George Packer’s New Yorker article asking if conservatives have "run out of ideas" caused quite the stir in the Right Blogosphere this past week. And right bloggers proved Packer wrong: as it turns out, they didn’t have any "ideas" to start with. They have obsessions and vindictiveness in plenty, but ideas? Not really.
To me, the response to Packer’s piece is far more illuminating than the actual article, which is rather banal. If "movement conservatism" has failed, as I sincerely hope it has, I’d argue that this is because too many of its proponents believed their own press and became persuaded that "movement conservatism" was ever an intellectual movement at all, as opposed to an essentially nihilist politics of vicious opportunism, where the entire goal is power for its own sake.
Packer is of course discussing the GOP’s rather bleak electoral prospects this year, especially in the House and Senate. (He pretends to believe that McCain is a new kind of "post-partisan" candidate, a common form of elite journalist wishful thinking that ignores, for openers, Hagee and Parsley.) He speaks to a number of conservative writers, like David Brooks, Ross Douthat, David Frum, and Pat Buchanan. The Brooks part has gotten the most attention, perhaps because of Brooks’ admission that "You go to Capitol Hill—Republican senators know they’re fucked," which is of course hugely entertaining. But the overall thesis is that the period of GOP dominance just may be over, because the Nixonian "Southern Strategy" as well as other mechanisms for splitting the old FDR coalition may just have finally run out of steam. Moreover, the end of the Cold War left old-school conservatives as pointless as Batman without the Joker, and ever since the Reagan administration they’ve been essentially "Happy Days Again" with Ted McGinley starring as a feckless George W. Bush and Dick Cheney acting like a superannuated Arthur Fonzarelli. (Packer doesn’t discuss the Clinton interregnum or 9/11, two pretty glaring omissions. Both probably ended up keeping movement conservatism from wheezily expiring at the end of the first Bush administration.)
Anyhow, as far as political history goes, Packer’s article is interesting, if facile; taking David Brooks at his word is funny, when it’s perfectly clear what safe haven he intends to reach as well as what sinking ship he is rapidly quitting. But like I said, the fun is in the responses to this class of stuff. Here is, for instance, Jonah Goldberg:
I agree with most folks quoted as saying that the GOP is in deep trouble and that conservatism is something of a mess these days as well. But for Packer, these terms — conservative and Republican — sometimes seem like interchangeable terms, while for me they are not. I think this may be one of the reasons why I thought the piece was so structurally flawed. He begins by arguing, asserting really, that conservatism begins with Nixon in the late 1960s, when Tricky Dick crafted a strategy of exploiting resentments, which any student of intellectual conservatism knows is simply wrong. Nixon did not like or trust the Buckleyites and the Buckleyites were hardly wild about Dick either. This fact should help one keep in mind that treating conservatism and the modern GOP as interchangeable is an analytical error of the first order.
This is absurd. Buckley may not have liked Nixon, but so what? If you want to argue that Buckley was not all about the exploitation of racial, social, and cultural divisions, be my fucking guest. And if you wish to argue that "intellectual conservatism," whatever the fuck that is when it’s at home, stands in sharp contradistinction to Nixon’s legacy — uh, no. The historical record would be rather different were there ever a "principled conservative" opposition to Nixon. Or to George W. Bush, for that matter. Serious intellectual movements are less agile with ex post facto rationalizations for egregious anti-democratic behavior.
After all, what are these deep and profound "intellectual principles" that have been so basely betrayed by the 21st century GOP? Well, here’s the noted dope Michael Goldfarb to explain it:
American conservatism has a set of core principles that includes a belief in free markets, free people, and in the greatness of the American people and the American nation. Those principles are timeless. They are also pure and, in the eyes of conservatives, true.
Oh. Well, these principles are also, in the eyes of people who aren’t morons, fatuous slogans and overripe bullshit. Goldfarb adduces the farm bill as an instance of why conservatism has found itself in its current plight, but this is silly — if Reagan confronted pandering agricultural policy, history fails to record it. And if the current crisis of conservatism is reflected in the GOP’s poor electoral prospects, well, why do you think the farm bill got passed, and how many favors does Bush give downticket GOP candidates in rejecting it? I mean, please.
But beyond that, this is conservatism? "America is great!" That’s it?
Well, here’s Andy Sullivan:
Conservatism is not, to my mind, about solving problems, which is why Burke remains a very problematic governing philosophy for modern Americans. It is about a modesty toward what problems government can ever solve. Its responses to emergent questions will not be an attempt to "solve" them, but to ameliorate them with a narrow set of tools. And the narrower the better.
Right. So conservatism, in short, is about wanking. Governments fuck up a lot, especially if you don’t like governments. And that’s it? Well, congratulations. You can see why any government elected on a platform of self-contempt would have trouble perpetuating itself. Of course, in reality, "conservative" politicians are not immune to the blandishments of power, as history rather spectacularly teaches us.
The real problem with "movement conservatism" is that it is reactive and deluded. Global warming is real. The Iraq war was a grotesque mistake. The mainstream media are not Democratic partisans. Gay marriage is not going to destroy America. And so on.
The real problem with "movement conservatism" is that the only people left who believe in it are completely crazy idiots.
And that’s all she wrote.