Irreconcilable Differences

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Like their counterparts on the statist Left, social conservatives use words not to clarify thought but to stir emotion.

In America, the contemporary political Right essentially consists of two factions. Ordinarily one is called social conservative and the other libertarian, though a more accurate way of distinguishing them would be to describe the former as big-government conservative and the latter as small-government conservative.

The only thing that brings the two together — into the marriage of convenience that unites the Right today — is a shared opposition to the statist Left. The Obama administration has kept them together as perhaps nothing else could. It may be all that prevents them from getting their long-overdue divorce. Once Romney is elected, if that indeed happens, all the counseling in the world won’t be enough to save this marriage.

As far back as the ’80s, President Reagan seemed to understand that this was strictly a shotgun wedding. Those who opposed Communist expansionism had to stick together to win the Cold War. There must always be a grand cause — an archenemy to defeat. At the moment, Barack Obama fits the bill.

I, very frankly, am getting tired of being told that I must vote for whichever unprincipled empty suit the Republican Party has chosen to carry its baton. Mitt Romney is particularly hollow. He seems willing to say anything, do anything, pander to anybody, betray anybody to get elected. As the aim is clearly only to wrest power away from the Democrats, this seems to be acceptable to the GOP, which has surrendered all but the flimsiest pretense that it has any principles whatever.

This probably suits big-government conservatives just fine. They are all about power, power, and more power, totally in the thrall of the delusion that if they just get enough of it, they can hang onto it forever. Their small-government counterparts, on the other hand, may just want to think again. How can it further our principles to trust in a party that has none?

We are being told that the Obama administration is a threat to America of apocalyptic proportions. But it hasn’t stopped so-called social conservatives from playing chicken with the rest of us on their favorite issues. To gain the blessing of the GOP establishment, candidate Romney must, for example, voice support for the Federal Marriage Amendment: a poison pill if there ever was one. Its passage would violate at least three, and possibly four, existing constitutional amendments. It would, essentially, make the Constitution contradict itself, thereby weakening it and accelerating its eventual destruction.

So we already know that Mitt Romney cannot be taken seriously. Even before getting the chance to take the oath of office for the presidency, he has as much as admitted that he would damage it. One cannot “preserve, protect, and defend” something that one has indicated a willingness to help destroy.

Romney’s claim to champion small government is also dubious, considering the fact that while he was governor of Massachusetts, he raised taxes every year. Oh, he called them other things — “tax-fees,” the closing of loopholes on an internet sales tax, new laws permitting local governments to hike business property taxes, and a new tax penalty soaking both individuals and small businesses. He claims to be an economic conservative, but that claim can attain credibility only if big-government devotees on the political Right manage to drain the term of meaning in the way they have drained “social conservative.” Defining what any sort of a conservative he is seems a lot like determining what “is” is: an interesting parlor game.

I suppose part of my problem with “social conservatives” is their apparent unwillingness to think through what they mean by using that term to describe themselves. I frequently ask friends who call themselves that to explain it to me. The hostility this evokes is puzzling. It appears that they’re not sure what they mean, and they don’t like having their confusion exposed.

I’m perfectly willing to explain, to anyone who asks, why I call myself a libertarian, or a small-government conservative. I see little sense in using a term — repeatedly — to describe myself, but becoming resentful when asked to elaborate. Social conservatives seem to claim that name not as a descriptor but as a dog-whistle. Like their counterparts on the statist Left, they use words not to clarify thought but to stir emotion.

“Either you are giving your opinion of yourself,” I tell them, “or you are saying something about your philosophy of government. I don’t care about your opinion of yourself . . . that’s your concern, not mine. I may or may not share it, and it’s rather narcissistic of you to assume it interests me as much as it does you.”

If, on the other hand, they are saying something about their philosophy of government — that force should be used, by the state, to make other people comply with their views about how people’s lives ought to be lived — then that is of tremendous concern to me. But I would prefer they drop the self-congratulatory veneer and simply call themselves what they are: advocates of big government. For if they do believe that government should do such things, the task is impossible unless government is big and intrusive. Other than serving as a smokescreen, the term “social conservative” accomplishes nothing, because it reveals nothing. If language does not reveal, then it serves no meaningful purpose.

It is dishonest for the Republican Party to go on pretending that big-government conservatives and small-government conservatives belong in the same political party. Their aims are so fundamentally at odds that they cancel each other out. It would be impossible for both to succeed, because a victory for either would inevitably be a defeat for the other. No organization can simultaneously move in opposite directions. As long as it tries to appease both factions, in the misguided notion that this gives it greater power, it will remain what it has become: an incoherent mass of acrimony.

But there's another bad thing to mention. The GOP's lack of clear purpose leads its opposition into further intellectual laziness and moral decay. Instead of the parties' improving each other and, by extension, the country — the very reason the two-party system is supposed to exist — everyone gets dragged down. It’s a race to the bottom all the way.

Libertarians and true small-government conservatives are telling the truth about the cause of our national demise and what must be done about it. Big-government conservatives — whatever they want to call themselves — are lying about it. That many of them believe that lie can be chiefly attributed to their lack of willingness to examine whether it’s true. But when one side in a conflict tells the truth and the other lies, there should indeed be a decisive winner and loser.

Truth is not such a relative matter after all. “Social conservatives” fervently claim to believe that. Too bad their behavior so often says something altogether different.

It is dishonest for the Republican Party to go on pretending that big-government conservatives and small-government conservatives belong in the same political party. Their aims are so fundamentally at odds that they cancel each other out. It would be impossible for both to succeed, because a victory for either would inevitably be a defeat for the other. No organization can simultaneously move in opposite directions. As long as it tries to appease both factions, in the misguided notion that this gives it greater power, it will remain what it has become: an incoherent mass of acrimony.




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Do the Republicans Deserve to Lose?

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Liberty readers presumably want to defeat President Obama and the Democrats. Apart from his beliefs, policies, and associates, Obama is a decent man. His challenger, to have a chance of winning, should be one also. Moreover, he should not have so much in his background requiring excuses and apologies — no matter how valid — as to preempt the voters’ limited attention from policy issues.

No one has a right to the nomination, or to complain about unfairness if he doesn’t get it. Electability is a reasonable requirement even for the most decent person.

Gingrich’s excuses and apologies are not even good ones, in my view, even though they may work in campaigning. His undistinguished record at West Georgia College, his questionable ethics and other reasons for being forced out of the speakership and even out of Congress, his half-truths, his “grandiosity” (so identified by Rick Santorum), and his marital infidelities all testify to his character. His claim to have changed his character and to have received or at least to have asked for God’s forgiveness strikes me as disgusting hypocrisy.

In a column in the Opelika-Auburn News of January 21, the paper’s publisher aptly calls Gingrich “an arrogant, hypocritical, corrupt blowhard” who “is disliked most fervently by those people who know him best. . . .” In my word, he is a slimy character.

Mitt Romney seems competent; and if he commits himself to so-called conservative policies, however belatedly, I suppose that he will faithfully pursue them. He could quite probably justify how he made his money and why he paid low taxes; but his doing so, however soundly, will leave a residue of doubt with many voters and will divert time and attention from real issues. He lacks charisma. Again, it is not unfair to expect electability of a candidate.

Rick Santorum appears to be a decent person, but he devotes too much attention to pushing socially conservative views rather than to real economic and fiscal problems. Ron Paul is sincere and passionate; but the voting public is not ready for consistent libertarianism, perhaps especially not on foreign policy. Gary Johnson would have been a more persuasive candidate inclined toward libertarianism. In comparison with the now remaining four aspirants, Jon Huntsman appealed to me.

It is hackneyed but relevant to recognize that the personal characteristics required of a successful campaigner are quite different from those of a high government official. What could be done? The Founding Fathers, well versed in history, had foresight. The Constitution, Article II, Section 1, says that each state shall appoint presidential electors “in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct. . . .” The legislatures might constitutionally specify the appointment of electors otherwise than by statewide direct popular vote, conceivably even by lot (although better ideas may turn up). And the electors from all the states might be encouraged to meet and discuss candidates before casting their votes. Of course, no such reform is in the cards.

As things now stand, I am afraid that Bret Stephens is right in his Wall Street Journal opinion piece of January 24: “The GOP Deserves to Lose.” I’d appreciate being shown why my pessimism is mistaken.




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Ron Paul at the Iowa Marker

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In Iowa, Ron Paul came in third. Four years earlier, he had come in fifth, with 10% of the party vote. Now he has more than doubled his support, to 21.5%. His new total suggests he has established libertarians as a significant faction within the Republican Party.

This is no certain thing. We will know when Paul retires, and the faction is led by someone else, perhaps his son. In either case, it is not a majority faction, and Paul is not going to be nominated.

Every time I write this, some Paul supporter rises in challenge: “Who gave you a crystal ball?” (My momma did.) When they are done hollering at me, they can holler at Intrade. As I write, on the morning after the Iowa caucuses, the gamblers on the news-prediction web page put odds of Paul’s nomination at between 2 and 2.4%, which is lower than the odds for Jon Huntsman.

In December 2011, Paul’s odds peaked at above 9%, about at the level he peaked four years earlier, in December 2007, regarding the nomination in 2008. After the Iowa caucuses then, and the New Hampshire primary, Paul’s quote fell to 1%. He is likely on the same trajectory now.

What has happened? Paul has been attacked. This was entirely predictable, and it is not just because the mainstream media is against him, though it is. The frontrunner is always attacked.

For months the national press had ignored Paul, treating him, in Andrew Sullivan’s words, like “an eccentric uncle.” Then it changed. In the last half of December anti-Paul columns appeared by Paul Krugman in the New York Times (Dec. 16), James Kirchick in the New Republic (Dec. 22), Dorothy Rabinowitz in the Wall Street Journal (Dec. 22), former New York mayor Ed Koch on NewsMax.com (Dec. 29), Michael Gerson in the Washington Post (Dec. 30), and the editorial board of the New York Times (Dec. 27).

“Who gave you a crystal ball?” My momma did.

Much of this was a regurgitation of the story about the anti-black and anti-gay tone in Paul’s newsletters of the early 1990s. Kirchick had used these to accuse Paul of “hate” in The New Republic in January 2008, and the press corps knew about them. Wrote Shikha Dalmia of Reason, Dec. 25, 2011: “It seems no one wanted to bring them up again until Paul gained so much traction that ignoring them would have been a serious dereliction of duty.”

For some it seemed that way. Others, who detested Paul, saw a chance to chuck the garbage from an open window onto Paul’s head. They had dumped on Palin, Bachmann, Perry and Cain. They had just been trashing Newt. Then, in mid-December, Paul was leading in the Iowa polls, with 23–28% among a field of seven, and he still had a clean shirt.

Then came Kirchick, fanning the “hate” issue again; many Paul supporters, seeing their man as the least hateful of the lot, were inclined to dismiss it as more mainstream media bias. Some of it was, but in a presidential race a candidate cannot ignore charges like this.

And Kirchick had a new take on it. His piece was titled, “Why Don’t Libertarians Care About Ron Paul’s Bigoted Newsletters?” In it, he said Paul’s supporters “don’t base their support on the Congressman’s years-long record of supporting racism, homophobia,” etc. The problem with libertarians, he said, is that they shut these considerations from their minds, letting the free market trump “all considerations of social empathy and historical acuity.”

If they cared about these things, Kirchick argued, libertarians would have been supporting the former governor of New Mexico, Gary Johnson, who “can boast executive experience and doesn’t have the racist and conspiratorial baggage.”

The public didn’t know Johnson. They knew Paul. He had run twice before. He had written bestselling books. He had built up a base of fans. He had mailing lists of donors for his “money bombs,” and an organization that in Iowa was stronger than any other Republican’s. He had a US senator to campaign for him: his son.

Others, who detested Paul, saw a chance to chuck the garbage from an open window onto Paul’s head.

He also has a personal aura, a Gandhian quality, different from that of any of the Republicans. On the eve of the Iowa caucuses the Des Moines Register poll found that voters ranked Paul as the least ego-driven candidate. Andrew Sullivan writes of Paul’s “decency.” Dalmia writes of his “remarkable ability to generate goodwill.” Paul is more radical than Johnson. This makes him easier to attack, but also more appealing to the hardcore.

 The Republican leadership couldn’t stand either Johnson or Paul. For Paul, it didn’t matter; he had built his own party. Johnson hadn’t. At the end of 2011 he was so sore at the Republican leadership that he joined the Libertarian Party.

Back to Kirchick: he exaggerates, but he has a point. Paul’s fans liked him so much they were willing to overlook a bad thing on his record.

How bad was it? To Kirchick, as with many liberals, racism is the most important issue there is. If you’re touched by it, you’re dead. If you care about it, but you care about other things more, that’s not good enough. You’re still dead. Any denials are assumed to be false and (especially if they are against you anyway) any mea culpa from you istoo small.

The real issue is not what Paul was then. It is what he is now. You have to judge.

One commentator who tried to think this through is Andrew Sullivan. He had supported Paul for the Republican nomination, but said he would vote for Obama in November. He liked Paul’s stand on foreign war and executive power. To Sullivan, Paul was “the best medicine for the GOP, not the best president.” After Sullivan argued for this, some readers attacked him on the matter of Paul’s newsletters, and he reconsidered. On Dec. 24, he wrote:

“I sat down and re-read some of the Ron Paul newsletters last night. I don’t think he wrote them; I don’t think they represent who he is; I do not believe the man is a racist, although seeing into men’s souls is not something any of us is very good at.”

He has a personal aura, a Gandhian quality, different from that of any of the Republicans.

There are good reasons for believing Paul is no racist. Paul’s associates — even Eric Dondero, who became his political enemy — say he is not a racist. Paul has written a bunch of books, but never a racist book. He has engaged in numerous political campaigns, but never a racist campaign. He is deeply interested in economic and political ideas, but not ideas about race. And he is not an angry person, as so many racists seem to be.

If Paul is not a racist, then what do the newsletters say about him?

The story of the newsletters was told by Julian Sanchez in Reason four years ago. In 1988 Paul had given up his seat in Congress to run for president on the Libertarian Party. After he lost, he went back to his medical practice. But he had a valuable mailing list, and he kept a side business in newsletters. To produce these letters he had several people working for him. Lew Rockwell was one. Another was Murray Rothbard. Both were right-anarchists, radical free-marketeers. At that time, they had a theory, the “paleo” strategy, that libertarians should market their philosophy to the populist Right. For Rothbard, this wasn’t the first strategy of alliance; in the 1960s he had allied with the New Left. As communism crashed, he proclaimed an alliance with the “paleoconservatives,” which ranged from Patrick Buchanan to lowbrow populists. The Ron Paul newsletters were his vehicle; the nastiness towards black welfare recipients, Martin Luther King, gay AIDS patients, etc., was part of a calculated tone.

Exactly who wrote the stuff is unclear. Rockwell is blamed most often, but he says he mainly wrote promotional copy. Rockwell now runs the libertarian website LewRockwell.com, which can be nasty to pro-war Republicans and the “beltway libertarians” at the Cato Institute, but does not market racism. Rockwell is not interested in race. When the newsletter issue came up four years ago, his contributor Karen DeCoster made the same point about him that others have made about Paul: the newsletters didn’t sound like him. She wrote, “Those excerpts making light of immigrants/blacks etc. are way too snappy and attempt to be way too humorous to have been written by Lew . . . His personality is exactly the opposite.”

Rothbard died in 1995. He could be a snappy writer, and he loved to indulge in polemics. But writing like a redneck would have been striking a pose: he was a Jew raised in the Bronx and had a doctorate in economics from Columbia University.

The critics piling on Paul won’t accept his statement that he doesn’t know who wrote the offending copy. I don’t believe it either, but I accept it, and I respect Paul for not naming names. Why does anyone need to know? It was Paul’s newsletter. He is responsible for it, and the stain is on him.

The crucial question is what kind of a stain it is. Does it mean Paul judges people by their race and that one race is to be favored over another? Based on the rest of his life, particularly the last 15 years, you have to say no. It does suggest some other things, though, starting with the Kirchickian notion that libertarians just don’t care about this stuff. Politically it suggests tone-deafness and poor judgment.

The newsletters of 20 years ago were a pose. The Paul of today is who he says he is.

That’s not racism, but it’s not what most Americans look for in a president, either. Then again, Ron Paul is not going to be president. The reason to support him is not that he can win, but that the Republicans, who are America’s nationalist party, need to be reoriented away from war, executive power, deficit spending, money creation and debt toward a more peaceful, constitutional and financially sustainable vision — and the only person who has had any success in doing this is Ron Paul.

Wrote Sullivan: “I stand by all the things I wrote about Paul’s views, his refreshing candor, his happy temperament, his support for minorities, and his vital work to undo the war on drugs and the military-industrial complex. I don’t think he’s a racist; in fact, I think he’s one of the least racially aware politicians I’ve come across in a long while.”

And Shikha Dalmia: “I have never met Paul. But everyone I know who has likes him. They can’t believe that he is capable of harboring the kind of vile sentiments expressed in the newsletters. He seems just too mild and innocuous and decent and well meaning.”

He does. Maybe it’s a pose, but I don’t think so. I think the newsletters of 20 years ago were a pose. The Paul of today is who he says he is.

That he has racked up 21.5% of Republican caucus votes after challenging some of the ruling ideas of the party, means he has achieved something, and not only for himself, and not only for 2012.




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Rousing the Rubes

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Sarah Palin interested me during the 2008 U.S. presidential election, for two reasons.

First, she occasionally seemed to embody the “West coast” style of libertarian political philosophy, based more on practical life experience than on academic training.

Second, her flashes of libertarianism seemed in tension with her claims of evangelical religious faith.

Either of these matters could have made her a compelling public figure. I hoped that she’d bring the first into mainstream political consciousness and offer some resolution to the second. But things didn’t work out that way. Quickly, Palin’s public figure had more to do with persona than philosophy.

Then, in fairly short order, her ticket came in second in the presidential election, she resigned as governor of Alaska halfway through her first term, and she signed a contract with the Fox News Channel to appear regularly as a commentator. She also released two books and starred in a short-lived “reality” television show.

In the coming presidential election cycle, I expect that Jon Huntsman — who’s recently resigned his position as U.S. Ambassador to China and taken the initial steps toward candidacy — will be the person who might raise the issues I’d hoped that Palin would.

Meanwhile, Palin remains on the scene. Her cult of personality is still strong. And her cult of animosity may be even stronger.

I’m not the first to note how closely she resembles the character Emmanuel Goldstein in Orwell’s 1984 — in respect to oppositional politics, if not to intellectual power. Establishment Left groups use her name or image to incite passionate response in readers, donors, and other constituents. We’d need someone like Freud to explain the reasons why Palin resonates so strongly with the Left. But there’s little doubt that she’s marketing gold — a lip-rouged bogeyman who drives clicks to leftwing websites and sells magazines and books.

There we might leave the discussion. And yet . . . the intensity of Palin-hate that small minds on the Left feel is worth considering in some detail. It’s instructive of the state of political discourse.

In late January, the New York Times ran an opinion column by one if its lesser agitators. The piece was highly critical of Rep. Michele Bachmann, who’d recently delivered a semi-official Tea Party response to the president’s state of the union speech. The agitator mocked Bachmann’s manners and makeup but, more than anything else, she presented Bachmann and Palin (by ham-fisted logic since, to that point, Palin had said little publicly about Obama’s speech) for Two Minutes of Hate.

There’s little doubt that Palin is marketing gold — a lip-rouged bogeyman who drives clicks to leftwing websites and sells magazines and books.

And hate the Times readers did. It’s easy to ignore, or forget, how childish and emotional some Americans are about politics. The internet is great for illuminating things like this. Here are some excerpts from the scores of comments that appeared afterward on the newspaper’s website.

“Michelle Bachmann is as ridiculous a political figure as Sarah Palin. The question, however, is why we are covering either one of them. Both Palin and Bachmann know virtually nothing about the important political issues facing our nation, are not qualified to serve in any sort of high level political office, and do little more than degrade the level of political discourse in our nation.”

“The GOP is ignorant about history. The GOP is ignorant about Europe (Paul Krugman’s piece yesterday). The GOP combines that ignorance with an agenda to misinform the public in such a way that voters, against their own economic interests, support policies that benefit a wealthy elite that is getting richer by the day. . . . If only Obama had been the people’s leader we thought we were getting.”

“When I think of Michelle Bachman and Sarah Palin I always think of mud wrestling. Even Michelle’s description of the lovely outfit she was wearing years ago . . . doesn’t dislodge the frame by frame fixation I have of her and the former half-governor from Alaska in a mud pit, pulling each other’s hair, calling each other names, slipping and sliding in the sticky brown goo.”

Such keen insights are hard to top, but here are two more:

“I just don’t get it as to why do so many people respond favorably to people like Palin and Bachmann? And add to them Glen [sic] Beck and Limbaugh fueling their fire along with others trailing in their wake like Ryan and Boehner. They mock and are sarcastic with religious fervor. To me they are so off the wall and ridiculous that whatever they say is total nonsense. . . . I tremble. I want a brainy President like Obama and brainy people around him.”

She serves as a scapegoat, in the original sense of that term: she carries off the failings that her haters fear in themselves.

“Bachman and Palin are the bullies in the kindergarden [sic] of Republican politics and no other kid in their class will stand up to them. Could their behavior be a portent of the approaching death of the party of the rich old white well educated ruling elite and the emergence of a new party of servants of the rich — probably labeled the New Stupids, but just as much in the pockets of the monied [sic] class . . .”

Bear in mind that all of this was posted, in a public forum, just a few weeks after the “brainy” Barack Obama had called for more civilized rhetoric in the nation’s political debate.

I’m no Freud, but even I can see the psychological themes in the Palin-hate. It’s projection. And she serves as a scapegoat, in the original sense of that term: she carries off the failings that her haters fear in themselves. Ignorant, ridiculous, stupid, bullying, mocking, sarcastic, a stupid servant of others, of elite political forces,and . . . ridiculous. Clearly, her haters don’t feel very good about themselves.

And they worry — a lot — that they’re ridiculous.

Perhaps with good reason. “JF” from Wisconsin believes that the GOP’s wide-ranging ignorance empowers it to bamboozle the nation’s voters. And consider the political order, as interpreted by “Annie” from Rhode Island: in her view, three pundits and a junior congresswoman dictate the political agenda to the Speaker of the House. And there are thousands, probably hundreds of thousands, of these mail-order Aristotles out there — all desperate to show that they are so very much smarter than Sarah Palin.

I have no idea whether Palin will run for president in 2012 — though I doubt she will go very far if she does. But I’m glad she’s still on the scene. The response she evokes in the rubes is rich.




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