Erik Kain declared recently that he isn’t a conservative. As he explains, this doesn’t mean that he’s changed that many of his views from when he called himself a conservative. Nor is it a more narrowly political issue of changing his voting preference. As Erik writes:
It’s not my politics so much that have undergone a change lately (though they have as well), but my thoughts on who I should and should not align myself with, and why this is important.
I understand what Erik wants to do here, but it seems to me that it has been quite clear where he has stood and what side he has picked in all the many debates over the years. It was no secret that he was basically sympathetic to the health care legislation, to which I was opposed, and he was furiously hostile to the Arizona immigration law, which I find basically unobjectionable. The label he chose for himself was essentially irrelevant in both of those debates, and there was no danger that he would be confused with the people aligned on the other side of the argument.
I’m sorry to say that I find Erik’s post to be very close to the flip side of the argument that mainstream conservatives have deployed against dissident conservatives for years, which is that we associate with the wrong kinds of people, tolerate “liberal” arguments, and generally fail to be good team players when it comes to organizing for electoral politics and reinforcing absurd ideological claims. In other words, we are too close or insufficiently hostile to the other “side.” From what I can gather, Erik is telling everyone that he isn’t a conservative so as not to be mistaken for “one of them,” which is almost as depressing to watch as it is when a thoughtful person feels compelled to jump through a series of ideological hoops to prove that he is “one of us.”
I had to grimace a little when I read Erik talking about his cultural affinities. The point is not that I object to most of his cultural affinities. When I’m in my car on long road trips, I listen to NPR, too, and I have several friends to the left of Russ Feingold (as well as friends who are dyed-in-the-wool Republicans). I’m sure I could rattle off a list of other such “heterodox” behaviors, but I had thought that Erik agreed that these affinities have or ought to have no bearing on political coalitions. All of this reminds me of the ridiculous political categorizing that people wanted to impose on everyday habits during the debate over “crunchy” conservatism, as if eating organic vegetables or shopping at a co-op were proof of left-wing convictions. Erik continues:
I still believe in the importance of decentralized power structures, checks and balances, and in not placing too much faith in the state – but again, these are positions that are perfectly acceptable on the left in ways that my belief in gay marriage or higher taxes or non-interventionist foreign policy are simply not acceptable on the right.
Perhaps that’s true within the confines of conservative movement institutions and in many conservative media outlets and magazines, but it isn’t true of “the right” as a whole, and this exaggerates how acceptable decentralism really is on the left. There is sympathy for it in some circles, but is it “perfectly acceptable”? It probably depends on what’s being decentralized.
As far as the major parties are concerned, a “pox on both your houses” attitude is generally a very healthy one, and it is frankly one that we need more people to embrace. The last thing we need is more people accepting the two major parties as the inevitable political coalitions that must always exist. There are already too many people who give in to the idea that you have to become a reliable team player for one side or the other. That finally brings me to the first part of Erik’s post, in which he wrote:
When I think about the GOP retaking Congress I get cold sweats and flashbacks of 2000-2008. Ditto that for the prospect of say, Newt Gingrich sitting in The Oval Office. The only Republicans who are at all honest – like Gary Johnson who has really good civil liberties bona fides – would A) never win and B) are really way too economically conservative for me. So yeah, Republicans taking back Congress in a couple months is just bad news as far as I’m concerned.
There is no reason to worry that Gingrich might become President. He would probably not win the nomination, and he could never win a general election. There is such a thing as likeability, and Gingrich doesn’t have any outside the camp of true believers. As a rationale for giving up the label conservative, this paragraph isn’t a good short answer. Honestly, I don’t see what Republican chances in the midterms have to do with anything here. For one thing, I don’t respect the Republican Party enough to let it have any hold on how I define myself. In fact, the more their partisans keep profaning the name of a humane political persuasion, the less inclined I am to let them have it to themselves.
As I have said before, I don’t think the GOP will win the House, but if that did happen it would primarily be bad news for the Republican Party and the conservative movement. If that seems a little too counterintuitive for you, let me explain. Should the GOP somehow win the House, they will not have earned it and they will not deserve it, and they will proceed to destroy themselves in very short order. Arguably, there was nothing worse for the American right than to be given the free gift of winning the 2002 midterms, because this win encouraged them to pursue the policies that proved to be their undoing, and a similar win in 2010 would have the same effect of enabling Republicans’ most destructively self-indulgent impulses. As one horrified by the prospect of Republicans in power, Erik should look forward to this.
After all, even if the Republicans won the House there would not be much that they could do once in office, except waste their time as they did in the ’90s hauling executive branch officials before committees to testify on this or that outrage of the week. They would likely be stymied by the Democratic majority in the Senate on any major legislation, and Obama would veto just about anything they passed if it somehow got to his desk. At the same time, Obama would make them into a much more effective foil for his arguments once they had some hold on power, and out of frustration they would become increasingly obsessed with “getting” Obama and become even less interested in representing the interests of their constituents.
Update: Erik has a long response that is worth reading, and I do appreciate the kind remarks he has for the work here at Eunomia. He clarifies several points, and he has persuaded me that I didn’t really understand him the first time around. Here’s Erik:
Nor am I trying to say that we should not associate with conservatives or not tolerate them or any of that. Daniel writes, “From what I can gather, Erik is telling everyone that he isn’t a conservative so as not to be mistaken for “one of them,” which is almost as depressing to watch as it is when a thoughtful person feels compelled to jump through a series of ideological hoops to prove that he is “one of us.”” I can see how I might come across this way, but it was not my intent. My intent was simply to say, look – this isn’t me. It isn’t honest of me anymore to call myself this. It doesn’t sit right with me.