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They only look brain dead

Some of our readers may find this article in the New Yorker by George Packer, “The Fall of Conservatism,” worth reading. Don’t be too put off by the cartoonist’s grotesque caricatures of Buckley, Goldwater, Reagan, Gingrich, and McCain on the first page of the story; Packer’s caricatures are, for the most part, less twisted.

Other than the fact that the Republican brand is in trouble now, and that conservative ideas currently hold less sway than at most other times since 1980, Packer doesn’t get much of the important stuff right. Moreover, many of Packer’s errors are apparent from the face of his article because he has a habit of contradicting himself. Here are some of the more obvious problems:

Packer gets the history wrong. Hoping to imbue the conservative movement with the original sin of racism, Packer begins his narrative not with Buckley, Goldwater, or Reagan, but with Richard Nixon and specifically with his efforts to woo Southerners. Yet, as Packer says later in his piece, Nixon was not a conservative president. Thus, it’s odd for Packer to claim that the present conservative era in American politics “was born in 1966.”

Packer is not only unfair to conservatives, he’s unfair to Nixon. For Nixon was a pro-civil rights, pro-black president. As Packer acknowledges, Nixon was the first president to support racial quotas for African-Americans in employment. In addition, Nixon signed into law the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1972 which, among things, empowered the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to sue private employers for race discrimination. As to quotas, Packer claims that Nixon was attempting to “split the Democrats.” But Nixon assumed the considerable risk that Southerners and the white urban working class would hold him, not Democrats, responsible for the policies he adopted that favored blacks over whites. This is an unlikely move for a politician attempting to exploit white racism.

Packer gets the recent past and the present wrong. Packer claims that Bush’s “compassionate conservatism. . .never amounted to a policy program.” Though some conservatives may wish this were the case, it is not. Bush was not short on domestic policy proposals – e.g., faith based initiatives, No Child Left Behind, a prescription drug benefit program, private social security accounts, immigration reform – and these programs can be organized around the concept of compassionate conservatism. Bush’s problem was not lack of ideas or lack of interest in governing (another of Packer’s allegations); his problem was that he couldn’t enact key portions of his domestic agenda.

Packer’s critique of Bush is part of a larger argument, namely that there is no “fresh thinking” among Republicans. Packer goes so far as to label Republicans “brain dead.” But this charge is no more applicable to mainstream conservatives than to “compassionate” ones. In fact, Packer’s piece demonstrates that such conservative intellectuals as David Frum, Ramesh Ponnuru, Rich Lowry, Ross Douthat, Yuval Levin, and David Brooks (to the extent he’s still conservative) are engaging in fresh thinking, including a rethinking of traditional positions on important matters. Packer is not highly impressed with the ideas these folks have come up with. This is not surprising, inasmuch as Packer isn’t a conservative. But the failure to come up with ideas that Packer agrees with is not the same thing as being brain dead.

As for the Republican rank-and-file, they are about to nominate (for better or for worse) a non-traditional Republican who breaks ranks with conservatives on a wide range of important issues. As for Republican leaders, Packer informs us that Senate Republicans are dissatisfied with traditional conservative policy prescriptions.

All of this soul-searching has occurred in the absence of even one defeat in a presidential election. Usually it takes several defeats to shake a party and its deep thinkers out of complacency.

Packer claims that “conservative journalism has become. . .calcified.” He also employs the terms “orthodoxy” and “insularity.” But again, the very conservative journalists he discusses refute this claim. Thus, Packer cites National Review as an example of the “calcification,” even as his own reporting depicts Lowry, Ponnuru, and Jim Manzi questioning certain orthodoxies. Packer also cites Commentary magazine. Yet his attack on John Podhoretz, in which he argues that John doesn’t measure up to “Commentary’s intellectual past,” suggests what those of us who hold John in much higher regard also believe – that Commentary will change under his leadership.

Packer assumes, without any supporting analysis, that he’s got the future right. Packer is quite taken with the following formula: Goldwater was to Reagan as McGovern is to Obama. But Reagan won two landslide victories and completed a two-term presidency of which most Americans approved. Obama has accomplished none of these things. Thus, the appropriate formula might just as easiy turn out to be: Carter was to McGovern as Obama is to Carter.

Partisan politics is essentially a zero sum game; one party or ideology succeeds to the extent the opposing party or ideology fails. Yet Packer looks only at the Republican and conservative side of the equation. It’s certainly true that if Obama is elected and if he and his ideas have Reagan-like success, conservatism will have “fallen,” at least for a while. But if Obama’s presidency isn’t regarded as successful, then there’s every reason to believe that voters will once again be receptive to conservative ideas and policies — either existing ones, those being worked out by dissatisfied conservatives, or most likely some combination — few of which have actually been tried yet.

Packer provides no analysis that suggests Obama and his ideas will succeed. To be sure, getting conservatives wrong was probably a large enough enterprise for one article. Yet conservatism cannot be pronounced “fallen” without some consideration of how liberalism is likely to fare. And it is not enough, in this regard, for Packer to assert that liberals are more interested in governance than conservatives. In Packer’s world, Carter was more interested in governance than Reagan.

There are a host of events and problems that could cause the body politic once again to receive conservative views. These include, to name some of those currently on the radar screen, new terrorist attacks; a government takeover of the health system gone wrong; a social security system that’s seen as becoming unviable; ever-higher gas prices; and tensions, fears, and displacements arising from more-and-more illegal immigration. Thus, if Obama wins, the next four or eight years could find the public recalling why it didn’t like liberals, while conservatives take advantage of the increasingly robust debate in the movement to refine its policy prescriptions and message. To the extent that Packer discounts this possibility, his only basis seems to be a knee-jerk disdain for conservatism.

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