Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Beware What You Wish For

Last night I happened to catch a very interesting discussion between David Frum and Robert Schrum on C-Span. The event took place at Georgetown, but I wasn't able to attend, so I'm glad I caught it on the television. The topic was the future of liberalism and conservatism in American politics.

Schrum (representing the liberal view) only wanted to talk about the election - and it's not surprising why. This is an exciting time for liberals, with the promised land of complete control of the Federal government within reach. Still, it was noteworthy that he didn't have a thing to say about the future of liberalism, per se.

Frum was far more thoughtful and reflective, as one might expect from someone whose party is about to be shown the door. He realizes that there will be a time wandering in the wilderness, and he showed that he will be a major voice in re-thinking the Republican brand over the next 4-8 years (or more). There will be a terrible internecine battle between the libertarians and the social conservatives, but it's possible that 4-8 years (or more) of an activist liberal government will be enough to cause them to make up and play nice (alas!).

What struck me about this is that Frum is aware, and already has been working, on an intellectual and policy re-definition of conservatism. Yet, while the liberals have been wandering in their own wilderness for many years, I don't detect that there has been anything like such a reconsideration. It's not clear that they have developed any considerable or new governing philosophy other than "change" and "we are not George W. Bush." Now, it's possible that Obama will seek to move America in the direction of a post-political future like that we are seeing among elites in Europe. That is clearly the hope of many in the professoriate and elite circles who are in the throes of near-ecstasy over an Obama presidency. Such a course, I think, would doom Obama's presidency, and I think he's smart enough to know it. He'll give encouragement to this crowd in the way that Republican presidents since Reagan have appeared on videoscreen at pro-life rallies. What seems more likely is that Obama will be a conventional Democrat - doling out government favors to every group of his coalition that asks - trying to keep up with the spending proposals of Congress. However, he's also clearly smart enough to know that this course would be folly, given the massive new indebtedness of the government wrought by our financial crisis, and the dwindling tax receipts that will be evident next April 15 (the deductions from stock losses will be staggering). That course will almost ensure that he will preside over a declining America whose indebtedness and hyper-inflationary monetary policies will make us resemble a third world nation.

Obama is going to win this election, and decisively, mainly because he is NotBush. Democrats have not used very well their time in the wilderness. For all of the youthful enthusiasm of Obama's supporters, I don't see any comparable young liberal David Frums or Rod Drehers or Ross Douthats or Reihan Salams (actually, looking at Frum and Schrum sitting next to each other, I was struck that it appeared to be an inversion of a McCain-Obama debate, with a youthful, thoughtful conservative and an old, hackneyed liberal). It's virtually assured that an Obama administration will be filled with many of the usual suspects. In their joy they will be tempted to overlook the fact that Obama didn't win so much as the Republicans lost, and deservedly (I still think that Obama would have won even without the financial crisis, but it would have been a narrow win, not the possible electoral college landslide he may achieve). The great temptation of the Democrats will be to become Santa Claus to every oppressed and alienated group that comes asking. Their great task - should they accept the mission - is to creatively and thoughtfully address the great middle class anxieties of the nation, contemplate ways to provide some degree of economic and social stability to the Joe the Plumbers of the world, and thus resist every worst instinct they have to disdain and re-educate the parochial views of our unprogressed middle class whose anxieties and support will make Obama president, but will not necessarily keep him there. If they can do that, the Republicans will wander in the wilderness for a very long time. I'm just not sure the Democrats will be that smart, and able to resist their worst instincts. If not, we will witness one of the greatest Pyhrric victories ever seen in just under two weeks' time.


Anonymous said...

"It is very difficult to imagine that a nation whose youth is formed in such pervasive irony can have much of a future. Ironically, it was folkways learned in small towns especially that provided an alternative - earnest, decent, common. If Daily Show viewers can't comprehend why Sarah Palin appeals to broad swaths of their countrymen, they might spend some time reading about a more serious time when your life depended on your neighbors, such as in 1930s Iowa."

Did they spend 150K on hair and makeup back in ye olde "earnest, decent, common" small towns?

Anonymous said...

Robert Schrum, along with being a not very good political adviser, is clearly no political thinker. You may be right that liberalism has not done the hard thinking that it should; however, please don't use Schrum as your case study. You also may be right about an Obama administration -- but a lot of decisive elections are really anti elections. FDR's first win was clearly anti-Hoover. (Remember the key advice Roosevelt got from a congressional Democrat about how to run his campaign, "Just don't die." Reagan's victory in 1980 was also clearly anti-Carter. I do think there has been serious thinking on the part of the left --whether there are enough of those thinkers or that those voices will be heard in an Obama administration is an important question.

Anonymous said...

I've only recently discovered your blog, thanks to Mars Hill Audio. Your blog has become a daily visit. Keep up the great work.

It gives me hope that Frum and others are putting serious thought into the future of conservatism. In your opinion, is there presidential timber out there - named or unnamed as of yet - that can effectively and coherently deliver such a message to the American people - before, during, and after a campaign run?

brierrabbit said...

I think what is going to happen, is Obama will start out as "Light worker" for the next few months, then slowly descend to "Earthbound Saint", then to "Tragic Hero", then down to "Good sinner" etc. The Left has so glorified this fellow, that he can only slide down in their eyes, as the reality of how hard fixing many of our countrys problems really are. We are broke as a country. We are entangled in 2 wars, that getting out of, without damaging ourselves too much, will be difficult. Problems like health care, and enviromental problems, etc, will require confronting powerful interests, that both Democrats and Republicans, are into hip deep. I actually feel all the adulation he gets, is really unfair to him. He really needs a "King Canute" moment with his supporters. Otherwise, they are in for a disappointment. Reality always is.

Anonymous said...

I think Jim Ceaser's essay of a few years ago in The Weekly Standard, "The Stupid Party," gets at the problems on the Left you describe. A party or persuasion that believes arguing over foundations is non-sense is, in a strange way (however dressed up in the flourishes of postmodern academic discourse) fundamentally anti-intellectual. Once progressives gave up on a real belief in History (the last foundation most on the Left held too), their progressivism became nothing more than a wish. And you can't argue with a wish.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I don't think I'd look to Bob Schrum for insights about -- well, much of anything, really. He's long been a poster boy for the 'triangulation' school, which almost by definition is principle-free.

That said, I generally agree with Dr. Deneen's essay -- which is sad, and worrisome. Obama does seem like an unusually promising and sharp guy, and as others have implied, FDR's 1932 campaign gave little indication of what he'd actually accomplish. So there's some reason to hope that we might get on what I'd consider a more sane and just track.

On the other hand, Obama's also advocated the worst kind of "more of the same, only better" problem-dodging nonsense. We don't need 100,000 more soldiers, we need to candidly reconsider our drift into militarism and empire. We certainly don't need to elevate a relic like Biden, who's practically the embodiment of Beltway 'wisdom'. My sense of Obama (whatever I can glean from the media shadows, which is all we really have at the national level) tells me that he's sharp enough to know that sticking to the 'safe' course is a sure path to very harsh reckoning in 2012 or even 2010. But to date "Safety first!" seems to be the unspoken motto of his campaign.

Gotta say, though, that for all these shortcomings, I really don't see anything better on the 'right'. Let's get real here: Frum is the guy whose sense of proportion and 'realistic' grasp of human behavior (rightists are always telling me they have special insight into these mysteries) led him to the phantasmagorical claim that North Korea, Iraq and Iran could put together an axis of, well, **anything**. He went on to claim that this "axis", with a cumulative GDP rivaling that of, say, North Carolina, would somehow be a 'threat' like the tens of thousands of Soviet nuclear weapons that we managed to stare down within living memory. And then for an encore Frum co-wrote a hilarious screed about ending (!) "Evil" -- with Richard Perle!

Looking further afield, I keep hearing David Brooks cited as another rightist 'intellectual', but in his published work he's consistently shown less professional integrity than is expected from freshman term papers. Now, there are certainly very lucid, sane thinkers in the conservative sphere: Daniel Larison, Andrew Bacevich, and (I guess) Dr. Deneen here come to mind. But they don't seem to get any invitations to the right-wing party, and I don't see the commissars of purity changing that policy any time soon.
-- sglover

Black Sea said...

"The great temptation of the Democrats will be to become Santa Claus to every oppressed and alienated group that comes asking."

This is the crux of the problem, as I see it, and it extends well beyond groups claiming to be "oppressed and alienated."

Our political process operates as follows: lobbies and interest groups purchase legistation through campaign contributions, and politicians purchase support by doling out money and favors to these groups. There is nothing new in this cyclical process, but within a society there is a difference between a tolerable and an intolerable level of corruption (if one considers this corruption).

Recent events have demonstrated that everyone from Wall Street to the banks to insurance companies to American industry to over-mortaged homeowners to ethanol-producing corn growers wants a slice of the action. Since distributing such is the time-tested means for remaining in power, the pressure to do so is irresistible. Though unaffordable, this process will not be stopped or seriously curtailed, simply because it isn't politically feasible to do so. The rare individuals who might make the attempt are cut out of the funding and media loop, and are thus unelectable.

I'm really rather hopeless about this, though I'd like to be persuaded that I'm unduly pessimistic.

Anonymous said...

Do you think this points towards a kind of development?