The Young And The Dissident: Meditations On The Reformers From Some Ordinary Gentlemen

Freddie at The League:

No, what makes me angry is the title of the column, in which Douthat directly analogizes Barack Obama’s Nobel win with Hurricane Katrina. That makes me angry. That makes me livid. Douthat calls the award a “travesty” in his column. That’s funny. To me, a travesty is when an American city is swallowed by the sea and our government and its apparatus of disaster mitigation sit mutely by, in the thrall of a pathetic imbecile and the mad, hideous and immoral ideologues that control him. That is a travesty. The American project sending such a loud and shrill message that we are okay with drowned bodies lying rotting the streets, provided the people those bodies once were were black and poor in life– that is a travesty, and a tragedy. That is  a wholly preventable and totally unprecedented crime against this nation, its people, and their dream of what it could possibly be. And that sort of thing, Mr. Douthat, is not an appropriate analog for a president winning a prize, no matter how little you think of it.

Ah, but I hear the keys of Conor Friedersdorf clattering away now. That wasn’t me, he insists, and it wasn’t Ross! That, after all, is all you ever hear from conservatives these days. It wasn’t I who sent our soldiers into Iraq, it wasn’t I who left children to drown in New Orleans, it wasn’t I who ordered federal prosecutors fired for failing to politicize prosecution, it wasn’t I who sat idly by as the financial sector plunged itself off of an abyss…. The only consistent definition of conservative I now feel confident in is that a conservative is someone who is not responsible for anything that the Bush administration or Republican congress has done. No, no one is responsible for the Bush administration and its many crimes. No one is responsible for the congressmen who cheered their way along. No one is responsible for the systematic failure of the Republican party machine, which placed such a pathetic, unqualified and ignorant man in the greatest seat of power the word has ever known. No, don’t blame any actual conservatives for conservatism massive failings. Such a thing wouldn’t be fair. The fact that we now have outrage and scandal over Nobel peace prizes and NEA conference calls, when in the recent future we had hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis and children shivering chest-deep in putrid water– hey, that’s a facet of the fact that no one is responsible for the GOP. No one is responsible for conservatism, and Freddie, stop being unfair.

This is the true consequence of conservatism’s never-ending series of rendings and divisions: because every conservative these days fancies himself a sect of sanity in a failed ideology; because so many conservatives have taken to patting themselves on the back for their distance from the rabid rump of the conservative base, and doing nothing else but that; because American conservatism has become an army of Andrew Sullivans, parties and cliques of people who proudly declare themselves to be of no party or clique, a never-ending stream of self-styled iconoclasts who take the rich pleasures of being individuals and take none of the hard-fought, difficult and tiring dignity of being responsible for something; because of this, conservatism is lost. The problem is not that conservatives fall too quickly in line. The problem is that conservatism is a line of people insisting that they aren’t a part of the line and as such are not responsible for the actions of the line. Everyone laments the Republican party’s various failures, electoral or otherwise; no one is responsible for the Republican party. Everyone delights in the rank, unfocused and violent anger of the Tea Parties; no one will claim them as their own. What you have, ladies and gentlemen, is an ideology in a decaying orbit, an ideology that prides itself on insisting on personal responsibility as so many, thanks to their well-polished, phony individualisms, refuse to take any responsibility for the whole. Conservatism is drowning because so many say (as Conor Friedersdorf insists when I criticize him) “Hey, it’s the OTHER conservatives who do THAT.”

Conor Freidersdorf:

“Take responsibility!”

That phrase has meaning when a pregnant woman tells a man, “take responsibility for the child you helped conceive.” It makes sense when a judge tells a negligent property owner, “take responsibility for the rabid Bengal tigers you’ve loosed to guard your unfenced suburban construction site.”

In his latest post, Freddie offers a vision of “taking responsibility” that is different, insofar as it is nonsensical and incoherent.


In fact, this Conor Friedersdorf “clattering away” on his laptop doesn’t think that no one is responsible for Hurricane Katrina’s unnecessary casualties. He thinks that responsibility is borne in various amounts by a long list of people that starts with Ray Nagin and ends with George W. Bush. What would it mean, exactly, for me to say, “I, Conor Friedersdorf, as a self-described conservative, take partial responsibility for the mismanagement following Hurricane Katrina?” Either it would be meaningless, or it would mean that I recognized some part of my political thinking that, prior to the hurricane, led me to wrongly believe that the federal government shouldn’t respond to natural disasters, or that levies shouldn’t be built to withstand strong storms, or that presidents should error on the side of committing too few resources when a major American city is underwater. Believing none of those things, I am hard pressed to know how I could coherently “take responsibility” for Hurricane Katrina even if I desperately wanted to do it.


fter the Iraq War, the PATRIOT Act, Abu Ghraib, reckless spending, the appointment of incompetents, and every other Bush-era ill, Freddie casts about for the problem on the right and decides that it is people like Ross Douthat and Andrew Sullivan who are to blame, due to their unwillingness to take responsibility for their ideas. It is difficult to imagine a more wrongheaded account.

In fact, the most disastrous policies of the Bush Administration — the Iraq war, the torture, and the irresponsible deficit spending — were all profoundly anti-conservative, and insofar as conservatism as opposed to jingoism or excess partisan loyalty among Republicans were to blame, the problem was precisely that the conservative base too easily fell in line behind an incompetent leader because they called themselves conservatives, and he called himself a conservative, and they’re the same word! Just ask the intellectually dishonest talk radio hosts, who acted as enablers for Bush’s most damaging policies by spreading the meme that one must support him in order to be a loyal conservative.

Mark Thompson at The League:

Regardless, Conor’s point above fails for a more basic reason insofar as it is specifically an attempt to defend Douthat against Freddie’s criticism: Douthat himself does not distinguish between the conservative movement and the GOP.  Indeed, in his remarks at Princeton University yesterday, he spent several minutes explaining why he views the conservative movement and the GOP as “interchangeable” terms.

Again, it may be that no individual strain of conservatism can be viewed as consistent with the activities of the Bush Administration.  But collectively, the amalgamation of all those strains of conservatism into one master ideology is what not only enabled those activities, it perhaps made them inevitable.  For that, those interested in the notion of a conservative “movement” need to be prepared to accept responsibility if conservatism is to emerge from the wilderness as not merely an electable movement, but also a competent and coherent one capable of governing.

More Thompson:

One area where Freddie has taken a bit of heat is for going after so-called reform conservatives for being unwilling to try to fix the problems with conservatism.  For a long while, I thought this heat was deserved and that Freddie was being quite unfair to people who were clearly trying to do exactly that.  And while two Ordinary Gentlemen do not a trend make, I read enough liberal blogs to see that their opinions are shared by quite a few on the Left, so while liberals may not have the disdain for the reformers that they have for the hardcore movement types, the reformers are hardly respected by liberals.

Meanwhile, the hardcore movement conservatives truly cannot stand the reformers, who they view as RINOS at best and traitors at worst.   This animosity is even understandable since, to the extent the reformers even try to interact with the base, it is more often than not to criticize it for extremism in rhetoric or style.

This question has perplexed me for months: how is it possible for a group of well-intentioned conservative wonks to be so reviled by the Left, despite sincerely opposing the worst of the Right’s extremism and attempting to make the Right serious about governing again, and the Right, despite sincerely opposing most all of the Left’s agenda?  It’s not as if these people are just squishy centrists and moderates – they almost always have a pretty clear set of principles underlying their actions.

Reading Jamelle’ s post, though, the answer finally became clear: the conservative wonks simply aren’t doing their jobs.  What they are doing is picking apart liberal proposals, picking apart conservative proposals, attacking the low-hanging fruit of conservative extremism, and occasionally making suggestions to liberals on ways of either improving liberal proposals or making those proposals more palatable to conservatives.  What they are not doing, and largely are not even trying to do, is to drive the GOP agenda.  They are, in effect, content to leave the GOP agenda as little more than “vote no on everything” and tear down whatever the liberals do.

“But we have all these great ideas if liberals would only listen to us” comes the inevitable response.  Which is all well and good up until you realize that liberals aren’t very interested in ideas that they can’t pass.  Conservative wonks think health care reform would work better if it were individualized and decentralized?  Great, say the liberals, so do many of us; now come back to us when you can deliver some Republican votes that will overcome the loss of support from the unions that this will entail.

And so the conservative wonks go home with their tails between their legs, and drop the subject just long enough to write op-eds about why the Dem health care proposals are terrible, awful, no good, very bad health care reform.  Perhaps they contact Republican politicians and feed them some talking points for opposing the Dem health care proposals.

Rod Dreher:

In what sense are they “content to leave the GOP agenda” as it is? What are the dissidents supposed to do when they can’t get a hearing on their own side? [N.B., I would be honored to be considered among the dissidents, but I’m interested in culture, not policy, so I don’t play a role like Brooks, Frum, Douthat and others.] If the dissidents didn’t criticize what they see as harmful, self-destructive aspects of contemporary conservatism, outsiders would consider them patsys afraid to tell the truth to their own side. But when they do, Mark criticizes them for only trying to engage the base by putting it down. How can they win? I think Steve Benen is closer to describing the state of play on the Right at the moment, in terms of openness to self-criticism and internal debate. You can’t convince people to change if they are not willing to take what you have to say seriously. It seems to me that the kind of things people like Frum et alia criticize among the conservative base are things that have to do with the ideological ossification that is preventing the GOP from thinking and acting creatively to change with the times, and to figure out how to make conservatism relevant and responsible in a different set of circumstances than that which brought Reagan to power. As long as the conservative base is more interested in the old custom of heretic-hunting than it is in thinking creatively, dissidents will have little or no power to affect the GOP agenda. And there’s not much they can do about it.

Conor Friedersdorf being interviewed by Scott H. Payne at The League:

Perhaps we’re getting at what puzzles and galls me so much about recent posts at The League of Ordinary Gentlemen about how dissident conservative writers ought to conduct themselves. The notion is that these writers should assess an ideological subset of the American public, discern their sensibilities, and craft all subsequent writing so as not to offend them. What a fool’s errand. There are times when people react badly to hearing the truth plainly stated. It is a journalist’s job to tell them that truth anyway, as forthrightly and accurately as one can put it.

Do you want to corrupt public discourse? Ask those engaged in the fights over ideas to pull their punches whenever what they regard as the truth might upset a segment of the public. Tell writers that if they find wisdom in the political philosophy of conservatism, and desire that its insights be incorporated into the governance of American society, they ought to refrain from writing things they regard as true whenever doing so will cost them credibility among some folks with whom they’d share a political coalition in a more rational world.

Think what you’re asking! It’s as if you were to travel back in time to George Orwell at his desk writing Homage to Catalonia, and to say, “Sir, I know you’ve got a low opinion of certain folks who were fighting Franco, but among those who oppose fascism, you’re needed as a thought leader, so please don’t write too bitingly about the false propaganda spread by folks within Communism. Some of your Comrades will never take your subsequent writing seriously otherwise.”

When writing on politics, only one approach guards against the dozen rationalizations for making truth subservient. It is to write what one believes on whatever topics one deems to be important, whenever you’ve got what you regard as a significant contribution to that conversation. Should an ideology and the political movement most closely associated with it find itself full of writers who instead privilege loyalty, or the sensitivities of the base, or their future influence, what you get is a misbegotten war in Iraq, a systematic regime of officially sanctioned torture, reckless spending, a Congressional majority rife with corruption, incompetents appointed to important positions in the federal government, and the list goes on. You’d think that the “palatable” journalism so many right-leaning outlets served up during the Bush Administration would discredit the notion that such an approach is the right one for conservatism or the country as a whole.

E.D. Kain:

What Conor is suggesting is that a war against the pundits – against Beck and Limbaugh, et al. – is a fight over ideas.  I would argue that calling people like Limbaugh out for some stupid thing(s) he’s said is not in fact a battle of ideas.  It’s just your classic personality politics.  A number of dissidents on the right have fallen into this very trap, engaging their loud, swaggering opponents on their own terms rather than within the framework of ideas.  And all this does is alienate the base.

Regardless of whether Conor or David Frum or any other dissident is correct in their assertions, what their actions achieve is alienation and excommunication from their supposed target audiences.  Liberals laud the efforts of Charles Johnson who has recently been calling out the conservative shenanigans, but in a lot of ways all that Johnson has achieved is to distance himself from the conservative movement.  What good has that done for conservatism?

One door opens – a population of independents and liberals that is very receptive to attacks on their least-favorite television and radio personalities; and one door closes – the conservative base which, however misguidedly, marches behind the Limbaughs and Levins of the world.  Instead of fragile allies, they’ve become sworn enemies.

My critique is simply this: engage in a fight over ideas, often and passionately.  But engage.  Don’t try to unseat the champions of the right.  Try to change their hearts and minds, or at least use them to reach their audiences.  It’s not as flashy or as fun, but I think it will serve a better purpose.

Mark Thompson:

It’s clear to me that Conor and to a lesser extent Rod don’t understand what Jamelle, Freddie, E.D., and myself have been driving at in our various critiques of reform-minded conservatism.


Our point has nothing to do with insisting that Conor or anyone else soft-pedal their critiques of Limbaugh, et al, although those attacks may well have the effect of making matters worse.  It certainly does not suggest that reform-minded conservatives should refrain from objecting to torture or the conduct of the War on Terror or civil liberties violations by the Bush Administration – quite the contrary, Ron Paul’s growing influence on conservatism shows that it is possible to passionately dissent without forfeiting the ability to move conservatism in your direction.  Nor do I think we are suggesting that Conor or any other specific reform-minded conservative is to blame for the current state of the Republican Party.

No, the point is that reform conservatives need to recognize that there is an ideological problem with conservatism as currently constituted as an amalgam of libertarianism, hawkishness, and religious fundamentalism that leaves modern conservatism incapable of governing well or ethically.  It is all well and good to criticize the Bush Administration or to take issue with talk radio, but until reform conservatives recognize what caused the Bush Administration’s faults and the hyper-vitriol of talk radio, they will be unable to do anything about it.

The assumption of many reform conservatives seems to be that the Bush Administration and talk radio are just a few bad apples who managed to deceive conservatives into thinking that they were good conservatives and had all the answers.  This is wrong, and smacks of a paternalism that assumes workaday conservatives are pliable, easily fooled automatons rather than people who are simply too concerned about putting food on their own plates to ask otherwise unimportant philosophical questions like “what does it mean to be a conservative” or  ”what would Edmund Burke say.”

The problem instead is that movement conservatism has become an incoherent ideology, in part because of its own successes, but also in part because the issues facing this country simply are not the issues that were facing it in 1978.   An ideology that attempts to unite so many disparate sub-ideologies must inevitably become nihilistic and unable to articulate a compelling  social or political vision much beyond “we’re not them” after its initial raisons d’etre have become obsolete.

Alex Knapp:

Much as I hate to say it, the major obstacle to reforming conservativism is the talk radio/Fox/RedState axis. If you offer up ideas outside of their core, you’re a “RINO.” Or you want to be liked at Washington cocktail parties. Or you want a job at the New York Times. In other words, you’re not a “real” conservative. This is a tough obstacle, because even though they don’t call all the shots in the party, they call the shots of the activists and donors, and even the Congressional votes of the “moderates.” (You’ll note that McCain took a sharp right turn during the 2008 elections and hasn’t strayed from the path since.)

However, I agree that Conor Friedersdforf, David Frum, et al. are making a mistake in tackling Limbaugh, Levin, Beck, etc. head on. Instead, they need to engage them. They need to take their concerns seriously (crazy as they might be) and judo flip them to the reform path that they want. Whether that’s czars, Iran, taxes, “socialism” or what have you, the task that reform conservatives need to take upon themselves is to address those concerns in a serious way, and offer up conservative alternatives to the traditional conservative solutions.

Even though I don’t really consider myself a conservative, I do consider this to be a serious issue. Democracy needs healthy debate and discussion of policy in order to succeed. As long as conservatism is mired in the state that it’s in, the Democrats are going to win by default. And that’s not a good thing.

Rod Dreher:

Maybe Mark is right, but I know that I’m not in that camp. I’m also, to be fair, not in the camp of conservatives who think seriously about policy matters. so there’s that. But I agree with him that contemporary conservatism no longer makes a lot of sense as a confederation. I tried in my book to suggest ways that conservatives could fundamentally change our lives (and policies) to be more true to the authentically conservative values. Maybe I was, and am, full of shinola, but at least I’m trying to rethink this thing. What I’m not sure Mark et al. understand is how difficult it is at the present time to get a hearing on the right for dissenting views, even those that don’t just bash Beck or Limbaugh. Again, it’s what you get when you have a movement that cares more about hunting heretics who deviate from a rigid ideal than a movement that’s interested in reinterpreting its principles for changing times and changing conditions. And believe me, on the right today, if you offer anything seen by the Fox/Limbaugh mothership as deviant, you’ve got no chance to be engaged.

While I agree that it’s fairly pointless, as a tactical matter, for dissidents to attack the talk radio giants, this comes, I think, out of a deep frustration that people with little more than slogans and attitude have bigfooted discussion among conservatives, and have helped turn the GOP and the movement into something that’s extremely hostile to change (as distinct from skepticism of it, as all real conservatives should be), and almost fanatically opposed to dissent from within. A fairly conservative friend of mine and I were talking the other day about something Glenn Beck had said, and my friend looked disgusted, saying, “I’m sick of being associated with conservatives.” The impulse to take on the Becks and the Limbaughs comes from a sense that these guys are hurting us bad, and preventing the kind of clear thinking that we need to get back in the political game. I’d love to know how Mark and the League propose for dissident conservatives to “engage” the base when the kind of people the base trusts and takes its cues from demonize dissidents as RINOs, closet liberals, squishes, wets, suck-ups, and so forth. I’m asking seriously. I don’t know how to go about this in the current climate.


UPDATE #2: Via Conor, Julian Sanchez

Conor Friedersdorf

UPDATE #3: E.D. Kain

Rod Dreher

More Kain


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One response to “The Young And The Dissident: Meditations On The Reformers From Some Ordinary Gentlemen

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

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