Yesterday's election was anticlimactic, in my experience, the culmination of something I anticipated early in 2006 - that the GOP would lose the Congress and then the Presidency. The cadres of the conservative movement, such as they are, and it is, were hellbent on riding the policies and ethos of the Bush administration headlong into the abyss, and this political suicide has now received its formal ratification. There is so much to be said about this occurrence, and this moment in our history, that of the nation and of conservatism, or what remains of conservatism; of the weaving of narratives there is no end, however, and that being the case - and being exhausted and wracked by a state of irritable boredom - I'll simply gesture in the direction of a narrative by citing some of the more interesting things I've read this week.
First is Noah Millman's lengthy disquisition justifying his vote for Obama in the election, a piece which dissatisfies in both its conclusion and in some of its reasoning, but which also contains the following passage, leading into a discussion of the two issues which sealed the deal against McCain in his mind:
Because McCain’s changed, I’ve changed, and the world’s changed.
How has McCain changed? In a nutshell, he’s gotten older. As we age, we get more set in our ways, less mentally flexible, more inclined to rely on narrative structures that we absorbed long ago. And the structures that dominate McCain’s brain are an almost perfect mismatch with our country’s needs at this time.
How have I changed? In a nutshell, I’ve gotten more conservative and less right-wing. (I’m using conservative in the sense of skeptical and cautious as well as in the sense of seeking permanence and valuing rootedness, and right-wing in the sense of believing in the importance of rewarding success more than in ameliorating failure.) More specifically, I’ve decided I was wrong about a bunch of things, and some of those things are Republican Party dogma, and much of that dogma is now central to the McCain campaign message.
How has the world changed? In a nutshell, the Bush Administration happened. We can’t pretend it didn’t. And whoever is the next President has to be responsive to that legacy. Perhaps, if McCain had been President in 2001, things would have gone better – or perhaps not. But we don’t get a do-over; we have to deal with the world as we have it and have made it, and not as we’d like it to have been.
In a nutshell, I’ve gotten more conservative and less right-wing. (I’m using conservative in the sense of skeptical and cautious as well as in the sense of seeking permanence and valuing rootedness, and right-wing in the sense of believing in the importance of rewarding success more than in ameliorating failure.) Millman does not elaborate on these thoughts, but I'd suggest that the GOP became wedded to destabilizing policies on a variety of fronts, and that these policies reflected the ideology side of the prudence/ideology divide. Enough.
Second is Tom Piatak's comment on the repudiation that was the 2008 presidential election:
Much can and will be said about this election, but one thing that is indisputably true is that it represents a massive repudiation of George W. Bush, who governed as the neoconservative president par excellence and whose failure as president stems in large measure from a war that the neoconservatives had lobbied Bush to wage. Bush came to define this war as a neoconservative enterprise to bring “democracy” to the Middle East, part of the larger messianic project to end “tyranny” that he announced in his Second Inaugural. The repudiation of Bush should, in justice, mean the repudiation of neoconservatism, and it is the task of those of us who never accepted neoconservatism to help make this dream a reality.
The path to the GOPocalypse began with the fetishistic devotion to the Iraq war and the larger conceptual apparatus in which it figured, an approach which dogmatically disdained any reckoning with the objective nature and scale of the threats, but instead sought to apply a pre-existing template, derived from the post-Cold War atmosphere of self-celebration, to different circumstances. And, to double down upon the hubris, this strategic error was magnified by calamitous mismanagement. Compounding this further was the strident insistence, continuing among some to this very day, that opponents of this folly detested America. I know, I know - we're all weary of discussing the war. But any account of November 4, 2008, which leaves Iraq out of the reckoning is merely self-serving.
Third is Daniel Koffler's latest missive in the unedifying Palin Wars, which includes the following, to my mind unduly harsh judgment - a judgment, however, which touches upon the truth:
I imagine it requires a fairly extraordinary commitment to maintaining cognitive dissonance to hate elite putatively conservative putative intellectuals — and indeed, education itself — as much as The Other McCain does while simultaneously proclaiming unconditional fealty to Governor Palin, the reductio ad absurdum of some of those intellectuals’ efforts to manipulate the conservative base to advance their foreign policy agenda, to be a necessary condition for membership in the Republican party.
Palin entered the campaign as a cipher on national-level policy questions, and could have been brought up to speed in any number of ways. However, on the day following the convention, when Palin had been planning to meet with some or other pro-life organization, her handlers in the McCain campaign compelled her to cancel that meeting in order to take the foreign policy crash course with some of the usual suspects. And so, when Palin made her first post-convention appearances, and the conversation turned to foreign policy, we were subjected to the cringe-making spectacle of Palin enacting the Eternal Return of the Same, as though the foreign policy failures of the Bush administration had not, in fact, happened. The campaign then proceeded to follow this template, promising a profound identification on cultural grounds, but planning to deliver, to all appearances, the same sort of belligerent nationalism that ruined the Bush administration.
How, exactly, does this two-step work? Well, my theory is also that of Matt Feeney, who discusses the Kantian historicism of the Bush administration's foreign policy, and muses
I have a hard-to-prove theory that it was something quite domestic that effected the idealist turn in conservative foreign policy thinking: the culture war. Suddenly, after The Closing of the American Mind, we had a strong sense of what the greatest enemy was: relativism. And the conclusion to the Cold War seemed to elevate this anti-relativitism from a cultural to a global mission. It was, after all, Reagan’s moral clarity vis-a-vis the Evil Empire etc. etc. etc.
Or, in other words, the New Fusionism, the mutual assimilation of social conservatism and neoconservative militarism, such that the former incorporates all of the reflexes of the latter, as extensions of sound values and human rights, while the latter repackages its principles as elements of the social conservatives' anti-relativist crusade. The Bush rhetoric, and the tone of many of Palin's campaign stops, was veritably infused with this sort of thing, which explains the admixture of moralism, foreign-policy positioning, and cultural identity politics characteristic of the post-Clinton GOP. Of course, the neoconservative ingredient in this fusionist cuisine is considered rather unpalatable by majorities in America nowadays, and this has, I believe, contributed to the increasing revulsion among many (you really ought to hear my fellow Gen-Xers around the office discuss the Bushian rhetoric, even though none of it is safe for work) Americans for anything redolent of these 'small-town Americans' and their social conservatism. Social conservatives yoked themselves to the GOP on the Bush administration's signature issue, and will now share in the suffering, perhaps even to the point of being assigned the scapegoat role in the coming internecine warfare. The crowning irony will be that this fusionism, and its rhetoric, was the achievement of the neoconservatives themselves, many of whom are scrambling to distances themselves from the calamity. For Palin's sake, I can advise only that she distance herself from these political incubuses if she is desirous of a national political future; the New Fusionism will not be any more of a political winner four years hence than it is now.
These observations lead me to the fifth piece, in which Paul Gottfried reflects on the possibility that neoconservative attempts at self-preservation may hasten the disillusionment on the right, creating space for a renovated conservatism. The entire essay is worth reading and pondering, at least for those sympathetic towards the paleoconservative interpretation of conservative intramural maneuvering, but I'll spotlight a passage from the concluding paragraph:
The criticism of the 1960s that is still permissible on the respectable right has been limited to epiphenomenal fluff, such as the failure of hippies to apply sufficient body deodorant or to brush their teeth often enough or the predilection of certain unidentified antiwar protestors for dead Teutonic critics of democracy.
Finally, with respect to the future of the conservative movement and the GOP as a vehicle for conservatism, the options are limited, if success, and not mere self-satisfaction, is the objective. Either a populist, middle-American conservatism:
Regardless of how one views Sarah Palin herself, the phenomenon of enthusiasm for Palin, like the grassroots mobilization for Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul we saw in the primaries, shows the powerful hunger in Middle America for someone to speak for them and defend their interests. Except perhaps on immigration, institutional conservatism and elected representatives in the Republican Party have largely failed to do this. During the primaries, institutional conservatism was content to foist two rebranded Northeastern liberal Republicans on conservatives as their champions while denigrating the two candidates with the strongest grassroots support. As the enthusiasm for candidates as different as Huckabee and Paul shows, Christian conservatives and libertarians are looking for representation. These voters are not going to find it in a mainstream movement that loathes Huckabee and Paul, nor will they find what they seek among the “reformists,” so their support is up for grabs. What populist conservatives need to do in the coming years is to make sure that Middle Americans are presented with a credible, substantive populism from the right that provides a genuine alternative to the left’s agenda and does not settle for the false comfort of empty anti-elitist rhetoric.
Or the sort of reformist conservatism promoted by Ross Douthat, Reihan Salam, and Ramesh Ponnuru - because not even this policy vision will suffice, as I have already argued. Long-time readers will readily intuit where my sympathies lie.