July 12, 2006

Conservatism revisited

Gordon nicely responded to my questions in the comments of the previous post. I am still not completely convinced, but he suggested some things to think about.

First, he points out that Coulter does receive quite a bit of criticism from conservatives--and I will concede that. And he reminded me that the National Review fired Coulter for her extreme statements. I think that was when she suggested that we invade Muslim countries and kill their leaders and convert the rest to Christianity.

He seems a bit too forgiving of someone like O'Reilly, especially given how much of a mouthpiece the man has become for the Bush administration, and he didn't address Malkin at all--who may be the more odious for defending internment in a rather transparent attempt to justify similar treatment for Muslims. (Last week, I read that film critic Michael Medved said that Indians hadn't been THAT mistreated--after all, look how many there are around now! I keep waiting for some conservative to say that slavery was both beneficial and moral.)

But we agree that what he calls the "Jerry Springer effect" allows freaks like Coulter to thrive. Couldn't agree more. In fact, the entire Fox News staff qualifies for that. Just about.

The second part of his post is devoted to defending conservatism. I left some comments over at his blog. I am not convinced. Especially since he describes conservatism as essentially agreeing with the basic liberal assumptions, just wanting less government and less welfare. I am most interested in these two statements:
Conservatives believe in multilateralism, but are more willing to adopt unilateralisism when appropriate. Conservatives believe in separation of church and state, but they do not necessarily believe that America should be a godless state or that religion is something to fear.

For the first, I would like to know when that view of unilateralism arose outside this administration. Does Gordon believe that Iraq is an "appropriate" use of unilateralism?

Second, the second sentence strikes me as a classic logical fallacy, perhaps the strawman or something like that (I always forget those). But it is definately a stretch to assume that liberals either want a "godless state" or that "religion is something to fear."

To be fair, most of us want a secular state, but that doesn't mean it is Godless (thanks Ann for that little addition to the anti-liberal mantra). Don't get me wrong, the religion of Pat Robertson and James Dobson scares the shit out of me, but that doesn't mean that I or other liberals--especially those of us who actually are Christians--see religion as something to be feared.

Gordon ends with this little gem:
Conservatives who say liberals are evil are wrong. Liberals are just misguided. Very misguided.

Absolutely. Conservatives who say that liberals are evil are wrong, and so are liberals who say that conservatives are evil.

But then to say that we are misguided? I asked him in the comments to provide a little more substance to that.

Feel free to jump into the mix. And Gordon, thanks for coming by. It is actually nice to argue a little about history and politics. Or at least, i would like to argue a little more about history (I left some other questions regarding American history in my comments as well.)


Gordon N. Trenchard said...

I will try to respond on the religious question tomorrow. About Malkin, I don't really follow her closely, so I just don't have much to say about her one way or another. As for liberals being "misguided," look, while I think liberals and conservatives have a lot of similarities, there are significant and important differences between the two, and I don't think liberalism is what is best for the future of our country. To explain why, I would probably need to write a multi-volume work. Let me just say I'm really glad George Bush is president rather than Jimmy Carter. I don't think it's necessary to get if tizzy over my word choice of "misguided." Do you really expect me to say liberals are right? By misguided I merely mean to show that I disagree with liberals, but that I think their motivations are not different than mine. They want what's best for America. I just don’t think the solutions liberals offer for America are the best solutions, and in many cases would just make things worse.

Streak said...

Ok, fair enough. But, even studying the past in depth, you still like Bush? I understand the dislike of Carter, though I don't share it. Say what you will about the man, he brought great intelligence and compassion to the job.

Let's look at it this way, and I don't mean this as a snarky comment, merely a tired one. What would you list as the best conservative contributions to our country? I can think of a couple, but I also have a pretty long list of issues that conservatives have largely fought until it became unavoidable--civil rights, feminism, and even that social safety net that you say conservatives accept in smaller amounts.

In fact, much of what you identified as conservative is not really historically connected to conservatives. They opposed any regulation of business, certainly fought tooth and nail any welfare state or even government contribution to regional development. Just witness how conservatives responded to and continue to respond to much of the New Deal.

Anyway, tired and probably cranky. Thanks for coming back. Often my commenters flee in frustration.

Gordon N. Trenchard said...

Your right, frequently conservatives misread professors as being hostile toward conservative viewpoints when professors are simply hostile toward stupidity. I know as I've been accused of being liberal by some of my students unhappy with their grades, which I always find ironic (no, I don't tell the students I'm a conservative too). But, I hate to tell you there is conservative hostility out there. Not everyone. Actually most people I know at school are pretty decent people. But there are some people who just can't tolerate conservatives. I once had a geography professor who blamed EVERYTHING that ever happened that was bad in American history on the Republicans. He said the Republicans wiped out the Indians. When I asked about the Trail of Tears during the Jackson (D) administration, he said (I'm serious) that only affected one tribe (the Creeks) while Lincoln and Grant's policies had affected many more. Gerrymandering was invented by the Republicans too according to him. When I asked why then the term was named after Elbridge Gerry, a Democratic-Republican who died decades before the Republican Party was even founded, he explained that Gerry was conservative and eventually conservatives became Republicans. I mean can you imagine how infuriating it was to be in this course! Did it affect my grade...no. Maybe if I were in a borderline case it might have. Nonetheless, it was really annoying. I had another professor offer the class bonus points if they helped her at a campaign event for a democratic presidential candidate. I didn't bother asking if I would get bonus points for helping the Republican. Did I really need to bonus points...no. But again, annoying. I never feel I've really been discriminated against, but in part that's because I know who I can share my views with, and who I cannot. I have had at least two friend who's relationship with their advisors unraveled in large part over their political differences. In one case, a grad student placed a sign in support of a conservative position (it was not against abortions or gays or blacks or immigrants…in no way hateful) on his office door. A fellow grad student destroyed that sign. When my friend caught him in the act he was VERY mad and started yelling and swearing in the hallway (again no prejudiced language, but a lot of R rated language). The result: my conservative friend did not get funding for the following year, while the person who tore down the sign did. I know what your thinking there must have been more going on here, and yes he did have some other problems, but it was his losing his temper over this episode that became the justification for his denial of funding, which led him to leave the program. I had this confirmed when I saw an email written by his advisor to a third party. I just can't imagine this would have had the same outcome had the sign being torn down said “Begin Regime Change at Home: Impeach Bush.” No he should not have lost his temper as it is not professional, but wouldn’t you have been pissed too if someone tore down and destroyed a sign on your office door? Do you think I’ve ever placed a political poster on my office door?

One final point: How do you think I feel when people make assumptions about me when they find out about my political orientation. You seem like a nice person, but I think even you made assumptions about my capability of a historian based on my politics. You asked me, “If liberals are so terribly misguided, where do we miss the boat in identifying key historical questions? Is our analysis of race issues in the American south wrong? Are we too hard on the White Citizens Councils? Are we overly critical of various Indian removals or even borderline ethnic cleansing efforts?” What were those questions implying about me? How would you feel if you were asked these questions? And would you like to work in an environment where people made these assumptions about you? Maybe I misread the implications of these questions, but I hope you can understand how I would come to these conclusions.

Gordon N. Trenchard said...

Sorry to post so much. As for a defense of conservatives historically, its my understanding that you only get a group of people appearing in American politics describing themselves as conservatives in the late 50's and 60's (like William F. Buckley). And you can really only trace modern American conservative to this group. At the time of the New Deal, its my understanding (again, I'm not a student of the 20th century) that most of the people opposed to the New Deal considered themselves as liberals, and they were, it was just that liberalism was changing around them. I mean is Al Smith really a conservative? And can you really connect Father Coughlin to modern day conservatism? At the very least the anti-New Dealers were not the people that ended up contributing to the conservative resurgence that began in the 1960s (Its funny, conservatism is really the most successful protest movement to emerge out of the 1960s if you think about it) I think its problematic to go back into the past and describe everyone who took an unprogressive stance as conservative, as a friend on mine once explained he opposed conservatives as they had once supported slavery. As for conservatives continuing to attack the New Deal. Newt Gingrich has often stated that the greatest president ever was FDR (I would go with Washington on this, but FDR is up there), and Reagan also continued to praise FDR after his conversion to the right. Now is the modern day conservative track record perfect? No. Conservatives were slow to get behind women's rights. But, is it really fair to hold me accountable for the views that many conservatives held before I was even born, and that I don't hold?

Gordon N. Trenchard said...

I actually modified and expanded some of these previous comments into a blog entry that you may want to take a look at. I take a somewhat harsher tone against some of your comments, and I hope you don't take any personal offense.

Streak said...

These are good comments, and no, I didn't take offense at your blog posting at all. Was I assuming something about your historical ability? Perhaps. My questions came from two sources: one, I am reading Dittmer's Local People and so am responding to the southern (and northern) conservative resistance to civil rights. BTW, your geography professor was an idiot, and I can completely understand your frustration there. As we all know, the southerners I am reading about are all Democrats.

Second, I am responding to some of the conservatives I actually know--and they tend to downplay racism towards blacks and Indians. So, yes, I was making an assumption based on faulty or incomplete information.

But, to be fair, your affiliation with modern conservatism also leads me there. Many of the modern conservatives came out of an opposition to civil rights--Barry Goldwater voted against the Civil Rights Act, and the south became solidly Republican largely because of the same issue. That is, after all, the "southern strategy." Again, I don't mean that as an attack on you, but merely where some of my assumptions came from.

Second, I do think that many of the opponents to the New Deal were conservative, as were some of the defenders. After all, the entire 1920s was dominated by Republican administrations not unlike our own. Pro-business, anti-regulation, anti-union, anti-feminist. Many of those conservatives had to remain quiet during the depression years because politically they lacked credibility, but they certainly jumped at opportunites as they came up. For example, conservatives attempted to defund the Office of War Information because it highlighted New Deal programs. On Indians, conservatives pushed for the Termination (and relocation) program in the 50s. Were many of these conservatives liberal by comparison to Buckley and others? Perhaps.

I am intrigued by what a poli sci friend told me about shifting political trends. America trended liberal following the crash and stayed essentially liberal until the mid 70s. All the Republican administrations tended to accept the liberal assumptions of the role of government--including especially Nixon. Starting after Watergate (ironically the Republican corruption feeding the assumption that government was corrupt and helping the conservative movement), American trended Conservative and even Democratic leaders trended conservative as well. Clinton certainly accepted pro-business strategies, and even anti-tax rhetoric.

But that also feeds back into my earlier assumption, one that bothers me. The modern conservative movement has part of its roots in its opposition to even Nixon--and even back to the Dixiecrats of Wallace and Thurmond.

More later.

ubub said...

Wow, civil discourse on the internets! This could have been like Crossfire for historians, but so far, no one has called anyone else a "revisionist" or an "activist."

Here's a question: To what extent are the conservative or liberal movements merely constructions that bear little resemblance to the philosophies of most individual conservatives or liberals who might be associated with those movements in the minds of others?

Gordon N. Trenchard said...

As for whether there were new deal conservatives, I quote Jonah Goldberg who is not a historian, but a very shrewd conservative writer:

"Conservatism in America begins in the 1950s with National Review. If you hear someone talking about the Old Right of the 1930s, and how that's what defines “real conservatism,” you’ve either met a very grumpy agrarian poet, a cape-wearing anarchist with oddly pro-Belgian tendencies, an angry Prussian socialist of some kind, a fusty Whig — or, most likely, someone who simply doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

"It would be an exaggeration to say the “Old Right” is a myth, but the term is really more of a label imposed on a eclectic collection of “superfluous men” who stood outside of the historical currents, lamenting the rush and foam of the Progressive tide. But they belonged to no movement, shared little that could be called a political program, and, as a group, if they voted at all, they did so the way a man in a blindfold shoots a gun at a crowd."

As for America getting more conservative in the last 30 years, yes it sure has. And while Bill Clinton was not a right winger, he did help transform the Democratic Party from a liberal party to a more less Republican Lite Party (which I think is a major reason why Democrats have lost so many recent elections that they should have easily won). In 1992 when Pat Buchanan called for America to build a wall on our border, the consensus was that he was crazy. Today, even Hillary Clinton has waremed up to the idea. Why this big change? I really don't know.

As for conservatives and civil rights. I'm not sure if the average segregationist considered himself a "conservative." Maybe, I just don't know. I mean many of these people voted for people like William Fulbright. Did southerners only vote for Fulbright just because he was a segregationist, or did they also support his liberal worldview?

Barry Goldwater clearly counts as a modern conservative. From my understanding I thought Goldwater (and Bush, Sr. as well) opposed the 1964 civil rights bill on ideological grounds not because he was a stauch segregationist. But, regardless it was a mistake. But, William Fulbright also opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Bill, and doesn't he count as a card carrying liberal?

But, as to your greater point: Are there racists in the conservative movement. Yes, and I also suspect racists are more likely to be attracted to conservatism over liberalism. But, I also suspect that people who believe that America deserved what it got on 9/11 are more likely to be liberal. Does this mean I can condemn all liberals? No.

Streak said...

I am not sure you are helping your case quoting Jonah Goldberg on this. :)
Especially since I don't think claiming that conservatism simply arrived in America with the National Review matches with the historical record. That seems more a convenient conceit than historical analysis that allows people like Goldberg to just dismiss entire conservative strains that preceded the NR. Are we to believe that liberalism dominated American politics up till the people at NR recieved their tablets from God in 1950? I guess if the definition is limited to people reading the magazine it works, but that is about it.

But even if I accept that, it still does not explain your defense of conservatism in the modern sense. In your initial defense, you suggested that it was actually just like liberalism, just less. Accepted the welfare state, just wanted less. Accepted government regulation of business, just wanted less.

But the conservative movement of Friedman and Goldwater represented a much more libertarian viewpoint than some kind of watered down New Deal.

And further more, while I completely accept that there are many racists among liberals, and I am not trying to tar you with that brush (seriously), I wonder why conservatives essentially attack the very framework that allowed us to gain ground on civil rights, the environment, and women's rights? After all, if the conservatives of today had their way (please correct me), we would not have an activist government daring to tell states how to determine their race laws. We would not have a regulatory state that enforces minimal (and shrinking) pollution controls. We would not have a framework to ensure that minorities and women have access to the same system. The modern conservative movement that you (and Goldberg) describe formed essentially to stop all of that.

It seems as if you want to claim conservatism as the superior political model, yet also claim partial credit and defense for many of what I consider huge gains in 20th century American history.

Please understand. I am not trying to blame conservatives for racism and environmental destruction (well, a little on that last part), but merely trying to understand how you base your defense of the movement.