Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

17 June 2016

The Death of “Conservatism”?


It’s amazing, sometimes, how our long species can believe things that make absolutely no sense.

So it was with Russian and Chinese Communism. Marx and others told us that its essence was a “dictatorship of the proletariat.”

But isn’t that an oxymoron, an intrinsic contradiction in terms? Ever since ancient Rome (which invented the term) a “dictator” has been a single man. The “proletariat” is a whole class of people, roughly what we Yanks call “working stiffs.” How can one be the other?

The problem is not just semantic. It’s substantive. If a whole class of people must govern as one, how do they do it? Is there any other means but the imperfect and messy process of “democracy”? How can they make collective decisions as smartly, expeditiously and often as ruthlessly as a single man?

As twentieth-century history tells us, they can’t. The Russians and Chinese wrestled with that question, respectively, for over seven and nearly three decades. In the end, they both despaired of squaring the circle.

So both gave up trying and abandoned “Communism.” The Russians turned their brand of Communism into rule by a single man, an autocrat, recalling the Russian tsar with whom they were quite familiar. The Chinese turned their brand into a single-party tyranny, replacing the Emperor with a small committee backed up by an expanded class of Mandarins inconrguously called the “Communist Party.”

Both nations reverted pretty much to their historical norms. Putin is a kinder, gentler and much smarter tsar. Xi is a skilled politician using his considerable intelligence, the force of his strong personality, and various non-deadly methods of purging his enemies to restore the Emperor as the first among supposed equals. He controls the Plenum of the Central Committee (once nine members, now seven) as Steve Jobs did Apple’s board.

But lest we Yanks jeer, we ought take a closer look at that what passes for “conservatism” in America today. Semantically and substantively, it doesn’t make much more sense than a “dictatorship of the proletariat.” Let’s see why.

Modern American “conservatism” does have one jump over “dictatorship of the proletariat.” It can’t be an oxymoron because it’s only one word. But once you unpack what that word used to mean, and compare that with what Republicans think it means today, you can see that it makes as little sense as a “dictatorship of the proletariat.”

Here, verbatim (omitting a clause about style in clothing), is the very first definition of “conservative” from the The American Heritage Dictionary, Second College Edition at 312 (Houghton Mifflin Co., 1986):
1.a. “Tending to oppose change; favoring traditional views and values. . . . 2. Moderate, cautious, restrained: a conservative estimate.”
How, pray tell, do you get from that to lower taxes, less regulation, a lower federal budget, and fewer rules—let alone vastly expanding foreign wars and drowning government in a bathtub?

Ever since Alexander Hamilton won the battle to establish a national bank, our nation has been slowly and incrementally centralizing. Government has been growing stronger and more ubiquitous every year. It’s a natural and inevitable process, reflecting the increasing complexity of science, technology, business, society, law and human interaction in an exponentially more crowded and complex world.

The process accelerated dramatically during the last century, when we needed big government to stave off the Great Depression, fight the Nazis and Imperial Japan, manage the Cold War, and maintain the world’s greatest technical and scientific research establishment. That establishment in turn brought us (among other things) atomic weapons, atomic energy, routine global air travel, high-altitude flight, travel to the Moon, knowledge of DNA, the Internet and modern medicine.

So if American “conservatism” is a “tending to oppose change,” let alone drastically reduce the size of government, it’s a little late, by at least a century. You might even say since our Founding. “Reactionary” would be a much more accurate description.

No, so-called American “conservatives” don’t oppose change. They want to make change. Indeed, they want to make radical, fundamental, drastic change. A party opposed to change would want to keep the government and its rules just about the same size that they are, with maybe small incremental increases or decreases. It wouldn’t, like the official Texas Republican party platform early in our new century, want to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Education, the Internal Revenue Service, and the income, estate, payroll, capital gains, and gift taxes, as well as state and local property taxes. That would be radical.

So how, pray tell, have Republicans managed to convince large portions of the American public that they are the “conservative” party? By so-called “public relations,” i.e., the most daring and yet effective propaganda in human history.

They have managed to create an enduring and attractive myth—that America was and still is an agrarian society of small towns in which people live on large farms, separated by miles, and are largely self-reliant in everything. The grow or make and maintain their own food, water supplies, houses, barns, equipment and arms, and they fight off natives, crocodiles, foreign invaders, terrorists, and other assailants with their ubiquitous and no-longer-so-small arms.

To some extent, our professional and most experienced myth-makers (Hollywood and the TV industries) have supported this comforting myth. But it’s absolutely astounding (albeit true!) that large portions of Americans believe it although it has virtually nothing to do with their actual daily lives. They would rather put faith in a fairy tale than look around them, use their eyes and ears, and think. That’s pretty powerful myth making!

In fact, modern Republicans are very far from “conservatives” in any sense of that word understood before Saint Reagan. They don’t want to keep things as they are or even change them incrementally. They want to dismantle or destroy our existing governmental structures and return to a state that never existed—except perhaps in the Thirteen Colonies before they ratified our Constitution and began to grow. Isn’t that radical, and not conservative?

Then think of war. Our first real conservative, General and President George Washington, warned us against foreign entanglements. And the man who may have been our last real conservative, General and President Dwight Eisenhower, warned us against our “military-industrial complex” (a term he coined) as perpetually seeking conflict to justify its own existence and ceaseless growth.

Yet who has consistently advocated more and more military action and foreign entanglement? From two gratuitous wars to invade and occupy Afghanistan and Iraq (to accomplish what President Obama did with two helicopters and some Navy Seals), through the current push to mix it up in Syria, it’s the so-called “conservatives.” Let’s be modest, restrained and incremental and go to war!

So when modern Republicans scratch their heads and wonder what Donald Trump has done to their party, many are rightly confused.

Trump is not a true “conservative,” they say. But in fact Trump is more conservative in many respects than establishment and orthodox Republicans, let alone the Tea Party.

They want to destroy Social Security and our other safety nets, which have existed for nearly a century. Trump wants to modify and fix them, including “Obamacare.” They want to push hard on Syria and Iran and risk war with Iran and Russia. Trump wants to make deals. The GOP wants to emasculate or eliminate government (at least at the federal level); Trump wants to make it great again, and with it our nation.

There are two respects in which so-called “mainstream” Republicans actually may be more conservative than Trump. First, they want to continue the “carte blanche” or “open door” policy on trade, while Trump wants to restrict and curtail it in order to keep and provide more jobs at home.

But even here it’s not quite clear who the real “conservative” is. The “open door” approach is a postwar phenomenon, beginning with the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade in 1948 and culminating (so far) with the NAFTA in 1994 and the WTO in 1996. (TPP or now TPIP would take it farther, if ever ratified.) On the other hand, before World War II, we, like our manufacturing patron Britain, severely restricted trade for our own advantage. In fact, our Smoot-Hawley trade tariffs against Japan were a major motivation for its sneak attack on us at Pearl Harbor.

So who’s more “conservative” on trade? It depends on how far back you want to go, and what you consider to be our Yankee “tradition.” In a field in which our own and global practice has changed radically over the last fifty years, it’s hard to tell what approach is “traditional.” Might it be better to think about which approach is more beneficial to our people and more consistent with our national interest?

Immigration is the second field in which the GOP establishment may be more conservative than Trump. The establishment wants to continue exploiting eleven million undocumented immigrants as cheap labor, while keeping them cowed and helpless with uncertain status. Trump wants to get rid of the immigration “problem” by getting rid of undocumented immigrants—all eleven million of them.

It’s hard to conceive of anything more radical and less conservative than deporting eleven million otherwise law-abiding undocumented immigrants living and working peacefully among us. The disruption to families and labor markets would be stupendous. Who would find and train the millions of gardeners, nannies, hotel maids, waiters, bus boys, meat packers and construction workers needed to replace the deported? It’s hard to believe that Trump is serious about these campaign proposals, or that even a wholly Republican Congress would approve them in anything like their campaign-promise forms.

But here again, as in the case of trade, what’s “conservative” depends on your temporal point of reference. Before Reagan’s immigration “reforms” in 1986, walling out more immigrants (with a human wall of massively increased immigration agents, not an easily overcome passive physical wall) might have seemed a plausible means of continuing then-existing policy, as might have deporting the then much fewer undocumented immigrants living here. But today, building a wall (whether human or passive) and deporting eleven million people seems far more radical.

There is only a single major respect in which who’s the “conservative” (between the GOP establishment and Trump) is hard to tell: racism and xenophobia. Trump yields to no one in racism, misogyny, and bashing Mexicans and Muslims. But he adopted a party that has made racist and ethnic bashing a centerpiece of its electoral appeal since Nixon’s disgraceful “Southern Strategy” in 1968. That’s almost half a century. You’d have to go back closer to World War II to find a semblance of the Party of Lincoln in modern Republicanism.

The truth is that today’s Republican brand of “conservatism” has little to do with avoiding change, preserving tradition, and imposing moderation and restraint. Its wellsprings of ideology—lower taxes, less regulation, and smaller government—are the program of the rich and powerful, who support and fund the party. Unlike most of us (and the nation), they don’t need government—or don’t think they need it—because they think they can protect themselves. They certainly don’t need social security or (because they do the employing) unemployment insurance. They don’t need food stamps or subsidized medical insurance. And they don’t need protection of worker safety or curbs on pollution because they don’t work in factories or mines and don’t live in polluted areas. Even if pollution comes to them, they can move. If they want, they can even change the location of their workplaces and offices, as they are doing now to avoid taxes, because they call the shots.

So, unacknowledged by most GOP pols, the Republican party has become the party of the rich and powerful. Its core ideology is “trickle down”—the notion that coddling and pandering to the rich and powerful (who incidentally support GOP campaigns and propaganda) will induce them to create jobs for the plebes. That ideology has failed, as repeatedly and self-evidently as the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” Yet its brilliant propaganda organs, especially Fox, have somehow managed to convince a large fraction of working people that making their bosses even more rich and powerful will improve their own lives.

Until Trump. With his scatterbrained, off-the-cuff, impulsive approach to everything, Trump has begun to strip off the naked emperor’s “new clothes.” Call it “populism” if you like; I call it debunking a crazy lie promoted and believed for far too long. Trump has tapped into the natural skepticism of ordinary people and their slow but steady recognition that the GOP’s “trickle down” ideology has not helped them and never will.

The only thing that Trump has stolen directly from the GOP’s very odd brand of “conservatism” is racism and xenophobia. His ranting against Mexicans, Muslims, Chinese and immigrants generally harnesses our species’ most dangerous fault, tribalism, and our most powerful emotion, fear. And it falls right into the mainstream of GOP propaganda over the last half-century, from the “Red Scares” of the sixties, through the “domino theory” of the Vietnam War, to the “Willie Horton” ad of Daddy Bush and the (obligatorily black) “welfare” queen of persistent GOP economic myth.

In short, Trump has taken only the worst of GOP “conservatism”—the part that feeds our reptile brains and makes us do terrible things. The rest of it, in one way or another, he has dumped into the dust bin, and rightly so.

This leaves GOP regulars with two unpleasant prospects. If Trump wins the presidency, he will move toward a strange, erratic kind of pragmatism and force the abandonment of the last two generations’ radical “conservative” ideology. If Hillary wins, that ideology will capsize in a tidal wave of political change. In either case, the kind of so-called “conservatism” that the GOP has peddled for two generations will likely go the way of Russian and Chinese Communism, leaving a thin residue of incongruous semantics and self-evident lies on a largely new society.

The GOP establishment and pundits, of course, are apoplectic. In their eyes, Trump has deviated from orthodoxy and is an apostate. But without ever explaining his doing so as such, Trump has begun to open people’s eyes, while playing on the same old fears. He has parted the curtain concealing how far the GOP has deviated from any rational definition of “conservatism.”

So who’s the real apostate? There’s the question that people who style themselves Republicans and independents are beginning to ponder seriously for the first time in nearly three generations. Once their thinking reaches a conclusion, the politics and ideology of the United States will not likely ever be the same again.

Footnote: See Rebecca Smith, "As Emission Restrictions Loom, Texas Utility Bets Big on Coal," Wall St. J. (July 21, 2006). My 2013 analysis of House Tea Party members showed nearly 20% from Texas alone, and about two-thirds of the total from Deep South and border states. So it’s hardly inappropriate to consider Texans’ radical extremism in characterizing the Tea Party’s so-called “conservatism.” The term “conservatism” is about as accurate in describing the Tea Party’s ideology as is the term “Tea Party” itself, which conjures up images of Boston and our Founding, in describing a “movement” of predominantly Southern origin.

Erratum: A previous version of this post included Trump’s immigration proposals among the respects in which he seems more conservative than the GOP establishment. That was error. The better analysis is that Trump’s proposed wall and mass deportations are radical proposals today but might have been considered conservative thirty years ago, before Reagan’s humane and practical immigration reform helped open the immigration floodgates. On both immigration and trade, Trump’s proposals seem much like trying to close the barn door long after the horse has bolted.



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