Wednesday, September 07, 2005


I make no specific electoral predictions. I don't know if we're headed for a modified limited chuck-Hagelianism, or a muddling Hillaryism, or something new. But the wave has crested: this is the beginning of the end of 'movement' Conservatism in the United States. Again, we don't know if its 'bold and revolutionary' imperatives will simply be discretely discarded and forgotten - like last season's ad campaign or last year's health panic - in the time-honored American tradition of 'Never Admit, Never Explain'. Or whether leaders will emerge and....well, or whether leaders will emerge. But either way, the party's over. The grand conceit of the last 25 years, AKA the 'governing ideology', is exploded. The levee is breaching. And it's not just the inept response to Katrina: it's cumulative.

I have a soft spot for honest, sincere movement conservatives. They truly believe in something beautiful. Unfortunately, they have seduced themselves into estimating their beautiful concept above the real-world results of the politics it spawns (aka eating the recipe rather than the meal). Ah, some might say, but if real conservatism would only ever be tried, then: vindication! Guys, there's this dive called the 'Ash Heap' where a bunch of real communists hang out; they mutter something similar about Stalin. In fact, the conservative movement which bloomed with the election of Ronald Reagan did not produce government which was limited, in the sense of 'doing only a few things but doing them well'. It produced bigger and more intrusive government which at the same time didn't do much of anything salutary very well. 'Government isn't the solution; government is the problem.' Reagan and both Bushes, to varying degrees, were literally bound by the reigning ideology to ensure that statement's ultimate accuracy. 'Limited' government as an absolute value - hostility to government - has (surprise!) resulted in Bad Government. Conservatives' response to an ever more complex, interconnected, interdependent country and world is.....punt. Let the Invisible Hand take care of it. Grand vision? False Dawn.

Voila the Patently Decadent Phase.

Politics and policy, which have always necessarily diverged to a 'limited' extent, are now deliberately polarized, and called a 'governing style' - lying not because you have to, or as the exception to the rule, but as a central tenant of your governance: a feature, not a bug. Ideological words and phrases are now utterly euphemistic: 'self reliance' actually means 'resentment'; 'strength' means 'fear'; 'patriotism' means 'hatred'; 'limited government' means massive debt, huge budget and trade deficits, and faster spending growth than in LBJ's 1960s. 'Limited government', in practice, means, above all, massive corruption. 'Devolvement' of power to the states has been a disheartening role reversal. One of the reasons for the steady ascendancy of Federal power in the late 19th and 20th centuries was the laughably blatant corruption of the Statehouses. Now, with so much responsibility ducked - out of their hair - Washington really has become the enemy, and by design - prolifigate, feckless, fatuous, stinkingly corrupt (and for all the world to see, BTW) - while State governments have to actually face up to real problems. It's certainly not an improvement; more of a displacement. The Federal government is not drowning in a bathtub, but rather drowning in a money sewer. And it's not so much dying as mutating.

'Re-branding' ('Morning again in America', 'compassionate conservatism') will not work so well anymore; this conservatism has revealed itself for what it is and always was: inherently negative. Can't; won't; shouldn't. It misses something to react to. Its rigidity is now a trap. Liberals and moderates will be free to be conservative or liberal depending on the issue, eg conservative about, say, industrial policy or tax policy vis a vis small business; and liberal or even socialistic when it comes to inherently social things, like health insurance pools. Movement conservatives have nowhere to go. They will go nowhere.

Maybe America, or any democracy, must have its spasms from time to time. Let's hope that, as a 'mature' democracy, our future episodes are petite rather than grand mals.

Naturally, I'm not the only one thinking along these same general lines. Mimikatz' excellent post Katrina's Economic Effects: Much Worse Than 9/11" (originally posted over at The Next Hurrah) concludes with this bit of understatement:

As the economic consequences of Katrina ripple through the economy, there may be political changes as well. As we decide how to rebuild, we must remember that "the market" will not take care of us because the market really does not care; it has no goals other than those that society creates and enforces through the web of laws and regulations that contain it.
For the last 25 years, the ascendent, and then reigning assumption has been that any aspect of Life is not only describable in Market terms, but MUST be described and justified that way (with the sole exception of Faith, I guess. Or not). That may be the deepest influence of the conservative revolution, but it too will surely be re-examined in the coming years.

Greg Anrig, Jr. put up a post called 'Conservatism and Incompetence' which touches on many of the same points I do. Even David Brooks understands that something has changed, although he doesn't really understand why:

It's already clear this will be known as the grueling decade, the Hobbesian decade. Americans have had to acknowledge dark realities that it is not in our nature to readily acknowledge: the thin veneer of civilization, the elemental violence in human nature, the lurking ferocity of the environment, the limitations on what we can plan and know, the cumbersome reactions of bureaucracies, the uncertain progress good makes over evil.
He goes on to list/suggest institutional failures every one of which ( 9/11 mostly excepted) was entirely predictable. Willfully (or winkingly) failing to 'plan and know' is the real-world result of the very ideology he is still trying to defend. Poor David.

I hope that Katrina, and the inadequate response to it, is the last major crisis we will have to face for a while, although I wouldn't bet on it. Economic troubles - again, perfectly inevitable given fiscal policy - are coming in one form or another. But that will just be piling on, the breaking wave, from a political point of view. Katrina is the crest.

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