alien & sedition.
Monday, December 11, 2006
  McCain's Dilemma: Why Conservatives Can't Govern

(Cross-posted and updated from a diary at Daily Kos. Via clammyc, I note that many of the "demoralized" members of the departing Republican majority are flogging themselves for the same hypocrisy that McCain lamented. Which makes you wonder: if the most conservative Congress in modern American history, working with the most conservative President in modern American history, couldn't govern "conservatively" -- what does that say about "conservatism"? -- Paul)

John McCain insists that last Tuesday's election was payback for the Republicans' abandonment of conservative principles:

"Hypocrisy, my friends, is the most obvious of political sins -- and the people will punish it," said Mr. McCain, Republican of Arizona. "We were elected to reduce the size of government and enlarge the sphere of free and private initiative. We increased the size of government in the false hope that we could bribe the public into keeping us in office. "We lost our principles and our majority," he said. "And there is no way to recover our majority without recovering our principles first."
This goes beyond the song-and-dance about how the Democrats somehow moved right to win. McCain is opening the door for the most important political question of our time: can conservatives govern at all?

We hear a lot, even from the right, about the Bush administration's incompetence.

This is one way conservatives try to avoid taking responsibility for the failures of the past six years. In this analysis there's nothing fundamentally wrong with the conservative movement - it's just the gang actually in charge who keep screwing it up.

Glenn Greenwald has discussed this phenomenon:

One of the more corrupt pundit phenomena is the way in which the most loyal and worshipful Bush followers, who spent the last five years praising the President and doing everything possible to enable his most radical policies, are now suddenly pretending to be so deeply dissatisfied with his rule. Now that the Bush movement is collapsing, they all want to pretend that they knew all along that things weren't going well and that the President was deeply flawed....

The disasters facing our country didn't happen because George Bush, the
individual, was flawed. They have happened because the entire movement which
propped him up and glorified him for so long is craven, corrupt and radical. It
is critical that they not be permitted to jettison Bush (now that he has outlived his purpose) while pretending that he failed to adhere to what they wanted.

Smarter conservatives, like McCain, realize that they can't distance themselves from the President who has defined their party for six years, and whom they so enthusiastically supported. So instead, they offer contrition on behalf of the the party and the movement in general: We have all sinned. We have betrayed our conservative principles.

It's time to stop taking conservatives at their word when they say this. It's a false confession. The fact is that "conservative" government is impossible in modern America. Conservatism is not a governing philosophy. It has no place at the wheels of power in the 21st century.

In short, conservatives can't govern, because conservatives don't believe in government.

Would you trust a doctor who didn't believe in medicine?

In a brilliant essay at Washington Monthly, Alan Wolfe explains the problem in detail. Modern conservatism, he argues, is "a walking contradiction."

To begin with, we are a liberal nation to our very core:

The United States, as the political scientist Louis Hartz argued in the 1950s, was born liberal. We fought for our independence against Great Britain and the conservatism that flourished there. In Europe, a conservative was someone who defended the traditions of the monarchy, justified the privileges of the nobility, and welcomed the intervention of a state-affiliated clergy in politics. But all those things would be tossed out by the revolutionaries who led the war for independence and then wrote the Constitution. We chose to have an elected president, not an anointed monarch. Our Constitution prohibited the granting of titles of nobility. We separated church and state.
Conservatives, from the beginning, have never quite fit in the American political culture. Their essential values were rejected at the formation of the Republic, and their participation in the public sphere required the constant sacrifice of their own principles:

In this entrepreneurial, mobile, innovative, and individualistic country, conservatism was constantly on the defensive, aiming to preserve things--deference, reverence, and diffidence, to name three--that most Americans were anxious to shed. Deprived of both a church and state to defend, American conservatives became advocates for privileges determined by birth, suffrage restricted to an elite, and rural virtues over urban realities...

And so conservatives faced a dilemma from the moment the first shots were heard around the world. They could be true to their ideals and stand on the sidelines of political power. Or they could adjust their principles in the interests of political realism and thus negate the essential conservative teaching that principles are meant to be timeless...

American conservatives used the language of liberty to justify inequality and promoted democracy to stand against change.

A conservative in America, in short, is someone who advocates ends that cannot be realized through means that can never be justified, at least not on the terrain of conservatism itself. [Emphasis mine]

None of which is to say that conservatives have no place in America. On the contrary, they have served valuably as a corrective to overgrown bureaucracy and overly-ambitious social engineering. But they cannot govern, because they don't believe in government.

The march of American history has demanded government: westward expansion, industrialization, immigration, the growth of capitalism and labor and consumerism, the Depression, the Second World War, civil rights, the space age, the communications age, globalization. "Unwilling to accept the fact that government was here to stay," says Wolfe, "conservatives stood on the sidelines as conditions kept arising that demanded bigger and more effective national authority."

Democrats and good-government Republicans beat the Depression, won the Second World War, created the middle class, and managed the long postwar boom. In all this time, conservatives were marginalized - because their philosphy was clearly marginal. But then something happened:

With the election of George W. Bush in 2000, anti-government conservatism won control of both elected branches. This was something new. Conservatives hadn't held both Congress and the White House for a full term since 1932, before the creation of big government as we know it. For the first time in U.S history, conservatives had total control of the agencies of superpower government.
And what has been the result?

If government is necessary, bad government, at least for conservatives, is inevitable, and conservatives have been exceptionally good at showing just how bad it can be. Hence the truth revealed by the Bush years: Bad government--indeed, bloated, inefficient, corrupt, and unfair government--is the only kind of conservative government there is. Conservatives cannot govern well for the same reason that vegetarians cannot prepare a world-class boeuf bourguignon: If you believe that what you are called upon to do is wrong, you are not likely to do it very well.
Conservatives can't govern, because conservatives don't believe in government.

Wolfe goes on to explain how the conservative anti-government gave rise to disasters as diverse as the Iraq war, the loss of an American city, and the takeover of Washington by the K Street machine. None of these are the result of accidental incompetence or the betrayal of conservative principles: they are the inevitable result of government by those who do not believe in government.

Conservatism is not a governing philosophy. It has a certain utility, but it is our duty as liberals - which makes us the mainstream in America - to point out again and again, forever, the only role which conservatism can play in the modern world:
Because government is the one institution that allows us some control over our future, conservatism, which distrusts government so much, is best viewed as a natural counter to liberalism, which, if left unchecked, tends towards wasteful bureaucracy. Indeed, as the Bush administration fully proves, conservatism remains a force of opposition even when it purports to be a governance party.
This is not a vindictive or eliminationist argument. It is a simple, but crucially important point that every progressive, from Presidential candidate to water-cooler chatterbox, should make. It's the lesson of the Bush years, and it is the reason why McCain's rhetoric, as he launches himself along the campaign trail, is ultimately so empty and absurd.

Conservatives can't govern, because conservatives don't believe in government.

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Critical analysis of the American conservative movement from a progressive perspective. Also some stuff about the Mets.

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