A "Great Society" Conservative

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

An article in the New York Times by Joshua Green makes some very perceptive comments about Karl Rove. Titled "A 'Great Society' Conservative", the article comes very close to hitting the nail on the head with respect to what it calls "the paradox at the heart of Karl Rove's tenure in the White House":

As Mr. Rove sought a political realignment that would create a durable Republican majority, he seized on government as his chief mechanism. He tried to realign American politics principally through the pursuit of major initiatives that he believed would reorient a majority of Americans to the Republican Party: establishing education standards; rewriting immigration laws; partially privatizing Social Security and Medicare; and allowing religious organizations to receive government financing.

The only thing that united these government actions was the likelihood that they would weaken political support for Democrats. Social Security privatization would create a generation of market-minded stockholders. Pork-barrel spending on religious organizations would keep evangelical Christians engaged in the political process -- and pry loose some African-American voters by funneling money to black churches. No Child Left Behind would appeal to voters who traditionally looked to Democrats as the party of education. And generous immigration policies would persuade Hispanics to vote Republican.
To be fair to Rove, it is absurd to equate, without any explanation, the partial rollback of a government program with the institution or expansion of an existing program. (Within the context of the greater question of whether we should have Social Security at all, however, the issue of why Rove did not champion its partial privatization as a step towards outright repeal of Social Security is a very pregnant one.)

Nevertheless, the above paragraph shows that Rove typifies where the conservative movement is these days, as Brad Thompson pointed out a year ago in "The Decline and Fall of American Conservatism", when he said the following about the two major factions of the conservative movement:
[C]ompassionate conservatism's moral and political teaching boils down to this: first, that needs -- the needs of others -- constitute a moral claim on your life; second, that you -- you the taxpayer, you the private individual -- have a "duty" to support -- nay, to love and support -- the poor; and finally, that the federal government must coerce your love and compassion by taking your wealth and giving it to "private" organizations that will use it to serve "those whom prosperity has left behind."


[A]ccording to [Irving] Kristol and friends, the principles espoused by John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison lead inevitably to the Marquis de Sade, Abby Hoffman, and Jerry Springer. If the growth of the state represented the road to serfdom for Hayek, limiting the state to the protection of individual rights represents the road to nihilism for the neocons. The great political lesson that the neocons have successfully taught other conservatives and their Republican students over the course of the last twenty-five years is to embrace rather than resist the growth of the state.


What GOP strategists need, according to Kristol and company, is a strong "dose of Machiavellian shrewdness," the characteristics of which are "quick-wittedness, articulateness, a clear sense of one's ideological agenda and the devious routes necessary for its enactment." The neocons' message to traditional conservatives and Republicans is, in effect: "Grow up! Get over your ideological hang-ups. Be clever. Develop an agenda that will get you elected and keep you in power." Once in power, says Kristol, the GOP must learn how to "shape" rather than balance or cut the budget, which means: shape it in politically advantageous ways (i.e., in ways that buy votes). [notes removed, bold added]
In his embrace of the welfare state, then, Rove is really only an example of a typical conservative.

Karl Rove, from my own experience of occasionally hearing leftists talk about him, is about as well-liked by the left as Hillary Clinton is by the right. This visceral disgust, coupled with the left's inability to appreciate the importance of philosophical ideas, will thus lead to two things which the following paragraph nicely exemplifies:
Of course, there is a bright side. If nothing else, Mr. Rove has strengthened the conservative critique of what happens when you try to engineer great societal changes through government policy. Perhaps conservatives can find some solace by telling themselves they were right all along.
Since the focus of criticism from the left ends up being on the man rather than his political philosophy, said criticism will end up being of the sarcastic variety, and (1) the left will fail to question its own faith in big government (If the conservatives were "right all along" about small government, then why not learn from the lesson?) while (2) even its valid criticism comes off as needlessly insulting and so becomes more likely to fall on deaf ears on the right, which could stand to take this one to heart.

In truth, Karl Rove is not some all-powerful sage whose absence is going to cause all the Democrats' problems to go away. Conversely, he is not, single-handedly, why the Republicans have faltered in recent years. History is not moved by individual personalities, but by ideas. Interestingly enough, that is the very lesson nobody, left or right, seems to be getting from this story.

-- CAV

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