Sunday, November 1, 2020

Goodbye Principled What?

Illustration by Alex Cai via Streak Club.

Say, what's in this barrel ("Goodbye Principled Conservatism" by Bret Stephens)? It appears to be full of fish!

How did the conservative movement reach this pass? Hemingway’s great line about how one goes bankrupt — “gradually, then suddenly” — seems apt. But the tipping point arrived on a precise date: July 20, 2015. That was the day Rush Limbaugh came to Trump’s political rescue after the developer nearly self-immolated with his remark that John McCain, who spent more than five years as a prisoner of war, refusing early release at the price of gruesome torture, should not be considered a war hero.

I don't know, I'd go for 1957 myself:

In 1957, Buckley wrote National Review’s most infamous editorial, entitled “Why the South Must Prevail.” Is the white community in the South, he asked, “entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically?” His answer was crystal clear: “The sobering answer is Yes—the White community is so entitled because for the time being, it is the advanced race.” Buckley cited unfounded statistics demonstrating the superiority of white over black, and concluded that, “it is more important for any community, anywhere in the world, to affirm and live by civilized standards, than to bow to the demands of the numerical majority.” He added definitively: “the claims of civilization supersede those of universal suffrage.”

Why don't conservatives care about manners any more?

Conservatives used to admire Edmund Burke. Not anymore, insofar as Burke stood for the importance of manners and morals to the health of the state. 

Like Buckley making the case for Senator Joe McCarthy?

Or playing TV host to Gore Vidal?

After Vidal thoughtfully called Buckley a crypto-Nazi, Buckley replied, “Now listen, you queer, you stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.”

Why don't conservatives care about balancing the budget?

Conservatives used to admire Milton Friedman. Not anymore, insofar as Friedman stood for free trade, sound money and a balanced budget.

Why didn't they in 1985?

By Reagan’s second term, the idea of seriously diminishing the budget was, to quote Stockman, “an institutionalized fantasy.” Though in speeches Reagan continued to repeat his bold pledge to “get government out of the way of the people,” government stayed pretty much where it was.

This hasn’t stopped recent contemporary conservative biographers from claiming otherwise. “He said he would cut the budget, and he did,” declares Peggy Noonan in When Character Was King. In fact, the budget grew significantly under Reagan. All he managed to do was moderately slow its rate of growth. What’s more, the number of workers on the federal payroll rose by 61,000 under Reagan. (By comparison, under Clinton, the number fell by 373,000.)

Why don't they care about human rights in foreign policy?

Conservatives used to admire Scoop Jackson. Not anymore, insofar as the Washington state Democrat was a champion of the idea that human rights should stand at the center of U.S. foreign policy. 

They called them "neoconservatives", because they were a new kind when they showed up in the 1980s. Paul Wolfowitz, Bill Kristol, Charles Horner, and Douglas Feith were all Democrats themselves who had worked for Jackson before they became Republicans of the neoconservative persuasion and joined the Reagan administration alongside Richard Perle. Conservatives were traditionally averse to involving themselves in moral issues overseas, divided between the traditional "America-first" non-interventionism going back from the Republican rejection of the 1919 Versailles treaty through Charles Lindbergh to Patrick Buchanan and the "realism" promoted by Richard Nixon, and whatever you think about those guys they avoided the ridiculous hypocrisy of the neoconservative tears over human rights abuses in Communist countries as they turned a blind eye to the Shah's Iran, the banana republics of Central America, and the dictatorships of Argentina and Chile (which I can't find any record of Henry "Scoop" Jackson ever mentioning—Daniel Patrick Moynihan seems like a better example of a genuine concern for human rights). And, after the fall of the Soviet Union, condemning Iraq, Libya, and Islamist Iran while worshiping the absolute monarchies of the Gulf. It was always a fraud, whether it was "conservative" or not.

Conservatives used to admire Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Not anymore, insofar as both Reagan and Bush believed in humane immigration reform, international coalition building, standing up to Russian tyrants and, when possible, making deals with Democrats.

Both of those presidents acted against the conservative consensus in these matters, as did George W. Bush years later. Republican conservative desire to restrict immigration was at its most pronounced in the 1920s from the passage of the 1924 Immigration Act to the protests against the 1965 Immigration and Nationalities Act that opened the gates to immigrants from Asia and Africa and Latin America. Reagan's 1986 immigration reform 

And while Republicans were already extremely reluctant to criticize Reagan during his presidency, Republicans provided most of the opposition to the 1986 bill in Congress.

I have my doubts about Reagan's interest in international coalitions (his administration's foreign policy seems to me to have been dominated by defiance of the international order in Angola, Nicaragua, Iran, the Philippines, Taiwan, South Africa, even Australia and New Zealand, with their desire for a nuclear-free South Pacific; and on the positive side his strange démarche toward Gorbachev's Soviet Union. There's now a kind of conservative dogma holding that Reagan and GHW Bush singlehandedly took down the Evil Empire, I guess by competitive military spending driving them into bankruptcy, but it doesn't hold up historically. From Gorbachev's ascendancy in 1985, Reagan's personal belief in the Soviet president and faith in the possibility of negotiation were to me the most attractive feature of his presidency, and the most liberal; and the Soviet system collapsed of its own arteriosclerosis.

As to making deals with Democrats, not that there's anything wrong with that, what's exactly "conservative" about it?

Everything in Trumpian policy has a conservative pedigree as long as your arm, in fact. Trade protectionism is at the heart of the original Conservative-Liberal distinction as it arose in British politics, where the rural-based Conservatives were anxious to discourage imports and keep grain prices high while the industrial-based Liberals sought to encourage exports. The opposite was the case in 19th-century US, where it was agrarian interests represented by Democrats, growing tobacco and cotton instead of food, who wanted to favor exports, and Whigs or later Republicans representing very young industries wanted to discourage imports. By the time of the 1896 election things were different, and the cabal of Ohio industrialists who put William McKinley in office were demanding protection of which they had no need. It's important to note that it was never jobs, or workers, that were being protected, but profits; the idea that tariffs were "saving your job" were just propaganda for votes alongside McKinley's slogan of the "full dinner pail", as conservatives sought ways of achieving majority votes for their minoritarian programs.

Everything in Trumpian policy has a conservative pedigree and so does its opposite, in many cases, because these policy matters aren't, in the end, what conservatism is concerned with, merely rationales: citing the genial Frank Wilhoit one more time, conservatism has only one principle:
that there should be an in-group whom the law protects but does not bind, and an out-group whom the law binds but does not protect
and all the other stuff, high tariffs or low, isolation or aggressive internationalism, restrictive immigration or openness, balanced budget or deficit financing, is deployed one way or the other at one time or the other as it contributes to that basic goal, which Trumpian policy has held to every bit as firmly as McKinley's, or Reagan's, and is thus just as principled a conservatism as theirs.

And as Wilhoit adds, but it's not as often quoted, only one way to combat conservatism, by insisting that the law must protect, and bind, everyone equally—which may also mean different policy indications at different historical moments. At this historical moment, of course, it means #VoteBidenHarris, and be, as my dad loved to say, of good cheer.

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