Archive for the ‘conservatism/conservatives’ Category
Last week, Newt Gingrich reinvigorated his presidential campaign with a fiery appeal to conservative victimhood. Questions about his past infidelities, Gingrich explained, reflected the liberal media’s efforts to destroy the conservative movement. “I’m tired of the elite media protecting Barack Obama by attacking Republicans,” he thundered. Cue the multiple standing ovations from the rapt audience of South Carolina conservatives. Never mind the fact that Gingrich had helped build his career by denouncing Bill Clinton’s commitment to “family values” while he himself engaged in extra-marital affairs. For those in this audience, all that mattered was that they had found a politician willing to voice their grievances against the all-powerful liberal establishment.
The right-wing populism that Gingrich so effectively marshaled at last week’s debate is often contrasted with a more reasonable brand of conservative thinking that supposedly flourished in a past golden age. In this declension narrative, touted by Mark Lilla in his controversial review of Corey Robin’s new book, The Reactionary Mind, a sophisticated conservative intellectual tradition has recently descended into the swamplands of populist demagoguery. As Lilla explains, “Most of the turmoil in American politics recently is the result of changes in the clan structure of the right, with the decline of reality-based conservatives like William F. Buckley and George Will and the ascendancy of new populist reactionaries like Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter, and other Tea Party favorites.”
The problem with this view, as others have pointed out, is that American conservatives have been bashing the “liberal elite” now for going on six decades. It’s part of their DNA. William Buckley Jr., the most influential intellectual in the postwar conservative movement, might have rejected the conspiracy theorists at the John Birch Society, but he also supported massive resistance to the Civil Rights Movement, wrote a book defending Senator McCarthy, and praised the fascist government in Franco’s Spain. While he could be witty and charming, Buckley was also merciless in attacking a liberal elite that he believed had come to dominate (and enervate) American society since the New Deal.
In fact, Buckley launched his career in 1951 with a book that claims liberals had used “academic freedom” as a tool to monopolize higher education and suppress conservative thought. During a period in which over 100 professors lost their jobs because of the Second Red Scare, Buckley asserts that conservatives were academia’s true victims. In God and Man at Yale he also calls for the elimination of peer review and tenure in favor of a system that would allow those who pay for colleges and universities—typically parents and alumni—to determine their ideological content: “For in the last analysis, academic freedom must mean the freedom of men and women to supervise the educational activities and aims of the schools they oversee and support.” Universities needed to be run by the people who paid for them, not a band of unaccountable academics. It’s hard to imagine a critique more populist in character.
To be fair, right-wing appeals to populism explain why conservative intellectuals helped inspire a mass movement rather than a club for disenchanted, antediluvian curmudgeons. Still it’s worth remembering that intellectuals such as Buckley gained fame and notoriety by providing learned support for causes such as McCarthyism, Massive Resistance, and the firing of liberal faculty at Ivy League Universities. They provide a blueprint for today’s Newt Gingrichs, not an antidote.
I just saw The Iron Lady, and I can highly recommend it, although it was very different from what I expected. Although it dealt with Thatcher’s politics (sort of), it mostly focused on a private character study of the former prime minister, emphasizing her role as a woman in politics from the 1950s to the 1990s and her struggle with her husband’s death. And let me just say that whatever your politics, the movie makes clear that there’s one thing we can all agree about: Meryl Streep is a legend.
There has been an interesting reaction to the film by both the British public and its public intellectuals. Richard Vinen (at my alma mater, King’s College London, and author of Thatcher’s Britain) has been in the press several times in the past month, attempting to explain Thatcher’s lasting power in British political rhetoric, first in the New York Times, and then, after receiving hate mail, in the Financial Times. He wrote that Thatcher exists essentially as a fictional bogeyman in British politics, despite the fact that both parties have agreed (rightly or wrongly) with her policies after the fact.
Vinen’s New York Times piece takes the film as a call for backbone amongst Britain’s politicians. In times of crisis, he claims, the British need a polarizing figure like Thatcher, who drove conservatives to the right and Labour to the left and made people choose a solution to the crisis from those two sides. He says that in Britain Read the rest of this entry »
Yesterday’s FT featured a book review by the Conservative operative Danny Kruger. The book reviewed was The Labour Tradition and the Politics of Paradox, a book that lays out the intellectual framework for ‘Blue Labour’. Blue Labour is a newish move in the British Labour Party to appeal to middle class and working class voters by shifting to the right (the Tories are blue and Labour is red here) on a number of social issues, particularly immigration, crime, and the welfare state. It is not unlike the idea of ‘blue dog democrats’ in America in its appeal to somewhat socially conservative, blue collar and middle class voters. I haven’t read the book and this isn’t a counter-review. Kruger made some interesting statements, though, in defense of the ‘blue’ of Blue Labour.
In terms of the political spectrum as outlined by Kruger, there are both ‘Utopian’ and ‘Nostalgic’ forms of both Labour and Tory ideology. Blue Labour conforms to the Nostalgic: He reports that Maurice Glasman (one of the leading lights of Blue Labour) ‘wants to rebuild a “Tudor Commonwealth” of freemen, hustings, guilds and guildhalls. The task for Labour, in today’s outsourced and globalised world, is to be “the collective poet” for England, retelling the stories of the nation.’ In contrast, the New Labour of Tony Blair and the Millibands is Whiggish and Utopian. Kruger points out that the Conservatives have the same two strands of Utopian and Nostalgic ideology. He rejects the Utopians in both parties and supports the project of Blue Labour for that reason. He likes that ‘Glasman and Rutherford give hat tips to Burke, Wordsworth and Coleridge, the Conservative elegists who saw the 19th century coming and didn’t like it. Most of all, credit is given to Aristotle – though Moses and Jesus should also have got a mention too, given that Blue Labour’s worldview is, in large part, Judeo-Christian. Instead of progress, our task is civilisation, the melioration of brokenness.’ Read the rest of this entry »
Very quietly, on his own blog, David Frum has written the most important conservative article in recent memory. Ostensibly a critique of a National Affairs essay by Yuval Levin, Frum’s article “Two Cheers for the Welfare State” in fact represents a rejection of conservative economic policy at the level of abstract principles. It is not only an example of the oft-talked about rifts in American conservatism, but also, just maybe, a precursor to a dramatic shift leftward for the conservative intellectual class in the United States.
Frum notes that he “changed his mind” as a result of the recent financial crisis. Earlier in his career, he supported the “doubling-down on the economic libertarianism of the Reagan years.” But with the recent collapse, he decided:
Conservatives do not like to hear it, but the crisis originated in the malfunctioning of an under-regulated financial sector, not in government overspending or government over-generosity to less affluent homebuyers. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were bad actors, yes, but they could not have capsized the world economy by themselves. It took Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, AIG, and — maybe above all — Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s to do that.
And then, this massive revelation:
GK Chesterton once wrote that we should never tear down a fence until we knew why it had been built. In the calamity after 2008, we rediscovered why the fences of the old social insurance state had been built.
Speaking only personally, I cannot take seriously the idea that the worst thing that has happened in the past three years is that government got bigger. Or that money was borrowed. Or that the number of people on food stamps and unemployment insurance and Medicaid increased. The worst thing was that tens of millions of Americans – and not only Americans – were plunged into unemployment, foreclosure, poverty. If food stamps and unemployment insurance, and Medicaid mitigated those disasters, then two cheers for food stamps, unemployment insurance, and Medicaid.
First, it’s fairly remarkable for anyone, left or right, in our political discourse (and in academia), to admit to being wrong. This is just not something the punditocracy does. I guess people did this about the Iraq War, particularly the left wing humanitarian hawks. And Richard Posner “became a Keynesian,” which I wrote about here. Most notably, Diane Ravitch, former champion of charter schools and standardized testing and opponent of teacher’s unions, has done a complete 180, and now blames America’s education problems on poverty and inequality.
Frum hasn’t changed that much. Sure he was fired from the American Enterprise Institute for criticizing the Republican Party. But I suspect that has more to do with his disdain for the recent wave of conservative anti-intellectualism, symbolized by the Tea Partiers who have made heroes out of Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, and Glenn Beck. He shares that disdain with other conservatives like David Brooks and Christopher Buckley. But those disagreements were more about style than substance. On foreign policy I suspect Frum is still a hawk, and probably still far too conservative for my taste on economic issues as well.
Nonethelss, Frum is moving in the right (by which I mean the left) direction. Especially interesting is how he justifies this change. He invokes Irving Kristol the way socialists invoke Marx, libertarians invoke Ayn Rand, and Christians invoke the Bible. This is a classic intellectual move. Frum appeals to the ultimate neoconservative authority to advance the notion of a “conservative welfare state.”
Here is the Irving Kristol quote Frum uses:
The idea of a welfare state is perfectly consistent with a conservative political philosophy – as Bismarck knew, a hundred years ago. In our urbanized, industrialized, highly mobile society, people need governmental action of some kind… they need such assistance; they demand it; they will get it.
Whatever works for you, Mr. Frum. What I see is a smart conservative realizing that conservative economic policies aren’t so smart.