Conservatism Undefined

It’s a battle over the true meaning of conservatism, and for once it doesn’t solely involve individuals on the right.

Kevin Williamson of National Review and Professor Kevin Kruse of Princeton recently had a bit of a back and forth that was essentially over the question of whether it was accurate to call the segregationist southern Democrats whom Joe Biden once buddied up to “conservative.” Williamson, answering in the negative, originally responded to a series of tweets sent by Kruse in response to Tom Cotton. Kruse took to Twitter to reply to Williamson. Williamson replied here, and Kruse in turn answered back here and here.

Just summarizing the exchange would take about 3,000 words, and I’m not doing another one of those right now*, so I am counting you all to look through each link and carefully read every word of it. I’ll wait.

Now that you’re back, I’m not going to go all Hot Air on you now and copy and paste a whole bunch of stuff with commentary intermingled until you are just about nauseous. The quick summary is that Williamson thinks it is absurd to categorize the southern Democrats of this era as conservative. As a counterpoint Kruse cites the words of men like William F. Buckley and Richard Nixon who thought these southern “conservatives” could be won over to the GOP (indeed belonged in the GOP), as well as Congressional voting scorecards to prove that they were indeed conservatives, properly understood.

I think Williamson is largely right in hitting back at Kruse on the fallibility of WFB, who was just frankly wrong when it came to segregation. As for Kruse’s reliance on scorecards, I think it leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to measuring ideological coherence. It’s a bare step up above using those Facebook quizzes to measure where you are on the ideological spectrum. First of all, the scorecard is in the eye of the beholder. What counts as a “liberal” vote is determined by the person doing the scoring. If voting for (or against) civil rights legislation is the major criterion by which one is judged, and voting for such legislation is considered “liberal,” then it makes sense that the southern Democrats would be adjudged to be less conservative. But is that really a good measure when a majority of Republicans voted the same way? It’s at best debatable. As for other scores, who knows how these votes are being scored. Moreover, these scorecards are limited to actual legislation before Congress, and in the context of the 1960s, are further skewed by the dramatic over-representation of Democrats. For example, the 89th Congress (1965-1966) had 67 Democratic Senators as opposed to 33 Republicans, and the proportion was similar in the House. The Democrats lost a few seats in the 90th Congress, but still had a significant majority. That is going to affect the nature of legislation being proposed in Congress, as well as the relative partisan scores.

It would be much better to look at the careers of these southern Democrats and the specific legislative focus before determining they are conservatives. Herbert Talmadge, for example, voted in favor or Medicare and Medicaid and was generally a reliable supporter of Great Society programs. It is true that other southern Democrats, such as Eastland and Stennis of Mississippi, voted against these programs, but southern Democrats largely fell in line. Moreover, Talmadge sponsored the legislation that created foodstamps (albeit with then proviso that the able-bodied must work to receive them), and his legislative history was one that wasn’t exactly a model of Hayekian fiscal libertarianism, even if he was a bit of a budget hawk towards the end of his career.

Kruse waves away Williamson’s quite accurate depiction of southern Democrats as being progressive supporters of the New Deal by pointing out that they started to align with Republicans in the late 30’s to vote against New Deal expansion. But this is both misleading at the same time as it is subtly damning to Kruse’s general thesis.

First of all, Kruse overstates the amount of southern Democrat defection from the New Deal, as neither the entire southern delegation nor their electors completely turned against the New Deal. As a crass generalization, it would be more accurate to label most of these southern Democrats as populists: generally socially conservative, but also economically interventionist. Ironically, they would be a better fit in today’s Republican party than the GOP of their era, but more on that in a moment.

But if one concedes that the Dixicrats and other southern Democrats were generally to the right of their own party, and some Republicans thus saw an opportunity to recruit them into the GOP, that in and of itself refutes the long-held contention that Republicans and Democrats “switched places” ideologically. Though the original histories of both parties are complicated to place on an ideological spectrum, the relative right/left configuration of both was pretty clear by the end of World War I. Woodrow Wilson had begun the process of moving the party in a Progressive direction, while the waning influence of men like Robert LaFollette, combined with the presidency of Calvin Coolidge and the leadership of Robert Taft, moved the Republican party inexorably to the right.

It’s true that “American” conservatism became much more of a true ideology as a reaction to the New Deal, but the GOP had become the more rightward tilting party long before then. What’s more, the right-wing of the Republican party, generally speaking, were not opposed to civil rights. Opposition to civil rights on the right was generally due to states rights and libertarian purity rather than racial animus (though I won’t pretend the latter no doubt played a part in some right-wing thinking).

It is also important to note that men like Talmadge were replaced in the Senate not by populist conservatives, but traditional Reagan conservatives. When the south began slowly moving to the Republican column beyond the presidential level, one of the first Republicans voted into Congress was Newt Gingrich. I think it’s safe to say Gingrich, at least at this period, was a more emblematic of conservative thought than Talmadge. As for Talmadge, he was ultimately defeated by Mack Mattingly, whose political thought was in tune with Gingrich’s. It would take another couple of decades for southern Republicans to become dominant in the south, and there are two notable aspects about these Republicans: they were by and large much orthodox in their conservatism than men such as Talmadge, and they were very much not segregationists.

The south moved slowly towards the Republican party because older southerners – many of whom maintained some of their original racial sentiments – continued to vote Democrat, while younger voters generally shed the racism of their forebears and tended to vote Republican. That is not to say every younger southern Republican was completely pure on race, or that racism is a uniparty phenomenon. But by the time the Republicans truly came to dominate the south in the late 1990s and early 2000s, race had become a drastically less important issue, at least on the surface.

In a way, this confrontation between Williamson and Kruse is another round in the debate about what conservatism truly means. I think Williamson is grounded in traditional conservative thinking, and thus sees at least the economic voting record of southern Democrats as being wholly incompatible with true conservatism. As I alluded to above, Kruse would actually be on more solid ground if we defined conservatism as it is being practiced (or promoted) by the more “Trumpist” Republican party. If conservatism is defined as a culturally reactionary and economically interventionist philosophy dedicated to helping the forgotten American, then indeed Kruse might have the better of the argument. As a matter of historical accuracy, Williamson has the better of the argument. Going forward, I only hope Williamson’s conservatism is what we all recognize as conservatism.

*Stay tuned.

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The Emergency Order, Bad Arguments, and Logical Fallacies

Now that President Trump has issued the emergency declaration on the wall, I thought I would reiterate something I said multiple times during the Obama administration: there is no “The President thinks something is really really important but Congress won’t act so the President just gets to do whatever he wants” clause in the constitution. The Veruca Salt standard simply doesn’t exist. While I think the Democrat opposition to the wall is overwrought (and indeed now some have even indicated they want to remove the border barriers that doers exit), President Trump has had ample time to secure additional border wall funding. A changeover in Congressional leadership doesn’t constitute a national emergency.

I wanted to take the bulk of this post to address some of the responses I’ve seen, both in opposition and in defense of this action.

I’ll start with one argument made by opponents of the move that I deem to be overstated. They argue that this will set a precedent for future Democratic presidents to declare national emergencies over, say, climate change and healthcare*. There is a little bit of truth to this – as I said on twitter, each new precedent has a bit of snowball effect. But when looking at the cast of characters which constitutes the current Democratic presidential field, who doesn’t think that one of them will do this anyway? President Obama’s DACA order was arguably even less meritorious than President Trump’s actions here (where exactly was the crisis in not providing legal status to the children of illegal immigrants?), and it was President Obama who uttered his petulant “I’ve got a pen and a phone” threat when he grew frustrated with the constitution’s pesky limitations. If anything, Democrats have grown even more radical, and I don’t think President Trump increases the likelihood of future despotic actions.

* I’ve seen more than a few tweets in recent days about 28 million uninsured Americans being a graver national emergency. But I’m confused: wasn’t Obamacare supposed to solve this problem? I thought Obamacare was a “big fucking deal.” Well if there are still 28 million uninsured, maybe it was really nothing more than a “little useless clusterfuck.”

The flipside of the above is the argument from defenders of the administration is that we already have precedent, so Donald Trump’s actions are not unprecedented. Again, there’s an element of truth here, but that doesn’t make right-wing defenders of the president any less hypocritical. If you were (rightly) crying bloody murder every time President Obama used his pen and picked up his phone, you cannot now defend President Trump doing the same. If the “but daddy I want it” justification for emergency declarations is pathetic, even worse is the “but mommy he did it first” defense of the declaration. Speaking of setting precedents, you now have sent a clear message that the right-side of the political spectrum is cool with unilateral, unconstitutional, and unlawful presidential declarations so long as the end-result is fine by you. That seemingly less than about ten percent of the American public consistently even cares about constitutional law is indeed depressing.

As for the unlawful part of this, defenders say that “hey, Congress set us on this path, and the president is just doing what’s in his legal authority.” I’m not one to shy away from blasting Congress for cowering in fear to assert its rights as the superior  branch of the federal government, but I am not persuaded that the president is acting within the very generous parameters laid out by Congress. As David French explains in National Review, this is an abuse of the statutory authority given away by Congress.

Look at the list carefully. He’s listing criminal challenges. He’s listing humanitarian challenges. He’s listing the problems on the border that have existed for decades and that Congress has enacted comprehensive statutory schemes (including funding civilian wall construction and civilianimmigration authorities) to combat. Gang activity and drug-smuggling are grave problems, but they are crimes, not acts of war. The declaration doesn’t even try to argue that there is a precise, unique challenge that only the military can counter — such as a national disaster that would require the use of the military’s unrivaled heavy-lift capabilities or its immediate access to manpower.

Instead, the declaration cites the wasteful 2018 border deployment, but that is only evidence that the military has been used, not that it must be used. If the mere fact of a deployment were proof of the necessity of military intervention, then there would be no limiting principle on a president’s action. The message is clear — the military is “required” simply because he says it is required.

I was called a “neocon” on Twitter for having the temerity to argue that the president has no constitutional or statutory authority to justify issuing this emergency declaration. It is a sign of the lack of intellectual heft of much of the populist right that they believe defending constitutional norms is a sign of “new” conservative thinking.

I guess I could just sit back and laugh when President Harris issues a presidential emergency declaration shutting down the health insurance industry and forcing all Americans onto Medicare. It could be humorous to see the contortions of the overwhelming majority of Americans suddenly switching their opinions on such declarations. Instead I’ll just weep as our constitution becomes all but a dead letter.

Populism and Conspiracy Thinking

Last week Tucker Carlson blew up the right side of the internet when he delivered this 15 minute monologue on his nightly show. It was ostensibly a response to Senator Mitt Romney’s op-ed in the Washington Post, blasting President Trump for his rhetoric and character. But in reality it was so much more, and represents a sharp divide between “populist” and traditional conservative/libertarian economic thought. It has spurred a number of critical responses as well as defenses. David French had one here, and Ben Shapiro has now written a pair of pieces as well.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Frankly, I find this debate a refreshing change of pace because the focus is on fundamental principles. Most of Carlson’s critics concede the truth of much of what he says, though they are critical both of his solutions (or lack thereof) and the level of blame he places on elites.

There is a lot here to discuss, and indeed it touches on some of the topics I had been hoping to cover. Here I am just going to focus on one very narrow issue, and it’s one David French touched upon. Listening to – or reading – Carlson’s talk, I heard a lot of familiar notes. Whenever I read through populist screeds in various social media settings, a common refrain is that some external force is the reason for all that ails either the individual or society as a whole. By external force I mean some force outside the person himself. Some kind of nefarious group – politicians, Democrats, Republicans, masons, etc. – is pulling the strings and are the cause of our woes.

Carlson’s monologue was full of these indictments. Here’s French quoting Carlson:

And he talks about wealthier Americans as if they’re indifferent to the plight of their fellow Americans. Here’s Carlson: “Those very same affluent married people, the ones making virtually all the decisions in our society, are doing pretty much nothing to help the people below them get and stay married. Rich people are happy to fight malaria in Congo. But working to raise men’s wages in Dayton or Detroit? That’s crazy.”

As French notes, this just isn’t true.

In 2017, Americans gave more than $410 billion in charity, and the idea that this charity flows principally overseas is ludicrous. Gifts to international charities represented only 6 percent of total giving, and foreign aid represents roughly 1.2 percent of the federal budget, an inconsequential sum compared with the immense sums we spend in the United States on economic development and social welfare. America is consistently one of the most charitable countries in the world, whether measured by volunteerism or money.

The more subjective aspect of this claim is that the rich just don’t care about the plight of poor people or the folks in Appalachia. While it’s easy to pin bad policy choices on a lack of concern, this is not necessarily accurate. Or as French puts it, it’s less about rich Americans not caring as them just making poor policy decisions.

What struck me about all this is that there’s a common subtext with conspiracy thinking. For conspiracy theorists, there’s always some cabal working behind the scenes to destroy everything. The World Trade Center didn’t get taken out by a pair of planes flown by Islamic terrorists – oh no, it was Bush and Cheney and a neocon plot to eventually invade the Middle East and take all their oil. No, those kids in Connecticut weren’t gun down by a madmen, it was a plot by the US government to force gun control upon us.

The thing about conspiracy theorizing is that in some ways it serves as a comfort to those who espouse these ideas. Here’s why. It is unfathomable to think that terrible events could be random. Or, better yet, it’s difficult to accept that these truly events could have happened in the United States without some sort of sign off by the deep state. Because if some random mad man can just shoot up a school, or if 19 well-funded terrorists could take out the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and kill thousands, the world becomes a much less ordered place. I mean just look at the paranoid discussion centering around the new world order – and I don’t mean that one, brother. The key word there is “order.” Because if the world isn’t being run by such cabals, then there’s decidedly less order in the world.

In many ways I think this is what motivates populist thinking. If there is an opioid crisis in Appalachia, then the remote cause can’t be the choices those individual living there made. The crisis must have been precipitated by men of evil intent. Because the flip side of conspiracy and populist thinking is that if we get rid of the bad men and replace them with well-intentioned people, then there is a solution to the world’s ills.

The chaos and tragedy of the world is not just that – it’s not the natural state of a fallen world, but a predetermined outcome. It’s unthinkable that bad things could just happen in the United States or the citizens of the country. Ultimately, if we just adjust the gears, then things will be okay.

I recognize that this this is not an entirely fair comparison, and there’s a little bit more complexity to Carlson’s and others thinking. Yet I can’t help but see this underlying connection. It’s an outlook that is both fatalistic and yet naively optimistic, because the subtext is that a fix is just a flick of the light-switch away. It is a shared worldview that is uncomfortable with disorder. Ultimately both modes of thinking are dangerous in their own ways, but more on that to follow.