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The Urbane Distraction

But none of that changes the fact that there is something typically psychologistic and so ultimately very superficial about Brooks’s analysis: a more sophisticated and urbane Republican Party would certainly do better among the “educated class”, as would one that approached matters with a great deal more intellectual seriousness. ~John Schwenkler [1]

Brooks’ analysis is an applied form of the Dougherty Doctrine [2]: the GOP would be better off if it were more like me; it’s failing because it’s like you.  Brooks’ reference to the “urbane” candidates in the primaries (i.e., Giuliani, Romney and McCain) was instructive for its lack of realism and its terrible judgement.  The Terrible Trio, as I once dubbed this awful threesome, represented everything that was wrong with the modern Republican Party: nasty authoritarianism, shilling for corporate interests and endless jingoism.  Each one combined some measure of these things: Romney called for “doubling” Gitmo–whatever that meant–and Giuliani embraced any and every new conflict on the horizon, while McCain was glad to accept new government surveillance powers and pro-corporate trade and economic policies.   Think of everything that went wrong with the Bush administration, and then consider these three candidates–it becomes clear that any one of them promised to perpetuate at least some part of the abuses of the Bush Era: Giuliani was going to spy on you or lock you up without charges; Romney was going to shortchange and defraud you; McCain was likely to start another war.  Leave aside for the moment their problems with social conservatives and their personal flaws–these were, are, horrible representatives of the right.  That at least two of the three had a plausible path to the nomination makes a mockery of complaints that “urbane” candidates cannot flourish in the modern GOP.  One might fairly ask why any party would want to be “urbane” if it includes accepting the policy priorities of such people, but it is undeniable that the party tolerates, promotes and rewards them at the highest levels.  For the most part, conservatives go along with this, sometimes enthusiastically and sometimes not. 

When presented with a candidate who actually represented the core constituencies of the party in terms of geographic origin, socioeconomic background and level of education (i.e., Huckabee), there was an unparalleled collective freakout among conservative activists and elites.  So it is not entirely credible when I see complaints from “urbane” conservatives that they are somehow underrepresented or neglected in modern Republican politics–were it not for their entirely outsized, overbearing influence, Giuliani and Romney would have been dismissed almost as soon as they announced their candidacies.  It is worth bearing in mind how much worse a Giuliani or Romney would have done had he been the nominee; it is worth considering that someone like Huckabee might have actually done much, much better than McCain is doing, and not only because he is a more naturally talented politician.  It may have been inevitable that the GOP was doomed to lose this election, and lose it badly, and there is some justice in that, but it is not at all obvious that the GOP is going to fail because it was insufficiently “urbane.”         

As John reminds us, and as I suggested [3] earlier this week, the GOP has come to its current straits to a large extent because it heeded Brooks’ advice–or the advice of those who shared Brooks’ views–on what its priorities and policies should be.  The deeper problem that the GOP and conservatives alike have is that even if the Bush administration had been a paragon of excellence and competence (ha!), educated professionals and working-class Americans would have been drifting away from them in any case.  Cultural and demographic changes have also been working to undermine Republican political strength, and the response to these trends have been schizophrenic at best because there is basic disagreement inside the coalition about the identity of the party and the direction of conservatism.  Meanwhile, having defined many academic and professional fields as bastions of liberalism, conservatives have ceded an entire generation almost uncontested.  Conservatives are now paying the price for more or less writing off an entire generation by eschewing the work of education and building up the culture they want in favor of political activism. 

Obviously, a badly managed war and a general culture of cronyism and incompetence have persuaded managers and professionals that the supposed party of grown-ups has lost its way, but even without these things members of the New Class were never going to feel immediately at home in a party that relied heavily on social conservative votes and religious rhetoric.  When confronted with secular conservative complaints about the undue influence of religious conservatives, I have often been inclined to ridicule or belittle their concerns, because I am a religious conservative who sees no such influence and would be glad to see much more genuine religious conservatism guiding the right, but as I step back I begin to understand that their complaints were veiled pleas for acceptance.  As I have watched Palinites enthuse about their Joan of Arc, it has occurred to me that they want nothing more than validation for their way of life; criticism of Palin wounds them because they think it is a judgement on how they live.  Likewise, secular conservatives wish to be accepted and validated by their religious confreres.  Even Andrew’s often overwrought and ultimately misguided complaints about so-called “Christianism” are at bottom arguments in favor of the proposition that is is possible to be conservative but critical of religion in politics.  These complaints then morph and mutate into absolute affirmations (in Palin’s case) or negations (in the secular conservatives’ case) that try to force people to make false choices: either you uncritically endorse everything about Palin, or you hate small-town, religious people; either you reject religious conservatism in politics, or you endorse the reign of “fundamentalist” loonies.  Palinites feed off of secular conservatives’ disdain as proof that their stark opposition between true believers and godless elites is correct, and the secular conservatives find the Palinite mania to be proof that their fear of the role of religion in politics was entirely justified. 

We may be faced with another false choice between embracing conservatives’ cultural populism and having respect for ideas, and it is vital that we find some way of holding the two in tension.

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9 Comments To "The Urbane Distraction"

#1 Comment By Andrew On October 10, 2008 @ 10:26 pm

Where is the party that would promote, rather than discard, a person like James Comey?

The reductio ad absurdam of the attempt to justify Palin’s nomination was when the candidate herself (and other campaign surrogates) began to assert that she had foreign policy credentials because Alaska was next to Russia. This is not an argument that can be made honestly and in good faith.

And it’s struck me, over and over again, that a defining feature of the Bush administration has been repeated statements made which have demonstrably not been made in good faith. All politicians shade, spin and (occasionally) lie. Acting systematically as if your words have no meaning beyond the exigiencies of the day is new to me, and I’m 49 years old and have followed politics since the early 1970s. So Palin fits right into this emerging pattern, and it’s one that I’d hope to see conservatives reject.

You can govern competently and honestly from the Right. Acting as if you have no need to demonstrate either competence or honesty isn’t a long term sustainbable strategy, I think.

#2 Comment By Indya On October 10, 2008 @ 11:37 pm

Well written. It is exemplary of the way our culture frames every argument now with a “you’re either with us or you’re against us” tribe mentality. There is no room for “yes, but I have reservations” – if you aren’t on the bandwagon, you’re an enemy.

Palin is a great example – at her announcement, it was intriguing. Without doing any vetting, she sounded almost perfect for the party. Reformer Governor, blah blah. Now, you can’t tell people that she left Wasilla with over $20M of debt because they refuse to believe that their golden girl is incompetent, or not a true fiscal conservative. They have bought into her identity so wholly because it validates who they are – gun loving, middle class America, maybe they’re religious too. Any dissension is seen as a personal affront, and intellectual dishonesty abounds.

#3 Comment By kranza On October 11, 2008 @ 5:47 am

Bush did everything Brooks and his ilk wanted and now he pretends that the GOP has been laid low by people *unlike* him. He’s so pathetic.

And it’s ridiculous to say Bush doesnt care about ideas. Bush is stubbornly obsessed with ideas he shares with Brooks, such as on foreign policy, immigration, and to lesser extent, big government “conservatism.”

#4 Comment By kranza On October 11, 2008 @ 5:47 am

Oh and trade.

#5 Comment By One Lazy Dog On October 11, 2008 @ 9:43 am

You are right about the false choices that are presented to the public, especially to those inclined to support the republicans. This is, of course, the neocon GOP being hoist on the Rovian petard of perpetual false “with us or against us” choices. If one is inclined one might find some irony in the current state of affairs in the GOP………

#6 Comment By gsmart On October 11, 2008 @ 11:50 am

I don’t think the two CAN be held in tension any longer.

I take your point about Palin’s fans wanting some sort of validation of their way of life; but why? Why do they need that validation? Why can they not just live their lives according to the code they believe to be correct, whether I endorse or approve of it or not? What you’re describing is a tremendous personal insecurity that winds up driving people’s political choices.

#7 Comment By DaveA On October 11, 2008 @ 2:51 pm

“Why can they not just live their lives according to the code they believe to be correct, whether I endorse or approve of it or not?”

Because they’re Republicans, not Libertarians.

#8 Comment By jTh On October 17, 2008 @ 4:38 pm

Hello, Daniel. I’m a new liberal”ish” moderate reader who’s always happy to find a good conservative commentator, and I’ve certainly been impressed so far. But I was quite surprised by these thoughts:

“When confronted with secular conservative complaints about the undue influence of religious conservatives, I have often been inclined to ridicule or belittle their concerns, because I am a religious conservative who sees no such influence and would be glad to see much more genuine religious conservatism guiding the right… Even Andrew’s often overwrought and ultimately misguided complaints about so-called “Christianism” are at bottom arguments in favor of the proposition that is is possible to be conservative but critical of religion in politics.”

I certainly don’t think Andrew is misguided or overwrought to label a segment as something different from “conservative Christians,” because I think it’s plain that they’re not the kind of “religious conservatism” that you would consider desirable. When you see “no such influence,” I think you’re missing something that’s a huge plank of the whole conservative problem now.

First, consider that these are the people fighting against evolution because they find it existentially threatening. That is, when science threatens their myths, they’re adamant to resist science. “Facts” are to be scorned, belittled, discredited, and *kept away from our children* when inconvenient.

Next, ask yourself: who ARE these twenty-someodd percent of people who still approve of George Bush? Who ARE these thirty-someodd percent of people who rate Palin favorably? And, obviously, I’m suggesting that they’re largely the same groups. And when it comes to “influence,” 20+% of the population choosing to ignore – even DAMN – inconvenient facts is a mighty problem for the conservative movement. (Which, of course, hasn’t done itself any favors by stonewalling against global warming, and launching a reckless war upon no basis of factual evidence.)

I.e., there’s a massive segment of whackjob irrationals, and the conservative party both has a virtual monopoly upon them and desperately needs them to create winnable majorities and foot-soldier their positions. That’s a problem that must be taken apart and overcome, durations be damned.

I’m certainly not attacking you, Daniel. If I had to lock myself down to a single label, I’d call myself an Eisenhower Republican, and I see rational voices like yours as critically necessarily to bring such a sensible party back into existence.

But my feeling is that there’s no hope for the Republican party until the whackjob irrationals are effectively marginalized. “Validation for their way of life” might be their subconscious desire, but they will only be entreatied by validation of their adamantly superstitious and fact-hostile (and sex-hostile) worldviews. My feeling is that only rejection can move the party forward toward any sum of credibility that will elect sensible Republicans again. (The party would certainly be more attractive to the average centrist, at a minimum.)

“Holding the two in tension” has been the *problem*, not the solution. It led to Bush (who was as plain as Palin from the outset), and it will lead to no better.

That’s my advice, anyway, from someone who wants *two* viable parties to serve all our best interests, and wants legitimate conservative voices like yours to lead the way.

#9 Pingback By Coming Home to Roost « Upturned Earth || John Schwenkler On October 19, 2008 @ 6:07 pm

[…] All this is not to say that the selection of Sarah Palin and everything it represents about the GOP’s faux-populist turn is anything but an electoral liability at present, but there is a clear risk here of giving into a tendency that I noted last weekend, and which Daniel Larison rightly summarized with the Dougherty Doctrine: “If it were more like me, the Republican Party would be better off. It’s failing because it’s like you.” This risk is greatly heightened when one insists on thinking from within what Ross Douthat has rightly called the conservative “cocoon”, in which the ideas and policies are always well in order and it is only the packaging – filtered, of course, by the dread MSM and its supposed liberal bias – that has gone wrong. And since so many of the pundits who occupy that cocoon have an only marginal concern for social issues, immigration, and other things that especially exorcise the sorts of people to whom the selection of Governor Palin was meant to appeal, it is far too easy for them to point to the failure of the McCain-Palin ticket as evidence that it is those sorts of people who are ultimately to blame, that the Republican Party would have been better off if it had only told a few more of them to take a hike, or at least to get out of the driver’s seat and let the responsible ones control things. […]