems on a small cadre of individuals.
UPDATE: Please do see Alex Knapp’s response, which I fully endorse – including the areas where he notes the problems with my recommended approach. And these sentences hit the nail on the head:
Instead, they need to engage them. They need to take their concerns seriously (crazy as they might be) and judo flip them to the reform path that they want. Whether that’s czars, Iran, taxes, “socialism” or what have you, the task that reform conservatives need to take upon themselves is to address those concerns in a serious way, and offer up conservative alternatives to the traditional conservative solutions.