The Agents of Conservatism

Jonathan Chait had a post up recently about the defeat of the Reformicons in the fight for the soul of the GOP. But who are the Reformicons and who are they up against?

Who are the agents of conservatism? I don't mean the voters, I mean the people  in the public sphere whose combined efforts generate the platform and message of the Republican Party. These days, that is synonymous with the people whose actions form our use of the word "conservative" in American English. These are politicians, academics, pundits, think tank denizens, and big campaign contributors who dominate one half of our body politic.


Reformicons: People like NYT "sensible conservative" columnists Ross Douthat and David Brooks are like Cowboys fans born and raised in Washington, D.C. Growing up, they viewed the adult world as essentially liberal (Douthat among Yale professors in New Haven, Brooks from a Jewish family in New York City), and so to stake out their own identity they became partisans for the other side. Just like Cowboys fans, they have a retrofitted ideology that, they claim, gives them intellectual justification that they are on the "right team." In Washington, there is a myth that the large number of local Dallas Cowboy fans is the result of the fact that the Washington Redskins were the last team in the NFL to include a black player. In reality, a large chunk of contrarians has rooted for Washington's biggest rival since before either team integrated. In the exact same manner, suburban White Sox fans, surrounded by Cubs fans, argue that Wrigley field is a glorified beer garden where no one watches the game itself. These White Sox fans just like the attention, and would sing Wrigley's praises if that's where their team played. The thing is, the Reformicons got the reputation for reasonableness because, at their core, they are reasonable people. They believe that we should be careful about unintended consequences and slow to change institutions that have worked in the past. This is sometimes called Oakeshott conservatism after the English writer and thinker. The problem is that there is almost never a good Oakeshott argument for the actions and policy of the GOP, so both Douthat and Brooks alternate between advocating for positions that the GOP will never adopt and justifications of actual GOP positions that read like parody and are unintentionally hilarious. See, e.g., "It's Not About Race".

Charlatans: Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Roger Ailes, Bill O'Reilly. Movement conservatism originated, in part, with a scam artist named Richard Viguerie who got rich by compiliing a mailing list of Goldwater voters. Why compile such a list? Because paranoid anti-communist racists will fall for anything. And they will send you money. Rick Perlstein explained in a must read article in The Baffler titled "The Long Con":

Here was a key to the hustle: typically, only 10 to 15 percent of the haul went to the intended beneficiaries. The rest went back to Viguerie’s company. In one too-perfect example, Viguerie raised $802,028 for a client seeking to distribute Bibles in Asia—who paid $889,255 for the service.

Conservatism remains a scam to this day:

I literally pulled the very first advertisement I saw on the conservative "news" website "Newsmax.com". Conservatism is for suckers.

I literally pulled the very first advertisement I saw on the conservative "news" website "Newsmax.com". Conservatism is for suckers.

Evil debaters: Ted Cruz. Some people are literally perverse. They take joy in successfully bamboozling people into thinking the weaker argument is the stronger (one of the false accusations against Socrates that led to the hemlock). For people like Cruz, if they can convince you of crazy nonsense (e.g., the public will totally blame Obama if we shut down the government), it proves he is superior to you. It's basically intellectual rape. That's right. Ted Cruz is an intellectual rapist.

Dumb people: Louie Gomert. Steve King. Scott Walker. Ronald Reagan. For whatever reason, dumb people with political ambitions seem to gravitate to the GOP. Perhaps it's just that fate intervenes? If Reagan hadn't gotten that gig with GE he might have spent his entire career as an actor and a New Dealer. Damn GE (also a massive defense contractor, GE is the living breathing embodiment of the military-industrial complex).

Power preservers: The Koch Brothers, Jack Welch, Jaime Dimon, everyone who gives money to "The Club for Growth". These people are at the top of the pyramid and will do whatever it takes to stay there. In some ways, they are to be pitied: their entire self-worth is based on how their wealth compares to others. Some rich people (e.g. Warren Buffet) are emotionally healthy and know that being rich has nothing to do with being successful. But the power preservers aren't healthy. Low self-worth haunts them and they aren't good at anything except making money. So they have no choice but to believe that that talent (or, more often, inheritance) makes them better than other people. These people claim to want economic growth, but they actually don't care about the size of the economic pie. They just care that the slices continue to be handed out in the same lopsided fashion. That's why bankers deliberately try to weaken financial reform even though they know the next crisis will take a big chunk out of their wealth. That's a small price to pay in exchange for keeping the game rigged so that, rain or shine, they always have more than everybody else.

Strangely, this group also includes the representatives of some of the very poorest Americans: Southern White Racists. Mistakenly identified by their jobs, these members of "the white working class" couldn't care less about the interests of their class. All they know is that if black people get a fair shake, there will no longer be anyone between them and the bottom of American society. For these folks, a tiny slice of the economic pie is just enough, as long as it is a bigger slice than black people get. These people aren't political actors themselves, but the job of playing to their racist fears is always part of the electoral arm of conservatism.

True believers: Rand Paul. Paul Ryan. Many academic economists including New Kenseyan Greg Mankiw and Real Business Cycle advocate Robert Lucas. Bright boys whose minds were poisoned by Ayn Rand at a vulnerable age. These folks tend to be called "ideological" but they aren't really defined by their values or ideas. What the true believers have in common is that they all believe an empirical claim that has been proven false. Basically, they don't understand how the world works, but are supremely confident that they do. The content of what the true believers believe has become the language of Reaganism, and in some ways misinforms the entire discourse of the English speaking world since the victory of Reagan and Thatcher. What is the core confusion? It originated in academic economics departments, so it's no coincidence it was first described by an economist. Thorstein Veblen diagosed the problem back in 1898 ("Why Economics is not an Evolutionary Science." The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Volume 12, 1898.):

The reason for [their] failure seems to lie in a faulty conception of human nature... In all the received formulations of economic theory, whether at the hands of English economists or those of the Continent, the human material with which the inquiry is concerned is conceived in hedonistic terms; that is to say, in terms of a passive and substantially inert and immutably given human nature. The psychological and anthropological preconceptions of the economists have been those which were accepted by the psychological and social sciences some generations ago. [The hedonistic man] has neither antecedent nor consequent. He is an isolated definitive human datum, in stable equilibrium except for the buffets of the impinging forces that displace him in one direction or another... Spiritually, the hedonistic man is not a prime mover. He is not the seat of a process of living, except in the sense that he is subject to a series of permutations enforced upon him by circumstances external and alien to him.
The later psychology, re-inforced by modern anthropological research, gives a different conception of human nature.

This confused conception of human nature as essentially hedonistic often manifests as an implicit belief that the profit motive is more or less the only motive of human action. This comes up a lot in "government is the problem" arguments. In reality, government workers strive to do a good job. That's what humans do. But for true conservatives, government workers can't possibly do a good job because there is no financial incentive for them to do so. To the true believer, claiming that the government can do a task well is like claiming sometimes gravity works in reverse. These arguments almost always end with laughter from the conservative because liberals seem just silly to them.

But this belief doesn't just undermine faith in government. Sounding like a hard headed realist is a great cover for racism. I have actually seen conservatives claim in comment threads that black people do a poor job of raising their children because there is no financial reward for doing a better job. Why? Because poor schools and crime, etc. guarantee that even a well-raised child won't succeed, get a good job, and make enough money to provide for his elderly parents. But that's the Internet, right? Well, no. In person, at a wedding, I had a Republican yelling at me because I insisted that the GOP was simply wrong to believe that the profit motive explains most human action. His girlfriend had to pull him away. True story.

And we all know about the 47%. Later, Romney supporters argued that Obama won because he bought off voters with financial gifts like unemployment insurance and SNAP benefits. Yeah, no other reason to vote for the articulate, inspirational guy who kept us out of a depression, avoided stupid wars, and helped middle class folks moving away from the absurd system where the quality of your health care depends on the generosity of your employer!


This, ultimately, is why I rage against economists: They may whine that politicians don't actually listen to them, but their misunderstanding of human nature has won over the press and the pundit class by becoming the language of debate. Utility, efficiency, rational actors, just prices, uncompetitive workers, distortion of markets, crowding out private investment... None of it is correct, none of it even makes any sense, but this language of misunderstanding is what we use to decide our democratic course. As long as it is defended by the experts, it will continue to ensure that our national discussion is founded upon a obviously false empirical claim about human beings. And it will continue to put a thumb on the political scale, making it possible for the Republican Party to actively fight only for the interests of the wealthy and the powerful and yet win the votes of almost half the country.