Braaaains…Braaaains… Braaaains….

This begins with a book The Conservatives: Ideas and Personalities Throughout American History” written by Patrick Allitt. There’s an adapted excerpt at NRO here and a podcast the author did with John J. Miller here.

Jonathan Rauch on the book:

IF CONSERVATISM is to get a new brain, it will need to know where it left its old one. Patrick Allitt’s new intellectual history of the American right, The Conservatives, makes an excellent starting place. “Where did American conservatism come from, what are its intellectual sources, and why is it internally divided? This book is dedicated to answering those questions,” begins Allitt, a historian at Emory University. The author strives “to keep the rhetorical temperature as low as possible and be descriptive rather than prescriptive.” No politics. No polemics. Just conservative theories and theoreticians, in chronological order, from John Adams to David Frum. Yawn.

Or so I thought when I first picked up the book. The more I read, however, the more impressed I became. The book’s self-imposed limitations turn out to be strengths. By keeping politics offstage (here is the entirety of Allitt’s account of the seminal 1980 election: “Conservatives felt exhilarated by Ronald Reagan’s election victory in 1980”), Allitt brings ideas into sharp focus, and his sketches of people and philosophies more than make up in accuracy and concision what they lack in color. He frames controversies fairly, takes no cheap shots, cuts no corners. Amazingly, his own political views are undetectable. Accuracy, concision, disinterest: These are virtues we could use more of in modern academia.

But Rauch also talks about the modern conservative movement:

We know what happens when movements or parties continue to stagger forward after running out of ideas: They become zombies. Zombie parties are a recurrent feature of electoral democracies. Unable to articulate any coherent or workable governing philosophy, they mindlessly jab at cultural hot buttons, mechanically repeat hardwired tropes (“cut taxes, cut taxes, cut taxes”), nurse tribal resentments, ostracize independent thinkers. Above all, they feel positively proud of their doggedness. You can’t talk them out of it. Think of the Republicans in the FDR years, the Democrats in the Reagan years, the British Labour Party in the Thatcher period, and the British Conservative Party in the Blair period. Think of Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party for most of the past half-century, or France’s Socialists today. To get a new brain, zombie parties usually need to spend years out of power or wait until a new generation rises to leadership.

[…] A second myth misunderstands Reagan, reducing him to a far less subtle figure than he was. An admirer of FDR and the New Deal, he had no interest in dismantling the welfare state. He never tried to do that. He raised taxes as both governor and president, and in 1983 he shored up Social Security, thus demonstrating, as he proclaimed, “for all time our nation’s ironclad commitment to Social Security.” True, he preferred a smaller government to a larger one, but his governing priority was to reduce the burden of government, and he understood that the most realistic way to do that was by limiting (not reversing) government’s growth while expanding the economy. Restrain the numerator, yes, but focus primarily on increasing the denominator.

Reagan was a conservative, all right: He sought to conserve the welfare state by making it sustainable and by expanding the zone of liberty around and beneath it. He largely succeeded. It was this achievement, not some non-existent assault on the New Deal or Great Society, that won Republicans the allegiance of millions of former Democratic voters.

Alas, a subsequent generation of conservatives, like the Apostles of the New Testament, never really grasped the master’s teachings. They accepted Reagan’s rhetoric at face value and imagined that what the public wanted was smaller government. That was the third myth. There is not a scintilla of evidence that voters, when presented with real trade-offs instead of merely with slogans, want government to shrink. Not even most conservative voters want that. Nor has any conservative, Reagan included, succeeded in chopping back the government’s size.

Steve Hayward at The Corner on Rauch:

To be sure, there is a problematic diary entry from Reagan in 1982 where Reagan asserts:

The press is trying to paint me as now trying to undo the New Deal.  I remind them that I voted for FDR four times. I’m trying to undo the “Great Society.” It was LBJ’s war on poverty that led us to our present mess.

The problem with this is that Reagan had been complaining about big-government liberalism and the welfare state for at least a decade before LBJ’s Great Society commenced. This is a somewhat selective recollection on Reagan’s part, although it is partly accurate as a description of his budgetary objectives in 1982. However, it is not true that he celebrated “shoring up” Social Security. He had his head handed to him in the spring of 1981 when he proposed delaying COLAs and reducing early retirement benefits. He had to be forcefully talked out of a TV address in the fall of 1981 aimed at cutting Social Security, and that’s when he punted to the Greenspan commission. When the Greenspan commission endorsed tax hikes to save the system in is present form, Reagan wrote in his diary that “I’m afraid our bi-partisan commission has failed us.” He was clearly hoping for more serious reform. I’ve heard Rauch point out that Reagan punted again in 1985 when the GOP Senate voted narrowly for a Social Security cut; true — but Reagan felt he had to honor a 1984 campaign promise, made at a moment of weakness, not to touch Social Security, and moreover feared he was walking into a Democratic campaign trap. (And sure enough, Dems attacked Republicans lustily in the 1986 election over Social Security.)

The point is, Rauch’s unstated theme that Reagan was something of a New Deal double agent is problematic. Don’t forget, as I’ve argued on this page before, Reagan’s constant call for constitutional amendments to curtail the growth of government. That would seem to tip the scales in my mind.

We can combine both Reagan and zombies in this trusty graphic right here:


And for the Democrats:


A lot of people writing about conservatives or Republicans have used the “zombie” theme the past couple days.  And by a lot, of course, I mean two others. One is a Republican, John Batchelor, who writes in the Daily Beast:

The attack of the living dead Republicans does have the camp fascination of a George Romero movie as pieces of brains fall out. Last week, Deputy Minority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, in some quarters regarded as cunning, boasted soberly not only that, without any polling evidence, “I think we’re got a shot at taking back the House,” but also that the Obama administration was comparable to Putin’s rule in Moscow. Cantor did not explain if he meant that the Obama administration is Soviet socialist, which is balmy, since Moscow is a robber baron paradise these days, or if he meant the Obama administration stands for tyrannical one-party rule, which is dopey, since Cantor appears to think of himself as virile leader of the opposition.

Last week, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a generalissimo of zombies, fresh from smearing Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor for “new racism,” presented more startling delusions at a congressional fundraiser in Washington when he claimed that the Republicans were the “majority party.” He offered no facts to counter the Gallup poll’s certainty that the Republicans are a minor minority party. Nor did Gingrich, who increasingly pontificates with the bravado of the vacuous TV anchor from the old Mary Tyler Moore Show, Ted Baxter, note that the cash raised in the ballroom of swells was down by a third from last year; nor did he explain his demagogic remark that the Obama administration “has already failed,” with bailouts that are chiefly a continuation of a Republican administration’s panicky policies.

Gary Kamiya calls the neoconservatives zombies in Salon:

Like Rasputin, the unhinged “Mad Monk” whom they sometimes seem to have adopted as an intellectual role model, the neoconservatives who brought us the Iraq war refuse to die. Although they have been figuratively stabbed, poisoned, shot, garroted and drowned, they somehow keep standing, still insisting that history will vindicate George W. Bush’s glorious crusade. In a world governed by the Victorian moral code conservatives claim to uphold, they would be shunned, shamed and forbidden to appear on television or write Op-Ed columns. But because Beltway decorum apparently requires that disgraced pundits be given a permanent platform to bray their discredited theories, the rest of us are condemned to listen to their ravings.

I believe Vigo the Carpathian of Ghostbusters II fame was also stabbed, poisoned, drowned, but he was also drawn and quartered. But that’s neither here nor there. The real question is, what are the politics of zombies themselves? Are zombie movies liberal or conservative?

Paul Waldman in the American Propsect:

While one can certainly use zombies to express all kinds of ideas, I would argue that at heart, the genre is a progressive one. It’s true that fighting off the zombie horde requires plentiful firearms, no doubt pleasing Second Amendment advocates. And in a zombie movie, government tends to be either ineffectual or completely absent. On the other hand, when the zombie apocalypse comes, capitalism breaks down, too — people aren’t going to be exchanging money for goods and services; they’re just going to break into the hardware store and grab what they need (and if you think your private health insurer is going to be paying claims for treatment of zombie bites, you’re living in a dream world). But most important, what ensures survival in a zombie story are the progressive ideals of common cause and collective action. A small group of people from varying backgrounds are thrust together and find that they can transcend their differences of age, race, and gender (the typical band of survivors is a veritable United Nations of cultural diversity). They come to understand that if they’re going to get out of this with their brains kept securely housed in their skulls and not travelling down some zombie’s gullet, they’ve got to act as though they’re all in it together. Surviving the tide of zombies requires community and mutual responsibility. What could be more progressive than that?

Never Yet Melted disagrees:

I admire the audacity of Waldman’s thesis, but we all know that in a truly Progressive society, there wouldn’t be any privately owned guns, chain saws, or edged weapons competing with the state’s monopoly of force, so the zombies would have munched everybody’s brain without serious resistance as a disarmed humanity waited passively for an answer to its 911 calls.

Barack Obama would be noting the long record of the living’s mistreatment of the dead, and apologizing, while calling for negotiations and predicting a new era of vital to post-mortem relations.

Idea of the Day blog at NYT on the liberal zombie idea.

UPDATE: Damon Root in Reason on Waldman’s piece.

UPDATE #2: Hayward again on Allitt and Reagan and other things.



Filed under Books, Conservative Movement, Go Meta, History, Movies

2 responses to “Braaaains…Braaaains… Braaaains….

  1. Pingback: What We’ve Built Today « Around The Sphere

  2. Pingback: What We’ve Built Today « Around The Sphere

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