Andrew Bacevich has a post up at Front Porch Republic that made me giddy with the old familiar feeling of “Yes! Someone on the internet is absolutely correct!” I’m sure you know the feeling.
I’ll try to explain why this essay did it for me, by commenting on Bacevich line-by-line:
As an independent, I am not especially interested in the fortunes of either party.
Yes! The preoccupation with party fortunes, Republican or Democratic, has superseded a concern with actual policy. “War on terror” policies that were anathema to Democrats when pursued by the George W. Bush administration, have become something to defend, now that Obama is pursuing the same policies. The party cart has been placed before the policy horse.
I am interested in seeing an authentic conservatism have a place in our politics. Otherwise, liberalism in various guises dominates.
Yes! We don’t want either liberalism or conservatism to dominate unchecked by any opposition. An “authentic” conservatism (as opposed to the dominant pseudo-conservatisms pursued by the Republican party) is indispensable. That said, the only overwhelming domination by any ideology that I’ve had the experience of living through is that of a particular thread of right-wingism that Bacevich describes a few lines later.
I don’t view liberalism as inherently evil. It’s liberals rather than conservatives who have advanced the cause of racial and gender equality – a genuine accomplishment. When it comes to social justice, again, it’s liberals not conservatives who have made a difference. That said, liberalism needs a counterweight. Its excesses need to be checked.
Yes! Don’t let any self-professed conservative tell you otherwise — racial and gender equality has been the exclusive project of the left, period. Every liberal should proudly take credit for this, and every self-identified conservative who appreciates these things should admit that in this, they too are liberals. Racism and sexism have been the errors exclusively of the right. But are there liberal excesses? Compared with liberal successes, they are hard to notice, but I would identify politically-correct speech codes on college campuses as one of them. On average, though, the threat of liberal excess is dwarfed by the benefits of liberal success.
What passes for conservatism these days in mainstream American politics is not authentic. When it comes to essentials, it’s not actually all that much different from or better than what passes for liberalism.
Yes! I won’t comment on the “authenticity” of mainstream American conservatism, but I agree that the available strains of mainstream liberalism and conservatism aren’t that different from each other. It’s a sign of the continuing weakness of the left in this country that this disturbing similarity almost always leads to a discussion of what is wrong with conservatism and with the right. I, however, prefer to blame the left. The left hasn’t yet articulated what is wrong with Clintonism, let alone made any serious efforts to reject the corporatist/laissez-faire/Robert-Rubinesque philosophy that has dominated the Democratic Party since at least the Carter administration, but which found its greatest success under Clinton.
In recent decades, the Republican Party’s version of conservatism has emphasized three major themes:
First, in the realm of political economy, Republicans favor small government and unbridled capitalism, looking to the market to solve our domestic problems.
Second, in the realm of foreign policy, Republicans favor big government and unbridled activism, looking to the military to prolong the American Century.
Third, in the realm of culture, Republicans have spoken in defense of so-called traditional values, making much of their putative opposition to abortion and the defense of traditional marriage.
Yes! That just about sums up the “conservative” approach of the Republican Party. Note, however, that the Democratic Party hasn’t really offered up any strong opposition to these themes, with the possible exception of some of the cultural issues like marriage and abortion.
Republicans have made the first two themes the actual basis for policy. On the third theme, they have offered little more than symbolism and sanctimonious posturing. So the real guts of GOP conservatism in recent decades have focused on unleashing the market and the military – less state regulation of the economy, more state resources funneled to the Pentagon.
Yes! The two most tired political cliches of my lifetime are that we need to free up the market so it can magically solve whatever social problem is under discussion at the moment, and that we need to involve ourselves around the world to defend various good things that we Americans hold dear, and that would disappear without a vigorous (and often military) defense by the USA. Note that these wouldn’t be such tired cliches if they’d been uttered exclusively by the Republican party. They’re cliches because the Democrats use them just as indiscriminately as the Republicans.
I submit that neither of these qualifies as a genuinely conservative position. To the extent that I have accurately characterized the Romney campaign’s position, I am glad Romney lost.
Yes! I’m glad Romney lost, too.
The essence of conservatism should be to conserve, showing respect for what is good in our inheritance. I refer both to our human inheritance and our inheritance in the natural world.
Yes! This is the reason I love Wendell Berry and don’t have an allergic reaction to the word “Paleoconservative” so long as the racism often associated with self-professed paleos is denounced. This kind of conservatism is absolutely essential, given that humans are impetuous, greedy, and forgetful, not to mention prone to self-aggrandizement and error.
The market does not conserve. Capitalism is good for one thing: creating wealth. As an arena in which the pursuit of profit takes precedence over all other considerations, the market destroys much of what conservatives should value.
Yes! This is the central insight of the whole essay and the single most important reason why there’s a debate at all about whether any particular streak of conservatism is “authentic” or not. We’ve become so used to thinking of “the market” as a magical talisman that produces nothing but good. We’ve chosen to forget about or to deny that it can produce bad outcomes and human misery. While there are always some (ineffectual) liberal critiques of the market focusing on its failure to distribute wealth fairly, there has been a complete absence in my lifetime of an effective conservative critique of the free-market uber alles ideology of the modern Republican party. Historically, this can possibly be blamed in part on the aftereffects of the conservative battle against state communism during the cold war, but the cold war is over. Has been for some time. The choice was never between Ayn Rand and Stalin, however much Ayn Rand (or Stalin) would have wanted us to believe that it was. Did I mention that humans were prone to be forgetful and prone to error? This is example #1 of that. We should stop allowing Hayek to scare us away from Wendell Berry.
Except when used prudently to defend what is truly dear to us, the military does not conserve. It consumes and wastes.
Yes! Andrew Bacevich has been perhaps the most effective person working to keep us from forgetting this.
Since the end of the Cold War and especially since 9/11, Republicans and Democrats have collaborated in concealing and ignoring just how much has been wasted through needless and poorly managed wars. The immediate result has been to victimize the very soldiers whom Americans claim to love and support.
Yes! One simply has to ask who has been the beneficiary of this collaboration, concealment, and ignoring. I won’t hazard a guess here; I’ll only say that I don’t believe it has been the vast majority of the American citizenry. They’ve been screwed for the sake of . . . (not hazarding a guess).
I’m not a politician and have no desire to involve myself in politics in any way.
Hmmm…. Andrew Bacevich not involved in politics in any way? His many perceptive and well-written books about politics testify otherwise.
That said, my own view is that salvation for the Republican party lies in becoming serious about that third theme rather than merely giving it lip service.
Yes! Because if one were serious about conservatism, one wouldn’t emphasize the first two themes, of course.
If the Republican Party wishes to represent a conservative perspective, it should advance a serious critique of American culture and then derive authentically conservative economic and foreign policies from that critique.
But that would mean the Republican Party would cease to be the party of the corporate elites and the obscenely rich. Not likely to happen.
What might that mean? Several things:
First, conservatives should claim the environmental movement as their own. Preserving the natural world should be a cause that all conservatives embrace with gusto. And, yes, that includes the issue of climate change.
Yes! But that can’t happen so long as conservatives remain in thrall to the idea that the unregulated market produces magic dust that makes everything better. That can’t happen until conservatives stop being afraid of Stalin under their beds. Because environmentalism of any kind will require that big corporations be brought to heel, and any thoughts of doing that without the help of the state are delusional.
Second, conservatives should lead the way in protecting the family from the hostile assault mounted by modernity. The principal threat to the family is not gay marriage. The principal threats are illegitimacy, divorce, and absent fathers. Making matters worse still is a consumer culture that destroys intimate relationships, persuading children that acquiring stuff holds the key to happiness and persuading parents that their job is to give children what the market has persuaded them to want.
Yes! The tragedy of “social conservatism” in this country is that it’s been exclusively the realm of theocrats who tell us that the Bible (supposedly) forbids gay marriage, and that of course this means the laws of our nation should, too. That’s all bullshit, and liberals can take the credit for rejecting it as such. The fixation on denying rights to gays and women (which is what the social conservatives have been fixated on) has prevented conservatives from arguing against the consumer culture (which after all is a by-product of the free-market idolization we’ve been practicing) and making effective arguments in favor of strong families. As it stands, the strongest pro-family arguments are being made by the liberals who advocate for a living wage and against the disruptive forces of an unrestrained market. The liberals, though, will only go so far in defense of families, as they have fallen under the spell of unrestrained individualism as much as the most rabid free-marketeer. The false choice the liberals see is between unrestrained individualism in social matters on the one hand, and a theocratic racist and sexist regime on the other. It’s their version of the free-market vs. Stalin false choice that the conservatives have fallen for.
Third, when it comes to economics, conservatives should lead the fight against the grotesque inequality that has become such a hallmark of present-day America.
Yes! Curse that free-market magic dust. We need a counter-spell to revive the conservative intellect.
Call me old fashioned, but I believe that having a parent at home holds one of the keys to nurturing young children and creating strong families. That becomes exceedingly difficult in an economy where both parents must work just to make ends meet.
You can call me old-fashioned, too. So long as by “a parent” you mean “a mother or a father.”
Flattening the distribution of wealth and ensuring the widest possible the ownership of property can give more parents the choice of raising their own youngsters rather than farming the kids out to care providers. If you hear hints of the old Catholic notion of distributism there, you are correct.
I think we can advocate for this without ourselves being Catholics. Thank God.
Finally, when it comes to foreign and national security policies, conservatives should be in the forefront of those who advocate realism and modesty. Conservatives should abhor the claims of American dominion that have become such a staple of our politics. Saving humanity is God’s business, not America’s.
I’m willing to sign on to an anti-imperialism like this. I won’t presume to guess what God’s business is, but I agree that American imperialism is a shit-poor way of saving humanity.
Sure, we need a strong military. But its purpose should be to defend the country, not to run the world. And anytime Washington decides it needs to fight a war, then popular support should going beyond cheering. That means higher taxes to pay for the war and an army drawn from all parts of American society – to include Domers – to fight it.
Yes! The problem is with that phrase “defend the country.” If you’re a CEO of Boeing or Verizon, defense of the country looks a bit different than if you’re a dentist in Ohio. I suspect that for a certain segment of our population (much less than 1% of it), we have in fact been “defending the country” all along. It’s past time to start questioning whether we need to keep deferring to that <1%.
I don’t seriously expect the Republican Party to show the least interest in any such ideas. But that’s because the actually-existing Republican Party is anything but conservative.
Yes, it isn’t; it is the chief defender of the obscenely rich, and it has been competing for that honor with the Democratic Party for decades now. Neither of the two parties as they currently exist offer any kind of support for the ideas Bacevich describes here. Which leads us, of course, to the question of what to do about it.