Like long nineteenth-century Russian novels, and Kant and Nietzsche and Heidegger, and all of Proust, and Moby Dick, some things are better read about than read. Let someone else do the work and explain the general idea. They say the devil is in the details – that’s where all the good stuff is, the subtle details – but that’s often a labyrinth of dead-ends and asides that lead nowhere in particular. Life is short and there are many things no one really needs to know – like in the current Republican civil war, who said what, when, and to whom, and why. The players keep changing. Marco Rubio, singlehandedly pushing a compromise comprehensive immigration reform bill through the Senate, was up – and then that bill died in the House and he was down. Ted Cruz was a goofy nobody freshman senator from Texas, but then he led the charge to shut down the government unless Obama gave up on the Affordable Care Act and made it go away, so he was up – until the whole thing turned out to be a disaster for the party, and they gave in, and got nothing for all the misery they caused, and Ted Cruz was then down, not up. No one knows what to make of Chris Christie yet – the players come and go, and Newt Gingrich and Donald Trump will keep offering random observations that puzzle everyone, even Republicans. This is their labyrinth of dead-ends and asides that lead nowhere in particular. No one really needs to spend any time there.
Everyone gets the general idea. The party is at war with itself. For years, the pro-business side of the party – all for low taxes, at least on the rich, and no pesky regulations that keep them from making big bucks, and always in favor of the lowest possible wages with the fewest possible benefits and rights for those poor suckers who actually had to make a living from their wages alone – had found the social-conservative folks in the party quite useful. Let them rail against abortion and gay marriage and how the government continues to refuse to recognize the Supremacy of Jesus and the Rule of God – as long as they voted for small and ineffective government, and freedom for the rich to grab it all, perhaps as God must have intended. They were useful, until they weren’t:
Business groups are willing to spend big bucks to diminish the influence of the most activist conservatives and win a Republican majority in the Senate in 2014 with more centrist GOP candidates.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce plans to aggressively shore up the campaigns of business-friendly establishment candidates in the New Year, the Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday – to the tune of at least $50 million.
“Our No. 1 focus is to make sure, when it comes to the Senate, that we have no loser candidates,” the Chamber of Commerce’s top political strategist, Scott Reed, told the Journal. “That will be our mantra: No fools on our ticket.”
The conservative, Karl Rove-backed super PAC American Crossroads is also on board, according to the Journal.
They’d been burned by Tea Party social conservatives who had cost them the Senate, twice, odd old men talking about legitimate rape and how women’s lady-parts really worked, and about the “gays” and all the rest, and the government shutdown was the final straw. That hadn’t only been bad for the party. That had been bad for business too, damn it – and comprehensive immigration reform would also be good for business, even if that meant there’d be a lot more of “the wrong sort of people” around if it passed. Then the inevitable happened. The Tea Party social conservatives fired back – the party, and the country, should be run by and for the little people, the angry God People who wanted their country back, not corporate officers and hedge fund managers. Screw the national Chamber of Commerce, and screw the Wall Street bankers too. Much of the Republican civil war is the war between these two sides for control of the party.
That’s it. Everything else is detail of no concern to outsiders. The players will change, and change again, but the conflict is clear enough. That’s why you need someone like Jonathan Chait to do the work of following the details, so he can report on how things are going at any given time, in a general way. And he has just done that:
If John Boehner’s support for immigration reform is a kind of Prague Spring for the mainstream of the elected Republican Party, the equivalent among conservative intelligentsia can be found in the latest issue of National Affairs, which launches a double-barreled assault on conservative dogma.
That sounds juicy, and Chait is referring to this essay by Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner, of the Bush administration, and this manifesto by the American Enterprise Institute’s Michael Strain. Luckily, Chait read them both so no one else has to, and finds some curious things going on here, as perhaps Barack Obama was not “undermining the basic fabric of the Constitution, threatening an imminent Greek-style collapse and choking out liberty itself” and all the rest:
Gerson and Wehner assail the historical and philosophical underpinnings of this whole line of thought. The Founders, they point out, were not proto-libertarians – the staunch ideological opponents of a flexible national government were actually the opponents of the Constitution. The Founders “would have little toleration for politicians who are committed to abstract theories even when they are at odds with the given world and the welfare of the polity.” They proceed to assail dogmatic opposition to any position for the state, arguing for a government role in furthering “the common good,” “equality of opportunity,” and even “ensure broad access to modern health care.”
Gerson and Wehner confine themselves to broad strokes, but Strain’s companion piece supplies plenty of details. Strain takes a machete to every nostrum of post-recessionary conservative thought: that the Federal Reserve must prioritize low inflation over faster growth; that short-term deficits must be slashed rather than increased; and that the best solution to high unemployment lies in implementing the same low-tax, low-regulation policies that conservatives favor all the time.
This is a big deal:
The common thread of both pieces is a call for a Republican Party that designs its platform as a response to observed real-world conditions, rather than waging an eternal war against the size of government regardless of any real-world effect. In the modern political context, this is a revolutionary manifesto. For five years, Republicans have defined their agenda as lower taxes and lower spending, disregarding any appeal to solve non-ideological problems, like unemployment or lack of access to health care. In the world imagined by Gerson, Wehner, and Strain, Republicans and Democrats might not care about the same list of problems, and they wouldn’t propose identical solutions. Republicans would still want a lower and more regressive tax code, more private provision of social goods, and so on. But compromise would become imaginable. President Obama would disagree with parts of Strain’s jobs agenda, but he would sign it into law in a heartbeat.
That’s cool, and as with War and Peace and Moby Dick, you don’t have to read the whole thing – Chait provides the Cliff Notes here. Someone in the party wants to end all the infighting and turn the Republicans into a party that doesn’t want to fight with itself but wants to get something useful done for the country. There’s light at the end of the tunnel, as the saying goes.
No, there isn’t. That’s where Chait leaves his summary and offers an assessment of what these three guys are saying:
What they refuse to do is compare actually existing Obama policies to actually existing Republican policies. The reason for their refusal is obvious: It would force them to forfeit their claim to partisan loyalty by defending the Democratic agenda. After all, if they consider broad access to medical care a worthy goal isn’t Obamacare – while perhaps suboptimal – better than nothing (which is the plan Republicans have repeatedly voted for)? If they favor fiscal stimulus to reduce unemployment, even if they quibble with the particular design of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, isn’t it a radical improvement over the Republican program of fiscal anti-stimulus?
At this very moment, the Republican Party does not lack for an agenda toward the jobless, the poor, and the sick. It has an agenda: Republicans are denying Medicaid to 5 million poor Americans in states they control, proposing $40 billion in cuts to food stamps, and cutting off unemployment benefits to workers who can’t find jobs. Obama can’t pass innovative new plans to help the unfortunate because he is fighting Republican proposals to punish them.
False alarm, folks – there’s nothing to see here – move along, move along. Many who have plowed their way through all of Moby Dick feel the same way. What was THAT about?
The Republican civil war will continue. The already frayed alliances have unraveled now, and what’s often overlooked is that they’ve always had a disagreement about one core, shared value – the virtue of small government. There’s always been a tension between the libertarians in the party – let everyone do whatever the hell they want and keep government out of our lives – and the social conservatives – the government should regulate private sexual behavior and enforce modesty, and make sure everyone does what Jesus said they should do, except for that stuff about being nice to the poor and turning the other cheek. There should be rules, and lots of them – unless you’re a libertarian and think all rules are tyranny – and both views coexist, uneasily, in one Republican Party. That’s a recipe for trouble, or at least nonsense.
Nothing shows that more than the various reactions to what just happened in Colorado. Adults can now buy recreational marijuana there now, not just “medicinal” marijuana – which was always just a ruse. There are stores. The state is collecting sales tax on what’s sold. The sky hasn’t fallen. No one much cares. Other stores sell Jack Daniels and Johnny Walker. People see it as pretty much the same thing. America shrugged.
Social conservatives didn’t shrug. They didn’t like this much, and the start of sales, on the first day of the year, brought us a series of thoughtful and calm essays on why this was a very bad thing, because shouting and screaming doesn’t win anyone over. Reasonableness and logic wins people over, so the pleasant and reasonable house conservative at the New York Times, David Brooks, offered his measured disapproval:
I don’t have any problem with somebody who gets high from time to time, but I guess, on the whole, I think being stoned is not a particularly uplifting form of pleasure and should be discouraged more than encouraged.
We now have a couple states – Colorado and Washington – that have gone into the business of effectively encouraging drug use. By making weed legal, they are creating a situation in which the price will drop substantially. One RAND study suggests that prices could plummet by up to 90 percent, before taxes and such. As prices drop and legal fears go away, usage is bound to increase. This is simple economics, and it is confirmed by much research. Colorado and Washington, in other words, are producing more users.
Yes, and that is the problem:
I’d say that in healthy societies government wants to subtly tip the scale to favor temperate, prudent, self-governing citizenship. In those societies, government subtly encourages the highest pleasures, like enjoying the arts or being in nature, and discourages lesser pleasures, like being stoned.
Conservatives love to mock what they call liberals’ endless arrogant attempts at social engineering, but here Brooks is saying that in healthy societies, that’s exactly what government should do – but subtly. Perhaps we could save a few financially troubled opera companies too. America would be better for that.
At Mother Jones, Kevin Drum calls him out:
It’s not that I agree with Brooks – and I’ll concede that his comparison of pot smoking with “higher pleasures” is kind of silly. But for the most part, all his column does is express a fairly modest sense of unease about the fact that legalization will almost certainly increase pot smoking a fair amount. There’s really nothing wrong with being a little nervous about that. These new laws will increase marijuana use.
But the big thing Brooks misses is the question of whether this will increase overall intoxication. It might. Alternatively, marijuana might largely displace alcohol use, producing little or no net increase in intoxication but producing a safer society overall since pot tends to be less damaging than alcohol. In the lingo, this is a question of whether marijuana and alcohol are economic substitutes or economic complements, and the research on this point is inconclusive. One of the great benefits of legalization in Washington and Colorado is that it will finally start to give us some decent data on this. For various reasons, it won’t settle the question definitively, but two or three years from now we’ll certainly have a much better idea than we do today about the net effect of marijuana legalization.
That’s the real issue here:
And if it turns out that legalizing pot reduces alcohol use? Then Brooks should be happy. There will still be plenty of idiots getting drunk and stoned, but there won’t be any more than there are now. We’ll have an increase in personal freedom; a reduction in drug war costs; and no significant change in the number of people pursuing higher pleasures. It is well worth finding out if this will be the case.
Drum, a self-proclaimed liberal, is actually the libertarian here, and Steve M at No More Mister Nice Blog is the nasty libertarian:
Our society doesn’t seek “to subtly tip the scale to favor temperate, prudent, self-governing citizenship” – certainly not on the part of our most prominent citizens. Our society wants aggressive sociopaths who would run over their own grandmothers to earn an extra .001% in quarterly profit, with the “self-governing” part being limited to making sure that only the have-nots experience the ill effects of the aggression. You want to package metaphoric toxic waste as triple-A-rated investment instruments and sell them far and wide until the global economy collapses? No problem! Just keep the profits flowing, and when it all blows up, let us know if you suffer any damage and we’ll stake you again so you can repeat the process. And don’t worry – we’re working on naming that wing of the children’s hospital after you. …
Seriously: who around the large Applebee’s salad bar that is America has been encouraged to pursue “the highest pleasures, like enjoying the arts”? “The arts” are for un-American wussies. Same with nature, unless it involves extreme sports. America isn’t that society. America is about football and fart jokes and expensively generated CGI low culture involving massive amounts of explosions. America isn’t about “temperate, prudent, self-governing” citizens – it’s about narcotized citizens working to make the hyper-aggressive few richer and richer.
So, since America has nothing in common with Brooks’ ideal polity, those of us who choose to might as well get baked, right?
Not so, or so says Tina Brown – “…legal weed contributes to us being a fatter and dumber, sleepier nation even less able to compete with the Chinese” of course. Jack Daniels doesn’t?
Then there’s Ruth Marcus:
I’m not arguing that marijuana is riskier than other, already legal substances, namely alcohol and tobacco. Indeed, pot is less addictive; an occasional joint strikes me as no worse than an occasional drink. If you had a choice of which of the three substances to ban, tobacco would have to top the list. Unlike pot and alcohol, tobacco has no socially redeeming value; used properly, it is a killer.
So the reason to single out marijuana is the simple fact of its current (semi-)illegality. On balance, society will not be better off with another legal mind-altering substance. In particular, our kids will not be better off with another legal mind-altering substance.
The social conservatives, even those who wouldn’t call themselves social conservatives, are facing off against the libertarians, who like Drum wouldn’t call themselves that, over the role of government in modifying the behavior of its citizens. Sure, there are rules against murder and rape and fraud (maybe), so government does set limits on certain behaviors. Why stop there? The return of teenage dress codes may be next.
At Business Insider, Josh Barro wonders about where this leads:
Brooks, Marcus, and Brown want to address these negative effects through a regime of criminal penalties that imprisons at least some subset of the people involved in cultivating, distributing and consuming the marijuana that Brooks and Marcus enjoyed so much in the 1970s. …
But why go after marijuana for its second-order effects? Why not just ban stupidity, laziness, obesity, unambitious taste, or whatever social ills are of concern to national opinion columnists? As Brooks asks, “Laws profoundly mold culture, so what sort of community do we want our laws to nurture?” If the answer is “one where people are thin,” the obvious answer is to ban fatness.
Follow the parallel logic:
Fat is an ideal menace to be targeted with a criminal law. To some extent, it’s a subjective matter as to who is lazy or stupid, but it’s pretty easy to figure out who’s guilty of being fat. A law against fat would scare people into losing weight. Even independent of actual legal penalties, it would set a strong norm, showing that society is opposed to fatness and wants people to stay at healthy weights. It would lead to improved cardiovascular health, higher labor productivity (fewer sick days!), and longer life expectancy.
Of course, we’d have to actually jail some people for their fatness. (Otherwise the policy wouldn’t work!) Those who are jailed might find upon release that their records of criminal fatness make it harder for them to find work in their desired fields, such as national opinion columnist.
But we can mitigate the importance of this impact by mostly using fat jail for racial minorities and people with lower education levels. Wealthy white fat people will apologize profusely for their fatness and then go to “fat rehab” … multiple times if necessary.
The logic is unimpeachable. I look forward to Marcus, Brooks, and Brown joining me in my campaign to jail the fat, so that the rest of us may stay thin – and even smoke weed while we do it.
The issue is divisive, and exposes another rift on the right. Do they really believe in small government? Have they thought this through?
Slate’s David Weigel points out another issue here:
Marcus and Brooks sound like perfect parodies of clueless Acela Corridor pundits who think a lot about “society” without bothering to explore it. “In healthy societies,” writes Brooks, “government wants to subtly tip the scale to favor temperate, prudent, self-governing citizenship. In those societies, government subtly encourages the highest pleasures, like enjoying the arts or being in nature, and discourages lesser pleasures, like being stoned.”
That’s a definition of “society” that includes only some people and wishes away – or just ignores – the social damage done by prohibition and arrests. Consequences like sentencing disparities, which collar black teens for the sort of drug use/sale that people who look like me or have my credit rating could easily get away with.
His whole column, which develops that argument fully, is instructive. Too much is being ignored here.
On the other hand, much should be ignored. The general idea is clear enough. Those on the right are trying to figure out just what they think, about most everything. The rest of us will just have to wait until they do, and glance at the Cliff Notes now and then.