Friday, March 26, 2010

Frum Here To Eternity?

David Frum has been cast out of the American Enterprise Institute for heresy. The conservative poobah published an article that argued Republicans' embrace of no-compromise extremism in fighting the health care bill, instead of working with Democrats to shape it, had made it their "Waterloo." The right-wing funders of the AEI didn't like that very much, so out the door he went.

Today, conservative blogger Rick Moran has a noteworthy piece on Frum's fall, and its implications for conservatism (it's here, too). While I certainly don't want conservatives to rule, I do think the continued degeneration of the American right is a very real cause of concern among liberals, not just thoughtful conservatives, because any political viewpoint, party, perspective, "philosophy" needs a credible, perpetual opposition. Without that, atrophy sets in. Moran has offered up a shout against that degeneration, one I thought was definitely worth a word or two.

While I think the piece pretty good, I do take issue with some of its assertions. To be honest, the words "David Frum" and "intellectual" don't really belong in the same sentence, but the words "intellectual" and "conservatism" certainly doesn't belong in the same sentence these days, and it's for a lot of the reasons Frum outlines, so while I'd contest the depth of Frum's Big Brain-ist credentials, I wouldn't say he shows up to an intellectual debate entirely unarmed.

I would say that about most contemporary conservatives. It's certainly true of most of what Moran calls "movement conservatives," but it's also mostly true of what passes, these days, for "intellectual conservatives" as well.

The only reason it can rarely be said about any conservatives of any stripe is that none of them show up for intellectual debates anymore. They just sit around talking amongst themselves all the time, trading favored myths, heedless of the reality that exists outside of their sealed little world. Conservatism has, indeed, turned into "an echo chamber," as Moran characterizes it--I've always called it a bubble--and the unwillingness to tread beyond its confines "marks one as a philistine," just as Moran says. That's a mark born so broadly by conservatism now that it has become virtually a defining characteristic.

That's where Moran gets one wrong--very wrong--because he argues "It is the antithesis of conservatism to close one’s mind and reject alternative viewpoints based not on their relevancy or reason but rather on the source of the criticism." That's not "the antithesis of conservatism" today; it's standard operating procedure, from which the deviations are so few (and so mild when they do occur) they're barely even worth mentioning.

To be fair, Moran, when he speaks of such things, is talking about conservatism as a theoretical philosophy, rather than using, as a definition of conservatism, that which conservatives actually argue and actually do. In this particular context, though, I don't see that as particularly useful. If theoretical conservatism says one thing but an overwhelming number of conservatives believe the opposite, how can that thing really be said to be a tenet of conservatism? In other contexts, such a question wouldn't matter--in this one, it's critical. When Moran decries the lack of "consistency" in contemporary conservatism, he's arguing that conservatives are, in practice, inconsistent with that theoretical conservatism. That's often true, and it makes them hypocrites and even liars when it is, but when it comes to practical politics, as Moran is discussing, how useful is it to define "conservatism" as a thing with which most conservatives disagree? Moran makes a clear division between "conservatism" and what he calls "emotional partisanship." Conservatives fail to recognize such a division, and Moran's efforts to do so in this context smacks of an effort to isolate conservatism from conservatives.

Moran says there is, on the right, "a lack of confidence in what conservatism as a philosophy should be all about," and, to illustrate, he uses the example of conservatives who decry "activist judges," but are the first in line in seeking out "activist judges" when it comes time to challenge Obama's health care law. Does this show "a lack of confidence in what conservatism as a philosophy should be all about," or does it just mean that "conservatism"--the practical kind--never had any real concern for "activist judges" in the first place? The obvious conclusion is the correct one. The much-expressed conservative concern about "judicial activism" was, for most conservatives, just a way to cloak, in loftier, pseudo-intellectual terms, what was, at heart, merely a raw emotional hatred for certain non-conservative rulings. There isn't a "titanic irony," as Moran says, in conservatives charging into court on this; there is merely hypocrisy and a revealing of conservatives' true colors.

With these and maybe a few other caveats, Moran's critique of conservatism is thoughtful and, at times, remarkably relentless in its rhetoric. I'd almost stopped believing that sort of conservative critique of conservatism was even possible anymore. I suspect it won't prove particularly popular on the righty web. That's unfortunate.



This may be the biggest end-note in history, but it popped into my head when I was reading Moran's piece, so why not throw it in?

Moran makes some comments about the health care bill:

"On health care, it is naive to believe the Democrats were prepared to work with the GOP on anything that would have stopped short of the kind of comprehensive remaking of our health care that eventually passed. This, the GOP could not countenance under any circumstances and remain a viable political party."

But, of course, the GOP did "countenance" what was done. The bill was created by the GOP. It had been a Republican bill, advanced by former Republican Sen. Bob Dole, advanced by Republican Sen. Judd Gregg, advanced by congressional Republicans when they were trying to defeat the Clinton bill way back in the '90s (when--deja vu--Clinton adopted Republican leader Bob Michel's plan as his own and met with the same reaction from Republicans), and advanced and enacted by Republican Gov. Mitt Romney in Massachusetts (which was the explicitly-stated model for the current bill, now law). It's basically the same in every iteration because it was always written by industry lobbyists. Obama's only significant change was to add a public option, which he, of course, almost immediately threw overboard. Except for a few of its reforms which were gutted in the final product (like anti-pre-existing conditions, anti-rescission, etc.), the bill has no history among the liberals at all--it was a Republican project until right up until the Obama adopted it as his own, at which point all the Republicans abandoned it and started screaming "socialism." That's the bill's pedigree.

Moran quotes Bruce Bartlett:

"Since, he is no longer affiliated with AEI, I feel free to say publicly something he told me in private a few months ago. He asked if I had noticed any comments by AEI 'scholars' on the subject of health care reform. I said no and he said that was because they had been ordered not to speak to the media because they agreed with too much of what Obama was trying to do."

Given its pedigree, it is, in fact, very likely that, at some point over the years, the bill passed through the American Enterprise Institute--elements of it probably even originated there. Moran decries the silencing of the AEI "scholars," but doesn't seem to understand the significance of the fact that "they agreed with too much of what Obama was trying to do."

Republicans created that bill, which suggests they didn't find it so inconsistent with their "philosophy" before Obama adopted it as his, and utterly precludes their actually finding it as insanely inconsistent as they pretended it to be. They dug a grave for themselves with their reactionary, no-compromise "emotional partisanship," even maintaining it in the face of a president and party who, contrary to Moran's implication, seemed fully willing to give away just about everything in the name of "bipartisanship." Frum was right about that part of it, and we may all be the worse for it.

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