An interesting essay crossed my line of sight, written by Alan Wolfe (author of Does American Democracy Still Work?) on “Why Conservatives Can't Govern”. Published in the July/August Washington Monthly, the article was insightful and erudite, offering an earnest, clever interpretation of why American conservatism finds itself cornered, in a cycle of relentless failures and rationalizations.
And yet, at another level, the piece illustrates the very same kind of political myopia that has guaranteed defeat for Democrats and liberals, for years. Starting with this blanket generalization.
“Contemporary conservatism is first and foremost about shrinking the size and reach of the federal government.”
In a moment I will discuss this axiom, this fundamental premise. But first, let me attempt the obligatory task of any honest arguer, a duty to paraphrase. To show that I understand what I plan to criticise.
Wolfe’s core contention appears to be that those who ideologically despise government power are inherently ill-suited to handle that power well, when they manage to grab absolute control over it. Since they disdain government’s ability to accomplish great good, they refuse to use it that way. And yet, since they are human beings (and therefore corruptible), they cannot actually reduce government power, once it is in their hands. The temptations are just too great.
Hence, the result of conservative power is not reticence, when it comes to matters budgetary, administrative, diplomatic or military, but rather the opposite, a kind of extreme adventurism, justified by hypocritical rationalizations that grow more frenetic and frantic with time.
(Wolfe might have mentioned the ultimate irony. Historically, the few successful efforts to reduce government paperwork, or to stimulate industries through fair and unbiased deregulation, were all accomplished under Democratic administrations. The far-fewer GOP-led efforts at “deregulation” were, in fact, sweetheart giveaways and not true deregulation: e.g. Energy “Reform” and the Savings and Loan Scandal.)
Hence, Wolfe explains both today’s pork-orgy of graft and the relentless waging of political “culture war” as natural outcomes of cognitive dissonance. An inability of the ruling caste to face or examine their own betrayals of principle. Those who oppose governmental authority as a matter of creed (and Wolfe labels this as the core trait of conservatism) are inherently and psychologically unsuited to wield power.
Wolfe especially disdains those self-described conservatives who have been pulling away from the present administration and from the recent orgies of neocon excess. He likens these people to Trotskyites, who (in a few smoke-filled, bohemian corners) still mutter that Communism was hijacked by Stalinist-Maoist monsters, and never given a proper trial. Wolfe drips contempt for the rationalization that “those neocon looters aren’t true conservatives.” Rather, his exegesis attempts to prove that the sickness is inherent, across the board. It is rooted in the fundamental premises of conservatism itself.
How convenient. Wolfe’s opponents are disqualified from ever having useful contributions to offer, in government, because of intrinsic traits of dogma and personality that apply to all varieties, at all times. Wow. Impressive.
As you might expect, while I found Wolfe’s essay stimulating and interesting, I also deem it to be cockeyed and utterly foolish, for about a dozen reasons.
But first pause. For the record, I share a profound motivation with Alan Wolfe. I truly despise the rascals and monsters who have seized power over our great nation, at least as much as Wolfe does. Among my own many essays proving this are:
And yet, as a contrarian, I must part company with many of my allies over strategy and tactics. For example, while some liberals and others see this as a matter of waging an ongoing culture war more effectively, I look back at the relentless torment of the Clinton Administration and ask: “What if we win?”
Seriously. Suppose a great miracle happens and democracy thrives, despite the imabalnced influence of cash, or the rigged game of Diebold-fixed electoral fraud and even gerrymandered radicalism. GLet’s imagine that grownups resume power, at least enough to let civil servants issue subpoenas and stop the Great Raid. At one level, that would be grand, of course. But at another....
If the ambiance after victory is yet another round of bitterly partisan savagery (recall the Clinton Era), won’t Karl Rove still have won? Won’t America simply become another petty Balkans, a nasty and brutally silly people, endlessly sniping, blue against red, our side imposing peurile vengeance against theirs, until it becomes “their turn” again? How, in such a nation, can big problems ever get ambitiously solved? The ultimate solution to “culture war” is not to wage it better, but to calmly and decisively end it. To take power out of the hands of these monsters forever, by denying them the main levers that they have used to attain it -- oversimplification and divisiveness.
When we oversimplify the enemy, categorizing in a way that demonizes millions of potential allies, we may get a surge of satisfaction, but it is not smart tactics. Sun Tzu would have told you, long ago, to find ways to divide your enemies, to find common cause with some of them. To reduce the size of their coalition and to enhance your own.
This is the very same methodology that led to neocon victory. And please note: there is certainly a time and place for studying your opponent’s winning tactics. While many are and were despicable, some of those tactics may have been smart and morally neutral. Those we should think about, carefully.
In biological science there has long been a collegial struggle between “lumpers and splitters...” between those who lump all sorts of sub species together and those who are seeking subtle differences among them. Clearly, the temptation, politically -- one that Wolfe demonstrates in extreme -- is to lump together all “conservatives” using an a-priori definition that he blithely tosses off as an obvious and assumed axiom... and upon which derives his entire thesis.
But the flaw in Wolfe’s argument -- in his finely molded strawman of the opposition -- is in this axiom. In this fundamental , lumping premise.
In fact, countless self-described “conservatives” in America today have far different obsessions and concerns than would be simply explained by Wolfe’s diagnosis. Indeed, the differences among conservatives are so fantastically broad and astonishing that they merit whole books, analyzing how Karl Rove achieved this marvel of a Big Tent... one so filled with contradictions that it should have fallen into tatters long ago! And perhaps it would have, if so many on the left weren’t just as intent on keeping it intact as Karl is!
(In this case, lumping is - tactically - the sheerest folly. Talk about an inherently self-defeating character flaw!)
Where shall we begin, peeling away exceptions to Wolfe’s axiom? Let’s put aside those “conservatives” who would be far better called “anti-modernists terrified of change” e.g. fundamentalists. “Excess government” per se is not the fixation of paranoid nativists and aggressive jingoists. Nor those neo-feudalist aristocrats who quite openly adore government, so long as it is their enrichment tool.
I would certainly remove those who share the belief that Barry Goldwater expressed, in his last year of his long and fascinating life -that hate-filled neocons are a pack of crazy, nasty jerks. I think those denunciations are meaningful, but Wolfe and I can legitimately disagree about that.
Putting all of those (and a myiad other) exceptions aside, let’s ponder only those “conservatives” who DO genuinely and centrally despise government power. Even in this large category, there are millions who feel deeply wronged by the contradictions that Wolfe describes. Many would argue that these would properly be called Libertarians, rather than “conservatives.”
And yes, a great many libertarian Americans do choose the GOP as a “lesser of evils” -- a lazy tendency that I have been fighting hard, since it is based on absurd premises that are easily disproved. Wolfe would hold that my efforts are a waste of time. I contend that it may be the best possible way to undermine the monsters, by drawing away from them millions of their most intelligent and most sincere supporters.
I start by pointing to Adam Smith, the patron saint of creative free markets. And yes, one of the core founders of “liberalism.”
Anyone with an open mind who reads history ought to already know this. The very thing that Smith despised most was not “government bureaucracy, but instead oligarchy. The market warping of aristocratic cheaters who use money, influence and crony favoritism to wring economic benefits unrelated to delivery of superior goods and services.
This historical fact is devastating! Some truly clever liberal tactician could use Adam Smith as an icon! Millions truly have heard of him and it would be easily grasped by those millions (if someone pointed it out) that today’s markets are far more in danger from oligarchic cheaters than from earnest bureaucrats. If only someone were to say, aloud, that the Emperor has no clothes.
If only someone would remind us all what the term “liberal” originally meant... which was unleashing the creatively competitive spirit of humanity in ways that would benefit us all, while minimizing the almost universal capacity of cheaters to cheat. Levelling the playing field enough so that no youth would enter it disadvantaged, but giving the markets enough room to breathe and grow.
Government has a role to play in this fostering of open, joyful and fair competition. (And even in ensuring that nobody loses too badly.) Today’s “liberals” are right about that... while they are wrong to forget that competitive markets were the greatest invention of their movement! Decent conservatives have a point when they remind us that government has no rightful place in predetermining all outcomes of the game.
It would be so powerful an argument, especially in contrast to the neo-oligarchy’s orgy of insatiable cheating. But this cannot be done, because fellows like Wolfe automatically and reflexively dismiss the posibility of a positive conservatism. Wolfe dismisses these millions of libertarian-leaning fellow Americans as fools and/or psychotics and/or members of a criminal gang. What utter foolishness!
Look, for years I have been defying classic political and culture warriors to define for me the standard left-right political axis, a hoary and insipid metaphor when it was first concocted, by the French, in 1789. Nearly everyone stammers and fails. And as for the few who appear to succeed? They nearly all do so the way that Wolfe does, by armwaving a strawman caricature in the general direction of everybody they dislike.
But suspicion of government authority is not automatically insane! Our social mythos is deeply woven with messages of suspicion of authority (SOA) that fill almost all of our popular books, movies, dramas. If democrats fixate on one kind of looming authority figues -- conspiring aristocracies and corporations -- were not libertarians right to at least worry over the extremes of bureaucratic control that were typified by, say, communism?
Neither of these views are inherently sick. But they should be better informed about history, about the world, about each other.
We will not win this struggle through oversimplifications that feel oh-so righteous and portray as idiotic everyone on “the other side.”
We will win be separating the monsters from sincere libertarians and others who might be persuaded - instead - to support a return to general sanity.