Friday, January 9, 2009

In Which I Impersonate Instapundit

I agree. And for what it's worth, the fantasy-nerd in me is starting to think that "talk radio dogmatism"/"talking heads conservatism"/"the Cult of the Image of Reagan" is to the various strains of philosophical conservatism what the Orcs and Uruk-hai were to Elves and Men. Discuss.

UPDATE/DISCLAIMER: This post is not intended as an attack on Glenn Reynolds but is instead merely a result of the fact that I'm too busy to write more and thus am unable to write my usual 1000-word post. This post is also unnecessarily sarcastic and mean-spirited towards the aforementioned type of dogmatism and thus hypocritical. If anyone is upset by this, I apologize in advance.

Reagan's Heavy Anchor

In a must-read post, Alex Massie inadvertently picks up where I left off in analyzing the problems of the modern Republican Party. But he has a different name for the problem than "talk show dogmatism": "the Cult of Reagan - or more precisely, the Cult of the Idea of Reagan..."

Massie does a much better job than I tracing the history of the problem in its rise from positive momentum-changer to gigantic albatross, but the symptoms of his diagnosis are identical to the symptoms I wrote about previously.

Key 'graph:

In that sense, then. the troubles of Republicanism now and of the Tories in the last 15 years, were built upon their previous successes. The difficulty is that the second (or third) generation is rarely as talented or adaptable as the trailblazers who won power in the first place. Instead of finding fresh ideas and solutions, they inherit positions and prejudices that, because they worked once before, are assumed to be eternal truths rather than particular answers to particular problems at a particular time.
And because they're seen as eternal truths, any deviation from them is grounds for heresy.

He also issues this important rejoinder, which seemed to get lost in the shuffle of some of the discussion of my argument:

Style matters too. The Tory position on Europe in the 1990s (and on immigration and crime more recently) was more popular with the electorate than were Labour's
policies, but the stridency and, to many, the ugly tone in which the Tories expressed themselves turned many voters off. Similarly, the GOP position on, say, immigration is not without its supporters but the manner in which a position is expressed matters almost as much as the position itself. And the GOP has seemed bitter and parochial - qualities with which the electorate is unlikely to wish to associate itself.
Another example? The Terri Schiavo affair: millions of Americans might have been conflicted as to what they felt in what was a horrid, ugly affair. But they knew they didn't like the spectacle of Congressional Republicans stomping all over the case in hob-nailed boots, abandoning any notion of Congressional restraint, let alone respect for States' Rights and due process. The party that says the other mob always want to interfere abandoned all pretence to principle to interfere itself. Voters can spot hypocrisy and while they may sometimes forgive it if its purusued with a modicum of subtlety or on grounds of expediency, more often they dislike it intensely when it seems a flagrant breach of promise or purpose.

As I said - it's a must read.

And, while we're here, E.D. Kain has his own phrase for this problem: "talking points conservatism." (The rest of E.D.'s post is quite the introspective with which I think a lot of us can identify).

For what it's worth, I think of the three phrases, my "talk radio dogmatism" is the catchiest but probably least accurately captures the problem. Massie's "Cult of the Idea of Reagan" is probably the most accurate, but also the most verbose. E.D.'s "talking points conservatism" pretty much splits the difference.

(Belated H/T: John).

UPDATE: See Dennis Sanders also, who succinctly describes the situation thusly: "[For this group] Conservatism is not as much a philosopy as it is a checklist." Sanders' remaining thoughts are, on the whole, quite constructive as well. The one point of contention I'd have with him is that he comes too close to suggesting that moderation and centrism are both unqualified goods, an argument with which I took issue here. To me, centrism is a good only if it is the result of applying fundamental principles to changing facts; centrism for its own sake can be every bit as dogmatic as hyper-partisanship.

(Edited a minor grammatical error).

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Adding Value

Scott Payne has some excellent thoughts on what Freddie's departure from the blogosphere says about the strengths and weaknesses of blogging as a form of discourse. As you'll see, those thoughts offer an excellent segue into a pretty significant announcement here at PE.

Scott writes: often times does feel like bloggers simply sit around pontificating on the importance of one another’s comments in a circular fashion. Certainly a sizable chunk of blog posts are responses to blog posts by other bloggers, and in this regard how much original thought winds up getting expressed in the blogosphere starts to become hazy.

My own conception of discourse is that original thought is necessary for it to be meaningful. If we restrict ourselves driving around in circles on the same topics and ideas over and over again, then it seems to be that all we’re really doing is digging better grooves for the same old ruts.

On the other hand ... such intra-blogospheric reflection need not only be a discursive cul de sac. When done well, the reflection that bloggers provide on the thoughts/ideas of other bloggers can, in fact, tease out elements of that thought, examine it more carefully, and ideally add something novel to a particular line of thought.

For the most part, I think Dave and I have tried to post, as often as possible, our own original ideas rather than regurgitating what others have said. But the fact is that we're human, and no doubt fall victim to this trap from time to time ourselves. Even when we don't, we - just like anyone - remain inherently captive to our own predispositions and biases. For me, this is why it is so essential to engage in considered dialogue with those with whom you disagree - a result that can often be difficult to obtain, particularly in the middle and lower tiers of the blogosphere where conversation between ideologically distinct bloggers is all too rare.

With that in mind, I'm extremely honored to announce that Kyle Moore of Comments From Left Field will be joining Dave and I from time to time (read: whenever he feels like it) as a co-blogger. Kyle is a "philosophical liberal with moderate and centrist tendencies" who happens to share a deep interest in the applied political science and philosophy that tends to be the focus of this blog. Kyle and I have engaged in numerous debates on these issues over the last year and a half, and I think it's safe to say that in each instance we each came out haveing "add[ed] something novel to a particular line of [our] thought."

In terms of the structure of this arrangement, Kyle is going to continue with his usual line of posts at CFLF. But on those occasions he feels the urge to write on issues of theory and philosophy, he will have free reign to take advantage of this site's more appropriate niche for that style of writing.

Knowing how our past discussions have progressed, I have little doubt that this arrangement will push each of us to reach new heights of original and thoughtful discourse.

On a more personal note, this arrangement is particularly meaningful to me given the role that Kyle played in the establishment of this site as something more than a mere one-person echo chamber. Without Kyle's selfless, patient advice and assistance shortly after I started this blog, it's almost impossible to conceive this site ever reaching more than 10 or 20 readers a day. More remarkable is that he offered that advice without hesitation, with the full recognition of our ideological differences, and based solely on a handful of comments I left after stumbling upon CFLF.

UPDATE: While we're on the topic of people who challenge me to overcome my own biases, newly-frequent commenter and outstanding blogger in his own right, E.D. Kain, has a well-deserved column up on the front page of Culture11 about seating Senator-designate Burris (D-Taint). His analysis seems dead-on, even if it's not his usual subject matter.

UPDATE II: Just rambling, but given the ever-expanding roster of particularly thoughtful lower and middle-tier bloggers who have had front-page articles at Culture11, combined with the site's Murderer's Row of thoughtful top-tier regular bloggers, not to mention the site's social networking capabilities and expansions into the worlds of sports, linguistics, etc. long will it take until Culture11 completely dominates all things media-related?

A Sad Day for Honest Debate

....Freddie DeBoer calls it quits, at least for the time being. Hopefully, we'll still see him hanging around, pushing us to be more honest with ourselves and more compassionate towards others.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Rationality of Hamas' Attacks

For the most part, I've tried to stay out of the ongoing Israel-Palestine morass, although it's safe to say I blame them both for the situation. But there has been a really good, intellectually honest, debate going on between John, Freddie, Joe Carter, and James Poulos - to name only a handful of the participants.

As something of an offshoot to that, ED Kain wonders why Hamas continues to shoot rockets into Israel instead of using those resources for defensive purposes when Israeli soldiers are literally at their doorstep. He says, with good justification, that this just seems to confirm the worst beliefs about Hamas' use of terrorism and essentially prevents Israeli moderates from gaining a voice that would put an end to Israel's invasion of Gaza.

Actually, I think Hamas' actions in continuing the rocket attacks are ultimately rational - it allows them to plausibly declare victory almost no matter what Israel does, or at least as long as they have the ability to get their hands on the resources to manufacture them. As importantly, it gives them a fairly important bargaining chip if and when a cease fire is declared, and it's doubtful that the cessation of rocket attacks would have any effect in hastening the declaration of a cease-fire.

The fact is that Hamas is fully aware it is severely outgunned by Israel both in terms of manpower and in terms of weaponry. Thus, it has no possibility, ultimately, of winning a military victory over Israel - a fact of which they are most certainly aware. However, it can nonetheless legitimately declare victory if the Israelis are unable to achieve that which they nominally set out to achieve - which is in large part the cessation of the rocket attacks. So as long as Israel is unable, by sheer force, to put an end to the rocket attacks, Hamas will appear the victor to its constituents, as well as to its supporters in the rest of the Middle East and South Asia. Meanwhile, the continued rocket attacks don't have too much of an effect on international opinion because they are rather ineffective at actually killing people - this guarantees that the casualty figures for Israeli civilians will continue to dwarf the casualty figures for Palestinian civilians.

Moreover, whether or not Hamas actually is using its citizens as human shields, the international coverage regarding those activities is unlikely to emphasize that issue - in part because of Israel's ban on journalists entering Gaza (leaving Hamas the sole source of information as to what it was doing), and in part because the compact size and incredibly dense population of Gaza makes it so that no matter where Hamas chose to mount a defense, large-scale civilian casualties would be inevitable. These two factors turn the question of whether Hamas is abiding by the laws of war into a largely academic question for purposes of most international debate - the only thing that will matter, for those purposes, is how many civilians die on each side.

What this ultimately means is that all Hamas has to do to achieve its objectives is make sure that it has enough rockets to outlast Israel's willingness to withstand international pressure to end its attacks. And that is why, whatever your opinion on the justice of Israel's response, the decision to escalate the assault on Gaza was harmful to Israeli interests.

Say What You Will About the Tenets of Neo-Conservatism, At Least It's An Ethos

I've been pretty harsh on philosophical neo-conservatism over the last year or so since I've been writing here at Publius Endures. In fact, it's safe to say that of all the various (actual) political philosophies that form a significant portion of our governing political coalitions, I have consistently held neo-conservatism in by far the most contempt.

And without a doubt, the basic tenets of neo-conservatism, with its emphasis on the spread of democracy as an end unto itself, are tenets with which I profoundly disagree. But it's also worth remembering that neo-conservatism, at least in its most philosophical form, is very much concerned with a positive, idealistic worldview just as any other true political philosophy is. And while, just as other strains of conservatism and libertarianism, many prominent neo-conservatives have fallen under the spell of "talk radio dogmatism," the actual philosophy of neo-conservatism itself - again much like other strains of conservatism and libertarianism - has deep intellectual roots.

Perhaps nothing provides a clearer example of the distinction between this "talk radio dogma" neo-conservatism and actual philosophical neo-conservatism than the reaction in conservative circles to the impending nomination of Leon Pannetta to head the CIA. As an outspoken critic of torture (aka "harsh interrogation techniques") and the intelligence failures of the last 8 years who has no previous connection to the CIA, the Pannetta nomination has unsurprisingly drawn the praises of civil libertarians of all stripes - including Greenwald, Sullivan, Schwenkler, and Hilzoy.

What is, however, surprising is the way in which the pick has split the portions of the political Right that hold to a more-or-less neoconservative view of international relations. On the one hand, some of neo-conservatism's biggest intellectual heavyweights, including Douglas Feith and Richard Perle, are almost completely supportive of the nomination - in spite of Panetta's harsh criticism of policies that Feith and Perle either pushed or excused. The common thread for this group seems to be an acknowledgement of the failures of the last eight years, and a belief that those failures arose due to systemic, institutional problems within the Agency. To them, these problems can only be fixed by someone outside the Agency with strong managerial skills, and preferably, it would seem, a critic of the Agency. At base, this group recognizes that a neo-conservative agenda cannot succeed unless there is some sort of comprehensive reform of our intelligence services - and it is that idealistic (if, in my view, deeply flawed) neo-conservative agenda that remains their ultimate concern and goal.

But the GOP dogmatists, who do not understand the intellectual roots of the fundamentally neo-conservative foreign policy they advocate, have taken a vastly different tack.

Ed Morrissey, who is as close to an intellectually honest dogmatist as you will find:

Even the notion of “change” doesn’t apply here. Obama has no executive experience in government, and neither does Panetta, but Panetta hardly represents a breath of fresh air in Washington. He’s another Clinton-era retread, only in this case, put in charge of an organization about which he knows nothing. He’s there to exercise Obama’s political will and nothing more.

Similarly, Wizbang calls the pick the equivalent of the Bush decision to choose Mike Brown to head FEMA, while Ace of Spades says Panetta's only qualification is "being a lifelong partisan hack." And, of course, Michelle Malkin says "Another day, another clueless Clinton crony named to a top job for which he has no experience. The unqualified fish rots from the head down, after all. "

Notably missing from any of the discussion amongst the dogmatists is an acknowledgement of the systemic problems faced by the CIA, whether it be in terms of the moral issues related to interrogation techniques or in terms of the embarassing intelligence failures in recent years.

More at memeorandum.

Cross-posted at Donklephant.

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).