In which the blogger expresses a certain generosity toward conversatives
February 19, 2009 - 3:54pm ET
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Last night I debated Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review at Northwestern University on the proposition, "Resolved: The hour of conservatism has passed." It was a curious evening, right from the beginning—when, while meeting and greeting some of the undergrads, the topic of Jonah Goldberg, who'd visited the campus the previous month, came up.
I asked if any of them knew what Goldberg's mother's job had been in the Nixon administration. None knew that Lucianne Goldberg—later famous, of course, for persuading Linda Tripp to illegally tape her conversations with Monica Lewinsky—had been paid $1,000 a week from the Nixon White House to impersonate a reporter for the "Women's News Service" in order to spy on Democratic campaigns. ("They were looking for really dirty stuff," she has related. "Who was sleeping with who, what the Secret Service men were doing with the stewardesses, who was smoking pot on the plane—that sort of thing.")
So this I share with the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed members of the Northwestern Political Union, when one of the College Republican members pipes up: "I'd do that to help my party!"
It was yet one more confirmation of the point I made late in 2005: that the kind of chicanery we associate with Watergate is not incidental to conservative movement politics, but central to it, perhaps even foundational. "Nixon knew," I wrote, "that if you had a dirty job to get done, you got people who answered the description he made of E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy: 'good, healthy right-wing exuberants.'"
I referenced, especially, Tom Charles Huston, the former chairman of Young Americans for Freedom, who in his inaugural address in 1965 excoriated conservatives "who abuse the truth, who resort to violence and engage in slander," and "who seek victory at any price without regard for the broken lives...incurred by those who stand in the way."
Mr. Huston, of course, was the Nixon staffer who wrote up an action plan for the White House to spy on enemies and break into offices.
What does it mean that the member of Nixon's staff who was closest to the conservative movement, who was best-versed in its literature and its habits, was not merely the most ruthless malefactor on Richard Nixon's staff but the one most convinced he was acting on principle? I've never gotten a straight answer from a conservative about that.
I could have built my debate presentation last night around that very fact. I chose not too, however. You might say I was overly kind, or lost my nerve; either way, I figured the task of defending conservatism in 2009 was herculean enough, so I made a much softer argument, one I've resisted before (we're all feeling our way through this brave new Obama world). It was a version of this one in Sam Tanenhaus' "Conservatism is Dead" and this one by Tom Reiss in 2005. I argued that the things that make conservatives conservative are eternal verities in the human animal: the reasonable desire for stability, predictability, prudence, and a baseline moral consensus. I argued that conservatism's intellectual commitment to understand humans' limitations, and their scouring of the historical record for moments when the utopian urge to force a heaven on earth have brought us a sort of hell instead, were exceptionally valuable. I cited Russell Kirk's "six canons of conservative thought"—things like respect for tradition, an affection for the "variety and mystery" of human existence, a belief that property and freedom are closely linked, and a respect for the value of prudence—and said that, more or less, I personally concur with them.
Then I said that a movement that embraces Sara Palin as a leader, the movement of Newt Gingrich and Jerry Falwell and Phil Graham's crusades to destroy banking regulation, cannot protect them. In fact, I argued that the people we now call "liberals"—certainly a politics like Barack Obama's—does a better job. For instance, if you believe property and freedom are closely linked, and the moral hazard of severing work from reward, the worst example in our generation has been the outright theft of workers pensions specifically, and the dismantling of the defined-benefit pension system generally.
But you won't hear the people who call themselves "conservatives" ever talking about that.
Ultimately, I argued that conservatives these days seem more pathetic than dangerous. I cut them a break. I told the audience about the time I went on right-wing talk radio and the host started ranting about gay marriage. I told him I pitied him. Because 20 years from now, people like him will look like what racists like Lester Maddox look to us like now—pathetic relics, rolled over by the ineluctable tide of progress. I explained that I later realized, actually, that 20 years from now this particular host, and the vast, vast majority of conservatives won't have anything to worry about on that score, because they'll simply forget their former resistance and write it out of their own history altogether. That if, 20 years from now, we celebrate a Harvey Milk Day in addition to a Martin Luther King Day, we'll soon start seeing articles in the National Review about the how Milk, properly understood, is really a conservative, and why does the left insist on claiming him for themselves? And, probably, some future Republican president will nominate a Supreme Court justice married to someone of the same sex who merrily, happily shredded the New New Deal reforms of Barack Obama right alongside John Roberts and Sam Alito.
Because conservatives will always be with us. I admit it. They'll always be annoying, and always will be standing in the way of genuine reforms that can make the world a more stable, predictable, prudent, and moral place—the true goal of the kind of the kind of politics we pursue here at Campaign for America's Future. The point is just to keep them as far from the levers of power as possible.
So I lost the debate over whether the "hour of conservatism" had passed (the audience voted). Kind of my own fault. In classic liberal fashion, I couldn't even take my own side in an argument. But I don't mind. I'd rather throw a debate and win a $800 billion stimulus bill to reeducate the American people about what progressive government can do for them, than the other way around. The Age of Obama, I suppose, is rubbing off on me. Conservatives just don't scare me as much any more.
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