(Hawkins’ Note: Conor Friedersdorf challenged me to a debate. I accepted. This is the third 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.)
You’ve written that Bush era mistakes weren’t cases “where conservative politicians pursued conservative positions and were rejected by the American people.” Quite right! As I’ve written many times, those failures don’t reflect poorly on conservatism. But what does explain them? And how can we avoid a similar fate the next time Republicans are elected?
Therein lies our disagreement. In your understanding of the Bush era, ideologically pure Republican politicians ran for office, arrived in Washington DC, and changed their views due to persuasion. “Conservative politicians were convinced by people of Conor’s ideological temperament to abandon conservative governance,” you wrote, “and it led to disaster.” No wonder you’re antagonistic to dissident conservatives like David Brooks and Kathleen Parker—you imagine that they’re to blame for elected leaders selling you out!
Do you understand why I find your account naïve? In my understanding of the Bush era, those determining the agenda were largely driven by Karl Rove’s political calculations about the median voter, highly paid lobbyists actively courted by GOP Congressional leaders, business donors willing to fill campaign coffers in return for a guest worker program, etc.
What is more likely to cause elected Republicans to sell out the base going forward: 1) essays by David Frum, Reihan Salam and Ramesh Ponnuru sketching out how the GOP might better appeal to moderates through conservative policy ideas; 2) Blog posts by someone like me criticizing Rush Limbaugh for making an intellectually dishonest argument; 3) Calculations about the median voter, highly paid lobbyists actively courted by GOP Congressional leaders, business donors willing to fill campaign coffers in return for a guest worker program, etc.
The answer seems obvious to me! You wrote, “the reason so many conservatives are hacked off at moderates is because they are the ones who supported many of the dumb positions that decimated the GOP over the last eight years. It wasn’t the conservatives arguing for deficit spending, amnesty, and a prescription drug benefit — it was the moderates.” Really? So George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, Tom Delay and Dennis Hastert were all moderates? I must’ve missed the day when Rush Limbaugh labeled them RINOs alongside Olympia Snowe, aired juvenile parody skits attacking them, and backed primary challengers from the right when they came up for re-election.
One item I suggested for the right going forward: “tolerance of dissent and engaging dissenters on the merits of their arguments, rather than heretic-hunting or accusations of disloyalty/bad-faith.” This is crucial. Engaging dissent on its merits, rather than dismissing it, is one way a political or ideological movement can guard against going off the rails – note, for example, how effective dissent worked on the two occasions it triumphed over loyalty: the defeat of comprehensive immigration reform and the withdrawal of Harriet Meyers.
In response to my advice, you wrote:
Does that same standard EVER, EVER, EVER get applied to people like David Brooks, David Frum, or for that matter, Conor Friedersdorf? Why do the people who get accused of being racists, xenophobes, and too dumb to understand politics always have to be the ones who forgive while the same blockheads who never learn from their mistakes insist on getting their way again?
Well, though Mr. Frum, Mr. Brooks, and I are different in many ways, I think we all engage in political debate by engaging our interlocutors on the merits of their arguments. Insofar as we fail, we’re wrong to do so, and ought to be held to that standard—though whether or not we are held to it hardly determines whether or not it is sound advice for the right! What is striking about your rejoinder, besides how handily it makes my point about why one shouldn’t ignore the substance of an argument, is the victim mentality it reveals. When have I, or Mr. Frum, or Mr. Brooks, or any of the dissident conservatives accused the conservative base, or movement conservatives, or whoever “these people” you’re talking about are of being racist?
Some conservatives tell themselves that they’re constantly put upon by elites who regard them as stupid, but the fact of the matter is that folks like Mark Levin, Dan Riehl and Sean Hannity are the ones who almost constantly claim that dissidents are “too dumb to understand politics,” going so far as to explicitly call us useful idiots. Mercilessly mocking us by marshaling the most insulting ad hominem attacks imaginable are a constant feature of their rhetoric, yet their audiences are convinced that it is they who are put upon by “Inside the Beltway” folks. Even in the instances where they are correct, they’re invariably thinking about the wrong elites.
There are so many arguments I raised in my opening salvo that you never addressed, but I suppose that is inevitable in an exchange of this kind. I lacked room to respond to some of what you said in your second post. If you or are readers are hungry for more, you can get it here.