Daniel McCarthy

Who Supports Reality-Based Conservatism?

You do—you’re supporting it just by reading The American Conservative. Support it some more by making a donation, so a journal you enjoy lives and thrives.

Traditional conservatives have an obvious interest in seeing their ideas presented in the most articulate, passionate, and realistic fashion possible. Bold men and women of the left, meanwhile, enjoy a thoughtful challenge from the right that keeps them on their toes. And independent minds who identify with neither side appreciate principled pluralism in our national discourse, a pluralism made possible by reasonable voices that don’t scream from a box or reduce difficult questions to partisan cliches.

This is why you read The American Conservative. It sharpens, it clarifies, it informs and provokes—as a good magazine should, online or in print. (And in our case, both.) TAC heartens and encourages and invigorates, sometimes by ticking you off. That’s also what a good magazine does.

We are reader-supported, and most of our readers don’t have deep pockets. But there are a lot of you, and you’re a committed and generous group. If you can give, I think you will.

The military-industrial complex has big money—you can see it splashed on subway posters in the D.C. metro system and throughout the pages of all sorts of public-policy magazines. Corporate America has big money—and a devotion to free enterprise that extends only as far as crony capitalism’s bottom line. We’re opposed to war and Pentagon pork; we’re also opposed to an economy that’s increasingly hostile to the middle class, and indeed almost all Americans. So the big advertising bucks will not come our way any time soon.

We don’t need them; we have readers. Their support—your support—keeps the lights on and keeps The American Conservative‘s mindshare growing.

You aren’t alone in this struggle: small foundations, especially, are there to help, groups that support such unfashionable but deeply human and conservative causes as beautiful architecture and livable cities. TAC is very much about small voices and small institutions fighting back against the monotonous reverberations of the big media and partisan outlets of big business.

You know why you read The American Conservative. Help us continue bringing it to you—and to wider audiences—by contributing to our fall fundraising campaign. I thank you for it.

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How Obama Learned to Love the Bomb

ISIS

Barack Obama has adopted Bill Clinton’s policy toward Iraq: bomb it until it gets better. Clinton—and before him, George H.W. Bush—bombed Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to safeguard the Kurdish north, degrade Saddam’s military capabilities, and perhaps weaken his regime to the point of collapse. Twenty years later, Obama is bombing the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS, while protecting the Kurdish north and what remains of the Iraqi state until recently ruled by Nouri al-Maliki.

We are well into the third decade of U.S. military operations against Iraq—dating back to 1991—but a free, stable, non-sectarian state has yet to emerge. Maybe a few more bombing sorties will do the trick.

George W. Bush got one thing right: he recognized that what his father and Bill Clinton had been doing in Iraq wasn’t working. Rather than continue indefinitely with airstrikes and sanctions that would never tame or remove Saddam, Bush II simply invaded the country and set up a new government. In the abstract, that was a solution: the problem was the regime, so change it. But change it into what?

Iraq is a patchwork of tribes and blocs of Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims. A dictator like Saddam could keep order, but since the end of the Cold War America has found dictators distasteful, so Iraq would have to be democratic—which means, no matter how intricate the electoral system might be, one faction would dominate the others. So Iraq plunged into years of sectarian violence, and when it was over, the Shi’ite Maliki was in charge. Sunnis were never entirely happy about this, and they only became less so over time. Once ISIS surged across the border from neighboring Syria—experiencing its own (almost) post-dictatorial disintegration—many Sunnis welcomed them, and the bloodshed resumed.

Obama doesn’t want to answer the question that Bush I and Bill Clinton also avoided: namely, what kind of government could Iraq possibly have after Saddam that would satisfy the United States? Bush II had an answer, and it proved to be the wrong one. Obama knows it’s a trick question. There is no realistic outcome in Iraq that will not involve violence and repression. Either the country must have another dictator (unacceptable), or it must be dominated by one sect or the other (in which case it risks becoming the Islamic State or another Iran—also unacceptable), or else we have to pretend that it’s about to turn into an Arab Switzerland (entirely acceptable, and also impossible).

ISIS is an exceptionally violent revolutionary group, but it’s only a symptom of the more fundamental disease: the lack of a government strong enough to keep order but not so sectarian or tyrannical in temper as to persecute anyone. If Obama is successful against ISIS—as George W. Bush was successful against Saddam—how long before a new evil congeals? ISIS itself is a successor to another terrorist group, al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, that was beaten once before in Iraq. The rise of yet another terrorist or tyrannical force is a virtual given, a fact established by more than one cycle of history: as surely as AQIM followed Saddam and ISIS followed AQIM, something else awaits to follow ISIS.

Unable to break this cycle, Obama resorts to bombing because our pundits demand that he “do something.” Leaving Iraq to its own devices, to suffer, burn, and ultimately rebuild, is too cruel, and ISIS with its spectacular propaganda videos makes a great cable news bite and social-media campaign. It’s evil, it’s scary, it’s on YouTube, so what are we going to do about it? Obama would be weak and callous if he did nothing. That he can’t actually do much that matters in the long run is unimportant—our humanitarian urges and Islamophobic fears will be satisfied as long as we get some kind of action right now. So we bomb.

There’s no political risk in bombing, as there is in putting “boots on the ground.” There won’t be too many body bags shipped home to Dover AFB to trouble voters. What’s more, bombing can be of any intensity political conditions demand: if John McCain is howling louder than usual on “Meet the Press,” just drop a few more bombs. That shows you’re a real leader.

This may sound grotesque—not the reality of what Obama is doing and the politics that lead him to do it, but to my saying it out loud, when there are real human beings in Syria and Iraq for whom none of this is abstract. ISIS is a deadlier threat to their lives than American bombing is, and real men and women can make choices about violence and politics that anyone’s fulfill anyone’s grim projections. There may be no ideal “moderate resistance” to Assad or ISIS itself, but there many degrees of better and worse, and they are matters of life and death to the people of the region.

All of which is true, and opponents of our 23-year policy toward Iraq, such as myself, should not be complacent about far-away people’s lives. If this is something that war critics must keep in mind, however, supporters must be equally serious about political realities—not immutable realities, but probabilities so strong as to require that our hopes and ambitions take account of them. Peace and tolerance depend on order, and under these circumstances order depends on a strong state. It would be foolish for Obama or anyone else to name in advance what kind of state, under whose control, will emerge victorious, but whenever the Iraqis and Syrians themselves give rise to a leader or faction capable of maintaining order, America must be prepared to accept the result and demand only the most basic concessions to our own values and security.

During the Cold War, it was often enough that a state or faction be anti-Communist for it receive American approbation. Dictators and sectarians as well as democrats passed the test, sometimes to our regret. After 1989, with our own security unassailable, we raised our expectations of others: we could afford to moralize and cajole. This proved to be disastrous in many cases, as botched attempts at democratization and economic liberalization urged on by the U.S. led to unstable regimes and countervailing extremism. If the U.S. no longer wishes to apply as crude a test for regime acceptability as it did during the Cold War, it must nonetheless devise criteria more realistic than those that prevailed over the past 20 years.

Obama’s bombs and other measures may or may not lead to regime change in the territory now controlled by ISIS. He can’t control that, and he cannot even do much, given the way our media and politics work. But what he can do is begin the long process of clarifying America’s understanding of how much like or unlike us we really expect other regimes to be. If U.S. can arrive at non-utopian answer to that question, we can perhaps again have a strategy that matches means to ends—rather than one that falls back on air power as the ever-present means to impossible ends.

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Hobby Lobby, Pluralism, and Privacy

Of the many foolish things said about the Hobby Lobby case, a contender for most foolish is the “Buy your own contraception!” snark on the right that runs parallel to the left-wing exaggerations about bosses dictating contraception choices to women. What the snark disguises is that the principle at stake is the same for both sides: if you’re compelled to purchase a service, you—whether “you” are a business or an individual—want to have some say in what it is you’re buying. Since it’s no longer a market transaction when government insists that it must take place, the question of just what is being bought has to become a political and legal question. Women who say that they should get a basic service when they are forced to buy an insurance plan are in exactly the same position as a company that says it has religious objections to certain kinds of services. Neither claim is risible; both arise from the straightforward notion that you should get what you want, and not get what you don’t want, when you have to buy something.

If sex and religion are too polarizing to offer a clear illustration, consider whether “buy your own!” would make sense in a different context. If Washington commanded that everyone must purchase a car through his or her employer, but employers didn’t offer, say, headlights with the vehicle, would having to pay extra out of pocket seem reasonable, or would most people feel ripped off? Conversely, if employers were told that they had to offer, say, gold-plated hubcaps with all cars, wouldn’t they be entitled to object?

With auto parts, it might be possible to come up with a public consensus on what features were reasonable. That’s simply not possible, and not even desirable, where the questions at the heart of the Hobby Lobby case are concerned. Despite the best efforts of ideologues, sex and religion are still personal rather than political matters for most people. Americans do not want their relationships or beliefs supervised by the federal government, or by any government—not by a bureaucracy, not by a court, and not by the democratic process. Why should anyone get to vote on your faith or whether your insurance covers contraception? But the problem with the HHS mandate, and with Obamacare itself, is that it makes these very personal matters unavoidably public as well: matters for bureaucrats, judges, lawyers, politicians, Rush Limbaugh, and the people you do business with.

Apologists for the mandate can say that there’s already a public dimension to these things, which is true. There’s no wall of separation between the people as a political actor and citizens’ personal feelings about sex and religion, and there’s obviously not supposed to be a wall of separation between the people and their government. But there’s a difference between the indirect, tiered influence that private persons exercise on the public and the public exercises on the state—and vice versa—and the kind of simplification that ideologues wish to see, in which individual, community, and state are all harmonized according to a single, unchanging set of values. The trouble with ideologues left or right isn’t just what they want, it’s how oblivious they are to their own excesses: they can’t imagine that anyone could have a reason not to want to subsidize someone else’s contraception or that any woman might feel cheated and demeaned by a company failing to provide insurance that covers birth control. You don’t actually have to agree with the metaphysical apparatus behind either side to see that something conscientious and intimate is being traduced by closing the gap between government, business, and private life.

Public policy is going to involve a clash of values one way or another, and even when one side “wins,” the political fighting doesn’t stop—the stakes are much lower, in practical terms, than ideologues can afford to admit. Popular governments aren’t meant to attain a steady equilibrium; opinions are always in motion, and thus so is politics. In pointing out the overreach that characterizes the simplifiers on both sides, the objective isn’t to arrive at a uniformly agreeable middle policy—some ideal formula for what’s personal and what’s political—but to maintain a certain space, however compromised, for life and feeling at a distance from politics. No house is completely private and invisible to the outside world, but that doesn’t mean we should let ideologues tell us that our walls might as well be transparent. Religion and sex ought to remain more personal than political, imperfect though the separation may be, and policies that more thoroughly mix these things are simply bad.

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Ralph Nader, Tim Carney, and Me: at Cato Tomorrow

If you’re in the D.C. area, drop by the Cato Institute at noon Friday for a panel discussion of Ralph Nader’s new book Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State. Nader, AEI’s Tim Carney, and I will be taking part, with the Kauffman Foundation’s Brink Lindsey moderating.

The American Conservative excerpted the book—specifically, the chapter on the forgotten distributist conservatives of the 1930s–in our May-June issue. There’s much else in it that conservatives and libertarians will find fascinating, as Nader explores what figures as disparate as Frank Meyer, Peter Viereck, and Murray Rothbard have had to say about the conjunction and centralization of economic and political power—and what the alternatives might be.

(While I’m touting books, let me also mention that the distributist/agrarian classic Who Owns America?, which Nader discusses in the TAC excerpt, is on sale now from ISI.)

A few weeks ago, Cato’s Christopher Preble and I attended a conference Nader organized, and the two of us participated on a panel to discuss left-right approaches to trimming the defense budget. Here’s the video:

And here are all the panels from that event, including remarks by Grover Norquist.

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Writers Who Change How You Read

Yale's Sterling Memorial Library. Arthur Connors / Shutterstock.com
Yale's Sterling Memorial Library. Arthur Connors / Shutterstock.com

In late 2008 I put myself through a crash course in the works of Willmoore Kendall, the “wild Yale don,” as Dwight Macdonald called him, who had been one of the founding senior editors of National Review. This was research for an essay that would appear in The Dilemmas of American Conservatism. I’d read some Kendall before—a desultory stroll through The Conservative Affirmation in America, at least—and hadn’t profited much from the experience. But the second, more attentive perusal was different. Kendall himself had told of how R.G. Collingwood had taught him at Cambridge to read a book by asking what question the author was trying to answer. I didn’t find that approach too insightful, but I picked up something else from Kendall’s own methods—the habit of asking “What conditions would have to be true in order for this author’s arguments to make sense?”

That’s a more productive thing to ask of a serious work than simply, “Do this author’s arguments make sense?” The latter invites the reader to supply a misleading context: the author’s arguments may not match up with reality, but they must match up at least with his own view of reality, and that’s something worth figuring out and contrasting against whatever the reader thinks he already knows.

Stated so plainly this isn’t likely to strike anyone else as particularly insightful, just as Kendall’s report of how Collingwood reshaped his thinking didn’t do much for me. But that’s a lesson, too: it’s the act of thinking along with a text or teacher, and the new context created by that act, which makes a dead question come alive.

I thought of this when I recently came across Peter Witonski’s 1970 NR review of The Basic Symbols of the American Political Tradition, a book that began as a series of Kendall lectures and was finished after his death by George Carey. The review doesn’t do justice to the book—it elicited a sharp letter from Carey, who thought Witonski hadn’t even read what he purported to be reviewing—but Witonski does capture the effect Kendall can have, even decades after his death, perfectly:

What Kendall is all about is thinking—thinking about theoretical problems in politics. The device is that of the master professor, the man who by definition professes because he is wise, and is wise because he professes. The failure to convince, the difficult prose, are the essence of this device. In not convincing, Kendall makes you think the problem over again and again. I recognized this for the first time several years ago, when I met Kendall, for the first and last time, in a suburb of Paris, and spent many hours arguing with him.

The man, like the writer, was convincing and unconvincing. That night he spent a good deal of time propounding the general idea behind a book he had been engaged in writing, dealing with the American tradition. His argument was, of course, brilliant. But when I left him I was as unconvinced as ever. As I walked away from his flat I found myself thinking about what he had said. Suddenly I realized that I was thinking about such things as the Federalist Papers and the Declaration of Independence with a new freshness and vigor. I was rethinking them. I still did not agree with Kendall, but in his own perverse way he had taught me a great deal in a short period of time about subjects in which I had long since considered myself to be expert. Kendall was a master teacher.

Kendall and Collingwood are by no means alone in this heuristic impact. But it’s a rare thing: there are many memorable books and teachers that impart facts or insights; there aren’t so many who change the way an interlocutor reads.

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RT ≠ Endorsement

On air, Liz Wahl quits Russia’s English-language propaganda network.

She’s been getting a bit of snark from Twitter over her belated realization that maybe RT is a less than rigorously objective news source. Yet I’m more exasperated by RT’s viewers than by hosts who are, after all, only making a living, however dubiously, by reading from the Kremlin’s script.* In particular, how can certain libertarians or government-skeptical leftists think that as long as the spin is coming from a government other than America’s it must actually be the truth?

Unfortunately, the answer is all too plain: if you think that the U.S. federal government is the source of all evil in your life, your country, and the world, then it stands to reason—almost—that whatever contradicts Washington is on the side of truth. Moscow and Beijing therefore become beacons of light. The ideologues who fall prey to this don’t necessarily hate America—there’s a distinction between the country and its government, after all—and they don’t think of themselves as pro-authoritarian or, in the case of the Middle East, pro-dictator. But they do think, ultimately, that foreign authoritarians and dictators are really more liberal than the liberal-but-really-authoritarian United States. It’s a sour love affair: the U.S. fails to live up to liberal ideals, or even to come close, so regimes that have no intention of abiding by them must be no worse, or indeed a great deal better. Read More…

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Leo Strauss and the Right’s Civil War

University of Chicago

I recently reviewed Paul Gottfried’s Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America for the University Bookman. Paul responds to my review here. Note that in addition to Paul’s book being available as an affordable paperback, the Kindle edition is now going for just $12.49—if you’re interested in this topic, be sure to read it for yourself.

In the review I say that whether or not Strauss was in some sense a “conservative” is not the most interesting thing about him or the debate over his work. Gottfried may be correct that Strauss is better understood—if he needs to be situated in the context of late 20th century politics at all—as a Cold War liberal. The deficiency with that approach, however, is that it fails to account for why Strauss and his disciples are more often seen to associate with the conservative movement than with the leading figures and institutions of liberalism. Strauss and Straussians have been a presence in National Review since the 1960s. They have never had a similar representation in the New Republic, let alone The Nation.

Paul points to the importance of Strauss’s critique of relativism to explain the affinity that conservatives, especially conservative Catholics, have felt for him and his disciples. He also, however, calls attention to the Strauss circle’s apparent preference for Democratic presidential candidates in the 1950s and 1960s as evidence of a left-leaning disposition. In the Bookman, I challenge he idea that presidential voting counts for much—I cite the preference of Murray Rothbard and Peter Viereck, two other ambiguously conservative or right-leaning figures, for Adlai Stevenson over Dwight Eisenhower as an indicator of how voting is not always a sure sign of ideological alignment. I chose those figures because they happened to agree with Strauss (according to Stephen Smith’s account of Strauss’s voting) in the elections of the 1950s and because they, like Strauss, are not easy to pigeonhole. The point can be expanded, however: Russell Kirk, a conservative’s conservative, liked Eugene McCarthy as much as Barry Goldwater, and James Burnham—an important influence on Gottfried’s fellow paleoconservative Sam Francis—strongly preferred liberal Republican Nelson Rockefeller over Goldwater.

The “relativism” question is far more important than presidential voting, and taken together with personal and institutional associations creates a much stronger case for placing Strauss among conservatives than among liberals like Louis Hartz or A.M. Schlesinger. National Review‘s William F. Buckley Jr. and Willmoore Kendall considered Strauss a comrade, as did Russell Kirk—though he came to have a more negative view of Strauss’s disciples after the 1980s.

This is worth stating explicitly because less historically informed commentators than Gottfried—who touches on such associations just briefly—may think there’s some mystery as to how latter-day Straussians came to occupy a prominent place in the conservative movement. The simple answer is: they inherited it, both from Strauss himself and from Harry Jaffa, who is ideologically idiosyncratic but has been influential in right-wing Republican and NR circles since the early 1960s. Read More…

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Can Liberals Understand Politics Anymore?

I’m baffled by liberals who don’t actually support Obamacare themselves—they want single-payer—but are furious at Republicans for voting against it. (Several comments here illustrate the phenomenon.) Let’s consider the logic. A great many Republicans actually do oppose Obamacare for bona fide reasons. Others are indifferent, and some might opposite it only on partisan grounds while liking the law in principle. Which of these groups of Republicans do liberals think would have had reason to vote for the law?

Those who secretly liked the law were going to see it passed anyway by a Democratic majority—they got the policy they wanted without having to risk blowback in a Republican primary. You’d have to be extremely idealistic to believe that taking a serious political risk to make no policy difference is a prudent move. Indifferent Republicans faced an even starker calculus: risk your career for a policy you don’t care about at all or that you think has as much chance of turning out badly as well. Finally, Republicans who did oppose PPACA out of principle surely can’t be expected to have a reason to vote for the law anyway absent something to change the equation.

This was the ex ante logic, and it proved to be correct: any Republican who had voted for Obamacare would have faced the wrath of the Tea Party, and if he had survived past 2010, he would still have to survive a 2014 midterm in which even Democrats risk losing their seats over their association with the law and its disastrous implementation.

Liberals are so politically inert that I don’t waste much time criticizing them. The Democratic Party, to the extent that it’s liberal, wins nationally because the GOP is a basket case. The hard left, which knows that Democrats are about as neoliberal as the GOP, lives in a nonsense world in which puppet-wielding protesters shape policy, or would if only they built more and bigger puppets. I know some very well meaning, otherwise intelligent antiwar leftists who are nonetheless the most politically infantile people you will ever meet. Politics is just magic to them. (Some of this comes of drawing the wrong lessons from Alinsky and Gramsci—wrong lessons the activist right is now busy committing to memory.)

What drives liberals’ political inanity is the same thing that accounts for why the Tea Party can’t govern: just as the grassroots right is against a lot of things but doesn’t feel much urgency about figuring out what it’s realistically for, liberals go hot with rage over Republican bad behavior and stop there, indulging in outrage rather than thinking about how to change the GOP’s incentives.

The Obamacare saga is the clearest example of the left’s failure to think politically. Lefties defend a law that they don’t even like, and which cost the Democratic Party enormously in 2010 and looks set to do so again in 2014. This would be like conservatives defending Medicare Part D if it had caused Republicans to lose the House in 2004. To their credit, most right-wingers, even the hawks, have the good sense not to attack anyone today for failing to support the Iraq War in 2003.

The only way to get a party or a politician to act against its interest or its principles is to change what those interests or principles are through powerful incentives. Offer X in return for Y, and if X is a higher priority for the other party than not-Y, you will get your way. Such negotiation isn’t always easy or even possible—the alignment of interests (including self-preservation) and principle involved in Republican opposition to Obamacare may have been insurmountable. At that point, a politician or party has a choice: press ahead with the policy knowing that you will bear 100 percent of the blame if things go wrong, or put your wager on something else and bide your time on this issue until the other side is more tractable. Obama, Reid, and Pelosi made their choice—fair enough—and they’re living with the consequences. The Republicans did the only thing that made sense in their position; and now they might reap a reward.

Liberals can comfort themselves in one respect, however: the Republicans have blown opportunities as good as this many times before. That’s why Harry Reid is still majority leader.

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The GOP’s Contraception Conundrum

Libertarian legal scholar Randy Barnett spots the corner into which “judicial conservatives” have painted themselves on contraception, whose nationwide legality is vouchsafed by a Supreme Court decision notoriously at variance with the right’s judicial philosophy:

judicial conservatives… believe that the Court in Griswold was wrong to protect a right to use contraceptives. … And the smarter and better trained they are as judicial conservatives, the more they are trapped by the accusation that state legislatures could ban contraceptives if they want, which then leads to the next questions [which] is whether they think state legislatures ought to ban contraceptives.  How they answer this question can then get themselves in trouble with parts of their socially conservative base.

In short, this is a morass for those conservative Republicans who have embraced judicial conservatism, and who are smart enough and well schooled enough to understand where the logic of their position truly leads.

Barnett’s solution is to propose “a constitutional conservatism that seeks to enforce the whole Constitution, including the parts that judicial conservatives are at pains to explain away, like the Ninth Amendment and the Privileges or Immunities Clause of the Fourteenth.” In Barnett’s view, this would require a strong rationale for any restriction on individual liberty by any level of government. Presumably one could come up with reasons why abortion or various hard drugs should be banned but contraception should not. Barnett doesn’t tackle these questions in his post, and he may not be sympathetic to the antiabortion and pro-drug-war elements of the right, but in theory what he proposes need not preclude their goals. That’s especially important where abortion is concerned since Griswold set the stage for Roe. Read More…

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‘Aleppo is nothing but hunger and Islam’

One of the few foreign journalists operating from rebel-controlled Syria, Francesca Borri, paints a picture every bit as grim as you could imagine: “nobody is fighting the regime any more; rebels now fight against each other. And for many of them, the priority is not ousting Bashar al-Assad’s regime, but enforcing sharia law.”

She’s not apologizing for Assad—“both the rebels and the regime hunt us,” she says of her fellow journalists—but she’s calling attention to the whitewashing perpetrated by the likes of Elizabeth O’Bagy and Syrian activists. (“They are the famous citizen journalists, glorified by those who probably would never trust a citizen dentist.”) Be sure to read the whole piece.

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