Destructive conservatism

On Oct.22, I read in a newsletter from “Media Matters for America” under the headline “Wishing for Obama’s assassination won’t get you fired from Fox News” the following:

“The media topic of the week was the firing of Juan Williams by NPR over his remark that he gets ‘nervous’ around ‘people who are in Muslim garb’ on airplanes. Williams’ firing comes weeks after CNN canned Rick Sanchez for remarks about Jon Stewart and Jews in the media. In both cases, news organisations made personnel moves in response to perceived violations of their editorial standards.”

Then the editor observed the discrepancy in Fox News position vis-à-vis similar behaviour, noticing “a pattern of failing to seriously discipline employees for on-air transgressions.”

Media Matters presents us with the case of “Fox News contributor Liz Trotta. During a May 2008 segment on the Democratic presidential primaries, Trotta actually remarked that she wished somebody would ‘knock off’ both Osama Bin Laden and then-candidate Barack Obama (…) The next day, Trotta appeared on Fox News to do damage control, telling Bill Hemmer that she is ‘so sorry about what happened yesterday and the lame attempt at humour. I fell all over myself, making it appear that I wished Barack Obama harm or any other candidate.'”

Trotta is still a Fox News contributor, and appears in a weekly segment offering commentary.

The point is that these are not just isolated cases of extremist rant. Looking at the scene of American politics since at least 2008, with that unbelievable behaviour of some of its right-wing leaders and Tea-Partyists, one can only think of Sam Tanenhaus’s book Death of Conservatism (2009), in which he says that for about a quarter of a century, the Right has been split between two factions: consensus-driven “realists” whose participation in polity is based on the belief that people need government to change their conditions, and “revanchists” who reject or distrust government and society.

Attending a panel luncheon of prominent conservative magazine editors in the spring of 2009, he heard some of them urging “to take back the culture,” while others were accusing Obama of threatening America’s economic “freedom.”

These were typical attacks of the Right. Tanenhaus argued that instead of giving positive solutions while opposing Liberals, the Right used to destroy everything positive just because the Liberals are its proponents. For instance, the GOP escaped responsibility for the mess GW Bush administration made of the economy, and when we wonder why?

The answer is: because complacency is its new feature. Today’s conservatives, he contended, have lost connection with the reality to the point that they “resemble the exhumed figures of Pompeii, trapped in postures of frozen flight, clenched in the rigor mortis of a defunct ideology.”

If the Right had had some days of glory, it had had also a bitter history of failures (McCarthy, Goldwater, etc…) Tanenhaus argued that Bush II was a failure not because he betrayed the movement ideology, but because he pursued it with such rigidity that it became doomed. Goldwater found a second life in Bush’s strategy of pre-emption.

The failures of the Right emanate from its own self-destructive extremism. The point is the conservative movement cannot win with Rush Limbaugh’s extremist talk about the enemy “within” and the “treason.” As history proves, the movement wins when its centrists prevail, rejecting purism for pragmatism and revanchism for realism.

Today’s conservatism has strayed away from conservative ideals to the point that it would seem “incomprehensible to the great originator of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke…”

While the Burkean ideal of “replenishing civil society by adjusting to changing conditions” has been repelled and realism is thus more and more rejected, revanchists took over the movement, betting on oppositionism as a strategy and the “return of pre-modern family values.” Their powerful tool is rhetoric: “Anti-union laws become ‘right to work’; national health insurance becomes ‘socialised medicine…” And Obama himself is a “socialist.”

At the same time, and contrarily to the GOP’s preference for ideologically committed presidents, the Democratic Party’s recent history shows that centrist, explicitly non-ideological presidential candidates are much preferred (Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, Clinton, Obama).

However, generally when orthodoxy prevails on realism in politics, the ideologues disdain consensus, and the way is then open to “the darkest legacies of American Character –” narrow-mindedness, provincialism, anti-intellectualism, cold-heartedness, bigotry,” etc. This is what the author labels: the decay of conservatism and it is exactly what we see and hear right now.

“McCarthy,” says Tanenhaus, “was the author of what would become a staple of GOP politics over the next half century: the raid on government mounted from within government itself.” The list of those who indulged in such practice encompasses Presidents (Nixon, Reagan, W Bush) as well as congressmen.

The liberal elite were seen as usurpers and subversives. Better: “McCarthy’s rise and fall (…) completed the movement’s adoption of insurgency as a style of politics.” This spirit was also reflected by the Right’s organisations, such as National Review that decreed in 1957 that liberalism is the enemy, or the Birch society for whom Eisenhower was member of the communist party, preparing” the economic and political structure of the United States [so] that it can be comfortably merged with Soviet Russia.”

Just listen to the Tea-Partyists’ speeches and you will understand how dangerous the game they have been playing at.

Now, whatever the outcome of the mid-term election, do not misread the message of the American people: they did not vote for Obama in 2008 because of the colour of his skin or because of his “ideology;” they voted for him because he appeared the ablest to ease the messy situation of the economy he inherited from Bush, and appease the pains of those who suffer from the consequences of wars waged by his predecessor, and provide America with cogent answers to its worries and concerns.

Does it really matter whether Obama is a true Liberal or a false Conservative? Are not “most of us (…) liberal and conservative” as Tanenhaus put it? The centre is therefore where our human nature leads us to, when it is ridden from clusters of extremism, revanchism, and resentment.