(Hawkins’ Note: Conor Friedersdorf challenged me to a debate. I accepted. This is the second of three posts from the two of us on this subject. A link to Conor Friedersdorf’s posts will be listed at the end of the article. The last post from each of us will be run on Fri.)
You’re right that the conservative movement enjoys a larger media presence than ever before, that its base is taking to the streets, and that Ronald Reagan’s political agenda is insufficient to single-handedly address all the problems that the country faces. Equally astute is your observation that “America is changing demographically, and conservatives haven’t even begun to do an adequate amount of outreach to minority groups and younger Americans.” I’ll even endorse your conclusion: “Conservatives should adhere to our principles, but make some changes to our agenda and our tactics.”
Despite the fact that we even agree on many of the specific policy issues you raise, however, I find a glaring omission in your advice to the right. As a conservative, I presume you believe, as the Founders did, that political power tends to corrupt. Indeed, long experience teaches that all political and ideological movements sooner or later tend to become corrupted, intellectually lazy, blind to internal weaknesses, captive to orthodoxies of thought, and forgetful of their ostensible ends.
How can the right mitigate these ills so that when Republicans return to power, they’ll govern effectively? You’d think answering that question would be an urgent priority, especially for movement conservatives who regard today’s Republican Party as out of touch at best, and corrupt at worst, even as they pine for its return to power. But I can’t recall ever seeing the matter addressed, except by folks who are dismissively derided as “conservative dissidents.” This analysis applies whether the Republican Party moves to the right or to the center, whether or not it more successfully wins minority voters, etc.
So what’s your advice? I think the ills I’ve listed are most reliably avoided when a political movement excels at self-criticism, encourages intellectual ferment, upholds high standards of intellectual honesty, refrains from offering apologias for effective but dishonest hacks, eschews the politics of schadenfreude, doesn’t make a fetish of group loyalty, permits calling out even effective political allies when they engage in wrongheaded analysis or behavior, avoids heretic hunting, etc. Am I right, or do you have a superior alternative to offer?
I’ll conclude by running through most of your other points. You wrote that “the welfare state has grown tremendously,” so much so that “we may be getting to a tipping point.” I’d put it differently. Basic welfare spending on the poor — food stamps, emergency medical care, etc. — doesn’t much concern me, especially after the success of welfare reform. The bigger worry are middle class entitlements that account for an ever-growing, increasingly unsustainable percentage of national wealth. Another fiscal catastrophe: the coming public employee pension collapse. And it also frustrates me that the right so seldom questions defense spending when it talks about preserving the nation’s fiscal health. Don’t get me wrong. I want national security to be America’s foremost priority, and I think our military should remain the most formidable in the world by a sizable margin. But I am averse to the extended occupation of foreign countries, the long since failed War on Drugs, and the practice of funding foreign wars on credit, obscuring their true cost from the American people.
I am also opposed to the right adopting its own token minority figure to tell it what is racist. And I think you’re wrong to assume that a large media presence automatically helps the right — its biggest conservative political triumph, the election and tenure of Ronald Reagan, preceded the rise of the movement media, whereas the Bush Administration and President Obama’s rise coincided with the success of the Fox News Channel (though talk radio did play a role in the Gingrich Revolution). When it comes to news and opinion media outlets, I’d argue that quality matters, and that the right still lags markedly behind the left when it comes to the quality of the journalism it produces — is there any publication on the right, for example, that even approaches the quality of writing and reporting one finds every week in The New Yorker?
You can see John Hawkins’ 2nd post here.