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Conservatism, The Zombie Edition

The movement is dead, long live the moment

A month ago, the Gallup poll asked Americans if there is too much, too little, or about the right amount of government regulation of business. This week, Gallup asks if government is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses. In August, just over 44 percent thought that government regulates too much. But over 57 percent of those surveyed today think that government tries to do too much.

It is not even a year after the global financial crash of 2008. Credible analysts, in the main, concur that it was only the $1 trillion-plus infusion of public money that prevented the Great Depression from arising from the grave. Yet already, the great well of conservative-inspired anti-government feeling is already overflowing.

Politics happens fast, perhaps too fast for most political book-writers to keep pace. Maybe that’s why it is difficult to believe that the new book by Sam Tanenhaus, The Death of Conservatism, could be other than premature liberal triumphalism.

Setting aside its burdensome (because too grand) title, this short book is really a succinct history of 50 years of the American intellectual elite’s effort to get some traction with politicians. The conflict in our democracy, and among our intellectuals, is pretty stark: Liberals seek to provide some rationale for government as a legitimate mediator, a redistributor of wealth when necessary, but withal the institution that we task to maintain social peace, while the conservative movement’s project is to justify the results as the wealthy divert public funds into private hands.

It’s a timely book about a movement in flux. Dead just this season are two of the prime movers of modern conservatism, William F. Buckley, Jr., and Irving Kristol. These two writers helped shape conservatism as an intolerant assertion of orthodoxy. By contrast, says Tanenhaus, what he calls “the modern liberal world view” is premised not on an opposite orthodoxy but on consensus:

“Today’s conservatives resemble the exhumed figures of Pompeii, trapped in postures of frozen flight, clenched in the rigor mortis of a defunct ideology.”

When I read that kind of stuff, I feel like uttering a Howard Dean yell in solidarity.

A polarizing history

Moynihan's report on unstable urban black families became a tool for conservatives.

Tanenhaus is good at the history that his East Coast readership will understand (his day job is as editor of the New York Times Book Review). He takes special pleasure in explaining Bill Buckley’s brief but influential candidacy for mayor back in 1965. Buckley didn’t like Civil Rights and he didn’t like unions, but he did like bicycle lanes. Buckley’s political job was to put a genteel face on the nasty, grunting, angry politics of the first Congressional election after Lyndon Johnson’s civil and voting rights legislation of 1964 and 1965 passed. Tanenhaus gets that history exactly right: It was Richard Nixon’s political opportunity.

He’s good, too, on telling about how a well intended scholarly analysis by a liberal Catholic intellectual named Daniel Patrick Moynihan had profound political consequences for years and years to come. Moynihan, one of the legion of Ivy Leaguers hired by Kennedy and kept on by Johnson, and one of the architects of Johnson’s war on poverty, wrote a report entitled “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.” When Johnson used Moynihan’s data and gave a speech at Howard University in 1966 about the problem of intractable urban poverty among African-Americans, the president was warmly received. When speech co-author Moynihan laid his deep concern that the steep rise in out-of-wedlock births was undermining any prospect of alleviating poverty, Moynihan was attacked as a racist—even though the distinguished African-American social scientist Kenneth Clark, not the Irishman, had first used the phrase “tangle of pathology” to describe the family instability among the urban black poor.

Within a couple of years, Moynihan, the appointee of liberal Democrats, was a Nixon appointee, not just because he was so intelligent, but also because liberals’ rage against Moynihan was politically useful to conservatives.

Tanenhaus approves of Presidents Eisenhower and Clinton as Burkean conservatives bent on making government function better; by that measure, Nixon was one, too, and not a polarizing Reagan or George W. Bush who unleashed orthodox conservatism on the land. But when Tanenhaus approvingly calls Barack Obama a conservative, one shudders. Obama’s healthcare initiative is “pure Disraeli,” a reference to the 19th-century British Tory prime minister. Obama’s foreign policy is conservative. His effort to fortify the banking system has been conservative: “All these are the actions of a leader who, while politically liberal, is temperamentally conservative and who has placed his faith in the durability—and renewability—of American institutions.”

One’s heart sinks. Tanenhaus is one of those liberals who believes that if we are all adult and if we play by the rules and act responsibly, we will win, that virtue will triumph and reason prevail. This book reminds me of my sinking feelings reading The New Republic after Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980. Nobody wanted to talk about how outrageous it was that Reagan repeated Nixon’s electoral tactic of code-word racism. It’s as if we can’t tell the truth about what’s outside our doors, waiting to come back in. We have to call Congressman Joe Wilson’s “You lie!” screech an example of old Jacksonian anti-elitism, or working-class populism, rather than what it is—a bluntly effective racist campaign tactic.

Bringing it home

What Tanenhaus really means by his title is this: The nasty, hard-edged political messaging of the conservative movement won’t work anymore. Tanenhaus, sadly, is as wrong as can be.

That’s because anybody who has run a political campaign covering at least one media market knows that racism is an enduring reality, and thus appeals to racism will remain an enduringly effective campaign tactic that will be employed by Republicans. The business elite, especially the financial-assets elite, will do whatever it can, wherever it can, to devalue and delegitimize government as liberals conceive it. They will do this so that its favored political organization, the Republican Party, will deliver the goods, i.e., private access to public money.

The liberal coalition is fragile, and Republicans know it. Witness the recent mayoral election in Buffalo as an example of how conservative messaging and conservative politics work even in an overwhelmingly Democratic area.

In this town, as in most every town, the major media’s chief concern is self-preservation in a marketplace where they are swiftly losing market share to the tsunami of alternative media—especially infotainment and the internet—even while they are losing power due to the general disengagement of the electorate. What’s the preferred technique of self-preservation here? Simple: to hammer their brand ID. A key part of the brand ID is the anti-government message.

Not so coincidentally, the leading business-advocacy groups in America have the same message, nationally and here in Buffalo. The chamber of commerce’s practice and outlook is to destroy the legitimacy of government, locally and nationally. That’s literally what they are after. Here, it is the Buffalo Niagara Partnership’s staff’s job to tell its declining membership that government is the problem, and therefore that the private sector, or the business community, should control every aspect of the flow of public funds here. Ergo the control boards. The result: a pale version of fascism with a snarling, whiny face.

That’s why the recent history of the Leonard Stokes One Sunset loan case, like the six-year-old case of furniture vendor James Spano, has been hammered so relentlessly. The political impact of Byron Brown’s relationship with Stokes and of Joel Giambra’s relationship with Spano has been eerily similar, just as the story is eerily similar. While hundreds of millions in government contracts annually go to chamber of commerce members who are vendors, with not a peep uttered anywhere, a hundred thousand here and there that allegedly goes awry gets the full focus of the major media. This allows the anti-government axis the ammunition to devalue any leader’s political brand in order to promote their own. That is why they focus story after story on the absurd anti-government rants of downsizers and teabaggers.

The assault on Brown is like the assault on Giambra, in that it was a coordinated effort to devalue government and to wreck the brand of any individual, especially a political leader, who threatened to become an independent entity.

It won’t be long before Obama backs an unlucky venture by a supporter, or stands by a subordinate who buys a legit but hard-to-explain service, or is embarrassed by a mumble-mouthed appointee and has to lop off a head. But it didn’t take the demise of green jobs czar Van Jones or the ACORN video to give movement conservatism its ammunition. The conservatives’ ammunition is built into our geography. So long as racial polarization is amplified by city-versus-suburb governance and spatial polarization; so long as local elites can hammer political elites for nugatory performance lapses that horrify flaccid liberals; and so long as financial elites want to avoid government oversight, there will be a ready-made constituency for, a ready-made media for, and a ready-made funding mechanism for conservatism, in whatever iteration its hack intellectuals devise.

Tanenhaus writes good history. Sadly, the movement conservatism he says is dead is not. It just awaits a competent campaign manager. Even more sadly, as Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman recently observed, Barack Obama has a “visceral reluctance to engage in anything that resembles populist rhetoric,” even when populist economics—like penalizing risky banking practices—would actually be good economics. Obama’s left-populist campaign defeated a movement conservative campaign. The best hope for defeating it again would be some left-populist governing for a change.

Bruce Fisher is visiting professor of economics and finance at Buffalo State College, where he directs the Center for Economic and Policy Studies.

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