Further Conservative Pull-Back from GOP
Frederick Clarkson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Wed Sep 27, 2006 at 10:02:11 PM EST
A few weeks ago, I wrote about how Richard Viguerie, a conservative movement and religious right leader, who had led an attempted bolt of the GOP in the 1970s, is publicly calling for conservatives to pull back this year. He and others feel that the GOP under George Bush has betrayed conservative principles on the economy; size of government; taxes, foreign policy, privacy, and that they have failed to deliver on abortion and gay rights -- among many other grievances.

What was then a distant drum beat is coming to a crescendo as the November elections draw ever closer.

Today, The Wall Street Journal has a news story on the trend. Here are some excerpts:
As the White House and its Republican allies on Capitol Hill work to retain control of Congress in November's elections, a small but vocal band of conservative iconoclasts say they would prefer to see their own party lose.

The array of former members of Congress and officials from Republican administrations dating to the 1970s are using opinion articles, speeches and interviews to make the surprising -- and, to many of their friends and colleagues, near-heretical -- argument that it would be better for the country if their party lost. Some say they plan to vote Democratic for the first time in their lives. The Republican rebels say the modern Republican Party has so abandoned its conservative beliefs that it deserves to be defeated by the Democrats.

"Republicans need a wake-up call," Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman who now hosts an MSNBC talk show, says in an interview. "We ran in 1994 against runaway spending, exploding deficits and corruption. But with Republicans in charge of both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue, what do we have? The same runaway spending, record deficits and culture of corruption."

Meanwhile, Chris Kromm, blogged some, recent news stories and polling data, at Facing South, the blog of the Institute for Southern Studies, and finds that Southern evangelicals who voted for Bush, have a far less favorable view of Bush now than they did then. But...

Rather than running into the arms of Democrats, what the GOP really fears is that dispirited "values voters" will just stay home -- a scary prospect with tight races developing in states like Tennessee and Virginia.

How do conservative leaders hope to move these voters from the pews to the polls? As my colleague R. Neal reported yesterday, the weapon of choice is ballot initiatives against gay marriage -- which now rivals abortion as the calling-card issue for the religious right.

Fortunately for the GOP, battleground states Tennessee and Virginia are among the three Southern states that haven't already decided the gay marriage question (South Carolina is the other). The AP notes that James Dobson of the emerging powerhouse Focus on the Family is especially interested in Tennessee, building up an army of "church and county coordinators."

But the religious right is also being hurt from within. The Christian Coalition continues to crumble, causing conservatives to lose a coordinating force in their election machinery, now being scattered to a host of competing groups.

Recent events have isolated hard-right evangelicals even further.

Last weekend, a widely-touted "Values Voter Summit" hosted by the Family Research Council drew stars of the Republican Party including Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to Sen. George Allen (R-VA) and Gov. Mike Huckabee (R-AK). Designed to boost spirits and turn around GOP fortunes, the gathering instead descended into controversy when a Bishop Wellington Boone took the stage and announced, "I want the gays mad at me." He succeeded, and made others mad as well when he revealed his strategy to get "the gays" to be more forceful in challenging him:

Back in the days when I was a kid, and we see guys that don't stand strong on principle, we call them "faggots." ... [People] that don't stand up for what's right, we say, "You're sissified out!" "You're a sissy!" That means you don't stand up for principles.

As the conservative leaders who are not rallying around Dobson and the GOP this year made clear, this is a tactical retreat. Conservatives would rather be in opposition, blaming the Democrats for the disasters wrought by the Bush administration and the Republican congress.  So if the Democrats take one or both houses of Congress in November, it will be important to keep in mind that the religious right may have receded, but it will certainly return. The conservative movement and the religious right in particular can be very effective in opposition. (Just ask Bill Clinton.)  Those "values voters" who are currently feeling disappointed and betrayed by Bush, are still primarily the constituency of the religous right. And nothing has yet appeared in public life to mount much of a challenge to that.

(assuming that that the Democrats make major gains this fall), to declare that the religious right is dead. We have heard that too many times before.  It wasn't true then, and it won't be true in November.

The movement, like any other, will have its ups and downs. But one of the greatest indulgences of the past few decades, has been succumbing to the temptation of wishful thinking -- that the religious right is dead.  The facts will not support it. Particularly since we already know that signficant chunks of the movement plan to stay home and ramp up their opposition to the presumably new Democratic Congress.  

by Frederick Clarkson on Wed Sep 27, 2006 at 10:06:41 PM EST

The "conservative movement" has always been ideologically incoherent.  But that's because it's not about overt ideology.  It's about power.  It's about top-down elite control.  That's its real ideology.  That's why things that can barely be found in the Bible (if at all) are so central to the religious right.

And then there's this:

"Republicans need a wake-up call," Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman who now hosts an MSNBC talk show, says in an interview. "We ran in 1994 against runaway spending, exploding deficits and corruption. But with Republicans in charge of both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue, what do we have? The same runaway spending, record deficits and culture of corruption."
Of course, "the runaway spending, record deficits and culture of corruption" Scarborough is talking about was the product of the Reagan/Bush regime, which was in power for 12 years, and more than tripled the budget deficit, while generating more corruption than even the Harding Administration.

The real reason these guys are fighting amongst themselves--whether they know it or not (I don't give high marks for insight or self-knowledge to this mote/beam-impaired crowed)--is simply that they've had a crackup in the path to power department, which is, as I stated before, the real ideology that motivates them.

This is inevitable, at some level.  The fantasy of control that they indulge in simply cannot be fulfilled in the real world.  (They can never get rid of all abortions, for example, any more than the prohibitionists could stop folks from driniking.)  But the danger lies in the destructive forces unleashed as that fantasy fails--as we have seen so many times before in history (Nazi Germany, for example, when the inevitable defeat in WWII lead to a fanatical increase in resources devoted to the Holocaust).

It is precisely those destructive forces that could prove even morevirulent than anything we've seen so far.  The whole Clinton impeachment Crusade could look like a tea-party by comparison.

by Paul Rosenberg on Thu Sep 28, 2006 at 06:00:13 PM EST

it is about top down, elite control. But not all. Many are far more libertarian, isolationist, smaller government oriented and limited taxation oriented than you might think.

The conservative movement is not so much ideologically incoherent, as full of factions and tendencies.  

I agree with you that there is a portion of the movement that has, whether it realized it or not, been much more about power than principle,and have become deeply hypocrtical and addled along the way.

I don't buy, however the Daily Kos/Democratic line (not that you were articulating it) btw,  that the Bush administration is the proof of the failure of conservative ideology.  That is a cute sound bite, but it ain't necessarily so, even as there are kernels of truth in there. One of the risks of this kind of group-think is that it obscures the real lessons of the politics of our time.

At the moment, as you well know, there are movement conservatives who are very active on civil liberties and the Patriot Act -- Bob Barr being a leading example.

There are leading economic conservatives, who are aghast at the Bush budget, and former Reaganauts like our New Hero Jim Webb who have come over, so I think it is useful to parse this stuff a bit. These are serious times, and we have tactical allies in surprising places.

by Frederick Clarkson on Thu Sep 28, 2006 at 07:01:25 PM EST

Which, from my POV, is not what conservatism is really about, except insofar as it reflects the deep ideology.   (For example, on the ideological roots of those who are "more libertarian, isolationist, smaller government oriented and limited taxation oriented" in early American slavery, see "Tax Aversion and the Legacy of Slavery" by UC Berkeley historian Robin L. Einhorn.)

And, actually, I am taking the line that the Bush meltdown demonstrates the failure of conservatism.  (Just as the Civil War and the Great Depression did in the past.) Though, more fundamentally, what I'm doing is refining Phil Agre's critique in "What is Conservatism and What Is Wrong With It?", which begins thus:

Liberals in the United States have been losing political debates to conservatives for a quarter century. In order to start winning again, liberals must answer two simple questions: what is conservatism, and what is wrong with it? As it happens, the answers to these questions are also simple:

    Q: What is conservatism?
    A: Conservatism is the domination of society by an aristocracy.

    Q: What is wrong with conservatism?
    A: Conservatism is incompatible with democracy, prosperity, and civilization in general. It is a destructive system of inequality and prejudice that is founded on deception and has no place in the modern world.

These ideas are not new. Indeed they were common sense until recently. Nowadays, though, most of the people who call themselves "conservatives" have little notion of what conservatism even is. They have been deceived by one of the great public relations campaigns of human history. Only by analyzing this deception will it become possible to revive democracy in the United States.

I think that Agre captures a very important chunk of the truth, but not all of it.  I think there's more to overt ideology than just spin.  And I think that George Lakoff, for example, explains some of that in terms of how conservative ideology is structured (including libertarianism as a variant strain.)

The perspective I'm taking here is toward conservatism as a political movement, as a collection of institutions, and the legitimating narratives deployed to sustain and advance it.  The fact that some individual conservatives are very upset with what's happening does not invalidate what I'm saying in the least.  Rather, it illustrates the ideological incoherence I was speaking about.

There is absolutely nothing essentially new about what the Bush Administration is doing, except as a matter of degree, systematicity, and freedom from restraint.  They are doing what Nixon and Reagan before them wanted to do.  (For example, when Reagan came into office, he was willing to pull the trigger on Armegeddon, as Robert Sheer showed in With Enough Shovels:  Reagan, Bush, and Nuclear War.)

What they are doing now is simply acting out what was previously implicit--or even explicit--in earlier positions.  But conservatives are so accustomed to intellectual inconsistency that such implications never really bothered them before.  Those who are bothered now should have realized these contradictions in the past.  But, then, if they were the sort of people to notice and be bothered by such contradictions, they probably wouldn't be conservatives in the first place.

by Paul Rosenberg on Thu Sep 28, 2006 at 09:22:37 PM EST

I disagree for the aforementioned reasons.

I think it was Lewis Carol's Red Queen who said Words mean what I say that they mean.  

I guess if Agre wants to stuff all of conservatism into a strawman he can knock down, there isn't anything we can do to stop him.

But I think if we want to understand the conservative movement sufficiently to actually be able to engage, we have to have words and concepts that actually mean something more than reductionist agit prop.

by Frederick Clarkson on Thu Sep 28, 2006 at 10:40:42 PM EST

with this:
But I think if we want to understand the conservative movement sufficiently to actually be able to engage, we have to have words and concepts that actually mean something more than reductionist agit prop.
at all.  In fact I agree 100%.

But Agre also has a point--and it goes to the fact that movements and individuals exist on very different scales.  What Agre says about conservatism is not just a strawman, though dismissing an individual conservative on that basis would be a strawman argument, unless the person in question actually articulated those poisitions.  The fact is, conservativism has reinvented itself on various different occassions, dismissing past positions it finds embarrassing, which were once central to it, and even pretending that it has never changed.  And in doing so, it has articulated new forms of hierarchy and new justifications (or new twists on old justifications) for them.

OTOH, while there are clearly many individual liberals who have the same sort of cheerfully revisionist image of liberalism, the same is not true of liberalism as an ideology or movement, because liberalism consciously embraces the idea of progress, and thus has the capacity to acknowledge past failings, and even present imperfections.

My point is, that while some individual conservatives can and will be more honest and self-aware in the positions they take, and some invidual liberals can and will be more dogmatic and lacking in self-awareness, there is an inherent logic in the two traditions which runs strongly in the other direction.

I think it's necessary for us to be able to deal on both levels, both analytically, and in terms of action.

Which is why I think that Agre complements what you are arguing in this diary much more than contradicts you.

by Paul Rosenberg on Thu Sep 28, 2006 at 11:48:11 PM EST

is defining the word conservatism to suit the needs of his political propaganda.

I think it is fine to hold conservatives of all stripes accountable for whatever. (Agre's definition of conservative fits more than a few liberals and others as well.)  But whether as a movement or as individuals, Agre's definition is not like any definition of conservatism I have encountered.

So I am afraid I am still holding out on disagreement here Paul, not to be disagreeable, but because I think the difference between political analysis, and agit prop are not necessarily complementary. Especially, in this instance, because I don't agree with Agre on his reasoning as to why liberals have been losing, nor do I agree with his solution, and, most importantly, I think he is redefining a word for his political convenience, and in ways that are ultimately counter productive.

If he wants to distort the meaning of conservative for political ends the way that Terry Dolan and NCPAC and others did to liberal in the 70s and 80s, I understand.  But it is not something I think is necessary or helpful.

One of the reasons why it is unhelpful for our purposes is that it makes it impossible for us to have coherent conversations about anything. It is like the conversations we have had in these parts about the popular term "religious political extremist."  In some circles, mostly Inside the Belstway, the fashionable shorthand for this over-focused grouped bit of propaganda, was for a time "the extremists." Now understand this was understood to refer to anyone in the whole wide antiabortion movement. Use of other terms was practically anti social and politically suspect.

We have been down the road of labeling and demonization. And while I don't expect it to stop,  and even concede that there may times in the rough and tumble of politics that it might even be useful and justified (although I can't think of any at the moment), I am holding out for a political and intellectual model that needn't go there.

To borrow from an old TV show. Homey don't play dat.

by Frederick Clarkson on Fri Sep 29, 2006 at 12:40:01 AM EST

Agre's definition is not like any definition of conservatism I have encountered.
Actually, Agre has often criticized liberals for failing to read influential conservatives, and has made specific reference to Burke, commonly cited as the father of modern conservatism.  Burke is quite clear about the need for society to be run by its betters, as are a long line of other conservative thinkers.

More broadly, the Columbia Encyclopedia begins its entry on conservatism thus:


in politics, the desire to maintain, or conserve, the existing order. Conservatives value the wisdom of the past and are generally opposed to widespread reform. Modern political conservatism emerged in the 19th cent. in reaction to the political and social changes associated with the eras of the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. By 1850 the term conservatism, probably first used by Chateaubriand, generally meant the politics of the right. The original tenets of European conservatism had already been formulated by Edmund Burke, Joseph de Maistre , and others. They emphasized preserving the power of king and aristocracy, maintaining the influence of landholders against the rising industrial bourgeoisie, limiting suffrage, and continuing ties between church and state.

There is no real doubt about how modern conservatism started out--other encyclopedias give similar accounts--and conservatives themselves preach reverence for their tradition.  What is disputed is the extent to which and ways in which conservatism may have changed.  Agre's argument is that the changes have been overwhelmingly superficial, compared to the core continuity.  (In America, it's worth noting, the Gilded Age was certainly crucial in the rearticulation of conservative philosophy, both North and South.  And in both cases, Agre's characterization is quite defensible.)  

I admit that I purposely chose Agre's essay for the stark contrast it offers, highlighting the genetic core of hierarchical control.  And there are certainly others who deserve to be labelled "agitprop," who speak in equally stark terms without the wherewithall to back it up, and/or who have not devoted systematic thought to what a truly robust, fully articulated alternative to the legacy of hierarchical control--which Agre himself lays out in another essay from around the same time period, "The Practical Republic: Social Skills and the Progress of Citizenship."

My point is, Agre is not writing about the same level of phenomena that you research and write about.  He is writing about bigger historical chunks, and continuities vs. breaks in over-arching rationalizing narratives.  He would not necessarily dispute the sort of distinctions you are making--which an agitprop writer most certainly would.  In fact, he is very painstaking in the sorts of distinctions he makes, and is well aware of how different levels of analysis yield different sorts of insight.

Personally, I have struggled quite a bit with issues of terminology.  And I have argued at some length that the vast majority of self-identified conservatives have more in common with liberals, in terms of political values, than they do with pure movement conservatism and its ideology--which are more accurately identified as reactionary, not conservative.

For example--the knowledge of this goes back to The Political Beliefs of Americans: A Study of Public Opinion, by Lloyd A Free and Hadley Cantril, published in 1967--roughly half of all conservatives qualify as liberals in terms of their support for increased welfare state spending, while many more support stable welfare state spending.  My own analysis of General Social Survey datas shows very little change through recent years.

The same is so for the "abortion is murder" position: while opposition to abortion is widespread among conservatives, the vast majority support exceptions for one or more of the following: rape, incest, to protect the mother's health, or to permit abortion in the face of serious birth defect.  Such exceptions are not compatible with the view that abortion is murder, which is the ideological movement conservative position.  They are compatible with the view that abortion is homicide, which can be justifiable in certain situations.  This is a very fundamental difference, despite the fact that it has been largely papered over in American politics for the past four decades.  Similar divisions show up when one looks at attitudes toward birth control, which is where the abortion-centered front of the culture wars are clearly headed.

Because of such deep divisions within the conservative camp, I am very much with you on the issue of seeking accurate and precise language.   Yet, I also believe that there is a place for drawing the sorts of sharp distinctions that Agre draws as well.

by Paul Rosenberg on Fri Sep 29, 2006 at 01:14:26 PM EST

Much as Liberalism was a coalition of factions from 1932 through the 1970s, so is today's Right. More importantly, it can be splintered.

And that is why what we are doing is very important. If we follow a pattern of telling the truth without going into the gutter, a few libertarian conservatives will start giving second thoughts to alligning themselves with the Religious Right. If you don't believe me, simply watch HBO's documentary about Barry Goldwater, Mr. Conservative. Goldwater, a libertarian conservative not only despised the Religious Right, he openly attacked them.

Beyond that, I believe that even some religious conservatives will begin to break away once they realize  the Religious Right is not just about saying "one nation under God" in the pledge, but instead, theocracy.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Fri Sep 29, 2006 at 07:36:16 AM EST

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