Lately we’ve been hearing from conservatives who are disaffected with the Bush Administration. The general complaint is that the Republican Party, along with the conservative movement, has lost its way, and that Bush represents a betrayal of true conservative ideals.
Bill Moyers had a couple of them on his show a few weeks ago (here is the transcript): Mickey Edwards, one of the old-guard Goldwater conservatives who has written a book called Reclaiming Conservatism: How a Great American Political Movement Got Lost, and How It Can Find Its Way Again; and Ross Douthat, whose recent tome is titled Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream (all political books seem to use similar strategies in their titles these days). Since this was Moyers, the conversation was stimulating, and I ended up watching the whole thing. I can’t deny that there are pleasing aspects of hearing conservatives decry Bush’s notions of untrammeled executive power, and these two were more intelligent than most conservative intellectuals. And god knows one needs to be welcoming to whatever allies one can find in what is essentially a fight to the death for our liberty. Nevertheless, the assumptions of these conservatives are wrong, and almost touchingly naïve.
One of these assumptions is that conservatives have traditionally believed in “limited government.” Reagan came to power saying that government was the problem, and this was essentially the conservative mantra. So thinkers like Edwards and Douthat look at what’s happened under Bush and think it’s an anomaly, a case of a movement going astray. They are in the pathetic position of true believers who take the rhetoric at face value without recognizing the social and economic powers behind it.
“Limited government” in practice, rather than in the vague nobility of conservative rhetoric, means essentially that the government’s function is to stand guard while business makes money. The one idea, if you can call it that, of the Republican Party has been to make sure nobody interferes with profits. Deregulation and so-called “privatization” were the projects begun under Reagan and continued without pause ever since.
Greasing the wheels for the corporations necessarily involves corporations greasing the wheels of government. To think that it doesn’t is simply naïve. You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours—that was the inevitable result of the “limited government” philosophy. And it should be to no one’s surprise that the desire for ever-greater profits will always cancel out any and all concerns for the public good. Therefore, environmental regulations were eroded and ignored, with dire consequences for public health. Therefore, health care became less and less responsive to public needs and increasingly dependent on the profit margins of insurance companies. Therefore, the banking industry was deregulated, regardless of possible consequences for the average person. Therefore, the corporations and the rich were relieved of their responsibility to pay taxes and the burden was shifted to middle-class citizens. The list could go on endlessly.
The point is that conservatives refused to guard against a basic human tendency, or even acknowledge it—I’m talking about greed. With untrammeled greed in control of the government, the power and scope of the state will only be limited in terms of how it can help ordinary people—but its literal power and scope, physically measurable in terms of its ability to control our lives and inflict damage on other countries, that power and scope will inevitably expand. Conservative intellectuals, installed in their think-tanks in order to provide rhetorical support for the movement, are unable to perceive the simplest facts of human nature, facts which have been acknowledged even by the traditional religions and philosophies of the West. Greed was traditionally considered a vice. Not for the American conservatives, though.
Furthermore, there has been no application of these notions of limited government to foreign policy or military expenditure. On the contrary, the Republicans have always clamored to increase defense spending. While Reagan slashed as many social programs as he could, swelling the ranks of the underclass and the homeless and forcing millions of people to take multiple jobs just to survive, he vastly increased the Pentagon budget. And it’s been increasing ever since. Now, what kind of a fool would expect a blank-check policy to the military to result in “limited government”? With the imperial project and the increasing militarization of
Of the two guests on Moyer’s show, I found Douthat the most unintentionally amusing. Fussily clarifying and equivocating while he strained to make conservatism look intellectually respectable, he distanced himself from Tom DeLay and Rush Limbaugh while claiming that Republican economic policies have helped workers by lowering prices. He really believes what he’s saying, which tempts one to lend him the sympathy traditionally accorded to the self-deluded. While so-called “free market” policies have outsourced the American worker to irrelevance, Douthat sees sunshine and lollipops. Indeed, if corporate interests are identified with conservative values, how could he see it any other way?
Over and over, not just on this Moyers show but in general, we hear these conservatives talking about how wonderful Reagan was, and then saying that Bush represents some kind of betrayal of the Reagan legacy. Really? I’m old enough to remember that Reagan appointed as Secretary of the Interior a man who believed that it was unnecessary to protect the environment because Jesus would soon be bringing the end of the world anyway. And he stood behind this man (his name was James Watt) in the face of all criticism, and it was only some stupid incident involving Watt putting down The Beach Boys (of all things) that ended his tenure. Now what does this remind you of? It is redolent of the very wingnuttery we have experienced time and again under Bush.
Reagan’s HUD secretary ended up looting what he was supposed to protect. The collapse of the safety & loans happened because of “Reaganomics,” and it resulted in thousands of average people getting screwed. Prior to the current occupant, it was Reagan’s regime that held the record for indictments among its employees: political cronies who served corporate interests and opposed accountability.
Douthat framed his social conservative brand as “a defense of the particular habits and mores of American life.” And this is consistent with the perennial conservative position of “moral values.” But what does this amount to? Conservatives have never opposed the killings that have advanced American imperial interests. They supported the war in
Conservatives have used race-baiting as a political tool since the early twentieth century. And from Nixon’s “southern strategy” to Reagan’s welfare queens, to Lee Atwater doing the Willie Horton ad for Papa Bush, Republicans have been whispering in code to racist voters for decades. Did conservative intellectuals protest? For that matter, did any of them speak out for civil rights? They did not. They were silent at best, and at worst they colluded in attempts to suppress civil rights.
The moral values of conservatism are pure emptiness. Conservatives are amoral because their values are merely reactions. The “habits and mores of American life” are defined in reactionary terms, as against progressive ideas—therefore against women’s rights, against abortion rights, against civil rights, against the peace movement, against any ideas of corporate accountability or responsibility. The sham of conservative values naturally resulted in the travesty that is George W. Bush. He is not an anomaly—far from it. George W. Bush is the natural and predictable result of the conservative movement. He is the legitimate heir to Reagan, not a mistake or a bastard child. One could even say that George W. Bush is an almost perfect example of the way conservative ideology eventually merges into pure selfishness and stupidity. In his simplistic way, he tears the fig leaf off of right-wing ideology: “limited government” is revealed as “I just want mine” and “Who cares what you think?”
The conservatives who now claim that Bush doesn’t speak for them, who are trying to tell us that “true” conservatism is something different from what we’re seeing now, are like Dr. Frankenstein claiming that he didn’t mean to create a monster. The conservative project has resulted in such disaster for America, has become such an ugly, repellent, oppressive cluster-fuck of insanity, that the conservative intellectual, clinging to his delusional ideas, recoils from the image in the mirror and tries to explain that the reflection is not really him, it’s something else, something different than what we’ve been seeing for the past thirty years and more. I almost feel sorry for them. But I am not fooled.