About 20 years ago, when the syndicate that represents this column was preparing to pitch it to newspaper editors, I was called in for a meeting with the sales staff and somebody asked me this question:
“Are you liberal or are you conservative?”
I said, “Yes.”
I wasn’t trying to be a wiseguy. OK, maybe a little. But I was also trying to convey my impatience with our bipolar political discourse, with the idea that I was required to pick a team. I was trying to preserve for myself the right to think a thing through and come to my own conclusion regardless of ideological branding.
But at the same time, I knew what I was being asked. When they said, “Are you liberal or are you conservative?” those words had concrete meaning, embodied real political concepts.
But that is no longer the case — at least where the latter term is concerned.
Once upon a time, when a person identified as conservative, you knew the ideas he or she meant to convey — low taxes, small government, resistance to social change. But a word that once encoded a definite set of values and beliefs now seems utterly bereft of internal cohesion, less a name for an ideology than for a mood: surly, nasty and put-upon.
They don’t like the rest of us. Nor do they seem to like each other all that much, feuding with a bitterness and constancy that would make even the Hatfields and McCoys tell them to tone it down. Yes, ideology still gets lip service, but its importance has become secondary, if that.
How else to explain that people who once considered Christian faith their foundation stone have coalesced behind a candidate who can’t name a Bible verse? Or that people who once valued a grown-up, clear-eyed approach to foreign policy support candidates who want to “carpet bomb” the Middle East and pull out of NATO? Or that people who once decried “a culture of victimization” now whine all day about how they are victims of biased media, bullying gays and political correctness?
How to explain that people who once vowed to safeguard American moral decency from the nefarious irreverence of liberals — think President Bush chastising “The Simpsons” in the era of “family values” — now put forth candidates who tell penis jokes?
A few days ago New York Times, columnist David Brooks professed to be excited by this act of self-immolation — “This is a wonderful moment to be a conservative,” he gushed — because after this debacle, conservatives will be able to reinvent themselves, unencumbered by “existing mental categories and presuppositions.” Like when a comic book or movie franchise gets re-booted, I suppose. One had the sense of a man desperately painting lipstick on a pig.
The right is rotting from within, putrefying on its own grievance and rage. It seems bereft of core values and beliefs unless you count its determination to always oppose anything the left supports, up to and including motherhood and sunshine. That’s as close to principle as conservatives come these days.
Given the way they have spurned their party’s 2012 election “autopsy” report, which called for greater inclusion and a gentler tone, one wonders if these folks are capable of, or even interested in, the reinvention Brooks predicts. Conservatives do not need to be “liberal-lite” — no ideology has a monopoly on good ideas. On the other hand, when your base is the Ku Klux Klan, Ted Nugent and people sucker-punching strangers at rallies, it’s a sign that a little self-reflection is overdue.
“Are you liberal or are you conservative?”
I had a smart aleck answer 20 years ago. But it occurs to me that if they asked that now, I’d have to request clarification. My worldview hasn’t changed.
But I no longer have any idea what “conservative” means.
By: Leonard Pitts, Jr., Columnist for The Miami Herald; The National Memo, March 3, 2016
“GOP Is More Ayn Rand Than Strom Thurmond”: Donald Trump Is Bad, But Karl Rove And David Brooks Are Worse
Few serious observers of American politics would dare to suggest that Donald Trump’s emergence as the Republican frontrunner is having a salubrious effect on America. The violent racial tensions at his rallies are enough to make many of us fear for the health and safety of our fellow citizens, and the prospect of his potential victory in a general election make us fear for the future of our democracy. His policy proposals range from vague (tax cuts that pay for themselves!) to impossible (make Mexico pay for a border wall!) to monstrous (waterboarding is for girly men too weak for real torture!)
Even despite all this, however, we can still thank Donald Trump and his supporters for doing the country a service. There is little Trump or his backers could do that would outweigh the blessing they are providing by disempowering and humiliating the traditional Republican establishment. No matter how uncomfortable Trump’s crowds may make us, they pale in comparison to the disgust we should feel at the politics of Karl Rove and David Brooks.
It’s not just that Rove, Ailes, Krauthammer, Podheretz and even ultimately Buckley himself laid the economic, social and media foundations for Trump’s racist nationalism. It’s that unless carried to its farthest extreme, racist nationalism isn’t as damaging as corporatist objectivism.
Bigotry is ugly and it can be deadly. But it is also ultimately a sin of ignorance. Prejudice has existed in many forms, it will continue to exist in the future, and there are no doubt many assumptions we take for granted as normal today that will be seen as forms of prejudice by future generations. As the human race becomes more educated, as cultures collide and the world shrinks, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain institutionalized discrimination. Progress on this front is slow, but it is also mostly constant. When we say that the moral arc of the universe is long but bends toward justice, we generally understand this to mean in terms of social justice rather than economic justice.
But while modern conservatism depends politically on the prejudices of large swaths of the public, its controlling donors and legislators enforce an agenda of ruthless objectivist philosophy. When one looks at the laws it actually passes, the Republican Party is in truth far more Ayn Rand than Strom Thurmond. Its prejudiced public policies are less for their own sake than in the service of ensuring that the super-rich take an even greater share of the wealth. Its policies toward the poor are less a function of institutional racism than of an ideological sickness that assumes the poor simply lack adequate threats of desperation and starvation to work harder to survive. It is a form of economic royalism and just world fallacy that explains the injustices of the world by asserting that they are not injustices at all, but rather that the strong dominate the weak by virtue and right.
Unlike simple prejudice, that worldview isn’t a sin of ignorance. It’s a sin of moral corruption. Given the choice between Strom Thurmond and Ayn Rand, Rand is by far the greater evil. By extension, Donald Trump is a lesser evil than Karl Rove and the kinder, gentler faces of corporate conservatism like David Brooks.
The supposedly respectable conservatives of the National Review and the Washington Post editorial pages see themselves as of a nobler and purer disposition than those they dismiss as the mouth-breathing yokels who back Trump. But it’s actually the reverse. Trump’s supporters are more interested in the advancement of their own tribe than in the promotion of an ideology of pure greed. Neither are laudable, but the former is at least morally understandable within the context of fearful ignorance. The latter is a deep seated character flaw. It’s no surprise that in more morally advanced social democracies, the conservative parties tend to be more nationalist than overtly objectivist.
In the end, the victory of the nationalists over the corporatists in the GOP will likely be beneficial to our character as a nation.
By: David Atkins, Political Animal Blog, The Washington Monthly, March 13, 2016
“Let’s Talk About What Makes Governing Harder”: The Problem Is One Political Party Catering To An Ever Decreasing Group Of Voters
By now almost everyone has weighed in on the article in the NYT by Jonathan Martin and Maggie Haberman about Hillary Clinton’s strategy for winning the 2016 presidential election. Chuck Todd and his friends at First Read adopted the conventional wisdom of the Washington D.C. pundit class with their response titled: This is the Way to Win Elections (But it Makes Governing Harder).
Campaigns see an America more polarized than ever, and winning is all about coming out ahead in this polarized world. But it makes governing harder than it already was. Bottom line: Campaigns don’t engage in persuasion anymore. They simply look for unmotivated like-minded potential voters and find an issue to motivate them. And if someone wins office by not having to persuade a voter who actually swings between the two parties, there isn’t any motivation for said elected official to compromise.
Of course Ron Fournier joined that chorus immediately with his entry titled: The Right Way and Wrong Way to Win the Presidency.
My problem with this approach is that it works only until Election Day, when a polarizing, opportunistic candidate assumes the presidency with no standing to convert campaign promises into results.
Naturally, David Brooks agrees.
…this base mobilization strategy is a legislative disaster. If the next president hopes to pass any actual laws, he or she will have to create a bipartisan governing majority. That means building a center-out coalition, winning 60 reliable supporters in the Senate and some sort of majority in the House. If Clinton runs on an orthodox left-leaning, paint-by-numbers strategy, she’ll never be able to do this. She’ll live in the White House again, but she won’t be able to do much once she lives there.
This is a classic case of the media’s addiction to “both sides do it” as a way of explaining gridlock in Washington. It is a lie they tell themselves (and us) about what is going on in order to claim a false sense of balance in reporting to appease conservatives who constantly decry the “liberal media.” The fact that it is a lie matters less than their desire to prove that claim wrong.
So let’s take a moment to deal with the facts. As I pointed out before, the positions Hillary Clinton has articulated enjoy broad support among voters – including independents. In reacting to the same article, Steve M. dug up some of the actual numbers.
Americans support gay marriage by a 60%-37% margin, and 58% want the Supreme Court to legalize gay marriage nationwide — and Hillary’s is a “liberal position”? There’s 72% support for legalization of undocumented immigrants — and her position on immigration is too left-wing? And when I Google “bipartisan support for criminal justice reform,” one of the first hits is a post with precisely that title from, um, FreedomWorks — but Clinton’s out of the mainstream? Oh, please.
So if Clinton is talking about issues that enjoy 60-70% support from Americans, where is the polarization coming from? What stops elected officials from compromising to address their concerns? Do you suppose it has anything to do with a Republican Speaker of the House who finds it hard to even utter the word “compromise?”
Let’s take a close look at just one example to make the point: immigration reform. Typically Democrats have prioritized a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented people in this country while Republicans have prioritized border security. Not that long ago, a bi-partisan group of Senators got together to compromise by drafting a bill that included both priorities. With Democrats still in control of the Senate, it passed there. But Speaker Boehner refused to bring it up for a vote in the House. Part of Hillary Clinton’s agenda in her campaign is to support the Senate’s bi-partisan approach to immigration reform.
So let’s be clear about what makes governing harder: the problem is that we have one political party that is catering to an ever-decreasing group of voters that completely rejects any form of compromise to their agenda. When/if folks like Chuck Todd, Ron Fournier and David Brooks figure that one out – they will finally be able to start telling the American people the truth.
By: Nancy LeTournau, Political Animal Blog, The Washington Monthly, June 9, 2015
The New York Times‘ two conservative opinion columnists — David Brooks and Ross Douthat — aren’t always in sync. But they certainly agree about the problems afflicting poor and working-class Americans.
Each has written a column in the past week commenting on Robert Putnam’s new book (Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis) about the growing quality-of-life gap between college-educated and high-school educated Americans. Brooks does a nice job of summarizing some of Putnam’s more alarming statistics:
Roughly 10 percent of the children born to college grads grow up in single-parent households. Nearly 70 percent of children born to high school grads do. … High-school-educated parents dine with their children less than college-educated parents, read to them less, talk to them less, take them to church less, encourage them less and spend less time engaging in developmental activity. [The New York Times]
These and related trends are indeed troubling, and it’s good that Brooks and Douthat are highlighting them, are troubled by them, and want Republican politicians to address them. If GOP candidates for high office spent half as much time focusing on such problems as they do promoting tax cuts for the rich, we’d all be better off.
Yet Republican lawmakers don’t slight those issues simply because they’d rather ingratiate themselves to wealthy donors. They also skirt them because the way that conservative policy intellectuals think about class convinces candidates for high office that there’s nothing that can be done politically to address the problem.
As far as Brooks and Douthat are concerned, the primary driver of bad outcomes among the poor and working class is culture, not economics. Yes, life is economically harder for people lacking college degrees than for those who have them, but life was hard — and in many cases much harder — for everyone, and certainly for the poor, in the past. And yet families formed and stayed together at much higher rates than they do today. Here is Douthat’s pithy statement of the conservative view: “In a substantially poorer American past with a much thinner safety net, lower-income Americans found a way to cultivate monogamy, fidelity, sobriety, and thrift to an extent that they have not in our richer, higher-spending present.”
When liberals read claims like this, they freak out. That’s in part because they believe that economics is a much more important variable than culture in explaining the social pathologies of the lower classes.
I’m inclined to give the conservatives the benefit of the doubt on this. Culture does matter. The poor and even middle classes did struggle much more in the past, in purely economic terms, than they do today. And yet they did form families and keep them together at much higher rates.
But what policies follow from this? That’s where I fear Brooks and Douthat go off the rails.
Brooks is a little more strident about it, and Douthat a bit more circumspect, but their advice is roughly the same: We need to combat the libertarian drift of American culture since the 1960s by taking a stand against “relativism,” “nonjudgmentalism,” and “permissiveness.” That’s because, while the upper classes may be doing fine in the easy-going, live-and-let-live culture bequeathed to us by the counterculture and sexual revolution, the lower classes clearly aren’t. What they need is more public shaming and scolding of irresponsible behavior.
What would this look like, practically speaking? This is the sum total of what Brooks recommends: “Reintroducing norms” has three steps. First, an unnamed someone — a newspaper columnist, perhaps? — needs to revive a “moral vocabulary.” Then we need to practice “holding people responsible.” (How we aren’t told.) Finally, because elites aren’t exactly beacons of virtue these days either, we need to hold “everyone responsible.”
Douthat’s proposals, contained in a single sentence, focus exclusively on the moral failings of the upper class “for failing to take moral responsibility (in the schools it runs, the mass entertainments it produces, the social agenda it favors) for the effects of permissiveness on the less-savvy, the less protected, the kids who don’t have helicopter parents turning off the television or firewalling the porn.”
All of this might add up to a plausible strategy for changing pathological behavior if it were wedded to concrete policies or a practical plan of action. But as it is, it’s just a micro-sermon vaguely advocating a bit of paternalism with a dash of noblesse oblige.
(I realize that Douthat has championed specific family-friendly policies in the past, but I don’t see how tweaking the child tax credit would meaningfully effect the kind of complex social pathologies he highlights in his recent column. A few extra dollars a month isn’t going to make it possible for a single mom to become a helicopter parent, let alone make it likely that a media executive will produce more wholesome entertainment.)
Back in the 1970s, founding neoconservative Irving Kristol proposed a more aggressive and explicitly political response to the post-’60s rise in permissiveness: government censorship of pornography and other forms of vulgarity. Nothing like this got enacted, of course, and it would be even less likely to catch on today. (A government-run firewall against porn, anyone?) But at least it was a policy proposal that, if it became law, might have contributed in a modest way to a change in mores.
By contrast, what Brooks and Douthat are advocating is guaranteed to have no such effect, because it can’t even be described as a policy proposal. That makes their writing on the subject an outgrowth of the libertarian drift of American culture rather than a strategy for combating it.
Brooks and Douthat know where they are and where they want to go, but they have no politically actionable ideas for how to get from A to B.
What do the conservative scolds want? The impossible.
By: Damon Linker, The Week, March 17, 2015
“Covert Religious Supremacist Agendas”: The $1-Billion-A-Year Right-Wing Conspiracy You Haven’t Heard Of
Have you heard of the $1,750-per-person “Gathering,” which starts Thursday in Orlando, Florida?
Probably not. But if you’re female, gay, non-Christian, or otherwise interested in the separation of church and state, your life has been affected by it.
The Gathering is a conference of hard-right Christian organizations and, perhaps more important, funders. Most of them are not household names, at least if your household isn’t evangelical. But that’s the point: The Gathering is a hub of Christian Right organizing, and the people in attendance have led the campaigns to privatize public schools, redefine “religious liberty” (as in the Hobby Lobby case), fight same-sex marriage, fight evolution, and, well, you know the rest. They’re probably behind that, too.
Featured speakers have included many of the usual suspects: Alliance Defending Freedom President and CEO Alan Sears (2013), Focus on the Family President Jim Daly (2011), and Family Research Council head Tony Perkins (2006). This year, however, they are joined by David Brooks of The New York Times and Michael Gerson of The Washington Post. What’s going on? Has The Gathering gone mainstream?
Hardly, says Bruce Wilson, director of the advocacy group Truth Wins Out’s Center Against Religious Extremism and a leading researcher on The Gathering. The selection of this year’s speakers, he says, is just the latest in a long line of misdirections and canards.
To be sure, untangling webs of funders, organizations, and campaigns can often feel like conspiracy-mongering. Your brain begins to resemble one of those bulletin boards from A Beautiful Mind or Se7en, full of paranoid-seeming Post-Its and strings. Wilson has been untangling these webs for years, and sometimes it shows. His many publications and his emails to me are long-winded, occasionally exaggerated, and sometimes hard to follow.
But often he’s dead on. And beneath the hyperbole, The Gathering is as close to a “vast right-wing conspiracy” as you’re likely to find. So with this year’s conference about to get under way, Wilson gave The Daily Beast an exclusive interview over email—heavily redacted here—about this shadowy, powerful network of hard-right funders.
Let’s start with the basics. What is The Gathering?
The Gathering is an annual event at which many of the wealthiest conservative to hard-right evangelical philanthropists in America—representatives of the families DeVos, Coors, Prince, Green, Maclellan, Ahmanson, Friess, plus top leaders of the National Christian Foundation—meet with evangelical innovators with fresh ideas on how to evangelize the globe. The Gathering promotes “family values” agenda: opposition to gay rights and reproductive rights, for example, and also a global vision that involves the eventual eradication of all competing belief systems that might compete with The Gathering’s hard-right version of Christianity. Last year, for example, The Gathering 2013 brought together key funders, litigants, and plaintiffs of the Hobby Lobby case, including three generations of the Green family.
The Gathering was conceived in 1985 by a small band of friends at the Arlington, Virginia, retreat center known as The Cedars, which is run by the evangelical network that hosts the annual National Prayer Breakfast. This stealthy network is known as The Family or The Fellowship. Jeff Sharlet’s book The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power described it in great detail.
How much money are we talking about here?
The evangelical right financial dynasties and foundations that meet each year at The Gathering dispense upwards of $1 billion a year in grants. But even that is overshadowed by the bigger sums that The Family and The Gathering have managed to route from the federal and state government to fund their movement via the Faith-Based Initiative program, USAID, PEPFAR and other multibillion-dollar programs.
You mentioned the National Christian Foundation. I bet most of our readers haven’t heard of that, either. Can you tell us a bit about it?
The NCF was created, back in 1982 or so, to maximize hard right-wing evangelical Christian philanthropic giving. It was so novel and complex, the architects got a special ruling from the IRS, to make sure it was legal. The NCF has multiple overlapping legal entities and holding companies, but at the core is a huge donor-advised fund. The NCF is now the 12th biggest charitable foundation in America that raises money from private sources.
Since its founding, the NCF has given away over $4.3 billion, $2.5 billion of it in the last three years. The NCF gave away $601,841,675 in 2012—and is estimated to have given out $670 million in 2013.
One reason the NCF, a donor-advised fund, has been so successful is that it ensures anonymity for its philanthropists. Many of these individuals may fear a backlash, given the controversial causes that they support.
But we do know about the NCF’s leadership. Two of the NCF co-founders were tied to Campus Crusade for Christ, and the late Larry Burkett, a NCF co-founder, was also one of the co-founders of the Alliance Defense Fund/Alliance Defending Freedom, now the religious right’s preeminent umbrella legal defense fund. NCF’s other co-founder, Atlanta tax lawyer Terrence Parker, sits on the board of directors of the Family Research Council, and also The Gathering Foundation, which puts on The Gathering.
From 2001-12, the NCF gave $163,384,998 to leading anti-LGBT organizations. These include Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council, the American Family Association, the Alliance Defending Freedom (formerly Alliance Defense Fund), Campus Crusade for Christ (aka CRU), the National Organization for Marriage, and the Alliance for Marriage. They fund ex-gay ministries like Exodus International, exporters of homophobia like Advocates International, you name it.
The NCF is just getting started, though. The Green family—who were at The Gathering in 2008 and 2013—have said they intend to leave much of their fortune to it. And in 2009, Hobby Lobby-related contributions were the No. 1 source of NCF funding (about $54 million), which we know because Eli Clifton, funded by The Nation Institute, somehow got hold of an NCF 2009 990 Schedule B form, which shows NCF’s top funders that year (Hobby Lobby was No. 1, Maclellan Foundation No. 2).
On another note, Chick-fil-A’s VP and CFO, James “Buck” McCabe, is on the board of the NCF, and in 1999 no less than three of Chick-fil-A’s top leaders spoke at The Gathering (S. Truett Cathy, Dan Cathy, and Don “Bubba” Cathy).
Having worked in philanthropy myself, I can say that these figures are astounding. The leading private funder of LGBT issues gives out about $16 million a year. Which other funders will be there?
Other major players include the John Templeton Foundation ($104,863,836 in 2012 grants), the Barnaby Foundation ($39,939,489), the Christian Community Foundation (an NCF “spinoff”), and the family foundations of the DeVos families (including Rich DeVos, one of the original funders of the Christian Right), Howard & Roberta Ahmanson (operating as Fieldstead & Company—and among the most notorious right-wing funders in America), Adolph Coors, and many others.
Interestingly, some more secular right-wing funders—Scaife, Olin, Bradley—are not known to attend The Gathering.
And yet The Gathering also has some mainstream figures on the schedule, including David Brooks of The New York Times and Michael Gerson of The Washington Post.
Well, there are two possibilities. One, Brooks knows a bit about the underlying politics of The Gathering but doesn’t care, which is to say he’s on board with that political agenda to the extent he’s willing to lend his reputation to the event. Two, he’s relatively clueless. He’s been conned. Which would raise questions about his political acumen.
I’m very suspicious that Brooks’ planned appearance at The Gathering was an outgrowth of his heavy participation in the Faith Angle Forum of frequent The Gathering participant Michael Cromartie, who advises elite secular media on the culture wars, which he is also helping to wage. In 2008 Cromartie talked to The Gathering about the need to “infiltrate” secular media. His Faith Angle Forum was created to bring together elite journalists who covered religion and politics with “experts.” And experts they are—but they’re all picked by Cromartie, and many of them have been speakers at The Gathering, as well.
A lot of these issues are pretty unsurprising: fight the gays, fight abortion. But your research also shows that these Christian Right funders are behind a lot of climate denial.
Yup. Over the last decade, he NCF has pumped over $140 million into groups that oppose action to curb climate change and portray concern over global warming as part of a satanic conspiracy to impose a tyrannical “One World Order” or “New World Order.”
Michael Cromartie, whom I just mentioned, will be one of the presenters at The Gathering 2014. He is a signatory to the positions of the Cornwall Alliance, a rump religious coalition opposing action to curb human-caused climate change. The Cornwall Alliance was itself masterminded by E. Calvin Beisner, who helped coin many of the most popular arguments of the global warming denialist/inaction crowd, in a late 1980s-early 1990s book series project led and financed by Howard Ahmanson and his Fieldstead & Co.
Most of the major players in the Christian Right signed the Cornwell Alliance papers. The Ethics and Public Policy Center (NCF gave it $115,000 over 1- years), Chuck Colson’s Prison Fellowship ($12,768,852), Focus on the Family ($44,754,804), Campus Crusade for Christ ($55,233,717), Family Research Council ($17,707,343), Concerned Women for America ($160,163), American Family Association ($2,024,033), and others.
This is exhausting, depressing stuff. What keeps you going?
First, endless exposure to the politicized religious right renders the disturbing nature of the subject banal. So at one level, it becomes just another job specialization. Most days, I might as well be studying some obscure species of sea snail.
But I think the story of the politicized religious right is one of the biggest untold stories of our time. It’s the story of how a covert political movement, driven by a well-organized, -funded, and committed minority, has perturbed the political arc of the biggest, wealthiest, and most powerful nation on Earth—and how it has subverted the national dialogue.
I’m annoyed at the basic dishonesty of religio/political phenomena such as The Gathering that lay claim to the Christian tradition but ignore its underlying mandate of truth-telling. The semi-covert movement represented by The Gathering may not be able to conquer America and its “7 mountains” (Loren Cunningham, co-originator of the 7M motivational mantra, addressed The Gathering in 2001), but it nonetheless exerts considerable force on international politics, and not in an especially honest manner.
The world needs better. There are many problems to address. And I think world religions can become part of the solutions that guide us toward a better outcome in coming decades, but only insofar as they put aside covert, religious supremacist agendas and work for the common good of all. And workable solutions will require honesty—not currently a hallmark of The Gathering.
By: Jay Michaelson, The Daily Beast, September 25, 2014