Sunday, November 1, 2015

The Right is Always Wrong. Usually.

I am going to say something both controversial and obvious: Conservatism is always wrong.

Liberals are pretty hesitant to say that anything is always right or wrong. Such black and white claims are recklessly unrealistic and too easily disproved. Life just isn't like that. There are too often shades of gray. Moreover, such overconfident claims are fundamentally at odds with the liberal temperament which tends to look for the good in everyone. We look for commonalities in the human family and emphasize them in order to build compromises on common ground. It has frequently been President Obama's Achilles Heel. We are admittedly generous to a fault in that regard.

Of course, conservatives think we are generous to a fault in all regards.

Conservatives are often the opposite. They embrace a binary, us-vs-them mindset and try to frame issues in terms of moral absolutes with Jehovah on one side and Lucifer on the other. They ignore or disbelieve their leaders' scandals but instantly accept any groundless accusation made against the other side's - hence the endless conspiracy theories and imaginary non-scandals they level at the Clintons and Obama. I have been highly critical of the Clintons betraying the legacy of the New Deal and the Great Society, but I do not think that they had Vince Foster whacked and made it look like a suicide, as Rush Limbaugh perennially insists. Of course, no political stripe is immune to subscribing to conspiracy theories, but the binary mentality is more prone to them because the world is complex and it ironically has to be made more complex to fit a simplistic worldview.

Even when conservatives recognize that individuals or situations have shades of gray, black and white absolutes still define their value spectrum, regardless of circumstance. Everything is framed in terms of opposite poles. For example, they are not going to listen to Paul Krugman's Keynesian argument that deficit spending is sometimes beneficial and necessary.(1) To the conservative rank and file, deficits are always bad; thus raising the national debt ceiling to avoid default on the national debt is a species of treason. Conservative politicians therefore strive to prove their purity by out crazy-ing each other and playing chicken on the budget. Today, the Tea Party movement imposes a Reagan Test of ideological purity that not even Ronald Reagan could pass. But don't expect rank and file Republicans to admit it.

Of course, as George Orwell wrote in his famous essay "Notes on Nationalism," this binary thinking is found on both the left and the right. He uses the term "nationalism" broadly, taking it beyond a blind loyalty to nation-states, but ideologies as well. On atrocities, he wrote:
The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them. For quite six years the English admirers of Hitler contrived not to learn of the existence of Dachau and Buchenwald. And those who are loudest in denouncing the German concentration camps are often quite unaware, or only very dimly aware, that there are also concentration camps in Russia. Huge events like the Ukraine famine of 1933, involving the deaths of millions of people, have actually escaped the attention of the majority of English russophiles. Many English people have heard almost nothing about the extermination of German and Polish Jews during the present war. Their own antisemitism has caused this vast crime to bounce off their consciousness.
But the mentality of a Marxist and a liberal are pretty different. On the contrary, liberals have the opposite problem because they are too quick to accept the conservative narrative. They almost reflexively believe conservatives' most outrageous anecdotes only to caution that the story in question is an isolated incident and not really representative of the program or policy being attacked. You see this played out on every pundit debate show. Only very rarely does an establishment Democratic pundit reply, "Wow. I had not heard about that, but I doubt that it actually happened the way you describe it - if at all. Almost all your examples turn out to be grossly distorted or outright urban legends. So I cannot go along and give you guys the benefit of the doubt anymore." That would be rude. Instead, they say, "Well, I certainly don't support that but -" The upshot is that the conservative has told a vivid story (which often trumps boring facts and figures with most audiences) and the liberal has failed to call bullshit and therefore comes off as weak and equivocating.(2) Clearly, Orwell don't apply here, conservatives' red menace fantasies not withstanding.

I have a handful of Republican friends, but they are more libertarian than conservative. For example, they support gay rights, a woman's right to choose, and marijuana legalization. Yes, we disagree on some things (mostly economic) but we agree on others. They do not have that binary, black and white mindset that I mentioned. Some are better and some are worse, however the worse ones have a more black and white mindset. Ironically, how black and white your worldview is falls along a gray-scale continuum.

So, in that spirit, I am going to make a highly qualified claim: Conservatism is always wrong.

The qualification is that I am talking about the ideology rather than the individual voter or politician. There are almost no issues where conservatives are uniquely correct about anything. They are only correct when they agree with liberals and everyone else. Doubt me? Name an exception:

Opposing Stalin? Liberals and leftists did too. Indeed, a lot of Marxists soured on Stalin, mostly because he was trying to kill them. Does any sane person think that Cold War era Democratic presidents like Truman, Kennedy, or Johnson were closet communists? I said sane: Obviously members of the John Birch Society and the KKK don't count. Nor do Glenn Beck fans. But I repeat myself.

Finding and fighting Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden? Um, yeah, that was not a big priority for the Bush administration despite the outgoing Clinton administration's warnings. Not before 9-11 and actually not much after either. One reason why Obama got Osama was that Bush was not really trying. Bush was much more interested in Saddam than Osama. Indeed, the fact that Obama got bin Laden torpedoes not only the conservative conspiracy theory that Obama is a secret Muslim who hates America but the broader one that liberals are weak on defense. You have to be a paranoid nut to believe either conservative canard.

But if a particular position or perspective is inherently conservative in character, it is probably spectacularly wrong whether we are talking about the economy, foreign policy, morality, or law enforcement. To rattle off a few: Conservatives opposed Social Security - wrong. They opposed Medicare and Medicaid - callous. They opposed the Civil Rights Act - bigoted. They opposed the Clean Air and Water Acts - senseless. Their economic policies caused the Great Depression and the crash of 2007 - catastrophe. They launched the War on Drugs and the prison industrial complex - an absolute disaster. They are on the wrong side of history on LBGT rights (in part because they oppose recognizing rights in general). They think sex ed classes promote teen pregnancy unless the curriculum is abstinence only. Obviously, it is the opposite. From the micro to the macro their notions of how the world works are just cruel jokes. These are the same people who said that listening to rock or smoking pot would turn you into a violent maniac. These are the same people who said playing Dungeons & Dragons would make you commit suicide.(3) They have been predicting the End Times since language was invented. As Benjamin Franklin gently mocked them, "The golden age is never the present age." I remember when The Late Great Planet Earth was in movie theaters in the late 1970s. Growing up, Sunday morning television was composed almost exclusively of televangelists warning of Armageddon and demanding money. The sole sane exception was "Star Trek" reruns. Why should anyone be surprised that they still think we found WMDs in Iraq or that Obamacare has "death panels"?

The only area in which conservatives are arguably correct is the second amendment. In theory. But no right is absolute, so they wind up always wrong in practice. As I wrote in my book, gun ownership is a personal right, but gun control is constitutional too. For gun owners, the only way around the "well-regulated militia" stumbling block is to argue that the phrase was only thrown in as an example and not the sole reason. From there, they must argue that the founders were vitally concerned with individual liberty generally. But to do that, they must also support birth control, abortion, gay rights, pornography, pot, and everything that cultural conservatives have historically opposed. Logically, you cannot argue for a broad interpretation of the second amendment without embracing a broad interpretation of the first. Therefore, there is a plausible libertarian argument for gun rights, but there is not a conservative one. So, yeah, conservatives are still always wrong.

Excuse this footnoted cri-de-coeur, but calling Republicans "The Party of No" is just too generous. (See? We are generous to a fault.) They are the Party of Wrong. They are always wrong because they are perpetually at war with liberty, equality, and democracy.

And to that we must add modernity and reality.


(1) Deficit spending was just one way that Reagan broke the faith, but it was spectacularly damaging. Franklin D. Roosevelt ran deficits as well, but his government borrowing differed from Reagan's in two immense ways. First, FDR borrowed from American banks. Such domestic debts do not harm the overall economy because they are like borrowing from yourself: When the money is paid back, it goes right back into the American economy. Indeed, that money goes back into the American economy as soon as Uncle Sam spends it, stimulating the economy immediately. But when the rich sit on their money the economy is anemic. By contrast, Reagan borrowed from foreign banks. It also stimulated the economy as soon as it was spent on defense. But as the money gets paid back it leaves the U.S. economy. Second, FDR borrowed to pull us out of the Great Depression and fight WWII. These are what most historians call "damn good reasons." Reagan just wanted to claim he lowered your taxes. Of course, he didn't because borrowed money has to be paid back - with interest. He actually raised our taxes, only he did it during subsequent administrations. Reagan lambasted "tax-and-spend Democrats," but at least their programs were paid for. Reagan was a borrow-and-spend Republican. Also, the Reagan Administration deliberately ballooned the deficit to crowd out social spending. Their goal was hosing the poor, not fiscal responsibility. So I suppose that makes three big differences.

(2) Of course, there are good reasons for such caution. Sure, conservatives are usually lying, but you don't want to say that the one time they are not. For example, Ronald Reagan's Cadillac-driving "welfare queen" was a real person. But she was a genius con-artist who ran countless scams under countless names. Most aid recipients are honest and most cheaters get caught. And eventually even she got nabbed; so not only was she an outlier, the system worked. Conservatives certainly wouldn't say we should close banks because they get robbed and they definitely would not take that tack on fraud by defense contractors. You cannot call bullshit as reflexively as bull-shitters fabricate. On the other hand, a lot of establishment democrats don't like to call themselves liberals, so they are timid about defending liberal positions. That is a separate, but longstanding problem - hence these links to old articles. MSNBC is a relatively new thing.

(3) Mind you, "60 Minutes" swallowed the D&D panic too - which shows how quick the mainstream media (MSM) is to give conservative cranks legitimacy. Veracity does not really figure into their decision making. Being chronically wrong is no barrier to access. The MSM still think that Thomas Friedman is a genius and that Paul Ryan is a serious thinker on the budget. They still solicit Dick Cheney's and Henry Kissinger's opinions on foreign affairs. But advocate Canadian style single payer to fix our country's healthcare mess and you are written off as a crank. No public platform for you! The MSM eventually drops these things once they become embarrassing, but conservatives keep running with them.

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