Monday, August 5, 2013

Explaining conservatives, part...I lost count

There's been a debate on the right lately about whether the conservatives movement has any room for libertarian populism, whatever that is. I'm not sure there is such a thing, at least not in country with our past. But assuming it can, some liberals have offered their thoughts on the debate and have come up with some good stuff that conservatives/libertarians should do. First from Noah Smith:

The five big pieces of Conservative White America’s Grand Strategy that I think need reevaluation are:

1. “White flight” to suburbs and exurbs
2. Rigid and inflexible “family values”
3. Hostility toward immigrants and minorities
4. Excessive distrust of the government
5. Distrust of education, science, and intellectualism

Completely agree. But Mike the Mad Biologist explains why those reevaluations very likely won't happen, much less actually lead to change, which is taken from his excellent piece on Sarah Palin and why she was loved by conservatives:

In Palin’s case, it’s an emotional appeal to a romanticized, mythical past of “real America.” And that’s why I think the fixation people have on Palin’s complete policy incoherence and ignorance is missing the point.

Her policy ignorance isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. Palin is conceptually and intellectually poor because her politics are not about policies, but a romantic restoration of the ‘real’ America to its rightful place. The primary purpose of politics is not to govern, not to provide services, and not to solve mundane, although often important, problems. For the Palinist, politics first and foremost exists to enable the social restoration of ‘real’ Americans (think about the phrase “red blooded American”) and the emotional and social advantages that restoration would provide to its followers (obviously, if you’re not a ‘real’ American, you might view this as a bad thing…). Practicalities of governance, such as compromise and worrying about reality-based outcomes, actually get in the way. Why risk having your fantasy muddied by reality?
But that romanticism is at the heart of Palinism. It’s not a forward-looking utopianism, but a desire to return to a mythical, halcyon America that was Christian, low-tax, small government, and had less racial and ethnic discord (the latter is the most absurd, but, if you were white, there weren’t racial problems: you were white–no problems!). This vision has not existed for decades, if at all, but it is a predictable reaction to the loss of primus inter pares status of Christian whites; they are no longer the default setting.

What’s potentially dangerous about Palinism is that it is not the usual form of ‘identity politics.’ Even in its crudest, bluntest form–or when policies influenced by identity politics are implemented poorly–identity politics are ultimately about inclusion: a group believes it has been excluded or marginalized and wants to be included into the mainstream. What makes Palinism worrisome, and why I think it can be labelled ‘para [or proto]-fascist’ is that it is marginalist. For ‘real Americans’ to take back ‘their’ country–and note the phrase take back–they, by definition, are taking it back from an Other, whether that Other be a religious minority, racial minority, or some other group.

Sorry to quote so much but I think he really gets at the core of modern conservatism. I'm not sure we can completely overlook their policy preferences in explaining conservatives. But I think those, what I like to call 'tribal', feelings are a very important component to what is driving conservatives. Tribalism drives everyone to a certain extent, even liberals and the Democratic party. But liberal tribalism is different. They seek inclusion into the mainstream just as conservatives do. But they do so from within a larger group that seeks to include everyone. Conservative tribalism seeks inclusion, but at the expense of excluding those they don't want, which are non-white people.

It's easy to lose sight of this when people like Palin aren't leading the party, or when you don't listen to FoxNews or conservative radio. But even those latter two have done what Republican politicians have learned and couched those tribal motivations into political rhetoric often in advocation of specific policies. So you kind of have to decode what they're saying to get at the heart of the matter. Palin was loved by the right and loathed by the left because she largely didn't speak in code, or if she did it was crafted in a way that we all knew exactly what she meant anyway.

Back to Mike for what it all means for the 'libertarian populist' debate:

When you strip away the Palinist impulse, you’re left with Bruce Bartlett or David Frum–and they aren’t just in the minority, they are considered apostate and heretical.

Movement conservatism is grounded in a virulent politics of mythical identity. It, at its core, is not a set of policy objectives, but a comprehensive belief system. Like all belief systems, it is incredibly resistant to change. For many, to abandon it will require some kind of personal trauma (though it could be collectively experienced)–one doesn’t change or alter identities based on a few speeches.

Hopefully, I’m wrong, but I think movement conservatism is only at the beginning of the forty years in the wilderness. Much to the detriment of us all.

I hope he's wrong too. But I fear he's right.

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