Monday, April 21, 2008

Bitterness versus Elitism

Good Thomas Frank (What's the Matter With Kansas?) op-ed piece at the WSJ, to which I was referred by Andrew Sullivan.  He explores the notion of Obama's supposed elitism.  Two particular passages stand out:

Conservatism [unlike liberalism] has no problem with bitterness; as the champion strategist Howard Phillips said almost three decades ago, the movement's job is to "organize discontent."  And organize they have.  They have welcomed it, they have flattered it, they have invited it in with millions of treason-screaming direct-mail letters, they have given it a nice warm home on angry radio shows situated up and down the AM dial.  There is not only bitterness out there; there is a bitterness industry.

This opens a window onto something that I have been arguing for a long time.  The so-called conservative and neo-conservative movements appear, more and more clearly, to be misnamed.  They do not desire to "conserve" anything in particular.  Or rather, they desire to conserve only particular things.  For example, they restore Teddy Roosevelt's imperialist foreign policy, while leaving their opponents to continue his very progressive antipathy for "malefactors of great wealth."  Nor are they really conservative in the sense of exercising restraint.  The Reagan and Bush administrations spent money like a fleet of drunken sailors.  (In both cases, that's roughly what they spent the money on, too.)  More broadly, what Americans call "conservative" trade and fiscal policies are what the rest of the world calls "neo-liberal."  It is maddening.

The root of the linguistic problem is that "conservatives" have claimed, with greater or lesser frequency, to uphold a single set of values which are both consistent and traditional.  The claim is demonstrably false, but it has been repeated so often that many people now make the mistake of imagining that Bush, for example, somehow reflects the ideals of some vanished age, most likely that of the Founding Fathers.  The mind reels.

Meanwhile, except perhaps for the Great Society era, their opponents have resisted this rhetorical move.  True leftist politics, of the kind that have never really flourished in America, are indeed all about sweeping theories, and often startlingly dumb ones.  Likewise, the politics of the right.  And even if the Democratic Party has provided a notional home for crazed ideologues, the style of government for which it has shown a preference is driven largely by casuistry -- that is, by research and planning for actual eventualities, rather than sweeping Platonic theories of how things ought to be.  That's why Democratic presidential candidates have so often seemed a bit enervated: they are usually technocrats, rather than visionaries. 

The Reagan revolution was in a sense the victory of a visionary, theory-driven wing of the Republican party over the more traditional and practical wing.  This victory was cemented by the rise of the neo-cons, and the near-eclipse of, for example, the "realist" foreign policies associated with Bush pere and Brent Scowcroft.  Iraq, the high-water mark of their influence, was a war driven entirely by theory, and a proportional contempt for evidence.

None of this makes sense if we believe that "conservatives" are defined by genuine conservatism.  But if we realize that their actual goal has always been to achieve power by organizing discontent (or "bitterness"), it all makes sense.  They should call themselves Bitterists, or at least Discontenters.  And their opponents, who may or may not care about freedom ("liberals") or progress ("progressives") ought really to go by their own distinctive characteristic:  the Casuists.

All this leads Frank to his climax, which is less original but still worth noting.  He calls upon the supposedly more "liberal" of the two Democratic contenders to move in a genuinely, as opposed to rhetorically, conservative direction:

If Barack Obama or anyone else really cares to know what I think, I will simplify it all down to this.  The landmark political fact of our time is the replacement of our middle-class republic by a plutocracy.  If some candidate has a scheme to reverse this trend, they've got my vote, whether they prefer Courvoisier or beer-bongs spiked with cough syrup.

Turning back the clock!  Reversing the trend!  Now that's conservative.

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