alien & sedition.
Friday, May 18, 2007
  Heterodoxies, Real and Imagined

I know it's been a light couple of weeks here at A&S, and to be honest, I'm unlikely to be doing multiple posts every day for the foreseeable future. But it'll still be regular (should be around one a day, maybe two), and hopefully we'll maintain our reputation for sterling quality control (er, do we have a reputation for that?).

At any rate, E.J. Dionne has a column today that could almost be a stand-in for an A&S post, except that his thesis is a little bit flawed. Dionne discusses the various heresies of the various GOP presidential candidates (Rudy on abortion, Huckabee on taxes, McCain on campaign finance laws) and sees it as a symptom of the breakdown of conservative orthodoxy:
One dynamic forcing Republicans to new ground is the failure of the Bush presidency. This is leading liberals to insist that President Bush's tenure proves conservatism doesn't work, and conservatives to insist that Bush was never a real conservative (something they didn't say when his poll ratings were high).

Something similar happened to Jimmy Carter in 1980 when conservatives attacked him as a liberal while liberals disowned him. Carter's defeat by Ronald Reagan was followed by an extended liberal nervous breakdown. Now it's conservatives who are panicking.

But Republicans also know in their guts that their old axioms don't work anymore because their constituencies are breaking up.

The obituaries this week for the Rev. Jerry Falwell often took the form of elegies for the entire religious right. Younger and suburban evangelicals may be more or less conservative, but they do not share the ideological fervor of the Moral Majoritarians. These new evangelicals care about issues other than abortion and gay marriage. They yearn, along with almost everyone else, for problem-solving competence. [...]

If conservative ideologues were the dominant force in Republican primary politics, Giuliani would not be at the top of the pack, Gilmore the Pure would be doing better, and McCain and Huckabee would not be placing bets on pragmatism and political reconciliation. Yes, every Republican still wants to be called a "conservative." But they are all feeling pressure to pour new wine into that old vessel because it's almost empty. And Democrats beware: A less orthodox Republican Party would be a lot more popular.
I agree with Dionne's last assertion, and on a general level I think he is seeing the same crisis in the conservative movement that I'm seeing, but I don't think he's getting the nuances quite right - and they're important nuances.

It would take more than just the collapse of the religious right to bring down the conservative ideological edifice. Dionne's one example of deviation from an economic conservative line consists of Huckabee's defense of his own record on taxes. But I think that what's going on here is something rather different than what Dionne sees.

Christopher Orr's critique of Dionne's article is instructive:
[T]he idea that the heresies (most of them minor) on display in South Carolina somehow represent the GOP candidates' efforts to rethink party ideology seems, well, wrong. For the most part, they're exactly what they appear to be: The candidates' efforts to deal with (and, wherever possible, minimize) their inconvenient political baggage.

As Dionne notes, Huckabee may have raised taxes as governor of Arkansas, but he still pitches himself as a fiscal conservative who cut taxes "94 times." Giuliani has only embraced his pro-choice past because his earlier efforts to finesse it away were such an abject failure. As for Romney, he defended a federal role in education because he was specifically asked whether, in light of his many convenient ideological conversions (on abortion, gay rights, etc.), he'd had any conversions that might hurt him with the base. Defending No Child Left Behind seemed a better bet than admitting that he's a shameless, flip-flopping opportunist. Really, the only candidate who proudly defended his apostasy was McCain on torture.

Far from being characterized by the kind of freethinking, let's-reinvent-the-party spirit Dionne seems to describe, the GOP primary has thus far been a race to the right on almost every issue: McCain suddenly recognizing the advantages of tax cuts for the rich, Romney reeducating himself on fetal rights, and of course everyone (with the exception of fringe candidate Ron Paul) embracing a war that, while ever-more unpopular with the public at large, is still a rallying cry for the GOP base.
Let's consider Huckabee again. The former Arkansas governor is saying what he's saying about taxes precisely because he's on the defensive against enforcers of conservative orthodoxy. That's why he emphasizes the "94 tax cuts" claim; his refusal to renounce all tax increases comes across more as a self-defense strategy than anything else -- an attempt to avoid complete capitulation, which would make him look weak. In fact, I think Huckabee would have a sound strategy for success in a general election if he were to more strongly emphasize his disagreements with economic conservative orthodoxy, but as he well knows, the Club for Growth won't let him.

But here's the nuance that I think both Dionne and Orr miss. Giuliani's refusal to submit to the abortion litmus test is substantively different -- very different -- than any of the other "heresies" under consideration here. The issue is precisely what Dionne aluded to when he pointed out (as I did the other day) the waning power of the Christian right.

There is, on a general level, a crisis in the conservative movement. At the same time, though, it isn't a question of anybody "rethinking" anything. The chaos on the right is operating differenly in a theoretical fashion than it is in a practical fashion. That is, nobody can sort out to what extent the crisis is a matter of discredited ideas, and to what extent it's a matter of weakened institutions.

The difference between the social conservatives on the one hand, and the economic conservatives on the other, is crucial here. The various candidates continue to pander mindlessly to both sides because they're mostly too blinkered and mediocre to notice that, suddenly, the enforcers of some conservative orthoxies are a lot weaker than others these days.

Here's what I think, tentatively, is beginning to happen: Rudy Giuliani's break with the anti-abortion line is, as I've said, the only truly heterodox move by a major Republican candidate in a long time. The economic conservatives are happy enough with Rudy, and they see him as the most electable Republican -- probably the only electable Republican -- next fall. The conservative intellectuals, who mostly stick with the economic side of the movement (since that's the side that finances them, and since they generally aren't the types to sign chastity pledges themselves), also dig Rudy for what they see as his war and terror cred. And the economic conservatives and the intellectuals perceive that, suddenly, it's possible for a candidate to leave the whole abortion thing behind. So if that's what they think he needs to do, tactically, they'll support him.

What this means is that, after several years now of complaining about the effects of the Christian right on their party, economic and intellectual conservatives are finally beginning to leave the fundamentalists behind. And they seem to be positively giddy about it.

It's still very early and difficult to forecast this stuff. But I'll try to document it going forward.

Here's the grand irony, though. As the rise of the moderate evangelicals saps the enforcement power of the social conservatives on Republican candidates (even while drones like Mitt Romney fail to see it), the economic right, by default, becomes more powerful within the movement. Thus Rudy, who rejects the core social conservative tenet, is still a frontrunner, while a skilled politician like Huckabee is hobbled for being insufficiently zealous about tax cuts.

But while Rudy could somehow coast to the White House on the hero-worship factor alone, it's Huckabee who represents the more potent forumula for a future Republican party. I would bet my cats that a formula of moderate-conservative religiosity (with a self-help sheen) plus a willingness to acknowledge a positive role for government is much more appealing to the American public over the long run than tough-guy pseudo-libertarianism. Even if we end up with a President Rudy -- especially if we end up with a President Rudy -- we may be watching the conservative movement destroy itself.

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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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