Thursday, June 15, 2006

A Must Read: "Why Conservatives Can't Govern"

Political scientist Alan Wolfe has written a brilliant and devastating analysis of the central contradiction in the conservative philosophy: conservatives cannot run a government competently or fairly because they don't believe in the essential purpose of government to begin with. They can't administer the very thing they're committed to destroying. If conservatives can't destroy government, they must prove at the very least that government cannot work. The right may be brilliant at acquiring power, but once it has it, it cannot help but do a terrible job handling it. Wolfe provides a plenitude of insights:
But like all politicians, conservatives, once in office, find themselves under constant pressure from constituents to use government to improve their lives. This puts conservatives in the awkward position of managing government agencies whose missions--indeed, whose very existence--they believe to be illegitimate. Contemporary conservatism is a walking contradiction. Unable to shrink government but unwilling to improve it, conservatives attempt to split the difference, expanding government for political gain, but always in ways that validate their disregard for the very thing they are expanding. The end result is not just bigger government, but more incompetent government.

"Ideas," a distinguished conservative named Richard Weaver once wrote, "have consequences." Americans have learned something about the consequences of conservative ideas during the Bush years that they never had to confront in the more amiable Reagan period. As a way of governing, conservatism is another name for disaster. And the disasters will continue, year after year, as long as conservatives, whose political tactics are frequently as brilliant as their policy-making is inept, find ways to perpetuate their power.
A conservative in America, in short, is someone who advocates ends that cannot be realized through means that can never be justified, at least not on the terrain of conservatism itself. In the past, the ends sought were the preservation of hierarchy, even if the means included appeals to democratic sentiment. In more recent times, conservatives promised order and stability through means dependent upon the uncertainties and insecurities of the market. Unwilling to accept the fact that government was here to stay, conservatives stood on the sidelines as conditions kept arising that demanded bigger and more effective national authority. Westward expansion required Washington to settle the issue of slavery, and the recalcitrant South ultimately lost. Industrialization forced the country to deal with trusts and workplace oppression, and the Gilded Age leaders ultimately lost to the Progressives. The Depression demanded stronger government action even more urgently, even as the advocates of laissez faire opposed the New Deal. Similarly, the rise of fascism necessitated a vast expansion of federal power; and again, the conservative impulse, in the form of isolationism, lost.
This is what I have argued before: practically and morally, conservatives have been on the wrong side of EVERY issue in American history. Conservatives defended human slavery. They opposed rights for workers. They were willing to let the poor starve in the Great Depression. They wanted to curl up and pretend Hitler and the Japanese militarists didn't exist in the 1930s. America advanced whenever conservatives lost.
Wolfe makes other trenchant points:
Once upon a time, conservatism may have appealed to history's losers, the agrarian interests displaced by industry or the small-business owners being bought out by multinational corporations. Not any longer. The most dynamic House Republicans, Gingrich and DeLay among them, did not arrive on Capitol Hill from rural byways and once-thriving but now depressed industrial towns; they came from booming sunbelt communities in the forefront of global transformation. They exploit Washington the way farmers once exploited land and industrial firms exploited workers. Their efforts are designed to help business and to build their party, and for those tasks, Congress, and the money at its disposal, is a weapon to use, not an institution to shrink. It took conservatives, who in the 18th and early 19th century supported quasi-feudal states and distrusted the instabilities of the market, a hundred years to become advocates of laissez faire. And under the imperatives of the K Street Project, it took them just five to abandon their belief in laissez faire to support a corrupt business-government partnership bearing striking resemblance to feudalism.
There are ways out of the conservative dilemma. American conservatives could, for example, take away from the Bush years the lesson that they must change their ideology if they are ever again to make the Republican Party a serious party of governance. This is not beyond the realm of possibility. Conservatives in the American past--not only Hamilton and Marshall, but Daniel Webster and Henry Clay--were in favor of a strong government capable of meeting national objectives. There exists, moreover, a modernizing version of conservatism in contemporary Europe, where conservatives recognize the inevitability of government but try to tailor its objectives and improve its competence. Call this "big government conservatism" if you wish, but it would have little in common with that term as President Bush's critics use it to attack him and his administration. This would not be a conservatism that used government to pay off friends and punish enemies but one that sought to use government to stabilize society and avoid periodic crises.

Admittedly, not much evidence exists in America today that conservatives are prepared to move in such a direction. If anything, they seem to have reinforced and strengthened their determination to govern as incompetently and unfairly as they can. The fact that they will leave behind a public sector in roughly the same condition that strip miners leave hillsides would cause nothing but pain to yesterday's patricians, for whom ideals such as responsibility and soundness were watchwords. But today's conservatives have no problem passing on the costs of their present madness to future generations. Governing well would require them to use the bully-pulpit of office to educate and uplift their base. But since contemporary conservatives get their political energy from angry voices of rage and revenge, they will always blame others for the failures built into their ideology. That is why conservatism so rarely makes for a good governance party. As far as conservatives are concerned, it is always someone else's government, one reason they can be so indifferent to their own mismanagement. [Emphasis added.]
What really is the rationale for American conservatism any more? It has simply become the vehicle for all the hatreds, resentments, prejudices, and avarice of tens of millions of Americans. It uses government to govern selfishly, ineptly, maliciously, and dishonestly because that is the only way Republican conservatives CAN govern, given the methods by which they have seized power. The conservative Republican machine runs on corrupt money. It owes its very existence to corporate greed and religious fanaticism, a combination that threatens to destroy this country before the century ends.
I have written about the debased history of American conservatism before. (You can read my previous thoughts on this here,and here. Conservatism is inherently doomed to fail. In its death throes, however, it threatens to destroy the United States. It is the sacred mission of all liberals, progressives, independents, moderates, Democrats of all persuasions and fed-up Republicans to do what Professor Wolfe says will be necessary to control conservatives:


GB said...

-recent student here-

I have an internship this summer at a major private equity firm in downtown Chicago. Moments ago, I labled and mailed a check written for $143,700. In the last few hours, over a million dollars cash checks have moved onto my desk, under my tongue, and through my hands.

Can you imagine how different life would be if the capitalists in this country eased up on the billions of US dollars shifted between corporations daily? If they reassigned this smog of wealth floating just above the population's grasp?

We need to reprioritize, because I have a sick taste in my mouth. And it's not from the envelopes.

Joseph said...

Well, it depends on how you mean "eased up". After all, the money passing across your desk belongs to a variety of different people. But I am indeed alarmed at the increasing concentration of wealth in the U.S.