He has written again, perhaps in response to my post on Peter Hitchens. Who knows what motivates a typing monkey? He writes hard truths, as monkeys will. For readers unfamiliar with British politics who link through to the Hitchens article, it’s probably useful to know that Tories would be the Republican Party, and Labour is the Democratic Party.
SOME THOUGHTS ON A PETER HITCHENS ARTICLE FROM 2007
This article was written by Peter Hitchens in 2007, but it is, I think, very relevant to the present discontent of the Republican Party.
We are not necessarily bound to arrive at the same conclusions, so don’t get distracted by the first few paragraphs Hitchens writes. It is his analysis of our political times from a conservative perspective that is useful. I don’t agree with everything about where Hitchens ends up, but his view of where we are now is pretty telling.
Hitchens’ fundamental insight into the present American conservative discontent is that we lose elections to the extent we are stuck in a rut of defining ourselves as more or less like the opposition. At this point, we need to stop arguing about whether we should or should not concede on, say, immigration. The key thing to realize, for those few of us who haven’t already, is that the Republicans side has already and repeatedly conceded on almost every recognizably conservative position, because the Party isn’t actually a conservative party.
The Republicans are at best a lower taxes liberal party that’s conservative only to the extent that it can take fake positions on issues where meaningful change is politically impossible, all in the service of getting into power so that they can lower taxes and get rid of regulations. It loses because it promises nothing for most voters but less of what the Democrats are offering.
Hitchens isn’t the first person to say this, but he says it bluntly and in a way that deflates some popular myths that could use deflating, especially with regard to Republicanism and the USSR, a crucial bit of misunderstood (to the extent it’s not forgotten) history.
Reagan Republicanism, like Thatcherite Toryism, worked in large part because the Party could make any number of concessions to the emerging center-left consensus in society while retaining its identity as the national security and lower taxes party. Thanks, Evil Empire.
In the process, though, the Republican Party lost its ability to present itself as a party with a coherent message that people believe in. The Democrats have an extremely coherent message, which is that Republicans are out of touch, racist plutocrats or inbred rednecks who want to starve your relatives to death and kill your gay friend whereas Democrats are the Party that will give you stuff.
The only response to that message from the Republicans has been “NO WE’RE NOT, AND YOU CAN’T HAVE OUR STUFF,” which didn’t work in kindergarten and still isn’t working today.
Since the early 1990s, Republicanism has been reduced to an economic ideology centered on a single premise: lower taxes and less regulation are good for what ails us. As they actually stand for little or nothing else, they end up being a screen upon which Democrats project prejudices and fears.
Yes, this is where you tell me the ten other things you think Republicans stand for or should stand for. It doesn’t matter. ‘Reduce taxes and reduce regulation’ is the only coherent, consistent message coming from Republicans.
A half-hearted defense of “social issues” that aren’t actually relevant to how the federal government is conducted have done little more than brand Republicans as the Party of the elderly relatives with embarrassing opinions that the young, hip Democrats have to listen to around the holidays when they return to the town they were born in for?an obligatory visit. For better or worse, Republicans are now the party of less regulation, less taxes, and out-of-date opinions.
Let’s talk about each in turn.
On the issue of regulation, out here in the real world, decades of “de-regulation” schemes have taught the American public that deregulation in practice ends up favoring financial parasites almost if not more than the regulatory process did. Both parties promise to help consumers and small businesses, but neither party has much credibility here. And the Republicans are branded as the party of the financial parasite class, even though the real plutocrats are largely Democrats.
Taxes: the problem with lower taxes as a platform is you can’t starve the beast when the beast turns out to be your grandparents. Even if you think they’re racists. The war over entitlements is over; the AARP won, and it’s now time to move on to other things and let the house of cards collapse on its own. Mitt Romney ran on a bunch of things, but all the American public heard was — “We’re going to take away social security and leave you to starve to death in the gutter like an animal.” Yes, there may someday be a time to revisit all of this, but in the short run we’re paying taxes and spending money on entitlements, and it’s time to think about what other things we might stand for.
Which brings us to everything else and, oddly, the European Union. All the talk about the EU in the Hitchens article might seem irrelevant to Americans, but there is a similar issue in American politics, little discussed but still (I would argue) the key to understanding what’s really going on in the political world today.
Our elites are increasingly part of a global community that has little concern for or connection with our nation and little to offer except consumer culture. This is happening and has largely already happened. The only question is what to do about it, and this is a question the Republicans are largely ignoring because a glimpse under the rock gives you an uncomfortable amount of insight into why Republican politicians and pundits are basically Democrats with a slightly different regulatory and tax policy.
Ross Douthat has more in common with Paul Krugman than he has with anyone who is likely to read this.
This is the time of year when people watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” and lie to themselves about the reality that, in the real world, George Bailey left his small town in upstate New York in the 1940s along with all of the other college educated people, as the manufacturing jobs and the town collapsed. What is left subsists on tourism, small scale drug trafficking, and increasingly sophisticated extraction of the remainder of the local natural resources to feed a world economy that cares about them significantly less than it cares about the inhabitants of Shenzhen, Slovakia and Chennai.
A few college professors might imagine they are rebuilding the Front Porch Republic of small town American life, but even they will mostly admit that they don’t have much in common with the folks who grew up in the college town they live in, other than nostalgia.
However, plenty of other people — more or less half of us — still live in these places, and the Republican strategy is basically to pander to them. As opposed to the Democrats, who demonize them. The Republican strategy is ultimately the losing strategy, though, because even the 60,000 odd people who still live in Utica, NY (down from 100,000 or so in the 1960 census) know that the future is in Chengdu (population 14 million), and that Indian gambling and fracking are short term solutions at best. And no, my point isn’t that China is “winning” and we’re losing. No one cares much about China as a place as opposed to a profit center, and all those jobs are going to Vietnam anyway. Or maybe that was last week.
The point is, while the Republican Party was draping itself in the flag and ostracizing the people who vote Republican but worry about a “one world government,” our economy went off shore and took much of our government with it. It probably isn’t coming back, but pretending this never happened doesn’t help.
Which is why Ross Douthat’s prescription to save the Republican Party is more entitlements for poor white people.
What do I think the answer is? Glad you asked. First, we need to get serious about acknowledging how profoundly we’ve lost, and how seriously damaged the Republican Party and its brand have become. All those jokes that Glenn Reynolds makes about Obama and Carter? This is the Carter era for Republicans, only worse. Welcome back. Your dreams were your ticket out.
But, what next? Maybe the people in Utica need to start talking to the people in Chengdu.
Here is where more complications creep in. There are plenty of people who talk about how America was founded as a Christian country and have a copy of the painting of George Washington praying in the snow hanging prominently on the wall in their den. But the number of these people who would vote for a genuine Dominionist candidate rapidly approaches closer to zero with each passing year, even if we define Christian?Dominionism in a way that allows girls to get jobs as lawyers and divorce their husband if they really want to.
This was never a Christian country except in the important sense that most everyone around during the first hundred years or so happened to be Protestant, until we started letting in all the Catholics. In fact, that was more or less the entire point of America from the outset — this was where you can to get away from state religions so you could have your own private theocracy on your own land. See, e.g., Utah.
I’ll tell you a secret — I love and respect the Protestants I’ve met in the right wing but, as a Catholic, I have difficulty entirely forgetting the somewhat troubled history between Catholics and Protestants which formed the crucible from which modernity emerged. The truth is that many of our national values emerged as a way of allowing space for different religious traditions to come together to work out what we might have in common in terms of values. We’ve lost track of that, some of us.
And no, I’m not saying we should become multi-cultural. Liberalism is, of course, happy to just offer as a different solution that we let people believe whatever they want, even if this means putting women in bags in New Jersey, as long as the liberals stay free to do whatever they want to do with their own time on the Upper West Side, the assumption being that those women in bags will eventually liberate themselves and move to Manhattan just like the liberals liberated themselves from whatever small town or suburb they grew up in. They get to have the mantle of tolerance without seriously having to contend with the reality of what they are tolerating, and they get away with this because we’ve allowed the argument to be framed in terms of Christians versus Muslims. On those terms, we’re racists, and relativism wins. We need a serious critique of relativism and a values platform that is not tied to any specific religion.
I know, I know. But listen. If authentic human values are there, the Christians will show up. So will a surprising number of atheists from the Upper West Side — there are values voters there too, and the fact that they currently see those values reflected back at them from the fun house mirror of the left doesn’t mean that all is lost.
And the people in Chengdu will show up for American values if we have them to offer. Just by leaving the farm and showing up in the big city, they’re voting for American values. We need to stop letting aging hippies like Steve Jobs define what that means.
How does that work in practice? That’s the only way it does work. The Republicans got in this mess by coming up with pretty theories about the economy and sacrificing our values and all reason to those ideas. We get out of here by finding practical solutions to local problems that we have in common with people all over the world. Conservative solutions.
Let’s start by looking at something frivolous like gay marriage. There is a serious marriage problem in this country. It’s called “single parent households.” Gay marriage is a complete distraction from it. Democrats actually have a response to the single parent problem. In fact, most of what Democrats are is defined around a variety of policy responses to this problem, however flawed and however much they are arguably also the source of the problem in the first place: see, e.g., War on Poverty, welfare rights, WIC, public schools, Section 8, Title VII. Republicanism has allowed itself to be defined entirely around negative responses, i.e. arguing for fewer entitlements on the theory that they encourage dependency, and resisting popular social movements deemed to be “threats” to marriage, from gay marriage to rap music. Democrats look at the divorce rate among Republican candidates for President and are justifiably amused.
The right response? You will see a lot of variations on one proposal coming from the pundit class — concede to the changing culture. Okay, sure, but what else do we bring to the table except an argument about entitlements the other side is able to use to paint us as greedy hypocrites who actually want single mothers to starve to death? Sure, we’re feeding millions of single mothers every day at the church food bank, but America doesn’t know that, and it isn’t a political platform. And the technocratic, wonky reforms on offer (vouchers anyone?) are justifiably viewed by voters as being just another plank in an increasingly suspect, lower taxes/less regulation platform, instead of a serious attempt at reform.
The answer? Do what the liberals did in the first place: take over the entitlement state from within. Not as a secret campaign to destroy it, but in a serious effort to reform it into a conservative solution that actually helps people. Welfare reform worked. It stopped working not because it was repealed but because the bureaucrats who run the programs figured out ways around it.
This doesn’t mean endless expansion of government, just acceptance of the idea that some government is necessary, and that government can further our values. Throwing the mentally ill out of institutions didn’t save any money; it just put a few nurses out of business and put a lot of SSI/Medicaid functionaries into business, not to mention full employment in quasi-private NGOs for a vast army of “homeless activists” and their ilk. The doctors are just working out of a different office. It would be a better system if the people involved actually cared more about treating the mentally ill and giving them shelter than “empowering them” to spend the day masturbating in our?public libraries. And it wouldn’t necessarily be more expensive.
People all over the world are working on these same problems, and they aren’t all coming up with liberal solutions.
There is a lot more to say here, but I don’t want to get too caught up in specifics. One more example — immigration. The dirty secret with immigration is that there are many dirty secrets. It’s not just people with nannies and lawn boys who benefit from cheap labor. Small business owners benefit; family farms benefit. Even some of what’s left of the “white working class,” i.e. the contractor who bids your home renovation project and then sends a bunch of Ecuadorians to do the actual work, has a stake. Pretty much everyone who doesn’t benefit is suffering from illegal immigration and in more ways that people realize. Topping that list is the countries the immigrants flee from. Also hurting: anyone — anywhere on the economic spectrum who follows the law, because they have to compete with everyone who doesn’t.
The obvious solution is to punish people who hire illegals. We already have a bureaucracy in place to do this, called the Internal Revenue Service. Another dirty secret – defanging the IRS, a major Republican initiative, had the consequence of vastly increasing the amount of cheating going on, in this area and others. If and when we seriously attempt going back to enforcement instead of collusion in fraud, we will find that it is much easier to enforce laws that impact American small business owners than it is to enforce laws that disproportionately impact impoverished immigrants with little or no property, who came here from countries where the rule of law is notional at best. I’m not saying we stop enforcing the immigration law, I’m just saying the FIRST thing to do at the federal level is enforce the tax code and the rest of the existing law, and to do that we need to take back control of the bureaucracies.
Yes, that’s the easy part and leaves us with the hard part is deciding how much immigration we want and finding authentic and convincing ways to justify attempts to limit immigration as motivated by something other than racism. I didn’t say the Left was going away. But being honest is a good start on the road to a values-based policy argument, isn’t it?
Which leaves us with taxes. We’ve already talked about regulation — take over the institutions and make them (more) rational, conservative and human. But in the end we’re not going to be able to ignore the fact that putting people into government puts people in institutions where they have a built-in incentive to obtain and spend other people’s money.
Let’s have some ground rules, though. First of all, anyone who tells you they know how to adjust the tax code in order to create jobs (looking at you here, Mitt) is lying, and everyone knows it. Second, let’s admit that no proposal for adjusting the tax code in the abstract exists in the abstract — any change to the status quo will help some people, hurt other people, and have some uncertain impact on the economy. For example, Obama’s never seriously proposed “Buffett tax” was really a proposal for a new tax on capital gains administered in some vaguely defined way like the Alternative Minimum Tax. Pretending that this would have no impact on the economy because this is just free cash lying around for the taking is disingenuous. Let’s not be that way.
Second, here’s a modest proposal. Maybe, for right now, as difficult as this may be for some of us, the tax code is the last thing we should be talking about. Maybe we should be talking about how to spend the money we get, and some of this talk needs to be positive proposals for things to do with government money that help people, that?encourage private citizens to help people, and that generally accord with our values. If there are specific things we can recommend about the tax code that will help, by all means. But ordinary people hear the Republican Party talk about reforming the tax code and they think, for good reasons as well as bad, about rich people screwing the system, entitlements going away, and the end of their mortgage interest deduction. Tax reduction was a winning strategy once upon a time. It isn’t any more.
Again, I’m not talking about new entitlements or any of the big plans and schemes you see coming from the left wing of the party. I’m talking about local problem solving with a global perspective, informed by real values.
Yes, I know. The free market will save us. Bureaucracy is the root of all evil. There’s a war on Christmas. We’ve been peddling that for years, and where has it gotten us? I’m not even saying it’s wrong. I’m saying we need to stop worrying about ideology and start working on putting our values to work making this country a better place to live in.
What did I hear you say? The Tea Party? The Tea Party is complicated. Social conservatives and the libertarians both showed up, because both groups feel disenfranchised by a party that is increasingly only interested in propping up “serious,” centrist, Democrat-lite candidates. They’ve been reading the Constitution and understand that marginal tax rates are not the beginning and end of the problem. It’s the rest of us that need to catch up.
One more example, just to be clear about what I am and am not saying here: abortion. Roe v. Wade (more cogently Casey v. Planned Parenthood) is the law, and it isn’t going anywhere without a shake-up of the judiciary much more extensive and complicated than one side or the other replacing a justice or three. Contrary to what might be believed in places like Washington D.C. and New York City, while we sit around and parse the opinions of political candidates about whether there should be a rape exception to a law criminalizing abortion that does not exist and will not exist and in the real world for the most part never actually existed, the people who are serious about opposing abortion moved on and started doing stuff. They didn’t just give in; they gave up on grand strategies, and they’re out in the wilderness actually doing stuff, marching through the institutions, changing people’s minds.
That’s why you haven’t heard so much from them lately. The rest of us need to get with the program.