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The Great Repudiation

The great James Ceaser writes the best summary of the meaning of the 2010 midterms that I have seen to date.  I recommend taking it in tandem with Henry Olsen's recent piece--which repeatedly has been noted here as deserving of much consideration and reflection.  Unless I am misreading the two pieces (which, I confess, is entirely possible) they seem to be in disagreement on one very important point.  Whether they actually are in disagreement is another matter, but as this point is something that has been gnawing at me for weeks in my own consideration of the best of leading commentary on the election, I venture now to address it and put the question to you.  Is it really true that Republicans--in the wake of this historic victory--have to steady themselves against the temptations of hubris?  Is there really an overwhelming danger of so-called "over-reach"?  And, perhaps even more important, what exactly do we mean when we talk about hubris and over-reach?  Some clarification is in order.

Ceaser's closing paragraph comes closest to what I think must be the heart of the matter:

The Republicans' case [for representing the what "the people really want" from their government], . . . is already under assault. Along with the Democrats' open campaign to persuade the public that the election did not mean what Republicans thought, there is an allied effort underway, far more subtle, to undermine and weaken the Republican position. It comes from a group of self-proclaimed wise men who present themselves as being above the fray. These voices, acting from a putative concern for the nation and even for the Republican Party, urge Republicans to avoid the mistake of Obama and the Democrats after 2008 of displaying hubris and overinterpreting their mandate. With this criticism of the Democrats offered as a testimony of their even handedness and sincerity, they piously go on to tell Republicans that now is the time to engage in bipartisanship and follow a course of compromise. The problem with this sage advice is that it calls for Republicans to practice moderation and bipartisanship after the Democrats did not. It is therefore not a counsel of moderation, but a ploy designed to force Republicans to accept the "overreach" and the policies of the past year and half. It is another way to defend "the change." If Republicans are to remain true to the verdict of 2010, they cannot accept that the message of this election was just containment; it must mean roll back.

Olsen's argument, however, is deeply rooted in his thoughtful observations of working class voters and their fears of too much change.  He seems to suggest that there is something very real in the caution offered Republicans to beware of hubris.  Tea Party or no Tea Party, there is no evidence of a real and consistent conservative majority in American politics--as some hopeful or lazy conservatives would have us believe.  Perhaps there is something fundamental in the American character that resists progressivism . . . but it probably does not reflect much of anything conservatives have done to win them over.  As Olsen puts it:

Conservatives often assume that elections like 2010 show America has a consistent conservative majority. I think it is more accurate to say that they show that America has a consistent anti-progressive majority. The task conservatives have today is to transform the anti-progressive majority into a pro-conservative one.

In other words, conservatives have still got a lot of persuading to do.  And the problem for conservatives, as Olsen suggests and Ceaser flatly asserts, is that conservatives are the ones who will now be pushing for change.  So called "progressives" will become the ones trying to preserve the status quo.  If Olsen's understanding of working class voters holds true, there is reason to suppose that too much "change" will frighten them.  Thus the caution--not coming so much from Olsen, but quite loudly from Democrats and some bewildered Republicans who do not trust this revolution within the Republican ranks--to "go slow," avoid the temptations of "hubris," and avert the disaster of 1994.

There are many reasons why 2010 is not 1994--beginning, above all, with the personalities involved.  If ever there was a display of hubris on all sides, the Clinton/Gingrich cage fight was one for the annals.  But leaving personalities aside, time and circumstance have been a great clarifying agent in what Olsen calls the "50 years war" (I might stretch it out a bit further than that, but why quibble?).  But it is also true that Clinton won that match by allowing conservatives to wallow in their own victory.  That is, he gave us most of what we said we wanted and claimed that it was nothing more than what he'd always wanted too.  That people believed him and that voters were largely satisfied with this "victory" was our fault.  We did not engage in the fundamental disagreements at the heart of our differences over policy.   Instead, we assumed that voters were already in lock-step agreement with us on these fundamental points.  We became policy wonks and we boldly pushed where no Republican had pushed before for that idiotic word:  "change."  To what, for what, and why were left there lying on the gurney--with barely a pulse to share between them--and expected to rise at a moment's notice and stand together, arms linked and firm in the face of an onslaught dedicated to "progress." 

Conservatives are right to suggest that there will still be a lot of work to do in the realm of persuasion.  But when some Republicans hear this kind of talk, they are going to interpret it as "let's not try to do too much . . . let's be trimmers and go slow"--which means they'll be tempted to compromise too much on principle and work at odds with the spirit of the Tea Party. 

The failure of 1994 was not in going "too fast" but in failing to persuade as they moved.  The Republicans of 2010 will make the same mistake, this time, if they fail to understand the spirit of the Tea Party which is, at bottom, nothing more than the spirit of '76.  This does not mean that they have to set themselves up for a mad dash to satisfy the demands of every Tea Party organizer or supporter.  But it does mean that they cannot act in ways contrary to the principles of 1776.  More important, it means that they are going to have to understand what those principles are and they are going to have to explain themselves and justify their actions in light of these principles at every turn. 

The Tea Party Spirit is not as coherent as it needs to be among the people most vocally clamoring for it.  But that doesn't mean it is actually devoid of content.  The content is there and it can be discovered and defended.  This, above all other things, is what these Republicans were elected to do.  Americans want action on behalf of directing the economy to a more freedom loving and, therefore, prosperous territory.  But its almost true to say that they'd like that to come along with a tutorial for their friends and neighbors who now operate with only a dim understanding of these things, thanks largely to the progressive narrative of American history.  They want America to once again coalesce around the principles they understand once made us great.  They want to be great again and they want elected officials to be worthy of this project.   

Again:  Slow is not the operative word here.  Slow is NOT the key element of what ought to be the recipe for GOP success.  Persuasion is.  And while the GOP should make no compromise that involves compromising a principle--it is almost more important that they be clear about why they won't make it--even if not compromising means that they fail to get close to achieving their goal.  Little things (and some big things) can be sacrificed or ignored if there is no violation of principle or if there is no possibility of success for our side.  But the principle has to be explained every time something is done (or attempted) in the name of it . . . and almost nothing should be done that is not in the name of these big principles.   

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Discussions - 10 Comments

For the limits of compromise, see my piece here:

Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.

The great problem will be getting those newly elected to be able to speak in a principled manner who are ignorant of the principles themselves. I am thinking specifically of the businessmen (not all of them, of course) who are good at what they do, champions of the private sector, but do not know who John Locke is.

There are plenty of businessmen who understand Locke's principles even if they do not know who he was. Must they? There are plenty of academics who know who Locke was without understanding his principles. I would rather follow a business man, or any man, who echoed Locke than an academic who, knowing all about Locke, would tell me why I really ought to prefer Hegel.

Besides, Locke was observing the world and how men live, not creating laws for men to live by. Your businessman may not know Locke when he hears him quoted, but he will inadvertently paraphrase on property, especially. Are Lockean principles enough for persuasion, or do we need people who know his rhetoric, too?

We can wish for Ciceros, but we are going to get Romneys or Christies or Jindals or Palins and maybe with a principled chorus the nation can catch onto the tune without being able to name it.

That may be true, but I guess my hope is that our representatives have a worldliness about them which, at one point in time, would not have been too much to ask for. Think of the range of things a man like Jefferson was well-versed in. Now, I am not saying that we can reasonably expect a Jefferson to spring up in our midst, but businessmen can be very narrow. And I think the importation of business-like language into politics where it doesn't fit the mold (noted by James Caesar, whose article was, I think, posted on NLT) comes from successful captains of industry who think the government should be run like a company.

It shouldn't. One can be a businessman and not a conservative, after all.

Isn't that James Ceasar article good?

Even Jefferson wasn't always Jefferson in the way we would like him to be.

If our government were run like a business, all of the material and real property that our government owns would be held as assets on the national balance sheet in a way it is not now. Just consider the national parks. How much do you think the land and facilities and mining rights to those are worth? Would that offset the national debt -- somewhat? How about all federal real estate in cities and all over the country -- post offices and government buildings of all sorts, including the art work and other things inside of them. If the value of all of that were carried "on the book" as assets, what would those be worth? All the stuff of our military from ships to airplanes to hospitals to the Pentagon -- assets? All the DC real estate we own -- assets?

Of course, the problem is that the federal government is in the acquisition business and not in the sales business when it comes to that sort of thing. Would we sell even one national park? How about the 2/3 (or something) of Alaska that the federal government owns?

Anyway, if America ran itself like a business all of those things would be considered assets and balance our books. Can we talk to businessmen like that?

Then relate the argument to Locke on property.

Persuasion, yes. I suggest reading and heeding Pete Spiliakos' comment a week ago on the dangers of talking from the Rightworld point of view:

Good conversation. Thanks.

Kate and Owl both bring up good points. I think the article Owl is thinking of is this one from Charles Kesler on the problems of the MBA set:

Having accepted that and taking Owl's point, I'd also press Kate's point and remind him that there is a world of difference between the MBA set and an ordinary businessman of the practical variety. It is often true that in the case of the latter, they talk like Locke without ever having read him . . . and they do so (also) without the added problem of having become a "Rightworld Provincial."

What is often better, in such cases, is that such men can sometimes talk like Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, Adams, Washington, Lincoln and the rest of the boys. And they might be persuaded--in addition to talking like them--to sometimes read and refer to them and think about what they are saying and how to make it persuasive. Locke is probably a harder sell . . . and that's not simply a bad thing.

I tried to qualify my statement somewhat and say that I wasn't speaking against all businessmen. I think there are a certain type who are more than worthy of our respect -- the problem is that they do not often run for office. I distrust the attitude that "if I take office, I'm gonna do exactly what I did with my company, gosh dang it!"

We can say that free-markets are the best steward of human liberty and this and that, but there is something off-putting about a political actor who speaks exclusively in economic terms. It is dehumanizing, and what is more, not necessarily allied with the cause of the Founding (cf. Paul Krugman!).

Kate I am not really an academic, I just think the James Ceasar piece is great.

In the cliff's notes version of legal theory Hegel and Locke are proponents of natural law.

Hegel equals Jane Radin, Locke equals Richard Epstein.

Ferrier in the comment above is Francis Bacon.

The role of dead people in political discourse...

"Even Jefferson wasn't always Jefferson in the way we would like him to be."-Kate

"I cannot live without books."-Thomas Jefferson

"The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers."-Thomas Jefferson

"Obama, now the "conservative," will be using every ounce of his powers to sustain the parts of his program that have been enacted."-J Ceaser

"If Obama is to face some pressure from within his party, it is more likely to come from progressive intellectuals and bloggers outside of Congress."-J Ceaser

So Obama is a "conservative" who will face pressure from "progressives".

"and Ceaser flatly asserts, is that conservatives are the ones who will now be pushing for change. So called "progressives" will become the ones trying to preserve the status quo."-Julie

I agree with Julie's interpretation, but I find it significant that Ceaser uses "conservative" functionally.

That is the meaning of the term "conservative" for Ceaser is defensive. "Progressive" functionally is offensive.

I don't think Julie's reading that "progressives" will become the ones trying to preserve the status quo is accurate, and is in point of fact the opposite of what Ceaser flatly asserts.

I do think that Julie's reading that "progressives" will become the ones trying to preserve the status quo, will sound broadly in the right blogosphere.

Thus: "While the social scientist aims to present the truth of the matter, politicians and spinners live by a different ethic. Their job is to offer explanations that serve their party's (or their own) future political prospects."-J Ceaser.

That is serious philosophers or legal scholars might care about what is "progressive", Hegel, Radin, Craig S's accurate distinctions... but that hardly means we can't make derivatives violative of these moral rights. Wherever we find sheep we can extend the roof of progressivism, and call it a barn.

Of course once we do this: "Some of his supporters like to argue in one breath that he is a pragmatist and centrist only to insist in the next that he has inaugurated the most historic transformation of American politics since the New Deal. The two claims are incompatible." J. Ceaser.

Incompatible by what logic? Spinners and politicians have already willed the non-existance of the contradiction as a universal. Two claims are only incompatible if they are held as true by the same person, at the same time. America is composed of discrete individuals none of whom have to come to the same conclusion. As Scalia said in Lamb's Chapel:

"Like some ghoul in a late-night horror movie that repeatedly sits up in its grave and shuffles abroad, after being repeatedly killed and buried,"- Scalia.

The difference being that the Lemon Test is actually more specific, but there is nothing in a broad idea/sentiment "Historic Transformation of American Politics" that must conflict with being pragmatist or centrist.

Coca Cola is a Cola soft drink that need not conflict with Pepsi, but Coca Cola and Pepsi are distinguishable because the respective Corporations can enforce the trademark.

If I took water and sugar and brown food coloring and tried to sell it as Coke I would be prosecuted by Coca Cola. If I had a liscense and diluted the product, I would face a similar fate.

Because progressivism exists as progressivism as water, sugar and brown food coloring and a modicum of carbonation, it is impossible to repudiate Coca Cola.

That is the downfall of Obama can be cheared by "true" progressives just as the downfall of Bush can be cheared by "true" conservatives.

In this case true progressives and true conservatives are just enforcing the moral rights of the brand, by prosecuting and revoking the liscence of those who created derivative products(Rino, Dino). This is the meaning of the tea party.

I reject academic credentials, but will gladly take the title of "self-proclaimed wise men who present themselves as being above the fray." J Ceaser.

I will also accept the functional definition of progressive as those who seek change, or those who seek conformity with an idea or ideal.

I will accept the functional definition of conservative as those who seek to preserve the status quo.

In my world(derivative) true progressives and true conservatives see the "status quo" as a violation of the spirit and letter of the Constitution.

That is the functional conservatives argue stare decisis. The functional conservatives simply argue that the status quo is the result of a fight between progressive and conservative values.

The true conservatives and true progressives simply argue that those with standing(Bush or Obama) misrepresented the ideal.

For a whole host of reasons I think the tea party will be dissapointed, but I won't go so far as to suggest either moderation or bipartisanship.

Rather what is needed a this stage for me to take seriously the idea of "conservatism" or "progressivism". Is much more than a sort of ideological tea leaf reading of elections every two years.

We need a law!

I want to grant a trademark to an institution tasked with upholding the moral rights of conservative ideas, which can then lisense conservatism to politicians.

Republican politicians would have no duty to seek the lisense of the conservative institution.

And Democratic politicians would have no duty to seek the lisense of the progressive institution.

In fact these institutions could get a cause of action against columnist for attributing the label to non liscensed politicians.

That is Rino and Dino could mean just that, liscensed by the Republican or Democratic parties.

I mean as it is, why not Cino and Pino?

In name only, would mean something.

Furthermore we could have a death panel!

If Cheney was a liscensed conservative and he said "Deficit's don't matter." And Paul Ryan was a liscensed conservative and said: "Deficits matter." The adjudication of the contradiction in terms of deciding what is "conservative" would be determined by the principles of the Institution tasked with defending "conservatism". A group of conservatives who wished to maintain the significance of the label...would be forced to will the non-existance of one of these as a universal.

A death panel is a bit much, this would probably be cruel and unusual punishment...but what this really means is that Heresy and political contradiction...are really just left to voters at the polls.

The people are the institution...."The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."-Thomas Jefferson.

That is Coca Cola has a cause of action if a McDonalds or any liscensed distributor of its fountain drinks does so much as dilute coke more than 1.5% from the ideal (usage of trade).

But Conservatism, Progressivism? There is no defense of the name, that prevents it from being non-sensical.

As far as I know, Islam is the only religion that maintains what the Catholic Church used to have when it persecuted for Heresy. That is in Islam there is the issuance of a Fatwa, or a declaration that something violates a principle.

In some sense you can (and some liberals have) accused Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck of issueing what amounts to a Fatwa...

"God forbid we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion. The people cannot be all, and always, well informed. The part which is wrong will be discontented, in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive. If they remain quiet under such misconceptions, it is lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty.... And what country can preserve its liberties, if its rulers are not warned from time to time, that this people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to the facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure."-Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson and Madison certainly wanted to avoid religious strife, many today want to avoid cultural strife, some want to avoid ideological strife, or partisan strife.

A lot of folks absolutely love strife, but very few folks actually want to be the "natural manure".

To relate this concretely to the last election, check out this website by the Harry Reid campaign:

"We will win at the ballot box, or hit the bullet box."-Sharron Angle?

It seems rather clear to me that Reid violated Sharron's Angle's moral rights to speak for herself.

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