Bush and Conservatives: Cleansing the Doors of Perception (Part 1)
By now the observation that conservatives and the Bush administration are divorced from the "reality-based community" has ripened from truism to cliche. Still, it's a difficult cliche to avoid, especially given how so much conservative discourse - even within the movement itself - is explicitly dedicated to arguments about perception.
It's striking how many of these conservative debates run along one or the other of two parallel tracks: perception as it relates to the success or failure of the war in Iraq, and as it relates to the question of what lessons, if any, can be learned from the Bush administration about the conservative project. Often, these two tracks are linked.
An illustrative example is the debate
in First Things
between Joseph Bottum and Michael Novak. At issue is "the leadership of George W. Bush" and its consequences for American conservatism: Bottum argues it has been disastrous; Novak defends the president. Each argument revolves around the problem of winning wars of perception, at home and abroad.
Bottum is bleak:
Every conservative I know is depressed these days, and they are right to be. Under President Bush, conservatism has won only in the sense of not losing as quickly as it would have under a President Gore or a President Kerry.
This depression is the result of the Administration's defeat in two wars of perception: one with regard to the conservative movement itself, the other involving public opinion generally.
On the first point, Bottum observes that, outside of a handful of victories - most notably the the Roberts and Alito nominations - conservatives are unconvinced by the media narrative that Bush has accomplished their goals:
The noise has been overwhelming since George W. Bush took office. Abortion, euthanasia, stem cells, public Christmas displays, same-sex marriage, pornography in the movies, faith-based initiatives, immigration, visible patriotism: We’ve been warned by the media, over and over again, that Republicans are reshaping America into a Puritan’s paradise. But, at the end of the day, the media mostly won and the Republicans mostly lost. Social conservatism is in little better shape now than it was when Bush was first elected. In many ways, it is in worse shape.
In the larger sense, argues Bottum, Bush's failures have seriously damaged the public's perception of conservatism itself - not just social conservatism, but economic and neo- conservatism as well. There is a point about substance implicit in what Bottum is saying: had Bush successfully implemented conservative policies, the logic goes, the country would be in better shape - and the right would thus have remained in the public's good graces. Of course, faith in the ultimate efficacy of one's ideas underlies everyone's political views, so it's logical that Bottum would make this point. But, on the question of why Bush has not
successfully advanced conservative policies, the argument turns back to perception.
Says Bottum, "The common turn among commentators, once they’ve recognized Bush’s weakness, has been to declare the betrayal of some form of authentic conservatism." But Bottum doesn't share this view:
[The] conclusion that the White House has flown under false colors is ludicrous. In all that he has tried to do-reform education, fix social security, restore religion to the public square, assert American greatness, appoint good judges-Bush has proved himself a conservative. Of course, along the way, he has also proved himself hapless. The problem isn’t his lack of conservatism. The problem is his lack of competence.
The competence argument is a familiar one. Glenn Greenwald attacked it
last year, though in his post - which was criticizing a Peggy Noonan op-ed
- the separation between the "false colors" argument and the incompetence argument was not complete. Bottum is clarifying this distinction.
In Bottum's analysis, Bush has consistently attempted
to do the "right" thing - it's just that the president has consistently lacked the political skills to succeed. He compares Bush to Clinton, who "seemed a man of enormous political competence and no principle." Bush, it appears, has been the inverse. As a result, "social-security reform is now dead for a generation," the No Child Left Behind Act was purged of its good ideas and hijacked by bad ones, and the GOP's "lack of political savvy" has cost conservatives dearly on judicial nominations.
Note the distinction between two kinds of incompetence: Bottum is not criticizing Bush for his incompetence as president
, but as an agent of the conservative agenda. This failure has, in turn, poisoned that agenda in the mind of the public. What we have here is a failure to communicate.
You can see how perfectly this dovetails with the conservative line on the war in Iraq: that victory and defeat are largely matters of perception. Indeed, Bottum makes this case quite literally - although, unlike the Malkin crowd, he focuses his opprobrium not on the media, but on the Administration itself, which has failed to convince us that we are winning:
We have already been defeated in Iraq. Perhaps not in literal truth; a better policy, better implemented, might yet bring about a stable, democratic country. And certainly not in historical terms; Iraq is only an early chapter in what must be a long struggle against global Jihadism. But, at the very least, the battle for perception of the Iraq War has gone entirely against the United States. In the eyes of both the American public and the Islamic world, we have lost—and lost badly.
Emphasis mine. Of course Bottum, like every war supporter, has little more than faith - and a limitless patience for occupation and casualties - upon which to pin his hopes for "victory." As long as we do not abandon the effort, "victory" can be projected ad infinitum
into the future, always at some date yet to come. It is an unimpeachable concept, relying on an un-provable negative: you can't prove that victory won't
happen - only that it hasn't happened yet
. Meanwhile, the issue is almost entirely a matter of perception: we should be trying to convince people (Americans and "Jihadis" alike) that the endless path upon which we are embarked must lead, somehow, to victory.
But to finally call off the game would be to "lock in place the perception of defeat." And, concerned as Bottum is about the consequences of that perception for America generally, he's worried about the consequences for the conservative movement in particular. Specifically, he's worried about a return to the culture of the 1970s: social freedom, modest foreign policy, wide lapels and all.
Domestically, a large range of conservatives will seem discredited by an American defeat in Iraq, which is why their liberal and radical opponents so quickly, and fecklessly, embraced the claim that Iraq is lost. On crime, abortion, education, government spending—the whole litany of domestic concerns-the American conservative movement may well find itself starting over, back once again where it was in 1974. The result will be perhaps most disheartening for social conservatives, as decades of intellectual and political gains against abortion are frustrated.
So here it comes together: the public's perception of the war in Iraq is linked to its perception of the conservative movement. A defeat in one theater will lead inevitably to collapse in the other.
Bottum, of course, is utterly at sea with regard to the motives of liberals. In terms of political cognition, you could say his theory of mind
is severely underdeveloped. Of course, this isn't unusual on the right (nor, to be fair, is it exactly unknown on the left). Conservatives have been imputing false motives regarding the war to liberals since it began. Much of this has simply been sheer dishonesty for the sake of political opportunism. Yet it also appears clear that many conservatives, unable to separate the wars of perception from political reality, have fallen afoul of a critical rule of politics: "never believe your own bullshit."
And this is going to hurt the conservatives. For one thing, it limits their understanding of how the majority of Americans view the war and the Republican party. According to the mindset represented by Bottum, the public are misled by devious liberals who have outsmarted the president - well-meaning but bumbling - at every turn. Like other conservatives, Bottum is apparently incapable of conceiving of liberals as part of
the public. Moreover, he fails to confront fully the public's disenchantment with conservatism. In the feedback loop of conservative discourse, the public are frustrated for the same reason that conservatives are frustrated: because six years of conservative government have mostly failed to advance the conservative agenda.
But of course, the more likely possibility is that the public is frustrated because six years of conservative government have simply been a disaster. Any public relations expert will tell you that you can only do so much to sell a bad product. Americans don't want competent politics, they want competent government
. No amount of soft lighting, flattering camera angles, and retouched makeup is going to make the conservative experiment look any prettier. By shifting the blame to Bush, Bottum isn't doing his movement any favors, because his argument still leaves conservatives stuck in a quagmire of their own making: the unwinnable war of perception against reality.
Next - Part 2: Novak's Rebuttal
Labels: conservatives, First Things, Joseph Bottum