An Honorable Adventure

There’s nothing wrong with being conservative. Being cautious about change is a good thing. Being prudent with the limited funds available to government is a good thing. There might be such a thing as a good conservative, and a fine and sensible conservatism, which Andrew Sullivan once described this way:

I view conservatism as the practical engagement with policy and political institutions to adapt modestly and incrementally to social and economic change with the goal of maintaining the coherence and stability of a polity and a culture. It is a philosophy of moderation and balance, constantly alert to the manifold ways in which societies can, over time, lose their equilibrium. It is defined, along Edmund Burke’s foundational lines, as an opposition to ideological and theological politics in every form. And so it is a perfectly admirable conservative idea to respond to capitalism’s modern mercilessness by trying to support, encourage and help the traditional family structure and traditional religious practice. The point is a pragmatic response to contingent events that threaten social coherence. But it is equally conservative to note that a group in society – openly gay people – have emerged as a force and are best integrated within an existing institution – civil marriage – than by continued ostracism or new institutions like “civil unions” that have not stood the test of time.

Sullivan went on to argue that we have that kind of conservatism in one seminal conservative leader:

On that pragmatic, non-ideological definition of conservatism, on a wide array of issues, Obama wins hands down.

Yes, that’s right. The argument here is that Obama is the only conservative we have these days, and Sullivan offered his proofs of that, in detail, but it comes down to this:

On almost every question – a stimulus one-third tax cuts, a healthcare reform based on the Heritage Foundation model, cap-and-trade for carbon, and solid support for Israel while trying to nudge it away from self-destruction – Obama is in a right-of-center consensus as of a decade ago. …

As for temperament, the GOP is too consumed with cultural hatred to acknowledge the grace and calm of a man forced to grapple with the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression with no help whatsoever from his opponents, a black man who has buried identity politics and remains a family man Republicans would fawn over if he were one of them.

Okay, they hate Obama, but that’s not done them much good:

Alas, the GOP is stuck in the 1984 of its own fetid imagination, incapable of acknowledging the real failures of the last Republican administration or the new, actual, vital questions we have to answer in this millennium: How do we make our healthcare system much more efficient? How do we best mitigate climate change? How do we tackle the problem of economic hyper-inequality? How do we advance US interests in a time of upheaval and revolution in the Arab world? How do we make government solvent?

They’d rather not answer those questions – that’s no fun at all and their constituency expects attack, not answers – so Sullivan can only offer this:

We should be grateful a de facto moderate Republican is president while conservatism has a chance to regroup.

That was posted on July 30, 2012, and conservatism has had a chance to regroup, not that it did, and Sullivan has stopped blogging and disappeared from public life. What was the point of saying such things? He defined conservatism one way and our modern Republican Party defined it another way – or just used the word, conservative, to mean anything that they proposed, no matter what it was – and they certainly dismissed Sullivan. He was gay. He was British by birth and by inclination – his language was precise and his logic impeccable, and he was not prone to high drama and outrage, at least very often, and he had actually read Burke. He was too damned well-educated – he knew the history of conservatism – and he was also an old-school Catholic, not a Bible-thumping punish-the-sinners evangelical – and thus he liked the new pope, for the same reasons he liked Obama, as a good and careful man trying to make things better within the bounds of what actually can get done in the here and now, without righteous anger. Common decency goes a long way. Hell, Pope Francis calls atheists his brothers. He’d like to chat with them. Our modern Republican Party has no use for this new pope, or for Obama, or for someone like Andrew Sullivan. How do we best mitigate climate change? How do we tackle the problem of economic hyper-inequality? They hate those questions.

As for common decency, there’s this, just this evening:

A Muslim woman was kicked out of a Donald Trump rally on Friday night for no apparent reason. The woman, Rose Hamid, told CNN that she “came to the rally to let Trump supporters see what a Muslim looks like.” She stood silently with a t-shirt that read “I Come in Peace.”

About halfway through the rally, held in Rock Hill, South Carolina, some people in the crowd “turned pretty ugly” toward the woman, shouting “epithets.” She was then escorted out by security.

Trump commented on Hamid as she was being ejected. “There is hatred against us that is unbelievable. It’s their hatred, it’s not our hatred,” Trump said.

And black is white and up is down:

Hamid appeared on CNN later Friday and told Don Lemon her story. One person kept asking her if she had a bomb…

Lemon asked her if she’d consider voting for Trump. She said no.

Last month a black protester was roughed up as one of those “enthusiastic” Trump supporters shouted this – “Light that motherfucker on fire!” Rose Hamid got off easy. It’s their hatred, it’s not our hatred? Edmund Burke would be puzzled by this sort of thing. Conservatism has changed. The Republican Party has changed. The Washington Post’s Michael Gerson now says that Trump’s nomination would rip the heart out of the Republican Party:

Every Republican of the type concerned with winning in November has been asking the question (at least internally): “What if the worst happens?”

The worst does not mean the nomination of Ted Cruz, in spite of justified fears of political disaster. Cruz is an ideologue with a message perfectly tuned for a relatively small minority of the electorate. Uniquely in American politics, the senator from Texas has made his reputation by being roundly hated by his colleagues – apparently a prerequisite for a certain kind of anti-establishment conservative, but unpromising for an image makeover at his convention.

Cruz’s nomination would represent the victory of the hard right – religious right and tea party factions – within the Republican coalition. After he loses, the ideological struggles within the GOP would go on.

No, the worst outcome for the party would be the nomination of Donald Trump.

Martin Longman is puzzled by the distinction:

Gerson thinks Cruz would lose badly, and it seems that he feels that Cruz would deserve to lose. But he doesn’t think Cruz’s brand of anti-establishment conservatism is out of bounds. He anticipates that this brand will have a persistent future on the right and within the Republican Party, and he doesn’t seem to have any problem with that. He’d struggle against this faction, certainly, but he wouldn’t refuse to be part of an organization that they dominate.

But he’s more troubled by this from Gerson:

Trump’s nomination would not be the temporary victory of one of the GOP’s ideological factions. It would involve the replacement of the humane ideal at the center of the party and its history. If Trump were the nominee, the GOP would cease to be.

Longman wonders what’s so humane in Ted Cruz’s campaign and notes Gerson’s explanation:

Whatever your view of Republican politicians, the aspiration, the self-conception, of the party was set by Abraham Lincoln: human dignity honored by human freedom and undergirded by certain moral commitments, including compassion and tolerance. Lincoln described the “promise that in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance.”

Is that Ted Cruz? No, but it’s especially not Donald Trump:

All of Trump’s angry resentment against invading Hispanics and Muslims adds up to a kind of ethno-nationalism – an assertion that the United States is being weakened and adulterated by the other. This is consistent with European, right-wing, anti-immigrant populism. It is not consistent with conservatism, which, at the very least, involves respect for institutions and commitment to reasoned, incremental change.

Longman isn’t feeling it:

Conservatism is supposed to revere institutions, although the American version makes an exception for the throne. But what institutions has Movement Conservatism respected?

Not Congress or the federal government. Not the Supreme Court. The Office of the Presidency is respected only when it is in the hands of a conservative. It would be ludicrous to assert that Ted Cruz has shown any respect for any American institution, or even for the norms of any American institution.

Go down the list: The IRS, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Departments of Education, Commerce, and Interior, the ATF…

What characterizes the conservative attitude to our institutions isn’t respect but paranoia. And the same is true for multilateral organizations like the United Nations, NATO, and even (at times) our armed forces.

Yeah, Jade Helm wasn’t a plot by Obama and the military to round up conservatives and send them away – so Longman can only add this:

The only institutions that conservatives have fairly consistently respected are religious institutions, and, even then, only the institutions of certain religions.

Still, Gerson says this:

Liberals who claim that Trumpism is the natural outgrowth, or logical conclusion, of conservatism or Republicanism are simply wrong. Edmund Burke is not the grandfather of Nigel Farage. Lincoln is not even the distant relative of Trump.

Longman:

The only thing I agree with here is that Trump isn’t the logical conclusion. Cruz is. Rubio is. Christie is. Paul Ryan is. Mitch McConnell is. None of these folks are “conservative” in any kind of Lincolnesque or Burkean way. Neither was George W. Bush or Dick Cheney.

Gerson disagrees:

Ultimately, these political matters are quite personal. I have spent twenty-five years in the company of compassionate conservatives, reform conservatives, Sam’s Club conservatives or whatever they want to call themselves, trying to advance an agenda of social justice in America’s center-right party. We have shared a belief that sound public policy – promoting opportunity, along with the skills and values necessary to grasp it – can improve the lives of our fellow citizens and thus make politics an honorable adventure.

Sound public policy – promoting opportunity, along with the skills and values necessary to grasp it – can improve the lives of our fellow citizens and thus make politics an honorable adventure again? It seems everyone is Andrew Sullivan these days:

The nomination of Trump would reduce Republican politics – at the presidential level – to an enterprise of squalid prejudice. And many Republicans could not follow, precisely because they are Republicans. By seizing the GOP, Trump would break it to pieces.

Longman:

If that’s how Gerson insists on seeing the situation, his party has already been broken to pieces. Trump really has nothing to do with it.

Amanda Marcotte, however, thinks that none of this matters:

Let’s say that Trump does flame out, Howard Dean-style, in the month of February. If that does happen, odds are that Ted Cruz, who has been lurking around in the background like Gollum, will step up and take the nomination. It’s not just that Cruz is the favorite “second choice” option for Republican voters, but he’s a strong favorite for Trump supporters, and will vacuum them up in case of a Trump collapse.

If this happens, it will be much worse than if Trump just wins this thing. Cruz has the word “senator” in front of his name and his kids are cute and he’s won an election, so he gets treated as if he’s a less-awful version of Trump. But he is actually way, way worse, if you look past surface issues like squawkiness in the press. Compared to Cruz, Trump’s agenda looks downright moderate.

Marcotte then gets down to specifics, taxes and immigration:

On both of them, Trump has a nutty right wing agenda that will cause immeasurable damage to this country, but Cruz is even worse.

Trump’s plan is a standard right-wing wish list, promising to reduce deficits when it will clearly explode them by dramatically reducing the amount of taxes the wealthiest Americans pay. But despite the radicalism underpinning it, it still looks, if you squint hard, like a kind of sort of tax plan of the kind you might be familiar with. It’s still technically progressive – people who make under $25,000 will pay nothing, and then three tax brackets on top of that. (Which are clearly designed to allow millionaires and billionaires to see their tax burden plummet, while keeping it roughly the same for everyone else.) It’s dangerous and irresponsible, but at least it is recognizable as a tax plan.

Cruz, on the other hand, plans to eliminate the IRS. Oh, he claims he means to “replace” it, in the same way that Republicans always say they plan to “replace” Obamacare without actually offering a plan to do so. But he’s made this nutty idea, of eliminating the people who actually collect money so that everyone else can do their job, the centerpiece of his campaign. The tax plan he’s tossed on that – a 10% flat tax – is some crazed right-wing radical nonsense, but it almost doesn’t matter. Whether it’s 10%, 20%, or 90%, who cares if you’re running around saying you’re going to shut down the only agency that has the right to collect the money and enforce the tax code, whatever it is?

In other words, Trump is crazy, but Cruz is nihilistic.

But both are conservative, right? Marcotte wonders about these two:

Trump runs around claiming he’ll make America “great” again (which appears to mean restoring past levels of white supremacy), but Cruz’s attitude is far more reminiscent of a stalker who swears to his obsession object that if he can’t have her, no one can.

Trump’s entire campaign, of course, has been built on his hysteria-mongering on immigration, with his tendency to characterize Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals and his promise to “build the greatest wall that you’ve ever seen” between the U.S. and Mexico. (Never mind that most undocumented immigrants don’t actually sneak across the border but enter with legal visas that then run out.) Oh, and while he’s at it, he promises to make Mexico pay for it. He hasn’t yet promised to get magical elves to build it, but hey, there are a few weeks to go until the primary.

Cruz’s own father is an immigrant from a Spanish-speaking country, which might make you think he’d be more reasonable about this, but in reality, he’s even more radical than Trump. He not only has signed off on everything Trump wants to do, including mass deportation and ending birthright citizenship, but he goes a step further. While Trump claims to support legal immigration, Cruz promises to halt any increases in legal immigration, claiming that it suppresses wages. (Cruz’s fear that overpopulation reduces wages has not reduced his enthusiasm for forced childbirth, however.)

Cruz likes to trumpet how much “harder” he is on immigration than Trump, in fact. “He’s advocated allowing folks to come back in and become citizens,” Cruz has argued. “I oppose that.”

Edmund Burke would weep:

All this is happening not because Donald Trump is a uniquely obnoxious person, but because the conservative movement in this country, which is indistinguishable from the Republican base, has become radicalized, hateful and desperate. They believe “their” country is being stolen from them. They have become enraptured by the politics of purity, believing that the measure of how good a candidate is lays with how radical he is, how “hard” he is willing to be. The candidates, all of them, are simply responding to what the voters want and what the voters want right now is a candidate who would rather burn this country to the ground than to let conservatives share it with people they see as inferior to them.

That’s a bit harsh, but Andrew Sullivan had been saying the same sort of thing for years. He just said it more elegantly. He’s British. He studied at Magdalen College, Oxford, and in his second year, he was elected President of the Oxford Union – he knows how to debate. Marcotte is simply blunt. Conservatism has become a joke.

How did this happen? Sean Illing suggests this:

It’s no mystery at this point: Trump’s silent majority consists mostly of anxious white people who resent the establishment and are fearful of immigration and modernity. These anxieties are sufficiently deep that they’ve united xenophobic right-wingers, pro-choice Republicans, conservative Democrats, and independents. Voters aren’t wrong to worry about terrorism or jobs being shipped overseas or even our broken immigration system, but if they think Trump is the answer, they clearly don’t understand what’s happening.

They’re just pissed off and need a boogeyman, and Trump is pointing the way.

It appears white people are doing white people have often done when things go wrong: blame brown people. Trump’s gift is that he has no limits or shame, no moral imperative apart from self-promotion. He’s happy to fan the flames if it keeps his circus rolling another day or two. People do stupid things when they’re afraid. And there’s just no other way to say it, voting for Donald Trump is a very stupid thing to do. But times are tough and Trump is the perfect candidate to exploit that.

Sound public policy – promoting opportunity, along with the skills and values necessary to grasp it – can improve the lives of our fellow citizens and thus make politics an honorable adventure again? The days of honorable adventure are over. There’s nothing wrong with being conservative. Just don’t be a conservative. There’s now a difference.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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