alien & sedition.
Friday, August 31, 2007
  Alien & Sedition Will Be Back

...after Labor Day. I'll be bringing back the "advisors" series, and, eventually, the conservative history series.

Also, what the hell is wrong with the Mets? Ugh.


Wednesday, August 29, 2007
  Blah Blah Blah Hates America

Even the more respectable members of the conservative commentariat seem susceptible to the strange game of parsing the political significance of pop culture for the sake of determining whether x is good or bad for The Cause. The newest question: is The Bourne Ultimatum anti-American? Yes, really -- that's the question.

The whole thing begins, as so many delightful discussions do, with Bill O'Reilly, who complains that, in the film, "the CIA guys are bad, bad, bad," and also Matt Damon and Julia Stiles are communists in real life. Fulfilling his role in the ecosystem of hackery, Micky Kaus apes O'Reilly's ravings from his own faux-centrist "contrarian" perch:
The problem is the film is unredeemed by any sense that America or the American government ever stands for or does anything that is right. It is a big hit overseas. ...
From here the debate moves into tonier intellectual quarters, as Ross Douthat ponders whether Paul Greengrass's film wanders too far into the "large gray area between generic 'corruption in high places' films that don't have a broader anti-American message and exercises in explicit Amerika-bashing like Dogville."

Ultimately it's left to neo-paleocon Daniel Larison to tamp out the fires of conservative outrage:
The first mistake anyone who flings the “anti-American” accusation makes is to equate the government with the society as a whole. If someone or something is critical of the U.S. government, it is very often deemed anti-American or, if the person doing the criticising is American, unpatriotic. This plays by the state’s rules: it makes patriotism dedication to the state, rather than the country, and it makes the state into the embodiment of America. This is simply not true, and it’s a very good thing at times that this isn’t true. That doesn’t mean that the citizens don’t have some small part to play in the dreadful policy decisions made by the state (it is our government, after all), but the decisions being taken in Ultimatum are the sort that the public is never supposed to know about because the average citizen of this country would still probably be horrified at ordering the deaths of foreign journalists in the name of protecting some part of the behemoth security state. [...]

Mickey Kaus’ main complaint is that “the film is unredeemed by any sense that America or the American government ever stands for or does anything that is right.” Here’s the crucial point, since the movie is not concerned with America in general, but is very specifically concerned with one nasty corner of the American government.
I'll give Douthat a mulligan on this one. But it's fascinating that the very basic level of nuance Larison brings to the debate is completely beyond the grasp of people like Kaus and O'Reilly, who, for whatever reason, are unable to differentiate between certain people in a government and a nation in toto. Meanwhile even the smartest conservatives find themselves spending their intellectual energies in pop culture controversies drummed up by knuckle-dragging shouters and their vapid enablers. I suppose that's the price you pay for an attachment to a political movement that believes in the primacy of culture. But it looks pretty silly.

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  A Telling Silence

On the second anniverary of the New Orleans levee failure in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, d-day offers an instructive comparison between the two American political parties. While each of the frontrunning Democratic candidates for president has a comprehensive plan for reconstruction, the Republican candidates have, er... not so much:
Rudy Giuliani: Three-line press release, no specifics.
Mitt Romney: Nothing on the front page.
Fred Thompson: Nothing on the front page.
John McCain: Three-paragraph press release, no specifics.
Mike Huckabee: Nothing on the front page, at the top of the site is a news flash that "Gov. Mike Huckabee to Participate in the New Hampshire Republican Presidential Debate on September 5, 2007."
Sam Brownback: Nothing on the front page.
Katrina was a natural disaster. The catastrophe in New Orleans, though, was a disaster of conservative government. The fact that conservatives continue to have nothing to say about it suggests that they remain as great a danger to public health and well-being as ever.

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  Iraq: Whose Failure of Will?

Subbing for Andrew Sullivan, Hilzoy reposts a fantastic essay examining the common right-wing trope that victory in Iraq is primarily a matter of will -- and its corollary, which is that those who oppose the endless prolongation of the war are a "party of defeat," since they sap the nation's will to victory.

Hilzoy asks:
[W]hose will and resolve failed us in the war in Iraq? And to the extent that any sort of success in iraq was possible, whose feckless irresolution and lack of full commitment should we blame for our failure?
And these seem to me like critical questions. At the heart of it is the simple proposition that "if you really want something, you will not make fundamental or careless mistakes about it." By this measure, it seems incontrovertible that the Bush administration has never really cared about "victory" in Iraq. The administration, from the beginning, refused to plan for the occupation and reconstruction of Iraq, relying instead on careless faith in its own platitudes.

Says Hilzoy:
But none of the people who led us into war could possibly have really cared about succeeding in Iraq. If they had, they could not have made the mistakes they did. And so, led by these feckless and irresponsible people, who were not nearly afraid enough of "defeat, nor dishonor, nor an Iraq under the terrorist heel," we invaded Iraq. Their failure of will predictably led to the present catastrophe. The consequences of our defeat will be disastrous, most of all for the Iraqi people, but it is not at all clear that those consequences can now be prevented. We have made too many mistakes, and while they could easily have been avoided had anyone cared enough to do it right, no one did. And they cannot be undone.
The wider failure of will, Hilzoy argues, was by the American people in general, who, swayed by muddy trivia like the details of John Kerry's purple hearts and whether or not the Democratic challenger had changed certain of his positions, cast their votes for the tough-talking Bush, despite ample evidence that Bush's management of the war -- tough talk and all -- was diastrously incompetent. By this measure, it could be said that the American people, in voting for Bush, demonstrated their lack of seriousness about "victory" in Iraq.

National elections are complex things, and it's their nature to turn on all kinds of issues and ephemera, much of which seems distressingly trivial, especially in retrospect. I like Hilzoy's argument slightly better when it's focused on the cult of Very Serious People in both the Beltway and conservative movement establishments:
The party of Josh Trevino [et al] has had complete control over the war in Iraq. Given the feckless and criminally irresponsible way this administration has conducted that war, as well as the complete irresponsibility of supporting Bush's reelection when his incompetence in Iraq was clear, I think it's a bit much for them to be lecturing the American people on their lack of resolve now.
They were the ones who led the discussion, who framed, and continue to frame, the constant enabling of the Bush crowd as the only route to victory. They're the ones with access to the information that contradicts such nonsense. They're the ones who are to blame for defeat in Iraq.

But enough of me -- read Hilzoy's post in its entirety. It's really very good.

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  Way Over Yonder

Has it really been ten years since the release of Mermaid Avenue? Almost -- and Alan Jacobs wonders why the project never gained the kind of fame that a very similar collaboration -- the Basement Tapes -- did.

Of course, as Jacobs concedes, neither Billy Bragg nor Wilco has anything like the star power of Bob Dylan. But I agree with him that their musical animation of lost Woody Guthrie lyrics is a masterpiece, and a decade later, it's still not too late to spread the word.
Monday, August 27, 2007
  Republicans at a Fork in the Road

Following on the previous post, let's return for a moment to the "Movement 2.0" conversation. Consider these two points from Soren Dayton's post about possible ways forward for the GOP coalition:
Another option would be to continue to play for the working class, as Bush so incredibly succeeded in 2004, with "the party of capital" winning the white working class vote by 23%. The problem is that we lost a bunch in 2006, and we are unlikely to succeed in 2008. However, that would be the strategy of the Sams Club Republican advocates....

Another option would be the resurgence of a reformist movement in the GOP. This would be a strategy for holding on to the upper-middle class and appealing to students. There would be process reforms like earmark reform, which is clearly a Republican issue, and ethics reform, which could be. There are more complicated parts like redistricting, which is a Republican issue in California, but Democratic in places where GOPers lose from it. There’s actually a natural technological niche here with things like the Sunlight Foundation, Ruffini’s open API stuff, etc. There is a historical antecedent in the TR Progressive movement, and it doesn’t damage the existing coalition too much. Right now, this is a post-partisan issue rather than a partisan one. But once the Democrats take charge, it will quickly become a partisan one. It is already starting. In fact, we could use the cover of a Hillary Clinton presidency to co-opt the anti-Hillary anger into a constructive direction.
Dayton says he favors the latter approach, though he concedes it may be "too post-partisan" for many conservative activists. He also hints at melding a reformist politics onto a redoubled pro-war line.

There's no doubt that pro-war voters are a crucial component of the Republican base right now, though while Dayton sees this constituency as "part of the answer" for the GOP coalition, there's also the possibility that they are part of the problem for Republicans, forcing the party's candidates into a hard-line position that repels mainstream voters (including critical constituencies like Hispanics and young voters).

But let's broaden the frame. Dayton has a series of very interesting posts on the subject of conservative renewal. In one, he observes:
[T]he deeper problem is that we need to re-evaluate and re-configure our core issues so that they appeal to 60-70% of the American people. After all, and as I have noted, you cannot win elections without independents. Right now the Dems are winning because the GOP is not competing. "You can’t beat something with nothing."
The problem is how to get to that 60-70%. It seems that, among the brighter young conservative activists, two broad approaches are emerging, and right now they are competing against each other.

Here's how Reihan Salam defined them:
I see two ways to do this: a moralistic domestic reformism that ties together the applied neoconservatism of welfare reform and crime-fighting, the social conservatism of moving to reduce the number of abortions (through restrictions or abortion alternatives) and income-splitting and other marriage-friendly and family-friendly measures, and a civic nationalism that emphasizes America's common culture and the central importance of assimilation and integration....

Or War on Terror nationalism, which focuses on the defeat of America's enemies to the exclusion of domestic issues.

Right now, WOT nationalism is surprisingly potent, certainly in the Republican primary race. In part, this is a function of the collapse of the GOP's big tent. My sense is that the shelf-life of War on Terror politics is limited. Over the long term, I think a commitment to WOT nationalism will shrink the Republican Party.
Dayton essentially makes the contrasting case in a series of posts criticizing Mike Huckabee for the candidate's nativism, economic populism, and isolationism. If Dayton seems to favor a combination of "post-partisan" reformism, libertarian-esque economic policies, and something like the "war on terror nationalism" Salam identifies, Huckabee apparently represents the specter of "Buchanan/McGovern Republican[ism]," which would amount to "isolationism, protectionism, and "'culture war.'"

This is where I begin to put words in mouths, creating oppositions where the original authors might be more inclined to look for nuance, but let's take all this discussion as an opportunity to outline two broad possible futures for the right's coalition.

One is something like "moralistic domestic reformism," which would meld a slightly softened form of social conservatism to a right-wing version of economic populism. The other is a kind of libertarian pro-war nationalism with an added focus on procedural reform issues. We've seen how critics of each approach might characterize them. It's probably safe to say that inasmuch as there is a presidental candidate to represent each tendency, it's Huckabee for the former and Giuliani for the latter.

It's difficult to escape old paradigms. Dayton cites James Antle's warning that "the fusion of economic populism and social conservatism has generally been a losing strategy in Republican politics," even while noting that "there are fewer economic conservatives in the party than there used to be." The concept of fusionism itself has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years; conservatives seem torn between declaring the old fusionism outdated and reminding themselves of the inherent value of the concept itself. Yet if the balance has been thrown -- if there is no longer equal weight between fiscal and social conservatives -- can fusionism really mean anything at all? Does it make sense to speak of a "new" fusionism, or was there only ever one kind of fusionism -- one which expired when the balance of forces it expressed began to shift?

In one sense, it's unfortunate that Giuliani and Huckabee enter this race with such a disparity in resources -- it would be fascinating to watch the battle between them develop along these ideological lines. Of course, there's an excellent chance that neither man will win the Republican nomination. It's possible that GOP voters either don't recognize, or simply aren't willing to pursue, the large-scale philosophical questions currently confronting the Republican party and the conservative movement.

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  Kids All Right; Republicans, Not So Much

This is bad, bad news for the GOP:
A Democracy Corps poll from the Washington firm of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner suggests voters ages 18 to 29 have undergone a striking political evolution in recent years.

Young Americans have become so profoundly alienated from Republican ideals on issues including the war in Iraq, global warming, same-sex marriage and illegal immigration that their defections suggest a political setback that could haunt Republicans "for many generations to come," the poll said.

The startling collapse of GOP support among young voters is reflected in the poll's findings that show two-thirds of young voters surveyed believe Democrats do a better job than Republicans of representing their views - even on issues Republicans once owned, such as terrorism and taxes.
(h/t: Donklephant)

Note which Republicans duck the trend. One is Rudy Giuliani -- but his own efforts to identify with the hard right on war and terror issues will cost him the youth vote as the campaign gains more attention.

The other:
[Arnold] Schwarzenegger, by supporting issues "once owned by the Democrats," such as the environment and education, has lured many young voters to support him and "closely identify themselves as Schwarzenegger Republicans," Mendelsohn said.
I've said it before, I'll say it again: in Sacramento, the Republicans have a model for how to resuscitate their party in blue/purple states and on a national level. But Schwarzenegger's politics are precisely the kind that conservative activists have spent 40 years trying to purge from the GOP.

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Friday, August 24, 2007
  Victory in Sight!

The right is in full-on pony mode over Iraq now, between Bush's latest speech and the upcoming Petaeus White House report. See here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and wherever else unmitigated bullshit is sold.

It seems that every time Bush ratchets up the absurdity, the war party ups their buy-in. The actual news might not do justice to their fantasies, but what the hey, that's the liberal media for you. I'm not sure how much insight anyone else can bring to this, when it comes to probing the mysteries of American conservatism. Once you've started serving up the Kool-Aid you really can't go back, I guess. All you can do is more insist that the horrible scene unfolding around you has to be the prologue to a better world. Perhaps their strategy is to grind us down though the sheer relentlessness of their own tiresome foolishness. I know I hardly feel like trying to respond to them on the merits of their arguments anymore. What evidence do we have that reality-based analysis has any impact on them anyway?

It's a howling crescendo of self-delusion, and the only question is, once it all finally explodes, which way will the blast travel?

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Wednesday, August 22, 2007
  Keep Your Eye on the Dolchstosslegende

William Kristol is an intellectually bankrupt thug. It's a point that hardly needs elaboration, but Jon Chait elaborates quite satisfyingly on it anyway, coming to a nice summation of the state of the Dolchstosslegende:
The theme of traitorous liberals is becoming a Standard trope. Last week's cover depicted an American soldier seen from behind and inside a circular lens--as if caught in the sights of a hostile sniper--beneath the headline, "does washington have his back?" The Weimar-era German right adopted the metaphor of liberals stabbing soldiers in the back. Kristol is embracing the metaphor of liberals shooting soldiers in the back. I suppose this is progress, of sorts.

There was a time when neoconservatives sought to hold the moral and intellectual high ground. There was some- thing inspiring in their vision of America as a different kind of superpower--a liberal hegemon deploying its might on behalf of subjugated peoples, rather than mere self-interest. As the Iraq war has curdled, the idealism and liberalism have drained out of the neoconservative vision. What remains is a noxious residue of bullying militarism. Kristol's arguments are merely the same pro-war arguments that have been used historically by right-wing parties throughout the world: Complexity is weakness, dissent is treason, willpower determines all.
Ross Douthat objects to Chait's piece -- not on the merits, but because Chait's magazine, the New Republic, has never taken a coherent stance on the war.

This, to me, seems entirely beside the point. Matt Freeney agrees, pointing out the structural reasons why TNR hosts a range of opinions on the issue. He also invites Douthat to offer his own opinions on whether Kristol's buffoonish rants should be taken at face value, or seen as something a little more performative.

To my mind, authentic or not, the Dolchstoss discourse has the same effects. And what's peculiar is that Douthat himself has denounced it in the past:
Myself, I think that liberals should be praying that the Right embraces the "stabbed in the back" theory of what went wrong in Iraq (and possibly Iran as well), because it will push conservatives toward political irrelevance. Yes, many conservatives have long nursed the belief that we could have won in Vietnam if liberals hadn't turned gutless and anti-American, but this belief hasn't won the Right any elections ...

So when Dinesh D'Souza tells conservative cruisegoers that "it's customary to say we lost the Vietnam war, but who's 'we'? ... The left won by demanding America's humiliation," he isn't broadening conservatism's base - he's shrinking it. Which is what a post-Bush conservatism that obsesses over how the liberal media undid the Iraq Occupation by failing to "report the good news" would do as well.
This is a pragmatic argument, not a principled one, though there's no reason to believe that Douthat has any sympathy for Dolchstoss talk on any level. Maybe he was simply using Chait's piece as an opportunity to grind an axe over TNR's editorial policy. But it sure would be nice if he, as a conservative, would also take the opportunity to denounce the thuggery of his ideological cousin.

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  Katrina: Conservative Gold

Sensible people saw Hurricane Katrina as a horrific natural and human disaster. They also saw it as an illustration of the serious drawbacks of the anti-government mentality.

But our conservative friends are not sensible people. Rick Perlstein takes a look back at the aftermath of Katrina, when conservatives saw the disaster as a "golden opportunity" to demand everything from the suspension of wage regulations and the elimination of the capital gains tax, to the privatization of Social Security, to the abolition of the Public Broadcasting System.

Read the whole post -- though you may want to cover your eyes when you get to the part where Jack Kemp mutilates the memory of Bobby Kennedy.

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  Huckabee Would Abolish Birthright Citizenship

Cross-posted at The Right's Field.

Soren Dayton observes that Mike Huckabee seems to have flip-flopped on immigration. Whereas at one time Huckabee endorsed comprehensive immigration reform and said that opposition to such reform was "driven by just sheer racism," now he has indicated that he would abolish a core American principle: birthright citizenship:
" ‘I would support changing that. I think there is reason to revisit that, just because a person, through sheer chance of geography, happened to be physically here at the point of birth, doesn’t necessarily constitute citizenship,’ he said. ‘I think that’s a very reasonable thing to do, to revisit that.’ "
This is a naked appeal to the sheer racism of the kind of people who rant about "anchor babies," and while Huckabee may see an immediate political advantage in it -- as Dayton notes, it's just the kind of thing that'll help him pull in the Paul/Tancredo crowd -- it undermines his core utility to the GOP.

The reason I've long considered Huckabee so dangerous to Democrats, besides his personal charm and speaking skills, is that his politics represent the best chance for Republicans to rebuild an enduring majority coalition. As a Baptist minister who speaks the social justice language of the emerging constituency of liberal and moderate evangelicals, he's in a position to secure and expand the evangelical vote for Republicans just when the party is in danger of losing its advantage there. And his "Main Street over Wall Street" rhetoric, combined with his defense of government and his willingness to talk (somewhat) honestly about taxes (FairTax aside), is perfectly in tune with the American mainstream, who remain uninterested in the fiscal conservative orthodoxy to which most Republican candidates feel they have to chain themselves. If Barack Obama is trying to run to the center and move it left, Mike Huckabee is trying to run to the center and move it right.

But if Huckabee is going to violate his own religious beliefs and sell himself out to the nativist crowd, he risks surrendering all these advantages. Anti-immigrationism, as intoxicating as Republicans find it, is the route to a long-term GOP minority, not a majority. Maybe Huckabee is eager to consolidate whatever gains he achieved in Ames by going after cheap support. But that support will come at a dear long-term cost for Huckabee and his party.

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Tuesday, August 21, 2007
  History Makes the Baby Jesus Cry

I haven't read any of this yet, so I can't vouch for it in any meaningful sense, but Liars for Jesus looks like an interesting effort to debunk, in detail, the religious right's peculiar revisionist version of American history.

Of course, the frustrating thing about this sort of exercise is that the burden of proof isn't on us -- it's up to the revisionists to prove that their claims are correct. But they don't roll that way. So, a little reminder of the truth is nice now and then, and here's hoping this turns out to be a good one.

h/t: Five Before Chaos

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  Fred Barnes's Road to Oblivion

(Photo by Ahubu)

"Follow me, comerades!"

Fred Barnes maps out the route to recovery for Republicans. A word of advice: next time you're lost, don't call Fred for directions.

First we get the counterfactual approach. I've seen this before, and it never fails to amuse me -- here is a party that has, for the past few years, insisted that reality itself would bend to their will. Now they're putting stock in the hope that reality will stop being so pesky:
What if military success by Gen. David Petraeus, the American commander, is matched by a political breakthrough engineered by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki? Or matched by the acceleration of political reconciliation at the provincial rather than the national level in Iraq? Either scenario is possible....

Nothing would boost Republicans more than visible progress in Iraq, yet other conceivable events would help. Mr. Bush can't erase the memory of his inept handling of Hurricane Katrina. But if another disaster occurred and the president responded effectively, that would counteract the memory of his Katrina performance.

So would a serious confrontation with Congress over spending, assuming Mr. Bush and Republicans win public approval as thoughtful budget cutters. And so, too, would the absence of an economic downturn as the president prepares to leave office enhance the reputation of Republicans for pursuing sensible economic policies. In short, a positive turn of events, while unpredictable, is the best hope of the GOP.
Wishful thinking on the war and the economy is one thing. And the budget battle may be a distinct possibility. But is Barnes actually rooting for another major natural disaster? Imagine the crucifixion scene if a Democrat talked this way.

At any rate, we also have the "big dumb idea" approach:
As Karl Rove has noted, Republicans need a big idea. The best available is the one Mr. Bush abandoned: ownership. Allowing private investment of payroll taxes for Social Security would only be a start. An Ownership Society would allow individual Americans, rather than government, to control how and where their health care, public education, 401(k) and IRA funds are spent.
My Republican friends, please listen to Fred Barnes. Run on Social Security privatization and the "ownership society." I hear the Whigs are looking for company in the dustbin of history.

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  Complacency Alert

I'm not sure I quite agree with this, though I can see why the diary is getting such a positive reception. Traditionally, the American newsmedia aims for objectivity yet often fails to rise above vapidity. But it's not inherently conservative, if conservatism is understood as a particular socio-political project in America. Indeed, conservative success with media has come about largely as a product of decades of careful work cultivating an alternative to mainstream media, combined with strategies to pressure journalists and take advantage of the objectivity-vapidity paradigm. The legitimacy granted to what is, as the diarist points out, actually a rather fringe ideology, is not primarily the result of a "top-down" media structure, but of a movement that had the audacity to refuse to play by the rules of what was modern American journalism.

It's certainly true that the internet has helped broaden the range of information and opinion available to Americans, and that's undoubtedly a good thing for progressives. Online communications strategies have been critical in the emergence of the new progressive era. But that's because, like the conservatives before us, we're refusing to play by the rules of a media structure from which we've been locked out for the past few decades. We're taking advantage of new technologies, and innovating.

I bring this up in part because I think that if we become too comfortable in our assumption that new communications technologies will bring us "47 consecutive" Democratic presidents, we'll experience some pretty nasty whiplash when the other side innovates right past us again. And it will happen. The only thing we can do is try to stave it off as long as possible, but getting smug pretty much guarantees it'll happen sooner rather than later.

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  GOP vs. Health Care for Kids

As often happens when a government does something particularly loathesome, the Bush administration waited until Friday evening, in the middle of a congressional recess, to announce its drastic new restrictions on SCHIP:
The Bush administration, continuing its fight to stop states from expanding the popular Children’s Health Insurance Program, has adopted new standards that would make it much more difficult for New York, California and others to extend coverage to children in middle-income families....

In interviews, they said the changes were intended to return the Children’s Health Insurance Program to its original focus on low-income children and to make sure the program did not become a substitute for private health coverage.

After learning of the new policy, some state officials said yesterday that it could cripple their efforts to cover more children and would impose standards that could not be met.

“We are horrified at the new federal policy,” said Ann Clemency Kohler, deputy commissioner of human services in New Jersey. “It will cause havoc with our program and could jeopardize coverage for thousands of children.”

The new policy, coming as Bush promises to veto any bill expanding SCHIP, makes it nearly impossible for states to to cover children in families whose income is over 200% of the poverty level. Keep in mind that the poverty level for a family of four is an absurdly low $20,650. Trying to feed four kids on an income of $41,300? Good luck with the health insurance -- you're on you're own. The Bush administration is trying to prevent states from offering health care to kids whose families need the help. Dennis Smith, Bush's director of the Center for Medicaid and State Operations, said that the point of the new rules was to prevent states from "sustituting for private coverage." This is purely ideologically driven -- we're talking about denying kids health care for the sheer bloody-minded sake of satisfying the conservative think tanks. It's arrogant, cruel -- and perfectly in line with the opinions of every single Republican candidate for president.

As Paul Waldman has pointed out, the only GOP candidate to support expanding SCHIP was Tommy Thompson, now out of the race. Rudy Giuliani said it would make kids "wards of the state." Duncan Hunter called it -- what else -- "socialized medicine." As Waldman points out, the Republicans' real problem with SCHIP is that it is a widely popular government program that works well. They hate it because they are ideologically against the notion of government-supported health care. They want to take health coverage away from kids because they hate anything that shows that government can work, when it's not in the hands of incompetent Republicans.

They hate SCHIP because it shows America just how wrong and heartless the conservatives really are.

UPDATE: Gene Sperling (h/t DemFromCT) systematically dismantles the Bush administration's stated reasons for opposing the SCHIP expansion, and sums up:

Before, "compassionate conservatism" may have seemed like a political bumper sticker. Now it seems like the punch line of a sad joke, at the expense of millions of impoverished children.

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Sunday, August 19, 2007
  A Note on Instrumentalism

Upon further review, I can see how this post, in which I remarked on conservative instrumentalism, contradicted this one, in which I sympathized with Ross Douthat's defense of Kristol and Kagan on the question of whether they were giving too much weight to the interests of the conservative movement in staking out their foreign policy positions.

I think I was insufficiently critical of Douthat. While it's certainly true that there is inevitable overlap between one's domestic political interests and one's views on foreign policy, the major difference between liberals and conservatives over the past few decades has been that it's the latter who have had a self-identified "movement" in need of care and feeding. Certainly one can't imagine establishment liberals using space in their foreign policy papers to reflect on the priorities of the "liberal movement."

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Friday, August 17, 2007
  The Immigration Quandary

Returning to the question of "Movement 2.0" -- Ruffini and Dayton, while they seem understandably intrigued by the galvanizing possibilities, for conservatives, of a Hillary Clinton nomination, nonetheless recognize that Hillary hatred would not suffice as an ideological basis for a new movement. They go on to review a number of issues around which such a movement could potentially be organized.

The approach is interesting in how it seems to reflect a very common pattern of instrumentalist thinking among conservatives. In other words: here are two conservatives saying, "we need a movement -- what issues can we use to build it?" It seems to me that the liberal habit is the opposite: "We need health care -- how can we get it?" This is a gross oversimplification, of course, but I do think it has something to do with why conservatives have shown such a genius for politics -- for them, politics is the point; ideas are the means. In its more vulgar forms this instrumentalism manifests, for instance, as the "Konservetkult" culture war mentality so vividly described by Brad Reed and Roy Edroso; this is the mentality that brought us such joys as the Half Hour News Hour and the "Top 50 Conservative Rock Songs of All Time." Ruffini and Dayton are serious thinkers, not themselves prey to such mania; it's just interesting, on the larger level, how a useful adaptation (a flair for politics) can mutuate into a serious deformity.

With that long aside out of the way, let's briefly consider the first instrument in the new movement's potential arsenal of ideas. Ruffini says:
Even if Movement 2.0 is two or more years away, there are things we should be doing now to prepare. At this point in the Clinton years, MoveOn had already started. Perhaps the analog to that is the immigration issue, where the right kicked ass. But, again, what did we create with the immigration issue? Where is the million person email list of people who got involved because of immigration, and can now be activated on other issues? It sounds like people were thinking of the right techniques for radio, but not for online.
I can understand why conservative activists are tempted to see immigration as an issue upon which they can build. After all, in a pretty bad year for the right, it's where they scored their most significant victory. It fires up the base and it can be milked for patriotism points.

At the same time, I'm astounded. The victory was tactical, not strategic. Conservative activists forced Congressional members of their own party to react to the demands of the base and kill the immigration bill, even though the bill's provisions were broadly popular among the general public. And, of course, achieving the "victory" meant months of noisy activism that put the rather vicious bigotry of so much of the Republican base on public display, even as the party's more sober thinkers have realized that, if it cannot expand beyond white Christian nationalism, the GOP is doomed to long-term minority status. Thus Dayton says:
Yesterday, one of the stand-ins at Andrew Sullivan’s blog argued that perhaps we could add African-Americans through railing on immigration. I, personally, find the idea both morally repugnant and unlikely to succeed. We want to get African-Americans back by increasing racist sentiment? Probably not a winner. Nevermind that we would lose our Hispanics, so it might not even add votes. And business wouldn’t tolerate a protectionist agenda....

Another [option] would be to try to organize and reach out to Hispanics. Bush tried that with immigration, and the party revolted. (wrongly, in my opinion).
Dayton is entirely correct. The experience of "victory" seems to have confused very many conservative activists and pundits, but if they don't pay close attention to the bigger picture, that victory will be Pyrrhic (more than it already was). Immigration is an issue that divides the existing Republican coalition, prevents outreach to a crucial new constituency (and no matter how much conservatives reassure themselves that "a lot of Hispanics oppose illegal immigration too," there's simply no way the GOP can act on the issue without unleashing the bigotry that will cost them even those Hispanic votes), and puts them on the wrong side of majority opinion. I can't see how any sensible conservative could possibly imagine that it would make a useful issue for a Movement 2.0.

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Thursday, August 16, 2007

For whatever reason, I haven't been able to log into Blogger all day. I've had enough -- I'm moving this blog over to WordPress as soon as I have the spare time.

Meanwhile, you can check out a post I was going to cross-post here: my analysis of the "FairTax" movement currently creeping its way into influence in the Republican primary.

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Wednesday, August 15, 2007
  All the Conservative World's a Stage

Henry Farrell responds to Ross Douthat on the question of whether (and to what degree), when they wrote their infamous paper "Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy," Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan were more concerned with the political fate of the Republican party than with the national interest.

Douthat, I think, is correct to note that theorists usually believe that what is good the nation will be good for their party, and vice-versa. Otherwise, they wouldn't believe what they believe. At any rate, Farrell, in his response, links to a paper he wrote a couple of years ago, and I bring this all up because he cites a very interesting passage from that essay:
As Corey Robin has argued, both neo-conservatives like Irving Kristol and David Brooks and more traditional conservatives such as William F. Buckley appear to have been in the market in the late 1990’s for an existential struggle between good and evil, a rationale for crusade that would make politics seem exciting and meaningful. In David Brooks complaint, “The striking thing about the 1990s zeitgeist was the presumption of harmony. The era was shaped by the idea that there were no fundamental conflicts anymore.” It’s obviously easier to cast politics in sweeping moral terms when you can use a struggle of this sort as a metric, even if the struggle isn’t really there, or isn’t the kind of struggle that you claim it is. It’s also easier to galvanize the conservative movement into action:
[quoting from Kristol and Kagan]Without a broader, more enlightened understanding of America’s interests, conservatism will too easily degenerate into the pinched nationalism of Buchanan’s America First, where the appeal to narrow self-interest masks a deeper form of self-loathing. A true conservatism of the heart ought to emphasize both personal and national responsibility, relish the opportunity for national engagement, embrace the possibility of national greatness, and restore a sense of the heroic, which has been sorely lacking from American foreign policy—and from American conservatism—in recent years.
This emphasis on conservatism as a movement which must have a sense of the heroic lest it dwindle into mere selfishness, has the paradoxical effect of emptying out the core of conservatism. Kristol and Kagan suggest that what matters is a sense of “national greatness” rather than a specific set of virtues, or goals, or policies. Rather than being a defence of a particular set of transcendent values, conservatism becomes a kind of perpetual crusade, a continued attempt to create a sense of national greatness and of heroic endeavour. The content of politics – the particular tasks that the heroes must carry out, and the dragons that they must slay – becomes secondary to the heroic form. Here, conservatism is reduced to nothing more than a more-or-less aesthetic disposition towards politics, a kind of “proto-cognitive itch.” Not so much a commitment to a set of transcendent values, or even a pragmatic Burkean attachment to tradition, as a desire that politics provide a sense of the heroic.
Emphasis mine. I think that such impulses have been pretty apparent in both the behavior of the Bush administration and the rhetoric of its apologists -- the endless references to Churchill and Lincoln and "long wars," etc. I suggested just a few days ago -- in what was hardly an original observation -- that there has long been a link between the Republican party and the portion of Americans, particularly in the elite, who feel a need to attach themselves to some promise of "transcendence." What's fascinating is how performative conservatism seems to have become in many respects -- less a set of beliefs than a way of acting, and a way of watching oneself acting. One very often gets the impression that conservatives are trying to convince themselves that they're well-suited by the costumes they wear. This self-conscious performance moves to the center of the conservative experience, which, as Farrell says, is in turn emptied of any permanent content of its own.

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  Aping the Surrender Monkeys?

MyDD's Todd Beeton examines whether it will be possible for any Republican to run as a "change candidate" this cycle, noting that many in the beleagured party of George W. Bush have been looking to French President Nicolas Sarkozy as an example of how to do it. As Todd points out, it's Newt Gingrich -- framing expert, nutty futurist, and current "none of the above" candidate -- who seems most fixated on le chemin Sarkozien:
So Sarkozy comes along and he's brilliant and he understands that [the French] are in a crisis of their culture. And he's in, in terms of the current politics of where we are in Washington, he is in the second term of a 12-year presidency, which has been decaying. Chirac was unpopular. So if you set up the normal political science equation, the left is going to win because after 12 years of the center right they've run out of energy and he manages to put together this magic formula of arguing that the greatness of France requires real change. So even though he is in Chirac's cabinet, he is the candidate of real change and Royale is the candidate of reactionary bureaucracy.
Speaking Tuesday at the National Press Club, Gingrich elaborated on what Sarkozian strategy might mean for the GOP:
Sarkozy, he said, did two important things.

First, Sarkozy established 16 Internet channels that were like YouTube and rigorously avoided trying to communicate through the French media, which Gingrich defined as hostile to conservatives.

"What (Sarkozy) said is, 'If I can communicate with you, then the news media can watch our conversation,' which is very different than having a conversation with the news media which (average people) watch," Gingrich said.

"The second thing is he made a very important speech where he said we must have a clean break" from Chirac, Gingrich said. "And I would say to (Republican) candidates, there is a lot of parallel there."

Gingrich used education as an example, asserting Republicans can win by advocating bold changes and framing failing schools as economic and national security issues. Gingrich said Democrats are too beholden to teachers' unions to match that argument.
Gringrich also spoke about the threat of economic competition from China and India, particularly in light of lagging American education standards, the usual terrorist stuff, and the evils of "government bureacracy."

A couple of points:

1) Gringrich's Sarkozian strategy seems to involve perpetuating the conservative impulse toward counterculture. Why do Republicans need to circumvent the media through internet channels? Don't they have Fox News? AM Radio? Over the past few decades, conservatives have built an entire parallel communications apparatus, one they use to talk amongst themselves while studiously ingoring the experiences and opinions of the American mainstream. This looks like little more than a Gingrichian pseudo-futurist twist on traditional conservative paranoia.

2) The United States, it turns out, is not France. The structural problems we face are nothing like those facing the French. There's an argument to be had over whether France needs a dose of Thatcherism; Sarkozy's election should be understood in that context -- this is the France of the 35-hour work week, powerful unions, and rather astonishing job security laws. The problems in the United States are entirely the opposite -- after decades of conservative ascendancy, our public investment and social insurance fall woefully short, leaving both our physical and social infrastructure crumbling. After Katrina, how can anyone credibly make the argument that the US needs more Thatcherism, more conservative economics? Conservatives want to use their own failures in government to discredit the notion of government itself; the only "change" they represent is an accelerated degradation of the ability of government to do what Americans expect it to do.

In the end, as always, Gingrich's rhetoric is mostly for show. He dresses up old conservative hobbyhorses as something fresh and futurist, but he offers nothing genuinely new or original. Much of what he says directly contradicts itself -- for instance, he raises the specter of economic and educational competition from China and India, only to use it as an opportunity to launch into yet another denunciation of teachers and yet another argument for undermining the funding and accountability of our schools through vouchers and "school choice." This is astonishing -- he uses the rise of our competitors to insist on the very things that would further damage our competitiveness!

You can't blame Republicans for looking wistfully across the Atlantic to the country they so recently demonized. They understand how deeply unpopular they have become after a catastrophic era of conservative government, and naturally they look to the one example they can find of conservatives finding a way to win despite their own unpopularity. Unfortunately for the Republicans, though, the similarities are only superficial. Again, and as these same patriots were at such pains to remind us only a few short years ago, the United States of America is not France.

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Tuesday, August 14, 2007
  On Movement-Building and Politician-Hatred

More on the conversation about "Conservatism 2.0"... I should point out that in this analysis, the new movement is meant to be an upgrade over the first generation of the "online right" (e.g. Drudge, Free Republic, Instapundit, etc.) -- in other words, the "1.0" implied here is not necessarily the whole post-Goldwater conservative movement per se. My own analysis, though, is that that whole movement is in fact at a crossroads, and that the challenge facing next generation activists like Patrick Ruffini and Soren Dayton is not just to redeem the movement of the 1990s, but to find a new logic for a coalition that was in fact assembled beginning in the 1950s. This means the problem goes considerably beyond issues of technology -- though Ruffini and Dayton seem to understand that.

Ruffini asks, "when does Movement 2.0 get started?" Do conservatives have to wait for Hillary Clinton to galvanize them? If so, why hasn't that begun to happen already? And just what is the conservative relationship to the Republican party these days? Dayton points out that, just as the online left is about "basic politics, constituencies, etc., rather than technology," so the new new right will need an organizing principle -- and he reviews a few possibilities. Ruffini responds with some agenda ideas of his own.

I want to comment on a few aspects of this exchange; I'll break up my thoughts into two or three posts. As with the Ruffini-Dayton discussion of a couple months ago, there are very real implications here as to what may become of our conservative political opponents over the next decade or two.

My first thought is on the question of whether Hillary Clinton can serve as an organizing catalyst for a movement -- whether any person can really do so -- and on how much significance lies in the difference between a catalyst and a principle. Ruffini writes that "opposition galvanizes political movements, and not just online" -- and I don't disagree. On the other hand, as he acknowledges, there hasn't been much galvanizing going on so far:
But a lot of folks also hoped that we’d be at least partly there by now. With Hillary looking good on the Democratic side, and Republicans in the opposition (and on offense) in Congress, have things gotten any better? Is there any evidence that the Stop Her Now stuff that was so effective in 2000 is working this time around? I haven’t gotten as many direct mail letters or fundraising e-mails with Hillary front and center as I would have expected by now.
The other side of this coin is Dayton's assumption (shared with most of his conservative compatriots) that "opposition to Bush," or, in a more common phrasing, "Bush-hating," has worked as an "organizing principle" for the progressive netroots. As Dayton himself notes, such a "principle" is not the same thing as an actual idea.

By now the endless harping about "Bush-hatred" (the subtext is always: "irrational Bush-hatred") has grown stale enough that it's hardly worth the exercise of trying to parse and explain how liberals actually feel about the man and his administration. I'm content enough to reply that "Bush-hatred" is in fact a rational thing. Beyond that, the notions that people tend to personalize politics, and that "opposition galvanizes political movements," are basically truisms. It would be silly to claim that intense anger at George W. Bush hasn't helped fuel the growth of the new progressive movement -- both online and off (movements, plural, if you prefer).

I don't think I'm saying anything with which Ruffini or Dayton would disagree (other than the part about Bush-hatred being rational), and they seem to recognize that progressives have been working to lay far more durable foundations for our movement. Opposition can galvanize a movement, but it does not make a movement. Progressives are in fairly broad agreement on a number of policy fronts, among them the need for universal health care, for an end to the war in Iraq and a rational, multilateral foreign policy, for serious efforts to address the climate change crisis, for the protection of social security, for the preservation of the balance of powers and a more transparent, ethical government, and so on. Devotion to those ideas is precisely what fuels "Bush-hatred." Contrary to caricature, we don't all loathe the Bush administration because Dubya is a bumbling fake cowboy. We loathe it because it tramples on our principles and in so doing, in our estimation, seriously harms America.

I often get the sense that conservatives talking about "Bush-hatred" are projecting based on their own experience of Clinton-hatred during the 1990s -- making it all the more ironic that some of them seem to be waiting with bated breath for a chance to experience the hate all over again. But Clinton-hatred, I think, was a symptom of a decadent and confused conservativism. Some of it was no doubt fueled by rage at the Clenis (despite, or perhaps because of, the sick hypocrisy of so many of the president's prominent critics). But it really took off after the GOP's defeat in the 1995 budget showdown, and culminated in impeachment -- its purest and most impotent expression. Clinton-hatred was what the conservative movement turned to when it abandoned political philosophy. It amazes me that serious conservatives are nostalgic for it today.

One could defend conservatives, arguing that Clinton-hatred derived from the very sort of frustration I described liberals as experiencing -- that it was the product of a movement frustrated by its inability to legislate according to its own principles. Let's say we express all these frustrations affirmatively, as political ideas. What causes were lost to the conservatives, that drove them over the edge? Were they causes with which the majority of Americans would identify?

If politician-hatred is ultimately a manifestation of frustration over thwarted principles, perhaps it's better to lay our principles on the table. Again, progressives have health care, an end to the Iraq war, etc. What do conservatives have? Are they politically viable ideas? This is where Ruffini and Dayton turn next. In the meantime, I'd suggest that anyone looking to Clinton-hatred to kickstart Conservatism 2.0 isn't addressing the root challenge facing the right.

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Monday, August 13, 2007
  The Ongoing Extinction of the Moderates

Ron Brownstein describes the dual pressures eroding the last remnants of the GOP's moderate wing, as the party continues its process of self-marginalization:
Some moderate Republicans, including Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter and former Rhode Island Sen. Lincoln Chafee, also have confronted arduous primaries from conservative challengers in recent years, and Maryland's Wayne Gilchrest, a leading House centrist, is facing one now. But for most of the remaining GOP moderates, primaries are no longer the principal danger. Instead, because they mostly now represent swing or even Democratic-leaning constituencies, the moderates face a growing danger in their general election campaigns. In 2006, the Republican Party suffered heavy general election losses in the affluent, white-collar suburbs where moderates tend to be located and where they once thrived (especially along the coasts and in the upper Midwest). And "the environment for them in 2008 could be as bad or worse," said independent election analyst Stuart Rothenberg.
As Brownstein says, "moderate Republicans have been in decline for so long that decline itself has become part of their tradition." This is not a simple process of evolution: it's the result of decades of deliberate and determined efforts by the conservative movement. As the conservatives see it, there's only room for one queen in the hive, and the Goldwater bee has accordingly gone to work stinging the Rockefeller bee to death.

Brownstein also observes that -- Lamont v. Lieberman notwithstanding -- Democrats have not seen such vicious internecine warfare:
This difference is rooted in the fact that the Democrats today are much more of a coalition party than the Republicans: Polls show that only about half of Democratic voters consider themselves liberals, while three-fourths or more of Republicans call themselves conservatives. That means to win elections, Democrats depend more than Republicans on the votes of moderates -- which compels them to accept more dissent from party orthodoxy.
It's unfortunate that Brownstein resorts here to the old ideological self-identification canard. As we've seen, on the issues, and on basic questions of political philosophy, moderates have much more in common with liberals than they do with conservatives. The difference is that people with liberal views are not necessarily trained to think of themselves as liberals, whereas conservatives have paid close attention to building their "brand." The conservative movement has spent the last 40 or so years working both to get its people to self-identify as conservative, and to recognize the importance of killing off the moderates. In so doing, I think they've created a new kind of political actor. When voters are asked whether they think of themselves as liberal, moderate, or conservative, I suspect those in the last column are defined as much by their unique ways of understanding strategy and tactics, as by any differences over policy.


  Fall of a "Genius"

So Karl Rove is resigning. Words I'd been wanting to type for some time now (though not as much as I've wanted to type, say, "Rove Frogmarched to Federal Prison; Norquist Eaten By Howler Monkeys," but it's an imperfect world, so hey). Why he's leaving isn't so clear -- though Marcy Wheeler has some theories. I can't speculate as to whether he might be in any legal jeopardy, but when Wheeler suggests that "Republicans think he's a loser," she's at least partly right. That may not, in itself, be why Rove is leaving, but it's certainly hard to imagine that many in the GOP will be shedding tears to see him go (I'll look at conservative responses to the move a little later).

Michael Tomasky has a good piece at the Guardian, arguing that Rove's twin legacies are "incompetence and duplicity." With regard to the former, Tomasky points out that, for all the "genius" talk, Rove's actual electoral record is pretty shabby. He lost in 2000 and 2006, and 2004 is not exactly the stuff of legend:
So Rove engineered only one successful presidential election. By a bare 3 million votes (or just 70,000 votes in Ohio, if you care to count it that way). Against a mediocre candidate who ran another bad campaign. For an incumbent president during wartime. Not really a feat for the ages, but okay, a win is a win.
Matt Yglesias, drawing off a new Atlantic article by Josh Green, suggests that "Rove's talk of masterminding an electoral realignment wasn't just bluster, but played an actual causal role in his thinking about the administration's political and policy choices." I think this has been pretty clear from the beginning, in fact. Generally speaking, as much as we (righfully) demonize Rove as the catalyst of so much of the Bush administration's mendacity and cynicism, it's important to keep a clear analytical picture of the role he played within the GOP coalition. He was the strategist who aimed to create a lasting Republican majority with a combination of "big-government conservatism" and a broadened appeal to minority voters.

And that combination, I think, has a lot to do with why Rove is marginalized these days. Big-government conservatism has become the bete noir of the establishment right, while the minority-outreach strategy -- never really much more than a fantasy given the political realities of our era -- foundered on the twin shoals of Katrina and anti-Latino nativism. Wheeler notes the irony of this last point:
I said there was one exception to the rule that Rove simply "creates his own reality" and makes policy promises without delivering on those promises. The exception was supposed to be Latino voters. That is, Rove really did want to court the Latino vote, rather than just claiming Republicans had Latino support. The reason is obvious: if Republicans don't get Latino voters, they're sunk.

Of course, this conflicts (and has, in noticeable ways) with the nativist instincts of the base of the Republican party. About the only thing, at this point, that could mobilize the Republican base (and save some Congressional seats, if not the White House) is to give in to these nativist instincts, and start attacking brown people with gusto. But I doubt Rove would stick around for that--he knows the numbers too well. So it's possible that Rove is out so the Republicans can turn into the full-fledged racist party they've always been.
But then, that's the broader historical irony surrounding Karl Rove's turn at the wheels of power. He failed because he was a bit stupid, and because he was so dishonest, and because he was so easy to dislike. But mainly he failed because he was simply unable to overcome the challenges he correctly identified as needing to be overcome. There's a very good case to be made that Rove's basic strategic instincts were correct. The Republican party can't remain the party of white Christians and survive. And it must come to terms with the fact that the majority of Americans do expect the government to provide effective services and to act on behalf of the common good.

Rove was no humanitarian; he was a hack who happened to notice the major structural problems facing the Republican coalition. Thanks in large part to the incompetence of his boss and the stubbornness of his party, those problems loom at least as large today as they did in 1999. Karl Rove, it seems, simply wasn't possessed of the genius to find the answers.

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Thursday, August 09, 2007
  Conservatism 2.0?

This is a few days old, but I wanted to bring it up anyway: Patrick Ruffini has some very interesting thoughts on Yearly Kos and its relation to the conservative movement -- past and present. Ruffini points out that, while conservatives wonder "where's our Yearly Kos?", YK itself arose out of the question among progressives: "where's our CPAC?" Any progressive will admit -- will explain at length -- that our movement was largely modeled on the one built by conservatives beginning with the Goldwater campaign (though of course we've come up with innovations of our own).

The point is pretty basic: when you're locked out of the market, you're forced to innovate. That's what conservatives did beginning in the 1950s, and it's what progressives have been doing over the last few years. However, political technologies are like any other kind, in that early adopters risk finding themselves over-invested in models that can quickly become obsolete. Ruffini is concerned about precisely such a dilemma:
The conservative analog to YearlyKos is 30 years old. The 800lb. gorillas of the conservative Web initially went online in the 1995-97 timeframe. And many have failed to innovate. They are still Web 1.0, where the Left jumped directly into Web 2.0 in the Bush years.
Ruffini goes on to describe how poorly the conservative web -- Drudge, Free Republic, the right blogosphere, et al -- is aging (it's worth reading the post for the digs at Freepers alone). Are conservatives locked into outdated technologies?
It would be one thing if we didn’t have any of these institutions, and could start from scratch just as the netroots did. My fear is that we have a bunch of institutions that still function somewhat well, but are long past their prime. With that, there is the danger we will slowly die without knowing it, as our techniques gradually lose effectiveness year after year. Just like newspaper circulation numbers. And there are a number of people on the right who are still complacent about this.
Ruffini and Soren Dayton follow on this post with a pretty good exchange, about which more later. But I think there's absolutely something to this -- after all, social institutions rely on accumulated legitimacy, which can hold them back when it's time for those institutions to reinvent themselves. This is a lesson for the left as much as for the right.

The more immediate question for A&S purposes is this: When (it's when, not if) the conservatives do manage to reinvent themselves as a "2.0" movement, what will that mean? How would such a movement look? How different might its policy preoccupations, rhetoric, and internal cohesion requirements be? Is Conservatism 2.0 in the works already?

You might say those questions are what Alien & Sedition, ultimately, is all about.

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  So What's Happening Here?

What does it mean that Barack Obama is currently the third choice of Iowa Republican voters in the general election -- after Romney and Giuliani but before Thompson and McCain? What does it mean that, as the campaign goes on, abortion apostate Rudy Giuliani is losing strength not among conservative voters, but among Republican-leading independents?

Of course it's far too little data to draw any real conclusions. But for the sake of positing a theory, let's go back to the Fabrizio poll we discussed about a month ago. As you may recall, the poll described, among other things, the emergence of two very interesting constituencies within the GOP coalition: "Heartland Republicans" and "Government Knows Best Republicans." My capsule description:
The former, constituting 8% of the GOP electorate, are "more pragmatic and less ideological," worried about gas prices but supportive of government action on economic issues and climate change, and somewhat Midwestern. The latter group are 13% of the party, the "strongest supporters of government intervention to solve social and environmental problems," as well as being "skeptical of the Patriot Act" and of military spending generally, heavily female, and "more likely to be found on the coasts."
So here you have a good 21% of 2000 Republican voters with distinctly moderate -- we might even say progressive -- politics. And who, in the current crop of GOP presidential candidates, represents them? McCain has glued himself to Bush on the war. And Giuliani's standing with R-leaning independents has sunk precisely during the time in which he has run away from his previous reputation as a moderate and made a name for himself as one of the most belligerent, partisan candidates in the race.

There's at least a fifth of the Republican party up for grabs if the GOP's own candidates continue to amp up the partisanship and crowd each other on the right side of the spectrum. One data point -- that Iowa poll -- suggests that Barack Obama, with his "post-partisan" rhetoric, might be the Democrat best positioned to peel their support away from the GOP. But all the Democratic candidates might be well advised to take note of them. I'm not saying they should flee the Democratic base -- far from it. Rather the point is that candidates should be confident that in making the case for progressive values, they're actually taking the fight to the Republicans.

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Wednesday, August 08, 2007
  John McCain and the "Transcendent" War

John McCain, during the recent Republican debate, says:
I also firmly believe that the challenge of the 21st century is the struggle against radical Islamic extremism. It is a transcendent issue. It is hydra-headed. It will be with us for the rest of the century.
Josh Marshall, who is skilled at doing this sort of thing, lucidly analyzes the absurdity of the remark:
Now, think about that. That's ninety-three years. My old graduate school advisor Gordon Wood used to say that humans have a very hard time seeing more than fifty years into the future. Of course, even a year into the future is difficult. But more than a few decades and we haven't the slightest idea what the world is going to look like ...

But John McCain states it as a matter of fact that the war against militant Islam will still be the defining national security threat for this country in 2099 and for years after.

I know we customarily give a rather wide berth to rhetorical excess in the theater of politics. But what on earth is McCain talking about? Not long ago it was enough to sate the historical vanity of the War on Terror mongers to dub it a 'long war' or 'generational struggle', which it may well be. But apparently even that is now insufficient. Only an entire century will do. It is almost as if as the concept in the real-world present looks more and more ill-judged and foolhardy its credentials must be buffed up by giving it more and more ridiculous lifespans ranging off into the unknowable future.
The Carpetbagger Report expands on this:
We’re engaged in an undefined, open-ended war against an undetermined enemy that spans several continents and is unaffiliated with any specific nation-state. I’m rather surprised McCain was willing to limit his vision to just the 21st century.

Indeed, as long as we’re looking at this in a big-picture kind of way, a McCain-like vision of a “war on terror” can’t end until we’ve “won.” I’m curious how those who share McCain’s ideology would define “victory” in this context.

When the Middle East is dominated by democracies? That won’t do it; people can vote for terrorists. When al Qaeda is destroyed? There are other networks that can and would take its place. When religious extremists are no longer motivated by their faith to commit acts of violence? That might, um, take a while.
The two writers note other aspects of the "transcendence" of this struggle: for one thing, as Marshall points out, it puts McCain, Bush, and their ideological fellow-travellers beyond the realm of mere evidence -- and ultimately beyond judgment and consequences altogether: "the future is the only territory where empirical evidence or -- more plainly put -- reality can't be brought up to contradict you." I've suggested before that "victory" in Iraq, as it is postponed ad infinitum into the future by its neoconservative devotees -- always just around a corner or two -- is a similarly unassailable concept. Lest we forget, our travails in Iraq are, in the minds of the neocons, bound up conceptually into the general "long war" McCain was describing during the debate; indeed, there's no particular reason to believe that, given the unity and "transcendence" of the war as described by McCain, we should expect "victory" in Iraq to arrive at any point during the front end of that 93-year struggle. If Iraq is the front line in the war on terror, and the war on terror is expected to last a century, well...

Of course, the front line may shift. To where? It hardly matters. That's the fun of transcendent war -- it has little to do with actual circumstances or actual decisions or actual people with actual lives to be lived and lost.

From what has this war transcended? And to where? It has transcended, I think, from being a collection of actual issues, often only tangentally related to one another, and subject to management by competent people using empirically-tested methods, to being a holy cause, given rhetorical unity and subject first and foremost to the demands of faith (and political advantage). The claims to competence of the actual experts are degraded, and the experts themselves frequently become convenient and amusing subjects of abuse at the hands of the initiate. And for the nonbelievers, there's a lake of political fire.

Why does it seem so important for American conservatives to have a transcendent war to wage?

Perhaps because American conservatism -- that peculiar strain of hyper-aggressive, bowdlerized right-liberalism punctuated by bouts of Burke-inspired self-loathing -- has accomplished some things, but as a whole and on its own, it lacks a convincing internal logic (even though it believes strongly in the importance of such a logic) and is uninspired by the duties and challenges of actually governing. It seems to me that Democrats -- right back to the days of Andrew Jackson -- have generally been the party of the incoherent, non-ideological, pragmatic majority. Seekers of transcendence, on the other hand, have tended to be much more attracted to the Republican party. This has given us abolition, the Battle Hymn of the Republic, and progressivism, but it has also given us Prohibition, "the Evil Empire," and the Moral Majority. It's difficult for the right to get by, politically speaking, without a transcendent cause to which it can attach. If the details of the cause -- the actual people, the actual circumstances, the fact that it can't really be described as a "cause" at all -- get in the way, said details should be rubbished and ignored. This is the mindset of the faithful.

What's the cash value of these ruminations? I don't know. But Prohibition and the Moral Majority went away sooner than many people thought they would. I imagine that neo-Reaganism will, as well. Transcendence feels great when you first inhale it, but the high never lasts as long as it should, and the real world comes rushing back hard.

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Tuesday, August 07, 2007
  They're Doing It Again

Alien & Sedition's Law: Conservatives can't govern, because conservatives don't believe in government.

The Katrina Corollary: Conservatives will blame the failure of conservative government on government itself (also known as the Walter Reed Corollary).

Noah of the November Blog called it:
But just wait, Republicans will use this bridge collapse as an excuse to decry how awful things get when government tries to handle the public's infrastructure and safety. And they will call for more private control, and more"free market" expansion.
They wouldn't dare, would th-- oh, right. Of course they would:
But in this case, anger is an appropriate response, and it is proper for that anger to be directed at government - government at all levels.
Why? Not because of massive underinvestment in American infrastructure during an era of conservative governance. No:
Maintenance is necessary but boring, and since government is made up of human beings who abhor boredom, few elected officials or high-level managers are all that interested in this mundane task. Instead, they want to do big, exciting, bold new things - things they can claim for their own.

And in the past half-century, American government has redefined its core responsibilities. No longer does government exist for the purposes of maintenance and upkeep. Instead, it is seen as a means - perhaps the only significant means - of healing social flaws and reweaving the social fabric.
See, our bridges are collapsing because government inevitably prefers to spend its time cramming gay marriage down our throats (always down our throats) than doing boring maintenance. Newt Gingrich, meanwhile, sends an email to his list claiming that, when it comes to rebuilding, government will be the problem, not the solution:
The lessons are clear, as these cases prove. Yet, already some in Minnesota are calling not for unleashing American ingenuity but instead for more taxes to feed the same failing bureaucracies.

Their answer is to further punish Minneapolis drivers by raising the gasoline tax. This knee-jerk reaction is precisely what happens when the right lacks an effective vocabulary of solutions to compete with left-wing tax-and-spend policies.

Raising taxes to spend on bureaucracies -- which in all three cases were the main impediment to a safe, efficient and speedy rebuilding effort in the first place -- is exactly the wrong answer.
For the nth time, my conservative friends: the fact that you find it impossible to govern competently, does not mean that competent government is impossible.

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Monday, August 06, 2007
  Inequality, Sin, and Law

Reihan Salam has some very interesting comments on Daniel Gross's review of Robert Frank's Falling Behind. Frank's book (which I have not read) is about inequality in America; he apparently argues that the experience of relative deprivation (owning, for instance, a smaller house than one's neighbors) fuels a kind of inflation of consumption, by which each income bracket, struggling to keep up with the one above it, raises the consumption bar for the brackets below it. In Gross's description, this "societywide arms race for goods" has dangerous effects in the context of ever-deepening American inequality:
But since 1979, gains have flowed disproportionately to top earners. In an economy where the wealthy set the norms for consumption and people at every rung strain to maintain the consumption of those just above them, that spells trouble. In today’s arms race, the top 1 percent are armed to the teeth and everybody else is scavenging for ammunition. Between 1980 and 2001, Frank notes, the median size of new homes in the United States rose from 1,600 to 2,100 square feet, “despite the fact that the median family’s real income had changed little in the intervening years.” The end result? Frank methodically presents data showing that the typical American now works more, saves less, commutes longer and borrows more to maintain what he or she views as an appropriate standard of living.
Frank's proposed remedy is a progressive consumption tax that would slow the arms race from the top down. Salam's response is a very interesting exercise in what you might call neo-traditionalist conservative thinking. In an earlier review of Frank's book, Salam wrote:
But what if the real inequality problem isn’t a technical problem? What if it really is a moral problem? Not moral as in “envy is a corrosive thing, so get over it.” Moral as in no progressive consumption tax will prevent people from building overlarge houses or custom cabinets at the expense of spending time with family and friends. A culture that is plagued by materialist excess won’t be cured by a progressive consumption tax. It can only be cured, if at all, through a revival of postmaterialist – or, if you will, prematerialist – family values. It could be that this eminently “progressive” concern can only be successfully addressed with a “conservative” solution.
Now he expands on this by revisiting the question: "what does this mean for us as political actors?" Salam distinguishes between "right-liberals" (by which I presume he means American "conservatives" of the free market-worshipping variety), who see no problem at all with inequality and the consumption arms race, and "left-liberals," who see a problem of justice and advocate institutional solutions. But neither group, he argues, sees anyone as doing anything "wrong" -- an outlook he questions:
What if there is some kind of wrongdoing, in some meaningful sense? As a nonreligious person, I'm not very conversant in the language of sin, but I have a sense that there are some kinds of consumption, perfectly voluntary, that have a deleterious effect on the moral ecology we share. So what if there is a moral problem, and that it's a problem that is not all that susceptible to an institutional solution? After all, no progressive consumption tax will teach children right from wrong, or prevent them from becoming frankly gluttonous adults. A progressive consumption tax would be a very good thing. But it's clearly not enough to teach a culture, which is to say us, restraint. What if, rather, this moral problem in fact indicates a need for some kind of civic education, or a renewed cultural emphasis on the many ways a fulfilling life is at odds with excessive consumption?
This is very interesting -- very Burke-with-a-human-face, suggesting an emphasis on cultural solutions to problems liberals view through the prism of injustice. Justice, of course, does imply an institutional framework; it implies law, civitas, action in the public sphere.

Just as there are "right-liberals," I think there are "left-conservatives," who themselves are primarily interested in culture and moral judgment as against collective action in the public sphere -- the basis for institutional solutions. If anything, I think the left has, over the past few decades, often been too countercultural in this regard. In any sense, they certainly aren't mutually exclusive paths.

For liberals, inequality is primarily a problem of justice as it relates to income distribution, not consumption. That's why we focus on institutional solutions: we're not naive enough to believe that you can tell economic elites to just be nice and share more. You can't legislate everything, but clearly the very premise of law is that the public welfare requires a set of dispassionate institutions, willing to enforce what we can best determine to be the most just rules by which everyone must live. Again: no reason that the moral and the institutional must be mutually exclusive, but neither is it healthy to let a preoccupation with culture distract us from the age-old pursuit of justice.

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  Whitewashing Racism

Rick Perlstein brings to our attention this excellent essay by Nancy MacLean, in which she examines the history behind Justice Roberts's decision prohibiting schools from pursuing diversity plans. As MacLean points out, the decision has its orgins in a concerted effort by segregationists to apply PR techniques to gain the advantage in the fight over civil rights:
Roberts’s decision, which denied local communities the right to choose race-conscious methods, is replete with quotable phrases from the lexicon conservative strategists honed in their think tanks in the 1970s and then carried into the nation’s courtrooms through their various legal societies.
Titans of the conservative movement like William F. Buckley, Jr., Frank Meyer, and Irving Kristol were involved in the effort to use the language of civil rights to accomplish racist ends. Read the whole piece.

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Friday, August 03, 2007
  Sometimes Politics Is What You Need to Play

K-Lo and her Senate "friends" are shocked at Harry Reid's statement that the Minnesota bridge collapse should be a "wake-up call" as to the need to reinvest in our crumbling infrastructure -- investment the anti-government Republicans have manifestly, and now disastrously, failed to accomplish.

Underinvestment -- a consequence, in part, of conservative government -- is a serious problem and will lead to more, similar disasters if not corrected. The political crisis contributes to the disaster. So why is it not appropriate to use the spotlight on that disaster in an attempt to solve the political crisis?

It's entirely appropriate, of course -- but it's politically inconvenient for Republicans.

Meanwhile, Ross Douthat suggests that Republican candidates like Romney and Rudy can issue their own calls for infrastructure investment. Given the two candidates' eagerness to sell themselves to the anti-government ideologues of the right, though, the message might come out sounding a little ironic.

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Thursday, August 02, 2007
  Newt Gingrich Is a Strange Duck

He's one of the most adept and infuriating propagandists in the GOP, but then he'll say stuff like this. There is, undoubtedly, more to the story. I'll follow up if I can figure out what he's up to.


  Is It Murder or Not?

I'm certainly no expert on the abortion issue, but I can recognize bad logic when I see it, and NRO's "symposium" in response to Anna Quindlen's new column is full of it.

Quindlen, writing in Newsweek, asks the obvious question for "pro-lifers" bent on overturning Roe: "how much jail time for women who have abortions?" Unsurprisingly, none of the anti-abortion activists who have been asked can answer. Very few have even thought about it. Quindlen accuses anti-abortion activists of "ignoring or infantilizing women, turning them into 'victims' of their own free will." Anti-choice activists claim, in effect, to want to protect women from themselves. This, she quotes Ruth Bader Ginsburg arguing, is an "anti-abortion shibboleth" reflecting "ancient notions about women's place in the family and under the Constitution—ideas that have long since been discredited."

Quindlen zeroes in on the fundamental flaw in anti-abortion discourse:
Lawmakers in a number of states have already passed or are considering statutes designed to outlaw abortion if Roe is overturned. But almost none hold the woman, the person who set the so-called crime in motion, accountable. Is the message that women are not to be held responsible for their actions? Or is it merely that those writing the laws understand that if women were going to jail, the vast majority of Americans would violently object? [...]

[T]here are only two logical choices: hold women accountable for a criminal act by sending them to prison, or refuse to criminalize the act in the first place. If you can't countenance the first, you have to accept the second. You can't have it both ways.
Apparently the argument strikes a sore note for the "pro-lifers," as NRO recruited no fewer than 17 scholars, activists, and writers to offer rebuttals. What's striking is that none of them can answer the question, either. That's because it is logically impossible to agree with all four of the following propositions: 1) Women are human beings with free will; 2) Abortion is murder; 3) Murder is a crime deserving serious punishment; and 4) Women should not be seriously punished for having abortions.

Every single one of the responses dodges this dilemma. They all pretty much fall into one or more of the following categories:

1. Infantalization. We are told several times that "the woman is the second victim of abortion." Anti-abortion laws are for the "protection, not punishment" of the woman. Abortion is a "billion-dollar-a-year industry" preying on its patients/victims (as though abortion providers were the only medical professionals to accept fees for services, when in fact they're among the least likely to be doing what they do for profit -- but I digress). Women who have abortions are typically in states of mental duress and frequently coerced into the procedure by the men in their lives. Women who have had abortions are "punished" by the inevitable trauma and depression that results from the decision and that will plague them for the rest of their lives. It's interesting that the most common response to Quindlen's argument is precisely to reaffirm what she is saying.

2. The legal dodge. A number of respondents insist, as Hadley Arkes puts it, that "the law does not need to invoke the harshest penalties for the sake of teaching moral lessons." Wendy Long says that:
The law assigns differing degrees of culpability in various situations -- including killing other people -- all the time. If you kill someone in self-defense, you get zero punishment. It does not mean that the guy lying on your kitchen floor with a knife sticking out of his chest is not dead — or not human.
But, of course, killing someone in self-defense is not murder. Is abortion murder? Or is it a lesser sort of killing? If the latter, it can't be because the act is lesser. Are social conservatives tacitly admitting that a fetus is a lesser "victim" than a person?

If abortion is homicide, what kind is it? It's certainly more than criminally negligent homicide, since it involves an intent to kill. It's almost certainly more serious than voluntary manslaughter, which at its worst involves killing "in the heat of the moment" -- hardly the case when the "killer" has planned the appointment ahead of time. Indeed, it's hard to imagine that the "crime" could be anything less than premeditated murder -- murder in the first degree. And perhaps the lawyers reading this will forgive me if I'm wrong, but my understanding of "duress" is that it excuses a person from culpability in committing a crime only if "[she] had good reason to believe, that she would be seriously harmed if she did not participate and had no other way of escaping serious harm." The various excuses the pro-lifers offer would seem to add up to little more than the kind of mitigating circumstances lawyers present in order to secure sentences of life in prison, rather than death, for their clients.

Imagine if Joe Blow kills Jake Smith -- writes "kill Jake Smith" in his appointment book for April 12th and goes out as scheduled and does the deed. Can Joe use the defense that he was stressed out, "young" and "unmarried," without a wife "standing by" him? Can his lawyer argue that "the law does not need to invoke the harshest penalties for the sake of teaching moral lessons?" How would the social conservatives react to such a defense?

Matthew J. Franck accuses Quindlen of committing the "fallacy of the complex question -- treating a compound question as though it were simple." Why do I have a hard time imagining conservatives making this argument when Joe murders Jack -- no matter how complicated the reasons for the killing might be? Is abortion murder or isn't it? If it's not murder, but another form of homicide, why is that? And if it is murder, then does murder deserve serious punishment or doesn't it?

3. The way-things-used-to-be dodge. Walter M. Weber claims that "Quindlen ingores history." Echoing some of the other respondents, Weber argues that, since women were not locked up for abortions prior to 1973, why would they be after Roe is overturned? This seems like a particularly silly argument. Just because Americans tolerated a moral and logical contradiction before, doesn't mean they should tolerate one today. Women were not treated as full human beings in 1972. Should we revert to that mentality? Weber is implying that we should.

4. Ad hominems. There's a distinctly embattled tone in many of the responses -- clearly, anti-choice theorists have heard this argument before, and clearly it frustrates them. Quindlen is derided as an out-of-touch "Manhattan socialite" and an "abortion-industry rep;" her arguments are dismissed as "sophomoric," "desperate," and "smug." None of the nasty adjectives do anything to help these seventeen writers overcome their logical dilemma, though.

5. It's Not the Point. This is in some ways the most interesting response. Again, it dodges the central logical problem, but at least it points to something of a way forward. Ramesh Ponnuru puts it this way:
The crucial legal goal of the pro-life movement is not any particular set of punishments. It is that unborn children be protected in law.
Franck actually comes closest to putting his finger on the problem when he says that "the proper approach (after Roe) is to ask, what policy would reduce the number of abortions as much as possible now?" This is one of the most peculiar failures of the anti-abortion movement. They are so consumed with outlawing the supply of abortions that they are willing to almost totally ignore truly constructive approaches to reducing the demand. This obsession even limits Franck to imagining that somehow policies to reduce the number of abortions can only be developed "after Roe," when in fact there are a number of potential policies -- focusing on women's health, access to birth control, and sex education, among other things -- that could drastically reduce the need for abortions much sooner.

If the goal really is reducing abortions, then why focus on prohibition, which doesn't work? Why not adopt pragmatic policies that will work? Seems to me like a pretty good way around the logical dilemma facing the "pro-life" movement as currently constituted -- at least those who don't want to make the argument that women are not, in fact, human beings, lest they be forced to admit that abortion is not, after all, murder.

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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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