Sunday, October 19, 2008

Conservatives in Crisis

John Heilemann has a nice overview of the conservative crisis that's taken over the Republican Party. It's all good, but this passage provides a nice summary:

With the prospect of defeat for John McCain growing more likely every day, the GOP destined to see its numbers reduced in both the House and Senate, and the Republican brand debased to the point of bankruptcy, the conservative intelligentsia is factionalized and feuding, criminating and recriminating, in a way that few of its members can recall in their political lifetimes. Populists attack Establishmentarians. Neocons assail theocons. And virtually everyone has something harsh to say about the party’s standard-bearer. Election Day may still be two weeks away, but already the idea-merchants of the right have formed a circular firing squad.

When the weapons of choice shift from pistols to Uzis after November 4, the ensuing massacre will be for Democrats a source of political opportunity, not to mention endless entertainment. But for Republicans it will be a necessary passage toward either the revival or reinvention of conservatism. Nobody serious on the right doubts that the overhaul is at once required and bound to be arduous—but it may take longer and prove even bloodier than anyone now imagines.
This is a debate among pundits, for the most part. We'll see more commentary and analysis on the conservative way forward in the weeks ahead, and of course post-mortems from all sides in the case of an Obama victory.

Ross Douthat's had an exchange with Mark Steyn over the idea of a conservative "cocoon" (the walling-off of various ideological factions within the GOP).

Go back to
Heilemann's piece for more background, for example, on the party's split over Sarah Palin's pick as GOP running mate. But here's Douthat, in any case, on how Palin's appeal to base conservative illustrates this notion of tribal cocoons:

Sarah Palin's Alaska is not the conservative cocoon. Neither is Tim Pawlenty's Minnesota, or Mike Huckabee's Arkansas, or any other place out in flyover country where a populist conservative became a popular and successful governor. The cocoon is the constellation of mutually-reinforcing conservative institutions - think tanks and advocacy groups, talk-radio shows and websites - that can create the same echo-chamber effect that the liberal media has long produced, and that at times makes it difficult for the Right to grapple with reality. The cocoon is the place where it took an awfully, awfully long time for conservatives to admit that the post-2004 crisis in Iraq wasn't just a matter of an MSM that wouldn't report the good news. The cocoon is the place where conservatives persuaded themselves, in defiance of most of the evidence, that the reason the GOP lost Congress in 2006 was excessive spending, and especially excessive pork. And today, the cocoon is the place where conservatives are busy convincing themselves that Sarah Palin's difficulties handling high-profile media appearances aren't terribly important, that her instincts are more important than her grasp of national policy, and that the best way to defeat Barack Obama is to start with the lines that Palin has used on the stump - Ayers, anti-Americanism and ACORN - and take them to eleven.
Read the rest of it to get the entire flow of argument.

I like Douthat's writing, although I think folks are hashing things out more than is necessary. Had the Wall Street crash come after the election, it's quite likely that Demcratic-leftists would be the ones debating partisan "cocoons."

As I noted previously, this year's contest is shaping up to be
an electoral earthquake. The economic crisis, and historic lows in "on the right track" polling data, have created the perfect environment for the party out of power. Indeed, it's counterintuitive that John McCain and the Republicans are doing as well as they are. As I argued, a large pick-up for the Democrats in the Congress - especially a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate - combined with a Barack Obama victory, could signal the kind of electoral change the country experienced in 1860 or 1932.

Even in the absence of a partisan realigment (which would be seen in a succession of Democratic victories over the next few presidential elections), there's certain to be a substantial change in the public philosphy.

I recall, back in the 1980s, reading Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.'s, The Cycles of American History.

Schlesinger offers a theory of political change that's less about partisan realignment than about transformations in national visions. Apparently, history moves through generations of private interest versus public purpose, between capitalistic indulgence and democratic involvement. The classic periods of private pursuit were the 1890s and 1920s, which were followed by periods of public purpose in the 1930s, 1950s, and 1960s.

Currently, in many respects we're still in the long period of private interest that came to fruition during President Reagan's administration, and hasn't been shaken loose since. The ideological underpinnings of the Reagan Revolution - limited government domestically, and robust internationalism in foreign policy, with a growing cultural conservative base - are now stretched to the breaking point after two terms of GOP rule, during which George W. Bush discarded any sense of commitment to the small-g conservatism that's driven much of the activist base of the Republican Party since Barry Goldwater's campaign in 1964.

In this respect, Barack Obama's rise to national prominence can be situated in a near-perfect storm of economic dislocations and decreasing public investment in people and infrastructure. The United States remains a center-right nation, but Americans are also pragmatic when dramatic challenges pose dilemmas for the prevailing public ethos.

In that sense, it's probably less John McCain's judgment or Sarah Palin's inexperience, than the overall crisis of conservative ideas and Republican governance, along with the failure to nurture a new conservative philosophy to lift up and revitalize the old.

All this being said, I'm not throwing my hands up at GOP prospects on November 4th. As noted, McCain's doing better than can be expected, and this year's got more electoral uncertainties than is usual.