alien & sedition.
Thursday, March 29, 2007
  Glenn Greenwald Has It All Wrong

Glenn Greenwald is one of the most cogent analysts of American politics today. His writings have been a beacon in dark times. But, like any mortal, Greenwald sometimes makes mistakes. Consider this an inversion of the stopped-clock analogy: even Glenn Greenwald can be wrong. Not twice a day, but on occasion. This is one of those occasions. His response to the latest column by David Brooks betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the dynamics of modern American conservatism.

Now, David Brooks is easy to mock. His facile stylizing about bobos or momos - or whatever - reduces political analysis to half-baked latte-fueled personal conjecture. And his "national greatness conservatism" concept was aptly derided by Jonathan Chait as "a governing ideology whose one specific programmatic detail was a call for more national monuments." Nevertheless, Brooks's most recent column in the New York Times is an incisive account of the dilemma with which American conservatives are presently faced. And Greenwald, in his justifiable anger at the perfidy and authoritarianism of the Bush administration, misses the point entirely.

Brooks takes on the most common refrain in current conservative discourse: "that in order to win again, the GOP has to reconnect with the truths of its Goldwater-Reagan days." The idea is that Republicans must renew their destiny as the party of small government, personal freedom, and rugged individualism. As Brooks correctly points out, this is political "folly."

His argument is grounded in a sort of rhetorical truism: that Reagansim developed in a context of creeping socialism and decadent government overreach, which it countered with an invigorating dedication to "liberty" as opposed to "power." The 1970s were never as socialized as Brooks portrays them, nor was Reaganism ever as libertarian. Reagan might have broken briefly through the "malaise," but he never represented any fundamental public urge to throw off the shackles of the New Deal. What matters here, though, is the internal narrative of the conservative movement itself. Conservatives, riding the political waves of Reagan's personal popularity combined with their deft exploitation of populist reactions against taxes and civil rights, interpreted their success as a mandate to abolish the welfare state altogether.

That Brooks himself believes in the conservative narrative of that era is beside the point. What matters is that he understands how the popular mood runs strongly in another direction today. Faced with deepening inequality, diminished job security, health care crisis, globalization, global warming, terrorism, instability, and a general atmosphere of risk, Americans are increasingly demanding that government play an active role in providing social insurance.

Go back and read the recent Pew political values poll. It is absolutely devastating to small-government conservatives. American support for activist government - always strong - has increased dramatically since the 1990s. As Brooks himself puts it:
The Democrats have a 15 point advantage in voter identification. Voters prefer Democratic economic policies by 14 points, Democratic tax policies by 15 points, Democratic health care policies by 24 points and Democratic energy policies by 20 points. If this is a country that wants to return to Barry Goldwater, it is showing it by supporting the policies of Dick Durbin.
The lesson, to Brooks, is that the "'liberty vs. power' paradigm" of Reaganism must give way to an understanding that "security leads to freedom." As Brooks puts it, "people with a secure base are more free to take risks and explore the possibilities of their world."

Greenwald reacts vehemently to this thesis: he condemns it as naked authoritarianism. In so doing, Greenwald makes a trio of errors:
  1. He conflates the "security leads to freedom" thesis with neoconservative aggression and the expansion of executive power under Bush;

  2. He takes Brooks as representative of the conservative movement as a whole; and, by implication

  3. He takes the Bush/Rove faction as representative of the conservative movement as a whole.

The first mistake is an understandable reaction to Brooks's observation that
President Bush sensed this shift in public consciousness back in 1999. Compassionate conservatism was an attempt to move beyond the “liberty vs. power” paradigm.
This point seems to imply that Brooks, by his argument, means to endorse the radical overreach of the Bush administration. But it misreads both Brooks and the political function of so-called compassionate conservatism. Brooks himself is undertaking little more than a conservative articulation of Jacob Hacker's thesis: that government must play an active role in mitigating social risk. The Brooksian version of social risk management would extend beyond economics to social engineering of 'family values' - a vision that one can certainly criticize as overly authoritarian, but which is in no sense an endorsement of neocon adventurism or royalist interpretations of executive privilege. We'll return to this point.

Greenwald's second mistake is to assume that Brooks is speaking for the conservative movement generally. He argues, for instance, that
Brooks admits what has been crystal clear for some time -- namely, that so-called "conservatives" (meaning the contemporary political "Right") no longer believe (if they ever did) that government power should be restrained in order to maximize freedom. That belief system, says Brooks, is an obsolete relic which arose out of the the 1970s, and has been replaced by the opposite desire -- for expanded government power on every front.
To suggest that Brooks is somehow "admitting" the secrets of a unitary conservative mentality is comprehensively to misunderstand the conservative movement. Brooks is not the movement's apologist. He is, in this context, an apostate. He is virtually alone among conservative intellectuals in calling for a repudiation of the Goldwater/Reagan mythos.

The crisis of American conservatism is that the movement's intellectual leaders are committed to a small-government ideology that is fundamentally at odds with both structural and political reality. And here is Greenwald's third mistake: the failure to understand that "compassionate conservatism" was designed as a way to overcome this crisis. It's lost in the pre-history of Bush's reign of disaster now, but recall that when the current president was first elected, he was hardly a model proponent of conservative thought (or, yes, any thought at all). Writing in Commentary in March of 2001, conservative writer Daniel Casse defended Bush as just the kind of "triangulator" needed to save the GOP - a "party in decline" - from its own traditional neglect of issues like Social Security, health care, and education. According to Casse:
Bush's theme of "compassionate conservatism," while vague and occasionally tedious, served a clear strategic purpose: disassociating him in the public mind from either the confrontational stance of the Gingrich years or the more libertarian impulses of the Reagan era."
Casse's article was written in an attempt to rebut general right-wing skepticism toward the ideologically untrustworthy Bush and his suspiciously unconservative-sounding "compassionate conservatism."

Six years later, that skepticism - submerged for a time after 9/11 - has metastacized into full-blown hostility. Compasionate conservatism is bitterly derided as "big-government conservatism," a political and moral black hole into which Bush and Rove have sunk the Republican party. I read conservative publications every day - this theme is an obsession on the right. It's what spurred books like Imposter and The Elephant in the Room. It's what fuels the constant conservative pining for a resurrection of the Reagan Messiah. It's why, when I sat through three days of the National Review's conservative summit, all I heard - again, and again, and again - was self-excoriation of a party and a movement that had lost its way, that was addicted to earmarks and entitlements and to power itself, that needed, somehow, to return to a pure anti-government mentality. It's why John Boehner was ritually humiliated in front of the summit's audience, and why Pat Toomey and Paul Ryan were the weekend's heroes.

Modern conservatism is in crisis. Says Greenwald:
The dominant right-wing political movement in this country that has spawned and driven the Bush presidency has nothing to do with -- it is in fact overtly hostile to -- the ostensible principles of Goldwater/Reagan small-government conservatism. Though today's so-called "conservatives" exploit the Goldwater/Reagan mythology as a political prop, they don't believe in those principles in any way.
The thing is, most conservatives would agree that the Bush presidency has "nothing to do with ... small-government conservatism." They feel as hijacked by so-called "big-government conservatism" as the nation at large does by the Bush regime. This is not to excuse them: my own idee fixe is that the failure of the small-government ideology - and it has, manifestly, failed - has led to a vacuum on the right, which has in turn been filled by power-hungry Rovians and and reckless warmongers, since they have offered the only models for keeping the party together. And there are two points that follow from this: 1) there's no essential contradiction between being a small-government conservative and a warmongering unilateralist; 2) Rovianism is a product of the failure, not the success of the conservative movement.

The architects of compassionate conservatism - the Marvin Olaskys and Myron Magnets - are not the same as the architects of the Iraq war. Neither project depended on the other in any fashion - in fact, one might argue, each has undermined the other. The simple, nonideological genius of Karl Rove was to understand how electorally powerful each could be. In the latter case, it was the appeal to nationalism and the silencing of dissent. In the former, it was a mechanism for keeping on board the "pro-government conservatives" who in fact make up the majority of the Republican party's base. (It was also, of course, an experiment in the gradual privatization of government services, but that's for another time).

Conservative movement intellectual leaders were generally perfectly content to ride along on the war bandwagon. But they have regarded compassionate conservatism - big-government conservatism - as an outrageous betrayal of the conservative project. And they spend much of their time denouncing this betrayal. The Rovian faction can be described as "dominant" only in the sense that it currently occupies the White House. It has little intellectual support within the movement, and when the Bush presidency ends, the quixotic small-government conservatives will take the reins again. The next generation of Republican candidates are already kowtowing to them. The impracticality of their agenda may force yet another round of big-government conservatism, but the dynamic is a cycle of crisis, not a bold embrace of expansive government.

There are two reasons I wanted to bring all this up. This first has to do with our opposition: liberals should understand just what a service the Club for Growth is doing for us. By undercutting conservative politicians who might be willing to embrace the possibilities of activist government for domestic risk management, groups like the CfG are weakening the Republican party. A candidate like Mike Huckabee - who is a Brooksian conservative - would be truly dangerous to Democrats; it's a sign of how much power the small-government crowd still have that the strongest GOP presidential candidate is currently so marginalized.

The other thing at stake here is the liberal understanding of the relationship between security and freedom. I've already mentioned Hacker. Greenwald, in demonizing as "Orwellian" Brooks's formulation that "security leads to freedom," is missing how vital this very idea is to progressivism. When Brooks compares "negative liberty" to "positive liberty," what should immediately leap to mind is FDR's own "four freedoms" - which redefined freedom as a positive, as well as negative concept.

"Security leads to freedom" is a liberal idea. The difference between liberals and Brooksian conservatives is that liberals understand where to draw the line against activist government: at the bedroom, and at the point of unnecessary and unilateral war. Without security - a strong safety net and responsible national defense, both of which have been liberal areas of expertise - individual freedom is undermined by inequality and instability. Indeed, one of the most devastating criticisms of neoconservative aggression is that it has made us less secure: unrestrained adventurism tends to sow chaos and ignite resentment, as we have seen in Iraq and around the world. Similarly, the vast expansion of executive power makes Americans less secure in their Constitutional rights. Liberals very much believe that security leads to freedom - but we also understand that true security is grounded in rule of law.

The Bush administration is not representative of the dominant trends in movement conservatism. It is regarded by that movement as a nasty aberration. If we allow ourselves to be lured into thinking that big-government conservatism has become the dominant ideology on the right, we'll be caught with our pants down in 2011 when the small-government conservatives come at us with a hard-hitting plan to rewrite the tax code and dismantle our entitlement programs. We'll fail to understand the dynamics of the health care debate, in which our opponents will be hashing out differences among themselves as to what should be the proper role of government. And when a more coherent Brooksian risk-management conservatism does emerge, we'll fail to recognize it in time.

Most importantly, if we throw the baby out with the bathwater, we will, as a movement, end up deeply regretting it. We will have abandoned one of our own most fundamental liberal principles: that security - grounded in the rule of law and respectful of personal liberty - does, indeed, lead to freedom.

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This is a very thoughtful, provocative and insightful post, and I'm going to think about it some and, time permitting and if I have something worthwhile to say, respond. And there is much of what you say that I don't disagree with, including arguments which you say diverge from what I argued.

But for the moment, I will simply say this: I believe that there is a divide in the conservative movement between neocons and more traditional conservatives, including many who don't believe in neoconservatism but who were persuaded/dooped/fooled into accepting its tenets and believing it was an extension of (rather than departure from) the conservative principles and values they embraced.

The GOP is in a crisis moment and searching for its identity, debating what went wrong. Who will be to blame for its failures and dumped overboard? I believe Brooks, more than anything else, is a neocon (not a perfectly loyal one, but essentially one), and his project is to convince Republicans to continue to embrace the exansion of government power which neoconservatism demands and requires, and to believe that their failures can be addressed by pursuing that road MORE fully, not less so. I think it's a self-protective mission he's on, and what he is really defending is the faction of the party which attached it to the Iraq war and all of the other extremist policies justified in the name of "security" (most, if not all, of which Brooks supports).
Glenn - thanks so much for stopping by.

I guess I don't disagree with you as to what Brooks is trying to accomplish vis-a-vis the conservative movement - only I think his is very much the minority position within that movement today. Moreover, while his argument for social insurance-based conservatism certainly could (and, in his case, probably does) dovetail with the continued maximalist interpretation of executive privilege and aggressive foreign policy adventurism, I don't think that it necessarily does. And I think that these latter tendencies can equally be embraced by people who are otherwise - and un-ironically - dedicated to the concept of "small government."

I very much agree with you that the GOP is in a crisis moment. As I said, it seems to me that the problem involves its devotion to a structurally and politically untenable ideology. The Rovian machine that runs the White House is more a product of the failure of those ideologues - a product of the crisis itself - than anything else.
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"An obscure but fantastic blog." - Markus Kolic


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

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