Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Weary of Wonkery

Whether the next four years are spend under an Obama administration or a McCain administration, one thing that may be said with certainty is that conservatives are going to have to do some serious thinking over that time in order to come up with an agenda that can bring conservatives back into political success -- and bring the GOP back into something like conservatism. Either administration will be enough to make principled conservatives cringe -- though I think that an Obama one would visit greater damage upon the country.

There are lots of contenders out there wanting present the new conservative policies that will bring the GOP back to relevance. Ross Douthat is very much at the forefront of that, with his Grand New Party out in bookstores.

And there are plenty of interesting proposals out there from a consumption or flat tax to a per capita income tax to private retirement accounts replacing Social Security to college scholarship programs for public service programs to proposals for a radical overhaul of the US elementary education system. Many of these are interesting, some of them are admirable, and perhaps a few are good ideas. And yet as one combs through all the contenders for the next killer platform plank, a certain weariness sets in, at least for this particular conservative. Because the fact is that policies are not our daily bread. Indeed, ideally, government policies should have fairly little impact on our daily lives. We should be able to go through most days busy with the doings of our families, churches and businesses and not really have it impinge on us often what state or country we live in.

This, it seems to me, is the dilemma of the policy wonk -- and the conservative one in particular. Perhaps this is otherwise for progressives (I leave it to our principled progressive readers to speak to that point) but for conservatives the activities and policies of the state ought not impinge on one's daily life much. The state should keep us from being attacked, but not involve us in unneeded conflicts; help those in desperate need because of natural disaster, unemployment or illness, but not insert itself and its programs into the normal and natural cycle of life, work, education and leisure; enforce laws and punish crimes for the common good, but not seek to proscriptively rule every aspect of citizens lives.

In this regard, the conservative movement is in a difficult position if it seeks to bring itself back to prominence through coming up with exciting new policies that everyone will love, because at a fairly basic level, the remolding society through detailed government policies is fundamentally un-conservative. (And also, I would argue, unrealistic.)

So conservatives are faced with a difficult task as they find their way again and seek to rebuild their movement: We must present a politically attractive and viable message while at the same time convincingly communicating to people that not every problem is a nail for which the federal government is the ideal hammer. This is hard, especially when running for federal office, in that one's message then becomes, "Vote for me. I'll present a vision for our country in which I can't fix all your problems."

When running against someone whose message is essentially, "Vote for me; I can fix all your problems." This requires that one be a much better communicator and a communicate a much more attractive cultural vision than one's opponent. And right now, the opposing candidate is a very good communicator.

[Cross posted]


TS said...


... the remolding society through detailed government policies is fundamentally un-conservative.


When running against someone whose message is essentially, "Vote for me; I can fix all your problems." This requires that one be a much better communicator and a communicate a much more attractive cultural vision than one's opponent. And right now, the opposing candidate is a very good communicator.

So so true. I was going to post something along these lines but now don't have to.

I think the Republican party will either become more populist or much smaller, and depending on the nature of the populism the latter option is likely preferable.

Sometimes you have a better dog food but the people don't buy it. Rather than change your formula you may have to wait for tastes to change.

Darwin said...

Sometimes you have a better dog food but the people don't buy it. Rather than change your formula you may have to wait for tastes to change.

True. Though at the same time, tastes can change very quickly. Recall the dawn of the great New Democrat era which marked the end of the conservative movement... in 1992.

Though I sudder at how bad things may be in the interim, it strikes me as entirely possible that a victorious Obama and the congressional Democrats would massively overreach and find themselves facing a very rough midterm election in regards to control over congress -- though by the same token it's entirely possible that the GOP would then get too combative and go down in a chorus of shrill barks in 2012.

Anonymous said...

Let’s hope that R’s spend the next four years thinking about their sins. Embrace of big government, abandonment of any restraint on federal spending or fiscal responsibility, irresponsible and reckless warmaking, doubling down rather than admitting mistakes and making corrections. Torture. Warrantless spying on citizens.

The ‘06 and ‘08 elections constitute a massive and unmistakable repudiation of the R party by Americans. First learn that lesson, and learn it well. Then criticize D’s.


Anonymous said...

I am sure hoping if Obama wins that 2010 is another 1994.

To those of us that are conservatively minded, it is mind-boggling to think of all of the wasted opportunities of the last two decades:

1. 1992. Bush 41 was a shoe-in to win after a resounding success in Gulf War I. Whoops.
2. 1994. Contract with America was genius until the no-spine GOP Senate killed it.
3. 1996. Clinton was a shoe-in to lose. And we nominated...Bob Dole?! I still don't understand how this was allowed to happen.
4. 1998. Clinton gets impeached and the GOP still manages to come out looking foolish.
5. 2002. With control of the presidency and Congress, the Republicans continue to do nothing conservative by pandering to moderates and liberals.
6. 2004. When Bush finally decides to "spend his political capital", he chooses a program--social security reform--that was dead before it got off the ground.
7. 2008. Facing a bitterly divided Democrat party and an unbelievably unqualified candidate, the GOP nominates Bob Dole II, or ummm... John McCain.

Anonymous said...

Up here in Minnesnowta, our infamous Michele Bachman recently found herself in a little hot water when she openly wondered about the American-ness of Obama and various other Democrats. In the damage control phase of this storm, she came out with a wonderful commercial that all conservatives should emulate. In this, she simply stated that the main political choice today is between the domination of our daily lives by the State and freedom/self-determination.

She's a bit of a moonbat, but she correctly identified the way this choice needs to be presented to the voting public. The Democrats offer free stuff from the govt and the Repubs offer the preservation of freedom. Conservatism needs to be presented as something good in itself (not just "less taxes" and "not liberal")!


The Opinionated Homeschooler said...

"Perhaps this is otherwise for progressives (I leave it to our principled progressive readers to speak to that point)"

You called...? :-)

I'm not going to try to give an apologia for progressivism here, but let's start with stipulating that the American public, overall, is instinctively conservative. I think that's true, and most non-Americans would agree. Even we "progressives" would be considered conservative, relatively speaking, by most Europeans (who must be snickering quite a lot by the descriptions lately of Obama as a "socialist").

So first, it's not that the progressives have better convinced more than half the American public to their side. Rather, let's look at how well the conservatives have succeeded in holding up their principles:

"The state should keep us from being attacked, but not involve us in unneeded conflicts"

You're clear that the Iraq war is an issue that's killing Republicans electorally in the last few years, right?

"help those in desperate need because of natural disaster"

I don't think I even need to comment on that issue.


Rightly or wrongly, the conservative preference for deregulation, preference for corporations, and hatred for unions, is largely blamed for the disappearance of American jobs of the sort that can pay a living wage. It's no good wanting to be seen as being willing to step in to help the unemployed, if you're seen as part of the reason for unemployment.

"or illness"

Health care reform is a big issue for Americans, left or right, and conservatives are seen as the losers on this one. The people are conservative, and believe that a family should be able to work hard, save and sacrifice, and not despite all lose everything because of a health emergency. Republicans are seen as in the picket of big pharmaceuticals and insurance companies. Any reasonable proposal for a national health care system is decried as "socialism!" That conservatives can't see what a loser position they've painted themselves into is one reason the Dems are going to sweep everything next week.

So on these points, yes, these are conservative positions, and widely shared by the conservative public: and the Republicans are seen as being disastrously bad on each of these issues. Don't shoot the messenger.

"but not insert itself and its programs into the normal and natural cycle of life, work, education and leisure"

But this just isn't so. Only the fringe right believes the government should abandon the project of public education; and the most significant federalization of (formerly) state and community control of public education, NCLB, has happened under a Republican administration. "Insertion" into work is large-scale and overwhelmingly popular: are conservatives proposing to abandon child labor laws, OSHA, workers' comp, unemployment insurance, and employment discrimination legislation? If "work" here is code for "unions," the main causes of the death of unions are (1) Right to Work laws (which are certainly conservative contributions), but also (2) employers undercutting unions by voluntarily providing the kinds of guarantees that unions used to fight for. #2 isn't seen as a bad thing by progressives, necessarily: it's seen as employers getting religion and fixing themselves.

("Life" is too broad for me to address; and I can only assure you that we libs aren't interested in regulating your "leisure," except in certain instances, e.g. criminalizing out-of-the-country sex tourism. In fact, stats seem to show that the fastest-growing leisure activity in the U.S. is surfing for porn, which the conservatives, not the liberals, seek to regulate.)

Let's tack on one issue: abortion. The reason why a conservative public has resisted to this day meaningful restrictions on abortion can't all be laid at the feet of the Supreme Court. Liberals have successfully painted themselves here as the conservatives, and most Americans think most abortions are wrong, but that the government shouldn't insert itself into the cycle of life. As a liberal, I happen to believe that the protection of civil liberties does in fact mean that this very private aspect of citizens' lives should be regulated by the state, for the protection of the unborn. But I can't see how that fits with the conservative position you've outlined here: it's an essentially progressive argument.

Finally, I think you have to know already that setting up conservatives as being against "proscriptively rul[ing] every aspect of citizens' lives" is the erection of a straw man. Nobody on the left want to do this, no matter how many conservative blogs insist that this is the true wish of those nefarious liberals.

Obama isn't winning because he is offering to "fix all your problems." He's winning because the conservative position, as you've outlined it, seems to the conservative public as being much better represented by his positions than by the horrific performance of the last eight years.

Again, don't shoot the messenger. I'm voting for Nader anyway.

P.S. Can we get our girls together again soon? They were so lovely at Mass, and Offspring #2 was missing them five minutes after we left. I promise not to try to subvert their innocence with my leftist views.:-)

The Opinionated Homeschooler said...

"picket" supra = "pocket". Must've had unions on the mind.

Oh, and "your" w/ reference to sex tourism as leisure was meant generically, not to apply to conservatives particularly.

Darwin said...

Opinionated Homeschooler,

I never shoot messangers -- pretty soon you stop getting invited to parley.

I'd agree with a fair amount of your analysis. A few thoughts: While there are decent numbers of principled conservatives and (somewhat smaller) principled progressives in the US, I think that the group that generally decides elections by jumping one way or the other is essentially populist and has few ideological convictions. This group is happy to cheer deregulation and free trade when the economy is booming, but then demands protectionism and regulation when things aren't going well. They support government run health care to save them money and provide security, but then they freak out at the idea that this would result in any reduction in coverage or choice compared to their current insurance. Etc.

I'm not sure that I agree that Iraq and Katrina are actually significant factors at this point (if Iraq was a winning issue in this election, I would expect Obama to be mentioning it a lot more) but the memory of the media vision of Katrina and the disaster in Iraq headlines from two years ago definitely helps paint the overall picture of abject failure for the administration. More key, I suspect, in reality is that the Bush administration basically baricaded itself 2-3 years ago and stopped even trying to get public support -- something they weren't great at in the first place.

You are definitely right, however, that there's been a general abandonment of principled conservative ideas by the GOP over the last eight years, with the prescription drug benefit and NCLB being prime examples. Plus McCain is usually even less comfortable articulating conservative principles than Bush.

I would like to clarify my point about government not being apparent in daily life, however: Clearly, the effects of government are all around us. We have paved road, people usually obey the traffic laws, there's fairly little crime, there are public schools, there are a host of regulations about how your employer and your grocer and your doctor and so on can treat you. However, most people don't really think about those most of the time.

I'd say that to government is probably doing its job well if one doesn't really have to think about the fact the government is there most of the time. It enforces the rules and keeps the infrastructure going, but aside from a few weeks of extreme frustration as you fill out your income taxes each year you don't need to give it much thought.

And this is where I think an excessive reliance on policy, especially federal policy, can be problematic. Government programs are almost invariably so big that dealing with them becomes a sort of impersonal jumping through hoops. (NCLB being a key example: I just don't think it's possible to do much good in setting curriculum guidelines and testing goals at a national level. It invariably becomes a set of hoops to jump through nearly completely divorced from the work of actually educating children.)

Which is why it seems to me that all but the "provide relief in a personal or regional disaster" kind of programs should be kept safely in the background.

(On getting together -- sounds like fun. Perhaps we shall even lure you someday into the wilds of reddish Williamson County.)

Anonymous said...

My suggestion:

Get ahold of the Heritage Foundation's pocket Constitution, hold it up and say: "Here is the rule book. From now on, conservatives are going to follow it.

Then start working to eliminate whole government agencies starting with DOE, BATF, and FEMA.

If you wan't a handout, don't come to us. We're not your parents, we're not going to give you an allowance. You're expected to work, be productive and contribute to the whole community.

Government's main purpose is to protect its citizens from force and fraud and get out of the way of the most innovative, driven and productive workforce on the planet.

We will not over tax millionaires, billionaires or any other kind of "-aires" if you want more of their money, either work for them, or sell them a good or service that they need. If you sell them enough stuff they want or need, you will soon be in their ranks, and we'll leave you alone too.

If you try and steal people's goods from them or con them out of their hard earned money, you will be put in a cage for a lenght of time commesurate with the seriousness of your offense. If you start to over crowd the cages, we'll build more.

This is just a start. Feel free to add the conservative manifesto.