Friday, December 31, 2010

American Conservativism: Intellectual, Cohesive, Anti-establishment, Exceptional (Part II)

James Piereson is president of the William E. Simon Foundation and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. He has written an important essay that proclaims American conservativism to be the country’s most vibrant political philosophy; the very essence of American exceptionalism.

Piereson’s argument continues, in his own words, in Part II:

conservatives will have to craft a new governing consensus out of the loose strands of their movement—but . . . conservatism will continue to operate as a political force in the years and decades ahead because it has turned itself into a popular, even a populist, movement—something few thought possible when conservatism first took shape. . . Yet in a democratic polity such as exists in the United States, conservatism could not have thrived . . . without also channeling its ideas into a popular force.

Critics, from Richard Hofstadter in the 1950s to Sam Tanenhaus more recently, have denied that a popular conservatism can exist because, in their view, conservatism must sacrifice its distinctive elements in the process of winning a mass following. . . Edmund Burke’s ever-famous writings on the French Revolution [endorsed] governance by the talented, supported the status quo, and preferred prudence and realism as guides to political action over abstract theories and principles. American conservatism, on the other hand. . . has exploited popular appeals, attacked the status quo and “the establishment,” used terms like “the conservative revolution,” and, especially in foreign policy, proposed an “idealistic” rather than a “realistic” approach to dealing with foreign threats.

American conservatism [is anti-establishment] because it originated outside the political mainstream and. . . has never really functioned comfortably within it. . . As an opposition movement in a democratic system, American conservatives can only gain power by taking their case to the public in order to win converts to their cause and, incidentally, to discredit the . . . status quo.

Because it developed as a challenge to . . . the New Deal and its successive iterations, American conservatism embodies many of the features of an insurgent or oppositional group. Conservatives [describe] their enterprise as a “movement,” . . . an active and dedicated membership moving toward some definite destination. . . most conservatives still think of themselves as an embattled minority fighting a proud and insulated establishment.

Shut out of liberal institutions, such as elite-college faculties and the national press, along with mainline churches and even government itself, conservatives have set up their own . . . think tanks, radio and television networks, magazines, book publishers, citizen associations, charitable foundations, newspapers, and even a few colleges . . . conservatives attend meetings and conferences, form friendships and associations, and develop and exchange ideas without ever having to [contact] liberals. From these redoubts, they rally the public against the liberal establishment, often with impressive success and much to the alarm of liberal critics who . . . view them as dangerous radicals.

Conservatives have in this way created their own “nation” within the nation, replete with its own culture, institutions and prominent personalities. . . As a political insurgency, American conservatives also have naturally adopted the language of opposition, speaking of “revolution” . . . and attacking “elites,” “the establishment” and an “out-of-control government.”

The movement is distinguishable from a political party by its emphasis on principles and philosophy, its interest in recruiting only like-minded members and its focus upon large goals rather than incremental changes in policy. Because of this character, the conservative movement is not much interested in “the politics of compromise” or in accommodations with liberalism and liberal politics. Conservatism thus remains even now a movement of ideas and philosophy rather than . . . a collection or coalition of interests.

movements can continue intact in the face of persistent defeats until their goals have been reached or they have been absorbed into the mainstream operations of government. In fact. . . in opposition. . . principles can be advocated in pure form, [while] in power. . . those principles are inevitably adulterated by compromise.

Several years ago, [the Economist’s] John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge. . . pointed out that the influence of the American conservative movement . . . provides the nation with its unique and exceptional identity in the world. . . it is American conservatism that has opened up the chasm between the politics of the United States and that found in other industrial nations of the world. . . the American Left, with its industrial unions, government workers and liberal intellectuals, has its obvious counterparts in Great Britain, France, Germany and much of the rest of Europe. The Democratic Party [isn’t] out of place within the European context. It [isn’t] the American Left that makes the United States an exceptional nation.

American conservatism, on the other hand, is a unique and unusual movement in the modern world. Its various affiliated groups promoting liberty and free markets, lower taxes, religion and traditional morality, or patriotism and national strength, are largely unknown elsewhere. There exists no political institution in Europe that resembles the various components of the conservative movement, such as . . . the various tax-limitation and patriotic groups now active, or the Tea Party movement. And conservatism’s . . . Sarah Palin [or] Newt Gingrich would make little headway in other countries. [Thus,] the conservative movement increasingly defines American exceptionalism in the contemporary world.

American Conservativism: Intellectual, Cohesive, Anti-establishment, Exceptional (Part I)

James Piereson is president of the William E. Simon Foundation and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. He has written an important essay that proclaims American conservativism to be the country’s most vibrant political philosophy; the very essence of American exceptionalism.

Here Piereson’s argument, in his words, Part I:

one of the more significant political developments in the United States over the last half of the twentieth century was the rise of conservatism from a marginal intellectual movement in 1950 to its position by the end of the 1990s as a rival to liberalism as the nation’s most influential public doctrine. It fought its way to that position. . . because it solved a series of public challenges—from crime to the Cold War—that liberals could not, or at least did not, address.

there are now more conservatives in America than there are liberals[; they] make up a highly significant minority of American voters. . . liberals in power, if they are to survive, must tack to the center while conservatives can govern more from the right—and, indeed, [are] why Obama’s attempt to reprise FDR and LBJ was bound to fail.

American conservatism began . . . as a movement of ideas and. . .has managed to maintain its original character. Thus David Brooks has observed that conservatives differ from other political sets in their apparent preoccupation with books, ideas and a handful of influential authors. One rarely hears of liberal groups discussing major works written by the intellectual architects of the welfare state, such as John Dewey, Herbert Croly or John Rawls, or sponsoring programs in honor of leading figures like John Maynard Keynes or John Kenneth Galbraith. One would be hard-pressed to identify an influential book or essay that sets forth the principles of contemporary liberalism as they relate to feminism, multiculturalism, diversity or economic planning.

Conservative groups, on the other hand, regularly pay tribute in their programs to the founding fathers of conservative thought . . .The texts that energize conservatives . . .are: (1) The Road to Serfdom, published by F. A. Hayek in London and in the United States in 1944, which developed the enduring case for classical liberalism; (2) Witness, published by Whittaker Chambers in 1952, and The Conservative Mind, by Russell Kirk in 1953, which provoked a renewal of Burkean conservatism, which in turn led to the founding in 1954 of National Review by William F. Buckley Jr.; and (3) the Public Interest, a quarterly journal founded in 1965 by Irving Kristol and Daniel Bell which was the original forum for neoconservatism, a set of ideas that quickly found expression in other influential venues, such as Commentary magazine and the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal.

traditional conservatives, led by Buckley, Kirk and Chambers. . . argued [the Cold War] was not solely about preserving liberty but also about the conservation of the religious and moral tradition of the West. . . The neoconservatives, for their part, developed their own synthesis in response to the unraveling of the American welfare state in the 1960s and a parallel rise in anti-American sentiment. . . the problem with the expanding social safety net was . . . that it increasingly promoted disorder, crime, broken or unformed families, poor schools and a general loss of authority in society[, undermining] the middle-class values upon which a successful commercial civilization must be based. . . neoconservatives were not in principle opposed to the welfare state but only to a liberal welfare state that did not uphold the ideals of family, order and community.

An essential aspect of conservatism is the conviction that . . . republics follow a cycle of rise and inevitable decline as the people or their leaders gradually sacrifice their principles in the pursuit of money, security or power. Conservatives. . . are thus skeptical of liberal notions of inevitable historical progress that do not take into account . . . corruption and decline. This is one of the key reasons conservatives have always looked for external supports for representative institutions, whether in nationalism and patriotism, religion, family and community. . . which provide direction and discipline for liberty and self-interest. Conservatives [fear eroding of] those private associations and loyalties which sustain and support representative institutions.

. . . conservatives look to . . . Alexis de Tocqueville, James Madison, Joseph Schumpeter and [Edmund] Burke as important sources for their ideas. . . The seminal conservative thinkers of our era . . . have identified these external supports . . .—Hayek in the founders’ Constitution, Buckley and his colleagues in religion, family and tradition, and Kristol and the neoconservatives in bourgeois virtues and patriotism.

These authors, books and publications are still read by conservatives [and none], to the surprise of critics, has been discredited among conservatives by recent events—not the classical liberals by the financial crash, not the traditional conservatives by the libertarian cultural politics of our day and not the neoconservatives by the war in Iraq.

At the same time, little that is new or fundamental has been added to the conservative movement since the neoconservatives arrived on the scene. It still runs by and large on that set of ideas developed in the postwar period in response to totalitarianism, socialism, and an expanding and self-confident welfare state. . .

The critique of Obama’s agenda is increasingly framed in popular circles in terms of “big government” as a threat to liberty and the constitutional order. [Hayek’s] Road to Serfdom recently rose to the top of best-seller lists after [FOX’s Glenn Beck] urged his viewers to read it as the clearest diagnosis of the challenges posed by liberal policies. [Hayek’s conservativism] is increasingly being presented as an alternative to the Democratic agenda. Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, has similarly framed the debate as one of “free enterprise” versus “big government.” The Road to Serfdom, however, while a penetrating diagnosis of the corruptions of the welfare state, offers few prescriptions for unwinding it in its mature phase.

(Part II continues here.)

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Surprise! Minority Candidates Have a Choice.

Democrats are strong in minority districts, but minorities do better in white districts running as Republicans. From Josh Kraushaar, writing in the National Journal:

It’s clear Democrats are a much more inclusive party—just look at the fact that nearly one-third of House Democrats are non-white. [But o]f the 75 black, Hispanic, and Asian-American Democrats in Congress and governorships, only nine represent majority-white constituencies—and that declines to six in 2011. . . And when you only look at members of Congress or governors elected by majority-white constituencies (in other words, most of the governorships [picture: Nikki Haley of South Carolina] and Senate seats, and 337 out of 435 House seats), Democrats trail Republicans in minority representation.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

At Christmastime, thoughts about moral authority (Part II).

In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.

--Benjamin Franklin (1789)

We need government, and we probably even need big government. But the current Federal government is too large and inefficient for our own good (proof: record sustained high unemployment under total Democratic rule, 2009-10). Yet Democrats continue to defend big government. It’s impossible in fact to tell where Democrats end and government begins. They are a virtual identity.

The goodness, the moral virtue, within which government wrapped itself in the Great Depression has frayed over time. Government is now the establishment, supported by the Democratic Party, the media, academia, arts and entertainment, the non-profit sector, liberal churches, and much of big business. Becoming increasingly brittle in their effort to hang on, and acting increasingly out of fear, our elite sincerely hold to their moral authority, which makes dislodging them from power even more difficult.

At base, the elite believe some elite has to be in charge, and that our American meritocracy is the last, best hope for a good elite. They reject rule by money, opposing the capitalists who flourish when government is absent from the picture. You can say government exists to tax; to redirect resources from money through government to the worthy and needy (government of course retains money for itself as the funds pass through it—see kleptocracy).

One may wonder why our wealthy elite denounce America’s concentration of wealth, and why they favor progressive taxation. One answer: doing so underpins their moral authority to rule, and doing so offsets their guilt at having so much. But also, doing so may reflect genuine revulsion at others who inherit or acquire wealth without earning it, yet seemingly fight to keep it all. Such persons are the elite’s inferiors—by another name, Republicans.

The elite’s ideology, their moral authority, rests on three additional principles:

Knowledge is power. Government and its people must defer to superior knowledge, to expertise, to brains. It’s “what you know.” Remember “who you are” is based on “what you know.” New facts displace old facts; speed wins.

2. ACT. Rule based on science. We must honor our modern versions of the Greek gods, superior humans who act on our behalf, and who practice “relativism”—breaking the rules—based on science that always moves forward. Scientific rule inevitably overrides fixed moral values tied to ancient, outdated texts.

3. LOVE. Helping victims. That means feeding the major components of the Democratic coalition—those benefiting from government transfer payments, as well as blacks, other minorities, and unmarried women. Love your core supporters as well—government workers and other union members, liberals, and young people. All together, the elite and their victims make up a potential majority of voters.

At Christmastime, thoughts about moral authority (Part I).

moral busybodies [who] torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.

--C.S. Lewis

Politics is about power. Ideology justifies grabbing and holding onto power. We fight for power in the name of some greater good. Without moral authority, it becomes difficult to impossible for any elite to impose its will on the population.

Republicans are a shadow elite, a leadership group out of power. The party has a bad name as a result of past corruption, troubles in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, deficits and debt, and the Great Recession that began on its watch. Today Republicans prefer to call themselves conservatives and speak of lower taxes, less government spending, less regulation of the private sector, and opposition to government-run health care.

Republicans believe a strong economy lifts all ships, that it’s better to grow the pie than to fight over how to cut it, and that individuals make wiser decisions affecting their own lives than do bureaucrats in Washington. Republicans believe in freedom, the modern word for the Declaration of Independence’s “liberty,” as in “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Because Republicans seek to decentralize power to each individual, they are opponents of today’s elite. According to Democrats who are today’s elite, Republican ideology sets up a situation leaving the rich free to lord it over the masses of unrich. We need government to correct capitalism’s imbalance.

The French Revolution, which followed ours by six years, paid lip service to “liberty,” but also honored “equality” (re-cutting the pie into more equal pieces) and “fraternity” (governing for the collective good)—two words that can override “liberty.” Isaiah Berlin in the mid-20th Century modernized the contradiction between freedom on the one hand, and equality and collective good on the other, in his seminal essay on “Two Concepts of Liberty”—positive and negative liberty.

Karl Marx was a scholar of the rise of capitalism who called for transferring power over the economy from the capitalist class to the people. While Marx believed history’s law made the transformation inevitable, as workers conscious of their rising power seized the means of production, decades later Vladimir Lenin believed that for revolution to take place, an intellectual elite, a “vanguard of the proletariat” must act on behalf of the people. The resulting bloodstained, tumultuous, and ultimately failed history of Lenin’s experiment, the Soviet Union (1917-1991), discredited the elite Leninist road to a better world.

Democrats are not Leninists. But they share a Socialist concern about capitalist concentration of wealth and power at the expense of the people, and believe government exists in part to correct wealth’s misdistribution. Democrats scorn Republicans as defenders of the rich. In the 20th Century, under Woodrow Wilson and every subsequent Democratic president, the party set about to rebalance the country away from business and toward the people. That drive provides Democrats their ideology, their moral authority.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Economy v. Culture

“It’s the economy, stupid.” Except when it isn’t. If the economy hums, the people running the country are happy to talk about it. But when the economy’s in trouble, people want to change the subject. They want to talk about enduring values instead, what I call protecting our culture. Here are blog entries, some of my earliest, discussing the tension between economic progress and culture:

Computers v. Culture (Part I)

Computers v. Culture (Part II)

Culture + Computers (Part I)

Cuture + Computers (Part II)

In a more recent blog post, I quoted Washington Post commentator Robert Samuelson’s thoughts about how describing issues in moral terms dodges the need, when money is scarce, to pay for solving a problem:
politicians prefer framing issues in moral terms. Global warming is about "saving the planet." Both sides of the abortion and gay marriage debates believe they hold the high ground.

Obama pitches his health care plan in moral terms: health care is a "right;” its opponents less moral. Why not use this tactic? On a simple calculus of benefits, Obama’s proposal would have failed. Perhaps 32 million Americans will receive insurance coverage -- about 10% of the population. But for most Americans, the bill imposes costs, including higher taxes, fees, and/or longer waits for service.

Supporters instead back expanded health care as "the right thing"; it makes them feel good about themselves. They get "psychic benefits." Economic benefits make people richer, but cost money. Psychic benefits make them feel morally upright and superior at no monetary cost to politicians! The magic solution.
Neither the right nor left has a monopoly on using moral values to deflect policy away from hard economic choices. Today, though, the left is in charge, and the economy isn’t working. So the left is deflecting.

Here, from Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, writing in the Washington Post, is a present-day example of a progressive shifting the discussion to culture. Kennedy Townsend does so with a spirited defense of the left's high moral standing:
[Sarah] Palin. . . argues that "morality itself cannot be sustained without the support of religious beliefs." That statement amounts to a wholesale attack on countless Americans, and no study or reasonable argument I have seen or heard would support such a blanket condemnation. . . Somehow Palin misses this. . . she may be appealing to a religious right that really seeks secular power. . . no American political leader should cavalierly - or out of political calculation - dismiss the hard-won ideal of religious freedom that is among our country's greatest gifts to the world.
A contrasting example of a conservative focusing on the economy is Walter Russell Mead’s American Interest article advocating growth through free enterprise not through big government:
For America to move forward, power is going to have to shift from bureaucrats to entrepreneurs, from the state to society and from qualified experts and licensed professionals to the population at large. . . we must drastically raise productivity by re-imagining the way our society makes and distributes the services that, currently, the. . . learned professions provide.

The world is moving in ways so opposed to [intellectuals’] most hallowed assumptions that they simply cannot make sense of it. They resist blindly and uncreatively and, unable to appreciate the extraordinary prospects for human liberation that this change can bring, they are incapable of creative and innovative response. . . [they] try to turn this [transformation] into a left/right debate rather than one about the past and the future.
Tom Friedman of the New York Times seems to be one of those Mead describes as “unable to appreciate the extraordinary prospects for human liberation.” Friedman instead wants even bigger, better government with its long-range planning:
given where we need to go, [the Obama-GOP tax] deal is just another shot of morphine to a country that needs to do things that are big and hard and still only wants to do things that are easy and small. . . in the politics of sports, the G.O.P. just scored a goal on Obama. We don’t seem to realize: We’re in a hole and still digging. Our educational attainment levels are stagnating; our infrastructure is fraying. . . We need a plan.
Friedman writes as if he advocates change. But look, he’s defending giving more resources to planners who make big, hard decisions, and we already have the biggest, planningest government in our history. Really Friedman in his own way is endorsing the very status quo Kennedy Townsend seeks to protect when she changes the subject to culture.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

My “Healthy Market” Stock Index at All-time High

My FOX Index measures the gap between the current market and a healthy close for the three major indexes: 12,000 for the Dow, 1,300 for the S&P 500, and 2,500 for the NASDAQ, or a total of 15,800.

November 5, just after the Republicans’ midterm election victory, the Index reached its highest point (-551) since the 2008 financial crash. It’s now even higher, at -311 (see chart) with the Dow Wednesday hitting 11,559, the S&P 500 at 1,259, and the NASDAQ at 2,671, the highest the NASDAQ’s been since late 2007. The FOX Index has now passed its previous pre-crash high of -336, reached on August 7, 2008 (I created the Index in July 2008). Stocks are up because Republicans should begin bringing the federal budget under control next year, and because the President and Congress have reached agreement not to raise taxes January 1.

The economy, however, continues marked by high unemployment, and Mark J. Perry and Robert Dell think they know why our housing and finance-based Great Recession has been so severe. Writing in the American Enterprise Institute’s American, Perry and Dell explain how our banking crisis should be “understood more fundamentally as a government failure than as a market or business failure.” Greedy top executives at the government's Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac, backed by friends in Congress, employed government-guaranteed credit to generate a sub-prime based housing bubble that private banks would never have undertaken on their own.