Last three on the island (Crosspost from Crooked Timber)

There’s been a spate of recent articles looking at a group of US political writers referred to as “conservative reformers”.

The term ‘reformers’ is misleading since it tends to imply a shift in the direction of liberalism, which is not what the members of this group are hoping to do. More importantly, it implies the existence of a body of orthodox conservative thought against which the reformers are reacting. In reality, US conservatism has returned to the state identified by Trilling ‘ a series of irritable mental gestures. The ‘reformer’ label covers all those self-identified conservatives who would like to present some sort of intellectually coherent policy platform. These days, that’s a surprisingly small set – the typical list includes Douthat, Salam, Ponnuru, Barro, Brooks, Levin, and Dreher.

There used to be many more people in this group. But one by one, they’ve either abandoned ship and moved to the left (Lind, Sullivan, Frum, Bartlett, Ornstein) or descended into outright hackery, an absolute requirement for employment at any of the main rightwing thinktanks (and it’s hard to recall, but there was a time when people like Glenn Reynolds and the Volokhs seemed like serious intellectuals).

Looking at the remaining group, it’s pretty clear that Barro and Dreher are well on the road to apostasy, while Brooks and Levin are now reliable hacks, if they weren’t always. So, that leaves three reformers (Douthat, Salam and Ponnuru) still on the island.

The reactions of the remaining three reveal the pressure they are under. Salam more or less openly shills for the party line from time to time, as in his (now-deleted) attack on the DREAM Act. It seems pretty clear that he will stick with the team, come what may.

Ponnuru responded with the plaintive observation that, to accept the positions being urged on him from the left, he would have to concede that the majority of US conservatives were crazy. But, if craziness is assessed on the basis of stated views, this is evidently true, as Ponnuru surely knows.

Pluralities of US conservatives believe, or at least claim to believe, that:

The President of the US is a socialist Muslim, born in Kenya
The earth is less than 10 000 years old
Mainstream science is a communist plot
Armed revolution will likely be necessary in the near future

Ponnuru hopes that he can engage in serious policy discussion with conservatives while treating such delusional statements as mere shibboleths – harmless assertions of tribal identity

Most interesting is this piece by Ross Douthat, setting out what he sees as the reform conservative policy program. As he observes, it’s not designed to appeal to (US) liberals, and its full of arguments that have been demolished repeatedly by the left.

OTOH, as Douthat admits, there’s no sign that the Republican party has any interest in a program of this kind. More importantly there’s nothing there that would seriously upset a moderate conservative like Obama, or either of the Clintons. It’s well to the left of the revealed preferences of someone like Rahm Emanuel.

Conservative reform of the Republican party is a project that has already failed. The only question is whether the remaining participants will choose hackery or heresy.

28 thoughts on “Last three on the island (Crosspost from Crooked Timber)

  1. Conspiracy theories are not the preserve of the Right. The Left has plenty of its own about everything. Plenty on Bush alone and 9/11, Bush and the invasion of Iraq, Bush and hurricane Katrina and so on. A long list, many published in mainstream newspapers, is at

    The Marxist Left used to go on about ruling classes and false consciousnesses. Did these Marxist notions ever have any credibility in your eyes?

    You are a proud social democratic; not a democratic socialist. Did the notion of nationalising the means of production, distribution and exchange ever make any sense to you? As Brad DeLong argues:

    Whatever utopia is, it does not consist of one big corrupt bureaucracy. And so the left has had little constructive to offer social democrats and others trying to manage and reform the “mixed economies” of the twentieth century

  2. The plutocrats and corporate capitalists are in complete charge. Neoliberalism rules politics and economics. The will of the majority (democracy) is inoperative. How is this anything other than total domination by the cultural right? That question is for Professor John Quiggin.

    In reply to Jim, our resident pro-capitalist triumphalist, yes Marxist ideas still have great applicability and credibility. The plutocratic ruling classes rule only for themselves and run a system where a great number of unsustainable trends are now reaching their crisis point. I listed these trends on the Paris in Spring thread. I am yet to see a substantive answer on how the capitalist system can stabilise and/or reverse these trends and survive as a system.

    It’s odd how capitalists, neoliberals and free market fundamentalists omit to mention the big, corrupt bureaucracies running corporations. You know the ones that deal with money launderers, destroy environments, buy politicians, sell military arms to dictators, manipulate the LIBOR, manipulate the oil price benchmark, promote tobacco, deny medical science (cancer research) , deny climate science, employ child labour, keep workers in 3rd world ghetto factories, hide profits in tax havens, avoid tax, create CDOs (collaterised debt obligations), create junk bonds, create ponzi schemes, embezzle and defraud, issue spurious credit ratings, perform insider trading, cut corners on maintenance and environmental safeguards, avoid clean up costs whenever possible, socialise and externalise costs, privatise all the profits, lobby for corporate welfare, block research into alternative energy and renewable resources, astroturf public issues, issue propaganda and false advertising and lie egregiously about everything they do.

  3. @Jim Rose
    Not even close.

    Go back through that page you cite and click through to the links. There’s a good smattering of left-wing blogs and news sites in there, but are there any links to major news networks and elected officials panicking about shadowy, world-ending plots aimed at mass-murder and mind control?

    Where are the left-wing media equivalents of Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh or Alex Jones – people whose entire media presence is based on delivering breathless and evidence-free conspiracy theories that never come to pass? Where are the left-wing politicians asserting that their conservative opponents are quite literally Nazis and that every single statement they make is a bid for genocide? Where is all the communism that the modern right declares it’s fighting?

    According to the right-wing media and political establishment, everyone to the left of Donald Trump is a militant socialist, determined to destroy capitalism and murder the rich. Even the global scientific establishment has been captured by the commies, which we know because not all scientific data benefits the industry lobby.

    It’s difficult to overstate how asymmetric extremism is between the right and left. The American right has purged all electees who don’t assert that the Democratic Party is a communist death cult, the Australian right is champing at the bit to elect a creationist who believes birth control should be banned and that science is a sinister plot to undermine capitalism, and rank-and-file conservatives the world over simply declare as fact that they’re engaged in a last ditch effort to stop left-wing death squads shooting the rich and herding everyone into collective farms.

    The right is proud of its extremism, because it thinks the balls-out craziness of its beliefs is in direct proportion to the scale of hidden evil it is aware of.

    So while right-wing politicians, celebrities and correspondents run around screaming, with all sincerity, about an impending progressive apocalypse, where is the left wing equivalent? Why aren’t places Daily Kos bursting at the seams with rallying cries for a re-run of the French revolution? Why isn’t the Australian internet full of lefties demanding the murder of Gina Rinehart? Where are all the arguments for nationalising Australia’s entire industry sector?

    You can barely find that sort of stuff in the leftiest corners of the internet, let alone coming from left-wing politicians and media figures, while their right-wing equivalents are running out of things to say that aren’t based on conspiracy theories.

    So why is it, Jim, that while the modern right weaves every event into a tapestry of conspiracy and persecution, all these supposed Reds are talking calmly about regulated capitalism and market-friendly environmentalism? Where is the equivalence?

  4. Jim Rose:

    “The Marxist Left used to go on about ruling classes and false consciousnesses. Did these Marxist notions ever have any credibility in your eyes?”

    Peter Singer once said “we’re all Marxist now” and in a sense that is true, although I personally prefer to use the term Marxian to describe Marx influenced theories that don’t advocate communism.

    You will find countless erudite and learned conservative/libertarian commentaries like this by Lorenzo at Skeptic Lawyer that are Marxian.

    Many of the right-wing arguments about AGW and the influence of material self interest and ideology on the science are distinctly Marxian, altho some are merely conspiracy theories.

  5. Let me presume to suggest a conspiracy theory.

    The income inequality, that is so evident in the US, was I suppose largely predicted. And yet how to explain the social consequences and apparent indifference of those who benefit, which at the very least might be seen as shortsightedness. Otherwise, why don’t intelligent people know better?

    It could be just a ruling class mindset. Then there is Rahm Emanuel setting the standard of teaching to the test and closing schools in Chicago.

    My conspiracy theory is that people with a privileged form of intelligence are selected even before they fully inducted into the bubble of their later existence. Their education lacked any authentic and grounded socialization. A rounded education might be considered as important for everyone. Such a conspiracy theory would never convince anyone with hierarchical-individualist values.

    ps: I appreciate the historical recognition, if not comprehension, that Hawaii was not properly absorbed into the US. Such understanding might be extended to the treatment of the Indigenous Americans and the “occupied territories” along the southern border.

  6. Left-wing conspiracy theories go on about multinational corporations, big business, the CIA, Bush 43 and anything, advertising as a hidden persuader, male chauvinism, and, of course, the vast right-wing conspiracy against Bill Clinton since the day he announced for president. The promulgator of that theory went on to high office.

    The spread of democracy in the third world deprived the Left of many of its conspiracy theories about the CIA and military coups. The fall of the Berlin wall was a supply-shock to reds-under-the-bed conspiracy theories on the Right.

    See for the many too many conspiracy theories out there including that Paul McCartney is dead!! Seeing people alive and well on the telly is not enough for some and that was true well before digital manipulations were possible.

  7. @Jim Rose
    What is being alleged is not that conspiracy theories are exclusively the preserve of the right, or that no conspiracy theories are ever held on the left.

    The claim being made is a much narrower one, that at this moment specifically, in the US specifically, more and more people on the right are adhering to more and more irrational ideas.

    Your criticisms of Marxist thought, whatever their merits, don’t affect this claim one way or another.

    If somebody says ‘The Republican Party is becoming irrational’, it is nothing to the point to respond by saying ‘Well, Marxism’s irrational too’.

  8. @Jim Rose
    I’m curious about a couple things. What exactly is conspiracy theory regarding Clinton and who is it’s prominent promulgator? And which are the conspiracy theories involving the CIA, as opposed the various actions that have since been confirmed by the US government itself (Panama, Chile, Indonesia)?

  9. Pr Q said:

    In reality, US conservatism has returned to the state identified by Trilling ‘ a series of irritable mental gestures.

    In the post-war era, American conservatives tended to get most of their best ideas from Europeans, which makes a certain amount of sense given the European heritage of American political culture. When Trilling wrote this in 1950 the US conservative movement was absorbing the spectacular resurgence of conservative thinking from Cold War philosophers such as Hayek, Oakeshott, Popper, Berlin, Orwell. Or American thinkers reacting to European revolutions, ex-Trots like Eastman, Chambers & Burnham. Home grown American conservatives tended to be of the literary persuasion, such as T. S. Eliot, Flannery O’connor & Tom Wolfe.

    All in all, I’d say a bit more substantial than “a series of irritable gestures”.

    The REP party that I grew up with was good for three things, that impressed figures on both sides of the political divide:

    – Winning wars (eg Cold War)
    – Protecting borders (Operation Wetback)
    – Counting beans (Bush Snr)

    Since the end of the Cold War the REPs have completely lost the plot on their three areas of comparative advantage. Instead they have followed a disastrous strategy of:

    – Invade the World (launching pre-emptive war in Iraq)
    – Invite the World (opening borders to cheap labour & dodgy refugees)
    – Indebt the World (borrowing from PRC to finance asset speculation)

    Unless & until American conservatives deal with the toxic forces that are derailing the GOP from the path of true conservatism they will have trouble convincing the majority of the US electorate that the GOP are fit to govern.

  10. Pr Q said:

    The term ‘reformers’ is misleading since it tends to imply a shift in the direction of liberalism, which is not what the members of this group are hoping to do. More importantly, it implies the existence of a body of orthodox conservative thought against which the reformers are reacting….Conservative reform of the Republican party is a project that has already failed. The only question is whether the remaining participants will choose hackery or heresy.

    I don’t know what journals Pr Q reads, but his reading of “conservative reformers “suffers from an excess of “inside the Beltway” parochialism. During the run-up to the Iraq War there was a movement of genuine “conservative” who splintered from the main-stream American conservative movement to oppose the Bush administrations foreign & domestic policies. They gathered around the mast-head of the American Conservative magazine, published by Ron Unz & publicised by Pat Buchanan.

    The AmCon editorial line is pluralistic, but generally hostile to the current REP tendency to:

    – trigger-happy militarism (“Invade-the-world”)
    – border-erasing globalism (“Invite-the-world”) &
    – budget-busting profligacy (“Indebt-the-World”).

    Others write for Taki magazine. And there are others still who are part of the so-called “Dark Enlightenment” combining realism about evolutionary biology (Steve Sailer, Roissy, Greg Cochran) with wary optimism about revolutionary technology (Robin Hanson).

    More generally the realistic conservatives are not frightened to express a hostility to the hysterical witch-hunting political correctness which has now overwhelmed even traditional bastions of conservatism (John Derbyshire sacked from National Review, Jason Richwine sacked from Heritage).

    Heretics yes, hacks, no.

    To be sure these conservative reformers have thus far been conspicuously unsuccessful in bringing the REPs over to the side of reason & common sense. But their intellectual influence is gradually building up, under the CW radar.

    It would be nice if Left-liberals could join them in holding aloft the torch of intellectual liberty. But that appears to be a “bridge too far” for those who used to style themselves as “freedom fighters”.

  11. I won’t delete this, Jack, but any further mention of evolutionary biology/psychology or of Steve Sailer/Roissy/Cochran or of PC/Derbyshire/Richwine will result in an immediate ban. I may post on Richwine/Heritage, so I’ll advise you now that you are absolutely banned from commenting on any thread on this topic.

    In the interests of free speech, you can address these topics in the sandpit, but only there.

  12. @jack strocchi
    “Counting beans (Bush Snr)”?
    Are you referring to balancing the budget? Because the last two presidents to reduce the debt to GDP ratio were Clinton and Carter.

  13. @Nathan

    What exactly is conspiracy theory regarding Clinton and who is it’s prominent promulgator?

    the 13 second clip of Hilary clinton is on youtube. the filter prevents linking

  14. I’m nonplussed at Strocchi’s claim that Orwell was a conservative thinker.

    The fact that Donald Rumsfeld (among others) seemed to have used “1984” as an instruction manual is hardly Orwell’s fault.

  15. @jack strocchi
    Bush Snr deserves a little bit of credit for this, especially in comparison to present day republicans but I would point out a) he only did the sensible thing and raised revenues when forced to by Democrats and b) because he was still hostage to the nutty anti-tax and defense-spending-is-sacred elements of his party he didn’t actually come anywhere near balancing the budget or ending the recession. That had to wait for a progressive government, as is usually the case.

  16. @David Irving (no relation)

    It’s par for the course for the right to claim various representatives of the left as their own. Reagan occasionally spoke in adulatory terms about FDR without mentioning that FDR was a Democrat or that Reagan was busy dismantling the New Deal. And then there was Dan Quayle on JFK…

  17. Appropriation of Orwell by conservatives is nothing new–his violent anti-Communism having an encouraging effect on them–but I’m a little nonplussed to see him described as a philosopher, of any stripe.

  18. @J-D

    The claim being made is a much narrower one, that at this moment specifically, in the US specifically, more and more people on the right are adhering to more and more irrational ideas.

    If you take too small a sample, you might miss the trends.

    parties that are out of power says lots of extreme things. It is the GOPs turn right now. even when in power, some democrats do gone on about the power of the big corporations and top 1%. some in the GOP, when in power, make you wonder too.

    many people from different perspectives attribute their differences with others to these opponents being ignorant or steep in moral turpitude, preferable both.

  19. David Irving (no relation) said:

    I’m nonplussed at Strocchi’s claim that Orwell was a conservative thinker. The fact that Donald Rumsfeld (among others) seemed to have used “1984? as an instruction manual is hardly Orwell’s fault.

    I am non-plussed at your non-plussedness. The problem is that most politically engaged see only a single dimension in the Left-Right continuum. But there is more than one way to skin an ideological cat.

    Orwell never hobbled by ideological chains. He was social democrat (as I am). He was also a traditional nationalist (as I am). There is no contradiction here. Social democracy is economically progressive. Traditional nationalism is ethnically conservative. These concepts are orthogonal, at least in conventional ideological taxonomy.

    Here are some relevant Orwell quotes that open-minded reformers, conservative and otherwise, might care to keep in mind:

    “It is all very well to be ‘advanced’ and ‘enlightened,’ to snigger at Colonel Blimp and proclaim your emancipation from all traditional loyalties, but a time comes when the sand of the desert is sodden red and what have I done for thee, England, my England? As I was brought up in this tradition myself I can recognise it under strange disguises, and also sympathise with it, for even at its stupidest and most sentimental it is a comelier thing than the shallow self-righteousness of the left-wing intelligentsia.”

    “One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words ‘Socialism’ and ‘Communism’ draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist and feminist in England.”

    “The intellectual, book-trained Socialist… is drawn… entirely from… a rootless town-bred section of the middle class…to an outsider it even appears to be composed of… the foaming denouncers of the bourgeoisie, and the more-water-in-your-beer reformers of whom Shaw is the prototype…and all that dreary tribe of high-minded women and sandal-wearers and bearded fruit-juice drinkers who come flocking towards the smell of ‘progress’ like bluebottles to a dead cat.”

    “If only the sandals and pistachio-colored shirts could be put in a pile and burnt, and every vegetarian, teetotaler and creeping Jesus sent home to Welwyn Garden City to do his yoga exercises quietly. As with the Christian religion, the worst advertisement for Socialism is its adherents.”

    “To this day it gives me a faint feeling of sacrilege not to stand to attention during ‘God save the King’. That is childish, of course, but I would sooner have had that kind of upbringing than be like the left-wing intellectuals who are so ‘enlightened’ that they cannot understand the most ordinary emotions.”

    “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against tot?litarianism and for democratic socialism, as I know it.”

    “Fifteen years ago, when one defended the freedom of the intellect, one had to defend it against Conservatives, against Catholics, and to some extent—for they were not of great importance in England—against Fascists. Today one has to defend it against Communists and ‘fellow travellers.’”

    “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

    The last quote is especially relevant for those blinkered by ideological commitments and partisan loyalties, no names, no pack drill.

  20. @jack strocchi
    Yeah, I remember reading that. As I thought at the time, what on Earth is wrong with fruit juice? There’s another bit where he talks about hating socialists even though he’s a socialist. He observes two men getting on a bus who he somehow intuits are socialist. He describes their appearance as obscene, and is particularly shocked that both men were hatless.

    The 1930s were weird.

  21. @jack strocchi
    I am well aware of those quotes from Orwell.

    They are, of course, relevant to any evaluation of Orwell.

    Their value for other purposes is limited in that they state Orwell’s conclusions (or, perhaps, express his prejudices) but do not present any reasoned case in favour of them.

  22. jack strocchi, Orwell was a democratic socialist, not a social democrat.

    There is a big difference between the two about whether to just temper capitalism in various ways or replace capitalism with widespread public ownership.

    Orwell joined the Independent Labour Party in 1938 because was the only British party advocating something that he saw as socialism.

    the Independent Labour Party split further away to the left of Labor in the early 1930s. Aneurin Bevan described this disaffiliation as to remain “pure, but impotent”.

    Orwell was a magnificent essayist too.

  23. Ron Unz, publisher of the American Conservative, is currently a refreshing read. The man apparently has an IQ of 214, which is pretty impressive methinks.

    I agree that much of what conservatives and right libertarians say and think is embarrassingly silly but I have absolutely no interest in downplaying or ignoring the whale sized stupid that exists on the left here in Oz and in the US. Sadly, much of the stupid on the US Left is uncritically swallowed by the Oz left. Sure, the stupid on the right is a blue whale whereas the stupid on the left is a humpback, but that doesn’t make me feel any better.

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