Friday, January 4, 2008

Conserving Liberalism?

Remarkable goings on in American politics as of yesterday. Much has been said everywhere, so I will add relatively little. Of note, firstly, is that the victors are the two best speakers among all the candidates. In our age of the soundbite, rhetoric and speech still matter, and can still stir the soul (how BAD was Hillary! in her concession speech?). Secondly, worth noticing is that neither of the candidates who won Iowa yesterday ran on an internationalist/terrorism platform; both were, broadly speaking, domestically-oriented with a populist/religious flavor and a distinct tenor that a) things are going badly in our nation, and b) we need to buckle down to change things. All the talk seems to be about the candidates, but most remarkable is what this says about the (admittedly limited) electorate: we need to put our own house in order. Maybe this is the proper way of combating terrorism, even.

I was struck by one exchange over at NRO this morning, which I visited mostly to enjoy their conniptions over Huckabee's victory. Here's an exchange in response to a posting by Jonah Goldberg (almost certain to write a second edition of the yet-unreleased book Liberal Fascism with a special postscript on the liberal fascism of Mike Huckabee):

"Republicans Must Change Or Die" [Jonah Goldberg]

From a reader:

Dear Mr Goldberg,

Thank you for reading my email.

Whether or not Huckabee wins the nomination, the Republican Party - particularly on "fiscal as moral" issues - must change. The Reagan "mantle" - God bless it when he was here - is the past.

As David Brooks says about Huckabee in his NYTimes column tomorrow:

“Most importantly, he (Huckabee) sensed that conservatives do not believe their own movement is well led. He took on Rush Limbaugh, the Club for Growth and even President Bush. The old guard threw everything they had at him, and their diminished power is now exposed.

“A conservatism that recognizes stable families as the foundation of economic growth is not hard to imagine. A conservatism that loves capitalism but distrusts capitalists is not hard to imagine either. Adam Smith felt this way. A conservatism that pays attention to people making less than $50,000 a year is the only conservatism worth defending.

"So the race will move on to New Hampshire. Mitt Romney is now grievously wounded. Romney represents what’s left of Republicanism 1.0. Huckabee and McCain represent half-formed iterations of Republicanism 2.0. My guess is Republicans will now swing behind McCain in order to stop Mike.

"Huckabee probably won’t be the nominee, but starting last night in Iowa, an evangelical began the Republican Reformation."

Peggy Noonan is also beginning to realize that conservatives must change. She writes of Huckabee's supporters in her Column in tomorrow's Wall Street Journal:

”. . . the thing really pushing his supporters, is that they believe that what ails America and threatens its continued existence is not economic collapse or jihad, it is our culture.

“They have been bruised and offended by the rigid, almost militant secularism and multiculturalism of the public schools; they reject those schools' squalor, in all senses of the word. They believe in God and family and America. They are populist: They don't admire billionaire CEOs, they admire husbands with two jobs who hold the family together for the sake of the kids; they don't need to see the triumph of supply-side thinking, they want to see that suffering woman down the street get the help she needs.

Republicans must wake up, or say hello to bad Supreme Court appointments and Democrat taxes for years to come.

Your move.

Me: I get a lot of this sort of thing lately and one can only predict more is on the way given the Huckster's victory last night. This is one of these moments — when all of the energy is either for rapid change or for the appearance of rapid change, when everyone either is a reformer or wishes to seem like he is — that real, small-c, temperamental conservatism is both most valuable and least in supply. There may well be a huge outbreak of me-tooism out there in the political system. Plenty of important "new ideas" will be thrown around and, perhaps, even some new ideas that don't need quotation marks around them. Old hacks, stalwarts and stand-patters may suddenly get the message and pull some shiny new reformer's work clothes over their fat cat bellies. In this environment the very best thinkers in the party and movement will be asked for their advice and it will be thrown on the same pile with the wares from the worst charlatans, spinners and frauds around. The problem is that the pols won't be able to tell the difference and, worse, the oily pitchmen's ideas will be crafted to be appealing and easy, while the substance will seem hard and too longterm.

And, my basic position will be: Don't just do something, stand there. Better to do nothing and be mostly right, than do everything and be almost entirely wrong. To be sure, reforms are needed. New ideas are on our wish list. But, it is not a moment of "change or die." Change or die is a radical position. It emphasizes change, while paying no heed to direction. It values the pile of broken dishes from a rapidly pulled tablecloth over a time consuming, but well-planned, new arrangement. It is at precisely the moment when everyone is saying "change or die" that the Burkean conservative Brooks so often touts says, "change only what is necessary and nothing else." I say it would be better to reject 1 brilliant idea if it means not letting 10 idiotic ones go free upon the land.


I can't remember a more deceptive piece of agitprop in recent American politics. Goldberg is a free-marketeer, small government (i.e., let the market do as it will), big national defense (i.e., U.S. should run the world in our best interest), secular-minded "conservative": i.e., there's not an actual conservative bone in his body. In "Old Europe" he would more accurately be called a liberal. What galls in this exchange is Goldberg's apparent Burkeanism which is a thin mask on his deeper commitment to the instabilities fostered by "free" markets and the preeminence that contemporary Republicans place on individual choice and thoroughgoing mobililty. The call to "just stand there" is a "conservative" defense of liberalism (i.e., "just stand there" means "let us be as free and mobile and individualistic as ever"); the call for "change" in several cases (Huckabee in particular) points in the direction of being a "revolutionary" defense of conservatism. This is the paradox and conundrum of contemporary American politics: the true conservative appears to be the revolutionary whereas the "conservative" is a liberal in wolf's clothing. I agree that the call for "change" is an empty cipher: what matters is whether that change would actually result in more stable families and communities; whether the invocation of religious belief is a call for self-governance under God's law; whether the critique of "corporations" (such as Edwards) understands that they are providing us with things that we don't have the good sense to avoid and eschew (Edwards's version of anti-corporatism lets us all off WAY too easily); whether the call to "make the oil of Saudi Arabia as worthless as their sand" is accompanied by calls for self-sacrifice and a reduction in our mobility and wealth; whether the call for smaller government is accompanied by an understanding that the government has already fostered a world in which such reduction would only redound to the assertion of ever more private power.

It's clear that Goldberg and the mainstream of the Republican party were content all along to encourage the support of social conservatives so long as their votes, and not their views, were all that mattered. Now that social conservatism and economic libertarianism have begun to uncouple (an inevitable development in the aftermath of the fall of communism, which is all that kept this ungainly couple in the same political bed; the worst loser last night was not Hillary!, but the Republicans who hoped she would win and would replace communism as the glue that kept them together), the mainstream Republicans are desperate to ditch that part of the coalition and pick up whatever they can, including their desperate hope that a pro-choice candidate become the eventual nominee of the party. It turns out that Thomas Frank was at least half right: the social conservatives were being used throughout the Reagan and Bush eras (bought off by the promise of conservative judges, as if that is all it would take to change the culture), and now that their support is no longer so tractable, they're desperate to cut them loose. Change is in the air - let's hope it continues to smoke out the faux conservatives.

Let the realignment begin!


Anonymous said...

Goldberg's conerservatism is exactly what Chesterton was referring to when he said The business of the Conservatives is to prevent [progressive] mistakes from being corrected.

Goldberg is right not to get too excited, though. The social liberal/fiscal conservative hand-holding will continue until the boomers die out. The boomers must protect both their cash and their ugly '60s social legacies. Truth be told, we won't see real change on the ground until most boomers are in the grave. Lip service, sure. But no actual policies.

Patrick Deneen said...

"Agitprop" was undoubtedly a bit excessive on my part - I apologize to Jonah for that. Since he's already responded to its use, I won't delete/retract it, but otherwise would substitute it for a more moderate and less charged term (then again, the author of "Liberal Fascism" surely knows that excess can get a point across...).

Anonymous said...

I was about to leave this comment over at Crunchy Cons, having read only the snippet posted there, but decided to read the whole thing. I mostly agree with your overall point but I do think it's unfair to Goldberg specifically. As an inhabitant of the provinces I have recently found myself feeling almost as alienated from east-coast conservatism as from east-coast liberalism. But I think Jonah Goldberg is more sympathetic to red-state (pardon the crude shorthand) America than many NY-DC conservatives, and considerably more of a genuine Burkean than you're giving him credit for. I say that as a long-time NR subscriber and habitual NRO reader.

I have not, btw, read Liberal Fascism, an undoubtedly unfortunate title, like Ponnuru's Party of Death.

Anonymous said...

Only one candidate has ever quoted Chesterton in my memory.

Anonymous said...

"Let the realignment begin!"

Hear! Hear!

brierrabbit said...

I was over on the National Review reading the opinions on the "Symposium" by all the editors, commentators, etc. What struck me, is how so many of them think Huckabee is "not really conservative" The Republican party "opinion makers" have over the years become dominated by so much Libertarianism, that Huckabee seems like some exotic species to them. The attitude seems to be" we'll, now we got our Christian populism out of our system, we can get on with "real" conservatism. These guys can't quite see yet, what the country cares about. They are going to lose. I don't care if they repeal the estate tax, or whatever, I just don't want to lose my job, or go broke paying medical bills, etc. The Republican "elites" live in the Land of the Lotus Eaters. Not down here with much of the rest of us.

John M├ędaille said...

I don't know. A 30% national sales tax doesn't sound all that conservative to me.

John M├ędaille said...

Anonymous said...Only one candidate has ever quoted Chesterton in my memory. Ron Paul has done more than quote Chesterton, he wrote a forward to an edition of Hilarie Belloc's The Party System. See