Sunday, October 12, 2008

Conservatism in the Obama age

My recent discussion of the "intellectual" snobbery of David Brooks elicits comment from Daniel McCarthy:
Despite his invocation of Russell Kirk and Richard Weaver, Brooks is not a traditional conservative in their mold, as Robert Stacy McCain points out. Among other things, the traditionalism of Kirk and Weaver (and also Robert Nisbet) was generally anti-militarist. Yet militarism and its Philistine cousin, Christian Zionism, supply neoconservatives like Brooks the only rhetoric they have that resonates with right-wing voters. . . . Brooks is not enough of an economic conservative or populist to make a right-wing appeal in that field -- as Brooks's rhapsody for the Paulson plan demonstrated, he cannot connect with either the antigovernment Right or the populist Right, both of which opposed the bailout.
McCarthy's criticism of "militarism and . . . Christian Zionism" is obviously a reflection of the post-9/11 -- indeed, post-Cold War -- foreign-policy split in conservative ranks. One is reminded of the furious controversy after Kirk mocked neoconservatives as mistaking Tel Aviv for the capital of the United States.

The underlying fault lines here go back to the Old Right's isolationist stance against U.S. involvement in the World Wars and to the influx of Scoop Jackson Democrats into the the GOP in the 1970s and '80s. United against the Soviet Union, this coalition was powerful; since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the objects of U.S. foreign policy have become a subject of bitter dispute.

Being pro-Israel myself (although I doubt I fit McCarthy's definition of a "Christian Zionist"), I've sometimes thought of writing an essay with the title "Paleo, Neo, Me-o" in an effort to untangle and examine separately the grounds of this conflict within conservatism.

Looking backward
My own grievances with the neocons are purely domestic in origin, and go back more than a dozen years, when Linda Chavez and others connived in the downfall of the late Sam Francis. Whatever Sam's errors, his service to the conservative cause deserved better than banishment into outer darkness.

Since 9/11, I have more than once recalled Sam's seminal 1981 study, The Soviet Strategy of Terror, which exposed the Kremlin's role in fomenting violence by the PLO and other Arab extremists. Mohammed Atta was in some sense a belated fruit of that Soviet seed. Yet Francis, the man who first delineated this connection 20 years earlier, was excluded from the post-9/11 debatee.

Francis was fired from the Washington Times in 1995 for insubordination, and the history (although not, perhaps, the full history) of that dispute has been told elsewhere. It all happened two years before I came to DC and before I met Sam. But you have to look at the context of that dispute to understand what it was really all about.

The GOP had just taken control of Congress, and the contenders for the 1996 Republican presidential nomination were beginning to jockey for position. Sam was an ally of Pat Buchanan, whose 1992 populist challenge to the first President Bush was blamed by some Republicans for helping elect Bill Clinton. Torpedoing Sam Francis in '95 ensured that Buchananism would be deprived of its most prominent platform in the nation's capital during the upcoming campaign.

To say this is not to endorse the widespread misconception of Sam as a martyr to political correctness. (He was an active agent in his own career.) However, I believe it is clear that (a) those Republicans who were gunning for Sam had motives unrelated to his heterodox views on race relations, and (b) those same Republicans were on the Dole-Kemp bandwagon that went down to such disastrous defeat in 1996.

Brooksian provincialism
What does any of this have to do with David Brooks? Nothing directly, except that Brooks uses "intellectual" as a term of art. Sarah Palin is no intellectual, but neither is Rudy Giuliani, for whom Brooks has often expressed his admiration.

Both Palin and Giuliani are in some sense "populist," a word that Brooks always uses as an epithet. Palin's populism, however, is rural Red State provincialism, whereas Giuliani's is urban Manhattan provincialism. And there can be no doubt which provincialism would have been endorsed by Sam Francis, who was far more an intellectual than David Brooks will ever be.

What Brooks wants is a "conservatism" that will be popular among sophisticated New Yorkers and other upscale urbanites. Brooks makes this clear in his recent column:
In 1976, in a close election, Gerald Ford won the entire West Coast along with northeastern states like New Jersey, Connecticut, Vermont and Maine. In 1984, Reagan won every state but Minnesota.
But over the past few decades, the Republican Party has driven away people who live in cities, in highly educated regions and on the coasts. This expulsion has had many causes. But the big one is this: Republican political tacticians decided to mobilize their coalition with a form of social class warfare. Democrats kept nominating coastal pointy-heads like Michael Dukakis so Republicans attacked coastal pointy-heads. . . .
The political effects of this trend have been obvious. Republicans have alienated the highly educated regions -- Silicon Valley, northern Virginia, the suburbs outside of New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and Raleigh-Durham. The West Coast and the Northeast are mostly gone.
What is it about the post-1988 Republican Party that has "alienated" these regions? Most conservatives would proudly say that they haven't shifted ground at all in past 20 years, and they certainly haven't changed their principles.

What happened, I would suggest, is that in the 1990s the Democratic Party seized on issues -- gay rights, gun control, multiculturalism -- that had an especial appeal to upscale urbanites, offering these elites an opportunity to make invidious distinctions between themselves and those hicks in the sticks, the Ordinary Americans.

Two majorities
It would be a waste of time to contrast David Brooks and Sam Francis in terms of ideas and issues, except to say they are pretty much polar opposites. It is far more useful to delineate their different approaches to a fundamental question: How can a conservative majority be organized?

The question, for Sam, began with James Burnham's conception of modern liberalism as the self-interested ideology of the managerial elite. Burnham, an erstwhile Marxist, retained the Marxian notion that a dominant ideology or worldview must in some sense serve the interests of a dominant class. In the Burnhamite view, mid-20th-century liberalism was to the American managerial elite (think: Robert McNamara) what Prussian militarism was to the Junkers.

The task of the Burnhamite opponent of liberalism, therefore, is to identify that majority whose interests are most directly harmed by liberal policies, inform them and organize them as a coherent political movement.

Sam Francis used the term "Middle American Radicals" (MARs) to describe his idea of this potentially decisive conservative majority. In recent months, I have begun using the phrase "Ordinary Americans," which I think more aptly describes the non-elite majority in several ways. Among other things, the Ordinary American's political desires are quite ordinary -- peace, prosperity, a stable community that is not constantly whipsawed by political controversy and ideological crusades.

The Ordinary American is not radical, but anti-radical. But, as Sam's MARs concept suggests, a successful political movement requires a fighting credo and, in identifying liberalism as the radical enemy of Middle America, one necessarily conjures up a counter-radicalism. Yet I essentially agree with Francis in his Burnhamite belief that the task of conservatism is to organize a majority that already exists -- those whose interests are harmed by the liberal policies of the elite.

How does Brooks propose to organize a conservative majority? What are the issues where Brooks believes a majority opposes liberal policies? What arguments does he offer that differentiate policies on these issues between conservatism and liberalism?

McCarthy accurately notes that Brooks eschews "economic conservatism," which is to say a free-market view that government ought not intervene in the private pursuit of business. If profits are private, then losses are private, too. Attempts to artificially prop up unprofitable enterprises are (or ought to be) as obnoxious to conservatives as class-warfare raids on corporate profits. I've called this view "libertarian populism."

In economics as in everything else, however, Brooks consistently disdains opposition to elite interests. His only attempt to describe a conservatism consistent with elite interests was "national greatness," a project thoroughly discredited both by the eight years of the Bush administration and the now moribund John McCain campaign.

Quite naturally, Brooks has sought to distance himself from both these disasters, but it cannot be denied that the unpopularity of the Republican Party is due in large measure to the administration's policies on Iraq and immigration, both of which were and are heartily endorsed by Brooks. Rather than admit the failures of his own ideas, Brooks lashes out at "populists," but is never asked to explain how anti-populist policy prescriptions might lead a conservative GOP to majority status.

The coming irrelevance of Brooks
Perhaps the most heartening development of recent years was the electorate's overwhelming opposition to the attempts of John McCain to push through the amnesty/guest-work immigration "reform" bills in 2006 and '07. As one leading opponent of amnesty told me in 2006, this is an issue where there are exactly two sides: The elite and everybody else.

My paleoconservative friends, obsessed with battling neoconservatives over Iraq, apparently failed to notice that a substantial share of Iraq hawks parted ways with the Bush administration on immigration. Michelle Malkin, Rush Limbaugh, Laura Ingraham, Mark Levin -- this just begins the list of those broke ranks over the Bush/McCain open-borders policy.

With Bush gone, McCain defeated, and President Obama inheriting the Commander-in-Chief role, foreign-policy disagreements among conservatives will fade in significance after this election. In seeking a path back to a Republican majority, domestic issues will dominate the debate, and immigration will almost certainly be one of the most important. (For instance, Obama and his allies are likely to insist on a national health-care policy covering illegals.) Open-borders Republicans like Brooks will therefore be increasingly isolated from the GOP mainstream during the Obama administration.

Brooks offers no politically useful critique of Obama's progressivism, and thus will become irrelevant on Nov. 5. Brooks is clearly ready to blame the coming Republican defeat on conservative "populism," an excuse that is 180 degress at odd with the facts. It is vital that the Brooksian fallacy be rejected by conservatives, and that an Obama-era conservatism not be misled by this "intellectual" elitism.


  1. Brooks is a conservative? In whose political world? The guy is a born again collectivist:

  2. I'm afraid there will be no conservatism left in the Obama age. Obama's role model is the European left, which has completely eradicated any semblance of a conservative movement. Conservative ideas have become unthinkable, if not downright forbidden in Europe. As a consequence, all so-called centre-right parties in Europe are actually left-wing parties, albeit somewhat more moderate than parties that openly call themselves left-wing. The only thing right of centre the European left leaves more or less alone are extreme right-wing nutters with swastika tattoos, because it serves the left's propaganda purposes to have these hoodlums troll around.

    The tendency to label any criticism of Obama as racism is already firmly established. The only thing they need to do is to make such "racism" a crime. Wouldn't that be against the First Amendment ? Only if the Supreme Court wants to protect so-called "hate speech". All it takes for Obama is a change of mind by Justice Kennedy to achieve this goal. And Justice Kennedy is not immune to transnational legal arguments, so the case that all 'civilized' (read European countries + Canada) already outlaw "hate speech" is quite easy to make. And make no mistake about it, once conservatives get sentenced for the crime of racism, the Democrats will not hesitate to deprive all those fellons of their voting rights. For life.

    Obama's victory will mark the end, not just of the Republican Party (that's just a vessel anyway, so one need not mourn its passing away), but of the possibility to publicly defend conservative ideas. The US of A are about to plunge in the same suicidal darkness that Europe embraced a few decades ago.