With Reformicons like this, no wonder the Reactobots always win

Over the fold, a piece a posted in Crooked Timber on the miserable position of the “Reformicons” – conservative writers who are trying to put some intellectual lipstick on the pig that is the Republican Party.

This isn’t a problem in Australia – there are, as far as I can tell, no intellectually serious conservatives left at all. The dominant thinktank is the IPA, a mirror of the US Heartland Foundation, which is utterly discredited, even on the right for its embrace of delusionism on everything from economic policy to climate change.[1] Quadrant, once a serious publication, is now a sad joke.

And then there’s the Oz. Enough said.

Sam Tanenhaus has a long piece in the NY Times, lamenting the failure of the latest attempt to convert the Republicans into a “party of ideas”. His star candidate for this role (one of only a handful of possibles) is Yuval Levin, and Exhibit A is Levin’s journal National Affairs, which he lauds for its mind-blowing wonkiness, in a way that’s impossible to summarise without parody. Here’s Tanenhaus

This was the sterile soil in which Levin planted National Affairs, which exudes seriousness of an almost antiquated kind. Each issue is the size of a small book, unleavened by illustration or even reported narrative. The typical Levin-assigned-and-edited article leads the reader through a forced march of acronyms and statistics and of formulations like this: “The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (P.R.W.O.A.) replaced A.F.D.C. with a new program called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Under TANF, families can draw federal aid for only five years, to underline that welfare is supposed to be temporary. And where federal funding for A.F.D.C. had been open-ended, for TANF it is fixed, so that states must pay for any expansion of welfare.”

On it goes, article after article — “Taxes and the Family,” “Social Security and Work,” “Recasting Conservative Economics,” “Reality and Public Policy.” And yet with its stodgy prose, its absence of invective and red meat for the angry right, its microscopic circulation (6,000 subscribers, though some articles reach as many as 100,000 digital readers) and its one blogger who provides links to academic writings, National Affairs has become the citadel of reform conservatism.

Wow! an article that actually names a policy and describes its central features. It’s hard to believe that anyone still does this stuff. The tone is as if Tanenhaus had encountered a tribe in some remote wilderness engaged in ritual debates about tensor calculus.

And of course this is pretty much what is going on. The Republican party is, in essence, a combination of an ethnic voting bloc (Southern whites) and an economic interest group. The latter is dominated by the 1 per cent, but including small business owners, and high income members of the “white working class”, as defined by the lack of a college education. The tribalists don’t care about policy analysis, and the 1 per cent would prefer that their policies be implemented as quietly as possible. Nevertheless, open tribalism is hard to sell to the majority of US voters who don’t fall into the core category of white, (heterosexually) married, non-poor, Christians, so some pretence of having ideas is desirable.

It’s worth looking at the pieces mentioned by Tanenhaus. “Reality and public policy” sounded promising, for example, given that the primary critique of the Republican Party is its divorce from reality. It turns out to be a bizarre panegyric to (now former) Pope Benedict for restating the fundamental importance of the differences between men and women.

Recasting conservative economics” is mostly standard blame-shifting about the causes of the financial crisis (mercifully not peddling the Community Reinvestment Act) but it gives an interesting insight into the assumed intellectual level of the readership with the following definition and gloss

Keynesian economic theory?—?named for early-20th century English economist John Maynard Keynes?—?calls on governments to step in with an active program of expansionary fiscal policy when the private economy is contracting.

I couldn’t find “Work and Social Security” but the general line is what you would expect: privatisation and raising the retirement age. This is about as close as the reformicons get to a substantive debate over policy issues.

As I said with respect to Ross Douthat, the point here isn’t to think about policy issues, but to talk about policy in a way that isn’t obviously crazy, while not saying anything that contradicts the interests of the 1 per cent or the tribal taboos of the Republican base.

It’s all a kind of cargo cult. The central dogma is that, if a suitable simulacrum of a landing strip (in this case, a policy “journal” that looks vaguely like the Brookings Papers) is constructed, the cargo of intellectual credibility will magically arrive. At least as far as Tanenhuas goes, the magic seems to have worked.

fn1. The Centre for Independent Studies has gone much the same way, linking up with the utterly loony Spiked group (formerly the Revolutionary Communist Party). They still have some credible researchers, which is more than can be said for the IPA.

41 thoughts on “With Reformicons like this, no wonder the Reactobots always win

  1. @Uncle Milton
    I haven’t regarded Sloan as an intellectually serious conservative since the first time I read something she wrote. About 1990, I think.

  2. m0nty :
    Yes Rob, I would, and did at my own blog at the time. On Q&A last night, Judith Sloan disagreed with almost every LNP budget item that was raised. The IPA are dries, but the government is run by wets. Hockey has maintained Gillard levels of spending, for the most part. As was said by Garnaut, the major shift has been in putting more of the tax and payment burden on the lower and middle classes, not actually slashing expenditure. This is anathema to the IPA.

    Hmm ok, but you seem to be very focused on fiscal policy.

    There are many other items on the IPA wish list, or at least seem compatible with IPA world-view, that have been or will be acted on (to some extent) by this government; Climate Change, disempowering environmental authorities, mining tax repeal, pursue various FTAs, etc

  3. @Rob
    And there are many more on that wish list that won’t be implemented, like enacting WorkChoices, or repealing s18c or tobacco plain packaging. The LNP is run by conservatives, not libertarians. Sometimes their interests converge, particularly in sucking up to big business, but where there is conflict, the IPA always loses out to the Tories.

  4. @m0nty
    “Grow out of it”? With luck you’ll get to second childhood and then find ways to avoid sad seriousness at seeing foolishness and obsessiveness on ancient particulars recycled as if new for the umpteenth time.

  5. @Rob
    Anyone who thinks the IPA has much influence with government has never got to understand politicians. Politicians want to win elections. A plausible coherent story supporting values and aims which support lolicies is obviously desirable and may be contributed to by a think tank but I suspect that the IPA itself wouldn’t believe it had much weight with government. It is not now representative of business leaders as it was 50+ years ago but much more yesterday’s men. One of those, Michael Kroger has been a great political wheeler and dealer and now far too shrewd to give the game away but can hardly believe that a body increasingly financed by individual donations and inclined to quixotic, if admirable, campaigns for Enlightenment values, Western Civilisation and freedom of speech is going to set the course of government. It is merely a happy co-incidence that George Brandis needed no prodding to see and object to the widely agreed essential vice of Sec 18C, namely its protecting people from being offended.

    I would guess that quite able and mature IPA people would even acknowledge that the vicious campaign against Andre Bolt (which was objectionable but hardly something that Bolt could have won much sympathy over, given his unfairness to some of the plaintiffs) should properly have been successful actions for libel by the few plaintiffs about whom he had been careless with the facts. Still, is it even a left-right matter to find aspects of Sec 18C objectionable? Is it a left-right matter to object to giving a great deal of discretionary judgment and power to judicial figures (you don’t have to go back far in history to the days when the judiciary protected property by sending some of our ancestors to Australia: just look at the fury aroused by SCOTUS decisions – most of the fury being on the left for well over 10 years). In fact the case against Bolt may have been decided mostly on facts which would have grounded a defamation action against him. The judge wasn’t responsible for Merkel’s deplorable reference to Nazis. (And what has been Malcolm Fraser’s excuse? Certainly suffering from relevance deprivation syndrome and resentment at his successor as Liberal leader – whom he had had the wit to promote – behaving as shrewdly as Malcolm by blaming the ex-PM, justifiably, for the Budget blowout he bequeathed to Hawke/Keating. Maybe age too, though JMF’s instincts about underdogs seem to have early roots and manifestations. He wasn’t just showing up Gough in his welcoming of Vietnamese refugees or his misguided opening up of Lebanese immigration. It is told that he made a particular friend of one of Oxford’s few black men in the early 50s, perhaps reflecting the fact that he himself felt out of place and would not have gained admission to Oxford on academic merit – as well as being younger than UK ex-national servicemen, his appearance to some of arrogance being a total misconception. It would be far fetched to imagine that having a Jewish grandfather aligned him with the modern Diaspora manifestion of ancient Jewish values in concern for civil liberties and humanitarian causes).
    I refer of course to the absurd suggestion that returning economic migrants, more Sinhalese than Tamil (!), to Sri Lanka was like returning Jews to Germany when they were expressly discriminated against by law and the subject of such outrages as Kristallnacht.

  6. @Midrash

    Politicians want to win elections

    That doesn’t hold true if you study the ALP between their landslide 2007 win at the federal election and their bumpy decline through 2010 to their sound thrashing in 2013.

    They abandoned the very policies that got them elected (humane treatment of refugees, taking climate change seriously, equitable social welfare) and they still cling to them.

    The ALP would rather lose elections than revert to their historical policies.

  7. sorry, rather than “still cling to them” I should have said “still reject them and cling to their opposites”.

  8. Midrash :
    “Grow out of it”? With luck you’ll get to second childhood and then find ways to avoid sad seriousness at seeing foolishness and obsessiveness on ancient particulars recycled as if new for the umpteenth time.

    Like most men, I never fully left my first childhood. Toylike people make me boylike, as the man said.

    My writing grew up, though. Read a bit of Hemingway or Asimov to rid yourself of rhetorical pretence. Words are tools for getting work done, when used correctly. Throwing them at the screen like a Hart art piece is all very well, but it doesn’t accomplish much. You’ll learn, youngun.

  9. @Megan
    The fact that people lost an election is insufficient evidence to support the conclusion that they wanted to lose the election. That’s about as stupid as seeing people losing chess games or football games and concluding that they must have wanted to lose. I personally have lost plenty of chess games, sometimes by making egregiously stupid blunders, but not because I wanted to lose them. I make a significant amount of stupid blunders because I’m just not much good at the game. Failing to consider the possibility of politicians making stupid blunders because they’re not much good at what they’re doing suggests a serious lack of imagination.

  10. @Midrash
    Wanting to have judges but not to grant them extensive discretion is ludicrous. There would be no point in having judges without extensive discretion.

    I have only ever observed criticism of judicial discretion from people who are dissatisfied with the particular decisions arrived at by its exercise. When people don’t like the decisions judges make they may see them as going beyond their proper role, but when they like the decisions judges make they tend to perceive them as Daniels come to judgement.

    I should add that I’m not specifically defending any existing system. If I had a free hand to design the system it would be radically different. But it still wouldn’t incorporate judges without discretion.

  11. @J-D
    There is a distinction to be made that I think you miss. Courts are in the business of usually making one side unhappy but losing in a case where highly technical questions of property, including IP, or tax law are argued is one thing. No one should complain if the judge or judges have followed traditional judicial reasoning which cannot, obviously, totally eliminate the idiosyncratic or strangely prejudiced but tends to mimimise it. However when judges actually start with untested generalities embodied in new legislation and have, or at least are seen as taking, a free hand to give content to the hitherto undefined invitations to substitute one person’s subjectivity for the never quite nailed down subjective preferences of the legislator one is almost bound to generate resentment and divisiveness.

  12. Some people on this thread are in serious denial about the power and influence of IPA.

    One commentator argues that there ubiquity is actually proof that they have no power, on the basis that if they really did have influence, we would never have heard of them!

    What a tortured logic. I understand the comfort of living in such a coccoon, but it does the left no good. IPA have been remarkably successful in placing their extreme agenda into ABC as a standard option to be considered regularly.

    That doesn’t make IPA a sensible academic voice, but it does make them a powerful lobby group for the big corps that pay their bills.

  13. I also wonder that some people don’t understand that IPA are all about ambit claims and pushing the debate in a certain direction, rather than a 0-1 “win”.

    So let’s say they make 100 extreme claims, are given loads of ABC air time to spread them around, then 10 are delivered fully and 40 in various degrees…

    Is that a failure? No way. They have still had a great influence considering there may be relatively few stakeholders behind them.

  14. @Mark
    Yes Mark, we all know about the Overton Window. Contrast that with the Commission of Audit, which is a textbook case of a grab-bag of extremist ideas thrown out in an attempt to move the window to the right, or the IPA’s wishlist which is much the same thing. I would argue that the fact that so few of those vain demands are ever met is proof that the majority of the Australian electorate – the centre – is knowledgeable enough to recognise these things as rhetorical tactics, not workable policies, and ignore them.

    I would suggest not living in the ABC cocoon, Mark, and not getting so worked up about its partial colonisation. Most Australians don’t consume ABC political content. Practically no one watches The Drum. Your passion is admirable, and I see you’ve started a new poliblog. The blogosphere is where the new generation of leftist content should be growing and thriving.

    The IPA has a right to exist, and it is entitled to enter debate to try to pull the Overton Window to the right. That is only democratic, even (especially) on the ABC. The real question should be why there isn’t an equivalent effort attacking from the left. Perhaps you’ll be one of the new guard. Best of luck with it.

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