Sunday, June 15, 2014

The collapse of Movement Conservatism as we know it? Or same as it ever was? Krugman and Thomas Frank on today's Republican Party

I previously cited Paul Krugman's thoughts on the occasion of Eric Cantor's primary defeat by a Tea Party zealot in his blog post Fall of an Apparatchik 06/11/2014 and column The Fix Isn't In: Eric Cantor and the Death of a Movement New York Times 06/12/2014.

Thomas Frank, who Krugman references, writes on the same subject in Off with their heads! Eric Cantor, the Tea Party guillotine, and the certainty of conservative sell-out Salon 06/15/2014.

Historian Rick Perlstein linked Frank's article on his Facebook page on 06/15/2014 with the comment, "Ten times better than Krugman's column on the subject." He elaborated in comments, "Krugman's argument--this is the end of the road for movement conservatism, instead of, um, the road itself--was awful."

At the risk of sounding all Mugwumpy, I'm not sure that Krugman's and Frank's approaches are contradictory.

Krugman is focusing on a particular complex of partisan institutions. Frank is focusing on Republican base voter psychology.

Frank is looking at long-term continuities in so-called movement conservatism, something Perlstein especially emphasizes. Krugman is looking at a possible inflection point that could be happening now.

Krugman is looking in particular at the scam aspect of movement conservatism. Frank is looking at a deeply contradictory aspect of movement-conservative ideology itself.

Here's how Frank describes that last point:

Why is it that Republicans are uniquely prone to this cycle of idealism and betrayal? I think the answer is simple: Because free-market idealism is a philosophy that automatically leads to betrayal — and also to misgovernment, and cronyism, and even corruption, as we saw in the DeLay era. The movement's greatest idealists often turn out to be its greatest scoundrels — think of Jack Abramoff, or of Oliver North, or (as Rick Perlstein has pointed out) the gang of hard-right purists who signed up to do dirty tricks for Richard Nixon. In truth, there seems to be no real contradiction between conservative morality and following the money; to be a capitalist true-believer is to sell yourself.

Free-market idealism, after all, is about applying market forces to the state. This is what everything from Citizens United to toll-road privatization is all about. To be true to such a principle means respecting incentives, answering the call of money. And it ain't small business who has the money in Washington these days. [my emphasis]
I wouldn't push this two far. Corruption comes in all ideological shades.

But the "free-market" ideology - much of the world would call it hardline economic liberalism but the term has a very different meaning in the American political vocabulary - does prioritize private greed over public good. I'm often struck in listening to Republican politicians talk about how government is The Problem, that gubment can't do anything right, that they're effectively saying that public service is a bad, inferior, unworthy thing. So if they think so little of public service, why aren't they out there making money from the Invisible Hand of the Free Market instead of lowering themselves to running for office? (The big exception to that trashing of government is, of course, is made up of our glorious generals and The Troops, whose publicly-funded activities are worthy of the greatest respect and awe in the conventional conservative narrative.)

A big part of the answer is what Krugman highlights, which is that serving as a "pro-business" elected official can open up both immediate and future material benefits for the practitioner.

But it's not only Republicans that reap such benefits. So that's why I wouldn't want to push the point too far on a purely ideological analysis.

Time will tell if what we're seeing right now really is a significant inflection point for the conservative movement. But part of what we've seen since 2008 with the open floodgates we have now on private money in politics is a significant weakening of the central official Party institutions in the Republican Party in favor of factions built around various billionaires and Christian fundamentalist factions.

The role of FOX News and hate radio in keeping the base energized has also become a critical aspect of the Republican Party's politics over a longer period of time.

Another aspect of the current situation is that, even with the deluge of money in political campaigns, the Republicans do have a voting base that they've courted and fortified over decades and that responds to appeals on race and immigration and gun violence that not only make it a major hurdle to win Presidential races. Keeping that base in the context of the factional and media infrastructure now so prominent for the Republicans means that it's very difficult to find issues and appeals that offer any clear prospect to build up a wider appeal to win national majorities further down the road.

So part of that dynamic is that it makes sense to concentrate on ways to block constructive governmental action, which the current crop of Congressional Republicans have been able to do with unfortunately impressive success during most of the Obama Administration. Having an internal political dynamic that presses for more and more hardline and confrontational stances fits well with the imperative to have an obstructionist party with a strategy of fundamental opposition to the Democrats' social and economic agency.

Frank describes that dynamic with reference to the French Revolution:

And so the movement advances along its rightward course not directly but by a looping cycle of sincerity and sellout in which the radicals of yesterday always turn out to be the turncoats of today; off to the guillotine they are sent as some new and always more righteous generation rises up in their place.

It is the logic of the French Revolution, only nowadays these cycles of idealism followed by betrayal (and then by idealism again) drag us always in a reactionary direction.
But politics is politics. Which means there is always some kind of surprise waiting to happen.