Monday, January 5, 2009

The Grand Old Dogma

Me, elsewhere:

Over the last few months, there has been much finger-pointing as to which particular sect of the old GOP coalition is to blame for the policy failures of the last 8 years and the electoral failures of the last 2 years.....I think these accusations are deeply misplaced - the problems have not been caused by religious conservatives or adherence to free market beliefs, but instead by a sort of "talk radio" dogmatism in which any given issue becomes a litmus test for whether one is a "true" conservative or Republican.

This dogmatism has become terribly pervasive, dominating the party infrastructure and including many of the most prominent faces of conservatism both online and on the air. It is a dogmatism that is in some ways pushed by a wide variety of conservatives - free market conservatives and libertarians, religious conservatives, and defense conservatives. And yet it is also a dogmatism with which large elements of each of those groups take significant umbrage.

In and of itself, though, a little dogmatism is not necessarily a unique hindrance to a political party or movement’s electability or even its legislative agenda - political dogma has existed for at least as long as political parties have existed, and without some of it political parties cannot distinguish themselves from their competitors.

Instead, the problem with this particular form of dogma is its all-around meanness. Under this dogmatism, dissenters of any stripe are treated as the enemy, regardless of whether the dissenter’s general viewpoint could be described as "conservative," and regardless of the dissenter’s political affiliation. Wide nets are cast to stereotype anyone who may be adversely affected by implementation of one of the dogma’s tenets. Where a particular tenet relies on a particular fact, and a suggestion is made that the fact is inaccurate, the personal loyalties of the questioner are called into question - even if the fact is demonstrably wrong.

What's important here isn't that GOP dogmatism (or political dogmatism more generally) is overly ideological - quite the opposite, actually. Instead, the problem is that it doesn't recognize its lack of a firm ideological basis, turning the individual policy preferences of whichever strain of conservatism is most passionate about a given issue into a litmus test for some imagined "master conservatism." Because this dogmatism represents the conclusions of numerous different philosophies, though, it cannot rely on the ideological arguments that gave rise to the policy preference in the first place. For instance, relying on principled libertarian arguments for a particular economic policy is not possible when you take a position on social policy that is inherently at odds with those arguments; similarly it is not possible to rely on principled religious conservative arguments for social policy when you take a position on economic policy that is directly at odds with those arguments. In short, the problem with dogmatism isn't that it elevates principle over the common good - it's that it is almost completely devoid of principle in the first place, a fact which Conor Friedersdorf seems to get. The result is that this imagined "master conservatism" is forced to rely on arguments that rely on a sense of fear and an "us against them" mentality.

This is not to say that this type of dogmatism is without value - it's useful as a means of creating party unity and "getting out the base." Nor is it particularly the province of conservatives - liberals and Democrats most certainly have their own type of fear-based, "us against them" dogmatism. Instead, the problem here is that the dogmatism has become far too pervasive, both in terms of those who insist on this dogmatism and - as importantly - in terms of the number of issues to which it extends (even extending to issues that have no inherent connection to policy preferences, such as whether Iraq had WMD's, whether global warming is real or imagined, or whether AirTran was morally correct in its refusal to permit a Muslim family to reboard a flight after they were cleared by the FBI).

For instance, it's one thing for talk-show hosts to rant and rave about "Defeatocrats," the "homosexual mafia," etc., since their purpose is not to persuade but is instead almost exclusively to rally the people who are already predisposed to agree with them. It's a far different thing, however, when that attitude extends to campaign tactics, and/or a huge percentage of "talking heads," whose purpose is at least nominally to persuade people to either vote Republican or to support a particular policy position.

Similarly, it's one thing to rant and rave against a particular group as a means of motivating your "base" and maybe to scare the bejesus out of some fence-sitters into supporting your position. It is a far different thing, though, to do this on virtually every issue. So while Muslims, for instance, may be a tiny minority group whose support on any given issue is not worth being concerned about losing, the combination of Muslims, gays, social safety net beneficiaries, Latino immigrants, war opponents, etc. is a pretty large group.

By relying on rhetorical arguments that demonize so many groups and by making those arguments through so many different mediums, this form of dogma dramatically reduces the "pie" to whom conservatives may appeal - both for voting purposes and for purposes of winning support on policies that have nothing to do with the issue on which that group has been demonized. As Rod Dreher points out: "...if you build your political movement around constantly pointing out that it's Us vs. Them, pretty soon you'll find that there aren't too many of Us left."

But again - this problem is not one that is uniquely the province of conservatism or the Republican Party. Instead, it is a problem that will inevitably arise as any particular political coalition becomes ever-larger and attains a certain level of political success on issues where there is near-uniform intra-coalition agreement; in order to maintain the successful coalition, the party needs to manufacture loyalty on issues where there is less intra-coalition agreement. This is, however, an unsustainable strategy due to the way in which it "shrinks the pie" by demonizing policy opponents, even if they happen to be in the same political party. Eventually, the pie becomes small enough that the party can again find a coherent set of positive principles around which to build, and the cycle will begin anew.

The extremes of this cycle are just exacerbated today due to the way in which modern technology allows politics to pervade so much of everyday life. Eventually, the Dems will face similar problems as a result of their own successes, even as the GOP rebuilds around some as-yet unknown set of principles with a relatively broad appeal.

(Cross-posted at Donklephant).