Conservative reflections about America – starting to use their time in the wilderness to think

Conservatives, or some of them, have begun to think about their time in power.  Their role in American history.  And their role in America’s future.  These are just the first small steps in the long road back to winning back the confidence of the American people.

  1. Intellectuals“, Thomas Sowell, National Review Online, 11 November 2008 — “Ignorance has consequences.”
  2. Eight Wasted Years“, John Derbyshire, National Review Online, 5 November 2008 — “And the ratchet slips free.”
  3. The Death of the American Idea“, Mark Steyn, National Review Online, 8 November 2008 — “An electorate living high off the entitlement hog.” 


(1)  “Intellectuals“, Thomas Sowell, National Review Online, 11 November 2008 — “Ignorance has consequences.”  Excerpt:

Among the many wonders to be expected from an Obama administration, if Nicholas D. Kristof of the New York Times is to be believed, is ending “the anti-intellectualism that has long been a strain in American life.” He cited Adlai Stevenson, the suave and debonair governor of Illinois, who twice ran for president against Eisenhower in the 1950s, as an example of an intellectual in politics.

Intellectuals, according to Mr. Kristof, are people who are “interested in ideas and comfortable with complexity,” people who “read the classics.”

… Adlai Stevenson was certainly regarded as an intellectual by intellectuals in the 1950s. But, half a century later, facts paint a very different picture. Historian Michael Beschloss, among others, has noted that Stevenson “could go quite happily for months or years without picking up a book.” But Stevenson had the airs of an intellectual – the form, rather than the substance.

What is more telling, form was enough to impress the intellectuals, not only then but even now, years after the facts have been revealed, though apparently not to Mr. Kristof. That is one of many reasons why intellectuals are not taken as seriously by others as they take themselves.

As for reading the classics, President Harry Truman, whom no one thought of as an intellectual, was a voracious reader of heavyweight stuff like Thucydides and read Cicero in the original Latin. When Chief Justice Carl Vinson quoted in Latin, Truman was able to correct him. Yet intellectuals tended to think of the unpretentious and plain-spoken Truman as little more than a country bumpkin.

Similarly, no one ever thought of President Calvin Coolidge as an intellectual. Yet Coolidge also read the classics in the White House. He read both Latin and Greek, and read Dante in the original Italian, since he spoke several languages. It was said that the taciturn Coolidge could be silent in five different languages.

The remainder of the article discusses the many many things American intellectuals have been wrong about in the 20th century.  Judging by the first decade, a simialr list for the 21st century promises to be just as long.  Does Sowell include conservative intellectuals in the category of “intellectuals”?

(2)  “Eight Wasted Years“, John Derbyshire, National Review Online, 5 November 2008 — “And the ratchet slips free.”  Excerpt:

Margaret Thatcher used to talk about the “ratchet effect.” When the Left gets power, she said, they drive everything Left; when the Right gets power, they slow the Leftward drive, perhaps even halt it for a spell; but nothing ever gets moved to the Right.

U.S. politics in the 21st century so far bears out this dismal analysis. What does the Right have to show for eight years of a Republican presidency? I supported George W. Bush in 2000 because I thought he had a conservative bone in his body somewhere. I supported him in 2004 because I thought him the lesser of two evils. At this point, I wouldn’t let the fool park his car in my driveway. Bruce Bartlett was right, every damn word.

(3)  “The Death of the American Idea“, Mark Steyn, National Review Online, 8 November 2008 — “An electorate living high off the entitlement hog.”  Excerpt:

Unlike those excitable countries where the peasants overrun the presidential palace, settled democratic societies rarely vote to “go left.” Yet oddly enough that’s where they’ve all gone. In its assumptions about the size of the state and the role of government, almost every advanced nation is more left than it was, and getting lefter. Even in America, federal spending (in inflation-adjusted 2007 dollars) has gone from $600 billion in 1965 to $3 trillion today. The Heritage Foundation put it in a convenient graph: It’s pretty much a straight line across four decades, up, up, up.

Doesn’t make any difference who controls Congress, who’s in the White House. The government just grows and grows, remorselessly. Every two years, the voters walk out of their town halls and school gyms and tell the exit pollsters that three-quarters of them are “moderates” or “conservatives” (ie, the center and the right) and barely 20 per cent are “liberals.” And then, regardless of how the vote went, big government just resumes its inexorable growth.

… “The greatest dangers to liberty,” wrote Justice Brandeis, “lurk in the insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well meaning but without understanding.” Now who does that remind you of?

Ha! Trick question! Never mind Obama, it’s John McCain. He encroached on our liberties with the constitutional abomination of McCain-Feingold. Well-meaning but without understanding, he proposed that the federal government buy up all these junk mortgages so that people would be able to stay in “their” homes. And this is the “center-right” candidate? It’s hard for Republicans to hammer Obama as a socialist when their own party’s nationalizing the banks and its presidential nominee is denouncing the private sector for putting profits before patriotism.

… While few electorates consciously choose to leap left, a couple more steps every election and eventually societies reach a tipping point. In much of the west, it’s government health care. … Henceforth, elections are fought over which party is proposing the shiniest government bauble: If you think President-elect Obama’s promise of federally subsidized day care was a relatively peripheral part of his platform, in Canada in the election before last it was the dominant issue. Yet America may be approaching its tipping point even more directly. In political terms, the message of the gazillion-dollar bipartisan bailout was a simple one: “Individual responsibility” and “self-reliance” are for chumps.


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To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  Of esp relevance to this topic:

Posts about political theory:

  1. Diagnosing the eagle, chapter I — the housing bust
  2. Diagnosing the Eagle, Chapter II — book recommendations for 2008
  3. Diagnosing the Eagle, Chapter III — reclaiming the Constitution
  4. Diagnosing the eagle, chapter IV – Alienation
  5. Forecast: Death of the American Constitution
  6. Would a charismatic President be good for America?
  7. More about charisma, by Don Vandergriff…(#2 in the “getting ready for Obama” series)
  8. Obama might be the shaman that America needs
  9. Americans, now a subservient people (listen to the Founders sigh in disappointment)
  10. de Tocqueville warns us not to become weak and servile
  11. A soft despotism for America?
  12. What comes after the Consitution? Can we see the outline of a “Mark 3″ version of the United States?

8 thoughts on “Conservative reflections about America – starting to use their time in the wilderness to think”

  1. Jerry Pournelle has a similar take from yesterday.

    He takes a very similar position that I took in my attempt to get elected. When ever I talked to people, Democrat or Republican, I did not identify with party but with certain idea’s and low and behold the people actually liked and supported the idea’s of the basic conservative philisophy. I did not win, I did manage to get 6% points higher than the party expected, but it was worth the effort just to get a feel for how the average citizen felt and believed. If people like me could just get the attention of the state comittee long enough, I’m sure we could turn the tide quickly in my state.

    Since I’m not one of the country club Republicans, getting the time of day is difficult. But I will continue on this path anyway, because it is still a learning experience and we just might win.

    {FM note: I have added an excerpt} “Republican Principles or Democrats Light?“, Jerry Pournelle, 14 November 2008:

    What’s weird is people like McCain and Schwarzenegger who seem genuinely smitten by the Fromate {radical green} positions, and who don’t seem to want to pay attention to the scientific evidence. The evidence, if fairly considered, is that there is a rise in CO2 levels; doing something about it is terribly expensive, and if only the nations that are interested and who can (barely) afford it adopt strenuous CO2 reduction practices, the effect on CO2 is from very small to trivial.

    China and India are not going to stop their economic growth — indeed can’t do that. The CO2 rises will continue whether we like it or not, and without regard to what crippling measures we adopt. It may make the governor feel good to lead California toward the Green, but the truth is that the CO2 sensors in Hawaii will take little to no notice, and the effect on global warming of turning California green by shooting all the methane flatulent cows and then turning the state into an uninhabited park would be very small to trivial.

    … But on purely pragmatic grounds the Republicans have no business going Fromate. The Democrats already have the Fromate vote sewed up, and always will: the Fromate position demands Big Government and Government Action, and those who think Government is the solution and not the problem will always choose the Democrats. The Republicans can make all the concessions it likes, but the Sierra Club and the Fromates will always go Democrat.

    The Republican Party has fallen victim to Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy. The Iron Law states that in every organization there will be two factions. One will be dedicated to the goals of the organization> Examples are dedicated class room teachers in teacher unions, the Old Guard members of the Sierra Club from the days when you could not join the Sierra Club unless you had been backpacking in the High Sierra, etc.; we all know such people. The other faction will be dedicated to the organization itself without any regard to the organization’s actual reason for existence. Examples are teacher’s union officials, many administrators, the current management of the Sierra Club, etc..; we all know those people, too. Pournelle’s Iron Law states that in every case the second group will gain and keep control of the organization.

    The horrible part is that in the case of the Republicans, control of the party has gone to incompetents. They have thrown away the principles of limited government and the notion that in general government is not the solution, government is the problem — and they have gained almost nothing for doing that.

    Fabius Maximus replies: Thank you for bringing this to our attention. I recommend reading the full essay.

  2. Stats seemed to indicate that many voters who typically vote Republican stayed home in 2006 and again this year. “A Base Election After All?“, The Weekly Standard, 12 Nov 2008

    Another data point: although incumbent Democrat Gregoire and Republican Rossi were polling about even right up until the gubernatorial election in Washington state, Gregoire led the final vote by about 6% – – even though Rossi got 6% MORE votes than McCain, indicating that a lot of Obama voters crossed over to vote for Rossi for Governor. But that wasn’t enough; it looks like Rossi’s base stayed home.

    This is yet more evidence that Republicans are disgusted with their party’s direction under Bush.

    But those who think the party needs to be more “moderate” ignore that Bush governed as a moderate on about everything except National Security (Prescription Drug Benefit, supporting the steel workers, creation of new Dept of Homeland Security, massive increases in government spending, massive government intervention in the financial markets). His inability to articulate even the most fundamental arguments for limited government demonstrate that he’s no conservative. Hmm, make than “inability to articulate,” period.

    A constituency for Liberty has failed to make itself a force within the Republican party.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I agree on all points. Nor is this just a 2008 phenomenon. During the debate about Bush’s immigration policy, there were reports of folks going into Republican local offices to rip up their membership cards and throw them on the floor.

  3. Thanks for the links. Would you consider reading, subscribing and/or commenting on my blog? Thanks.

    The New Republicans — Young Republicans Re-inventing the Republican Party, moderated by Steven Lee, the first President of Law Republicans at the University of Georgia.

  4. Bush was strategically correct about Iraq in 2003, invade then or never, but did a poor job in implementation: He should have kept Gen. Gardner, not gone with Bremer; he should have pushed local Iraqi municipal elections sooner, with reconstruction cash in the form of municipal bonds, voted on and decided on by the Iraqis (and if AQ blows some up, they’re blowing up Iraqi work, not US/ coalition stuff); they should have split the oil fund into 3 parts–Feds, local cities/ provinces, individuals (who vote); they should have focussed on internet transparency anti-corruption in the new Iraqi gov’t.

    Bush+Bremer did lousy implementation.

    “Compassionate Conservative” is an important strategy, done poorly by Bush (but, if abandoned, Reps won’t win). It should be higher tax credits to more organizations, both secular and Church based, with a reduction in direct gov’t spending on those things. And better gov’t publicity of how the NGOs are doing good things, with tax credit support of individuals who choose what programs are most worthy/ necessary.

    Job creation is the most compassionate conservative activity, but Bush never really highlighted his relative success at this up thru 2006.

    FM: perhaps you could remind us all of what the conservative intellectuals have been wrong about? Other than Iraq*.

    [*On the Iraq invasion strategy, freedom for some 20-25 mil. Iraqis is a pretty big win, so I won’t concede that those in favor of the Iraq war were wrong. If we leave too soon, and Iraq becomes a version of the Killing Fields, I’ll claim leaving too soon was the mistake. If we stay for 20 more years averaging less than 500 US deaths a year, but Iraq continues to have fairly free elections in that time, I’d still say it was good decision. ]
    Fabius Maximus replies: Since I never said they were wrong about anything, I see no need to “remind us all of what the conservative intellectuals have been wrong about.” Sowell’s jeremiad against “intellectuals” does raise this question, as I note above.

    On the other hand … From a broader perspective, conservative intellectuals have largely supported the Republican Party durings its long time in power. As the GOP has discredited conservative ideas more effectively than an leftist could. It might be a long time before American voters again trust the Republicans in power (esp with control of the Presidency and both houses of Congress). So I believe this support qualifies as “something wrong.”

  5. On the Iraq invasion strategy, freedom for some 20-25 mil. Iraqis is a pretty big win, so I won’t concede that those in favor of the Iraq war were wrong.

    Please do not attempt to argue that US invasion and occupation of Iraq has ‘freed’ Iraqis. An situation which includes the mass murder of 600,000 people, the forcing of 4 million of their neighbors into refugee camps, the return of waterborne diseases to a population which had been previously free of them, the vast increase in unemployment within a nation-state, the contamination of an environment with radioactive waste, the deaths of 4000 soldiers, the wounding of thousands more soldiers, and the long-lasting estrangement of these soldiers from their own society, is already a completely loathsome event. To attempt to claim that it was done for the victims’ “freedom” will only add a repulsive, sickly-sweet scent of hypocrisy on top of the pervading stench of death.

  6. The facts show that Iraqi society in Baghdad is more free today than ever in my life, for the survivors. And all wars are terrible for those lost.

    Atheist, I think the Civil War did worse damage, and, arguably, the ‘unnecessary’ Normandy invasion of D-Day (containing Hitler, waiting for more A-bombs, letting the national socialists fight the communists even more than they had been.)

    Much of the death in Iraq was caused by some Iraqis supporting Al Qaeda against the US/ Coalition — when the Anbar Awakening (2006) had Sunni tribal leaders against AQ, they were able to combine with US forces (aided by the Surge)to stop the violence. Supporters of the war, like me, have always heard in Bush’s words, and actions, that a big reason for the war was freedom.

    That some Bush-haters refuse to read Bush speeches where he states this indicates their own lack of intellectual honesty; that some Bush-haters do read the speeches but then follow Bush’s real words with their own ‘insight’ that Bush’s words of freedom are false, again show a dishonesty.
    That some analysts argue that democracy is impossible, or freedom is undesired in Arab Muslim countries, is an argument against trying to achieve the freedom goal.

    Clearly creating freedom in Iraq was not as easy as most pro-war folk thought it would be. But to either claim freedom was not an explicit Bush goal, or that much greater relative freedom is not the 5 year later result, are both factually wrong. (See the YouTube video about Baghdad linked by Instapundit, for instance.)

    The costs of the war are separate from the goals.

    Since 2004, most of the violence in Iraq is due to Iraqi support of anti-Freedom fighters fighting against the freedom fighters. I have supported, and continue to support, Operation Iraqi Freedom, because I favor freedom, and think it’s worth fighting, and killing, and even killing innocents for. Tho innocents and non-combatants shouldn’t be target, and mostly are not from the imperfect US, but are from the evil terrorists.

    I wonder if you would have the intellectual honesty to accept that the US Congress, after the 1973 Peace Accords, decided to lose Vietnam (and Cambodia) — and thus allow the Killing Fields? I feel far more American Shame for that than for Iraq.

    As the (UN non-)genocide in Darfur continues, I’d guess most anti-war folk would continue to prefer genocide over war-to-stop genocide. I’d favor, with or without UN agreement, war to stop genocide. Despite the costs.

    The Kurds in Iraq are hugely pro-American, so for them it was not a completely loathsome event.

    And, if more Arab countries become more democratic, thanks to the Iraq democracy, it will further show the huge gain — admittedly at quite a large cost.

    How many Americans would have had to die before you thought the Civil War was such a loathsome event that it couldn’t be supported?
    Fabius Maximus replies: The comment policy, clearly stated at the end of each post, asks that comments be a max of 250 words. At 480 words, this is twice that — more like a post. Please be more careful in the future. You could post this at your blog and put a summary and link here.

    As for stopping genocide, you are welcome to fund and staff a NGO with forces to stop such things — an Idealists’ Foreign Legion. No doubt our great universities will be sources of money and recruits for your program, as large numbers of their faculty and students support such things. Please use your children and those of your supporters, not mine and those who consider the idea daft. the purpose of the US military is to defent the land and people of the United States, not wage crusades around the world.

  7. Tom, I’ll give you that the total damage caused by Iraq is probably less than in many famous wars of the past. I don’t see the significance. If the Civil war killed 1,200,000, then 600,000 dead is still a horrible disaster.

    As far as the “intellectual dishonesty” goes, it just seems elementary to me that people, politicians, and states use deception. Bush just seems to exemplify this rule.

    I very much disagree that Iraqis are, on the whole, freer than before the invasion. The state still has torture and oppressive government, but can no longer guarantee the security of most Iraqis. It isn’t freedom this young woman is describing. And even if it had somehow succeeded, I would still be against creating democracies by killing all the inconvenient people. The idea seems criminal to me.

  8. Also, Tom, I honestly don’t know what I would have thought about the Civil War or World War II. I haven’t spent nearly as much time learning about those wars as about more recent wars, and especially about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the idea of the “Global War on Terror”, the neoconservatives, and terrorism in general. These things just seem more topical to me.

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