The incoherence of the Republican battle in Iowa


The Iowa caucuses being held today mark the start of the presidential election season, as distinct from the (interminable) campaign season when the closest we get to the verdict of the electorate is some easily skewed polling.  Though the Republicans contend Obama is unusually vulnerable for a sitting president due to the still sagging economy and their own relentless obstructionism, it is hard to look at the sorry collection of Republican candidates running this year and not conclude that the GOP has sent out their B team, while the A team of serious candidates waits until 2016.

The frontrunner is Mitt Romney, a blandly competent consultant-type known as the Mitt-bot for the lack of passion he arouses, who is the most politically ungifted candidate since John Kerry.  The rest are lightweights and know-nothings who appeal to the various kookie and apocalyptic factions that make up the Republican base but that no sentient being wants to see come within arm’s length of the levers of power: Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul, Rick Perry, et al.  Most of them give the impression of running vanity campaigns designed to raise their profiles and secure future lobbying work or Fox punditry gigs rather than a real attempt at gaining the presidency.  So Romney might well lose Iowa but he will surely be the nominee in the end — even if, really, no one wants him.

Amid the vapid screeching about “Socialism” and love of the Constitution, it is worth remembering that there were once some real ideas behind conservatism.  Writing in the New York Review of Books, Mark Lilla offers a terrific taxonomy of liberal and conservative principles that provides insight into how far the current crop of Republican candidates has migrated from a coherent ideology.  Lilla deserves to be quoted fairly extensively.  He begins:

“Liberal” and “conservative” first became labels for political tendencies in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Like all polemical terms their meaning and usage shifted around in partisan debate, but the philosophical distinction between them was settled by the mid-nineteenth century, thanks in large part to Edmund Burke. After the Revolution, Burke argued that what really separated its partisans and opponents were not atheism and faith, or democracy and aristocracy, or even equality and hierarchy, but instead two very different understandings of human nature. Burke believed that, since human beings are born into a functioning world populated by others, society is—to use a large word he wouldn’t—metaphysically prior to the individuals in it. The unit of political life is society, not individuals, who need to be seen as instances of the societies they inhabit.

What makes conservatives conservative are the implications they have drawn from Burke’s view of society. Conservatives have always seen society as a kind of inheritance we receive and are responsible for; we have obligations toward those who came before and to those who will come after, and these obligations take priority over our rights. Conservatives have also been inclined to assume, along with Burke, that this inheritance is best passed on implicitly through slow changes in custom and tradition, not through explicit political action. Conservatives loyal to Burke are not hostile to change, only to doctrines and principles that do violence to preexisting opinions and institutions, and open the door to despotism. This was the deepest basis of Burke’s critique of the French Revolution; it was not simply a defense of privilege.

I’ll return to those last eight words, because I believe that the selective way in which current-day Republicans defend society and honor tradition suggests that all the rest has become a smokescreen for their fear of social progress and the defense of privilege.  But here is Lilla on liberalism:

Though philosophical liberalism traces its roots back to the Wars of Religion, the term “liberal” was not used as a partisan label until the Spanish constitutionalists took it over in the early nineteenth century. And it was only later, in its confrontation with conservatism, that liberalism achieved ideological clarity. Classical liberals like John Stuart Mill, in contrast to conservatives, give individuals priority over society, on anthropological as well as moral grounds. They assume that societies are genuinely constructs of human freedom, that whatever we inherit from them, they can always be unmade or remade through free human action. This assumption, more than any other, shapes the liberal temperament. It is what makes liberals suspicious of appeals to custom or tradition, given that they have so often been used to justify privilege and injustice. Liberals, like conservatives, recognize the need for constraints, but believe they must come from principles that transcend particular societies and customs. Principles are the only legitimate constraints on our freedom.

Lilla then draws a further distinction, between revolutionaries and reactionaries:

The quarrel between liberals and conservatives is essentially a quarrel over the nature of human beings and their relation to society. The quarrel between revolutionaries and reactionaries, on the other hand, has little to do with nature. It is a quarrel over history…There have always been two kinds of reactionaries, though, with different attitudes toward historical change. One type dreams of a return to some real or imaginary state of perfection that existed before a revolution. This can be any sort of revolution—political, religious, economic, or even aesthetic. French aristocrats who hoped to restore the Bourbon dynasty, Russian Old Believers who wanted to recover early Orthodox Christian rites, Pre-Raphaelite painters who rejected the conventions of Mannerism, Morrisites and Ruskinites who raged against the machine, all these were what you might call restorative reactionaries.

A second type—call them redemptive reactionaries—take for granted that the revolution is a fait accompli and that there is no going back. But they are not historical pessimists, or not entirely. They believe that the only sane response to an apocalypse is to provoke another, in hopes of starting over. Ever since the French Revolution reactionaries have seen themselves working toward counterrevolutions that would destroy the present state of affairs and transport the nation, or the faith, or the entire human race to some new Golden Age that would redeem aspects of the past without returning there.

To put that more succinctly, redemptive reactionaries can be thought of as a species of revolutionary — they want to undo the effects of revolution through more revolution — while restorative reactionaries are true anti-revolutionaries, in that they wish to return to the status quo ante.

Americans’ assumptions about human nature are basically liberal today. We take it for granted that we are born free, that we constitute society, it doesn’t constitute us, and that together we legitimately govern ourselves…On questions of history, however, Americans are all over the map. As we were reminded in the run-up to the last Iraq war, every now and then the prophetic strain in our political rhetoric inspires eschatological fantasies of democratic avant-gardism, with Lady Liberty replacing the French Marianne on top of history’s barricades. Then reality intrudes and Americans revert to the converse fantasy of American exceptionalism, which must be protected from history through isolation and self-purification. We have also had our share of restorative reactionaries, from Southern nostalgics for the ol’ plantation, to agrarian despisers of the great American cities, to racialist despisers of the immigrants they attracted, to no-government oddballs who think they can go it alone, to trust-fund hippies who went back to the land, to lock-and-load eco-terrorists who want to take us off the grid (after they recharge their Macs). What we have not seen much of, except on the fringes of American politics, are redemptive reactionaries who think the only way forward is to destroy what history has given us and wait for a new order to emerge out of the chaos. At least until now.

The real news on the American right is the mainstreaming of political apocalypticism. This has been brewing among intellectuals since the Nineties, but in the past four years, thanks to the right-wing media establishment and economic collapse, it has reached a wider public and transformed the Republican Party. This has been brewing among intellectuals since the Nineties, but in the past four years, thanks to the right-wing media establishment and economic collapse, it has reached a wider public and transformed the Republican Party. How that happened would be a long story to tell, and central to it would be the remarkable transmutation of neoconservatism from intellectual movement to rabble-rousing Republican court ideology. The first neoconservatives were disappointed liberals like Irving Kristol and Nathan Glazer, who saw the failures of a large number of Great Society programs to deliver on the unrealistic expectations of its architects, and consequently began to appreciate the wisdom of certain conservative assumptions about human nature and politics. Kristol’s famous quip that neoconservatives were liberals who’d been mugged by reality captured the original temperament.

Sometime in the Eighties, though, neoconservative thinking took on a darker hue. The big question was no longer how to adapt liberal aspirations to the limits of politics, but how to undo the cultural revolution of the Sixties that, in their eyes, had destabilized the family, popularized drug use, made pornography widely available, and encouraged public incivility. In other words, how to undo history. At first, neoconservatives writing in publications like Commentary andThe Public Interest (which I once helped to edit) portrayed themselves as standing with “ordinary Americans” against the “adversary culture of intellectuals,” and to that end promoted “family values” and religious beliefs they did not necessarily share, but thought socially useful. Yet by the Nineties, when it became apparent that lots of ordinary Americans had adjusted to the cultural changes, neoconservatives began predicting the End Times, and once-sober writers like Gertrude Himmelfarb and Robert Bork started publishing books with titles like On Looking into the Abyss and Slouching Towards Gomorrah.

It is impossible to explain wide appeal of the lunatic ravings and shallow analysis of someone like Glenn Beck in the absence of this apocalyptic mindset.  Beck’s argument boils down to this: the near future is going to be so bad that all bets are off, so political actions that would be regarded as appalling or destructive in normal times are made legitimate by exceptional circumstances.  That this manufactured paranoia is basically the default mode of a long line of cult leaders should give pause, but it serves an institutional purpose for the Republican party.  Republican economic policies invariably aim to further the ability of the rich or empowered few to maximize their extraction and retention of wealth: they are anti-tax, anti-regulation, pro-drilling, pro-subsidies for corporations, etc.  This is a perfect defense-of-privilege platform and a money-generating machine for campaign coffers and post-office sinecures, but it stands no chance on its own of creating the 50%+ voting majorities required to win office in a democracy.  So it is wedded to a set of social policies that have broad support among a great many people who gain little — or, often, lose quite a lot — from Republican economic policies: they are pro-gun, anti-abortion, anti-Islam, anti-evolution, anti-gay marriage, anti-immigrant, etc.  That these two planks of the GOP platform are intellectually incoherent is obvious at a glance: the economic policies are justified under the guise of individual liberty and getting government (especially the federal government) off the backs of the citizenry, but many of the social policies require the government to legislate the most private decisions in an individual’s life, such as whom they spend their lives with and when they bear a child.

Returning to the Iowa caucuses, you can see that the central failing of the current crop of Republican candidates is their inability to effectively obscure this intellectual incoherence.  Of the frontrunners, Ron Paul is the most extreme example: he readily acknowledges that Republican social policies are fundamentally anti-liberty and refuses to abide by most of them.  Mitt Romney surely understands this too, which is why his position on social issues have migrated to whatever is politically expedient without ever sounding very convincing.  Newt Gingrich has perfected the maximum wealth extraction in his own career, leveraging the connections of public office for personal gain, but has done it so baldly that it removes the fig leaf of higher principle demanded of political leaders.

Everyone in the Republican field is looking for the so-called Ronald Reagan magic, which was remarkably effective in obscuring this ideological incoherence.  The usual thing to say about Reagan is that he was an optimist but that’s not quite right.  More than anything, Reagan offered absolution.  Economically, he told the rich and powerful that it was OK, even principled, to extract more and give back less.  Socially, he told the Americans who had feared and resisted the social revolution and civil rights movements of the 60s and 70s that they were OK just the way they are.  This was not true: by any measure, they were on the wrong side of history about black and female civil rights and social liberty, just as today, surely, the fire-breathers on immigration and Islam and gay marriage will be proven wrong.  But what binds the Republican coalition is not ideology but a shared belief in the sort of magical thinking that allows them to feel right when they are wrong, that reframes prejudice as principle.  And I have no doubt that a couple decades from now someone with the Reagan magic will come along to make today’s social conservatives believe they had been on the side of the angels all along.  But no one in the current field has that gift, which is why I expect that between now and the general election in November we’ll see a ramping up of the apocalyptic, take back the country by any means necessary rhetoric — it is, after all, the poor man’s Reagan magic.


Click here to read a related post about why the apocalypse is coming; or, anyway, why Republicans will have no choice in this election year but to work us up into a frenzy about it.


One Response to “The incoherence of the Republican battle in Iowa”

  1. John Pyper says:

    That last paragraph is it. Write that book.

Leave a Reply