Conservatism

Substituting Identity for Motivation

A religious right leader offering his insights.

Let's be honest and admit that everyone had a hope about who the Boston bomber would out to be. Conservatives hoped it would be some swarthy Middle Easterner, which would validate their belief that the existential threat from Islam is ongoing and that their preferred policies are the best way to deal with that threat. Liberals hoped it would be a Timothy McVeigh-like character, some radical right-winger or white supremacist, which would perhaps make us all think more broadly about terrorism and what the threats really are. The truth turned out to be…well, we don't really know yet. Assuming these two brothers are indeed the bombers, they're literally Caucasian, but they're also Muslim. Most importantly, as yet we know absolutely nothing about what motivated them. Nothing. Keep that in mind.

But for many people, their motivations are of no concern; all that matters is their identity.

Marco Rubio's Life Is about to Get Complicated

Flickr/Gage Skidmore

Marco Rubio has had a pretty charmed political life. He rose quickly through the ranks in the Florida legislature, won a Senate seat without too much trouble at the tender age of 39, then suddenly found himself the "Republican savior" a mere two years after arriving in Washington. At a time when the GOP is desperate to appear to Latinos, he's a young, smart, dynamic Latino who could be their presidential nominee in 2016. What could go wrong?

Immigration reform, that's what. Many elite Republicans feel, and not without reason, that while supporting comprehensive reform might not win them the votes of Latinos, opposing it will pretty much guarantee that those votes will be lost to them. And Rubio almost has no choice but to be one of the leaders, if not the leader, of the party in that effort. He can't be the Great Latino Hope if he isn't. Trouble is, lots and lots of rank-and-file Republicans, particularly the kind who vote in presidential primaries, don't much like reform the way it's shaping up. Sure, under the "Gang of 8" plan in the Senate it'll take 13 years for a current undocumented immigrant to become an American citizen. But for many in the party's base, that's about 113 years too quick. Enter the MarcoPhone. Wait, what? Get a load of this:

Call It What You Will

President Obama speaking about the bombing in Boston.

Conservatives sometimes complain about the "language police" on the left who keep them from using the colorful words and phrases they learned at their pappys' knees, when those words and phrases turn out to be offensive to people. But the truth is that nobody pays the kind of careful attention to language the right does. They're forever telling us that the truth of President Obama's radicalism can be found not in his actions but in a thing he said one time, or on the other hand, criticizing him for something he failed to say. (For some reason, Rudy Giuliani was particularly obsessed with this. He loved to say about a speech an opponent made, "He never said the words 'islamo-fascist terror killers!' How can we trust that he understands the world's dangers if he won't say that???") It's a faith in the power of words to change the world and reveal the truth that I'm sure linguists find touching.

From what I can tell, conservatives were getting only mildly pre-angry at Obama for not calling the bombing in Boston "terrorism" (see here, for instance). Needless to say, this is a kabuki of feigned outrage we've been through before, and not that long ago. You'll recall that there was a big to-do over whether Obama had called the Benghazi attack "terrorism," with Republicans insisting that if he had used the word earlier and more often...well, something would have been different. They're not sure what, but it would have involved us standing tall and not taking any guff.

The Gosnell Case and the Two Kinds of Media Criticism

Fox is on it.

As you might have heard, conservatives are up in arms that the trial of Kermit Gosnell, the Philadelphia abortion doctor charged with multiple murder counts, hasn't gotten more coverage. They claim that the media have ignored the story because of their pro-choice bias. You should read Scott Lemieux's five lessons of the case, but a lot of liberals have been shaking their heads over conservatives' complaints, because the right's argument about the case is wrong in almost every one of its particulars. The truth is that though there hasn't been a lot of coverage in the mainstream media until now, many feminist writers have written about the case at length. And what allowed this horror to happen is exactly what conservatives want more of: a system where there are few (or no) legitimate abortion providers, sending poor women with few options to the back alleys, where they can be preyed upon by people like Gosnell.

But I want to talk about the media angle to all this. As Kevin Drum points out, there have essentially been two phases in the conservative media's attention to this story. In phase 1, they ignored it. In phase 2, they write stories complaining that because of liberal bias, the media are ignoring it. What's missing, of course, actual coverage of the story itself, despite the fact that conservatives have all these media outlets that could be doing what they claim the mainstream media aren't. The Washington Times, for instance, ran one AP story about the start of the trial, followed by 7 separate pieces on how the media are ignoring the story. Did it send its own reporters there to cover it? Nah, why bother? They do, however, have an online poll in which you can answer this vital question: "Online outrage is forcing some media outlets to cover the Kermit Gosnell abortion trial. Will MSNBC be able to continue its blackout?"

There are essentially two kinds of media criticism you'll see if you pay attention to these things. The first is an analysis that has some specificity to it, and aims to address some genuine ongoing weakness of press coverage. The second is just about browbeating and getting people you don't like on the defensive. It's the difference between "Let's see if we can get a discussion started about this problem and make some progress toward fixing it," and "Here's our chance to get those bastards on their heels." The left does both. The right only does the latter.

I Want Your Tax

Flickr/soukup

Today is tax day, the yearly opportunity for millions of Americans to shake their fists at the government and declare their contempt for the ideas of mutual concern and collective responsibility. So on this most practical of days, it's good to remind ourselves of some realities. First, the taxes we pay are, by international standards, fairly modest. Second, despite what some would have you believe, the wealthy are not crushed by the burden of taxation. And third, though nobody particularly enjoys giving part of their income to the government, taxes are the price we pay for having an advanced, democratic society.

Mr. Brooks’s Planet

Josh Haner/The New York Times

Since New York Times columnist David Brooks is the very model of the sentient conservative, his acknowledgements of social reality are often more than just personal—they signal that a particular state of affairs has become incontestable to all but the epistemically shuttered.

California Fights Back

Flickr/ Neon Tommy

Last fall, California voters were confronted with two major and hotly-contested ballot measures—Governor Jerry Brown’s proposal (Proposition 30) to raise taxes on the rich to end the state’s chronic budget shortfalls, and a conservative initiative (Proposition 32) which would have curtailed unions’ ability to spend their treasuries on political campaigns. Proposition 30 passed and Proposition 32 was soundly defeated, but they had to overcome a joint, well-funded campaign by rightwing interests to prevail.

Left Behind

Phyllis Schlafly (Flickr/Gage Skidmore). If you want to reach out to young people, she's obviously the person to talk to.

Social conservatives are getting awfully worried about this new push in the Republican party to modernize, sideline the knuckle-draggers who can't help but offer their opinions on the functioning of ladyparts, show minorities that they don't hate them, and find a way to appeal to young people. So how can they respond? The most obvious way is to do what they do after every Republican loss, which is to tell the party's leadership that a) we lost the last election because you didn't listen to us; and b) if you don't start paying us sufficient deference, we'll abandon the GOP. As everybody knows, it's a threat they never follow through on and never will, but the obviously feel like they have no choice but to make it. So all the usual religious right suspects—Gary Bauer, James Dobson, Tony Perkins, Phyllis Schlafly, Lou Sheldon—who have been playing this game at least since the 1980s, sent a letter to RNC chairman Reince Priebus warning him not to abandon them. As tired as this ritual may be, this time the threat to the religious right is much more serious than in the past, and you can sense their fear.

Jindal Agonistes

Flickr/dsb nola

Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, whom everyone assumes will be running for president in 2016, has had a lot of ups and downs in his relatively short career. Hailed as a wunderkind, he was given a series of influential positions in Republican administrations both state and federal while still in his 20s, eventually winning a seat in the House and then the governorship. Then he had that disastrous State of the Union response in 2009, where he looked almost hilariously awkward and uncomfortable. He recovered from that, though, and things seemed to be going very well when he gave a speech telling Republicans they couldn't be the "stupid party." His bold truth-telling made reporters swoon.

But alas, things have turned. Jindal recently proposed a tax plan that would cut taxes on the wealthy and increase them on the poor and middle class, and was shocked to find that people in his state found it less than appealing. He withdrew the plan, but not before his approval rating plunged into the 30s, making him one of the least popular governors in the country, at least for the moment (Benjy Sarlin explains what happened). And liberals, quite naturally, are enjoying a little schadenfreude at his expense.

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 New Deal That Could Have Been

Courtesy W. W. Norton and Company

Invoking “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?”

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 pandering to the right) did, but nobody in the GOP cares what John Huntsman thinks.

There's one point Bernstein makes that shows just how serious this situation is: "Perhaps the biggest cause is the perverse incentives created by the conservative marketplace. Simply put, a large portion of the party, including the GOP-aligned partisan press and even many politicians, profit from having Democrats in office. Typically, democracies 'work' in part because political parties have strong incentives to hold office, which causes them once they win to try hard to enact public policy that keeps people satisfied with their government. That appears to be undermined for today's Republicans."

Data Comes to the Culture Wars

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

flickr / World Bank Photo Collection

Remember 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.

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?

The People’s Bank

flickr/BismarckPride.com

When 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.

Pages