Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Conservatism: a "robust" political philosophy?

"To be fair, conservatism, as a political philosophy, has a robust intellectual history – liberals are unwise to ignore that. But this isn’t the party of Edmund Burke or William Buckley or Barry Goldwater – those men had ideas."

That quote comes from Sean Illing in Really, it’s time to shut down the GOP: A deeply unserious party, hijacked by lunatics and Fox News, is driving us all into a ditch Salon 07/21/2015 that otherwise harshes on today's Republican Party in a sensible fashion. For instance, he has this observation about how in many ways the Party has become a prisoner of its own rhetoric:

These people [in particular, Donald Trump, Sarah Palin and Herman Cain] exist in the Republican Party for a reason: the GOP sold its soul to Fox News and the broader conservative mediascape years ago. Republicans are now constrained by these forces, which manufacture unhinged, absolutist narratives that dominate discourse in the party. Republicans, as a result, can’t afford to compromise or propose realistic policies – the zealots won’t let them. Worse still, any Republican who dares to step out of line gets pummeled on Fox News for weeks on end. In the face of such pressure, is it any wonder the GOP has become what it has? [my emphasis]
But here I want to focus on the idea that "conservatism, as a political philosophy, has a robust intellectual history" as embodied by Edmund Burke, Bill Buckley and Barry Goldwater.

Edmund Burke (1730–1797) was a flaming reactionary. His pragmatic recognition that the British effort to keep the American colonies was unrealistic makes his image usable as a talisman image for American of sufficient literacy and intellectual pretensions to identify him as a predecessor.

Ian Harris describes the fundamentally reactionary nature of Burke's thought in his article, Edmund Burke Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2010):

The intellectual counterpart of this prudent conduct, namely the refinement of our existing ideas, rather than replacing them, is what he had done in his revisions of the idea of sovereignty.

This style of thinking gave Burke a very lively sense of the corrosive power of new ideas. Even new questions could have unpleasant results. When the innovations of the British government unsettled the colonists, ‘then ... they questioned all the parts of your legislative power; and by the battery of such questions have shaken the solid structure of this Empire to its deepest foundations.’ The proper way to avoid such shakes to civil society was to ‘consult and follow your experience’ ..., for ‘experience’ according to Burke's philosophy of language was a condition of continuity of mind, and, on the basis of mind, of a sustainable practice. His was therefore a philosophically conditioned attitude to practice, and one that was very sensitive to the hiatus that speculation could cause in the latter. Burke's sensitivity can produce apodictic language in order to persuade people to make use of the ideas they have inherited, by urging ‘a total renunciation of every speculation of my own; and… [by recommending] a profound reverence for the wisdom of our ancestors’ ... Indeed, Burke can be found, sometimes, on rational grounds, deprecating all explicit appeal to speculation of whatever hue, if it had a disturbing effect: ‘reason not at all—oppose the ancient policy and practice of the empire, as a rampart against the speculations of innovators on both sides of the question’ (italics added [by Harris]) ... [my emphasis in bold]
Bill Buckley (1925–2008) was a defender of segregation and Joe McCarthy. Charlie Pierce refers to Buckley's National Review as "the longtime white-supremacist journal National Review." A tradition Buckley himself started and which continues to this day. Buckley was a talented rhetorician and debater. But the "robust intellectual" part of his work largely remained well concealed. William Hogeland (The Racism-Conservatism Link: 'National Review' Firestorm Over Racism Calls Up William F. Buckley's Troubling Legacy Alternet 04/23/2012) gives an example of his polemic/rhetorical talents discussing Buckley's supposed apology for taking segregationist positions:

But the aged Buckley was renouncing a position entirely different from the one he'd actually advanced in the 1950s.

Writing in 1957 in defense of jury nullification of federal voting laws, Buckley insisted that whites in the South were "entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, where they do not prevail numerically," because the white race was "for the time being, the advanced race." In 2004, asked whether he'd ever taken a position he now regretted, he said: "Yes. I once believed we could evolve our way up from Jim Crow. I was wrong: federal intervention was necessary."

Nicely done. Where in '57 he'd asserted a right even of a minority of whites to impose racial segregation by literally any means necessary, including breaking federal law, in '04 Buckley expressed regret for supposedly having believed only that segregation would wither away without federal intervention.

Stupid the man was not. He gets credited today with honesty about his past and with having, in his own way, "evolved up." Modern conservatives, more importantly, get to ignore the realities of their movement's origins. [my emphasis]
Barry Goldwater (1909-1998) is considered by today's Movement Conservatives as the Founding Father of their movement. He gained the 1964 Republican Presidential nomination as a warmonger and defender of segregation - but only on "states rights" grounds, of course! The two main issues in that campaign were the Vietnam War (Goldwater wanted to send in the troops and massively bomb Vietnam immediately) and civil rights for African-Americans (he was against them).

The line from Goldwater 1964 to the Iraq War, Dick Cheney's torture program, voter suppression laws, massive domestic spying, an overblown military budget, today's prison-industrial complex and anti-immigrant agitation is a pretty straight one. Yes, he repudiated the John Birch Society. But the Koch Brothers pretty much operate on Bircher ideas and they are scarcely pariahs in today's Republican Party.

It's likely that part of what made Goldwater grouchy about some of the right-wing factions whose policies he generally shared was that his parents were Jewish converts to Protestant Christianity. Barry himself was raised Christian. But he was undoubtedly aware of the level of anti-Semitism among characters like the Birchers. And he took some "libertarian" ideas more seriously than authoritarian Birchers do. He didn't much like Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority. And he made that clear publicly. He also was in favor of allowing gays to serve in the military. This side of Goldwater was captured well in this 1993 news report (Goldwater advocates gays in military Arizona Republic/A********d P***s 01/11/1993):

Goldwater said in his article [an op-ed in the Washington Post] that after 50 years in politics and the military, he still marvels that people can get upset over nothing.

"Lifting the ban on gays in the military isn't exactly nothing, but it's pretty damned close," wrote the salty-tongued Republican.

He qualified his position slightly on the [Larry] King show.

He told King that gays would cause no problem in the Air Force but that "there might be some question" about service in the Army, where homosexual and heterosexual soldiers would have to share foxholes.

Goldwater is a conservative who supports abortion rights and has challenged the Christian fundamentalist wing of the Republican Party, as he did in the last election when he backed Democrat Karan English over a GOP candidate supported by the religious right. English won an Arizona seat in the U.S. House.

Goldwater said conservatives who supported the military ban were ignoring their movement's core principle, "that government should stay out of people's private lives."

He said that studies have proven homosexuals are not security risks and that the ban ultimately will be lifted anyway.

"I think it's high time to pull the curtains on this charade of a policy," he wrote. [my emphasis]
Note that his supposedly bold, nonintuitive stand on gays in the service in 1993 was qualified by a comment that he wasn't so sure about having them in the Army. And that his argument on that point reflects typical antigay arguments.

That report is also a reminder that his distrust of the Christian Right didn't just apply to Falwell and the Moral Majority. I'm guessing that the anti-Semitism that is pretty painfully obvious in those movements had a lot of do with it. Even if its wrapped up with varying degrees of sophistication in a "Christian Zionist," nominally philo-Semitic political-religious ideology. See also: Lloyd Grove, Barry Goldwater's Left Turn Washington Post 07/28/1994; the headline doesn't fit very well with the content.

But that 1994 headline is a small example of the kind of Beltway Village groupthink that has long since hardened into dogma, or maybe taken flight into delusion. And a key element of that groupthink is the notion that there are always sensible moderates out there, and that the Democratic and Republican parties are ideological mirror images of each other. So a grumpy burst of good sense from Barry Goldwater in 1994 got spun into a "left turn" on his part, when it was nothing of the sort.

Back around 1983, I heard George McGovern give a talk in which he talked about the need for responsible conservatism, which he defined as the perspective that "we should make haste slowly." He wasn't advocating that position himself! He was making the point that responsible debate can produce a better result than actions which haven't been sufficiently critically examined. One case where conservative cautions later seemed more prescient to liberals than they once did was the federal Independent Counsel statute, of which Cass Sunstein wrote in 2001 (Unchecked and Unbalanced The American Prospect 11/16/2001):

The institutional design of the Independent Counsel is designed to heighten, not to check, all of the institutional hazards of the dedicated prosecutor; the danger of too narrow a focus, of the loss of perspective, of preoccupation with the pursuit of one alleged suspect to the exclusion of other interests." Thus wrote Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia nearly a decade ago, echoing the warning of three attorneys general, two of them staunch Republicans. In his dissenting vote to hold the Independent Counsel Act unconstitutional, Scalia objected that the supposedly independent counsel is a novel and dangerous means of law enforcement: a prosecutor who is effectively accountable to no one and entirely focused on a single person.
On the other hand, my stomach gets a little queasy at associating myself in public view with Antonin Scalia. So I also listen to my (literal) gut instinct on these things, too.

A current instance where I find myself somewhat attracted to conservative arguments is Obama's agreement with Iran, which I support. This article from the generally insufferable Walter Russell Mead, Obama Lights Firestorm on Capitol Hill The American Interest 07/17/2015, cites some arguments from two Democrats, Sen. Ben Cardin and Congressman Steny Hoyer, both representing Maryland, about Congressional powers that resonated with me on first glance. But Republicans these days hardly regard those two guys as conservatives. And both parties in Congress have been so irresponsible in not adequately restraining Presidential war powers that I find it hard to take arguments they make from broad principle applied to specific issues completely seriously.

But such instances are few and far between. Because if you have to hold up segregationist-warmongers Bill Buckley and Barry Goldwater as examples of the "robust intellectual history" of conservatism, that's a sign of how hard genuinely sensible conservatives are to find in US politics these days.

Paul Krugman has been chronicling this process for years. In Cranking Up for 2016 New York Times 02/20/2015, he wrote:

So what does it say about the current state of the G.O.P. that discussion of economic policy is now monopolized by people who have been wrong about everything, have learned nothing from the experience, and can’t even get their numbers straight?

The answer, I’d suggest, runs deeper than economic doctrine. Across the board, the modern American right seems to have abandoned the idea that there is an objective reality out there, even if it’s not what your prejudices say should be happening. What are you going to believe, right-wing doctrine or your own lying eyes? These days, the doctrine wins.

Look at another issue, health reform. Before the Affordable Care Act went into effect, conservatives predicted disaster: health costs would soar, the deficit would explode, more people would lose insurance than gain it. They were wrong on all counts. But, in their rhetoric, even in the alleged facts (none of them true) people like Mr. Moore put in their articles, they simply ignore this reality. Reading them, you’d think that the dismal failure they wrongly predicted had actually happened.

Then there’s foreign policy. This week Jeb Bush tried to demonstrate his chops in that area, unveiling his team of expert advisers — who are, sure enough, the very people who insisted that the Iraqis would welcome us as liberators.

And don’t get me started on climate change.

Along with this denial of reality comes an absence of personal accountability. If anything, alleged experts seem to get points by showing that they’re willing to keep saying the same things no matter how embarrassingly wrong they’ve been in the past. [my emphasis]

No comments: