On duplicity, fairweather conservatism, and the art of war

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Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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  1. One major area of disagreement I have with you. You write: “try to reconcile social, fiscal, and defense conservatives…”

    It is my position that this is simply not possible any longer for reasons I’ve made pretty clear. More importantly, though, I think that attempts to do this are in many ways a huge cause of the problem, resulting in conservative wonks and reformers softpedaling their views on what policies should be affirmatively pursued such that those policy ideas become exceedingly narrow in scope, non-existent, or highly muted. This in turn results in unambitious governance that largely flounders around, guided almost entirely by a desire to consolidate and hold onto power. In other words, it creates a philosophical vacuum in which narrow interests will reign supreme and civil liberties will be pushed aside in favor of the naked pursuit of more power.Report

    • Perhaps, perhaps not. I addressed this issue in my last post on the matter (and quoted you as well, actually.) Probably I ought to ask: which legs should survive of this three-legged-stool? Which need to and which can be sacrificed? And where will they go when they’re gone?Report

      • I would say that it doesn’t much matter. If reform conservatives engage in a battle over ideas with each other, the leg that will be cast off will be determined organically (probably by the base, but that’s neither here nor there). I don’t think it can or should be a conscious effort to cast off one of the legs.

        In terms of where they will go when they’re gone, my prediction is that they’ll become independents who gradually swap places with some corresponding group in the Dem coalition. For a long while in 2007-2008, I was absolutely certain that it would be the libertarians swapping places with Big Labor, especially since during the primary campaign Obama showed a willingness to annoy unions that has pretty much evaporated since he became President. Two things happened to prevent this: first, the economic crisis ensured that economic issues would replace foreign policy/executive power/civil liberties issues in the forefront of the national debate; second, McCain took what I would actually call the politically safe route of nominating Palin, who gave him a better shot of winning since it was so guaranteed that she would cover his problems with the base, rather than nominating someone like Huckabee, who would have been the death knell for libertarian involvement in the coalition but could have also presented an ideologically coherent front (roughly, “national greatness conservatism”) with McCain that could have served a similar function to that of Goldwater in 1964 in terms of laying the groundwork for a new conservative coalition.

        Right now, if you put a gun to my head, I’d say it’s more likely that we wind up with a coalition of libertarians and religious conservatives that annoys the hell out of neo-conservatives but also winds up coalescing around a sort of anti-corporatism that appeals to anti-big business liberals. I admit, though, that this may be mostly wishful thinking on my part.Report

        • Right now, if you put a gun to my head, I’d say it’s more likely that we wind up with a coalition of libertarians and religious conservatives that annoys the hell out of neo-conservatives but also winds up coalescing around a sort of anti-corporatism that appeals to anti-big business liberals. I admit, though, that this may be mostly wishful thinking on my part.

          But doesn’t this still serve to reconcile the three legs? There you have social and fiscal conservatives reconciled. The only step from that point would be to add some defense, and framed properly I don’t see that as much of a hurdle.Report

          • Defense conservatives tend to have very different, very passionate views on foreign policy from libertarians and religious conservatives; on top of that, as I’ve noted elsewhere, the current fiscal situation is such that you can’t be a fiscal conservative without supporting massive cuts to defense spending, which is simply irreconcilable with defense conservatism. Defense conservatives are also, as you will recall, “liberals who were mugged by reality,” which is to say that, to the extent they care about fiscal and social issues, they’re more likely to agree with modern liberals. Beyond that, anti-corporatism is likely to be unpalatable to them because defense conservatism’s core principles are directly dependent on pro-big business policy.Report

          • Avatar Jivatman in reply to E.D. Kain says:

            As difficult as one might think it may indeed be possible to reconcile libertarians and social conservatives. It will require candidates who are much more humble regarding religion and who dials down the family values rhetoric. Compromise on social issues will be that they should be left to the states. Still, both will agree on issues that attempt to force equality of outcome, “equal pay for equal work”, “hate crimes”, stuff like that.

            But reconciling libertarians with hawks will be difficult if not impossible. It’s two entirely different approaches and sets of rhetoric that are repugnant to one another. Hawks will want expansions of The Patriot Act, libertarians consider that act the most heinous assault on the constitution since the Alien and Sedition acts. Libertarians like Ron Paul say that the easiest way to support fiscal conservative policies is to reduce our military presence and the size of the military-industrial-complex, and end anti-free-market practices like no-bid, cost-plus contracts.

            But consider, the influential Glenn Beck is sounding more and more libertarian and anti-interventionist, fox news is bringing in John Stossel (who will IMHO be the first reasonably intelligent person on the channel). We may, ultimately not need them. Or perhaps the chosen conservative candidates will simply speak as a moderate on defense issues.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Mark Thompson says:

          “I’d say it’s more likely that we wind up with a coalition of libertarians and religious conservatives that annoys the hell out of neo-conservatives but also winds up coalescing around a sort of anti-corporatism that appeals to anti-big business liberals.”

          I don’t see this happening without, like, a catastrophe in the US that would be discussed in textbooks in other countries 100 years after the fact.Report

          • Avatar Mark Thompson in reply to Jaybird says:

            Oh, I don’t think that coalition will wind up with the kind of non-interventionist foreign policy that libertarians dream about. But anti-corporatism annoys defense conservatives in other ways. And even a watered down fiscal conservatism nowadays will demand at least a less-ambitious foreign policy and significant defense cuts.

            But this is purely conjecture on my part, and I could see things going in any number of different directions. Still, without something unforeseen happening, I have a hard time envisioning any broad themes that can unite the old coalition in a coherent fashion again, so that’s the one direction I don’t see things going.Report

        • Some important context that may help illustrate my point: it is, to my knowledge, something of an open secret that some right-leaning think tanks have soft-pedaled their positions on areas where they run into conflict with other right-leaning think tanks and GOP establishment donors. They may still publicly state these positions, but even there, they largely avoid any concerted effort to push them to the forefront, choosing instead to focus more on other areas. Sorry – I don’t want to name names here since this is largely second-hand anecdotal information and since it’s a fairly serious accusation. Many/most of the wonks who make up these think tanks (at least the two I have in mind) would definitely fit within the “dissident” camp insofar as “dissident” means “opponent of the Bush Administration and talk radio.”Report

  2. Avatar Freddie says:

    Can we all admit that, coherent or not, my post was awesome for generating so much content?Report

  3. E.D.,

    You write: “First – where on earth have I asked that dissidents not argue their ‘true beliefs’? Seriously. Quote me.”

    Shortly thereafter, you write: “I said, quite simply, don’t attack the pundits because it will backfire.”

    Maybe I am misunderstanding you. I’m certainly not trying to misrepresent you. But it still seems to me that you’re asking that I calculate the substance of my writing based on its ability to persuade — and avoid offending — the small subset of the American people who are hunkered down within what remains of “the conservative movement.”

    You also continue to mislabel my critiques of conservative talk radio hosts as “personality politics,” when in fact my critiques are almost always taking aim at the wrongheaded ideas that they propagate.

    Finally, “movement conservatism” is not my chosen philosophy. I am not actually sure it is a philosophy at all. My chosen philosophy is conservatism. It is a distinct thing. Consider the matter from my perspective. I believe in some Burkean ideas, and some Hayekian ideas, and some Oakshottian ideas, etc. How shall I describe myself? Should I abandon the word conservative because the Bush Administration did lots of awful stuff while flying under that banner?

    “…that’s why this project Conor is engaged in – of being aloof and distant from the actual political trenches – strikes me as not only futile, but as the easy way out.”

    The fact that my foremost goal in life isn’t doing whatever it is you think I should do to change the conservative movement hardly makes me aloof and distant from the actual political trenches. For heaven’s sake, if arguing in the comments section of Dan Riehl’s blog isn’t trench warfare I don’t know what is. Nor are Rod or other dissident conservatives aloof. They are more politically engaged than 99 percent of the population.Report

    • Okay – a few points.

      1. No, saying that you should not engage in public warfare with the pundits is not saying that you shouldn’t disagree with them. This is not a call for duplicity. I think that your political philosophy runs deeper than that. Nor do I worry that “offending” the base is such a horrible thing – only that it is mostly pointless and in the end has the effect of having any valid critique you may have fall on deaf ears. Again, you should be able to offer a parallel vision without alienating the base of the conservative movement. This seems more productive to me. And yes, the continual attack on Limbaugh and Levin (et al) has begun to look very much like personality politics.

      2.

      Finally, “movement conservatism” is not my chosen philosophy. I am not actually sure it is a philosophy at all. My chosen philosophy is conservatism. It is a distinct thing. Consider the matter from my perspective. I believe in some Burkean ideas, and some Hayekian ideas, and some Oakshottian ideas, etc. How shall I describe myself? Should I abandon the word conservative because the Bush Administration did lots of awful stuff while flying under that banner?

      I think you need to get out of the comfort zone of simply saying “I’m for conservatism, not the conservative movement.” What does that even mean? In practical terms, where does that leave you? It seems like a “have your cake and eat it too” position.

      3. Your distance from the trenches is not remedied by your arguing with blog commenters on a highly partisan thread. The distance comes in the line above that I quoted where you basically said you were aligned with the movement when it was right, and reject it when it is wrong. That – again – is too comfortable a position to take. It takes no responsibility for the philosophical position you advocate.Report

  4. Avatar Reason60 says:

    This is a terrific discussion, with plenty of ideas floating around.
    Generally, I agree with E.D. Kain’s notion of engagement. While I wouldn’t call myself a Trojan Horse, I do maintain an account at RedState and politely, firmly, put forward arguments for a more consistent and moderate conservatism there, and other conservative blogs.
    What I have found, is that approaching them as a fellow conservative can be productive; finding small ledges of agreement, then arguing a different viewpoint can lower the decibel level enough to where a good back and forth can happen. Of course, being the internet, there are always those who are more hungry for a flame war than anything else.
    The battle for conservatism isn’t going to be settled at the TV pundit level or in Washington think tanks; like most political battles, the “trenches” blogs and bulletin boards, kitchen tables and cafes. No political dialogue is always pretty, or polite and civil, but that may be for the good. The past battles over civil rights, Vietnam, or Reaganism were ugly, marked by shouting and angry words, but they did get settled.
    Bottom line, we can and should engage others civilly and with respect, but boldly and clearly.Report

    • Avatar E.D. Kain in reply to Reason60 says:

      Thanks Reason60. I agree – there’s a time for fierce debate and I think it can be both fierce and civil. I also think that if you earn the respect of the “base” you can have a lot more sway with them then if you become alienated from them. So staying in the threads at Redstate, etc. is one good way to do this to be sure. For more prominent writers/thinkers etc. simply staying engaged without throwing too many punches has a similar effect.Report

  5. Avatar matoko_chan says:

    You can NEVER reform conservatism without reforming the base.
    Where is your stewardship, your honor?
    You go around in pantswetting fear of the base.
    Put a damn bridle on the populist horse before its too late.Report

  6. “I think you need to get out of the comfort zone of simply saying ‘I’m for conservatism, not the conservative movement.’ What does that even mean?”

    It means that I think the political philosophy of conservatism, as articulated by sundry thinkers over the centuries, is chalk full of valuable insights that should inform the way we live our lives, organize society, and govern ourselves — and that insofar as a political coalition that calls itself “the conservative movement” actually stands for those insights, I am with it.

    And insofar as they claim to be for conservatism, but say that in reference to things like the Iraq War, or torture, or race-baiting, then I am against them.Report

    • But how are you against them? If you have no investment in changing the course of events because you aren’t interested in the movement but only in the philosophical insights of conservative thinkers, then where on earth does that lead to? At some point abstractions have to become actions, and that requires an organization, and that leads to the “movement” and that leads to choices and compromises and roadmaps and all those ugly, tangible things.Report

  7. “…yes, the continual attack on Limbaugh and Levin (et al) has begun to look very much like personality politics.”

    What do you mean, it has begun to look like them? Either I am attacking substantive ideas or I’m not. I’ve told you what the substantive critiques are — Mark Levin’s straw-manning of the left as statists, Limbaugh’s race-baiting. These aren’t mere attacks on their personalities. They are arguments taking issue with some of the right’s most influential voices. That you perceive them to be “personality politics” doesn’t make it so.Report

    • Of course it’s personality politics. Why are you attacking radio hosts to begin with? Are they running for office? Do you see Ezra Klein attacking Michael Moore or other far-left types? Would it do any good if he did?

      What it amounts to is stating the obvious – preaching to the choir. Race-baiting is bad. Generic terminology used to describe the left is bad. Anyone who is going to be convinced by your arguments is likely already on board, likely doesn’t listen to Rush or Levin.Report

  8. “Of course it’s personality politics. Why are you attacking radio hosts to begin with?”

    As I’ve noted repeatedly, I attack talk radio hosts because 1) I care about the health of the public discourse that they are helping to corrode; and 2) they are influential peddlers of wrongheaded ideas. And again, your assertion that “of course it is personality politics” — a term you’ve yet to define — doesn’t make it so.

    “Do you see Ezra Klein attacking Michael Moore or other far-left types? Would it do any good if he did?”

    Michael Moore is nowhere near as influential among Democratic politicians and voters as Rush Limbaugh is on the right. Were Ezra to critique wrongheaded ideas spread by Michael Moore, and accepted by a bunch of people on the left, it would do good.

    “What it amounts to is stating the obvious – preaching to the choir. Race-baiting is bad. Generic terminology used to describe the left is bad. Anyone who is going to be convinced by your arguments is likely already on board, likely doesn’t listen to Rush or Levin.”

    I disagree. There are plenty of people whose opinions about people change over time due to accurate, persuasive criticism of their behavior. See Ann Coulter. Your whole argument seems predicated on the notion that everyone to my left already agrees with my critiques, and everyone to my right is unpersuadable. You haven’t got evidence for either assumption.

    “But how are you against them?”

    I refrain from voting for them. I write against what I regard as their wrongheaded actions. I try to persuade others that they’re in the wrong. I try to bring about a better public discourse that functions as a crucible for ideas.

    “If you have no investment in changing the course of events because you aren’t interested in the movement but only in the philosophical insights of conservative thinkers, then where on earth does that lead to?”

    Being conditionally loyal to “the conservative movement,” and interested in projects beside its reform along lines you’ve delineated, doesn’t mean that I am not interested in the movement. I find it very interesting. I’ve spent a great deal of time writing about where it went wrong, and how it might write itself. You act as though everyone must either be an activist inside the movement or else a worthless bystander. That isn’t true. Politics has a place for activists, a place for loyalists, a place for wonks, a place for intellectuals, a place for dissidents, etc. etc.

    “At some point abstractions have to become actions, and that requires an organization, and that leads to the “movement” and that leads to choices and compromises and roadmaps and all those ugly, tangible things.”

    The fact that politics requires organizations and coalitions hardly implies that everyone interested in politics, or even influencing politics, need be members of the organization, or organizers themselves. Example: people who write about politics!Report

  9. Avatar steve says:

    Just a question. Who should engage the bad faith arguments of the Levin, Beck, Limbaugh, Hannity mold. If it is someone from the left, all of their arguments are immediately discounted because they are from the left. Independents have not, historically, been very politically active. Who does that leave if you hope to change the course of the conservative parts of our country?

    I live in a very red part of Pennsylvania. They pass around Beck, Limbaugh and Coulter books all the time. What Limbaugh said on the radio the day before is a frequent topic of conversation. These folks are not reading blogs. They don’t even read Will or Brooks. From where I sit, it looks as though Fox and radio really do dominate the thinking amongst the base. It is very misinformed and kind of ugly at times. It is a total us against them mentality. TBH, I think what Conor has been attempting is a good and necessary thing, but it is probably not going to make that much of a difference in the short run. ED is taking a pragmatic approach which may bear fruit, but bears the risk of long term cynicism. There is a price to be paid for keeping one’s mouth shut and not speaking up when you see wrong being done.

    SteveReport

  10. “ED is taking a pragmatic approach which may bear fruit, but bears the risk of long term cynicism. There is a price to be paid for keeping one’s mouth shut and not speaking up when you see wrong being done.”

    Indeed there is ample evidence that a price has been paid due to conservative pundits keeping their mouths shut so that they are perceived as being loyal — and very little if any evidence that dissident conservatives have caused any harm.Report

  11. “This is not about loyalty. And I’ve never once said that public officials should be immunized against attacks from their constituency.”

    Well, it’s sort of about loyalty, isn’t it? The whole idea is that I am writing things that anger “the base” and lead them to regard me as disloyal, therefore dismissing everything that I say. And that I should refrain from writing some of those things so that doesn’t happen. Right?

    I don’t know, maybe I am still misunderstanding exactly what it that you are saying. I take you at your word that you didn’t intend what the Trojan horse metaphor implied. Accordingly, however, I am all the more confused by the quote you chose to begin this post. “Be extremely subtle, even to the point of formlessness. Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of soundlessness. Thereby you can be the director of the opponent’s fate.”

    I won’t guess exactly what you mean by including that, lest I be accused of deliberately misrepresenting you, but it sure doesn’t sound like the forthright, straightforward manner that I regard as the appropriate way for a writer and journalist to conduct him or herself.Report

  12. I make all sorts of points without criticizing talk radio hosts. But when my point is that an influential NY Times bestseller by Mark Levin is straw-manning, or that Rush Limbaugh is inciting racial animus, or that Glenn Beck is unfairly targeting Cass Sunstein, or that the style adopted by these folks does damage to public discourse — well no, I don’t think that I can make those points without criticizing them. And I think those points are all worthy of being made.Report

    • And I think those points are all worthy of being made.

      To what end?

      And isn’t there some merit to the notion that these types are best simply ignored? That giving them this sort of attention only validates them? This is similar, if less risky, wisdom to the “don’t have high-level diplomatic correspondence with Iran/N. Korea/etc.” line of thought.Report

  13. Avatar Kyle says:

    Maybe I’m feeling really contrarian today but I’m going to disagree with the main thrust of this that dissident/potential conservative leaders should focus on ideas and not personality politics.

    That approach, I think, doesn’t take into account the grip that identity politics has on the right. For that matter, ignoring the personal to focus on ideas and policies is a paradigm very much rooted in liberal traditions.

    The left has routinely turned a blind eye to odious things its members have done as long as they vote the right way on issues of concern. The late Ted Kennedy had several documented episodes of behaviour that demonstrate outright disrespect and harassment of women. Episodes that for a less well liked member of a lower class would’ve resulted in critical damage to their careers, if not jailtime. Yet, he was considered a passionate advocate for women’s rights because in addition to votes and legislation advancing women’s issues he almost singlehandedly sunk the judicial nomination of the creepy looking anti-Roe Robert Bork.

    Same for Pete Stark, Alan Grayson, etc… It isn’t that these people are fighting passionately about something they care about, it’s that they can be outright mean and demeaning to members that represent core constituencies of their own party. Come vote time, though, they vote the right way and all is forgiven.

    Are there costs to this model, sure, but I think it makes it a lot easier for the left to discuss policies over personality.

    The right is different, I don’t think the base of the right popularly conceives of people as capable of being conservative advocates without modeling/signaling conservative values. Which leads to two things. First, a reliance on litmus tests to determine who is a conservative and second, the adoption of a “conservative is as (a) conservative does” attitude.

    After all it wasn’t until comprehensive immigration reform and the bailouts did the conservative base rebuke President Bush for insufficiently conservative actions (admittedly, elites did earlier). Prior to those rebukes, mainstream conservatism was whatever President Bush wanted it to be, because, he was conservative.

    Interestingly enough, John McCain is another example of this, he’s someone with a solid conservative voting record, whose campaign and legislative history demonstrate that consistently. Yet there’s a very real sense that McCain isn’t *wink* really conservative because he could probably couldn’t care less about enacting socially conservative legislation. He didn’t signal conservative values and therefore he wasn’t seen as properly conservative despite evidence to the contrary, which impacted encumbered his ability to drive the party in any direction even as he was its nominee for President.

    Are there exceptions – sure Vitter and Gingrich stand out. However, John Ensign and Mark Sanford’s falls from grace didn’t occur because they were Scozzafava/Crist like traitors but because they could no longer credibly represent conservative values, despite voting records that do.

    How this relates to the ideas not personality debate is that an ideas only focus just doesn’t have the same weight and influence as on the left. If the battle was over what conservatism is, it might, but the battle is also over who is conservative and that leads to personality battles.Report

  14. There is a plausible argument to be made that Robert Stacy McCain is best ignored. I make no comment here on the validity of that case — I say only that one might argue, “He isn’t worth engaging, because he won’t do so in good faith — giving his outrageous remarks attention merely spreads them farther than they’d otherwise go, and creates an incentive for his bad behavior by sending him traffic when he behaves badly.” Like I said, it’s a plausible argument.

    But Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Mark Levin? They are past the point where ignoring them makes sense. They’re wildly influential people on the right — the least influential among them, Mr. Levin, had the bestselling book on the New York Times bestseller list for weeks on end. These people aren’t validated or incentivized by dissident conservatives writing relatively obscure arguments making substantive criticism of their approach — they’re validated and subsidized by book sales, ratings, and perhaps even outraging liberals from Barack Obama to Jesse Jackson to Keith Olbermann.

    On re-reading the stuff I’ve written about these men, I find it difficult to imagine that they’d feel validated by any of it, or that it would increase their influence, or their ratings, or their book sales. Then again, I think I’ve made well-reasoned, persuasive arguments that Rush Limbaugh is a race-baiter who irresponsibly exacerbates black-white racial tensions and that Mark Levin’s influential book is wrongheaded insofar as it uses “Statists” as an obscuring straw man when an argument more helpful to the right would focus on the motivations of actual liberals and Democrats.

    It is perfectly fair to argue that in fact the cases I’ve made are wrong, or poorly argued, but I haven’t seen anyone criticize them on those grounds. The argument seems to be that regardless of their content, it is counterproductive to criticize talk radio hosts, and that it convinces no one. My e-mail In-box alone persuades me that at least some people are in fact persuaded by what I write, though God only knows how many. Probably not very many! But I see no evidence for the proposition that writing against ideas these folks propagate is counterproductive, nor that the exercise doesn’t have any impact on my audience, or their audiences, on down the line.Report

    • Those are fair points, Conor. But I think at some point you have to ask yourself how far you’re willing to go with this. Is this your project – going after the pundits on the right – or is there more to it? It’s one thing to take the occasional shot at Limbaugh, or decry the occasional bout of lunacy exhibited by Beck – but when it becomes overwhelmingly the subject of somebody’s work it starts to lose its poignancy, and leads quite quickly to the sort of unproductive alienation I’m speaking of here.Report

  15. “Is this your project – going after the pundits on the right – or is there more to it? It’s one thing to take the occasional shot at Limbaugh, or decry the occasional bout of lunacy exhibited by Beck – but when it becomes overwhelmingly the subject of somebody’s work it starts to lose its poignancy, and leads quite quickly to the sort of unproductive alienation I’m speaking of here.”

    Agreed, with two qualifications:

    1) The right approach isn’t taking “occasional pot shots” at the talk radio hosts, it is substantively criticizing them for specific flaws in their ideas. I’m relatively new to writing about these guys. Going forward, I tend to do it less often, and when there is a larger point to be made.

    2) Though it is somehow the perception that attacking talk radio hosts is the overwhelming subject of my work, that isn’t actually even close to true. I’d say that it is at most twenty percent of my output as a writer even during the few months when I’ve written about that subject most frequently. That it generates the most attention, criticism, hits, etc. is true.Report

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