Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The most interesting political posts I've been reading lately have been writing from the perspective of: granted the Bush Presidency has been a disaster, what (if any) type of conservatism should take its place? This is, of course, an issue that is very "up", in the sense that the GOP electoral primary will play a big part in deciding the issue. And right now the signs aren't good.

Let me just start with one presupposition:

As for Republican nominees for '08, the big question is not "Which Republican will make the best president?" but, "With which candidate will losing in '08 position the party best to recover later?" America will not chose a Republican or a conservative, and realistically speaking, who can blame her?

Peggy Noonan asked the question here:

Most importantly for him, and for all the Republican candidates for that matter, Mr. Thompson will have to answer this question: What is he running to do? Why should the Republicans get another eight years, or four years, after all the missteps they've made? Isn't conservatism, or Republicanism, or whatever you call it, just tired? Isn't it over? Isn't America just waiting for whatever will take its place?

Why shouldn't liberalism get a shot? Could they mess up more? Why should we trust Republicans with foreign affairs?

Fred Thompson can't answer that question. My sense is that Richard Cohen has Fred Thompson exactly right when he says this:

If Thompson's name came up in some sort of free-association game, he would be a genuine stumper: Thompson and what? There is no Thompson Act, Thompson Compromise, Thompson Hearing, Thompson Speech or Thompson Anything that comes to mind. No living man can call himself a Thompsonite. Instead, Thompson came and went from the Senate as if he were never there, leaving only the faint scent of ennui. "I don't want to spend the rest of my life up here," he once said. "I don't like spending 14- and 16-hour days voting on 'sense of the Senate' resolutions on irrelevant matters." As a call to action, this lacks a certain something.

. . .

Thompson never showed that he was out to change matters, to right some major wrong, to fix the god-awful mess the country is in. I contrast him with a senator I recently chatted with who took virtually childlike delight in being a senator -- being able, as he said, to be a player. He savored his power -- as one of only 100. What a difference he could make!

. . .

The presidency is where a person can make the most difference. But the emergence of Thompson shows that a fatigued Republican Party is not interested in making any difference at all -- just in hanging on.

The fact that Fred Thompson is such a big name is a very bad sign for the GOP, a sign that saying the right things, not actually governing, is what we want. Daniel Larison has pointed out that polling may be confirming this:

Asked of "leaned Republicans" whether Bush is leading the GOP in the right direction or the wrong direction 65% still say he is leading the party in the right direction. There is no hope for a party base this out of it. Sorry, folks. Curiously, conservative self-identification is up to its highest level in months (37%), matching or beating results from last summer. The support for Bush’s party leadership helps to explain why most of the GOP presidential candidates are not heading off in bold new directions. They find themselves confronted with core constituencies that apparently think Mr. Bush has been good for the Republican Party and is doing the right sorts of things for that party, so they have to play along. It is basically inexplicable why all these Republicans think this, but there you have it.

But on the other hand, there's something about the paleo-con Daniel Larison approach that makes me think, this is not the way to go.

Here's a throwaway line from one of Larison's recent posts (HT: Eating Words):

If the Post, the establishment’s unofficial propaganda organ, has nice things to say about it [i.e. Barack Obama's foreign policy], look out.

I'm sorry, after the Bush administration, I want a little more mainstream. I want a little less denounciation of this or that with which I disagree as "propaganda" (or MSM, or all the other labels we use to escape unpleasant facts). I want a little more respect for expertise.

(And no I don't want generic toughness, which seems all that Giuliani has on offer.)

Here's the big picture. I don't have time to develop this, so I'll just outline it:

Democracy and expertise are reciprocals: the more of one, the less of the other. By definition, when an issue is decided by expert advice, it's not decided by voting. But expert advice is part of management -- the managerial state is run on expertise, not voting. (This was Socrates's beef with democracy -- if politics is a science, indeed the noblest of sciences, then it can't be put in the hands of those uneducated in it. Instead it must be practiced by guardians, like doctors, who protect the people from their own unhealthy desires.)

Thus small-government people are inherently anti-expertise. When a government issue is decided by experts it empowers educated white collar workers -- predominantly from the core or metropole of the country. But yes, expertise can be bogus or get out of hand. When it does, then small-government people win elections.

And one brilliant way for small-government intellectuals to discredit their opponents is to turn the old Marxist trick back on the left. Reality is socially constructed by class interests, eh? Well, then, when a law is declared unconstitutional, don't argue the merits of the case, instead point out that the class ramification of this is that the decision makers are no longer the population as a whole, but instead a class comprised of elite law school grads, and that that class has interests, which are by definition not congruent with the interests of the general public.

This works, because some of reality is socially constructed, and government is indeed not a thing apart from society, but instead is composed of people, who themselves have interests. They serve those interests by representing their own interests as "objective truth."

Ever heard the phrase (it was big in the Reagan era), "personnel is policy"? That if you have a conservative president, but the bureaucracy is liberal, then you won't get conservative policy? This is the intellectual justification for that position. Policy to benefit the proletariat must be made by the proletariat was the original formulation. But it was adopted by conservatives to mean "Policy to benefit red-staters ultimately must be made by red-staters." Better red than expert was the Maoist version. Better to have the right world view than to have some degree is the conservative version.

There is some truth to this, and that truth is why no matter how "stupid" or "biased" the people, a lot of things have to be left in their hands. The cry "Let the majority decide!" needs to be always out there as a push-back to bogus or over-extended expertise. But it's not the whole truth! If it were, then the whole history of mankind would be a history of struggle between communities -- class struggle -- with no chance of real improvement for society as a whole. And that plank of Marxism isn't true!

There is such a thing as objective expertise. There really is a good reason to put monetary policy in the hands of economics Ph.D.'s There really is a good reason to have the NIH run by people who have been to medical school. A conservative activist's opinion about whether global warming is happening really is less valuable than that of a climatologist. (And yes, that applies to teaching biology and evolution, too).

This is what the progressive movement in the late 19th-early 20th century discovered: social science, to some degree, exists! Human affairs can, to some degree, be studied objectively! We can, to some degree, realize the promise of Socrates of managing human affairs better by entrusting them to trained experts!

Over time, paleo-conservatives have always said to this possibility, "even if we could, it's too dangerous: it will strengthen the state too much." But the American people have not agreed. They have cautiously allowed institutions like the Fed, like transit authorities, like the NIH, like the Smithsonian, like state universities, to be created, to be funded by the government and then to be given autonomy from the public, autonomy from the voter, autonomy from anyone who doesn't share the expertise in that field that comes from have a particular training.
Some of these organs don't make policy. But some, like the Fed or the transit authorities, we depend on to administer things that citizens use every day, like money, or like NJTransit or airports. But to the Paleo-cons and the libertarians, these look like little pilot projects for Socrates's guardians.

Here's the problem with the conservative movement to date. It's accepted the dogma "personnel is policy" and "Better red(-state) than expert," but it hasn't actually reduced the sphere of government decision-making! The original purpose of the anti-expertise argument within the American political tradition was to say, "there is no neutral, technocratic way to do X, so any government action on X is just raw majoritarian tyranny in which one community prevails over another, so the government shouldn't do X at all." But if you use the argument, and still leave the government doing X, well, then you are indeed getting the drawbacks of majoritarian tyranny, without the benefits of expertly administered meritocracy.

So where does that leave me?

I'm not with the paleo-cons or the libertarians. I feel closest to Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam's "Sam's Club Republicanism" (which as Reihan pointed out is just social conservatism). I still believe in a lot of basically conservative, Republican principles, but I believe in trying to be impartial and even-handed, using (where they help) the social science and the managerial state so scorned by the righteous brothers of the alienated right to help build a society of strong families.

I guess I'm looking for an administration that will have the humility to seek out neutral expertise where it is applicable, the courage to follow our traditional American order where it is not, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Gosh I sound like David Broder.

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