The Future of American Conservatism

As American conservatism careens into know-nothing-populist, reactionary and subversive collision with modernity, the question still remains whether any forces can divert its course before decades of damage are done. It can be that bad. It was for liberalism post Vietnam. And the Right is as full of conviction now as the Left was then. As recently as 2008 the CNC was heralding a generations-long shift in the political demographic. Now, with shorter-term dynamics interrupting that clear development, the CNC has a new narrative of trouble for Democrats. But the CNC always sees the accident came, not coming. Not of its voices, might one write, as George Packer recently wrote of Timothy Garton Ash:

He is a historian with the journalist’s urge to be there, and a journalist with the historian’s knowledge of where he is. These qualities have made him one of the most reliable and acute observers of the past present, able to report on events as a witness and, simultaneously, assess them with a coolness of judgment that almost always holds up over time.

When conservatives complete their convulsion of self-harm sometime over the next 2-4 years, it will not be possible to say that none among them shouted a warning. While the once-apparently principled such as John McCain succumbed in the smallness of time to the mean ambition of one final reelection, shouting hurrahs to the crowd, there have been, the record will show, those like David Frum who understood the difference between the conservative temperament and the radicalized passions of disaffected dissidence.

In one of two not much commented upon recent pieces that I’ll focus on today and tomorrow, Frum wrote in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, in “Post-Tea-Party Nation”:

Not since Jimmy Carter handed the office to Ronald Reagan — arguably not since Herbert Hoover yielded to Franklin Roosevelt — had a president of one party bequeathed a successor from another party so utter an economic disaster as George W. Bush bequeathed to Barack Obama. And while the Bush administration took wise and bold steps to correct the disaster, the unpopularity of its Troubled Asset Relief Program bequeathed the Obama administration a political disaster alongside the economic disaster.

It’s an uncomfortable memory, and until now Republicans have coped with it by changing the subject and hurling accusations. Those are not good enough responses from a party again entrusted with legislative power.

Frum, who has been speaking up for a while now about the closing of the conservative mind, offers up five lessons that speak to the traditionally cautious and preservative, socially stabilizing nature of conservatism instead of the subversive, radically destabilizing impulse of Tea Partyism and now even “mainstream” Republican politicians.

Number one is the “danger of closed information systems.”

Too often, conservatives dupe themselves. They wrap themselves in closed information systems based upon pretend information. In this closed information system, banks can collapse without injuring the rest of the economy, tax cuts always pay for themselves and Congressional earmarks cause the federal budget deficit. Even the market collapse has not shaken some conservatives out of their closed information system. It enfolded them more closely within it. This is how to understand the Glenn Beck phenomenon. Every day, Beck offers alternative knowledge — an alternative history of the United States and the world, an alternative system of economics, an alternative reality. As corporate profits soar, the closed information system insists that the free-enterprise system is under assault. As prices slump, we are warned of imminent hyperinflation. As black Americans are crushed under Depression-level unemployment, the administration’s policies are condemned by some conservatives as an outburst of Kenyan racial revenge against the white overlord.

Number two is that the “market” (the whole free-market system) must be distinguished from “the markets” (the trading markets for financial assets).”

Perhaps it’s because the most influential conservative voice on economic affairs is The Wall Street Journal. Perhaps it’s because conservatism disproportionately draws support from retirees who store their savings in traded financial assets. Perhaps it’s because a booming financial sector is uniquely generous with its campaign contributions. Whatever the reason, the intellectual right accords a deference to the wants and wishes of the financial industry that is seldom accorded to agriculture, manufacturing, transport or retailing.

But it’s not always true that what’s good for Goldman Sachs is good for the economy, or vice versa. Nor is what “the markets” want the same as what free-market economics require. Finance plays with other people’s money: financial disasters damage people and businesses who never participated in the fatal transaction. For that reason, financial firms are justly regulated in ways that other firms are not. And yet nearly 80 years after the creation of the Securities and Exchange Commission, influential conservatives — including The Wall Street Journal editorial board — argued that trillions of dollars of derivatives trading should be exempt from regulation.

This is actually a message that should resonate with Tea Party sympathizers who here in fact depart in their expressed interests and concerns from their money-class shilling Republican representatives.

Lesson three is that the “economy is more important than the budget.”

During the recession of 1981-82, Democratic politicians demanded that a Republican president set a balanced budget as his top priority. Ronald Reagan disregarded this advice. He held firm to his tax cuts: once the economy returned to prosperity, there would be time then to deal with the deficit.

Today, the positions are reversed.

Well, in this case, the Democrats may not have been right, but neither was Reagan. The economy may have recovered from that recession, but the path to the mountain of debt the nation now owes was embarked upon with those unprecedented peace-time Reagan budget deficits. Still, Frum is outlining a coherent philosophy.

Lesson four maybe the greatest kicker for today’s Right-wing adherents of eighteenth century agrarian social organization: “Even from a conservative point of view, the welfare state is not all bad.”

G. K. Chesterton observed that you should never take a fence down until you understand why it had been put up. We should remember why the immediate post-Depression generations created so many social-welfare programs. They were not motivated only — or even primarily — by “compassion.” They were motivated as well by the desire for stability.

Social Security, unemployment insurance and other benefits were designed as anti-Depression defenses, “automatic stabilizers” as economists called them. When people lost their jobs, their incomes did not drop by 100 percent, but by 30 percent or 40 percent: they could continue to pay rent, buy food and sustain society’s overall level of demand for goods and services. State pensions created a segment of society whose primary incomes remained stable regardless of economic conditions.

Frum adds,

Those who denounce unemployment insurance as an invitation to idleness in an economy where there are at least five job seekers for every available job are not just hardening their hearts against distress. They are rejecting the teachings of Milton Friedman, who emphasized the value of automatic stabilizers fully as much as John Maynard Keynes ever did. Conservatives should want a smaller welfare state than liberals in order to uphold maximum feasible individual liberty and responsibility. But the conservative ideal is not the abolition of the modern welfare state, and we should be careful of speaking in ways that communicate a more radical social ideal than that which we actually uphold and intend.

Of course, speaking, not to say thinking carefully, as Frum does here, is not currently a hallmark of Right-wing social animus.

Finally, Frum advises, “Listen to the people — but beware of populism.”

Listen to the people and politicians who gather under the label “the Tea Party,” and you are overwhelmed by the militant egalitarianism of their message, the distrust of elites, the assertion that the Tea Party speaks for ordinary Americans against a privileged ruling class.

Non-Tea Party Americans may marvel that any group can think of itself as egalitarian when its main political goals are to cut off government assistance to the poorest and reduce taxes for the richest. But American populism has almost always concentrated its anger against the educated rather than the wealthy. So much so that you might describe contemporary American politics as a class struggle between those with more education than money against those with more money than education.

Frum closes by warning of how counter to the national interest is the current Republican Party of no, committed to simply stopping everything. The elections victors are flying high with confirmation now, but when the damage they will do to the nation and themselves has been done, they will not be able to say that there were none among their own who called out a warning.

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