[Mark Safranski/ zen]
I am stirring from blogging retirement to bring you a series culled from a historical-political essay by a scholar who is a very long time reader of ZP who wrote this post over a long period of time following the last presidential election. He writes under the pseudonym “A Yeoman Farmer” and his foil is the famous “Flight 93 Election” essay of “Publius Decius Mus” in The Claremont Review of Books. I will be breaking the essay into parts and turning the footnotes into section endnotes with each post and linking to the previous sections that have been posted. This post comprises Part III of the series.
The Reichstag is always burning: a commentary on The Flight 93 Election
By: A Yeoman Farmer
What the author does not consider is whether those wars suggest a deeper problem, an unspoken or implicit problem, with America and republicanism, that he does not want to address.
6. Conservatives spend at least several hundred million dollars a year on think-tanks, magazines, conferences, fellowships, and such, complaining about this, that, the other, and everything. And yet these same conservatives are, at root, keepers of the status quo. Oh, sure, they want some things to change. They want their pet ideas adopted—tax deductions for having more babies and the like. Many of them are even good ideas. But are any of them truly fundamental? Do they get to the heart of our problems?
Here we start to see that the issue is more than a lament over the electoral challenges or policy proposals for the conservative movement. They are too conservative since they spend their time defending the status quo or tinkering with change. The author wants more, he wants serious and fundamental change. At this point, the question is whether the author is being ironic since he is asking conservatives to seek a fundamental change which would suggest he wants them to start a revolution. He does not explain how one decries the ills of society means that one defends the status quo. The author provides no evidence so we are to take his word that the conservatives defend the status quo. Except that they don’t but that is not a concern to the author since he has a point to make. Instead of trying to conserve institutions, rule of law, or the norms that sustain decent politics, the author lets us know that we must embrace a candidate who will challenge, change, or even undermine these institutions and norms so that conservative ideals can be encouraged if not enforced through electoral victory because no one else is serious about doing something “truly fundamental”. In a strange way, conservatives are to be as much social engineers as the “progressive” they appear to denounce. In this approach, we start to get a sense that the problem isn’t a specific political policy or norm, the problem for the author appears to be what is fundamental about America. Will the author explore this question? Will he get to the heart of the matter?
7. If conservatives are right about the importance of virtue, morality, religious faith, stability, character and so on in the individual; if they are right about sexual morality or what came to be termed “family values”; if they are right about the importance of education to inculcate good character and to teach the fundamentals that have defined knowledge in the West for millennia; if they are right about societal norms and public order; if they are right about the centrality of initiative, enterprise, industry, and thrift to a sound economy and a healthy society; if they are right about the soul-sapping effects of paternalistic Big Government and its cannibalization of civil society and religious institutions; if they are right about the necessity of a strong defense and prudent statesmanship in the international sphere—if they are right about the importance of all this to national health and even survival, then they must believe—mustn’t they?—that we are headed off a cliff.
Despite the promise that something fundamental is at stake, we get the warmed-over platitudes that have been presented at any number of elections for the past 50 years if not the past 100. These are not the fundamental questions that face America for they are the same questions we have faced and answered since the founding. Even if the conservatives are right they are not necessarily going over a cliff because they can be right in principle but not application. We can have immorality on a large scale and still have a decent society. As should be readily apparent to any political thinker all societies contain contradictions so that it is not an axiom that if the conservatives are right on their preferred areas that America is going over a cliff. The first problem is that conservatives cannot even agree if they are right about what they are proposing. Moreover, the different policies they propose often conflict with each other when they have to be applied. The author says that conservatives want better schools and they want a smaller government. At the same time, they want a strong defence and a smaller government. Yet, none of these are issues that have been resolved as they remain questions for each generation to answer. America’s strategic situation is not fixed as the threats it faces and the opportunities it seeks change. They are not what challenges America to its core nor are they *the* core question that the conservative movement faces. The cliff the conservatives face is not a policy mix or even the next election, but the author never explores that since he is only concerned with scoring political points and not stopping America from going off the cliff it was truly going over a cliff.
If America was really going over a cliff, it raises the question of when it started. Did America really start going over the cliff in 2008 when President Obama came into office? Did the issues that conservatives lament only begin then or did they begin in 2001 or did they begin sooner or have they always existed because they represent core questions about what it means to live as we do and cannot be resolved definitely?
Let’s look at the list of what the conservatives might be right about to indicate America is going over the cliff.
- religious faith,
- if they are right about sexual morality or what came to be termed “family values”;
- if they are right about the importance of education to inculcate good character and to teach the fundamentals that have defined knowledge in the West for millennia;
- if they are right about societal norms and public order;
- if they are right about the centrality of initiative, enterprise, industry, and thrift to a sound economy and a healthy society;
- if they are right about the soul-sapping effects of paternalistic Big Government and its cannibalization of civil society and religious institutions;
- if they are right about the necessity of a strong defense and prudent statesmanship in the international sphere
If they are right or wrong about these issues, they must convince the public that they are right and why the are right. In doing this, they must put together policy proposals that accord with the political institutions, the constitution, to ensure that any changes they propose are legitimate and sustainable. If they are truly about the common good, then they need to demonstrate or at least convince the public to vote for it locally, at a state level, and at a federal level.
If America is going over the cliff why are the conservatives, why is the author, apparently the only ones who can see it? It seems strange that the rest of the country is blind to this or unaware of it.
8. But it’s quite obvious that conservatives don’t believe any such thing, that they feel no such sense of urgency, of an immediate necessity to change course and avoid the cliff. A recent article by Matthew Continetti may be taken as representative—indeed, almost written for the purpose of illustrating the point. Continetti inquires into the “condition of America” and finds it wanting. What does Continetti propose to do about it? The usual litany of “conservative” “solutions,” with the obligatory references to decentralization, federalization, “civic renewal,” and—of course!—Burke. Which is to say, conservatism’s typical combination of the useless and inapt with the utopian and unrealizable. Decentralization and federalism are all well and good, and as a conservative, I endorse them both without reservation. But how are they going to save, or even meaningfully improve, the America that Continetti describes? What can they do against a tidal wave of dysfunction, immorality, and corruption? “Civic renewal” would do a lot of course, but that’s like saying health will save a cancer patient. A step has been skipped in there somewhere. How are we going to achieve “civic renewal”? Wishing for a tautology to enact itself is not a strategy.
The author wants to claim that America is beyond renewal except if Trump is elected. He will accomplish what no one other conservative has been able to accomplish. How the author knows this is uncertain, yet that is his claim. Trump has displayed no insight into politics or America nor has he ever held an elected office yet he is going to be the one to enact *the fundamental change* that conservatives need and none have been able to deliver.
What is unexplained and is alarming is that the American people, including conservatives, have gone along with this corruption. The unspoken theme throughout this article is that the American people are simply passive, almost unwilling, participants. Except that they are not. The American people have consistently chosen what they want. We may not like their choices but they have decided. To suggest, as the author does, is that they are the deceived, the rubes in this great game is something disturbing. What it suggests is that the conservative movement has been part of this great game but only it is the virtuous one or more precisely it is only Trump as the conservative saviour who knows this and will succeed where other politicians and presidents have failed. Trump alone can renew conservativism, but most importantly he will reform America by stopping and rolling back the “tidal wave of dysfunction, immorality, and corruption.” If only that were true. What is surprising is that any candidate that demonstrates the dysfunction, immorality, and corruption of America that the conservatives preach against, it is Trump. Time again he has proudly demonstrated his immorality “I would date my daughter if she wasn’t my daughter”. He has displayed his corruption where he famously promises to pay the full amount only to pay the mount minus the potential legal costs to the supplier which forces them to accept the lower amount as it will cost them more in legal fees to get the difference between the promised amount and the offered amount. He has demonstrated dysfunction as his family and his businesses demonstrate dysfunctionality as many of his brands have failed and his failed university ended up settling a 25 million dollar fraud case out of court. Yet, the unstated thought is that the people may be the virtuous ones and the conservatives and the progressives have been out of touch with America and what the American people have wanted. The author never explores that possibility. Trump, though, is not the answer.
How can Trump be the solution when the author’s lament is that Conservatives typically combine “the useless and inapt with the utopian and unrealizable.” Is there any better description of what Trump promised and has delivered? The only thing that is missing from his description is incompetence which Trump has delivered. By contrast, the previous conservative Presidents or at least with the largest element of conservative ethos and policy, of which Reagan is held to be the paragon, demonstrated a hard-headed understanding of what they could deliver with the political pragmatism based on compromise. Above all, though these administrations, unlike the conservative commentators cheering from the side lines, demonstrated competency, which now seems less important than commitment or loyalty as if the means to power determines the ends to power since the only goal is power yet we know that power without purpose is something conservatives have always, or at least before Trump, decried. Perhaps, we have to accept that whatever Trump can deliver is considered worth supporting him though his inexperience suggest that he will deliver less politically, which means effecting lasting positive change, that is starting policies and programmes that reflect a vision for America as opposed to a negative change which is about stopping what previous presidents have done as if that is a positive change, than truly transformational presidents like Reagan, LBJ and FDR.
At the same time, pre-Trump commentators did not hold the American public in such contempt by dismissing them all as immoral, dysfunctional, and corrupt. Moreover, one would not find Clinton making those claims about the American public. If a statesman is one who can weave together a web of politics to protect the community, that is to protect and promote the common good, then we must ask how Trump demonstrates that aspect of statesmanship if his policies, personality, and pronouncements are divisive? Instead of uniting the country or seeking a higher consensus through which a new vision for American can emerge, he has sought discord with a clear appeal to his faction as the expense of all others. In that sense, he operates a form of trickle-down politics in the sense that if he deliver for his faction, in particular the corporations, the rest of the country will receive whatever secondary benefits trickle down from what has benefitted his faction and his party.
End Part III.