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Posts Tagged ‘Buckley’

Time CoverMy latest article, published today in POLITICO Magazine, coauthored with historian David Frisk — biographer of the late William A. Rusher, Buckley’s longtime colleague and the publisher of National Review. We explore the parallels between not-so-long-ago troubles in the GOP, and Rusher’s effort to creat a conservative third party in the 1970s, in particular reacting to the policies of the Nixon administration. Those efforts failed, as did other past GOP efforts at ideological “purification.” We see some lessons for the Tea Party here, and lament the lack of sensible conservative guidance that benefited earlier generations. David and I were both fortunate to have know Rusher, and in my case he served as an amiable debating partner and correspondent — always eager to debate politics and what “conservatism” was really all about.

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In the aftermath of the trouncing last Tuesday, some in the media and on the Right are finally beginning to examine the consequences of the conservative echo chamber. I’ve had friends who have been part of the conservative movement for decades complaining to me about this for years, and the chickens are — yes — finally coming home to roost. How far we’ve come from the days when an editor named William F. Buckley Jr. used media, like National Review and Firing Line (a program broadcast on PBS) to provide a forum for informed debate and exchange of ideas.

Insightful analysis here from POLITICO’s Jonathan Martin, and a personal portrait of one loyal GOPer’s personal bubble-bursting experience in the Post. And for reference, Bill Maher has been talking about this (with a literal bubble as a prop) for years.

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All kinds of folks from the ideological Right are calling for a break with the newly and awkardly reconstituted Romney GOP. Is it time, as Laura Ingraham said, to just start over? My thoughts here on POLITICO this weekend.

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Here’s the link to my op-ed column today in the Greensboro, North Carolina News and Record  N&R Op-Ed on Chief Justice John Roberts’ crucial vote on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”). With many on the Right howling about Roberts betraying the conservative cause, I thought it important to point out to my fellow swing-state voters here in the Tar Heel state that properly understood, conservatism — and especially legal conservatism — has always rejected the concept of party lines and ideological “correctness.” Discussing Roberts’ ACA vote with a former law professor of mine who has strong ties to the legal conservative movement, I was reminded that some of Roberts’ prior votes have indeed reflected typical conservative party-line thinking. But that, to my mind, is the point — and value — of his ACA vote. It shows the Chief Justice as intellectually inclined to judge each case on the merits and within its own context. The modern conservative movement, as represented by thinkers like William F. Buckley Jr., Russell Kirk, Irving Kristol, and even Ayn Rand, were adamantly opposed to ideology as a concept. They viewed it as a limiting, almost inhumane philosophical mindset that had much more in common with totalitarian, single party rule politics than with the deliberative democracy of the Anglo-American tradition. (Something Edmund Burke was writing a couple of  hundred years ago regarding the revolution in France.) This shared conservative tradition is rooted in the principles of rhetoric, debate, and the exchange of ideas which formed the foundation of the ancient Greek and Roman democracies from which our culture emerged.

The reflective, creative, deliberative conservatism that Roberts represents is dwindling. As Judge Richard Posner — a powerful force in the conservative legal community — recently told NPR, “these conservatives who are blasting Roberts are making a very serious mistake.”

I thoroughly concur.

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Senator Marco Rubio was in Raleigh tonight, promoting his autobiography at one of our independent bookstores, Quail Ridge. It was an interesting choice for a Republican who has confounded conventional wisdom on a number of fronts, notably his independent stance on immigration policy. In the press gaggle after his book signing I asked him about what he thinks independent voters in North Carolina should take away from his policy views, especially considering the high number of undocumented workers here. His answer was more nuanced than the man at the top of the GOP ticket, emphasizing the need for a “temporary” or “guest” worker program (no talk of “self-deportation”) — alongside his message about the need for the United States to not be the “only country that does not enforce its immigration laws.” The problem, of course, is that our immigration laws are broken.

In a broader sense, Rubio is positioned uniquely as someone who appeals both to the Tea Party wing of the GOP (which he praised tonight as a movement of “principle”), and the longer, more established traditional intellectual conservatism represented by groups like the Federalist Society, where he is equally popular. Not only immigration, but other controversial policy issues like health care lie at the heart of this internecine conflict among the fractured conservative movement; the Supreme Court vote on the Affordable Care Act — a/k/a Obamacare — has laid this bare: how did we find one conservative, Chief Justice Roberts, so at odds with his fellow Republican nominees Kennedy, Scalia, Thomas, and Alito? I wrote recently about this recently at POLITICO; while some on the right have been attacking the Chief Justice for his vote, I think what it really represents is a different strand of thought, more in line with traditional conservatism: one that rejects ideology as the only way that a candidate, or a judge, should be held to account. After all, it was leftist socialism that modern postwar conservatives rejected for its party-line mentality, in favor of a reflective, historical, intellectual mentality. Conservatism, properly understood is a “state of mind,” not an ideology, in the words of the conservative philosopher Russell Kirk. Those who criticize Rubio’s different views on immigration might revisit this older generation’s thinking about what it means to have the conservative state if mind.

What is fascinating about Rubio — and thus far a testament to his political acumen — is his ability to bridge this divide on the Right. He is equally popular with both audiences, at Tea Party rallies or the Federalist Society or CPAC and other more intellectual, traditionalist circles. This is key to his appeal as a vice presidential contender, and to his future as someone who has the potential to revive the hybrid conservatism forged over the last 60 years. The conservative movement was always a fusion of populists and intellectuals, and it took leaders like William F. Buckley Jr. and Ronald Reagan to make it possible. The coalition has come undone in recent years. Many see Rubio as a successor to this longer legacy, and only time will tell what those expectations hold.

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Thomas Frank, author of “What’s the Matter with Kansas,” had a fascinating appearance today on Diane Rehm program. I’ve had my objections to his theories in the past, namely that there is a fundamental flaw, from a political and rhetorical standpoint, with the premise that there is something wrong with Kansas. As one teacher of mine put it, the smartest thing conservatives might have done after Frank’s book premiered would have been to offer (via National Review, perhaps) a free copy of the book. The accompanying advert would blare: “See, here come those liberals again, telling you you’re not as smart as them, that–literally–there’s something wrong with you.

My addendum to this argument would be that there’s nothing really wrong with Kansas; there’s something wrong with the progressive/Democratic response to the conservative/Republican arguments being made to the people of Kansas. The problem, if you are a Democrat, is that conservatives are persuading people in Kansas. The solution lies not in “fixing” what’s “wrong” with people, but in persuading them that your ideas are better than the ones they have come to subscribe to.

Frank has a new book out, “Pity the Millionaire,” which he discussed in the Rehm interview, and he seems to be coming around to the position that there’s not as much wrong with Kansas as there is something wrong with the arguments being made by Democrats. I’ll reserve judgment until I’ve read the new book–but based on the interview, Frank and I may be more on the same page this time. His project traces the evolution of populism since its real inception during the Depression years. How did FDR’s political victories, built on the successes of the progressive labor movement, get co-opted a generation later by Richard Nixon’s Silent Majority and the current tea partiers? Frank’s analysis focuses on several factors, among them a failure to embrace the importance of rhetoric in maintaining movements. Frank rightly points to FDR a great political wordsmith who persuaded the nation on the rightness of his policies. Those fireside chats meant something. Liberalism in the postwar years drifted away from FDR’s vigorous rhetorical engagement and towards a more institutionalized, polite, managerial style. Adlai Stevenson vs. William F. Buckley. No contest.

As Rehm pointed out in her interview with Frank, by the time to cultural turmoil of the 1960s came around, the Right had moved in for full populist capture (Rick Perlstein’s “Nixonland” is vital reading here.) The white working class (and even a good percentage of the black working class) supported Richard Nixon in 1972. Reagan Democrats were emerging as a political cohort, successors to Nixon’s Silent Majority. I look forward to Frank’s analysis of how this trajectory led us to the tea party and today’s populist anger on the right.

Frank notes that one of his criticisms of the current political left is what he calls “the silence of the technocrats.” He is dead on. In a conversation with a similarly minded friend just yesterday we found ourselves echoing this very theme. Why didn’t the President and his allies make better arguments about their policies, such as health care reform? Why didn’t they articulate them in ways that would persuade, and respond to the phony criticisms from the Right? “They always fall back  on expertise,” was Thomas Frank’s reply today. “That’s not how Roosevelt did it,” he said. “You don’t say you’re doing it because the economists told you so.”

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“The thing speaks for itself.” Res Ipsa Loquitur is a standard legal term, one of the Latin standbys every lawyer holds in their back pocket. A rather vapid phrase, these three words often find themselves standing in for actual argument: When we are already persuaded, things speak for themselves; when we have no substantive argument, we say “just because.” Res Ipsa is in this sense the relative of the most brutal of William F. Buckley’s rhetorical putdowns: Ipse Dixit-ism, “It is because it is.”

I was reminded of the broader danger of Res Ipsa in a recent conversation with a brilliant young attorney. We were discussing politics, rhetoric, and the tendency of the left to expect that simply by stating things they will persuade. Example: “There is a massive income disparity in our nation.” A fact. But not an argument. For those who already believe it is a social and moral problem that there is a huge income disparity, the statement implies that political and legislative actions should therefore be taken. For that audience, Res Ipsa Loquitur. For everyone else not already persuaded, there is only a question mark. It is a classic problem of political communication; to return to WFB, who from his very first moments in the vanguard guided the conservative movement to its modern success: “The truth does not necessarily vanquish…The cause of truth must be championed, and it must be championed dynamically.”

Down with Res Ipsa, with Ipse Dixit.

As lawyers, though, we often fall back on these rhetorical feints — and with so many lawyers in politics it’s no wonder that the concept of “It speaks for itself” is so common. Law, as a discipline, is constantly in the practice of denying its rhetoricity; never quite comfortable with the fact (yes, fact) that law is ultimately, and only, about the process of persuasion. Constitutions and laws do not, actually “speak for themselves,” they require people to read them and interpret them. Cases are applied to situations; cases are also overturned. Judges and lawyers and politicians disagree.

If the law spoke for itself we would have nothing but 9-0 Supreme Court decisions.

But we don’t. The truism is not true; if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck…it is not Res Ipsa that makes it a duck. It is argument. We have to be persuaded that the walk is like a duck’s walk; we have to be persuaded that the quack is a duck’s quack. Law all too often denies the process of persuasion and shoots to the conclusion, assuming the connections are already made.

“There is a massive income disparity in our nation” is, for the progressive left, a walking and quacking duck. But stating things, however often and emphatically, does not an argument make (see, e.g., Ed Schultz). As WFB said — truth does not necessarily vanquish. And getting away from the mentality that Things Speak For Themselves would be a great start.

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I just watched Jon Stewart’s contentious (to say the least) interview with Chris Wallace on Fox from earlier today, and had to revisit comments from my interview several weeks ago with my friend Scot Faulkner — a lifelong conservative activist who now is head of the Dreyfus Initiative, a nonpartisan, non-profit organization looking to promote civics education (public, parochial, and home schooling) that furthers civil discourse about our country’s history and future.

There is not some daylight, but not much, between what Scot told me and how Stewart skewered Wallace. Fox has become an echo chamber, a quasi-propagandistic island where there is little to no serious debate or exchange of different viewpoints. “Fox is bad for conservatism,” Faulkner told me. “We need to engage the other side, we need to engage the voters…Fox on the right, MSNBC on the left — you have people who are so bitter to each other…so polarizing and vicious, to the point of crafting parallel realities.”

Those parallel realities stand in the way of political progress, which depends on discourse. As I have written repeatedly, the conservative movement and its media voices have devolved from the model favored by its modern godfather William F. Buckley Jr. and his Firing Line to CNN’s Crossfire (also lambasted by Stewart) and now the Fox echo chamber. One of the last bastions of serious, conservative intellectual exchange is not much noticed in the media — and often improperly portrayed as part of the right wing conspiracy: The Federalist Society. In what I’ve written on the Federalists when researching my Ph.D., I had the chance to ask then-Senator Hillary Clinton, who coined that conspiracy phrase, about the Federalist Society. In hindsight she took a different view, complementing the Federalists for their intellectual dedication and organizational commitment.

I cannot say, nor do I suspect Sec. Clinton would say, similar things about the crowd on Fox. As Faulkner pointed out in my extended interview with him on POLITICO, the Fox effect has recently given us such political sad stories as Newt Gingrich, who was resurrected by Sean Hannity in the farthest thing from a process of serious political engagement;  on Fox, Hannity was Gingrich’s “golden retriever.”

And when Gingrich goes on Meet the Press, he encounters someone who wasn’t a golden retriever.

Fox is bad for conservatism. Just as other networks, like MSNBC with its own crop of over-the-top programming, is bad for progressivism. Both are bad for the broader political discourse. I’m happy to have Jon Stewart out there making the case; I’d like to also see more principled conservatives like Scot Faulkner making the case.

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In the latest news from birther-land, a new spokesman has arrived: The Donald. The man is a salesman of the Atlantic City boardwalk variety (same place where the late Billy Mays got his start) and he sees that casting aspersions on the president’s legitimacy as “one of us” is what sells right now, at least with the know-nothing tea party conservative base. So he’s out there hawking.

It’s a story I’ve been writing for several years now mostly in the pages of POLITICO, a story about how the current leadership of the conservative movement cannot or will not shut down this racially laden pandering. Trump is the latest case in point. My editor at POLITICO posed the question in terms of whether or not the media should cut Trump off because of his birtherism; my counter was that it’s really the duty of the leaders of the conservative movement to do this — the media’s job is to report, and as long as the right keeps spewing this nonsense, it deserves to be covered. This was my response to Brad Smith, a bona fide conservative intellectual of the Federalist Society mold, who has tried to blame the media and the left for “keeping the story alive.” The birther story is kept alive because of people like Huckabee and now Trump, and the failure of responsible conservatives to shut them down.

Read my full article, published in POLITICO on March 29, 2011.

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It looks like it might take Roger Ailes to edit Glenn Beck off the air, and as I quipped on POLITICO today, one way we might put the question is, “What would William F. Buckley do?”

It also appears that the kowtowing from people like Speaker Boehner and Mike Huckabee led George F. Will to write the former Arkansas governor off of the list of 2012 contenders due to his “vibrations of weirdness.”

It is good to have at least one voice on the responsible right taking these tea-party, birther know-nothings to task. To quote Will’s conclusion about his party:

“The nominee may emerge much diminished by involvement in a process cluttered with careless, delusional, egomaniacal, spotlight-chasing candidates to whom the sensible American majority would never entrust a lemonade stand, much less nuclear weapons.”

Meanwhile, Huckabee sticks by his utterly ludicrous “I meant to say Indonesia” defense of his birther comments. See my earlier post for a deconstruction of why this is totally untenable.

I guess he regards George F. Will as part of the Liberal Media, undeserving of response or contemplation. What would he, or Gingrich, or Palin, or Boehner, have said to the founder of their movement, William F. Buckley Jr., if he made similarly searing comments — as we must imagine he would have? At least in the case of the madly conspiratorial Beck, it may also be an editor who shuts things down and restores reason. Though a rather less thoughtful and admirable editor, one must say.

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