The Slide to Perdition

Despite assertions to the contrary, America is not a “Christian Nation.” It is, rather, a Nation of Christians…and of Agnostics, Jews, Atheists, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Wiccans, and a lot of people who declare themselves to be unaffiliated. And this is as it should be.

The nation’s founding fathers, nearly all of whom were Christian, were nonetheless moved to base America’s religious life on tolerance, and its public affairs on a studied non-sectarianism. This was neither an accident nor a spasm of fashionable enlightenment realism: it was pragmatism informed by history. The nation’s founders were all-too aware that sectarian violence – or political violence in the opportunistic guise of sectarian fervor – had torn many European countries asunder, and they wanted no part of it. And, of course, many of the colonies had been founded or nurtured by refugees from religious persecution.

These patricians understood that any society that clung to a single faith set the stage either for communal violence or the wholesale expulsion of faith. They understood that it was (and is) impossible to sustain a free nation where are are viewed as equal while placing one faith above all others. Declaring America a Christian Nation would have made all citizens not professing the same faith to become less-equal, second-class citizens, lacking the same rights as their Christian bretheren.

Whatever the intent behind declaring America a Christian Nation, doing so puts the country on a path that undermines the Constitution, flies in the face of the principles on which the nation was established, and marks the first step down an icy slope that leads to persecution, inquisition, and, conceivably, the end of the Republic as we know it.

It is for these reasons that every true conservative, regardless of his faith or fervor, must reject the effort to install any faith as a national religion, even symbolically or rhetorically, no matter how good or “right” it may feel to do so. It may satisfy one’s religious yearnings, but it places in jeopardy the very system that allows us to express them.

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Moneyball Newt

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich spea...
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Even disregarding its content, I thought the Contract with America was a major opportunity to change American politics, a chance to turn the meaningless menage of aphorisms that pass for party platforms into concrete manifestos for legislative action, and to turn elections into plebiscites for those manifestos. It offered voters the opportunity to endorse a slate of policies, not a list of personalities. And I give Newt Gingrich credit for making it happen, and for following it up by wringing the partisanship out of the fraught relationship between the Clinton White House and Capitol Hill.

Reading through John Richardson’s article from last September’s Esquire about the former Speaker of the House, I can only hope that somewhere there is a coherent counterpoint that would, if not quite rehabilitate Newt, at least leave him somewhat less vilified. The prima facie evidence seems adequate to call into question the competence of Mr. Gingrich to judge the character of anyone walking on earth. But let us leave his personal life out of this. Let us also set aside the mistakes, real and imagined, that forced him out of office over a decade ago. Let us instead focus on today.

There are many diseases that afflict the American body politic, but there is none so chronic and insidious as condition that allows groups and corporations to exert political influence outside of the electoral framework. As disgusting and criminal as it would be for a company to pay a voter for his or her vote, it is many thousands of times worse for a corporate body to pay to directly influence the vote of a legislator. Endemic it might be, but it is caustic to democracy and cannot be tolerated, regardless of the cause for which it is used.

This is, however, the work in which Newt Gingrich finds himself employed. For this reason, whatever good he once did for America and for conservatives must now be weighed against his efforts to elevate the influence of the wealthy and powerful above that of the American people.

Mind you, Newt is not alone. Washington is filled with influencers and fixers of every political persuasion who will, for a price, taint or circumvent the democratic process on behalf of just about any agenda you can name. But any American conservative truly dedicated to the principles laid down by the people who founded this nation should be sickened by moneyball politics, regardless of the cause for which they are employed. That Mr. Gingrich has built his wealth and his political rehabilitation in an effort that undermines democracy should not enhance his credentials: it should permanently tarnish them, removing him from serious consideration for any position of power or influence in government again.

Parties, Platforms, and Politics

Coming back to the U.S. after five months, it is startling to see how much copy and chatter the 2012 Presidential race is taking up. As we step as a nation once more into that breech, some perspective is in order to keep our expectations in check.

Political parties in the American electoral system do not belong in the business of generating ideas, policies, or ideologies. The business of the political party in the American electoral system is winning elections through fundraising, organization, and mobilization. They are finance and logistics, designed to divine the mood of the American people and, at most, articulating an electable vision based on the thinking of people outside of the rough and tumble of the political process.

Policies and ideologies crafted amid the the electoral process tend to pander to the transient mood of the electorate. For that reason, ideologies born in this crucible tend by necessity if not design toward demagoguery rather than wise or humane principles. Policies designed in the heat of political battle are too often little more than old style campaign promises, commitments made in the name of garnering the support of one or another interest group. There is neither time nor opportunity amidst the chaos of a campaign to consider the appropriateness or practicality of such measures.

Ideologies are best born of principles formed by forces and processes that to the political mind are glacial. Policies are best the products of calm, measured consideration of the challenges facing the city, the county, the state, or the nation, and the full scope of action available to elected officials.

None of this is to suggest that either ideologies or policies are best formed in dark, smokey rooms or the rarified but equally exclusive halls of the American academy. Clinical detachment is as poor a field for good policy as the hothouse of campaign politics.

Instead, it is time more of us in the electorate ignored the seductive narcotic of the political cycle and focused instead on principles, policies, and ideas. America needs less political junkies and more wonks. I would argue our founders expected a degree of wonkishness among the electorate that party machine politics has done its level best to beat clean out of us.

Good policy is like good food. If you want it done right, roll up your sleeves and get into the kitchen. C’mon in: there’s plenty of room.

On Hitchens on Mamet

I can catalog a long list of areas where Christopher Hitchens and I disagree. He is a radical atheist, I am a believing Jew. He abhors science fiction, I find it to be some of the most thoughtful literature of our time. He is a liberal, I am conservative. The list goes on: one of the reasons I enjoy reading Hitchens’ essays so much is that I can usually find something in each where he and I are in such deep disagreement, and yet he is so eloquent, that I am compelled to re-examine the basis of my beliefs. I consider myself fortunate to have such a foil.

One point on which he and I agree, however, is on our mutual distaste for the brand of conservatism embraced by the playwright and screenwriter David Mamet. Mamet supports Sarah Palin, declares that America is a “Christian country,” and even for me, severely oversimplifies the Arab-Israeli conflict.

I want very much to like Mamet, having not only enjoyed his work but also found myself in agreement with many of his indictments of modern American liberalism as expressed in his 2008 essay in The Village Voice. Mamet is older than I, but I have been a conservative for rather longer than he, so I read his Voice piece with the bemused pleasure of someone who finds those he admires agreeing with him.

Sadly, however, Mamet’s flight from the left to the right did not set him down in conservative territory. Rather, he has flown all the way right, alighting on a square deep in reactionary Tea Party territory, and his new attitude is marked with the zealotry that is so often the mark of the righteous convert. As much as I want take pleasure in Mamet’s enlightenment, I can only join Hitchens in shaking my head at a heartfelt zeal that is not matched by either rhetorical balance or intellectual rigor. What should have been a manifesto wound up being a polemic.

As for Hitchens, where he disappoints in his review, beyond delivering a gratuitous rabbit punch to the great rabbinical sage Hillel, is that he does not ask whether Mamet is the best intellectual light the conservatives can put forth, or indeed whether there might be someone who can articulate a less reactionary position to counter the Palin-Tea Party-Beck-Koch axis. Hitchens would, apparently, prefer to have his readers think “oh, this is what conservatives are all about. Yuck.” This rhetorical device, implying that an extremist viewpoint is typical of an entire people or movement, is not only one of Hitchens’ favorite tools, but one used by demagogues of all political inclinations.

In this, Hitchens is emblematic of the challenge independent conservatives face in crafting an independent, progressive conservative movement. The far right wishes to present themselves as more centrist and mainstream than they are, and the left are happy to oblige, hoping to attract the disaffected to their own ranks.

And yet, there lies the opportunity.

Why Hayek Wasn’t Conservative…or Was He?

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Nobel laureate F.A. Hayek is best known among conservatives for his well-argued defense of markets, The Road to Serfdom. The work has become a part of the conservative canon in America, and Hayek a patron saint. In my mind and perhaps in the minds of others this meant that Hayek was a conservative.

And yet he declared was not. In an essay I encountered thanks to Christopher Hitchens‘ review (read “skewering”) of David Mamet‘s conservative manifesto, The Secret Knowledge, Hayek distances himself from European conservatives, saying:

Let me now state what seems to me the decisive objection to any conservatism which deserves to be called such. It is that by its very nature it cannot offer an alternative to the direction in which we are moving. It may succeed by its resistance to current tendencies in slowing down undesirable developments, but, since it does not indicate another direction, it cannot prevent their continuance.

But as Hayek points out, this is conservatism of the European variety. American conservatism was to him not quite so odious, as what we in America call “conservatism” is what Europeans would call “liberal,” and what we call “liberal” are closer to what Hayek called radicals or even socialists.

There is nothing corresponding to this conflict in the history of the United States, because what in Europe was called “liberalism” was here the common tradition on which the American polity had been built: thus the defender of the American tradition was a liberal in the European sense. This already existing confusion was made worse by the recent attempt to transplant to America the European type of conservatism, which, being alien to the American tradition, has acquired a somewhat odd character. And some time before this, American radicals and socialists began calling themselves “liberals.”

Hayek’s point is that American conservatism is at its heart and in its origins a fundamentally progressive movement, albeit progress based on the ideals and institutions that form the American political tradition. Movements to the left of American conservatism on the political spectrum are, to Hayek, either conservatism disguised as radicalism, or actual radical/socialists. Movements to the right are thus more akin to the European conservatives, reactionaries, in essence, a political tendency that Hayek notes is “alien to the American tradition.”

Hayek identifies himself as a European liberal, and by extension equates himself with the traditional American conservatism. To a European like Hayek, then, Hayek was not conservative. But in the American albeit non-Tea Party sense of the word, he was.

Hung Up on Size

In a thoughtful Wall Street Journal editorial, Michael Barone condemns as misguided what he perceives liberal nostalgia for World War II, an era where big government accomplished historic things and Keynesian spending yanked the nation out of the Depression. He takes liberals to task for failing to realize that “Big Government, Big Business, and Big Labor” turn ordinary people into faceless cogs in a very large machine.

Barone is not wrong. Any large institution tends to eat away at individualism, and the larger governments, corporations, and unions get, the more the welfare of the individual is subsumed by the need to attend the flock. (To his list of “Bigs” I would add Big Education, Big Science, and even Big Church.)

Ironically, Barone misses a point. Faced with a global onslaught of facism, itself the total mobilization of government, industry, labor, education and science in an effort to conquer the globe, the centralization of political, industrial, and labor institutions was the only logical response. Big government, in that case, was the appropriate response.

Where Barone and other libertarian conservatives are correct is in contending that big government is not the appropriate solution to every vexing issue. Where they are wrong is in their fearful orthodoxy that implies that the only good institution is a tiny one – or a dead one – regardless of circumstance.

We need measures of institutional virtue that rise above the crypto-Freudian obsession with size, that adjudge effectiveness, efficiency, relevance, and costs in a more thoughtful way than simply watching budgets and counting noses.

American history proves that big government can be great, and it can be awful; that big labor can be a force for progress and human dignity at some times, and at others it can suck the lifeblood out of an industry or an economy; and that big business can be the engine of prosperity for the many, or a source of enrichment and empowerment for an aristocracy of merchants and financiers.

Our quest must be to seek the point of balance and to constantly evaluate how it is shifting. Using a simple measure like size is, to borrow from H.L. Mencken, simple, workable, and wrong. Such thinking makes for great sound bytes, but the tools of demagogues too rarely craft good policy.

Time for Conservatives to Reclaim Progress

Emblematic of the intellectual failure of American conservative politics is that the word “progressive” has been abandoned to the left. It seems that in order to prove your conservative chops these days, you must take stances against change rather than for it.

This is a pity. Being conservative does not mean being adverse to change, but being adverse to change for its own sake. American history is replete with examples of conservative Presidents who rejected reactionaries in the name of progress. America’s greatest Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, did not only issue the Emancipation Proclamation, he also championed progress by laying the regulatory groundwork for the transcontinental railroads. Theodore Roosevelt placed conservation, the environment, and trust-busting at the head of his agenda.

It is unfortunate that, beginning with Calvin Coolidge, we of the American right have forgotten that change, that progress, is not something to be fought, but something to be crafted. That collective amnesia has led conservatism to embrace an increasingly change-averse, reactionary agenda.

Maintaining the status quo is a pathetic response to the issues and dangers that confront the Republic in this century. Conservatives must learn to re-embrace change by crafting a vision of the future, and a path to that future that are principled, practical, and wise. The alternative is to forfeit the nation to a battle between radicals and reactionaries.

In the end, what separates progressive conservatives from progressive liberals are the principles that guide our agendas. The liberals have articulated theirs. It is time we articulated ours.