alien & sedition.
Saturday, November 08, 2008
  Back from the Dead?

Two items via Andrew Sullivan: In one, Ross Douthat mulls over the question of what might constitute the most promising shape for a future GOP coalition: an aliance of "Joe the Plumber and Joe the Office Park Employee," or one that would appeal to "upper-middle reformism" as formulated by David Frum? Douthat is somewhat skeptical as to whether a message aimed at "the Obama-voting, ex-Rockefeller Republicans making $150,000 a year" would harmonize well with one pitched at the Wall-Mart Republicans he and Reihan Salam have argued should be at the center of a conservative revival, arguing that
building a coalition of social conservatives and social moderates from the middle of the income and education distribution makes much more political sense than trying to hold together a coalition of social conservatives from the middle of the distribution and social liberals from the upper end.
At any rate, Douthat's entire analysis is premised on the revival of the GOP as, in his words, "a party that restores its reputation for competence and policy seriousness." Trouble is, as Mark Lilla explains in the Wall Street Journal, the Sarah Palin episode - and, one might add, the retrenchment of conservative movement elites in its aftermath - is dispositive evidence that the right has not only abandoned that reputation, it has comprehensively repudiated intellectual seriousness in favor of a debased appeal to talk-radio populism and "anti-elite" know-nothingism.

This is not news, I realize. But it does at any rate cause pretty serious complications to the efforts by genuine intellectuals like Douthat to plot a way forward for their party and their movement. He's forced to compete with compatriots who think it's a great idea roll the Republican clock back to 1994.

The thing of it is, in a two party system, the opposition doesn't necessarily need to be especially coherent or appealing. While it might spend a somewhat longer time in the wilderness, even an intellectually and ideologically stunted GOP is likely to find its way back into power eventually - the wheel turns, and all that. Count me with those who hope that reformers like Douthat are able to help their party evolve into a reasonably responsible institution before that day comes, but it's not entirely outside the realm of possibility that the neanderthals could simply wind up frozen in ideological ice, only to one day stumble back onto the scene as a result of some inevitable glacial shift.

(And no, I'm not necessarily saying I'm back. But I'm not not back, either.)

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Tuesday, October 09, 2007
  Rudy Dances with the Fundamentalists

Rudy's trying to make nice with the Christian right rebels. The LA Times reports that Giuliani has accepted an invitation to attend, along with the rest of the Republican field, the "values voter summit" sponsored by Tony Perkins's Focus on the Family in Washington on October 20. Perkins, of course, is one of the "secretive" Council for National Policy illuminati who has been talking up the idea of a Christian right third-party campaign should Giuliani win the GOP nomination.

While, as Matt Ortega has reported, a recent poll indicated that such a campaign could pull away more than a quarter of the Republican vote -- and as much as I'd like to see that happen -- let me continue to be the guy who cautions you about reading too much into this. For one thing, as Rasmussen points out in its analysis:
The latest poll highlights the potential challenges for Giuliani, but the numbers must be considered in context. A generic third-party candidate may attract 14% of the vote in the abstract at this time. However, if a specific candidate is chosen, that person would likely attract less support due to a variety of factors. Almost all third party candidates poll higher earlier in a campaign and their numbers diminish as election day approaches. Ultimately, of course, some Republicans would have to face the question of whether to vote for Giuliani or help elect a Democrat.

Of course, even despite such considerations an anti-abortion third-party candidate could do well enough to throw a close election to the Democrats. But the calculations will weigh on the movement leaders themselves. If they really believe they can draw 14% of the electorate, they may go forward with it. But they can't afford to look weaker than they already do. This would be a desperate move by a coterie of Christian right leaders who can't be eager to test exactly how far their influence has eroded. A break with fusionism and the conservative coalition is no small matter for these people.

The calculation will have to include saving face, since face may be all they have. As the LA Times post notes, Giuliani has continued to defy laws of political gravity that the fundamentalists thought they wrote. One gets the sense that this rebellion is aimed as much at their own straying flock as at Rudy himself: remember who your real leaders are. The problem, further illustrated by this weekend's New York Times article on religious conservative voters, is that the Council crowd may include the most famous figures in evangelical circles, but they don't necessarily dictate the political views and actions evangelicals take. The article uses the example of James Dobson's attempt to take down Fred Thompson, which achieved nothing but sparking an embarassing backlash.

That's why Giuliani's strategy seems to be aimed at offering the rebel leaders a way to save face. He'll never be what they want him to be, but he can court them just enough to flatter their need to believe in their own continuing relevance; he can play along with the notion of that relevance in the hopes that they won't feel the need to try and prove it with a breakaway campaign. That may be just enough to stop them from pulling the trigger, given how much they know they have to lose if they do.

It's still a delicate situation, and it could yet lead to a confrontation that I think neither side really wants. But we're not there yet.
Saturday, October 06, 2007
  Rudy, the GOP, and Spending: The Binge-and-Purge Mentality

Cross-posted at The Right's Field.

The notion that the GOP lost in 2006 because of spending is absurd. It's not just absurd; it's verging on insane. While it may be true that ridiculous earmarks like Don Young's "bridge to nowhere" helped contribute to the general air of corruption surrounding the Republican party, spending per se had nothing to do with the GOP's midterm defeat.

But, for reasons I'll get to in a minute, Republicans themselves like very much to tell themselves that the defeat had everything to do with spending. And Rudy Giuliani is indulging them. He may actually believe what he's saying -- when it comes to economics, Giuliani believes in a lot of very silly things, like the notion that cutting taxes always leads to an increase in tax revenue. Or he may simply be saying it to curry favor with the Club for Growth crowd (if so, it's working). In either case, Rudy insists that he's the only one who can restore the GOP's mythical fiscal discipline. Again, this assertion is logically incompatible with his embrace of supply-side ideas. But neither is it supported by his record as mayor of NYC.

While Giuliani likes to take credit for "23 tax cuts" during his time at City Hall, has documented that the truth is quite different:
A new radio ad boasts that Rudy Giuliani "cut or eliminated 23 taxes" while mayor of New York City, a boast he and his supporters have repeated many times on the campaign trail. We find that to be an overstatement. Giuliani can properly claim credit for initiating only 14 of those cuts.

In fact, he strongly opposed one of the largest cuts for which he claims credit, reversing himself only after a five-month standoff with the city council. In addition, the ad's claim that Giuliani turned the budget deficit he inherited into a surplus, while true enough, ignores the fact that he also left a multibillion-dollar deficit for his successor, not including costs associated with 9/11.

As CNBC reports:
[A] closer look at the numbers show he's claiming credit for some tax cuts that weren't his idea to begin with. And others that he actively opposed.

For instance, seven tax cuts that he says were his were actually initiated by New York State. Giuliani may have supported the measures, but they were never floated by his office. That's according to the Independent Budget Office, a publicly funded watchdog group.

Then there's the granddaddy of New York tax cuts -- the ending of a 12.5% surcharge on personal income tax. Giuliani cites it as his No. 1 achievement on taxes -- and he did initially propose it, but then later dropped his support for the measure, even fighting it before finally giving in to the city council. It was the largest New York City tax cut in history.

Of course, even if we do give Giuliani credit as a tax-cutter, that has little to do with fiscal discipline, while that multibillion dollar deficit is a good indicator of his lack of it.

In an era where Republican politicians have gone over to the supply side en masse, does it even make sense to associate the GOP with "fiscal discipline" anymore? Giuliani's right about the breakdown in that reputation, but for entirely the wrong reasons.

Ultimately all this conservative self-flagellation over spending serves a particular purpose -- by a strange kind of alchemy, it transforms the GOP's well-earned reputation for corruption into a reaffirmation of conservative principle. Spending itself becomes corruption. The answer to government corruption, we're told, is to cut government spending. Personally, if there's a party that can't tell the difference between government and corruption, I don't want that party in government.

The modern Republican party has a very strange relationship to spending. It's almost like an eating disorder -- the party binges on wars, tax cuts, pork, and ill-conceived efforts to win voters away from the Democrats on issues like Medicare. Then it rhetorically purges, denouncing universal health care as "socialism" and promising to drown its own ugly governing body in the bathtub. It all seems very unhealthy to me.

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Monday, October 01, 2007
  Social Cons, Econo-Cons

Ramesh Ponnuru raises some interesting arguments, building off a debate with Thomas Edsall from May. His original point was that "The relative social conservatism of the Republican party has increased over the last twenty years, not decreased."

This comes up now in the context of a related question: can socially conservative candidates prosper even as society in general becomes steadily more liberal? Ponnuru argues that yes, they can. I'd say this point is self-evident, given the history of the post-war U.S., but let's look at a couple of his arguments.

One is particularly interesting in light of the last post.
Abortion has been the biggest of the social issues. For three decades, Gallup has asked Americans whether they think abortion should never be permitted, should always be permitted, or should sometimes be permitted. The results from 2005 do not look markedly more liberal than the results from 1975. So these polls give us no reason to think that opposition to abortion has lost political power, or is likely to do so.
If this is so, then it's all the more ironic that abortion has lost political power -- not thanks to public opinion, but thanks to the maneuvering of the economic conservatives who have been consolidating their control of the GOP coalition. Abortion was one of the political pillars of the Republican party, and now the party is abandoning it altogether? Either the issue really has lost salience, or the GOP is undertaking a curious strategy indeed. I think it's a little of both, myself, but time will tell.

At any rate, I think Ponnuru gets the larger dynamic right:
A society can simultaneously become more socially liberal and create new political opportunities for social conservatives. It is, after all, the liberalization to which the conservatives react.

Now of course public opinion on an issue can change so much that the old conservative position is no longer tenable, and successful candidates can no longer take it. If only 10 percent of the population still opposes gay marriage in 20 years, it won’t be an issue then, either. When public opinion changes that much, however, the issues get redefined. A new conservative position emerges, more liberal than the previous one but less liberal than the contemporary liberal one. And this new conservative position sometimes has a lot of political power.
This speaks to why I think that social conservatism represents a stronger electoral future for the GOP than economic conservatism. Particularly so considering that the so-called fiscal conservatism embraced by the party's current opinion makers isn't really fiscal conservatism at all, but the weird cult of supply-side economics.

Bigger picture: I think the Rudy Giuliani model represents a very bad option for the GOP. But don't tell them I said that.

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  Dobson's Choice

Cross-posted at The Right's Field.

First things first: can we please stop referring to the Council for National Policy as "secretive"? The CNP is the most publicity-seeking "secret" organization on the planet. It's made up of prima-donna religious right leaders who enjoy their public positions of political influence; if it were truly clandestine it wouldn't be alerting the national media every time it has a significant meeting.

So the CNP is considering backing a third party candidate if Rudy Giuliani wins the nomination. Again, it's no secret that the group has been casting around for candidates for some time now: back in February, for instance, it was deliberating over whether to throw its support behind a Christian conservative in the GOP primary -- Huckabee, or Brownback, or South Carolina governor Mark Sanford. Christian Right heavyweight Paul Weyrich described the Council as "split 50-50" over whether to unite behind a second-tier candidate, or to just split up according to individual dictates of conscience and calculation. The discussions ended without consensus, and the CNP's main movers have mostly sat out the primary race since then, which should tell us something about how much all this talk really means.

The problem was with the notion of backing a horse that couldn't win. And if the Council wasn't willing to support a second tier candidate in the primary, why would it be willing to take the much longer odds of organizing behind a third party candidate in the general?

There's no denying the seriousness of the dilemma facing Christian conservatives. Their influence within the GOP is fading fast; they've never been much more than cheap foot soldiers to a party run by a business lobby with little interest in social issues either way. If they allow the Republicans to nominate a pro-choice candidate, and fail to challenge the decision, they stand to lose much of what remains of their political credibility. But at the same time, they hardly seem to be spoiling for a fight. It's true that they could throw the election to the Democrats by winning only a couple of percentage points next November. But what will that win them? Do they really want proof that all they can draw is a couple points? It could make them look every bit as marginal as Ralph Nader.

This is indeed a dangerous moment for the Republican party. It seems that the party is calculating that its mass support, once built on the backs of the anti-abortion movement, can now be drawn from the legend of perpetual war. Over the long run, I suspect that's not likely to be a winning strategy. But in the very short term, understand that, for the "secretive" CNP, the decision to support a third-party candidacy will not come easily, and it very well might not come at all.

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Tuesday, September 25, 2007
  Back to Rangoon

When I lived in Southeast Asia, I wanted to visit Burma, but the official word from the democratic opposition was that foreigners should stay away as part of a general boycott of the military regime. I'm not sure whether that particular form of sanction is productive or not, but that's what they ask, so that's what we observed.

While democratic revolutions swept the world at the end of the 1980s, Burma has thus far been unable to redeem its failed uprising of 1988. The current demonstrations by the Buddhist monks -- the only institution in the country with anything close to the influence of the military -- offer the best chance since then to force open the door to freedom.

Thailand-based Irrawaddy News Magazine is an excellent source for coverage of the ongoing developments, and of Burma in general.


Monday, September 24, 2007
  Details Aren't the Devil

Cross-posted at Alien The Right's Field.

Democratic candidates offer a wealth of ideas, explained in rich detail. Republicans offer a few vague platitudes and promise to get back to us after the election.

Steve Benen says that, infuriating as it may be, the Republican approach may be savvier:
I’m not sure Republicans are wrong about this. When a GOP candidates says, “Vote for me — and I’ll work out the details later,” I’d love for there to be consequences. There never are. In 2000, Bush’s vague and ambiguous tax plan didn’t make any sense. Al Gore tried to make it a campaign issue, but the media ignored it and voters didn’t care. In 2004, Bush said more than once that he could privatize Social Security without raising taxes, raising the deficit, cutting benefits, or raising the retirement age. How did he propose to pull that off? He didn’t — he just mentioned ideas and goals without any details. There were no political consequences.

In fact, American voters don’t seem to care all that much about the details in advance. A candidate talks about what he or she finds important, and how he or she would approach the issue if elected. Voters either agree or disagree. If a candidate were to make some kind of outlandish campaign promise — free ice cream for everyone, every day, for four years — there would probably be a higher expectation to explain how that might work, but a more general policy prescription needs a lot fewer support materials.
One of the neat tricks Republicans managed to pull off during much of the past decade or two was to earn a reputation as both the party of principles and the party of ideas. Logically, those two things may be connected, but as Benen's analysis suggests, in a practical sense it can be difficult to wear both hats at the same time. When you spend a lot of time on wonky policy details, it can be hard to express basic foundational principles in a clear way. At the same time, when all you talk about are principles, your rhetoric can be so divorced from reality that it becomes meaningless.

This is just an impression, but I think that Republicans, having achieved a reasonable sense of balance between principles and ideas for quite some time, are tilting over into meaningless abstractness at this point. Much of this has to do with the exhaustion of the Goldwater conservative movement, which seems finally to have reached its Waterloo in the era of Bush the Lesser. Movement conservative ideas simply came to their logical and practical limits -- if the ideas worked, Bush would have implemented them successfully. They didn't and he couldn't, and all the rest of what conservatives say about it is just excuse-making. Does anybody really think there's a future in social security privatization or "health savings accounts"? Honestly?

Bush knew that conservatives couldn't simply slash away the social insurance state, but the price of a politically-feasible transition was too much for the right's ideology to bear -- as the Part D debacle proved. And that was just a preview of the costs that would be associated with any privatization of social security. There just isn't any way to remake America along Goldwater-conservative ideological lines. You can't go back again. There are new, young conservatives out there with some interesting (if embryonic) ideas of their own, but they aren't influential enough yet to have much impact on the presidential race, so what we're left with is a field of candidates repeating the rhetoric of conservative years past, even as that rhetoric has lost its relevance to the details of governance.

Republicans are usually the party that attracts those who crave transcendence and the appeal of pure ideology. Democrats are usually the party of pragmatism, ideological muddle, and practical government. There's nothing wrong with that basic dichotomy. A party gains an advantage when it is able to reach beyond its basic mode and do a little bit of what its opponent can do -- a strong GOP has at least some good, wonky ideas, and a strong Democratic party has at least some ability to appeal to the voters' civic-spiritual side.

My point is that Benen may be right, but he's thinking of a Republican party that was able to achieve that balance more effectively. Even just in the past couple of years it has lost the balance. Both its domestic agenda and its foreign-policy credibility have come undone. I'd like Democrats to talk about principles more, but let's let them be the party of details, too. In the end, details do matter.

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Sunday, September 23, 2007
  Study: Conservatives Dominate Op-Ed Pages

This Media Matters report won't surprise you, but it should infuriate you. They actually contacted almost every daily newspaper in the U.S. on an individual basis to collect the data to show that conservatives are greatly over-represented in the opinion pages. On the plus side, I remember coming of age in the 90s just knowing this was true -- it was obvious -- but back then it seemed like there was hardly anyone willing to say or do anything about it. That, at least, has changed.

Still, the findings are depressing. For instance:The ten-thousand pound gorilla in all this is -- again, no surprise -- George Will, who reaches half of America's newspaper readers, which comes out to slightly more readers than Alien & Sedition reaches in an average millenium.

Editor & Publisher reports on the report; the article interviews Alan Shearer, editorial director of the Washington Post Writers Group, which syndicates Will and other columnists. Shearer suggests that the bias comes about largely because newspapers publishers themselves tend to have conservative leanings. MyDD's Shai Sachs offers a more nuanced analysis, examining the effects of regional variation and the syndication business -- noting that "the real winner is the Washington Post Writers Group."

Sachs does what a good political analyst should do: rather than complaining about the state of affairs, she asks: "Is there an opportunity for a liberal entrepreneur to step into this space and offer low-cost but popular progressive syndicated columnists?" This is an excellent question. The syndicates, as Sachs notes, are unimaginative and stagnant, offering the same fare nationwide and ignoring the growing wealth of online voices. This could present an opportunity:
I'd be very interested to see a liberal entrepreneur create a new syndicate to compete with the titans of the syndication industry. Certainly, the raw materials for such a company are in abundance: the progressive blogosphere is well-stocked with a diverse collection of intelligent, articulate writers who can give George Will and Cal Thomas a run for their money. Aside from a chorus of fresh progressive voices, such a syndicate could offer services like localization (helping newspapers identify columnists in their region), integration with social networking sites, and increased writer/reader interaction. No doubt, it would be tough to drum up business, but I think it would be an interesting experiment, and it could help restore balance on op-ed pages.
I can't stress enough how important this kind of thinking is (and, again, how different from the hopeless 90's). One of the most fundamental lessons one learns, studying the conservative movment, is that when a movement is shut out from existing institutions, it must innovate. This Media Matters report is an opportunity for progressives, not to complain about how unfair the world is, but to develop innovative strategies to get around that unfairness.

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Thursday, September 20, 2007
  On Hiatus

A&S is on hiatus for the next few days, but we'll be back soon.


Tuesday, September 18, 2007
  NY Times Ending "Times Select"

After two years, down comes the pay-wall:
In addition to opening the entire site to all readers, The Times will also make available its archives from 1987 to the present without charge, as well as those from 1851 to 1922, which are in the public domain. There will be charges for some material from the period 1923 to 1986, and some will be free. [...]

What changed, The Times said, was that many more readers started coming to the site from search engines and links on other sites instead of coming directly to These indirect readers, unable to get access to articles behind the pay wall and less likely to pay subscription fees than the more loyal direct users, were seen as opportunities for more page views and increased advertising revenue.

“What wasn’t anticipated was the explosion in how much of our traffic would be generated by Google, by Yahoo and some others,” Ms. Schiller said.
A good decision by the Paper of Record.

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Monday, September 17, 2007
  GOP Frontrunners Snubbing Minorities Again

Cross-posted at The Right's Field.

MyDD's Melissa Ryan wrote about this yesterday: Giuliani, Romney, and McCain have all turned down invitations to participate in Tavis Smiley's All American Presidential Forum on September 27. She cites Jack and Jill Politics:
Tavis did a 'Shout out' to his fellow Black Republicans, asking them why they were so silent on this matter. They keep on yapping that the GOP is a valid alternative for Black America, yet, when a nationally televised forum is put together so that GOP Candidates can present what they believe are GOP answers to concerns of the Black community, three of their Major Candidates don't even bother to respect Black Americans with their presence.

Melissa adds:
I don't know about you but I'm begining to get the impression that much of the Republican field just doesn't care for debates and forums. If it's not a choreographed staging of tightly scripted interactions with supporters enthusiastically waving campaign paraphernalia they're just not interested.

I agree, and it certainly has something to do with why the GOP candidates have been so leery of the YouTube debate. But the snub to nonwhite voters is worthy of notice over and above any general reluctance to debate. As president, George W. Bush has done little but damage to minority interests. But as a politician, he has been unusually keen -- for a Republican -- to win minority support (no, it doesn't add up, but that's par for his incompetent course). Right from the 2000 campaign, Bush and his advisors have made it a point to reach out symbolically to African-American and Hispanic voters (who can forget the demographics onstage during the RNC in Philly?), while his surrogates in the conservative movement work to convince their compatriots of the importance of gaining votes among those constituencies. Such efforts were not fueled by the Bushies' personal hunger to improve race relations, but by cold hard electoral math.

But so far in this 2008 cycle the GOP has presented nonwhite voters not with a friendly face, but with a series of cold shoulders. While it's clear to anyone who keeps up with intra-conservative debate that any candidate hoping to win the nomination will have to distance himself from a good number of Bush's perceived sins against the right -- not least of them his embrace of so-called "big-government conservatism" -- it's remarkable to think that the effort to expand the GOP beyond its white Christian base may be considered one of those sins. Perhaps it's because, in the end, the administration's effort failed. But that doesn't change the math. Bush tried and failed. The current Republican contenders aren't even going to try.

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Thursday, September 13, 2007
  All in the Family

In an Opinion Journal piece reprinted from Commentary, Kay Hymowitz offers a notable exercise in conservative critique of libertarianism. It's timely: as Hymowitz herself observes, with the growth of the internet as a political medium (and for a number of other reasons), the libertarian voice in conservative discourse is more prominent now than it has been in quite some time.

In her review of two new books by prominent libertarians (Radicals for Capitalism by Brian Doherty, and The Age of Abundance by Cato's Brink Lindsey), Hymowitz, unsurprisingly, does not take particular issue with the authors' economic analysis. I've added Lindsey's book to my long list and will discuss its economic aspects in more detail when I get to it (it may be a while), but the most interesting part of Hymowitz's review is her focus on "the cultural contradictions of libertarianism."

Hymowitz writes:
Despite Mr. Lindsey's protestations to the contrary, libertarianism has supported, always implicitly and often with an enthusiastic hurrah, the "Aquarian" excesses that he now decries. Many of the movement's devotees were deeply involved in the radicalism of the 1960s.

Nor should this come as a surprise. After all, the libertarian vision of personal morality--described by Mr. Doherty as "People ought to be free to do whatever the hell they want, mostly, as long as they aren't hurting anyone else"--is not far removed from "if it feels good, do it," the cri de coeur of the Aquarians. To be sure, part of the libertarian entanglement with the radicalism of the 1960s stemmed from the movement's opposition to both the Vietnam War and the draft, which Milton Friedman likened to slavery. But libertarians were also drawn to the left's revolutionary social posture.
But of course this simply isn't true. There's a universe of difference between "do what you will so long as you cause no harm to others," and "if it feels good, do it." It seems that the failure to understand this difference is what defines a social conservative, and this is why liberals (including, in this case, libertarians) have such mistrust for conservatives: those who cannot recognize such boundaries cannot be trusted either as moral agents on their own, nor as the guardians of others' morality.

Hymowitz makes much of libertarians' supposed disdain for the family, and in so doing she falls back on standard fusionist logic to argue that they ought to make preservation of the traditional family a priority:
On the one hand, libertarians make a fetish of freedom; it is their totalizing goal. On the other hand, libertarians depend on the family--an institution that, in crucial respects, is unfree--to produce the sort of people best suited to life in a free-market system (not to mention future members of their own movement). The complex, dynamic economy that libertarians have done so much to expand needs highly advanced human capital--that is, individuals of great moral, cognitive and emotional sophistication. Reams of social-science research prove that these qualities are best produced in traditional families with married parents.

Family breakdown, by contrast, limits the accumulation of such human capital. Worse, divorce and out-of-wedlock childbearing leave the door wide open for big government. Dysfunctional families create an increased demand for state-funded food, housing and medical subsidies, which libertarians reject on principle. And in courts all over the country, judges who preside over the manifold disputes occasioned by broken families are forced to be more intrusive than the worst mother-in-law: They decide who should have primary custody, who gets a child on Christmas or summer holidays, whether a child should take piano lessons, go to Hebrew school, move to California, or speak to her grandmother on the phone. It is a libertarian's worst nightmare.
Hymowitz disputes Lindsey's assertion that "the instincts and abilities for liberty . . . are innate," arguing that such attributes can only be instilled in children who are properly raised by proper families.

All of this concern for the family is interesting, if slightly nauseating, coming from a party whose leaders are currently engaged in stripping health care away from children. Conservatives worry about what libertarians would do to families not in a material sense, of course, but in a spiritual one. The American Scene's Peter Suderman offers a libertarian rebuttal:
Few libertarians, I suspect, would argue that strong traditional family structures are a bad thing. In fact, I’d bet that the vast majority of them would be perfectly pleased to find families doing well. But I think a number of them would resist the idea that, somehow, there’s a social obligation to perpetuate the traditional family structure, and most would also argue that other forms of social arrangements are worth allowing, and might even prove fruitful. This stance might be less supportive of deploying government muscle in order to advance one's personal preferences than some would like, but it's hardly anti-family.
Suderman helpfully points out that the old fusionist equation -- "when families fail, government steps in" -- does not express the only government threat to the family; another is presented by the overbearing efforts of conservatives to ensure that everyone's family is socially correct.

Daniel Larison's response to both pieces constitutes a far more interesting social conservative engagement with libertarian theory than Hymowitz's article. Larison suggests that the real threat libertarianism presents to the family is in its tolerance of the displacements caused by capitalism and unbridled immigration; at the same time, he takes issue with the way that "families" are privileged within the internal conservative debate:
In fairness to the libertarians, labels such as pro-family and anti-family are absurd in a way. There are significant social and political consequences that result from legal and property arrangements that bind large, extended families together or from those that encourage the break-up of a household into many separate households. A public authority worried about the dangers of corruption, nepotism and civil strife created by extended family networks would implement laws to discourage that kind of family life, which might earn it the "anti-family" designation from those adversely affected by the change, while a booster of state authority might define it as a pro-family measure if he redefines what family is. Public authority has a vested interest in governing what kinds of families exist, because the different forms of families have consequences for social and political life that extend beyond the walls of the family home.

The point is that every act of legal recognition, permission or reinforcement of this or that social arrangement is equally "artificial" in one sense, and the decision to not privilege one form over another is a decision by default to support the emergence of alternative forms.
Larison recognizes one of the fundamental flaws of libertarian theory in general: there is no such thing as public neutrality on most issues. For Larison, the important question is "whether there are certain kinds of family life that are most conducive to human flourishing" -- as a genuine social conservative, he believes that the argument is unavoidable and worth having, and if we've come to an agreement, then the question is how to get government to encourage the best kind of family life.

Liberals, of course, apply the same critique to libertarian economic theory: the idea that government can avoid substantive engagement in the economy is simply nonsense. Even when it refuses to choose, it thereby tacitly makes a choice in someone's favor. And in a certain sense, we agree with Larison on the fact that government is inevitably involved in social matters as well. But "do as you will but cause no harm to others," properly understood, has very different consequences in economics than in the purely social sphere.

I still believe that, despite the optimism of the current crop of libertarians, they'll never really challenge the social conservatives for dominance on the right -- though I should note that by "social conservatives" I don't mean Christian fundamentalists per se; the latter are just a subset of the former, and their political import is likely to change significantly over the coming years. But at any rate, if the libertarians force social conservatives to more critically examine their assumptions about ideal social order, they will have done us all a favor.

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  Being Fred Thompson

Hoover Institution fellow and former Reagan advisor Richard Allen has a rambling endorsement of Fred Thompson at the National Review. The point of the piece is to validate the Thompson-as-Reagan idea, but it mainly consists of nostalgic anecdotes about the political genius of the Gipper. Allen says little of substance about Thompson (despite mentioning that he's known him "for many years"), and the whole thing comes off as illustrative of precisely the mindset Thompson must be counting on among conservatives: a willingness to suspend disbelief, fueled by ever-fuzzier and ever-fonder memories of That Other Actor.

Says Allen:
It is undoubtedly too early to attribute the same comprehensive and plain-spoken vision to Fred Thompson, although his out-of-the gates speeches and remarks are very reminiscent of Reagan. But if they are there in Thompson they will reveal themselves; the Reagan qualities cannot be feigned or sustained for very long. Deep conviction will always be apparent as a campaign wears on, and the scarcity of it thus far in the wildly early presidential race has been conspicuous by its absence.
I've talked about the performativity of modern conservatism a great deal, but what's particularly interesting is how that acting is linked to a sense of conviction. The latter is seen as superior to knowledge, experience, discretion, or skepticism; it's a quality to be treasured in a leader and emulated in practice. But because it trumps knowledge, experience, discretion, and skepticism, because it triumphs over them, conservative conviction ends up being fixed to nothing, really, beyond a self-referential concept of abstract principles. I believe in individual freedom; the meaning and consequences of that statement of belief have nothing to do with testable results and everything to do with how well I project my conviction in that belief.

That's why, when we talk about conservative performativity, about conservatives as actors, it doesn't mean we're calling them phonies (except for those, like Mitt Romney, who really are phonies). They genuinely believe in their act, and they act to maintain their belief in their beliefs.

I know this is both abstract and probably well across the line into pop psychology. But I think it also has a lot to do with why Fred Thompson, despite his dismal resume and his disorganized campaign, has such purchase on the conservative imagination.

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Wednesday, September 12, 2007
  Yes, I'm Alive

Allow me to indulge in a blogger cliche: sorry for the lack of posts recently.

I'm beginning something of a career transition and it's taking a toll on my blogging time; what time I've had lately has mostly been spent over at The Right's Field, where I've been writing about the Republican presidential field.

Despite a few notable incoming links, A&S remains a low-traffic blog, which is fine, but it also means it's harder to write when I'm less energetic. I expect to continue to use this site to post in-depth analysis of the conservative movement, but the pace around here will be slow for a while. I'm not going away -- I just want to make sure that what I do post is high-quality. In the longer-term future, I might look at ways to expand this project beyond the limited efforts I'm able to make here.

At any rate, have you read this article by TNR's Peter Keating? He explains his skepticism of claims that either Rudy Giuliani or Barack Obama can really change the American electoral math. Given that one bias in political analysis is to overestimate so-called "re-alignments," I'd say his arguments are worth taking seriously.

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Monday, September 10, 2007
  The Cognitive Question

Do liberals and conservatives think differently? Yes, according to yet another study. I have mixed feelings about this sort of thing. I largely agree with Peter Suderman, who wonders: what's the point?
But other than giving the blogosphere a secondary story to argue about this week during breaks from analyzing the Patraeus Bush report, there doesn't seem to be too much point to these stories. Yes, conservatives and liberals are different, and some of their differences can ocassionally be shown in stastical form. How novel.
It is fun and somewhat instructive in a way. You read a paragraph like this:
Previous psychological studies have found that conservatives tend to be more structured and persistent in their judgments whereas liberals are more open to new experiences. The latest study found those traits are not confined to political situations but also influence everyday decisions.
...and you can't help but be amused at the article's very dry way of suggesting that conservatives ("structured and persistent") are stubborn and allergic to facts. The methodology is interesting:
Participants were college students whose politics ranged from "very liberal" to "very conservative." They were instructed to tap a keyboard when an M appeared on a computer monitor and to refrain from tapping when they saw a W.

M appeared four times more frequently than W, conditioning participants to press a key in knee-jerk fashion whenever they saw a letter.

Each participant was wired to an electroencephalograph that recorded activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, the part of the brain that detects conflicts between a habitual tendency (pressing a key) and a more appropriate response (not pressing the key). Liberals had more brain activity and made fewer mistakes than conservatives when they saw a W, researchers said. Liberals and conservatives were equally accurate in recognizing M.

Researchers got the same results when they repeated the experiment in reverse, asking another set of participants to tap when a W appeared.
The study's lead author attempts to soften the blow for conservatives by suggesting that their resistance to new information might be useful in certain situations that require focus. But when we're talking about who has his finger on the button, would you really ever want somebody who insists on seeing an M when they should be seeing a W?

But then again, so what? Should we insist on cognitive therapy for conservatives? Isn't that what politics is supposed to be? Of course the study's authors aren't claiming that conservatives are mentally ill, and rightly not. While we might like to tell ourselves that -- say after a bad election night -- it doesn't really lead us anywhere useful.

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Thursday, September 06, 2007
  Last Night's Debate: The View from the Right

Cross-posted at The Right's Field.

For all the fun we in the netroots can have watching the Republican sideshow, we forget that they aren't doing it for our own amusement. They're trying to win support from the right. And with that in mind, here's a sample of conservative reaction to last night's Donnybrook in Durham.

Hoping to wrap things up on a positive note, the National Review's Kate O'Beirne instead sets herself up for a delightful little pratfall. "All three frontrunners have had a good night," O'Beirne says:
The frontrunners are confident, likeable, articulate - conservative enough on issues. Will be interesting to see reactions from Frank Luntz's focus group - more representative than most of us.
More representative than a National Review editor? Imagine that! So what did the focus group think of our "likeable, articulate" GOP candidates? David Freddoso fills us in:
Not only did the individual candidates do poorly, but the field performed badly as a whole. After the debate, not one of pollster Frank Luntz’s 29 focus-group members expressed satisfaction with the men on the stage.
The people have spoken, the bastards.

Freddoso, as the excerpt above suggests, takes a grim view of the entire exercise. The winner -- "by attrition" -- was John McCain, a man with virtually no prospect of climbing his way back into the lead. Huckabee was "unimpressive," Duncan Hunter "bored the crowd," and Sam Brownback "said nothing that anyone will remember tomorrow." Romney blew a question on taxes, was forced to squirm when confronted by a servicemember's father, and worst of all, "even [his] normally perfect hair was a bit askew." And Rudy?
Rudy Giuliani’s performance was probably his worst since the first debate. He not only urged voters to ignore his private life, but also said that his private life has not been “terribly different than at least some people in this country.” (“Whoever hasn’t called a press conference to dump his wife and introduce his mistress, let him cast the first stone…”)
It wasn't all doom and gloom. Mona Charen liked the exchange between Huckabee and Ron Paul over Iraq, and thought that McCain "managed to make [Romney] look like an overly tentative technocrat." John Pitney, though (same article), seems to think that Rudy could use some more practice weaseling out of questions about his personal life. NRO's Jim Geraghty gives the gold to an "unflappable" Rudy, while pouring scorn on the highly-flappable Tom Tancredo, whom he describes as "an eyeball-popping, jumpy, loud, jittery 1970s sitcom character." Geraghty has praise for Huckabee's "charisma" and McCain's "solid"-ity, but thinks Romney had "an off-night," especially on Iraq. NR Editor Rich Lowry, meanwhile, calls it for McCain, agrees that Romney was "wobbly" on Iraq, and says he dug Rudy, but he wishes the man would shut up about New York already.

The Weekly Standard's Fred Barnes is likewise crowding onto the McCain Wagon, praising "his muscular position in favor of the 'surge' in Iraq." And, like Lowry, Barnes is tired of all this New York talk from Giuliani:
And while Rudy Giuliani was no slouch, he became tedious by droning on about his accomplishments as mayor of New York
Whaddya gonna do, Rudy? People are tired of hearing you bang on about 9/11 all the time. Now they're tired of hearing you bang on about being mayor of NYC all the time. What do you have left to talk about? The ferret menace?
Redstate's Dan McLaughlin thinks that "most of the candidates played fairly well to their pre-existing images," and gives some credit to Romney for his attacks on the "sanctuary cities" issue. McLaughlin, a Giuliani supporter, thinks his man had "a very good night... despite the ugly eruption of his personal life" (that happens to him a lot, doesn't it?). And agrees with a very common point in all of these reactions: the night's big loser was Hollywood Fred Thompson, who wasn't up to debating and who chose instead to spend the night on Jay Leno's couch.

But Mac Johnson of Human Events suggests that the real loser might be America -- which, judging by the evidence on stage last night, is "almost certainly doomed":
I saw gifted candidates. I saw correct-thinking candidates. But I never saw both these traits in the same person. Granted, I was just called up from AAA ball to cover this major league event, but I’m telling you our bench is just not that deep. Somewhere, somehow, conservatism has gone astray at the highest levels of the movement. Where are our leaders?
Johnson, speaking for the base, was encouraged by all the talk of immigration, and particularly by Mitt Romney's "channeling Tom Tancredo" -- though he doesn't trust Multiple Choice Mitt ("an ambitious man") to stick by Tancredo-ist positions for a moment longer than he deems it politically expedient. On Iraq, meanwhile, Johnson is annoyed by the perception that "most of the candidates talked more about how soon we could withdraw than of how important it is to win."

If Johnson really does speak for the base, his analysis casts the right's field in an interesting light. On stage in Durham last night, they tried as best they could to toe the movement conservative line, offering the platitudes and positions Republican candidates are expected by the conservative establishment to express. Yet there may have seemed to be a lack of conviction in it all -- maybe the candidates are demoralized to find themselves caught between the intensity of the conservative base's demands on the one hand, and the widespread disapproval of the American public on the other.

Whatever the cause, it left Johnson feeling depressed:
All told, by the end of the evening I was left depressed, unable to see conviction, correctness and charisma emerge in a single candidate. This depression was made worse since all night long, the candidates had invoked Ronald Reagan -- the exemplar of conviction, correctness and charisma for the conservative movement. They invoked him in an attempt to inherent some of his power -- to associate themselves with a dead hero of old. But the comparisons had the opposite effect. All eight on the stage seemed smaller in the shadow of the great man.
The same shadow they were struggling to escape three months ago -- and no progress. Maybe they should try a surge.

"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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