Miasma of the True Believers


Lately we’ve been hearing from conservatives who are disaffected with the Bush Administration. The general complaint is that the Republican Party, along with the conservative movement, has lost its way, and that Bush represents a betrayal of true conservative ideals.

Bill Moyers had a couple of them on his show a few weeks ago (here is the transcript): Mickey Edwards, one of the old-guard Goldwater conservatives who has written a book called Reclaiming Conservatism: How a Great American Political Movement Got Lost, and How It Can Find Its Way Again; and Ross Douthat, whose recent tome is titled Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream (all political books seem to use similar strategies in their titles these days). Since this was Moyers, the conversation was stimulating, and I ended up watching the whole thing. I can’t deny that there are pleasing aspects of hearing conservatives decry Bush’s notions of untrammeled executive power, and these two were more intelligent than most conservative intellectuals. And god knows one needs to be welcoming to whatever allies one can find in what is essentially a fight to the death for our liberty. Nevertheless, the assumptions of these conservatives are wrong, and almost touchingly naïve.

One of these assumptions is that conservatives have traditionally believed in “limited government.” Reagan came to power saying that government was the problem, and this was essentially the conservative mantra. So thinkers like Edwards and Douthat look at what’s happened under Bush and think it’s an anomaly, a case of a movement going astray. They are in the pathetic position of true believers who take the rhetoric at face value without recognizing the social and economic powers behind it.

“Limited government” in practice, rather than in the vague nobility of conservative rhetoric, means essentially that the government’s function is to stand guard while business makes money. The one idea, if you can call it that, of the Republican Party has been to make sure nobody interferes with profits. Deregulation and so-called “privatization” were the projects begun under Reagan and continued without pause ever since.

Greasing the wheels for the corporations necessarily involves corporations greasing the wheels of government. To think that it doesn’t is simply naïve. You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours—that was the inevitable result of the “limited government” philosophy. And it should be to no one’s surprise that the desire for ever-greater profits will always cancel out any and all concerns for the public good. Therefore, environmental regulations were eroded and ignored, with dire consequences for public health. Therefore, health care became less and less responsive to public needs and increasingly dependent on the profit margins of insurance companies. Therefore, the banking industry was deregulated, regardless of possible consequences for the average person. Therefore, the corporations and the rich were relieved of their responsibility to pay taxes and the burden was shifted to middle-class citizens. The list could go on endlessly.

The point is that conservatives refused to guard against a basic human tendency, or even acknowledge it—I’m talking about greed. With untrammeled greed in control of the government, the power and scope of the state will only be limited in terms of how it can help ordinary people—but its literal power and scope, physically measurable in terms of its ability to control our lives and inflict damage on other countries, that power and scope will inevitably expand. Conservative intellectuals, installed in their think-tanks in order to provide rhetorical support for the movement, are unable to perceive the simplest facts of human nature, facts which have been acknowledged even by the traditional religions and philosophies of the West. Greed was traditionally considered a vice. Not for the American conservatives, though.

Furthermore, there has been no application of these notions of limited government to foreign policy or military expenditure. On the contrary, the Republicans have always clamored to increase defense spending. While Reagan slashed as many social programs as he could, swelling the ranks of the underclass and the homeless and forcing millions of people to take multiple jobs just to survive, he vastly increased the Pentagon budget. And it’s been increasing ever since. Now, what kind of a fool would expect a blank-check policy to the military to result in “limited government”? With the imperial project and the increasing militarization of America comes greater executive power. Yet these conservative purists act surprised that Bush/Cheney would take this path.

Of the two guests on Moyer’s show, I found Douthat the most unintentionally amusing. Fussily clarifying and equivocating while he strained to make conservatism look intellectually respectable, he distanced himself from Tom DeLay and Rush Limbaugh while claiming that Republican economic policies have helped workers by lowering prices. He really believes what he’s saying, which tempts one to lend him the sympathy traditionally accorded to the self-deluded. While so-called “free market” policies have outsourced the American worker to irrelevance, Douthat sees sunshine and lollipops. Indeed, if corporate interests are identified with conservative values, how could he see it any other way?

Over and over, not just on this Moyers show but in general, we hear these conservatives talking about how wonderful Reagan was, and then saying that Bush represents some kind of betrayal of the Reagan legacy. Really? I’m old enough to remember that Reagan appointed as Secretary of the Interior a man who believed that it was unnecessary to protect the environment because Jesus would soon be bringing the end of the world anyway. And he stood behind this man (his name was James Watt) in the face of all criticism, and it was only some stupid incident involving Watt putting down The Beach Boys (of all things) that ended his tenure. Now what does this remind you of? It is redolent of the very wingnuttery we have experienced time and again under Bush.

Reagan’s HUD secretary ended up looting what he was supposed to protect. The collapse of the safety & loans happened because of “Reaganomics,” and it resulted in thousands of average people getting screwed. Prior to the current occupant, it was Reagan’s regime that held the record for indictments among its employees: political cronies who served corporate interests and opposed accountability.

Douthat framed his social conservative brand as “a defense of the particular habits and mores of American life.” And this is consistent with the perennial conservative position of “moral values.” But what does this amount to? Conservatives have never opposed the killings that have advanced American imperial interests. They supported the war in Vietnam. They supported terrorist tactics against Nicaragua. They supported terror regimes across the globe, from Indonesia to Argentina. If a regime was socialist or communist, they got all moralistic. But if it was a right-wing dictatorship, they made excuses, even if the right-wing government was guilty of the same crimes as the socialist one. They made excuses when Reagan subverted the law in order to trade arms with Iran.

Conservatives have used race-baiting as a political tool since the early twentieth century. And from Nixon’s “southern strategy” to Reagan’s welfare queens, to Lee Atwater doing the Willie Horton ad for Papa Bush, Republicans have been whispering in code to racist voters for decades. Did conservative intellectuals protest? For that matter, did any of them speak out for civil rights? They did not. They were silent at best, and at worst they colluded in attempts to suppress civil rights.

The moral values of conservatism are pure emptiness. Conservatives are amoral because their values are merely reactions. The “habits and mores of American life” are defined in reactionary terms, as against progressive ideas—therefore against women’s rights, against abortion rights, against civil rights, against the peace movement, against any ideas of corporate accountability or responsibility. The sham of conservative values naturally resulted in the travesty that is George W. Bush. He is not an anomaly—far from it. George W. Bush is the natural and predictable result of the conservative movement. He is the legitimate heir to Reagan, not a mistake or a bastard child. One could even say that George W. Bush is an almost perfect example of the way conservative ideology eventually merges into pure selfishness and stupidity. In his simplistic way, he tears the fig leaf off of right-wing ideology: “limited government” is revealed as “I just want mine” and “Who cares what you think?”

The conservatives who now claim that Bush doesn’t speak for them, who are trying to tell us that “true” conservatism is something different from what we’re seeing now, are like Dr. Frankenstein claiming that he didn’t mean to create a monster. The conservative project has resulted in such disaster for America, has become such an ugly, repellent, oppressive cluster-fuck of insanity, that the conservative intellectual, clinging to his delusional ideas, recoils from the image in the mirror and tries to explain that the reflection is not really him, it’s something else, something different than what we’ve been seeing for the past thirty years and more. I almost feel sorry for them. But I am not fooled.


~ by cdash on July 30, 2008.

9 Responses to “Miasma of the True Believers”

  1. great post dash
    i couldnt have said it any better

    One could even say that George W. Bush is an almost perfect example of the way conservative ideology eventually merges into pure selfishness and stupidity

    what many have been saying all along — Bush is a symptom of a bankrupt and amoral philosophy, not the cause.

    there are many flaws and problems with liberal and progressive ideology — but conservatism has then beat for sheer travesties and evilness by a mile. conservative philosophy is (as you so clearly wrote) nothing more than greed — and in American conservatism — greed and selfishness WRAPPED up in religion.

    it is also about fear — and governing with fear — not just fear of the ‘turrists’ – but fear of losing your job, fear of people taking your hard earned money to buy cadillacs, fear of america not being the bestest place on earth. true conservatism at its core is fear and loathing of humans….

    i would like to say (and hope) that is movement is dead – it aint. the worse things get, the more people turn within themselves and start believing that it is all about me – survival of the fittest.

    and add to that the fact that many ‘conservatives’ saw the light early — control of the media waves – Goebbels did and Rove and Limbaugh learned from their idol.

    and why not — throw in the fact that most americans are just pretty stupid — and enjoy being stupid.

  2. Dash, great job in calling out the hypocrisy of conservatism. Truth is, it’s anything but. In the 80s, Reagan positioned himself as being fiscally responsible while wrapping himself in a flag, pouring money into the military unchecked. And when Congress had the gumption to step in (recall Ollie North?), Reagan claimed plausible deniability.

    I agree, BushCo is the bursting pimple that arose from the bacteria filled oil that is the conservative movement. GWB learned it from his Dad. Bush Sr. who was part of the school that included the likes of Nixon, Rumsfeld and Goldwater, who developed it from earlier forms of conservatism ala Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover. The lineage is quite easy to follow, and if one tries hard enough, can be extended back to the earliest days of our Republic.

  3. Commies, the whole lot of ya. Where’s a death squad when you need one. Oh, Negroponte? I’m heading over to the burlesque show with Sessions. Anyone want to join me? I hear we’ll get to see more than 9/16ths of a nipple.

    Great post, as usual. I wish dcap was wrong, but he isn’t. This movement will never die because it’s a HUMAN movement. You can’t kill an idea, and someone, somewhere, sometime, is going to love it to death and ride it’s rotting corpse into another position of power.

  4. “Greed was traditionally considered a vice. Not for the American conservatives, though.”
    EXACTLY!!! Greed is a religion with these folks.
    Another excellent post Dashiell.

  5. Excellent post.

    Reagan was right. Government is the problem. Unfortunately, he and many others have only made it worse.

    “Limited government” is one of the most abused catch phrases spewed forth by the Republican Party. The original intent by Jefferson and company was to curtail the central government powers so that the chances of said gov’t abusing its citizens was kept to a minimum. The fed gov’t isn’t supposed to have power over our daily lives and actions, unless they impede other’s rights. But what has happened has clearly been the opposite. If Republicans truly believed in limited gov’t, then the Patriot Act would never have passed and all of W’s executive orders would’ve been nullified and he would’ve been impeached for their violations of the Constitution and encroachments on personal liberty. And these are only recent transgressions, our history books are full of plenty more.

    They say that gov’t is seen as an impediment to the survival of business, but as you accurately point out, the percentage of businesses with a conscience is brutally small. Whether it be “snake oil” or the monopolies of the late 19th/early 20th century, clearly business operates with the intent to make money first and foremost. In this case, it is the govt’s responsibility to “promote the general welfare”, which is a regulatory role.

    Monopolies are bad for everyone, except the company itself. Look how the telecommunications industry has blossomed since the breakup of Ma Bell. Everyone has benefited. People pay less for phone calls now than they did before, they have more options, the Internet and Wireless have exploded in use, and cell phone use is ubiquitous. But none of this would’ve come about if the federal government didn’t step in and interfere. It was one of the few things that went right during the Reagan years.

    “Limited government” does not mean “no government” as many of the anarcho-capitalists of the libertarian philosophy claim. Government must ensure that the “Blessings of Liberty” are secure for all of its citizens. That means protecting the people from would be villains, whether they be foreign invaders, corporate barons, or the very politicians elected to represent us.

    As we grant more and more power to the federal gov’t, it grows too powerful to stop. Power corrupts. Truly, we have reached a pinnacle of corruption during this administration. Those very powers granted to gov’t to protect us have been perverted and have been used against us at an alarming rate. This is what the notion of limited gov’t was intended to protect us against, not to enable corporations and the politicians they buy to grow fat on the back of the US taxpayer (this is not intended as an anti-tax rant. Freedom isn’t free).

    The sooner that the electorate realizes that the Republican idea of limited government is a perversion of what the Founding Fathers intended, the better for us all.

  6. “Reagan came to power saying that government was the problem, and this was essentially the conservative mantra”

    and promptly managed to put any great-great-grandchildren I may have into debt prvitizing the military.

    I’m reading a book you might like, it’s called
    The Complex. , and pretty much fills out this post with proof. It’s nice to see someone write down what I’ve experienced living in my city.

  7. //conservative ideology//

    With good graces and a little bit of luck we may someday visit a museum where, in a small glass box, we will be able to view this vile IDIOTOLOGY as an artifact. Kept only as a reminder of disease that was wiped out. It would be nice.

    Damn! you write well!!!

  8. DASH: Very well-written and researched as usual. I find no fault whatsoever in your argument. I agree with you completely. You HAVE made an error, though. You use the word “conservative” to stand in for “Republican” or “authoritarian.”

    My understanding of the word, sure, using Reagan as an example is a philosophy of fiscal prudence with more teeth on the expenditure side and of monetary neutrality, meaning that a dollar ought to be worth a dollar in purchasing power plus or minus some noise. Socially, conservatism would free progress in some arbitrary period. In foreign affairs, conservatism would tend to isolationism.

    Aside from the social policy in “conservatism,” that is generally the West’s political fulcrum. In most countries, the government is center-left or center-right. It is not surprisng that the tensest spot in the developed West is Andean South America because of four contiguous contries, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, you find the two furthest left-wing governments (VEN & ECU) and two furthest right-wing governments (COL & PERU).

    I can write this over and over again and nobody believes me or cares. America is different from everywhere else by orders of magnitude. As tough as the Colombia of Uribe and the Peru of Garcia are, both have social policies that would be too bizarre for Americans to handle. They do not have the death penalty. They do not incarcerate minors with adults. They have very strict laws on privacy. Their are not expansionist in a military sense. The effective tax rates there while flatter than those in the USA are lower across the board because every citizen gets quite a bit back for his or her taxes. Single-payer health care. Welfare. Subsidized university education. While Obama rightfully has high approval ratings in those two countries as he does all over the world, he could not get elected president of Colombia or Peru because his views are too Right Wing.

    This is what you’re dealing with. The Democratic Party has a softer edge and is more careful on economics and military adventurism but neither party now is ready for something so “radically” left-wing as Ronald Reagan’s “conservatism.”

    George H.W. Bush’s views are out of the mainstream as are Bill Clinton’s. It is not my fight. I personally do better the worse America does. But one’s beliefs are often divorced from one’s finances. There has only been two candidates for president in this cycle to clearly and absolutely oppose war: Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul. There are only two candidates in this cycle who’ve been forthright about the budget deficit, the national debt and the need to raise interest rates: Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul. Those are your two “conservatives” on the scene. Those two and Chris Dodd are the only death penalty opponents in this cycle.

    In historical terms from a world perspective, the Democratic Party is basically a Conservative Party, very much in the style of Ronald Reagan. The Republican Party is a Theocratic Authoritarian Imperial Party in the style of Josef Statlin.

    Obama isn’t terribly different from Reagan on most issues. McCain is merely an autocrat and a pretty unpleasant one.

    The laws of the United States of America are far too strict for most of the world. The concentrarion of power is too dense. The people are too ignorant.

    THE SURGE IS WORKING. Try this experiment out for me. Ask most of the people you know if they think “the surge is working.” I think the percentage will be very high. Do the same for Iraq. The death penalty.

    These are not just ideological differences between the US and the rest of the world. These are profound philosophical gulfs which the US will have to brige or fall apart if this state of affairs continues. There is no way to address the fiscal crisis without ending participation in these wars, using single-payer government health system, and having a system of criminal justice that is more compassionate and less costly — meaning PRISON or EXECUTION should not be the answer to everything.

    The problem with the USA is how pleasurable war, prosecution, execution and religion are to huge amounts of the American people.

    The idea of an “American liberlism” seems very strange to me. It will be impossible to achieve even in an Obama administration. Although he is the best hope forward. You’ll have a younger brighter Rondald Reagan which isn’t a TERRIBLE thing.

    Until Americans can shake loose this Warrior Calvinism that pervades every aspect of the culture outside the big cities and college towns, a sensible American Center-Rightist is the best you can hope for. The Republican party exists to oppress and expropriate. The Democratic party exists now to enable that.

    When you — Dash — have as the same degree of civil rights and civil liberties that the average Palestinian in the Occupied Territories have, then it’s worthy to split hairs on “conservative” or “liberal”. Compare America on every indicator and your own health coverage when Reagan was president to today. Compare the number of executions. Ask yourself if Reagan, despite his foolish stories, ever tried to fuck with AFDC. Ask yourself what Reagan did when 270 US Marines were killed in the Middle East. Ask yourself if Obama would be as strong as Reagan even in pursuit of peace with “enemies.” Ask yourself if Obama could have a senior member of his inner circle a bold advocate of drug legalization (George Shultz). Ask yourself if the prisons were privatized and slave labor effictively legalized during Reagan’s administrations. Ask yourself how monetary policy was conducted (Neutral) and fiscal policy (Keynesian) during Reagan’s administration.

    I voted against Reagan twice and I’d do it again. My point is not that Reagan was good because he wasn’t and he surely did bring all the snakes to the picnic. But the Republican Party and the American People took Ronald Reagan’s thing to a whole new level of craziness. Could McCain possibly appoint someone like O’Connor, Kennedy or Souter to the Supreme Court?

    When you check back in and tell me that you can find a majority of male friends who are opposed to the death penalty, we can begin to tear Reagan apart. Right now, if I lived in the USA still, I’d consider LOCKING IN RONALD REAGAN AS HE GOVERNED in exchange for cancelling the election given the 35% or so chance McCain has of winning. I’d certainly prefer “conservatism” to whatever you want to call the system that’s in place in the USA now.

    From outside, it seems like a late-stage Roman Empire or the USSR under Stalin or Brezhnev.

    A fiscal and monetary “conservative” with only a minor interest in Wars is the best alternaive.

  9. i think I’d have to call the system that’s in place now Participatory Fascism.

    Excellent post as usual.

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