“Taking responsibility” again.

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William Brafford

William Brafford grew up in North Carolina, home of the world's best barbecue, indie rock, and regional soft drinks. He just barely sustains a personal blog and "tweets" every now and then under the name @williamrandolph.

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  1. Avatar Sam M
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    says:

    “The point is that a person bears some responsibility for making sure the political philosophy she advocates isn’t an unstable equilibrium”

    BUT WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?

    We keep talking about this. But it doesn’t mean a thing. If I have a dog, and I take responsibility for the dog, that means I will feed it. And pay for the doctor bills if it bites some kid in the neighborhood. If I take responsibility for the leaf pile I am burning in the back yard, that means I agree to tend the fire. Control it. And pay for my nieghbors house if a huge blaze results.

    What does it mean to take responsibilty for “conservatism”? Or “liberalism,” for that matter. You mention the excesses of the Carter era. In what sense did liberals ever “take responsibility” for a series of social policies that devastated a series of cities and minority groups?

    I’ll tell you how: They lost elections. Nobody paid the cities back. Nobody apologized to people. Etc.

    This reminds me of the stupid celebrities who say stupid things and later “apologize” to “anyone who was offended,” because, you know, they “take responsibility for their actions.”

    Seriously. Let’s say you are a conservative pundit. Maybe Ramesh Ponnuru. When you get to the office today, you read these posts, and say, “Know what? They are right. Time for me to take responsibility for conservatism.”

    What does that MEAN? What would he DO?Report

    • Avatar Mr. Prosser in reply to Sam M
      Ignored
      says:

      Agreed. This wrestling with angels has been going on for millenia. Change the subject matter to physicists arguing the morality of researching nuclear fission after the bomb was made,or theologians arguing the value of grace after Luther and all of you would be saying the same things. This isn’t the time for “taking responsibility”, it’s a time to quit opining and getting mucky in the trenches of politics if you are that concerned about the situation.Report

    • Avatar William Brafford in reply to Sam M
      Ignored
      says:

      I guess I wasn’t clear. You’re right that it doesn’t make much sense to ask people to claim responsibility for policies that they neither designed nor implemented. But I’m asking: what if the thing you’re supposed to take responsibility for isn’t conservatism as a whole, or even conservative policies, but rather your advocacy itself? What does it mean to be a responsible advocate? In part, it means that if you’re having to distance yourself from how your philosophy’s played out in reality, then you have ask yourself whether that’s due to some structural flaw in the philosophy.

      I haven’t read much of Mr. Ponnuru’s work recently, so I’m not sure if he’s part of the group that chastises movement conservatives for being insufficiently philosophically conservative. I suppose I have to name names: I’m thinking of people who take something like Andrew Sullivan’s line on conservatism. Now, Sullivan’s written a couple of books on conservatism and I haven’t read them, so I probably shouldn’t tell him what he should be doing. But what I’d like to see people who haven’t written entire books on the subject do is seek out some serious arguments that basic flaws in conservative political philosophy lead to the kinds of problems we’re seeing on the modern right, and to engage carefully with those arguments. I’m thinking political philosophy more than punditry. Maybe a communitarian critique, like the last few chapters of Etzioni’s The Moral Dimension. I’ll try to think of some other stuff along those lines.

      Unfortunately for Ross Douthat, I doubt it’s possible to do this kind of wrestling in an op-ed column, so I hope we get to see some of it in his next book.Report

  2. Avatar Mark Thompson
    Ignored
    says:

    I actually don’t think there’s much distance between you and I here. In the comments to Rod’s last post on this, I noted that it was a bit unfair of me to include Rod in this criticism (especially since Rod understands the coherenece problem).

    The thing that Conor still isn’t understanding is that there is no one “true conservatism” – the areas of agreement for Conor, Frum, Larison, Douthat, etc. are approximatey zero. This incoherence creates the conditions where conservatives can elect an incompetent President and talk show hosts can come to dominate the discourse.Report

  3. Avatar zic
    Ignored
    says:

    Responsibility going forward needs accountability going back to work; the longer Cheney & Friends get away with what are at least perceived to be crimes, the less likely you’ll ever be able to hold anyone in the future responsible in the future. It creates precedent; important in both the legal and political worlds.Report

  4. Avatar Aaron
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    says:

    The issue I think everyone keeps circling around in this debate is not that people need to “take responsibility” for conservatism in some sort of abstract way – community service, maybe – but that people need to accept the fact that conservatism, as a governing philosophy, has been tried and proven to be a failure. All of the back peddling and “Bush wasn’t a real conservative” nonsense is just a recognition that the ideas that underpin it are bankrupt. You can have people like Sullivan, Frum, Larison, Conor et al running around whipping up ever more elaborately gerrymandered definitions of what “conservatism” means to exclude the parts that don’t work or are just flat insane. But that doesn’t address the fact that the philosophy does not work as a means of governance. It’s like watching communists insist that we can’t judge it, because it’s never really been tried. Maybe so, but that’s entirely because it’s an impossible philosophy to enact in the real world.Report

  5. Avatar E.D. Kain
    Ignored
    says:

    That’s a very well put post, William. Indeed, your little analogy of the widget industry has been one of the things that I’ve wrestled with a great deal and continue to wrestle with now, and one of the reasons purist political ideals almost never play out in practice the way they do in theory.

    Anyways, really good insights.Report

  6. Avatar Conor Friedersdorf
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    says:

    “This incoherence creates the conditions where conservatives can elect an incompetent President and talk show hosts can come to dominate the discourse.”

    What evidence or chain of reasoning leads you to believe that incoherence in the definition of conservatism created those conditions?Report

    • Just about everything I’ve written on this topic – going back to last December – has been attempting to explain this, though I admit that for a long while I was unwilling to place the blame on anyone outside of movement conservatives themselves. What I’ve come to realize over the last month or two, though, is that the way movement conservatives are behaving is a symptom of a deeper ideological problem, not a cause.

      Simply put, if you have an overarching ideology that attempts to unify multiple disparate sub-ideologies, it must inevitably trend towards nihilism, united almost exclusively by what it is against rather than what it is for, once it achieves a certain amount of success.

      Rush Limbaugh is a talk-radio host who thrives on ratings. In order to get ratings, he has to take everything to 11. When the ideology that he most closely represents can only agree on what it is against, this means that what he’ll be taking to 11 is little more than hatred for anything and everything liberal.

      Moreover, when a master ideology reaches this point of nihilism, it is incapable of governing competently….which pretty much explains the Bush years.

      Lest we forget – die-hard movement conservatives, while personally liking Bush, have an opinion of the Bush Administration’s governance that is little higher than the opinion of the Bush Administration by reformist conservatives. Movement conservatives are, in other words, every bit as unwilling to take ownership of the Bush Administration as reformist conservatives. So, either the Bush Administration was an anomaly, inhabited by a bunch of liberals disguised as conservatives who somehow managed to convince the overwhelming majority of conservatives in 2004 that they were, in fact conservatives; or it was symptomatic of a deeper flaw in conservatism.

      Yes, Rush Limbaugh backed Bush in 2000 and 2004. Then again, so did just about everyone who wore the conservative mantle outside of the Weekly Standard’s “national greatness conservatives” who backed McCain in 2000 and some libertarian-minded folks who pretty much stayed home in 2004 (or in some cases voted for Kerry).Report

      • Avatar Mark Thompson in reply to Mark Thompson
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        says:

        One additional point: in a two-party system (and to a certain extent in any semi-functioning political system), this kind of incoherence is inevitable for any ideology that achieves a semblance of power. The key is for the ideology to recognize when it has reached that point so it can start the process of renewing itself.Report

  7. Avatar Kyle R. Cupp
    Ignored
    says:

    “So, if you advocate for a political philosophy, taking responsibility means that you ask yourself: what does it look like when this philosophy goes wrong?”

    I’d add that responsibility for one’s political philosophy also means recognizing that it was constructed in history and in response to particular political events and problems–that it is not True Political Philosophy and cannot be applied in all times, places, and circumstances, that it will fail in its application even if pure, committed adherents to it get exactly what they want and the philosophy “goes right.” Responsibility here means taking responsibility — appropriately responding to — the limitations and consequences of one’s philosophy.Report

  8. Avatar Freddie
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    says:

    I would just like it if we could all admit that out of a dedication to neutrality and equal time, we have essentially abandoned any notion of equitable judgment between Democrats and Republicans, and between liberals and conservatives. We simply are not judging the two groups, of either divide, with equal discrimination, because conservatism is in such a sad place now that people feel like holding it to adult standards is somehow biased against it.

    Now that’s fine. It’s fine. I just wish people would recognize that this is what I’m pointing out, and what I keep going on about. It’s not just “Bush did bad stuff too”. It’s never been that. It’s acknowledging, and pointing out the danger in, this kind of two-tiered system of political judgment. Now if we have all decided that conservatism is incapable of being judged according to the standards that we have set for correct political conduct, fine, but let’s all remain aware of that fact, please. Let’s not pretend that the failures of the Obama administration aren’t being held to a different standard than the failures of the Republicans in congress– you know, the sitting, existing, current and not-at-all-in-the-past Congressional minority that is doing things like voting against bills aimed at protecting defense contractors from rape. Whatever other conclusions we want to draw from all this, let’s remember, when the inevitable conservative resurgence happens, who had to participate in the political Special Olympics, because they couldn’t clear a bar unless it was set absurdly low.Report

  9. Avatar Jaybird
    Ignored
    says:

    Another problem is the “other people have moral agency too” problem (if only they didn’t!!!).

    Let’s say that you’re a member of a religion that has a metric buttload of members.

    No, wait. That one is too easy.

    Let’s say that you call yourself a libertarian. Some guy goes on television and calls himself one too. He then goes on to say crazy stuff.

    To what degree can you say that he isn’t a libertarian?

    Let’s say that his ratings go through the roof and he is now getting a lot of people to call themselves libertarian. Has your ability gone up or down?

    To bring us back to the too easy example, it seems like the above is similar to saying that Such-and-suches aren’t *really* Christians. Maybe you can get a consensus among most Christians when it comes to Mormons… but, as someone who was raised Southern Babtist (sic), let me assure you that that term gets applied to, like, Catholics. And Methodists. And Presbyterians (did you know they baptize babies? It’s true!). As someone who does not know the Mind of God, I don’t know who has and who has not drunk from the Water of Life (though I have my suspicions).

    The same seems to apply here. You can’t stop other people from adopting your memes and changing them.

    I understand why you’d want to, of course… but you can’t.Report

  10. Avatar Conor Friedersdorf
    Ignored
    says:

    Mark,

    We can agree that “the conservative movement” has rendered itself incapable of governing well — and maybe that is even a result partly of ideological incoherence — but I must insist again that there is a distinction between the conservative movement, a political coalition that is in a bad way, and the political philosophy of conservatism.

    I tried to address this by arguing the following: “Let’s travel back for a moment to the Civil Rights era, when many conservatives were saying, ‘Slow down, desegregation is happening too fast,’ while many liberals were saying, ‘The time for justice is now.’ Were I alive during that era I’d like to think that I’d have sided with the liberals. It certainly would’ve been the right choice, as even folks like Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley ultimately acknowledged. That is an example of how the political philosophy conservatism was inadequate to the circumstances of the country. It is a perfectly conservative impulse to resist rapid social change. In that case, it was also a perfectly wrongheaded stance.”

    “The present moment is different.”

    Luckily, political coalitions and the principles they organize themselves around, or pretend to organize themselves around, can change very quickly. Most often in American politics they change due to the influence of a charismatic presidential candidate — see Ronald Reagan — or a particularly talented coalition builder in Congress (see Newt Gingrich).Report

    • The trouble is that there is not really any one “true” political philosophy of conservatism. What you describe is but one sub-ideology that makes up and feeds into the coalition of the American Right, which for lack of a better term describes itself as the conservative movement. I, obviously, believe that libertarianism would be a fantastic and coherent governing ideology on its own, yet it is also but one ideology that makes up and feeds into the coalition of the American Right. Ditto what might broadly be called religious conservatism and paleo-conservatism and neo-conservatism and so on and so forth. The problem does not rest within any one of these sub-ideologies, and yet it rests in all of them at once; it’s the belief that all of these sub-ideologies can be fused together into a permanent coalition capable of competent government under a broad banner of “conservatism” that causes the problem. A related problem, which I have written about less in recent months, but which I wrote about quite a bit in the past (see, e.g., my posts on liber-al-tarianism), is the way in which the fusion of these sub-ideologies winds up inevitably corrupting each of the sub-ideologies.

      True, it is quite possible to reorganize the principles around which a coalition is built – but only if there are still core principles upon which that coalition can agree. This is why Gingrich was so successful – he was able to find a nice set of issues that all elements of the conservative coalition could still agree upon but that had not yet reached the level of policy successes. The trouble is that he was largely successful in getting those principles pushed through. Now, there really isn’t anything that can unite all the disparate branches of conservatism.

      As for Reagan’s success, I think you’re very much overstating the rapidity with which that coalition came together. Yes, there were the Reagan Democrats – but how much of that was attributable more to dissatisfaction with Carter and to the improved state of the economy in 1984 rather than any kind of philosophical alignment? More to the point – what, if anything, did Reagan Democrats contribute to movement conservatism’s ideology that wasn’t already there as a result of coalition-building that had largely begun to coalesce in the aftermath of Goldwater’s candidacy? I think it reasonable to say that the “three-legged stool” was primarily the culmination of Goldwater’s vision, even as Goldwater himself might have taken issue with how that vision played out in practice (he was hardly a neo-con or a fan of the Religious Right, but it was also his belief in – for lack of a better term – total war and states’ rights that ensured that these two groups would form a key part of any coalition undertaken in his name).Report

    • Avatar 62across in reply to Conor Friedersdorf
      Ignored
      says:

      Conor –

      In order to exculpate the political philosophy of conservatism (as opposed to movement conservatism) from the failures of the Bush administration, you point to an instance in history when “the political philosophy of conservatism was inadequate to the circumstances of the country.” Perhaps you could better make the case that the political philosophy of conservatism is distinct from movement conservatism and therefore capable of governing well if you would point to an instance in history when the conservative ideology was adequate to the circumstances of the country and demonstrated good governance.Report

  11. Avatar Conor Friedersdorf
    Ignored
    says:

    “The problem does not rest within any one of these sub-ideologies, and yet it rests in all of them at once; it’s the belief that all of these sub-ideologies can be fused together into a permanent coalition capable of competent government under a broad banner of “conservatism” that causes the problem.”

    It is foolhardy to think that the various sub-ideologies of the right can fuse together into a “permanent coalition” — and as foolhardy to imagine that they are permanently incapable of doing so. Broadly speaking, America is a country where our two governing ideologies and the parties with which they overlap more or less uneasily are constantly ebbing and flowing.

    Just as it was shortsighted and historical to say in 2003 that the GOP was set for a permanent majority, and liberalism was a broken opposition, it is today shortsighted and ahistorical to say the same thing of conservatism.

    Freddie, you write: “I would just like it if we could all admit that out of a dedication to neutrality and equal time, we have essentially abandoned any notion of equitable judgment between Democrats and Republicans, and between liberals and conservatives. We simply are not judging the two groups, of either divide, with equal discrimination, because conservatism is in such a sad place now that people feel like holding it to adult standards is somehow biased against it.”

    I’d argue that part of the problem is that by criticizing dissident conservatives for failing to successfully reform the political right, you’re doing the same thing: judging us by the high standards of reasonable people who can be persuaded, reasoned with, shamed, etc., and judging “the base” as though they aren’t worthy of being criticized, because they are impervious to reason or persuasion.

    I’d prefer that we were all judged by the same high standards.Report

    • “Just as it was shortsighted and historical to say in 2003 that the GOP was set for a permanent majority, and liberalism was a broken opposition, it is today shortsighted and ahistorical to say the same thing of conservatism.”

      Ahh, but I’m not talking about winning elections. As I’ve made clear, I don’t think any of this matters at all for that purpose. In a two party system, even the most incoherent coalition will be able to win plenty of votes; when the party in power screws up or when the external economic environment is bad, the minority party will almost always become the majority party again, regardless of whether that minority party is associated with talk radio or Che Guevara or whatever.

      What I’m talking about is conservatism’s ability to competently govern if and when they return to power, especially if and when they reclaim the Presidency. For that, you need to have an agenda, or at least some kind of affirmative theme, on which conservative elites can agree. Liberalism largely found itself at this point in the Carter years and thereafter. Talk to enough liberals and you will learn that they had to undergo precisely the kind of soul-searching and self-reflection that I’m talking about here in order to return to a level of competence in government on the national scale (competence in government on the state and local levels is always an entirely separate issue because you can govern with much smaller coalitions).Report

  12. Avatar Kyle
    Ignored
    says:

    “So, if you advocate for a political philosophy, taking responsibility means that you ask yourself: what does it look like when this philosophy goes wrong? What happens when it’s taken up by self-interested people? How will it be twisted by power?”

    Let me start off by saying I really like the post and with the sentiment, I largely agree. That said, I’m having enormous trouble grappling with what endorsement or advocacy mean in relation to responsibility.

    Getting out of the abstract and into the realities of the American political system, it just seems messy. I mean yes, there isn’t a party that represents purist political philosophy but where does supporting the least worst option fit in?

    Moreover, who is responsible for what? Are talking voters, vocal supporters, donors, in-the-beltway supporters?

    In 2004, President Bush was elected with a popular vote of 62,040,610, but we choose presidents based on the electoral vote so he was actually elected by 35,319,064 people. So does that mean the 26,721,546 Bush voters who voted in states that went to John Kerry and thus in no way contributed to President Bush’s electoral win are off the hook?

    What about the pundits who laud particular actions or personality traits and endorsed President Bush? Are they all responsible or just the ones who influenced administration officials or voters in states that went Bush?

    The wonks who said do X, lobbied to have X done and didn’t successfully prevent detrimental lobbyist influence or bill dilution (see environmental lobby on Waxman-Markey)? Do they share a small amount of responsibility because they weren’t successful? Or a large amount because they tried in the first place?

    I think the conversation/consensus is moving in a good direction but I think it’s hampered by a view of “those guys” need to/aren’t/should take responsibility, without clearly articulating just who fits into “those guys.”

    In terms of that determinant, I’m leaning towards a less inclusive view. I don’t think the words of Novak, Krauthammer, Kristol – nor the advocacy of Cato, Heritage, et. al – in policy terms matter as much as the decisions and priorities of the United States Congress, which after all is the branch of government specifically chartered with checking the powers and abuses of power of the executive .

    That said, I think the questions posed in the post matter for the ideological health of conservatism and liberalism, accounting for failures and success isn’t just good “business sense” it’s also critical to building successful policy propositions within ones preferred ideological framework.

    As a final point, I think the manifested political response to the widget example is to oppose things that might/probably will be insufficiently successful if you believe they’ll cause more harm than good. Which, incidentally, would look a lot like what Congressional Republicans are doing. Every major legislative accomplishment of the 111th Congress, Republicans can credibly say they had exceptionally little to no responsibility for.Report

  13. Avatar Barry
    Ignored
    says:

    Mark Thompson: “Movement conservatives are, in other words, every bit as unwilling to take ownership of the Bush Administration as reformist conservatives.”

    My impression, as a liberal, was that almost all backed Bush until after the Nov 2006 elections. Before that, his incompetancy, corruption and malice were quite acceptable, because he was a winner.

    And even after that, Bush IMHO did a h*ll of a lot better in a two year descent to catastrophe than any Democratic president ever would in similar circumstances. For example, the Senate Republicans set a record for fillibusters, for no other reason that to keep Bush from having to veto bills. And Rush carried Bush’s water to the end, as he himself admitted.

    90% of the disowning of Bush happened (long) after it was clear that Bush was very bad for the country.Report

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