Wednesday, October 22, 2008
the divide, again
As I've said before, the fact of the matter is that while conservatives act as if they have an opposition in principle to one part of the country sneering at another part, they participate in the Red Hate/Blue Hate thing far more openly and enthusiastically than their liberal counterparts. To the extent that liberals do this sort of thing at all, they do it quietly, and publicly denounce "looking down at rubes". But sneering up at elites? It's the Republican national pastime, enthusiastically and publicly pursued at all levels of Republican comment. The Vice Presidential candidate revels in it, the intelligentsia bends over backwards to justify it, the political class knows they need it, the rank and file lives for it, the election has been made strictly about it. Don't kid yourselves, conservatives. This election cycle your ideological mainstream has gone all in on hatred of people who are not just like you, and made the culture war the single dominant meta-narrative of American public discourse. You aren't necessarily responsible for who's captaining that boat, but you should probably admit he's got the wheel if you're along for the ride.
There's been a lot of talk in reformist conservative circles about what the litmus test for conservatism is these days. It's simple: the willingness to participate in dividing the country between worthy people and rotten people. There's no ideology or policy preference or philosophy or method of intellectual comportment that holds a candle to hatred of the other, in today's American conservatism. To that extent, a reformist conservative is no conservative at all. Some will deny this. But they only have to look around to see the absurdity of this claim. Spend a few moments on Red State. Cruise around the Corner. Follow Instapundit's links. Check out Drudge. Watch Fox News. Attend a McCain/Palin rally. Tell me what you see. You can certainly question the right of these culturally conservative institutions to expel anyone from the ranks of conservatism, but if we recognize that they represent a kind of conservative center, we should acknowledge that this center seeks to define conservatism by its willingness to exclude others from real America.
This isn't fair to many conservatives. But there simply exists a conservative movement, a conservative center of gravity, that has moral content. And that mainstream of conservative thought insists on cleaving these bright lines. So while I have sympathy for those who come under criticism here unfairly, to an extent this is an inevitable consequence of exactly the "big sort" that the Republican mainstream has been engaging in.
I mean, if a liberal of Joe Carter's prominence wrote this, but from the opposite perspective, man, it'd be bedlam. Carter makes a point to say that he doesn't necessarily endorse these opinions. However well-intentioned, the whole thing seems to me a moment of shoving weak stereotypes into the face of those snooty liberals. "Haha! You Ivy League types aren't so smart after all! Haha! Soldiers hate you! Hoho!" I put it to you that even if a liberal commentator said "I don't necessarily think these things are true", this would be seen as a way to catalogue ugly attitudes towards Red staters. Can you tell me that a liberal publishing the identical piece wouldn't result in howls of anger? I think it would.
There comes a time when a reformer has to realize that what he is reforming is beyond saving. At what point does the conservative zeal for punishing the wicked Blue become such a dominant narrative on your side that principle demands you abandon the designation? Conservatism is not going to give up on dividing the nation into camps of the worthy and the unworthy. It is not going to stop questioning the patriotism of those who disagree with it. It's the engine that powers the ideology. It's possible that conservatism can be saved from pure other-hatred. But I am beyond skeptical. Those who question this allegiance to pure identity politics are quickly smacked down by the conservative message-discipline machine. (A machine which has no liberal analog.) What's more, those conservatives who do pose these kinds of questions then become twice as likely to traffic in apologetics for the same kind of behavior, as their professional lives depend on not going too far off the reservation. (Pick your favorite CW-questioning conservative blogger. Wait for them to post something critical of conservative hatred of unreal America. Now see how long it takes them to turn around and excuse a similar but less intense argument. I think you'll find it happens with almost mathematical precision.)
So look, conservatives-- if you're going to engage in tribalism, here is your party. Here's your tribe. It's at an extreme place. I can't continue to take stock of conservatism as it currently stands and deny that the only meaningful criteria for designation as a conservative is willingness to cast your opponents out of the American experience. (Which is an act of extreme intellectual violence.) Believe this: it is your duty to hate me, if you are a conservative, as I am a member of unreal, unAmerican America, in the eyes of the most entrenched and powerful interests within movement conservatism. That's what it's come to. Me, and other people who don't live in the right parts of the country, like the modern day Soddom of New York. Some have objected to the Daily Show's use of an image of firefighters on 9/11 as a reminder of the absurdity and cruelty of this meme. Well, sorry. The point is well made: after seven years of using an attack on New York as an excuse for whatever exercises in militarism they favor, many conservatives are now remembering their incredible distaste for what that city is really about. Their love for New York was love for a symbol, not the actual living, breathing, alien and diverse population of the city. That, the very beating heart of Blue America, they can't stand, and won't stand with. Again, don't take my word for it. Listen to what they say about people from New York. Let them speak for themselves, and believe that they really mean what they say.
Update: Changed some wording in the third paragraph.
Update II: Here's what I've failed to say, and it's key: the point isn't that all conservatives act this way, when they clearly don't. The point is that to the degree that there is a national conservative consensus, it has decided to fight this election in this terms. Now, that's no more a problem than it is anytime our party or ideological identification compels us to do things we don't agree with. The problem is that there is a separate conversation going on: does conservatism require fealty to the conservative apparatus? Someone like Helen, I think, has a vision of a loyalty-based conservatism that is perfectly principled. The problem is that it requires conservatives to adopt views that are contrary to their general framework of right behavior. At the risk of paraphrasing, it seems to me that the point of the Corner for the last two months has been to say that you have to eventually put away notions of principle and be a good soldier. That is for some conservatives a linchpin of conservative thought; for others, it's nonsense. So that's the problem facing conservatives who don't cotton to this "real America" talk. You've got first a conservative establishment insisting there is a real America and a fake one, and second a strand of conservatism that says that loyalty to the establishment is a necessary conservative virtue. I think conservatives uncomfortable with the culture war can dispute the latter, but not the former.
Update III: William Randolph asks in comments if culture war is an unavoidable consequence of conservatism. My intuition is that it is not, but I do think that the emphasis on traditionalism within conservatism makes it susceptible to this kind of thinking. Perhaps more importantly, the liberal focus on tolerance makes liberals less likely to engage in similar tactics.The real question is, does politics make this kind of division inevitable? This campaign may serve as a referendum on the idea that you can win electoral victory by declaring your opponents alien to the American experience. The problem is that, even if this is a losing strategy, it's a high risk-reward strategy, so campaigns with significant inherent disadvantages (like McCain's) might decide to take their swings with this method, even if it is as unsuccessful as polling suggests it will be.