September 10, 2016


Populism, I: American conservatism and the problem of populism : On the genesis and current trials of the American conservative movement. (George H. Nash, September 2016, New Criterion)

In the late 1950s and early 1960s the three independent wings of the conservative revolt against the Left began to coalesce around National Review, founded by William F. Buckley Jr. in 1955. Apart from his extraordinary talents as a writer, debater, and public intellectual, Buckley personified each impulse in the developing coalition. He was at once a traditional Christian, a defender of the free market, and a staunch anticommunist (a source of his ecumenical appeal to conservatives).

As this consolidation began to occur, a serious challenge arose to the fragile conservative identity: a growing and permanent tension between the libertarians and the traditionalists. To the libertarians the highest good in society was individual liberty, the emancipation of the autonomous self from external (especially governmental) restraint. To the traditionalists (who tended to be more religiously oriented than most libertarians) the highest social good was not unqualified freedom but ordered freedom grounded in community and resting on the cultivation of virtue in the individual soul. Such cultivation, argued the traditionalists, did not arise spontaneously. It needed the reinforcement of mediating institutions (such as schools, churches, and synagogues) and at times of the government itself. To put it another way, libertarians tended to believe in the beneficence of an uncoerced social order, both in markets and morals. The traditionalists often agreed, more or less, about the market order (as opposed to statism), but they were far less sanguine about an unregulated moral order.

The argument became known as the freedom-versus-virtue debate.
Not surprisingly, this conflict of visions generated a tremendous controversy on the American Right in the early 1960s, as conservative intellectuals attempted to sort out their first principles. The argument became known as the freedom-versus-virtue debate. It fell to a former Communist and chief ideologist at National Review, a man named Frank Meyer, to formulate a middle way that became known as fusionism--that is, a fusing or merging of the competing paradigms of the libertarians and the traditionalists. In brief, Meyer argued that the overriding purpose of government was to protect and promote individual liberty, but that the supreme purpose of the free individual should be to pursue a life of virtue, unfettered by and unaided by the State.

As a purely theoretical construct, Meyer's fusionism did not convince all his critics, then or later. But as a formula for political action and as an insight into the actual character of American conservatism, his project was a considerable success. He taught libertarian and traditionalist purists that they needed one another and that American conservatism must not become doctrinaire. To be relevant and influential, it must stand neither for dogmatic antistatism at one extreme nor for moral authoritarianism at the other, but for a society in which people are simultaneously free to choose and desirous of choosing the path of virtue.

In arriving at this modus vivendi, the architects of fusionism were aided immensely by the third element in the developing coalition: anticommunism, an ideology that nearly everyone could share. The presence in the world of a dangerous external enemy--the Soviet Union, the mortal foe of liberty and virtue, of freedom and faith--was a crucial, unifying cement for the nascent conservative movement. The life-and-death stakes of the Cold War helped to curb the temptation of right-wing ideologues to absolutize their competing insights and thereby commit heresy.

Politically, the postwar, Buckleyite Right found its first national expression in the campaign of Senator Barry Goldwater for the presidency of the United States in 1964. It was not long after that election that a new impulse appeared on the intellectual scene, one destined to become the fourth component of the conservative coalition: the phenomenon known as neoconservatism. Irving Kristol's definition conveys its original essence: "A neoconservative," he said, "is a liberal who has been mugged by reality." One of the salient developments of the late 1960s and 1970s was the intellectual journey of various liberals and social democrats toward conservative positions and affiliations. Their migration was manifested in such journals as The Public Interest, co-edited by Kristol, and the magazine Commentary, edited by Norman Podhoretz. By the early 1980s many of these neoconservatives (as they came to be labeled) were participating in the "Reagan Revolution."

The stresses that produced this transition were many. In part, neoconservatism may be interpreted as the recognition by former liberals that good intentions alone do not guarantee good governmental policy and that the actual consequences of liberal social activism in the Sixties and Seventies, like the so-called War on Poverty, were often devastating. In considerable measure neoconservatism was also a reaction by moderate liberals to the cultural upheavals of the 1960s, particularly on college campuses, and to the eruption of the so-called New Left, with its tendency to blame America first for world tensions and its neoisolationist opposition to a vigorous prosecution of the Cold War.

To the already existing conservative community, the entry of chastened liberals and disillusioned socialists into its precincts was to have many consequences. One of these was already discernible in the 1970s. Since the days of the New Deal, American liberals had held a near monopoly on the manufacture and distribution of prestige among the intellectual classes. From a liberal perspective the libertarian, traditionalist, and Cold War conservatives of the 1950s and 1960s--the Buckleyites, if you will--were eccentric and marginal figures, no threat to liberalism's cultural hegemony. The emerging neoconservatives, however, were an "enemy within" the liberal camp who had made their reputations while still on the Left and who could not therefore be so easily dismissed. By publicly defecting from the Left, and then by critiquing it so effectively, the neoconservatives helped to undermine a hitherto unshakable assumption in academic circles: the belief that only liberalism is an intellectually respectable point of view. By destroying the automatic equation of liberalism with intelligence, and of progressivism with progress, the neoconservative intellectuals brought new respectability to the Right and greatly altered the terms of public debate in the United States.

Meanwhile another development--one destined to have enormous political consequences--began to take shape in the late 1970s: the grassroots "great awakening" of what came to be known as the Religious Right or (more recently) social conservatives. Initially the Religious Right was not primarily a movement of intellectuals at all. It was, rather, a groundswell of protest at the grassroots of America by "ordinary" citizens, many of them Protestant evangelicals, fundamentalists, and pentecostals, with some Roman Catholics and Orthodox Jews as well. While early Religious Right leaders generally shared the foreign policy and economic perspectives of other conservatives, their guiding preoccupations lay elsewhere, in what became known as the "social issues": pornography, drug use, the vulgarization of mass entertainment, and more. Convinced that American society was in a state of vertiginous moral decline, and that what they called secular humanism--in other words, modern liberalism--was the fundamental cause and agent of this decay, the populistic Religious Right exhorted its hitherto politically quiescent followers to enter the public arena as a defense measure, in defense of their traditional moral code and way of life. Above all, the religious conservatives derived their fervor from an unremitting struggle against what most of them considered the supreme abomination of their time: legalized abortion on demand. [...]
The conservative intellectual movement, of course, did not vanish in the 1990s. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that unyielding anticommunism supplied much of the glue in the post-1945 conservative coalition and that the demise of Communism in Europe weakened the fusionist imperative for American conservatives.

One of the earliest signs of this was the rise in the 1980s and early 1990s of a group of conservative traditionalists who took the label "paleoconservatives." Initially, paleoconservatism was a response to the growing prominence within conservative ranks of the erstwhile liberals and social democrats known as neoconservatives. To angry paleocons, led by Patrick Buchanan among others, the neocons were "interlopers" who, despite their recent movement to the Right, remained at heart secular, crusading Wilsonians and believers in the welfare state. In other words, the paleos argued, not true conservatives at all.

As the Cold War faded, paleoconservatism introduced a discordant note into the conservative conversation. Fiercely and defiantly "nationalist" (rather than "internationalist"), skeptical of "global democracy" and post-Cold War entanglements overseas, fearful of the impact of Third World immigration on America's historically Europe-centered culture, and openly critical of the doctrine of global free trade, Buchananite paleoconservatism increasingly resembled much of the American Right before 1945--before, that is, the onset of the Cold War. When Buchanan himself campaigned for president in 1992 under the pre-World War II, isolationist banner of "America First," the symbolism seemed deliberate and complete. [...]

This brings us to the phenomenon of the hour: insurgent populism on the Left and the Right. In its simplest terms, populism--defined as the revolt of ordinary people against overbearing and self-serving elites--has long existed in American politics. In its most familiar form, populism has been leftwing in its ideology, targeting bankers, wealthy capitalists, and corporations as villains--the "millionaires and billionaires" in Bernie Sanders's parlance. From Andrew Jackson's feud with the Second Bank of the United States to William Jennings Bryan's crusade against the gold standard, from Franklin Roosevelt's appeal to the "forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid" in 1932 to the demagogic theatrics of Huey Long and Father Charles Coughlin (in his early days) during the Great Depression, populism has quite often been a leftwing phenomenon, vocalizing the anger of those at the bottom of the economic ladder toward those sitting pretty at the top.

But populism in America has sometimes taken a conservative form as well, particularly since 1945. In the early 1950s Senator Joseph McCarthy and his conservative allies denounced liberal Democratic politicians and pro-New Deal elites as dupes and even enablers of Communist espionage and subversion at home and of Communist aggrandizement abroad. In the 1960s William F. Buckley Jr. famously declared that he would rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone directory than by the entire Harvard University faculty. In 1969 President Richard Nixon, under fire from a militant, leftwing antiwar movement during the Vietnam conflict, appealed on national television to the "great silent majority" of the American people to support him. Nixon's first vice president, Spiro Agnew, was more colorful. Taking aim at the antiwar Left--much of it based in and around the universities--he thundered: "A spirit of national masochism prevails, encouraged by an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals." Criticism of an allegedly smug and decadent Liberal Establishment became a staple of conservative discourse in the 1960s and persisted long thereafter.

Populism, conservative-style, achieved its greatest success in the 1970s and 1980s under the leadership of Ronald Reagan, who brilliantly articulated a populistic, libertarian aversion to meddlesome and unaccountable government--an aversion long ingrained in the American psyche. Consider these words from Reagan's Farewell Address in 1989: "Ours is the first revolution in the history of mankind that truly reversed the course of government, and with three little words: We the people. 'We the people' tell the government what to do, it doesn't tell us. 'We the people' are the driver, the government is the car. And we decide where it should go, and by what route, and how fast." No conservative has ever said it better.

Criticism of an allegedly smug and decadent Liberal Establishment became a staple of conservative discourse.
But notice the crucial distinction between these two manifestations of anti-elitism so long imbedded in our politics. Leftwing populism has traditionally aimed its fire at Big Money--the private-sector elite entrenched on Wall Street. Rightwing populism of the Reaganite variety has focused its wrath on Big Government--the public-sector elite ensconced in Washington (and its votaries in Academe). Leftwing populism was most popular in America when powerful financiers and captains of industry appeared to control the nation's destiny. Rightwing populism gained traction when the capitalist establishment was displaced by a competing establishment centered in the ever more bureaucratic and intrusive administrative state.

A few years ago, American conservatives experienced a revival of Reaganite, populistic fervor in the form of the Tea Party movement, with its slogan "Don't tread on me!" In some circles there has been a tendency to dismiss this phenomenon as either the artificial creation of rightwing billionaires or as the ugly expression of the racial anxieties of white people. The truth is more complicated. Rightly or wrongly, a powerful conviction has arisen among virtually all conservatives that public policy in the United States has in some profound sense gone off the rails since the Great Recession of 2008. Rightly or wrongly, conservatives of all persuasions increasingly believe that ours has become a government not of and by the people but only for the people: government by edict from above. The much criticized "inflexibility" of the political Right during the two terms of President Obama was a direct response to its perception of inflexibility and autocratic hubris on the political Left.

The great symbol of this for conservatives is the Affordable Care Act of 2010 and the manner in which it was enacted and implemented. At the time the bill was enacted, a cnn poll revealed that 59 percent of the American people opposed it, and only 39 percent supported it. It passed anyway, by a convoluted parliamentary procedure, on a bitterly divided, virtually party-line vote. No other comparably ambitious, federal economic or social legislation in the past one hundred years was enacted in this way, and the consequences for America's social fabric have been severe. If the polls in 2010 were accurate, the Affordable Care Act was passed in willful defiance of the majority sentiment of the American people. To understand the fury and ferment on the Right since Obama took office, historians must take into account this sobering fact.

The leftward lurch of the Obama administration--it soon transpired--was not the only source of Tea Party discontent. The populist-conservative revolt of 2009-10 quickly morphed into a bitter struggle, not only against the perceived external threat from the Left, but also against a perceived internal threat from the conservative movement's imperfect vehicle, the Republican Party. Despite massive Republican victories in the Congressional elections of 2010 and 2014, many Tea Party populists felt frustrated and betrayed by what they saw as the inability and, even worse, the unwillingness, of elected Republican officials in Washington to fight effectively for the conservative agenda. Many at the grassroots--encouraged by populist sympathizers on talk radio--began to suspect that some of their elected leaders were not merely craven or inept but essentially on the other side, particularly on the question of dealing with illegal immigration. The mounting anger of "grassroots" conservatives--often derided by their critics as rubes and nativists--became part of the tinder for the firestorm that was about to occur.

Note that nearly every strand of conservatism above is defined by what it opposes/opposed : Socialism; Communism; internationalism; government regulation; integration; immigration; inner city crime; affirmative action; Islamicism; etc.

With the exception of folks like George W. Bush, Jeb Bush and their fellow governors (and, at times, Reagan and GHWB)--the figures who had actually governed the American people--precious few on the right have accepted the need for a positive vision of conservatism; the progressive element that Burke and Kirk held to be necessary for it to appeal to the electorate.  Indeed, successful Democratic politicians have, likewise, articulated progressive conservative positions.  Meanwhile, it is vital to recognize that--for all our desire to be seen as exceptional--this is not solely an American phenomenon but is present throughout the Anglosphere/Scandinavia.
What is meant by progressive conservatism? The Third Way.

Just as the Depression put paid to the notion--whether fairly or not--that unrestricted capitalism (the First Way) was an adequate organizing principle for society; so too did the economic dislocations of the '70s (Stagflation) put paid to the notion that statism (the Second Way) was adequate.  Beginning first in hinterlands like Chile (with the Chicago Boys), New Zealand, Australia and Sweden, experiments began which sought to provide the social safety net that democratic voters in developed economies demanded after the 30s but to fund it via market mechanisms, the necessity for which the 70s had demonstrated.  And once Margaret Thatcher began instituting the same sorts of reforms the process accelerated rapidly and both parties of left and right began offering up imitators--Tony Blair, Ian Duncan Smith, Gordon Brown, David Cameron, John Howard, John Key, Bill Clinton, Jack Kemp, Newt Gingrich, John Kasich, George W. Bush, Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush, Mitch Daniels, Paul Ryan, etc.  It soon became obvious that in any contest between the two parties anywhere in the English-speaking world and in Northern Europe, that party won whose leader was most closely associated with the positive program of the Third Way.

A question naturally arises as to why parties did not simply outbid each other then and why every party does not always nominate its most Third Way candidate.  But the answer is simple : significant portions of the party infrastructure and voters not surprisingly remain intellectually wedded to the First Way, on the one hand, or the Second Way, on the other.  But, even more so, they remain emotionally wedded to their historic opposition to the Second Way, in the case of the Right, and the First Way, in the case of the Left.  And they can't help but seeing a politics that fuses the two as anything but a betrayal of principles.  This produces fierce reactions and renders up retrograde figures like Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn, Pat Buchanan and Donald Trump who are defined by their refusal to compromise with the modern settlement.  From their perspective it is absolutely true that our leaders are "essentially on the other side," though the reality is that they, along with some leaders from the other party, are in actuality on a third side, with Left and Right both having been rejected as inadequate. Typically, after purging the reactionary poison from their blood and getting destroyed in a few national elections these parties then reconcile themselves to the need to return to the Third Way and offer up a reformist nominee, often returning straight back power as the other party engages in its own self-destructive episode.

So much for where we've been and where we are, what does looking at the future through this lens suggest? 

In the first instance, the backwards characters like Sanders, Corbyn and Trump are not changing their parties.  They are not causes but effects and such pass quickly from the scene when their parties decide they'd prefer relevance to ideological purity.  The next successful leaders of Labour and the GOP will be more Third Way than David Cameron and Hillary Clinton (who gets a Third Way halo from Bill, regardless of her policies). And while a Hillary or a Cameron may produce a backlash within their own parties for awhile, they will eventually return to the middle path; just as Donald Trump will be succeeded by a Bush/Ryan type nominee.

Thus the politics, as to the policies, we are going to see ever freer trade; ever fewer immigration restrictions; more taxation on consumption and less on business, savings and income; fewer (more rationalized) regulations on business; more public school choice; and an increasing reliance on personalized investment accounts to fund the various strands of the social welfare net.

Note that the last--increased investment in the economy by every member of the polity--will serve as a driver of all the former.  Such is the subtle genius of the Third Way, that by giving every citizen an ownership (capital) stake in the economy it is effectively capitalism on steroids.

 BULWARKIANISM: Libertarianism and Libertinism? (Frank S. Meyer, 1969, National Review)

Hillary Forgets the Lessons of Bill's Presidency (Steve Chapman, August 28, 2016, RCP)

Partly because his administration was so successful, Democrats have won the popular vote in four of the five presidential elections since his 1996 re-election. The thriving economy of his era created nearly 23 million jobs, cut the unemployment rate below 4 percent, kept inflation low, rescued 6.3 million Americans from poverty and set a record for the longest peacetime expansion in U.S. history.

Clinton knew that a booming economy is the closest thing to a cure-all. He pursued it with a combination of fiscal discipline, free trade and a light regulatory hand. Jimmy Carter, a Democratic president synonymous with economic chaos, had proved the folly of federal interference in wages and prices. A big part of Clinton's wisdom lay in what he didn't do.

Posted by at September 10, 2016 8:11 AM