Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Pure, Beautiful, Ever-Receding Dream of True Conservatism

It's quite a sign of both intellectual bankruptcy and political desperation to see "thoughtful conservatives" increasingly trying to distinguish some abstract, ideal, Platonic vision of "conservatism" from the actual policies advocated and pursued by practically every real-life conservative over the past thirty years--which cumulatively have led the United States into a disastrous cul-de-sac, economically, socially, and on the world stage.

As Ezra Klein smartly notes, the precise analogy is to old-time Marxists who spent decades plaintively declaring that "true" Marxism had never been tried, seeking in vain to disavow responsibility for the visible results of actual Marxism virtually everywhere it existed (and as supported in most cases by those same Marxists).

A vivid illustration of how the same phenomenon now dominates conservative "thinking" is found in today's George Will column about the line-item veto. The concept is in the news again because Mitt Romney has taken to pushing as a way of distinguishing himself from Rudy Giuliani (who legally battled a short-lived version of the veto when Clinton tried to use it to cancel funds for New York).

Will quite correctly points out that the line-item veto was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court on grounds that make perfect sense. He also points out, again correctly, that creating such a veto through constitutional amendment would have the effect of "substantially augmenting what should not be further augmented--presidential power."

But then, having established a principled difference between himself and a huge chunk of the conservative establishment, Will proceeds to announce that this does not suggest a possible flaw in conservative ideology--which by definition is impossible. How so? Because the line-item veto isn't a conservative idea at all:

The line-item veto expresses liberalism's faith in top-down government and the watery Caesarism that has produced today's inflated presidency. Liberalism assumes that executive branch experts, free from parochial constituencies, know, as Congress does not, what is good for the nation "as a whole." This is contrary to the public philosophy of James Madison's "extensive" republic with its many regions and myriad interests.
Get that? An idea that first gained widespread fame as part of Newt Gingrich's Contract With America; that was passed in both House and Senate thanks to overwhelming support by self-proclaimed conservative Republicans, despite substantial opposition by Democrats; that was then challenged in court by five Democratic members of Congress (supported by a single Republican, Mark Hatfield); and that since then has been advocated almost entirely by conservative Republicans like Romney (and in fact is being used by Romney to help shore up his conservative bona fides)--this idea is, for George Will, an expression of "liberalism."

It's fine for people to play around with words and ideas, creating their own fairyland versions of concepts as an exercise in pure esthetic/philosophical gamesmanship. Conceptual artists and avant-garde theoreticians do stuff like that all the time, which is why they influence a total audience of approximately 217 people.

If Will ever went on ABC's This Week and admitted that the ideal conservatism he adulates has little connection with the policies and personalities that dominate the Republican Party, he would thereby be declaring his own intellectual irrelevance--which is why he will never say any such thing, instead leaving the relationship between his ideals and the muck of actual politics as vague as possible.

And the mainstream media's tolerance for that vagueness creates a situation in which fantasists like Will are invited week after week to appear on national television and granted significant political clout to help shore up support for actual conservatives and undermine actual liberals--despite the fact that these real-world beings share very little with Will's fairyland visions except the terms used to name them.

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