7 Crazy Ways Conservatives Are Secretly Just Centrists
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I’m deep enough into talking about the cultural war, and its various nooks and crannies, that I might as well keep going. In fact this whole endeavor kind of reminds me of a line from Macbeth. The line comes after Macbeth has killed King Duncan, and it has him reflecting that he has gone so far with his scheme that it’s basically just as easy to keep killing people as it would be to go back and undo the damage. Or as Shakespeare has him say:
I am in blood Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, Returning were as tedious as go o'er.
I don’t think I’m killing people, in fact one of my primary purposes has been talking people out of violence. But it does sometimes feel like a grim business to talk about these sorts of things. Also as I have said, even if it (hopefully) isn’t a real war it definitely feels like one at times.
As long as I’m going to continue writing in this vein, I find that there’s more that I want to say about the Moderate Manifesto I mentioned last week. Primarily I want to continue talking about how the current narrative has been wrenched so far to the left that everything the author claims as moderate positions are actually things the average conservative would be overjoyed with. I do this for two reasons:
1- These are all good ideas and need as broad a distribution as possible
2- To illustrate how completely the left is winning without most people noticing. And especially to counter the idea that the left needs to win faster.
For this post, I’d like continue talking about the article by looking at his list of the seven assumptions and attitudes which characterize centrism.
The first is:
Mistrust and disdain for extreme proposals and actions. Innovative ideas and political proposals shouldn’t be discouraged, but those that require radical changes to the current status quo should be moderated to appeal to a broad constituency. Extreme proposals are often wrong, but even when they are correct, they require careful consideration and slow implementation. Violent action is almost always wrong and counterproductive, as is curbing basic freedoms that allow liberal societies to flourish.
Right off the bat it’s important to point something out about the article and the list. The author has this habit of using the extreme libertarian wing of the right to provide the examples he uses for misbehavior by the right as a whole. I would argue that this amounts to essentially a straw man. And the first point is an excellent example of how it works.
Quick name the most extreme right wing proposal you can think of… Were you able to come up with even one? It wouldn’t surprise me if you couldn’t, particularly if you eliminate libertarian fantasies. Even assuming that you could, how likely is it to actually become reality (this is why we eliminate all the libertarian fantasies). Finally, if by some miracle it did come to pass, how long would you have to go back in time before it wasn’t “extreme conservative policy”, but something the majority of people took for granted without even having to think about it?
Let’s take a couple of examples:
Abortion, specifically overturning Roe v. Wade- Is the idea that we should turn abortion back over to the states really that extreme? Remember that Roe v. Wade didn’t make abortion legal, it removed the ability of the states to make it illegal. If for some reason this still strikes you as being extreme, what are the chances of it actually happening? As I said in a previous post, we had a Republican President, a Republican controlled congress, and seven of the nine judges on the Supreme Court were appointed by Republicans, from 2003-2005 and Roe v. Wade sailed through that period unscathed. Finally if it did happen it wouldn’t be reverting us to the dark ages, we’d be reverting to 1973.
That’s a cultural issue, what about a financial issue like eliminating Medicare and Medicaid? First, while this may or may not be an extreme issue, it’s extreme enough that no one actually favors eliminating it, they mostly just want to privatize it. Given that we’re 20 Trillion in debt, and those two programs consume roughly 25% of the budget is that so extreme? I’ve already talked about the chances of it actually happening, but additionally recall that the same Republican President and Republican Congress I just mentioned not only didn’t get rid of it they added to it with the Medicare drug benefit. And finally if we did eliminate both of them in their entirely we’d be going all the way back to 1965… and I understand 50 years seems like a long time, but trust me it’s really not.
All of this is to say that the only extreme proposals which have a realistic chance of being implemented, and would therefore be of concern to the centrist, are almost entirely in the domain of the left.
Moving to the second assumption of centrism:
Mistrust of grand political theories or systems. Societies and polities are incredibly complicated and our understanding of the way social systems and human nature interact is excruciatingly limited. Grand theories are almost always incorrect, and they encourage dogmatism and extremism. Utopianism is perhaps the most dangerous and seductive kind of grand theory. Ideas that require significant harm today to bring about a better tomorrow are particularly pernicious. Uncertainty about the future requires humility and a commitment to order and well-being in the here and now.
This is another place where he uses libertarianism as his boogieman on the right, despite the fact that, before the 2016 election, the Libertarian Presidential Candidate never got more than 1% of the vote, and even in 2016 it was only 3.28%. Because, once again, we’re asking essentially the same questions: Beyond libertarianism, what are the grand political theories the centrist should worry about from the right? How extreme are these theories, really? And how much chance do they have of actually being implemented? Take an example like smaller government. Even if we grant that it’s a grand, unproven, conservative political theory (and not strictly libertarian). And even if we place this theory in the extreme category because of the harm it causes to those who rely on the government, where is the evidence that there’s the slightest danger that it will ever happen? Look at this chart of government spending and notice that first off there are only ever the tiniest dips, and that secondly there’s no evidence that when Republicans control congress that there is any discernable effect on spending.
Moving on to another example, people will often talk about the conservative hostility to public education, and during every presidential election one or more of the candidates will mention getting rid of the Department of Education. This has been going on since 1981. And here we are 36 years later and despite Republican Presidents being in power for 20 of those 36 years, it’s still going strong.
On the other hand utopianism abounds on the left. Communism is of course the largest and deadliest example, but there’s also the utopian fantasies I mentioned in my last post including the idea that all cultures are equal, or that all people are essentially equal, or that we can allow functionally unlimited immigration. Speaking of which let’s move on to his third centrist assumption:
Skepticism about the goodness of human nature. Although our understanding of human nature is limited, the best evidence, scientific and historical, suggests that humans are often parochial, tribal, and prone to violence. This does not mean that humans are unremittingly “sinful” or wicked. They are not. At times, they are peaceful and cooperative. But peace and harmony among disparate cultural, ethnic, and religious groups is an exception, not a rule. Political and cultural systems must deal with humans as they exist and to understand their basic propensities. Excessive optimism about human nature has often led to tragedy. And the current political system, whatever its failures, is often wise because it has been conditioned by years of slow experimentation with real humans. A decent society in the world is worth 1,000 utopias in the head.
This assumption, more than pervious two, appears specifically directed at the left. Though I think he ended up burying the lede. In particular I’m talking about this sentence, “But peace and harmony among disparate cultural, ethnic, and religious groups is an exception, not a rule.” I agree, and I think it’s possible, even likely that at least part of the resistance to immigration comes from an awareness of this fact. I would further argue that taking an immigration rate which is near the historic maximum (in percentage terms, the absolute numbers are unprecedented) and combining it with a progressive ideology which encourages resistance to assimilation is a bad idea.
On this point, at least, the author appears to agree, going on to say later in the article:
Take immigration as one example. It is an exceedingly complicated issue and any comprehensive immigration policy will include painful tradeoffs. If the rate of legal immigration is restricted, then many ambitious and morally upstanding people will be denied a chance to join thriving societies to fulfill their potentials. On the other hand, if the rate of legal immigration is dramatically expanded, then it will cause continued social and cultural disruption, resentment, and quite possibly lower wages.
There are many good-natured people on both sides of this debate. However, many on the Left not only disagree with restrictive immigration laws, they denounce those who support them.
This last point he brings up, about the denunciations, is a theme that has run through all of my posts on politics. The left has been very effective at not only denouncing certain forms of speech (see for instance, the pull back from using the term “illegal” with reference to immigration) but has also rendering certain discussions completely off limits (see my post about the Overton Window). What follows from this, is a situation where the left doesn’t win the battle of ideas, so much as declare the battle over and themselves the victors while the other side remains on the field. Or to put it another way they don’t win the debate they rule the subject too evil to even consider debating. Which takes me to his fourth assumption:
Desire to seek compromise and form large coalitions. Good governance and social harmony require at least an implicit consensus among the governed. Policy proposals that veer from this consensus, even if ultimately correct, threaten to alienate people and foment discontent. It is therefore crucially important to win a battle of ideas before implementing a policy that significantly changes the current status quo. This is best done by appealing to common values and bipartisanship.
You have probably seen the chart which shows the increasing polarization of politics and the lack of any moderate middle at the congressional level. On this point, at least, there is plenty of blame to go around, and I suspect that here is where I would get the most pushback if I claimed that political polarization was mostly an attribute of the left. And, it is indeed the case, that when you look at something like the debt ceiling debate and the past brinksmanship involved there (though recall that I mentioned the national debt as one place where moderation has contributed to the mess) that Republicans have been very bad at compromising. You also have a Republican primary system which increasingly rewards the most extreme candidate, meaning people are elected having specifically pledged to avoid compromise. All of this is true, and there is certainly vast room for the Republicans to improve. But once we move beyond that, we end up in an area the left is particularly bad at, building consensus.
I mentioned this already as a problem in my post about Confederate Monuments. As it turns out a majority of people want them left alone. In other words the consensus is to do the exact opposite of what’s happening. We saw the same thing with Same Sex Marriage (SSM). It was defeated over and over again when put to a vote, but then rather than waiting for public opinion to shift and a consensus to emerge, the left resorted to legalizing it through the judiciary. Based on the latest polling I think if they had waited just a few more years they would have been able to achieve consensus, win at the ballot box and avoid both the appearance of judicial activism and some degree of discontent. Might SSM still be illegal in Utah? Sure, it might, but it’d be legal nearly everywhere else. And I imagine that even in Utah there’d be something like a civil union. Would the harm really have been that great to wait a few more years? Maybe so, but if I’m underestimating the harm, I think people are even more likely to underestimate the damage that comes from not forming a consensus and routing around the ballot box. And I think this is exactly the point the author is making.
Moving on to his fifth assumption:
Pragmatic emphasis on science, evidence, and truth. Because societies are exquisitely complicated, the best social policies are arrived at through slow and careful experimentation, not dogma. Although science cannot solve all social problems, it is the best instrument we have for measuring the success or failure of particular policies. It is important, therefore, to protect vigilantly free speech and free inquiry so that the best ideas are rigorously debated in the public forum. Political ideologies tend to blind people to the best policies. One should not seek a “conservative” answer to poverty or a “liberal” answer to immigration. One should seek the best answer. It is highly unlikely that any political party has a monopoly on truth.
I suppose some people might claim that it’s not the last point which represents the biggest indictment of the right, it’s this one. I mean certainly you’ve heard of intelligent design and young earth creationism! Yes, I have heard of those things, but despite that I still think from a moderate perspective the left has a bigger problem with this than the right, despite things like intelligent design. I’m sure that some of you are wondering how I ever arrived at that conclusion. The most significant factor, for me, is the widespread censorship of science which is perceived to have a any sort of rightward bias. And a great example of this censorship is the recent incident with James Damore and Google. That incident is also something of a minefield, so I don’t intend to get too deep into things (though if there’s enough interest I might in future post). But I’m on firm ground to say that the science of gender differences is not settled science. There is plenty of evidence for exactly the kind of disparities Damore was talking about. It is an open question (actually less open than Damore’s opponents think, but that’s precisely my point.)
It is true that there are many Republicans and conservatives, and other members of the “right” who are anti-science. There may even be more of them than on the left, but as is so often the case the attacks by the Right are completely ineffective. Yes, as I mentioned there are creationists, but what have they actually done to slow down science? Where are the actual casualties? Point me to a study that was killed by creationists, or a professor who was fired by them. It just isn’t a thing.
Moving on to his sixth assumption:
A healthy admiration for patriotism and a distrust of identity politics. Nation states, although not without flaws, are one of the few social vehicles capable of forging broad identities not based on parochial tribal markers such as race or religion. They allow individuals to share in a large collective group enterprise that is admirably committed to a creed rather than ancestry. Although patriotism can be dangerous, it can also be salubrious. Identity politics tend to divide people and create bitter factions that compete for their perceived interests. Because humans are naturally tribal, this factionalism is easy to create and dangerous for a broader cooperative union among dissimilar peoples.
Now we’re back to issues where the right has a natural advantage. I once heard that a quick and easy way to determine whether someone was on the right or the left was to ask them whether they thought America was the Greatest Country on Earth (i.e. American Exceptionalism). If they said yes, they were conservative, if they said no they were liberal. Which is to say that the right has a near monopoly on patriotism, while the left has a monopoly on identity politics, both these things putting the right squarely on the side of things the author is encouraging. Out of the two I’d like to focus on identity politics. Not only do most of the people on the right think they’re a bad idea, and not only do moderates, like this guy, think they’re a bad idea, but increasingly even on the left people are starting to realize how corrosive and divisive they are.
One of the themes which has run through the last several posts, is the idea of what’s an acceptable political tactic and what’s unacceptable. And of course while there are (I hope) some absolutes when discussing this, there is also the principal that if you start employing a tactic it’s going to be really difficult to keep your adversary from using the same tactic. That is one of the big problems with identity politics, you can’t spend decades emphasizing the importance of black or latino or gay identity and not eventually have people decide that they should emphasis their white or European or straight identity. If anything, I’m surprised it’s taken this long. But once the genie was out of the bottle it was always going to be difficult to put it back in, especially if one side continues to insist on using the genie to grant wishes, while claiming that any attempt to do the same thing by the other side is literally the worst thing ever.
And for his seventh and final assumption:
A steadfast dedication to rule of law and fidelity to constitutional principles. The rule of law is one of the greatest and most fragile accomplishments of Western Civilization. It creates a sense of fairness and protects citizens from the whims of their leaders. It should be lauded and guarded against possible corrosion. And although highly educated men and women might not need base appeals to authority (“Madison wrote X, Y, and Z”), society is not comprised of only highly educated men and women. The prejudices of the people require attention and cannot be disregarded. Having a written document (or legacy of laws and principles that are venerated) that inspires reverence helps insure the preservation of the rule of law.
This is yet another thing I’ve been harping on for quite a while. And yet one more area where there is no difference between the author’s definition of centrism and modern conservatism. We see this in the DACA debate, and in the immigration debate as a whole, and I think we also see it in the subject of judicial activism. Whatever you think of the idea of a living Constitution, it’s indisputable that the right has far more concern for constitutional fidelity than the left. And the left’s hostility to First Amendment protections, under the guise of combating hate speech is only making things worse.
Just barely I used the term “modern conservatism”, and when I did so, I realized I may have too hastily glossed over the many sins conservatives were historically guilty of, and the many ways in which what I just said was not accurate (or at least less accurate) historically. This is all true, but we’re talking about a moderate way out of the current crisis, and using these historical issues as a permanent cudgel with which to beat the right, or worse, using past excesses by the right to justify current excesses by the left only deepens the crisis.
I know that if you’ve read this blog with any frequency you’ve probably come to the conclusion that I’m unrepentantly conservative, but I hope that over the course of the last few episodes I’ve show that the left has gone so far, and gotten so extreme in it’s quest for victory and a progressive ideological utopia, that the moderate course is the conservative course.
If you’re a conservative, you should donate because I just showed how conservatives are currently on the right side of everything. If you’re a moderate you should donate, because I just spent an entire post lauding the virtues of moderation. And if you’re a liberal you should donate because I did nothing but malign you and this is your chance to prove me wrong.