Tuesday, January 29, 2008
It's interesting to me that Jonah's book has generated a great deal of heat in the blogosphere, whereas _Comeback_ by his NRO colleague David Frum has largely flown below radar.
To me, _Comeback_ is a more topical book and probably better written besides. It is about the current misfortunes of the current GOP and conservative movement and what is required to turn them around. Frum's most important contribution is his insistence on describing the lay of the land. Intellectually and politically, the Republican party and the conservative movement are losing. Which is to emphasize that it's incorrect to suppose that they're winning, or that they've lost.
Once we understand that this is where we are, we'll be in a better position to get where we want to go. Terrorism, immigration, health care, and energy have a much higher profile now than in Reagan's time. If we want to be taken seriously by today's voters, we have to talk about today's issues. This is especially important with respect to something like health care. Even if, especially if, we are forced to argue that the sort of the cheap, adequate, collective, universal-like
health care desired by the popular imagination doesn't in reality exist, we still have to play it straight. If we just rail on about how we don't like socialized medicine, it only sounds like we're not paying attention.
Tuesday, January 22, 2008
I thumbed through some of Jonah's book at the bookstore today. Supposedly it is very successful commercially, top ten in Amazon in this category, top ten in the New York Times in that. Frankly, it's a little surprising to me, why so many people would be interested in this subject, and in particular Jonah's treatment of it. I'm reminded a little bit of Allan Bloom's surpise at the success of _The Closing of the American Mind_ , paraphrasing,
"I thought the book would sell at most five thousand copies, almost all of
them to my personal acquaintances."
The point is, I gather, that there are a large number of Americans of some moderate or conservative persuasion who are manifestly tired of the other team using "fascist" as a cheap epithet, and want a full understanding fascism and American culture instead.
For me, the book is somewhat disappointing. I have no quarrel with Jonah's research or any of his arguments, but I think his critics are correct to say that it is disjointed and has no real point. There so many disparate threads that it's not clear, to me at least, what conclusions Jonah wants us to make regarding the nexus between fascism and liberal American thought. And that's a substantial shortcoming because it represents the the raison d'etre of the book in the first place.
It's plausible to argue, for example, that nationalism is fascism, that fascism is socialism, and socialism is communism. But clearly, all of these things are not interchangeable with each other. Fascism has several models, and each model has several aspects, so that any number of things could plausibly be held to be fascist. In that case, we should take care that we are just as ready to argue that this or that is not fascist (in comparison to the affirmative case), or else fascism becomes an empty tautology.
Specifically, student radicalism at Cornell was very similar in appearance to the radicalization of German universities in the 30s, but has no fascist political connections. Whole Foods is a total fascist red herring, as I mentioned in my prior post. There is a substantial amount of fascist-inspired eugenics underlying liberal thought on abortion, stem cells, euthanasia, etc. But the demand for individual autonomy, mostly sexual autonomy, motivates liberal thought at least as much, a profoundly unfascist premise.
On the other hand, the nanny state in general and the interference of the nanny state into child rearing and family matters has real fascist roots, historically, intellectually, and politically.
The more I think about it, the more I am convinced Ledeen's review is misguided. Clarity is at a premium, not chewy analysis. This is a subject where conclusions must be stated, and judiciously. The train of thought leading up to them is much less controversial.
Monday, January 21, 2008
This election cycle has the undertone of a real-life soap opera, lots of sound and fury, signifying nothing (very frustrating, btw). So why do I still care about the Presidential race, especially on the Republican side? Frankly, there is no real great answer for that, let's just say that the liberal/Democratic establishment represents very bad things for the future of America, and it's very likely that by this time next year they will control the entire federal government unless a Republican wins the Presidency.
Ok, so in the latest episode, John McCain won South Carolina and has to be figured as the favorite for the nomination at this point. At the same time, this is likely to be an uneasy marriage built upon mutual distrust. Jonah Goldberg suggests that McCain ought to give a speech reassuring the base about this or that, cooling the misgivings and ill will towards McCain.
I see his point, and ordinarily that would be the right move, but this isn't an ordinary election season. Let's note that a substantial part of McCain's support comes from his "maverickness," but the actual constituents of his independence aren't necessarily that popular. In particular, McCain is known for support for the war, campaign finance reform, liberalized immigration, and is quite shaky on taxes besides. Those really don't get McCain anywhere.
Instead, there widespread perception that Washington politics are way too cozy for the common good. In particular, that George W Bush has had stupid ideas and done stupid things, and people who should have fought the good fight against the President went into the tank instead. For good or ill, John McCain is an exception. This point of view applies to liberal Democrats obviously, but also marginal Republicans, independents, liberatarians, green-eyeshade beancounters, and former-Republicans-turned-independent-or-Democrat. For these people, the fact that McCain is a professional pain in the ass doesn't disqualify him as a potential President, it's the best thing about him.
The idea that the base is going to bring McCain to heel, like Lieberman in 2000, doesn't work on two counts. First of all, he likely won't do it, or if he does there will be all sorts of finger-crossing and under-his-breath snickering. And to the extent he will do it, it will come at the expense of support from voters who want in independent-minded guy in charge.
Instead, the GOP and McCain need to negotiate some kind of peace treaty. And the key item that the Republicans need to get is the ability to maintain an independent voice under the McCain Administration. Sometimes we (the GOP base) will agree with President McCain, sometimes we won't, but we can't afford to take responsibility for policies that we don't believe in. It's hurt us too much under President Bush.
Thursday, January 17, 2008
Jonah Goldberg has recently written a new book, _Liberal Fascism_. Predictably enough, he has kicked a hornet's nest. In just the last week or so, he's received a bunch of negative emails and reviews from liberals who don't want to be associated with fascism. He's had a contentious appearance on _The Daily Show_ with Jon Stewart. He's also had a surprisingly hostile review from Michael Ledeen.
I haven't read the book yet, I'm sure I'll get around to it sooner or later, but nonetheless I'll endorse the thesis if not the book itself. First of all, let's understand that here in the United States we've had "liberalism" and "progressivism", alternating according to one fashion or another to describe the broad "moderate" Left, since say 1910 until today.
So what if anything is the connection between Leftism in the United States and fascism? Well, the United States has never been a fascist country. Nonetheless, there were substantial connections between pre-war progressives here in America and fascists overseas, primarily Italy but also Germany. Michael Ledeen is a smart guy, but this is where he is plain wrong. It's not that American liberals did the same things over here that the various fascists did over there or even tried to, but the intellectual lines of influence are clearly there. Recall, Jonah's thesis is about _Liberal_ Fascism, not fascism in general.
It's also important not to oversell the case. The connections between fascism and liberalism were not death-grip strong (and certainly there have been other influences on modern liberalism as well), but again they did exist. Jon Stewart asked Jonah if he were trying to establish paternity for liberalism. I forgot exactly what Jonah said in reply, but he might have suggested it was a matter of grandpaternity instead.
Jonah defines fascism as follows:
“Fascism, at its core, is the view that every nook and cranny of society should work together in spiritual union toward the same goals overseen by the state.”
Ledeen objects to this definition, though it seems ok to me. I would add a couple things for emphasis. First of all, the essence of fascism is an odd self-contradiction. On the one hand the nature of community is traditional, a group of people tied together by blood and soil. This is how fascism is typically associated with the Right.
But there's a twist. In contrast to traditional societies, in fascism there is an emphasis on efficiency and common purpose, "spiritual union" as Jonah puts it. This has some very important consequences. First of all, the ethical center of society is moved upward, away from the individual and the family and toward the state, or in any case the bigger institutions of society. Decision making power over industrial organization, social status, or child-rearing is also moved upward, because those decision makers are best available to organize society around a common purpose.
This is why traditional blood-and-soil societies tend to be agrarian, whereas fascism tends toward the industrial. Let's bear in mind that this train of thought was substantially motivated by the need for efficiency. In this historical context, the nineteenth century had just ended. And it was the nineteenth century more than any other, which revolutionized economic production in the world, as well as the way everybody thought about it. Big industrial organizations were efficient, rinky-dink rural craftsmen were not. Whoever didn't get with the program of high-level planned organization, like the Confederacy, lost out to those who did.
This, I'd gather, is largely the point of Jonah's book. The prewar progressives here in the US asked themselves what's the best path for security and prosperity for America? And the answer was pretty simple. Let's get some of that industrial organization they've got in Italy and Germany and bring it over here. All we have to do is sacrifice a little bit of individual and family autonomy. Jonah's liberal critics are correct to point out that this has very little if anything to do with the Final Solution. But, even if it doesn't rise to that level of total horror, it is still pretty bad on its own terms. It's still an artifact of the idea that big, centrally planned things are necessarily the most efficient. That's a mistake, of course, but it was a plausible one in 1915, because in the 19th century economic development did coincide with centralized planning. Now, we have a century's worth of experience to show that, unless there is some massive gap in technology or property rights, _decentralization_ is far more efficient.
So, Jonah is correct to emphasize that the Hillary-Clinton-It-Takes-A-Village nanny state has substantial fascist roots, and if implemented will likely fail because of it. If this embarrasses some liberals, too bad for them.
Let me finish by scoring one definitive point for Jonah's critics. The prevalence of vegetarianism, environmentalism, Whole Foods, whatever, has nothing to do with fascism. It is true that Nazi Germany and the modern environmental movement share this back-to-nature ethos, but that's just happenstance. In both cases, this is the result of amorphous, pagan, quasireligious spirituality prevalent in both contexts. But there were no Paul Ehrlich, Rachel Carson, Sierra Club types who had any meaningful connection with Nazi Germany or were influenced by them at all. Vegetarians and environmentalists in America are right to complain if Jonah tries to associate them.
John O'Sullivan has a new piece out on NRO today, wherein he asserts that things aren't so bad for the GOP and its Presidential candidates.
I have no particular beef against O'Sullivan, but I don't think this particular stance does anybody any favors. On this score, I am definitely a glass-half-empty kinda guy.
Take a look at two recent pieces from the other team, taken more or less at random, here and here. The former is probably the only thing that Jack Balkin has written that I agree with. As for Obama, the thing to notice there is that his message of hope is not so much intended to transcend racial bitterness in America (my anecdotal observation is that's gotten quite a bit better over the last 15 years or so) as much as _partisan_ bitterness.
The fact that our candidates are men of real substance and accomplishment whereas theirs are a big joke just highlights the fact that strategically they are in a much stronger position than we are. Here's one particular ominous fact to come out of the Michigan primary, counterintuitive to some. McCain won a substantial majority of those opposed to the war. Why would such people vote for McCain, a stalwart supporter of the war since the beginning? They want to twist the knife into George W. Bush, and that was the only way to do it. There's no way the GOP will recover those voters until they've had the chance to vent their spleen at the party, and a fair number of their gripes are legit so we've got to listen and talk turkey with them. There may not be that many of them, but frankly the GOP majority didn't have that many votes to spare in the first place.
Tuesday, January 15, 2008
Mitt won the Michigan primary tonight, so he will be a viable candidate for the nomination for a while now. Of course, even if he gets it, his chances of winning the general election are pretty slim, as I wrote yesterday.
Every election cycle, some pundit claims this will finally be the year we'll see a brokered convention, and it never comes off. This time might really be it, especially because so many of the candidates with substantial support in the primaries so far are completely unacceptable to various factions of the party, who will make substantial efforts to stop Mitt, or Huck, or Rudy, or McCain.
In contrast to the conventional wisdom about getty the divisiveness out early and unifying around the nominee, I think it's good for the GOP to work this one out for a while longer still. As Republicans we don't know what we want the President to do, how should be know which guy we want to do it. The GOP has had a tendency toward complacency and anti-intellectualism in it for a while now. It has rarely served the party well, but most of them has been a minor irritation. Now things are different. Things are up for grabs at a more fundamental level than at any time since, say 1980. And, the party has associations with many unpopular things that need to be cleared away. There's no point in pretending that everything is just ducky when it's plainly not.
Monday, January 14, 2008
Forgive as I take the windy road to get to the point of this post.
Why does there seem to be such a visceral dislike of Mitt Romney? Let's leave aside the personal considerations and consider this: Mitt is the guy who has tried to make himself the candidate of the conservative base, and the base itself is unpopular. IMO, this is down to two things. First is the war, which is a fair rap. Second is the sense of corruption in the party and staleness in conservatism in general. This is a bad rap, but our hands aren't completely clean there either.
So where do we go from here? As I see it, there's only two prominent conservatives who have thought about this and have an answer. The first is Presidential candidate Fred Thompson, who thinks we need a new Reagan and is auditioning for that job. The second is David Frum, who thinks the Reagan frame of mind is now just a matter of nostalgia, and conservatives need to come up with topical answers to _today's_ problems asap. Oddly enough, I think they're both right which is something of an accomplishment since these two are a little bit contradictory.
The first lesson to relearn from the Reagan era is to reject despair. One of Reagan's better lines is from his campaign against Jimmy Carter. "A recession is when a neighbor loses his job. A depression is when you lose yours. A recovery is when the President loses his." Considering that so many of our problems are the same ones that we saw in the 70s, the good news is that we can use the same solutions: support for the military, support for the nuclear family, low taxes, taking away easy energy revenue from our enemies, etc.
But for many of today's problems, we haven't seen before. These are health care, demographics, energy, and most importantly, the inability to build financial security in today's global economy, even for smart and industrious people. The responsible political class doesn't want to touch these issues, because there at the moment there are no good answers for them. But nonetheless they need to anyway, if only to generate conversation and realistic expectations amongst the citizens, or else the various demagogues and doomsayers will carry the day.
At this point, I think it's fair to say that the Great White Hope of Mitt Romney has failed to materialize. It's still plausible that he will be the Republican nominee for President. But if he is, then he won't win, and cannot reestablish the GOP as a competitive conservative vehicle after he's gone.
The reasons for this are pretty simple really. There's just too many people who smell him as a snake-oil salesman. This compounds his structural problems of Massachusetts and Mormonism. Add it all up and it's just too much headwind to overcome. But to a substantial extent even the reasons don't really matter. Mitt Romney has run a hard, disciplined, energetic campaign, with the best organization of any of the candidates. Nonetheless, a substantial number of base conservatives have rejected him, even to the point of selecting hairshirt John McCain over him.
At this point, there are only two decent outcomes for the GOP, and both of them are only barely plausible. The first is nominate Fred Thompson, whose candidacy is on life support, but who is campaigning in South Carolina and is said to have some momentum there. The other one is to nominate John McCain, _with_ the stipulation that he governs as an independent and does not attempt to control or speak for the conservative movement or GOP apparatus. Sorta like if the GOP nominated nobody but endorsed John McCain running as an independent.
But what's at least as bad is that the GOP lacks for ideas at least as much as it does for candidates. More on that soon.