Conservatism

On Abortion, the GOP Tacks Right

Flickr/Paul Weaver
In March of 2012, Virginia governor Bob McDonnell was in trouble. The Republican-dominated state legislature had passed a measure that would require women seeking abortions in the early stages of pregnancy to have a transvaginal sonogram—a procedure in which a wand is inserted into the vagina. Pro-choice activists jumped on the bill, calling it “state-sanctioned rape.” The outrage went national, and the conservative governor with aspirations to higher office backed off. A version of the sonogram bill did make it into law, but it does not specifically require transvaginal sonograms, just the better-known “jelly on the belly” type. The debacle was only the beginning of Republicans’ problem with women voters. Two Senate candidates—most famously Todd Akin of Missouri—aired shockingly unscientific views about how pregnancy worked, generating a strong backlash from voters. Elsewhere, cuts defunding Planned Parenthood and women’s health programs only made the perception that Republicans are...

The New Deal That Could Have Been

Courtesy W. W. Norton and Company
I nvoking “dysfunction” is now the basic black of punditry about American politics. As the British political theorist David Runciman recently observed in the London Review of Books , “Commentators find it almost impossible to write about American democracy these days without reaching for the word ‘dysfunctional.’” Consider the lowlights of our political culture in just the past 15 years: a puerile impeachment; the subsequent president elected via a Supreme Court filled with political allies; a radicalized Republican Party, convinced that taxation and domestic government spending are a form of socialism; a failure by bipartisan elites even to prioritize, let alone tackle, continued high unemployment and the looming catastrophe of climate change. As Runciman’s editors titled his own essay on America’s lumbering democracy, “How can it work?” Courtesy of W. W. Nortn and Company It is one measure of the power of Ira Katznelson’s important, overstuffed new book, Fear Itself: The New Deal...

A Government That Can't Govern

Everything's going according to plan... (Flickr/Gage Skidmore)
Over the weekend, our friend Jonathan Bernstein wrote an interesting post discussing the point, not uncommon on the left but nonetheless true, that the problem with our politics today isn't "polarization" or "Washington" but the Republican Party. His argument is basically that the GOP is caught in a series of overlapping vicious cycles that not only make governing impossible for everyone, but become extraordinarily difficult to break out of. As the base grows more extreme, it demands more ideological purity from primary candidates, leading to more ideological officeholders for whom obstruction of governance is an end in itself, marginalizing moderates and leaving no one with clout in the party to argue for a more sensible course, and in each subsequent election those demanding more and more purity become the loudest voices, and on and on. John Hunstman would probably tell you that he would have had a better chance of beating Barack Obama than Mitt Romney (who spent so much time...

Data Comes to the Culture Wars

A sociologist runs the numbers on charges of liberal campus bias.

flickr / World Bank Photo Collection
R emember the good old days of the early culture wars? Oh, how I wistfully long for the late 1980s and early 1990s, when higher education was under sharp attack. It was then that Allan Bloom called out his colleagues for closing the American mind, and E.D. Hirsch surveyed the scene and wondered where all the cultural literacy had gone. Faculty, graduate students, and liberal defenders of American higher education bristled against these charges, to be sure. Yet this was elevated discourse compared to the knuckle-dragging anti-intellectualism of today’s assaults on the academy. Gone are Bloom’s and Hirsch’s pious—if precious—reverence for great ideas and students capable of tussling with them. Now we are left with the spectacle of conservatives trying to outflank each other by trash-talking “liberal intellectuals” and the refuge they find in American universities. Only by understanding how crucial these attacks are to conservative identity can we make sense of the jockeying among the...

Smart People Believing Stupid Things

So after a brief moment in the spotlight, it appears that Ben Carson will not be this week's Savior of the Republican Party after all. But his quick rise and fall raise an interesting question: Why are some people incredibly smart when it comes to some topics, and incredibly stupid when it comes to others? To bring you up to speed, Carson is a noted neurosurgeon who, among other things, was the first to successfully separate conjoined twins joined at the head. He's also extremely politically conservative (and African-American), which made him a popular, though by no means nationally famous, figure in some conservative circles. Then in February, he gave a speech at the National Prayer Breakfast, in which he took the occasion to sharply criticize President Obama (who was sitting right there) and advocate for a flat tax, which as everyone knows is pleasing unto the Lord. The Wall Street Journal then ran an editorial titled "Ben Carson for President," and he was off to the races, making...

The People’s Bank

flickr/BismarckPride.com
W hen the financial crisis struck in 2008, nearly every state legislature was left contending with massive revenue shortfalls. Every state legislature, that is, except North Dakota’s. In 2009, while other states were slashing budgets, North Dakota enjoyed its largest surplus. All through the Great Recession, as credit dried up and middle-class Americans lost their homes, the conservative, rural state chugged along with a low foreclosure rate and abundant credit for entrepreneurs looking for loans. Normally one of the overlooked states in flyover country, North Dakota now had the country’s attention. So did an unlikely institution partly responsible for its fiscal health: the Bank of North Dakota. Founded in 1919 by populist farmers who’d gotten tired of big banks and grain companies shortchanging them, the only state-owned bank in America has long supported community banks and helped keep credit flowing. The bank’s $5 billion deposit base comes mostly from state taxes and funds. The...

Whither Homo Economicus?

Jamelle Bouie
It's hard out there for a culture warrior. Every time an opponent of same-sex marriage does an interview these days, one of the first questions is, "Isn't your side on this issue doomed to failure?" They're even getting a cold shoulder from their own allies; after years of bashing hippies and wielding "God, guns, and gays" to great electoral effect, the leadership of the GOP would rather talk about anything else. And now it's Democrats who are happy to stoke the cultural fires, secure in the knowledge that the majority is on their side. Not long ago, many in the GOP began to hope that the rise of the Tea Party could transform the culture war into one primarily about economics and the role of government. We could still have just as vigorous a battle between Us and Them, but with the old social issues fading into the background. There would be a new division, one in which our kind of people value free markets, low taxes, and a government that leaves you alone, while those other kind of...

Not Fun to Visit, and You Wouldn't Want to Live There. But the Taxes Are Low!

North Dakota. Can you smell the freedom? (Flickr/Gadi Golan)
The Mercatus Center, an independently funded free-market think tank housed at George Mason University, just released its annual "Freedom in the 50 States" rankings, and the results, showing whether you live in a Randian paradise or a soul-crushing statist hellhole, are getting a lot of ridicule on Twitter. Liberals may laugh that this kind of thing is pretty silly, but it's conservatives who ought to find the results deeply unsettling. Because if "freedom" as conservatives define it determines the quality of one's existence, then they all ought to be packing their bags to move to the most free of all the states. Which, according to the Mercatus Center, is North Dakota. You can see the problem here. The folks at Mercatus have done their best to be comprehensive in coming up with the scores, and a look at their standards shows a basically libertarian index; in other words, the vast majority of the criteria are things any contemporary conservative would agree with, plus a few of the...

Falling Through the Looking Glass

Flickr/majunznk
Flickr/majunznk Protestors make their case before yesterday's DOMA hearing at the Supreme Court. A s I sat in the press gallery off to the side of the Supreme Court yesterday morning, waiting for the justices to file in and begin hearing arguments about the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), I had that sickly excited feeling that you get when the roller-coaster car is climbing the first hill. The day before was easier for me: I didn’t want the Court to take Perry , the Prop 8 case, to begin with. I was relieved when very quickly we all could hear that the justices had no appetite for a broad ruling. But the DOMA case—and here please let me confess that I’m terribly human—the DOMA case is about my marriage. As regular readers will know, I’m married to my wife in Massachusetts, but because DOMA bars the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages performed in the states, I’m not married in the United States. The justices were going to discuss whether to...

The Super-Sexy Case Against Gay Marriage

When I get that feelin', I need Supreme Court amicus briefs.
Three years ago, in a column titled "It's Not You, It's Me," I noted that a rhetorical shift had occurred among opponents of gay rights. In earlier times, there was lots of talk about the immorality of homosexuality and how depraved gay people were, but now those sentiments have become marginalized. For more mainstream spokespeople, the argument against same-sex marriage is not about gay people at all but about straight people. The problem with same-sex marriage, they say, is the effect gay people's marriages will have on straight people's marriages. What that effect will be, they can't precisely say, but they're sure it'll be bad. Similarly, when we argued (briefly) about repealing the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, their claims were not about whether gay soldiers could do their jobs, but whether their presence would make straight soldiers uncomfortable. Next week, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on cases challenging California's Proposition 8, which outlawed gay marriage...

Take That, Political Science!

AP Photo/Lawrence Jackson
AP Photo/Lawrence Jackson Senator Tom Coburn, a Republican from Oklahoma and author of legislation designed to cut off the vast majority of federal support for political-science research T his week, ten years after swearing to destroy Saddam Hussein and build democracy in Iraq, the United States took a step toward dismantling its investment in studying how democracy works. For more than 15 years, congressional Republicans have been trying to do away with federal funding for political-science research. Every time until now, political scientists successfully fought back. One reason they could: The pot designated for political science in the National Science Foundation (NSF) was a tiny percentage of overall research money—about $10 million out of a $7 billion budget. That's less than two-tenths of a percent. But it's also the majority of total grant funding for political-science research. The field provides us with much of what we know about how democracies, including our own, function (...

Why the Republicans Should Go Ahead and Have Their Civil War

Flickr/Donkey Hotey
Watching gleefully while your opponents tear themselves apart is a bipartisan Washington pastime. For many years, Republicans were able to do much more of it than Democrats, for the simple reason that Democrats tend to bicker among themselves more, and nothing produces such bickering like lost presidential elections. But now, having lost two such elections in a row, it's the Republicans who are at each other's throats, and Democrats who look on with a smile. I always find these arguments interesting, not because I enjoy giving a Nelson Muntz "Ha-ha!" to the GOP (OK, maybe just a little) but because their outcome ends up shaping our politics in the coming years. So I have a message for my Republican friends: Ignore the Democrats laughing at you about the infighting. Squabbling amongst yourselves is exactly what you should be doing right now. It's hard to keep that in mind when your opponents are belittling you and columnists are shaking their heads at your disarray ( see here for...

Banks Are Too Big to Fail Say ... Conservatives?

AP Photo/Jae C. Hong
AP Photo/Jae C. Hong M embers of the Federal Reserve don’t usually make the rounds at partisan gatherings. But amid the tri-cornered hats and “#StandWithRand” buttons of last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC)—the largest annual gathering of conservatives in the country—was Richard Fisher, president of the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank. In a Saturday morning speech , Fisher quoted Revolutionary War hero Patrick Henry, who once said that while “Different men often see the same subject in different lights,” such quibbling had to be set aside in a time of “awful moment to this country.” Fisher described the current time as an era of economic injustice in which the nation’s largest banks threaten our financial stability and act with immunity. He said that the Dodd-Frank financial reform law did not go nearly far enough to fix the problem, and that mega-banks still profited from being “Too Big to Fail.” His solutions included a proposal to limit the total assets held by...

Stuck With Each Other

AP photo/David Goldman
Imagine you're a religious right activist, used to being a serious player within the Republican party, the kind of person candidates court and party chieftains huddle with. You've done well at making sure that just about every politician in your party has the right position on your issues. You may not always get everything you want as quickly as you want, but you know that you don't have to waste energy fighting rear-guard actions within the GOP. But then bad things start to happen. We spend a couple of years talking about nothing but the economy and budgets, ignoring your favorite issues, and some in the party suggest that the real culture war isn't your culture war, it's an economic one. A couple of your favorite candidates get a little too candid with their views on rape, and end up losing at the polls, leading some influential strategists to suggest that the party needs to shift its focus away from your issues. Then one of your party's senators comes out in support of same-sex...

The Political Is Personal

AP Photo/Mike Munden
On Friday, Senator Rob Portman of Ohio became the first Republican in the Senate to support same-sex marriage, explaining in a Columbus Dispatch op-ed that his change of heart came after his son told him he's gay. It was easy to be underwhelmed by Portman's announcement; as Michael Tomasky asked , "what if his son weren't gay? Were that the case, we have no reason whatsoever to believe Portman would have taken this step." That's true, and we might also ask what took him so long; after all, Portman wrote that his son came out to him two years ago, and that seems like a rather extended period of introspection. Portman may not be a civil-rights hero, but if nothing else his announcement is likely to force people to confront the ways public policy is or isn't shaped by legislators' own experiences. And now, many of them will be asked what they would do in Portman's shoes. That was what Speaker of the House John Boehner was asked on Sunday's This Week , and he answered, "I believe that...

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