Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The GOP rejects Scotsmen

Via TrulyFallacious.

Shorter David Brooks, "The G.O.P. Rejects Conservatism", New York Times, June 27 2017:
No true conservative would contemplate eliminating the Affordable Care Act without providing some alternative way of getting people health care, because many conservative intellectuals are now kind-hearted folk and believers in income redistribution, just not liberal income redistribution but a more modest and gentle type that doesn't actually redistribute the income, like allowing tax-free health savings accounts, surely people who can't afford decent health insurance would be able to put together a couple of hundred thousand for an emergency if they didn't have to pay all those bloody taxes amirite? And reducing regulations and using market incentives [ed.: Market incentives without regulations?]. Etc. Therefore, Republican Senators are no true conservatives but beastly individualists, as Prophet Tocqueville spake it in the ancient sacred book.
The No True Scotsman fallacy is when you make your point by quietly changing the definition of a primary term to exclude the case you don't like. "No true conservative would support a health plan condemning tens of millions to sickness and impoverishment, because that's what Yuval Levin and I decided the other day."
Imagine Hamish McDonald, a Scotsman, sitting down with his Glasgow Morning Herald and seeing an article about how the "Brighton Sex Maniac Strikes Again". Hamish is shocked and declares that "No Scotsman would do such a thing." The next day he sits down to read his Glasgow Morning Herald again; and, this time, finds an article about an Aberdeen man whose brutal actions make the Brighton sex maniac seem almost gentlemanly. This fact shows that Hamish was wrong in his opinion, but is he going to admit this? Not likely. This time he says: "No true Scotsman would do such a thing." (Antony Flew, 1975, via Wikipedia)
"Conservative" is, in the perfectly adequate American Heritage definition,
disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions, etc., or to restore traditional ones, and to limit change.
It doesn't say anything about a tendency "to have accepted the fact that American society is coming apart and that measures need to be taken to assist the working class" or "a vision for how they want American society to be in the 21st century". These are neither conservative nor non-conservative (you could use them to call for a socialist revolution, if you wanted to do that in such a dreary tone), they are simply thoughts that make Brooks feel good about himself.

The desire of Senators Cruz, Lee, and Paul to return to the status quo ante 2010 (ante 1965, for many) is clearly conservative (though some might prefer "reactionary", I follow Corey Robin in seeing the two as not different enough for separate categories). The struggle of the authors of the AHCA and whatever the hell the Senate bill is called to limit the change brought on by Obama's revolution in health insurance is also conservative. Brooks's longing to "repeal and replace" with measures that sound less brutal is conservative too, and equally futile: nobody who has difficulty getting health insurance pays enough taxes or can put aside enough money each month for a tax credit plan to make a difference, and even getting the government to put a nest egg in your health savings account will never yield enough money to pay for a hospital stay or other health emergency, any more than an Indiana school voucher will pay your kid's tuition at Andover (as opposed to a little Christian madrasa that may illegally require parents to sign a statement of faith and expel students for "immorality of any kind" according to a theological definition, or refuse to enroll students with disabilities). Plans of this type are a cruel joke.

What all such ideas have in common, really, is the way they reject collective action, like a universal insurance program sharing the risk among the whole population, in favor of treating every customer as a discrete and independent atom, every man and his health savings account for himself, and what's conservative about that is the way it's designed to prevent the emergence of new distributions of power, political and economic. Conservatism in a democracy is about getting voters to acquiesce to their powerlessness, persuading them not to seek group power but leave the distribution as it is, and generally by lying about it (often by calling their opponents a conspiratorial, cosmopolitan elite) and dividing the voters (by race or gender or cultural interests)  against their economic interests, and often as not by deploying the myth of the heroic individual, the self-created man of enterprise of pith and moment, rising above the herd—as well as the other myth of the happy hierarchy where everybody knows his place and purpose in life (with those heroic individuals at the inevitable top).

The Tocqueville quote is from the dark (1840) second part of Democracy in America, not its sunny (1835) first part, and is really about democratizing France in the horrible July monarchy, where the clan system of the old régime was giving way to a new population of individuals; Brooks only quotes the last two sentences of the following (presumably he pulled it out of BrainyQuotes or some such service):
Amongst democratic nations new families are constantly springing up, others are constantly falling away, and all that remain change their condition; the woof of time is every instant broken, and the track of generations effaced. Those who went before are soon forgotten; of those who will come after no one has any idea: the interest of man is confined to those in close propinquity to himself. As each class approximates to other classes, and intermingles with them, its members become indifferent and as strangers to one another. Aristocracy had made a chain of all the members of the community, from the peasant to the king: democracy breaks that chain, and severs every link of it. As social conditions become more equal, the number of persons increases who, although they are neither rich enough nor powerful enough to exercise any great influence over their fellow-creatures, have nevertheless acquired or retained sufficient education and fortune to satisfy their own wants. They owe nothing to any man, they expect nothing from any man; they acquire the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone, and they are apt to imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands. Thus not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants, and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back forever upon himself alone, and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart.
Burkean Brooks loves that chain, without understanding that Tocqueville was French, not English, and it is made out of group-to-group conflict which carries the seeds of inescapable revolution ("As the classes of an aristocratic people are strongly marked and permanent, each of them is regarded by its own members as a sort of lesser country, more tangible and more cherished than the country at large.... in those ages the notion of human fellowship is faint").

The United States, Tocqueville thought, should be immune from the atomization of democracy, in the first place because there was no aristocracy to poison the situation to begin with, and in the second place by the intense politicization of the population toward collective action of exactly the kind Brooks and the Congressional Republicans equally disapprove of:
When the members of a community are forced to attend to public affairs, they are necessarily drawn from the circle of their own interests, and snatched at times from self-observation. As soon as a man begins to treat of public affairs in public, he begins to perceive that he is not so independent of his fellow-men as he had at first imagined, and that, in order to obtain their support, he must often lend them his co-operation.
When the public is supreme, there is no man who does not feel the value of public goodwill, or who does not endeavor to court it by drawing to himself the esteem and affection of those amongst whom he is to live. Many of the passions which congeal and keep asunder human hearts, are then obliged to retire and hide below the surface. Pride must be dissembled; disdain dares not break out; egotism fears its own self. Under a free government, as most public offices are elective, the men whose elevated minds or aspiring hopes are too closely circumscribed in private life, constantly feel that they cannot do without the population which surrounds them. Men learn at such times to think of their fellow-men from ambitious motives; and they frequently find it, in a manner, their interest to forget themselves.
And it's not leaders who make democracy work, in Tocqueville's view: it's democracy—the action of the polity—that makes leaders out of very indifferent primary material:
It would seem as if every imagination in the United States were upon the stretch to invent means of increasing the wealth and satisfying the wants of the public. The best-informed inhabitants of each district constantly use their information to discover new truths which may augment the general prosperity; and if they have made any such discoveries, they eagerly surrender them to the mass of the people.
When the vices and weaknesses, frequently exhibited by those who govern in America, are closely examined, the prosperity of the people occasions—but improperly occasions—surprise. Elected magistrates do not make the American democracy flourish; it flourishes because the magistrates are elective.
Conservatives like Brooks, and the Congressional leaders he's mad at at the moment, all have the same aim just now, to reconstruct an aristocracy in these dark days of the American republic; they differ mainly in the ways they hope to get the voting coalition together to put democracy at last out of business, Brooks nowadays being a part of the smiling, gentle faction ("Message: I care") who thinks the nasty faction and its Emperor Trump are blowing the whole thing, permanently, by their constantly giving the game away and letting their hatred and contempt for We the People show. I do hope he's right and this situation doesn't last much longer (announcement, while I was in the middle of this, that McConnell has had to drop this week's Senate vote on his stupid and vicious plan is another hopeful sign).

Can't believe I went through this whole argument without actually quoting Brooks except for a couple of phrases up there in paragraph 4 or 5 or something (don't quite know how to count it). Blogfriend Boswood noted some magic bad writing:

Let that sink in. I spent a little time trying to find out if a "johnnie" is anything not obscene (e.g., it's a word for condom), and liked the thought of the phrase as coming about by analogy with "stage door johnnie", i.e., someone who hangs out in the alley waiting for the cool conservative policies to emerge from their dressing rooms. "Miss Mobility Voucher, you were stunning tonight," enthuses Brooksy, pressing a bouquet of chrysanthemums into her arms.

Heh. No true pope would ever retire.

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