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    The decline of conservatism?

    by Sunny on 14th May, 2009 at 4:35 am    

    The former Ronald Reagan conservative, and intellectual Richard Posner wrote a short blog about the decline of conservatism. He says half-way:

    My theme is the intellectual decline of conservatism, and it is notable that the policies of the new conservatism are powered largely by emotion and religion and have for the most part weak intellectual groundings. That the policies are weak in conception, have largely failed in execution, and are political flops is therefore unsurprising. The major blows to conservatism, culminating in the election and programs of Obama, have been fourfold: the failure of military force to achieve U.S. foreign policy objectives; the inanity of trying to substitute will for intellect, as in the denial of global warming, the use of religious criteria in the selection of public officials, the neglect of management and expertise in government; a continued preoccupation with abortion; and fiscal incontinence in the form of massive budget deficits, the Medicare drug plan, excessive foreign borrowing, and asset-price inflation.

    By the fall of 2008, the face of the Republican Party had become Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber. Conservative intellectuals had no party.

    It’s being discussed everywhere. Posner is right in concluding that an excessive move to the left by Barack Obama would bring them back from the dead… though I think Obama is too smart to let that happen.

    But the point seems to be about the decline of the Conservative Intellectual. I have a problem with that thesis because most of the arguments that won the Republican Party the battle were not intellectual arguments but culture wars.

    Ronald Reagan had three main planks of support: economic right-wingers (intellectuals), foreign policy hawks (not really intellectual) and social conservatives (not intellectual at all). He bound them together through narrative and framing - something Republicans understood better than Democrats until recently (Bill Clinton excluded).

    I think the wider problem for conservatives/Republicans is that their principle arguments: small state, low taxes, powerful defence, religion - have either not worked (foreign policy) or been shown as a sham (less regulation will lead to more wealth). Someone else made the point recently that the Republicans have forgotten how to articulate what their society would look like as a result of their policies and got stuck merely on advocating the same policies. I think that’s also a strong argument.

    The parallel to the UK would be that the Labour Party has basically forgotten narratives, vision and policies - and relied merely on the argument that they are not the Nasty Tories to stay in power. Unfortunately they seem to be taking the left down with them because the left tied its fortune too closely to the party.

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    21 Comments below   |   Add your own

    1. qidniz — on 14th May, 2009 at 6:09 am  

      former Ronald Reagan conservative,

      The only connection between the two men is that Posner was appointed to the 7th Circuit Appeals Court in 1981, which was during the Reagan administration.

      I’ll guess that this “description” was intended as some sort of leftoid putdown.

      and intellectual Richard Posner

      Gosh, you’ve actually read some of his academic work? May wonders never cease.

    2. marvin — on 14th May, 2009 at 7:43 am  

      Oh I don’t know, Obama has kept the status quo in number of areas and kept evil-Bush policy, from policies on environment and polar bears to the release of prisoner abuse photos… Obama is pretty conservative from a UK standpoint.

      The Republican party however are pretty f**** up.

    3. Ravi Naik — on 14th May, 2009 at 9:26 am  

      Oh I don’t know, Obama has kept the status quo in number of areas and kept evil-Bush policy, from policies on environment and polar bears to the release of prisoner abuse photos… Obama is pretty conservative from a UK standpoint.

      Obama is choosing his battles. The Left is going angry about the fact that Obama changed his mind over torture photos, or the fact that he does not want to prosecute key people in the previous administration for torture. Instead, he opted to release the torture memos which ignited a debate over the role of torture and waterboarding by the US - which serves a far greater purpose. Anything more that, I would say, would be a distraction and a media circus, and it would be more difficult for him to pass any legislation in regards to education, healthcare and energy. He needs the public on his side, and he is careful to show that he is not politicising the issues.

      Obama is a liberal, but he is also pragmatic. He is a masterful politician, and he pretty much destroyed the Republican Party.

    4. Jai — on 14th May, 2009 at 10:56 am  

      Interesting related article from the Huffington Post, by a CNN political commentator. It specifically discusses Dick Cheney:


    5. Shamit — on 14th May, 2009 at 11:31 am  

      I think Ronald Reagan’s victory was almost about national pride — which Americans take very very seriously.

      With rampant inflation, its military discredited and an Iranian theocratic regime holding the US hostage — were the key reasons why there was a huge group called the “Reagan Democrats”.

      I doubt there was much intellectual persuasion in that debate. If you go back through the decades, the intellectual powerhouses of the Republican Party has been since the Ford Administration — Chenney, Rumsfeld, Paul O Neil, George Bush senior, JOhn Atwater (probably the biggest force of them all) — and people like George Schultz, later Bent Scowcroft.

      In the next generation, you had the neo-cons who never convinced anyone. But that group of core intellectual power base of the republican party have been there even in the Bush 43 administration.


      The parallel to the Labour party is true to some extent but a leader of a party can quickly change perceptions aka Blair and Cameron. Ideals are only effective when the populace accepts it. But in the 70’s and now again the Labour party it is failing to capture the imagination of the public.

      Its about aspiration of a society and not class wars that make a party electable — and I think the labour party with the huge intellect at its disposal is failing to deliver on that.

    6. Jai — on 14th May, 2009 at 1:15 pm  

      If you go back through the decades, the intellectual powerhouses of the Republican Party has been since the Ford Administration — Chenney, Rumsfeld,…..In the next generation, you had the neo-cons who never convinced anyone.

      Hmm. I was under the impression that Cheney and Rumsfeld were neo-cons themselves.

      Also, the “intellectual powerhouse” Cheney is now publicly stating that he thinks Rantin’ Rush Limbaugh is a much better role model for Republicans than Cool Colin Powell. Go figure…..

    7. Shamit — on 14th May, 2009 at 1:29 pm  

      “Hmm. I was under the impression that Cheney and Rumsfeld were neo-cons themselves.”

      Did I say they were not? Of course they were but with the bosses (ford, Bush 41 and Reagan kept them at arms length) -they served they were more tempered. But they were never as far right and idiotic as Wolfwitz and his generation.

      Funny when they served Ford — they were not. Also, when Chenney served as Sec Def for Bush 41 he was actually for restraint.

      But I think Chenney has lost it. I think he cant bear the fact that not him but Powell is the one and only major Repub who is respected by everyone.

      SThe point though I was trying to make in my previous comment was that in terms of intellectual debate - the republicans haven’t changed much since the 1970s. If any they have gone more out of touch.

      Reagan got them in touch with the public and since then they haven’t really come up with better ideas for Governance. Reagan’s folks were Schultz, meese etc and James Baker a Bush 41 loyalist — Reagan was smart not to let neocons dictate his administration

      Is that clearer Sir Jai

    8. Shamit — on 14th May, 2009 at 1:33 pm  

      by thw way, I do not agree with Chenney but you cannot deny the role he has played in the Republican party over the decades. Now he has lost it completely

    9. Shamit — on 14th May, 2009 at 1:51 pm  

      Colin Powell (though still in the Army was a Repub) and another top Repub intellectually was Alan Greenspan who also served in the Ford White house.

      So the history of Repubs have got stuck in the 70s cold war mentality and hasn;t come out of it. People like Jack Kemp and Bill Bennett in the late 80s early 90s to some extent also defined the movement intellectually.

      But the guy who really took them right wing was Gingrich with his contract for America which Bill Clinton milked all the way to the second term.

      The republicans forgot they were not fighting Carter or Mondale but Clinton who asserted “bold experimentation with the politics of governance” — nothing is untouchable and that I think started the Repub demise. And Obama put a nice long hard nail in the coffin.

      But it will take one guy again to change it — remember during the first gulf war everyone said Dems were finished. A year and a half later, Bill Clinton was elected President. And he created his version of Clinton Republicans.

      So writing the Repubs off is a bit premature I would say.

      God i have too much time on my hand today.

    10. Jai — on 14th May, 2009 at 1:52 pm  

      Is that clearer Sir Jai

      Crystal, Sir Shamit ;)

      But I think Chenney has lost it. I think he cant bear the fact that not him but Powell is the one and only major Repub who is respected by everyone…..Now he has lost it completely

      He doesn’t seem to understand exactly why people have reacted so negatively to him and his actions either. Reminds me of Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men — in fact, to some extent there are some pretty strong parallels, both in terms of the two men’s behaviour when challenged & contradicted and in terms of their stubborn justifications for “crossing the line” in the alleged interests of “keeping America safe”.

      You should also read that article (and the subsequent comments) whose link I posted above. It basically overlaps with what you’ve just said along with taking it a bit further.

    11. Ravi Naik — on 14th May, 2009 at 2:00 pm  

      But I think Chenney has lost it. I think he cant bear the fact that not him but Powell is the one and only major Repub who is respected by everyone.

      I think that Dick Cheney has panicked over the release of torture memos. But his attack on Colin Powell and support for Rush is just crazy - what is this with Republicans telling fellow Republicans to switch to the Democratic party? They pushed Specter out, do they really need Powell to leave?

      Watch this. Best part is towards the end.

    12. Jai — on 14th May, 2009 at 2:27 pm  

      I think that Dick Cheney has panicked over the release of torture memos.

      I think that it’s because it potentially renders him and other senior figures liable to criminal prosecution on multiple charges, especially since various senior members of the US military etc have also now begun voicing their opposition to the practice (morally and in terms of its effectiveness).

      Even Obama has started becoming more outspoken about his own stance; during his well-received, er, stand-up comedy gig at that dinner function a few days ago, he even cracked a joke about how Cheney has written a book called “How to Shoot Friends and Torture People”.

      Anyway, apparently formal investigations into the matter have now begun. Clips on CNN yesterday showed that some of the exchanges were quite heated. More information (and clips) here: http://edition.cnn.com/2009/POLITICS/05/13/interrogation.hearing/index.html

      The Democrats are being particularly outspoken. Quote:

      “Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island, opened the hearing by accusing Bush administration officials of lying about the use of techniques that had damaged the country’s standing in the world.

      “The truth of our country’s descent into torture is not precious. It is noxious. It is sordid,” Whitehouse said.

      “It has also been attended by a bodyguard of lies. … President Bush told us America does not torture while authorizing conduct that America has prosecuted. … Vice President Cheney agreed in an interview that waterboarding was like a dunk in the water, when it was used as a torture technique by tyrannical regimes from the Spanish Inquisition to Cambodia’s killing fields.”"

      A significant complication, as briefly mentioned above and as regular viewers of The Daily Show will already know, is the fact that at the end of WW2, the US actually prosecuted the Japanese for war crimes involving interrogation techniques used against American prisoners of war which the US classified as “torture” — and these were exactly the same techniques which members of the Bush administration authorised and which Cheney is now insisting does not constitute torture.

      Bit of a pickle, eh…..

    13. The Common Humanist — on 14th May, 2009 at 3:02 pm  

      Check out The Daily Dish for the latest on how the Beltway Elite is waking up to just what the Bush Admin has done to America.

      Did anyone see former US Navy SEAL and Minnesota Gov Jesse Ventura - ‘Let me waterboard Dick Cheney for an hour and I will get him to confess to the Manson Murders.

      I think the full on Cheney panic is because he can see his life panning out at locations such as Club Federal Prison, Fort Leavenworth or, better still, in The Hague……that would be sweet.

    14. The Common Humanist — on 14th May, 2009 at 3:10 pm  

      The US Repubs now make the post 97 Tory party look dignified!

      Watching Cheney is like a slow motion car crash. Awful. The man is a walking heart of darkness.

      I was about to write - ‘Imagine what a Cheney Admin would have been like?’ but of course, as Bush was so out of his depth, we did have a Cheney admin and mass sadism and torture are its legacy.

    15. MaidMarian — on 14th May, 2009 at 5:22 pm  

      ‘Unfortunately they seem to be taking the left down with them because the left tied its fortune too closely to the party.’

      Lazy, Sunny.

      I agree, broadly at least, that the third way as a political idea was insubstantial. I accept too that the decline of ideology took place on Labour’s watch, though I would argue that that was in no small a response to the Major government, where Thatcherism was consumed by the remorselessness of its own ideological fervour.

      But to say, ‘the left,’ (whatever that means) tied itself to New Labour is thin. Surely the Iraq conflict provoked a schism and that was from 2002/3 - six or seven years ago. In Scotland and Wales the nats have overtly courted the ‘left’ vote. The Greens hardly can be said to have tied them self to New Labour and the Lib Dems diverged from NL about ten years ago.

      You may well believe that the Greens or SWP are God’s gift - it’s just that the voters don’t seem to agree.

      Instead of blaming New Labour for everything upto and including my sprained ankle, you might want to dwell on an electorate that for time immemorial has talked a good left game and voted a good right one.

    16. Rumbold — on 14th May, 2009 at 6:39 pm  

      Sorry, where is the evidence that a small state doesn’t work? The financial crisis in America and Britain built up over a number of years when both countries’ governments were massively expanding the state.

    17. Laban Tall — on 14th May, 2009 at 7:51 pm  

      Principal, Sunny, not principle.

      I’d disagree with Posner on intellectuals. Who was the face of Republicanism in the 80s - as you’d have seen it ? A trigger-happy cowboy who was going to start WW3, that’s who - just like GWB. Reagan was smart, but not an intellectual. And back in the 80s conservative intellectuals existed, but weren’t terribly high profile - less so than, say, the Heritage crowd today. The right in the US still has some great figures - like Thomas Sowell.

      The trouble with your idea of “small state, low taxes” was that, as Posner points out, the state was actually pretty large, taxes were lowish and government expenditure was astronomical. Whatever GWB was, he wasn’t a fiscal conservative. In fact there’s a strange UK/US parallel, with Blair/Brown running deficits to fund Sure Start schemes and more social workers, while Bush was running deficits and splashing the cash on the military.

      In both cases the party was only kept going by cheap imports, cheap imported labour and the purchase of Government bonds by the exporting countries. The dollar as a reserve currency is living on borrowed time. Sterling’s already dropped 30% and has further to go.

      Steve Sailer summed up Bush’s policy - but it could have been Blair’s too.

      “Invade the world, invite the world, in hock to the world”. Not a sustainable approach.

      And by the way - in what way has religion “not worked” or been shown to be a sham ?

    18. MaidMarian — on 14th May, 2009 at 8:39 pm  

      Rumbold (16) - I think you are conflating issues there.

      Sure, the current financial troubles built up at times when the state was expanding, but isn’t a favourite complaint that the state was not active enough in regulating markets?

      And where was it that the big, private sector banks went when they were circling the plug-hole (with the financial well-being of millions at stake)? It was not the private sector that they looked to for salvation, but the state.

      I agree, we need (desperately) smaller, better government. As a flip side of that though we need a public that does not scream, ’something must be done,’ when anything goes wrong.

      There are very good arguments for a small state - but conflating big government with the credit crunch really isn’t one of them.

    19. Rumbold — on 17th May, 2009 at 1:43 pm  

      I agree that better regulation was needed; however, what far too many people failed to point out was that the FSA and other bodies had the money and powers to regulate effectivley. They just chose not to use them.

    20. Shamit — on 17th May, 2009 at 5:52 pm  

      rumbold (19) spot on mate

    21. MaidMarian — on 17th May, 2009 at 6:09 pm  

      Rumbold (19) - I am the first to agree that a big state and an intelligent state are not necessarily the same thing. They may be, but not necessarily so.

      The FSA bought into the ’small state’ thinking, surely you can see that a ‘bigger’ (in the sense of activity) FSA would probably not have been a bad thing?

      Again, you are correct that there are clearly decent arguments for a small state, but I can’t really see what you are getting at with this example.

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