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“What’s Different About Today’s Conservatives?”: With The Elites Marginalized, The Extremist’s Are Much More Empowered

When people, usually liberals, compare today’s conservatives unfavorably to conservatives of previous generations, I often get annoyed. Viewing today’s conservatives through the misty water-covered memories of the past, observers today tend to focus on out-of-character liberal policies that some conservatives, because of political expediency, were forced to pursue (Nixon’s environmental record, for example, or Reagan’s negotiations with the Soviets). In short, they cherry-pick relatively rare examples of conservatives supporting liberal policies, and they forget that these took place in a political context where liberalism was much more powerful, while conservatism was far less so.

But I would argue that there is one important way in which today’s conservatives differ from conservatives of the past. It’s this: today’s conservative movement is much more genuinely populist, in the sense that it is much less dominated by elites. A good example of what I mean is illustrated by this essay by Michael Lind, which appeared this week in Lind recounts an important episode in the history of American conservatism: the story of how, in the 1950s, the wildly popular libertarian novelist Ayn Rand was basically read out of the conservative movement. The most famous smackdown occurred in 1957 in the pages of William F. Buckley’s National Review, when conservative icon Whittaker Chambers wrote a scathing review of Rand’s magnum opus. Lind describes the episode, but leaves out the most famous sentence in Chambers’ review, which is this: “From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: ‘To a gas chamber — go!’”

Following that review, Rand, although she presided over a fervent cult (literally — read this fascinating book for more), was marginalized within the conservative movement. And Rand wasn’t the only extremist Buckley and the National Review crowd kicked out. They also denounced the John Birch Society, anti-Semites, and eventually (by the 1970s, anyway), extremist racists*. This is not to say, of course, that Buckley and the National Review didn’t continue to support many noxious, far-right ideas and policies. In one infamous example, Buckley took to the pages of the New York Times to advocate tattooing AIDS victims “on the buttocks.” But for the most part he did kick out the radical fringe.

The main difference between the conservative movement then and now is that elites like Buckley have lost the ability to define the movement. Today, conservatism is less hierarchical, and more diffuse. It’s not that conservative elites don’t wield considerable power in the movement, of course. But within conservatism, there is no longer anyone of Buckley’s stature who has the power to define the boundaries of the respectable right, and to purge certain individuals or tendencies. The closest thing to a leader today’s conservative movement has is Rush Limbaugh, who delights in voicing extremist opinions and trafficking in the kind of inflammatory rhetoric that many voters find repellent.

As a result, extremists within conservatism are much more empowered. This has had mixed results for conservatives. On the one hand, the conservative base, because it is far less interested in currying favor with the political establishment, has had some success in pursuing a much more aggressively partisan agenda. Conservatives in the House and Senate are far more obstructionist than previously, and have not shied away from opposing strongly popular measures (like background checks for gun owners), or to taking widely unpopular actions (like impeaching Bill Clinton).

In other ways, though, the extremist populist base has hurt the party. Today, the Senate would probably be in Republican hands if the conservative base had not insisted in nominating extremist candidates like Todd Akin and Christine O’Donnell.

Eventually, as America continues to experience demographic changes that tend to favor Democrats, conservatives may come to regret the extent to which extremists have taken over their movement. Whatever short-term gains this strategy has won for conservatism, it will likely turn out to be harmful to the movement’s long-term interests. Tomorrow’s conservatives may wish they’d had a Buckley-type figure who had drawn a line in the sand between “respectable” conservatives and the fringe. But the way many of today’s aging conservatives see it is probably akin to that charming Wall Street acronym, IBGYBG: “I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone.”

*Note: in the 1950s and through much of the 1960s, the National Review was openly racist and pro-segregationist. Once civil rights won the day, the NR toned down the racism. It’s not that they were ever particularly supportive civil rights or racial equality, but they tended to use code words and dog whistles rather than explicit appeals to white supremacy.


By: Kathleen Geier, Washington Monthly Political Animal, August 10, 2013

August 11, 2013 Posted by | Conservatives | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Crazy Is as Crazy Does”: Congress Is Off To Suck Up To Its Lunatic Tea Party Constituents

Four years ago, Democratic representatives went home for the August recess and found themselves under assault from angry Tea Partiers, who took over town meetings with shouting and fist-shaking over the Affordable Care Act in particular, and more generally, the theft of their country by the foreign Muslim usurper Barack Obama. This August, however, it’s Republicans who are under attack by some of those same people.

At one town meeting after another, hard-right Republican House members are being confronted by constituents accusing them of not being quite doctrinaire and reckless enough (see here, or here, or here). Once again the immediate topic is Obamacare, but now the question isn’t whether the law should pass, but whether Republicans should shut down the government in a futile attempt to defund it. The members catching the most heat are those who argue that shutting down the government is useless, because Barack Obama is never going to sign a budget that defunds his greatest domestic accomplishment, so the only thing a shutdown would do is create more political headaches for the GOP.

This outbreak of relative pragmatism on the part of some Republican members of Congress is of course seen by Tea Partiers as little more than weak-kneed appeasement. It suggests that there’s a shift underway among the Republican base, from simply favoring the threatening of a government shutdown as a way to extract concessions, to supporting a shutdown of the government even with the knowledge that doing so will produce no concessions from Democrats.

As many a Republican politician will tell you (ask Marco Rubio, for one), convincing the Tea Party that you’re sufficiently conservative and that you hate Barack Obama enough isn’t just a full-time job, it’s a game that almost everyone will eventually lose. At some point you’ll take some position or express some opinion that is interpreted as less than maximal anti-Obamaism, and all it takes is one slip to be declared a traitor forevermore. So as crazy as Republican politicians sometimes seem, don’t forget that they’re under constant pressure from a base that is even crazier.


By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, August 8, 2013

August 11, 2013 Posted by | Congress, Tea Party | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Extreme, Divisive And Out Of Touch”: Why Seniors Are Turning Against The GOP

There’s something going on with seniors: It is now strikingly clear that they have turned sharply against the GOP. This is apparent in seniors’ party affiliation and vote intention, in their views on the Republican Party and its leaders, and in their surprising positions on jobs, health care, retirement security, investment economics, and the other big issues that will likely define the 2014 midterm elections.

We first noticed a shift among seniors early in the summer of 2011, as Paul Ryan’s plan to privatize Medicare became widely known (and despised) among those at or nearing retirement. Since then, the Republican Party has come to be defined by much more than its desire to dismantle Medicare. To voters from the center right to the far left, the GOP is now defined by resistance, intolerance, intransigence, and economics that would make even the Robber Barons blush. We have seen other voters pull back from the GOP, but among no group has this shift been as sharp as it is among senior citizens:

—In 2010, seniors voted for Republicans by a 21 point margin (38 percent to 59 percent). Among seniors likely to vote in 2014, the Republican candidate leads by just 5 points (41 percent to 46 percent.)

—When Republicans took control of the House of Representatives at the beginning of 2011, 43 percent of seniors gave the Republican Party a favorable rating.  Last month, just 28 percent of seniors rated the GOP favorably. This is not an equal-opportunity rejection of parties or government — over the same period, the Democratic Party’s favorable rating among seniors has increased 3 points, from 37 percent favorable to 40 percent favorable.

—When the Republican congress took office in early 2011, 45 percent of seniors approved of their job performance. That number has dropped to just 22 percent — with 71 percent disapproving.

—Seniors are now much less likely to identify with the Republican Party. On Election Day in 2010, the Republican Party enjoyed a net 10 point party identification advantage among seniors (29 percent identified as Democrats, 39 percent as Republicans). As of last month, Democrats now had a net 6 point advantage in party identification among seniors (39 percent to 33 percent).

—More than half (55 percent) of seniors say the Republican Party is too extreme, half (52 percent) say it is out of touch, and half (52 percent) say the GOP is dividing the country. Just 10 percent of seniors believe that the Republican Party does not put special interests ahead of ordinary voters.

—On almost every issue we tested — including gay rights, aid to the poor, immigration, and gun control — more than half of seniors believe that the Republican Party is too extreme.

What do seniors care about now?  Our Democracy Corps July National Survey found that:

—89 percent of seniors want to protect Medicare benefits and premiums.

—87 percent of seniors want to raise pay for working women.

—79 percent of seniors think we need to expand scholarships for working adults.

—77 percent of seniors want to expand access to high-quality and affordable childcare for working parents.

—74 percent of seniors want to cut subsidies to big oil companies, agribusinesses, and multinational corporations in order to invest in education, infrastructure, and technology.

—66 percent of seniors want to expand state health insurance exchanges under Obamacare.

All of these issues will be critical to the national debate as the 2014 election nears. The more seniors hear from Republicans on these and other issues, the more we can expect the GOP’s advantage among this important group to decline. And we can count on one thing in 2014: Seniors will vote.


By: Erica Seifert, The National Memo, August 7, 2013

August 11, 2013 Posted by | GOP, Seniors | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“No, Walmart Doesn’t Create Jobs”: Contrary To The Happy Talk, It Actually Kills Them

Because it’s a such a slow news day, and because the DC big box living wage bill is still in the news, I thought I’d write about the Walmart piece I published in earlier this week. First, an update on that living wage fight, which I’ve written about before on this site. The bill, which would require Walmart and other big box retailers to pay a minimum wage of $12.50 an hour, passed the DC City Council. It needs the signature of DC Mayor Vincent Gray to become law, but Gray hasn’t received it yet. There have been suggestions that he’s leaning toward a veto and that Council Chairman Phil Mendelson has delayed sending the bill to Gray’s desk because he’s working to shore up support for a veto-proof majority. Walmart has threatened to cancel plans to open new stores in DC if the bill is enacted.

One of the most compelling-seeming arguments that the pro-Walmart forces have been making is that DC should reject the bill and welcome Walmart into the community, because Walmart would create much-needed jobs. So I decided to look at what the research says about Walmart’s impact on employment. Guess what? Contrary to the happy talk, Walmart does not create jobs. Actually, it kills them.

Here’s why: first, at the local level, all Walmart does is put mom-and-pop stores out of business. The overwhelming body of evidence, including the most rigorous peer-reviewed studies, suggests that when Walmart enters a community, the result is a net loss of jobs; at best, it’s a wash. In fact, the biggest, best scholarly study about the impact of Walmart on local employment was done by an economist at University of California at Irvine named David Neumark, who is not exactly a wild-eyed liberal. He’s the kind of economist, actually, who writes anti-minimum wage op-eds for the Wall Street Journal.

The devastating impact Walmart has had on jobs becomes most clear when you go macro, and look at its impact not just locally, but on the national economy. In its relentless quest for low prices, Walmart strong-arms its suppliers to cut labor costs to the bone. What this has meant in practice is that many suppliers have been forced to lay off workers and ship jobs to low-wage countries overseas. Because of Walmart, countless jobs in the U.S. have been lost, mostly in manufacturing.

I’ve been thrilled by the response to my Salon piece — over 5,000 Facebook “likes,” and counting! Thus far, none of the prominent pro-Walmart voices have taken issue with it, because the facts I present are hard to dispute.

Back to the DC controversy: neoliberal pundits and politicians hate the DC living wage bill, because they don’t want to drive Walmart away. The politicians want the photo ops at Walmart openings, where they can boast about bringing “good jobs” — um, well, okay, “jobs,” anyway — into the community.

But when Walmart comes to town, significantly more local retail jobs are destroyed than created. And to the extent Walmart grows and is empowered, even more manufacturing jobs will be lost. If Walmart’s fans understood its anti-worker business model, they would get this. Walmart’s philosophy requires cutting labor costs to a bare minimum, so it makes sense that the company would not only pay workers miserable wages, but also shred as many jobs as possible.

Some of the pro-free market ideologues do grasp this. Here’s Forbes contributor Tim Worstall, for example, with a blog post helpfully entitled: “Of Course Walmart Destroys Retail Jobs: That’s the Darn Point of it All.”

I appreciate the honesty of Worstall and others of his ilk; they celebrate Walmart for its innovation and productivity-enhancing “creative destruction.” Fine. What I don’t appreciate is those pundits who then turn around and claim that Walmart is also going to magically create jobs out of thin air, as so many are doing in the current DC debate (see, for example such gold star hacks as Mona Charen, Star Parker and, inevitably, Fox News).

Let’s be clear: the brave new economic world so many conservatives and neoliberals celebrate necessitates massive job loss. In theory, the gains from productivity brought about by Walmart’s ability to produce more output with less labor inputs are supposed to benefit everyone. But in practice, they’re going almost entirely to the the top, and the economic hit is being taken by those at the bottom. Progressives need to do all they can to change this dynamic. Supporting living wage bills like the one in DC would be a great place to start.


By: Kathleen Geier, Washington Monthly Political Animal, August 10, 2013

August 11, 2013 Posted by | Jobs | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Richard Nixon Runs The Republican Party, Again”: A Contempt For The Regular Norms And Institutions Of Politics

The current Republican Party isn’t the party of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. It isn’t a conservative party. It’s the party, instead, of Nixon and Gingrich. And that’s why it’s a dysfunctional mess, and a problem for the nation.

I said something to that effect the other day, and a commenter got all upset about it:

The party of Nixon? The guy who created and implemented the EPA? The guy who normalized the US international relationship with China? The guy who intervened in escalating fuel markets to fix prices, in order to protect consumers?

They are so far away from Nixon’s policies and governance.

I’ve seen this reaction before, and because it’s such an important point it’s worth spelling it out. It’s not about ideology. It’s not about specific policies. A healthy party, one that is able to cut deals and work with others, can be healthy even if their policies are far from the mainstream.

We can get at this a couple of ways. One is that everyone should be very careful about what “Nixon” did, as opposed to what the government did while he was president. Give Nixon the Congress and the policy environment of 1947 — or 1997 — and you get very different results.

But I suppose more to the point is that there’s just no way to read the contemporary Republican Party as some sort of principled ideological party. It just isn’t.

Think, on the one hand, how easily they took to George W. Bush’s support of an intrusive federal government program on education, or to Bush’s support of a major Medicare expansion.

Or think about their convoluted path on healthcare reform over the last 20 years – how an outline originally concocted by Republicans as a reaction to Bill Clinton’s initiative, and eventually implemented in one state by a Republican governor and a Democratic legislature, became (once adopted by Democrats) the essence of tyranny.

And don’t even get started on Republicans and the federal budget deficit.

That’s not a principled conservative party.

As no one knows better than real hardcore ideologues, the ones who know well that George W. Bush and the Republican Congresses he served with were never “real” conservatives. They’re right about that! Even though most of those saying that now are wannabes who never dissented during those years.

Unlike those ideologues, I’m not complaining about pragmatism; I think ideological parties are a terrible idea in a democracy. But while they aren’t the ideal conservative party that some want, they’re certainly not a healthy (conservative) pragmatic party, either.

That’s where Nixon and Newt come in.

Both of these very successful (pre-disgrace, anyway) Republicans became national figures as conservatives. Neither, however, was a principled conservative. Nixon was covered above; Gingrich was a Rockefeller Republican when he first ran for Congress, and both of them shifted back and forth as they saw opportunities to exploit.

But that kind of opportunism isn’t what make Newt and Nixon stand out. No, what they have bequeathed to Republicans is a contempt for the regular norms and institutions of the American political system, along with a Leninist belief that contradictions must always be heightened. Nixon broke laws, to be sure, but other presidents have broken laws. What made Nixon different – what made everyone, including his own party, so eager to be rid of him – was that he refused to accept that others within the system, whether in Congress or the press or the bureaucracy, were as legitimate as the president. What made Gingrich different is his consistent strategy of tearing down institutions (the House, and then the presidency) in order to save them. For both, politics was never about the normal promotion of interests and reconciliation of differences, but instead, very simply, about destroying their opponents.

Because they are the party of Newt and Nixon, the principles that today’s GOP worships aren’t market economics or personal liberty; look instead at a “principle” such as a refusal to compromise.

Or brinkmanship as a principle. The quintessential GOP stance, in a lot of ways, is the current insistence by many in the party that they must shut down the government to prove they are serious about the Affordable Care Act. What makes it such a great example — so much a Newt-inspired example — is that they’ve been flailing around all year trying to figure out what to ask for when they blackmailed the nation over the debt limit and funding the government. And that half or more of the party is insisting on it even as experienced legislators and analysts tell them that it can’t possible work. Because as I said back in the spring, the faction that wants the shutdown isn’t really sure about what it wants to demand; it’s only certain that it wants to take hostages. Extortion for the sake of extortion. As principle.

It’s of a piece with the series of almost-shutdowns we’ve endured (all of them echoing the Gingrich train wreck of 1995-1996). With the debt limit showdown of 2011. With the explosion of the filibuster far beyond previous use in the Senate. With a series of “constitutional hardball” examples over the years. With the choice to attempt to undermine the ACA rather than fix or improve what they could, with the goal – the goal! – of causing as much policy failure as possible.

A party only does those things if its leaders and many of its members have taken as a principle Nixon’s standard operating procedure of treating the rest of the United States government beyond the White House as illegitimate; a party only does those things if it no longer accepts the basic constitutional constraints that most politicians, no matter what their views on public policy, have by and large accepted. And a party only does this if it believes, as Newt Gingrich did, that the best way to gain control of institutions is to first destroy them.

That’s the Republican Party we have. Not every single member of it, of course, but it’s a strong enough influence that it’s what really matters. And while I have no brilliant suggestions for how to do it, I do believe that the most urgent task facing the political system right now is to figure out some way for Republicans to shake off the influence of Newt and Nixon.


By: Jonathan Bernstein, Salon, August 10, 2013

August 11, 2013 Posted by | GOP, Politics | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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