Green Room

Faith-Based Politics In Place Of A Winning Program

posted at 5:06 pm on April 19, 2010 by

Responding to a Salon article by Democratic Strategist Ed Kilgore on the Republicans’ “2012 problem,” RS McCain offers up a mixture of snark and political prognostication.  The snark is arguably well-deserved, and McCain delivers it with relish.  He doesn’t, however, seem to have taken as much interest in his own political speculation:

Is BHO not already the most protested POTUS ever? Should he not hold that dubious honor, he shall by 2012.

McCain’s heart may be in the right place, at least if you share his estimations of the Tea Party Movement and of Barack Hussein Obama, but “most protested POTUS ever” strikes me as a reality-free historical observation (Lyndon Baines Johnson and Richard Milhous Nixon, a.o., are rolling over in their graves).  It’s not really up to the standard set by Kilgore when, in downgrading Mike Pence’s presidential prospects, he reaches for his political almanac and points out that no sitting House member has won a presidential nomination since 1896.

You don’t have to be the sponsor of the Pence12 Facebook page to recognize how utterly irrelevant such factoids are to whatever is really going to answer run/not-run and win/not-win for a prospective candidate, but merely declaring that Kilgore is flacking for the Dems doesn’t make McCain’s own conclusions any less self-servingly wishful:

Counter-analysis: the 2010 election buys We The People a chance, but only a chance, to set the country on a course for recovery. The Tea Parties et al. continue their pressure and whoever wins in 2012 comes in with a mandate to begin the process of unwinding a century of debt, centralization, and diminished liberty. And the efforts of the Founding Fathers shall not have been in vain.

From McCain’s blog to God’s monitor, we might say, but this isn’t really an “analysis.” It’s a hopeful projection.  Compare it to Kilgore’s final paragraph, dubbed by McCain a “watered down Muhammed Saeed al-Sahaf outing”:

So let Republicans enjoy their 2010 comeback. It was all but foreordained by the last two cycles, and by the very demographics that threaten the GOP in the long run. Allow them to celebrate their “fresh faces”; they’ll have a lot of fine options for the vice-presidential nomination in 2012. But their 2012 prospects will go straight downhill starting on Nov. 3, 2010. That’s when Republicans will have to start to deal with the consequences of their recent bout of self-indulgent destructiveness, when they’ll begin choosing someone to take on Barack Obama not in press conferences or talking points or Tea Party protests, but in a presidential election.

Kilgore is summarizing here:  “self-indulgent destructiveness” refers to his argument that Republicans have “brand[-ed] themselves as the party of angry old white people” in a way that may maximize advantages in 2010, but hurt them in 2012 and beyond, when the electorate will tilt more to the Democrats’ favor, whether under an incumbent Barack Obama or, going forward, as demographic factors shift.

It’s possible, perhaps likely, that both McCain and Kilgore are doing a little whistling past their own partisan graveyards here, but, even if you share McCain’s faith in continued “pressure” from the Tea Party and a quasi-apocalyptic awakening to the supreme self-evident truths of constitutional conservatism, Kilgore’s argument stands.  It goes without saying that a perceived abject failure of the Obama Administration, and the aftereffects of any of several potential game-changers between now and November 2012, might make a hash of all conventional political calculations.  Yet 2012 was always likely to be a more difficult climb than 2010, and we should also understand that what Republican conservatives promise or promote with effect this Fall may serve them a lot less well, or even weigh them down,  when Obama is on the ballot again against a real opponent with his or her own campaign to run. If we reach for our own political almanacs, we can determine from polling history that even Jimmy Carter looked pretty good until Ronald Reagan finally closed the deal against him during 1980 campaign’s final days.  We don’t know yet that BHO = JEC.  As for the Republicans, if you can confidently declare one of the known suspects for a 2012 run to be another RWR, you may be a candidate – for de-programming (assuming you’re not receiving a check).

This isn’t the place to attempt a full-fledged comparison of 1980 to some imaginary 2012, or even to dial back to 1978 for a mid-term comparison, or to 1994/96 for an alternative set of potential parallels.  It’s even less the place to wonder whether we don’t focus too much on the presidency, too little on how policy is really effectuated in the U.S.A.  And unless we’re pushing a partisan or factional agenda, we have to begin and end by admitting that we don’t know what the future holds, and which rough beasts slouching toward Bethlehem might draw the nation closer to the President and the stationary state he and his allies are preparing for us – an effort that Ross Douthat recently characterized as aiming “to get everybody inside the barrel before it goes over the falls.”

We might just as well look back to that election of 1896 that I was just dismissing up above:  That “last sitting congressman” nominee was William Jennings Bryan, who lost in 1896 and again in 1900 and 1908, but went on to become one of the most important and influential figures of that age in whose shadow McCain sees us still to be standing.  A conservatism that aims to change the course of history, to “begin the process of unwinding a century of debt, centralization, and diminished liberty,” could do a lot worse than lose with a new Bryan, but it may not even achieve a fruitful defeat if it stands still, expecting the assumptions of a convinced minority to carry the day simply for having been asserted, and without regard for what and whom those assumptions seem to exclude.

cross-posted at Zombie Contentions

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CK, I’m sending this to see if I get an “awaiting moderation” notice, which I got for the first time just now at one of Cassy’s posts.

J.E. Dyer on April 20, 2010 at 11:17 AM

Apparently not. OK, must be just at Cassy’s.

J.E. Dyer on April 20, 2010 at 11:17 AM

Sorry about that. OK. The complaint you give voice to is a perennial one that I don’t think the conservative party in any place or time has ever avoided.

It’s not that there aren’t valid aspects to the complaint. But there is an important question of what those who lodge the complaint want conservative members of the GOP to do about it.

Rather than blabbing on myself on that topic, I am curious as to what you would suggest. If the suggestions are mainly about courtesy, they are certainly well-taken, but they also aren’t applicable to most people. Most people (outside of some of the most determined commenters at forums like this) are already courteous.

If the suggestions are about message content, that may or may not be feasible. There are things conservatives don’t have to emphasize, necessarily, but there’s a limit to what people can agree to say or not say.

Can you express what GOP conservatives would need to do to convince you that they’re not the “angry old white people” party? Since they don’t look that way to me, I’m looking for the perspective of someone to whom they do look that way.

J.E. Dyer on April 20, 2010 at 11:32 AM

JED, let’s first be clear that “angry old white people” was Kilgore’s phrase, not mine. It is, however, a key point of contention – thus the determined efforts by Tea Partiers and their supporters to highlight the gentleness and diversity of the movement, including by highlighting specific reasonable, young, non-white participants.

Kilgore points to issues, however, rather than to blanket characterizations and their symbolic import:

Not content with their midterm advantage, Republicans have done a lot to brand themselves as the party of angry old white people: the GOP’s conspicuous identification with the Tea Party movement, and the campaign to mobilize Medicare beneficiaries against healthcare reform are two examples. This will build a demographic trap for the GOP future, particularly since the radically conservative mood of the Republican base has eliminated any strategic flexibility to reach out to younger and darker (or female) voters.

After all, Karl Rove’s famous Bush-era initiatives to expand the GOP via comprehensive immigration reform (aimed at Latinos) and No Child Left Behind (aimed at women and African-Americans) are now part of the conservative narrative of “betrayal” that Republicans must now promise to foreswear forever.

On these and other issues, merely standing pat on “debt, centralization, and diminished liberty” in the context of reverence for the Founders may offer just another name for nothing much to gain for anyone not already convinced – i.e., the constituency groups that Kilgore thinks Rs are putting back out of play for 2012 and beyond.

Conservatives believe that liberal answers are illusory and counterproductive, and that on every one of these issues the real world outcomes will be better under their policy preferences, but, when the reflexive attack on liberal policies proves insufficient or is questioned, the tendency on the far right is to escalate to an attack on premises: Not “conservative solutions will lead to better healthcare,” but “to tell you the truth we don’t even really believe in the disastrous evil catastrophe of Medicare because the Constitution should have prevented it”; not “our immigration proposals will lead to a better life for Latinos,” but “the evil progressives are plotting to take over by creating a new client constituency made up of uneducated new voters, even while Spanish replaces English”; not just “repeal and replace Obamacare,” but “progressives are Nazis and things were better in 1909/1889/1859/1789.” That this rhetorical escalation often is accompanied by rage and invective – not just at the evil conspiratorial anti-American progressives, but at anyone caught in the crossfire – doesn’t help.

One question is whether RS McCain’s approach reflects a combination of overconfidence and self-limiting ideology. The other, related question is whether conservatives really know what they really want to do, and whether it really would work, if and when they’re back riding the tiger.

CK MacLeod on April 20, 2010 at 1:28 PM

Thanks, CKM, I do appreciate the serious answer. I stuck with it even after the Kilgore quote that spoke of a “campaign to mobilize Medicare beneficiaries,” as though Medicare beneficiaries need mobilizing — because left to their own devices, they wouldn’t even notice big cuts to their medical care.

I continue to have a sense that you want to hear conservatives saying things that aren’t actually conservative. But I may be wrong about what you are wishing to hear. Let me frame it a little, if I may.

First, I agree that there’s an absence of what I would call a plan for “rollback”: a practical method of getting government — the federal government in particular — out of the too many things it’s into now, in our daily domestic life. That may not be exactly what you’re saying, but I think if such a concept were outlined, and scoped to at least a set of generalities, that would go a long way toward producing a practical message for governance.

That said, however, it’s important to understand that conservatism isn’t an opposite analog of statist leftism. The left says “The state will make life better.” The right doesn’t say that. Its premise is that the state is not properly the principal agent for making all, most, or even just some aspects of our life better.

The state is a form of force, and the purposes to which it is suited are therefore limited. Thomas Sowell had a great piece today that got at one aspect of this: the point that forcible servitude is not a mode of human interaction that can call forth things like initiative and ingenuity in people. (I read it at NRO; well worth the time.) Force simply cannot do this. Only positive inducement and incentive can.

The conservative never forgets that the state — government, the enforcer of law — is force. It can punish crime but it can’t change hearts. It can’t change the way people respond to either dictate or incentive. It can only apply force; and the set of purposes for which that is the right tool is a limited one in human life.

The reason I’m going into this is that it’s probably the main reason conservatives don’t talk about how their “program” will “lead to better health care” or “lead to a better life for Latinos.” It’s because, at bottom, they don’t mean or believe that actions of the state — law, regulation, taxations, expenditure — can “lead to better health care” or “lead to a better life for Latinos.”

It’s not as though the left has ever been correct in its view: that actions of the state can lead to such improvements. Actions of the state have never led to improvements of this kind. It’s not possible to say health care is better today because of government regulation, or that Latinos are better off because of it. (For leftists, indeed, man never is but always to be blessed: no matter how extensive the existing programs, expenditures, and regulations, the situation is always dire and worsening, and much, much more of all these remedies is needed.)

And it most definitely is not possible to guarantee outcomes. The left has a demagogic habit of speaking as if it is, and issuing blame on that invalid premise. But it’s not.

That said, however, if I go back to the very first post I made at TOC, my original purpose for starting a blog was to affirm this principle: that life is better with less government. Greater liberty from regulation, cost-shifting, and litigation would make our health care better, and greater liberty from the steel trap of victim politics and crony statism would lead to a better life for Latinos. That, I would agree conservatives need to be saying.

I think, to many conservatives, the case doesn’t even have to be made, because it’s blindingly obvious. When conservatives are talking amongst themselves, there isn’t necessarily a big need to repeat principles and arguments most of us already agree with over and over.

But there is a big population out there that has been educated in the public schools and mainstream baccalaureate academia, and a lot of those folks can really use discussion that gets them thinking about a critical view of the canon of 20th century leftism in which they’ve been indoctrinated.

When you see commenters here talking about “equality of opportunity versus equality of outcome,” they are trying to get that concept out there for people who weren’t raised on it to understand. That’s an example of dialogue that needs to happen. Some do it more elegantly and gently than others. We should be talking about that, and a short list of other important conservative principles. Some Americans have come a long way from understanding the significance of the idea, and why it’s important to conservatives.

What conservatives won’t be doing — not if they’re to remain conservatives — is changing what they believe about that short list of principles. This isn’t because they haven’t thought about it. It’s because for so many decades now we have been watching our governments, at each level, operate according to more interventionist leftist principles, and there is nothing in the outcome to recommend the leftist perspective as either realistic or desirable.

In the terms I use, I believe conservatives have yet to state a coherent vision for reforming the governance of America in the 2010s. Such a vision would require coalescence around more specificity than we have seen getting traction, in spite of the good efforts of Paul Ryan. I don’t know if we’re in agreement that this is what you’re talking about above. It’s what I mean, however, when I say conservatives need to scope things to a specific approach in some key areas.

You know, if you’re interested in reaing a very thoughtful treatment of the West’s competing ideas of governance, through the prism of “equality before law/equality of opportunity versus equality of outcome,” I can’t recommend anything more highly than a book from the 1990s by Balint Vaszonyi titled America’s Thirty Years’ War. It isn’t at all “Beck-ish,” in spite of the title. It’s a very good, interestingly laid out entry point to the debate.

J.E. Dyer on April 21, 2010 at 12:51 AM

JED, really, equality of outcomes vs. equality of opportunity is not a new concept for me.

The left says “The state will make life better.” The right doesn’t say that. Its premise is that the state is not properly the principal agent for making all, most, or even just some aspects of our life better.

I think you’re confusing anti-statism, in your preferred mode of radical constitutionalism, with “the right.” I’m also aware that when you enter into these conversations, you tend to exempt the military from the discussion. This isn’t a quibble. It’s illustrative of the fact that within thoroughly conservative traditions the state remains the principal agent for making some aspects of our life better (better than they would have been otherwise). These include all aspects of our lives that inherently cannot be secured, promoted, ensured, or provided for by any other agency, but also include aspects of our lives that for better or worse currently fall within the ambit of the state, and cannot be efficiently devolved to alternative agencies (or to no agencies) without new, significant initiatives of the state.

I could say much more on this topic, and also request some clarifications on definitional matters, but, frankly, I feel that we’ve carried this conversation to approximately this point several times over the last few months, and that you have repeatedly failed to answer or acknowledge some fairly extensive replies.

Instead, I’ll summarize: I don’t accept your presumptions and I consider both your logic and your history faulty. Conservatism doesn’t preclude utilitarian justifications, or need to restrict itself to a negative critique of liberalism. It’s not a socio-economic hair shirt that we’re asking the country to put on because it appeals to our intellects, according to some abstract moral vision.

To return to the arguments that conservatives may or may not make, we’ll have to disagree about whether it’s permissible to say “our solutions will result in better health care, or better social and economic outcomes for any particular community.” The justification for focusing on opportunity rather than outcomes includes, helpfully, the fact that the focus on opportunity also happens to lead to better outcomes, while the focus on outcomes eventually impairs both outcomes and opportunity.

CK MacLeod on April 21, 2010 at 2:47 AM

CKM — I obviously believe about your argument that it is historically faulty and that it suffers from illogic as well. It’s not that I’m not listening to you, it’s that I don’t accept your premises either. I’m afraid I regard your references to history as particularly faulty, but I urge you not to take that in any worse part than I take it when you say the same thing to me. We can still discuss this.

You seem to think I don’t recognize the logic of your argument that having a national defense is a use of the state to “make our lives better.” Believe me, my mind is perfectly capable of getting around that concept. I simply find it faulty logic. The reason is that this function of the state is not analogous to the putative use of state power to produce “better health care” or “better lives for Latinos.”

National defense is inherently a function of the state, one reason for that being that force is one of the chief methods suited to performing that function. Law enforcement — deterrence and punishment of crime — is another function in this category. Having an ordered polity at all inherently entails at least these two functions; otherwise there is no human political organization in question, and we are not even talking about a “state.”

The point can also be made that Western man has centuries of history now with the nation-state — as opposed to city-states, tribalism, or tribalism within empires — and the ability to defend a “nation” and administer law locally does, indeed, make the lives of inhabitants better. But this is because force is suited to these functions. It’s the right tool for them.

The same cannot be said of such posited government functions as “making health care better” or producing “better lives for Latinos.” For one thing, forced used against everyone in a polity does not produce better health care or better lives for Latinos. It simply doesn’t; we’ve been trying it in various ways for decades, in these instances and others, and it hasn’t produced the “betterness” promised.

If we wanted to, we could say that having an effective national defense and well-functioning law enforcement help promote good health care and good lives for Latinos, along with all the myriad other goods they promote.

But going in and deliberately trying to rearrange the operation of health care in America, away from what the people naturally do when they are not under coercion from the government, manifestly has not led to better health care. Today’s conditions are an amalgam of technological advances cultivated by private research and the long-colossal ability of Americans to demand improved health care using their own dollars, with the weight and deterrence of government regulation, mandated cost-shifting, and easy, no-cost litigation distorting the market.

Each of those methods of government represents the use of force to eliminate choice in people’s health care arrangements. An obvious example of this is states not allowing insurance to be bought across state lines. This enables them to require everyone in the state to buy the coverage the state legislature, or state regulatory bodies, declare to be necessary — and not the coverage each individual would choose on his own, if he actually had a choice.

If you are prepared to say that it makes health care better for states to do this, then perhaps you can make your assertions come out even. I am not, however. Maybe this is one of the definitional discrepancies we need to clear up. The left likes to operate in exactly this realm — that of proclaiming it to be a “fix” to “problems” when new requirements are levied on the people. But it is the most logical and sensible of questions whether people’s lives or their health care are made “better” by the imposition of a requirement that everyone pay more to carry insurance covering fetal alcohol syndrome, autism therapy, or sex-change operations, regardless of individual wishes or expectations.

Law and regulation are blunt tools, capable only of a net elimination of choice. We want them to operate that way in their proper realm: deterring crime, protecting life and property. But they are literally incapable of “making life better” in the way statist thinkers propound. Unless, that is, we agree with the statists that life is inherently better if people are subject to more regulation and hence have less choice.

I don’t know how else I can say that I “get” your point that, for example, conventional law enforcement is itself a method of subjecting people to regulation and leaving them with less choice. But that doesn’t mean that regulation and the elimination of choice are suitable tools for addressing everything in human life. History is our best guide to the truth that they are not. Governments throughout history have made a career of regulating their populations in many, many things; in that regard, the fervor of the modern statist is much like the overweening moral supervision incubated in the feudal state of the European Middle Ages. Proscribing salt in the people’s food is exactly the sort of regulation kings used to levy in the name of Almighty God. But proclaiming that a situation is “better” if a regulation has been instituted is not the same thing as the situation actually being better.

If the state regulating mankind to make him healthy, wealthy, and wise actually worked, we’d have walked briskly off into that sunset centuries ago. It doesn’t. Using military force does, however, succeed on a regular basis in defending a state’s population and keeping its borders secure. Using force to deter and punish criminals, when done honestly and justly, actually makes the daily lives of honest citizens safer. That is why I distinguish between the state’s inherent force-based functions, and the use of the state’s force for prophylactic social programming, in discussing the state’s capacity for “making life better.” It’s a meaningful, logical distinction. Maybe this will help clarify it for you.

J.E. Dyer on April 21, 2010 at 3:58 PM

You concede that the state is indispensable in promoting, preserving, protecting, ensuring, etc., aspects of a “better life.” You have some problem with restricting salt content, but probably don’t have any problems with measures to prevent the spread of communicable diseases.

So, why should a conservative speaking to members of community x be prevented from saying “if we reduce the incidence of typhus through an efficient use of state power, it will make life better for community x” or “If we reduce illegal immigration, it will in the end improve employment prospects and reduce crime and discrimination to the benefit of community x”? Why should a conservative speaking to the broader public be prevented from saying, “if we use the power of the federal government to regularize and reduce malpractice awards currently adjudicated on the state level, and to ensure competition across state lines in the insurance market, it will result in less expensive, more flexible, more widely available health care for all”?

CK MacLeod on April 21, 2010 at 6:19 PM