The Fading Conservative Brand
I had a somewhat strange experience last night. The phone rang, and it was a pollster from LSU. She was calling for a survey they were doing about state political issues, mostly, but she also gathered demographic data for context. I normally don’t participate in polls, but because this was about state issues, I figured that my opinion might carry more weight, however minuscule.
When we got toward the end of the survey, she asked me if I was a Republican, Democrat, or Independent.
“Independent,” I said. That’s how I registered to vote here, and that’s how I think of myself.
“Do you lean Democrat, lean Republican, or Other?”
“Do you consider yourself moderate, slightly conservative, somewhat conservative, conservative, or very conservative?”
This tripped me up. Normally I would say “conservative.” But I thought about how this poll would be read when it came out in the paper. I know what I think about my own philosophical views, and where that puts me on the spectrum, but this was an opinion poll. The real question is where would I fit in among the commonly understood sense of “conservative” in 2013 America?
I asked her to repeat the question, to give me a moment to think about it.
I thought about Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, the strong Catholic social conservative, and how he’s been denounced by that DeMint conservative SuperPAC as “too liberal.” It made me think about how so often these days, whenever I hear the word “conservative” — a word that I use to describe myself — used in the media, and in public debate, I’ve started to associate it not with principled, commonsense, trustworthy governance, but with obstinate, reckless, closed-minded assholery.
This has nothing to do with the standard conservative positions on abortion or gay rights. I hold those views. Though I am not as hardline on right-of-center economics and foreign policy issues as most Republicans, and I believe the GOP ought to open itself to greater diversity in its ranks (even if that means legitimizing social liberals within the party), my feeling here has less to do than you might think with any particular position mainstream conservatives hold. Rather, it’s at least equally the manner in which they hold these positions.
When I was in college, and first became a conservative, it was the liberals who had a reputation as rigid, doctrinaire, snide, and off-putting. I’m generalizing, but in those days, liberals were the ones who were far more likely to be brittle, who weren’t willing to look around and adjust their prescriptions to changing circumstances, who seemed disconnected from the world as it was. It seemed to me that liberals had emotional and ideological touchstones in a bygone political and cultural era, and they dealt with changing times by insisting on greater ideological purity in the ranks. Whatever else 1980s liberalism wasn’t, it wasn’t attractive. It seemed outdated and exhausted, both in terms of substantive policies and in terms of the way it presented itself to the public. I began my college career as a liberal, and it slowly began to dawn on me that I didn’t really believe in liberalism so much as I couldn’t stand Reagan and the people who loved him. I spent my freshman year fuming over the fact that my dad and all his friends were Reagan Democrats living in false consciousness; it never once occurred to me to wonder why it was working-class men had ceased to identify with the Democratic Party, and whether or not liberalism had anything wrong with it. My side was losing, but we found it easier to blame the fools who voted for Reagan, or to blame Reagan for being such an accomplished liar, than to examine ourselves and our own beliefs. (When I did begin to do that, my liberalism, which was primarily attitudinal, faded away.)
This is pretty much the case with conservatism today, I’m afraid. We could argue, and should argue, over what the policies of conservative government should be today; that’s not my point in this blog entry. My point here is that there is no creative ferment on the Right, no breathing space, few places where new ideas can emerge. All the energy on the Right seems aimed at hunting down the heretics within. That, and making life as hard as possible for the opposition, not because they have something better in mind, but as an end in itself.
Here it is, in 2013, with a Democratic president in his second term, and the Republican Party still has not dealt openly with the failures of the Bush presidency, and what it means for conservatism as a governing philosophy. Daniel Larison speaks to this problem well here. Excerpt:
My guess is that Rubio doesn’t think he is taking the country back to the Bush era. As he sees it, he is advocating for standard-issue Republican hawkish foreign policy, and to the extent that he has Bush’s record in mind at all he probably thinks that it was on balance a good record. That is the real problem: these Republicans don’t accept that their foreign policy has already been tried and failed, and if you tell them that they are adherents of Bushism they will probably take it as a compliment. I submit that Rubio hasn’t figured out a way to “move beyond” the Bush era because he thinks it is unnecessary or because he doesn’t want to do it. Failing to do so certainly hasn’t done him any harm among party leaders, since they aren’t interested in separating themselves from Bush-era foreign policy, either.
What do conservative Republicans stand for today that is all that different for what they stood for 30 years ago? This is a point Michael Gerson and Pete Wehner make in their Commentary essay offering ideas for Republican Party reform, and making the case that it is urgently needed. Excerpt:
And it is no wonder that Republican policies can seem stale; they are very nearly identical to those offered up by the party more than 30 years ago. For Republicans to design an agenda that applies to the conditions of 1980 is as if Ronald Reagan designed his agenda for conditions that existed in the Truman years.
To be clear: Reasonable tax rates and sound monetary policy remain important economic commitments. But America now confronts a series of challenges that have to do with globalization, stagnant wages, the loss of blue-collar jobs, exploding health-care and college costs, and the collapse of the culture of marriage.
In addition, on a number of these issues the Republican Party has developed a reputation—mostly but not completely unfair—as judgmental and retrograde.
Republicans think this is standing on strong principle, and giving liberals hell, but it strikes me as something else. Yes, this is about policies, but it’s also about an attitude, a psychology, an approach to politics and political thought. Oddly, perhaps, I am reminded of something the late Orthodox theologian Father Alexander Schememann wrote in his journal, published after his 1983 death, complaining about the suffocating atmosphere within Orthodox Christianity:
To change the atmosphere of Orthodoxy, one has to learn to look at oneself in perspective, to repent, and if needed, to accept change, conversion. In historic Orthodoxy, there is a total absence of criteria for self-criticism. Orthodoxy defined itself: against heresies, against the West, the East, the Turks, etc. Orthodoxy became woven with complexes of self-affirmation, an exaggerated triumphalism: To acknowledge errors is to destroy the foundations of true faith.
A lot of this applies to the psychology of contemporary political conservatism. There is in it so much anger, so much defensiveness, and “a total absence of criteria for self-criticism.” After a while, you just don’t want much to do with it. In the Eighties, and even into the Nineties, conservatism was the future. It sure felt that way. Now, I can’t say liberalism feels like the future the way conservatism did back then — maybe I’m just older now, and can’t be that optimistic about politics of any sort — but the conservatism we have on offer today absolutely feels like a dead end.
I know, I know, none of this griping is new. More than a few of us on the Right have been saying things like this for some time, though the critique remains an outsider one. Eventually it will break through; defeat upon defeat has a way of bringing the most thick-skulled ideologues to their senses. But what will the country have to go through until then?
One of this blog’s readers said in the Fortenberry comments thread that he would like to have the opportunity to vote for a conservative like Fortenberry, but various forces in the GOP and conservative movement aren’t letting him. I know that feeling. It’s the Schememann thing: to allow somebody who applies conservative principles differently to rise within conservative politics is to admit implicitly that there is no conservative orthodoxy, and, in turn, to undermine the foundations of the true faith.
I didn’t think about all this when I was on the phone with the pollster last night. I had a gut check, though, and realized that even though I’m a middle-aged, churchgoing white right-winger who has not the slightest attraction to liberalism, I increasingly don’t want to be associated with what “conservative” means here and now. I told the pollster “somewhat conservative,” only because I don’t want to encourage the party or the movement in what they have become. I don’t want to encourage their doctrinal rigidity, and I sure don’t want to encourage their obstreperousness.
Last night was not the first time I’ve had negative thoughts about the contemporary conservative movement and the GOP, heaven knows. But because I couldn’t qualify or contextualize my answer to the pollster, it was the first time that I can remember that I publicly distanced myself, however mildly, from “conservative” as a brand name. Maybe it was nothing, but it didn’t feel like nothing.
(I’m sure this will go into my RINO file somewhere, but really, at this point, who cares?)