Less action, more talk

American conservatism is as much about rhetoric as it is about policy, says Sam Tanenhaus. Few conservative leaders are as revered as Ronald Reagan, but his supporters often forget that he made government bigger rather than smaller. They forgive him because he believed what they believe.

In the New Republic Tanenhaus is interviewed about William F Buckley. With the creation of the National Review in the 1950s, Buckley founded the movement behind Reagan’s successful campaign for the presidency. It was a movement where talk mattered as much as action. When Reagan was Governor of California, critics attacked him for raising taxes and increasing spending. Buckley came to his defence:

They say that his accomplishments are few, that it is only the rhetoric that is conservative. But the rhetoric is the principal thing. It precedes all action. All thoughtful action. Reagan’s rhetoric is that of someone who is profoundly committed, mutatis mutandis, to the ancient ways. His perspectives are essentially undoubting.

According to Tanenhaus:

… to be a kind of card-carrying, acceptable, ideological conservatism is often just about certain things you say, certain cultural values, religious values, political values. This is why Reagan was able to oppose a lot of what we now think of as the ideological agenda of the right, and hardly ever be criticized for it, even from the activists, or what Garry Wills calls the hard workers, the ones who actually get win primaries and get people elected and drive the agenda of the party. So as long as someone talks the talk they really don’t have to walk the walk so much, and they can constantly make the sorts of real-world adjustments that any real-world political figure does.

The conservative movement’s role is to promote ideas and values while the Republican Party’s role is to put those ideas into action. Holding onto power necessarily involves compromise. That’s why conservatives like Buckley are willing to cut a Republican leader some slack if they remain ideologically committed.

Reagan had a problem with policy. Defence spending ballooned, government failed to contract, and the deficit grew. But for conservatives, George W Bush’s problem is more fundamental. As Buckley said in an interview with CBS:

I think Mr. Bush faces a singular problem best defined, I think, as the absence of effective conservative ideology — with the result that he ended up being very extravagant in domestic spending, extremely tolerant of excesses by Congress.

If action depends on thought then Bush is in serious trouble. The 1970s saw the rise of the neoconservatives — a rival to the National Review’s small-government, anti-New Deal style of conservatism. Loosely organised around journals like the Public Interest and Commentary the neoconservatives challenged the old conservative movement’s hold on the Republican Party. Neoconservatives like Irving Kristol argued that National Review conservatism was stuck in the mindset of the 30s and 40s — obsessed with rolling back the New Deal and fixated on the wonders of the free market. Buckley’s movement was responsible for foisting Barry Goldwater on the party and the debacle that followed.

From Buckley’s perspective, the neoconservatives have ruined the Republican Party. Not only has the Bush administration mired the country in an unwinnable foreign war, but the president has aligned the party with an absurd form of big-government conservatism. If the Republicans lose the Whitehouse, the party’s biggest problem will be reconstructing a conservative ideology.

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cam
cam
14 years ago

absence of effective conservative ideology

I don’t agree with that. I am with Gary Sauer-Thompson that Carl Schmitt’s style of conservatism best describes the Bush Administration’s politics. It has also been effective in a democratic environment, getting them elected twice and for a period dominating all three branches of government. Arguably, without Iraq, that would still be the case.

I think Buckley needs to be aware that Schmitt style conservatism does not lead to what liberals call good governance as it is predicated on exception and unitary authority. Which is scaring many American conservatives, John Dean being an example that comes to mind, such that they are calling Bush/Schmitt conservatism a form of ‘authoritarianism’.

I don’t think that style is sustainable, I also do not believe the Bush Administration has provided good governance, and Schmitt/Bush conservatism offends my Auian form of republicanism; but it has been successful politically and it is grounded in an conservative ideology.

Nicholas Gruen
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Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
14 years ago

Profoundly committed, mutatis mutandis

I like that.

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
14 years ago

this post (which I think is great) reminds me of Machiavelli’s pronouncement that a leader must above all seem a true believe in the dominant moral code of the day, whilst completely disregarding it in practise. Machiavelli’s argument was that most people were too dumb to note actions and just followed appearances and hence had to be fooled for their own sake. Its fascinating to see above how Tanenhaus 500 years later says almost the same thing. Its a terrible indictment of the intelligence of the public if they are both right. And it puts the few who do see the actions in an unenviable position.

Nicholas Gruen
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Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
14 years ago

Also reminds me of a comment made by some ALP thinker after the demise of the Whitlam Govt. We had a government that was quite conservative with a reputation for being radical. What we want next time is the converse.

Don Arthur
Don Arthur
14 years ago

Cam – John Dean is certainly unhappy with the Bush administration. Identifying himself as a ‘Goldwater conservative’ he complains that:

Today’s Republican policies are antithetical to bedrock conservative fundamentals. There is nothing conservative about preemptive wars or disregarding international law by condoning torture. Abandoning fiscal responsibility is now standard operating procedure. Bible-thumping, finger-pointing, tongue-lashing attacks on homosexuals are not found in Russell Krik’s [sic] classic conservative canons, nor in James Burham’s guides to conservative governing. Conservatives in the tradition of former senator Barry Goldwater and President Ronald Reagan believed in "conserving" this planet, not relaxing environmental laws to make life easier for big business. And neither man would have considered employing Christian evangelical criteria in federal programs, ranging from restricting stem cell research to fighting AIDs through abstinence.

But as Jonah Goldberg says, Dean is so incensed at Bush that he’s losing touch with reality. For example, I don’t remember Ronald Reagan being particularly green. And wasn’t he the president who said “trees cause more pollution than automobiles do”?

Have you got a link to Gary Sauer-Thompson’s argument about Carl Schmitt? Personally I’m getting worried about the way Australian leftists are using Strauss and Schmitt to attack liberalism. If liberalism really was the end of history I wouldn’t worry so much — but in reality it’s a fragile arrangement. It’s bad enough having neo-cons agitating against liberal democracy without having to deal with leftists as well.

Paul – The idea that most people are "too dumb to note actions and just followed appearances" ties in well to the current Australian debate over character. Rather than think about what a Labor or Coalition government might actually do if they won office, the debate focuses on the individual character of the leader. It’s as if the campaigners think that the key to victory is convincing the electorate that the opposing leader is a liar.

How much of Arnold Schwarzenegger‘s or Ronald Reagan’s political decision making could you have predicted by examining their characters? The politics of character leads to bizarre campaigns based on myths about the leader’s personal history. Log cabins, PT boats, dairy farms etc.

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
14 years ago

Don,
:-) did you know that Arnold Schwarzenegger had an economics degree from the University of Wisconsin? We use him in our advertising to 1st year students….

Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
14 years ago

Funny how the culture of the American Right sounds rather like that of the Australian Left.

David Rubie
David Rubie
14 years ago

Andrew Norton said:

Funny how the culture of the American Right sounds rather like that of the Australian Left.

Bollocks. Tony Abbott trying to draw comparisons between Kevin Rudds childhood and a “log cabin to the whitehouse”, in a national newspaper article, says that the Liberals are still importing every play from the US Republicans, although they are now doing it word for word rather than doing what good students should and regurgitating the information in their own words.

They really all need to go to the naughty corner, naughty boys!

cam
cam
14 years ago

Don, Goldwater conservative

The Goldwater Conservatives were essentially go-slow liberalist republicans. IIRC Goldwater said something to the effect that in the future his conservatism will be known as liberals. Dean’s recent book, which I have read, is very rational and builds fact upon fact. I got bored with it as I stay up to date with the news, so the authoritarian transgressions of the Bush Administration were nothing new to me. Goldberg’s claim is disingenuous IMO and he is playing the man rather than the ball.

Gary has been discussing Schmitt off and on for a while and comparing it to US and Au conservatism. Since the collapse of marxism, conservatism has become the competing political doctrine with liberalism. Unfortunately, conservatism has no internal logic, so Schmitt style friend-foe and state of exception governance have become its hallmark. To add to conservatism’s woes, this is the same method Chavez is governing in Venezuela.

Arendt argued that once exception governance becomes the norm, then camps appear. Australia has produced Nauru/PNG/Xmas-Island, America Guantanamo Bay, don’t know of a Venezuelan camp yet but Chavez is only new into his reign of executive force and non-force. Either way, the governing principles of Bush Conservatism are indistinguishable from Chavez Socialism outside of economic management and even in that area there is pretty of criticism for Bush.

If this style of governance becomes the norm world-wide we are going to have to shed the left-right descriptors as they are inaccurate in describing the tension between liberalism and conservatism.

Rafe
Rafe
14 years ago

Put your money on Mises and classical liberalism as the sleeping giants of the 20th century. http://catallaxyfiles.com/?p=2460

His take on liberalism has a coherence and problem-solving capacity that is lacking in left liberalism and the various forms of conservatism that have been put up as alternatives. But for some reaon that kind of liberalism went missing for most of the 20th century.

Don’t try to find your way into Mises by way of Human Action which is all over the place for the first 100 pages or more. Check out his book on liberalism which is only 200 pages and available on line.
http://www.mises.org/liberal.asp