08 February 2011

'The only good conservative is a dead conservative'

I didn't say it! I'm only quoting Jonah Goldberg, a conservative columnist, and he's only trying to characterize, or caricature, liberal attitudes toward conservatives of the past. He was provoked by recent observances of Ronald Reagan's centennial, including allegedly belated acknowledgment of his virtues from the Democratic party and the "liberal media." Goldberg observes that liberals only discover conservatives' good qualities when they're no longer around. He's inaccurate about this to the extent that Barry Goldwater's reputation took a sharp upturn while he still lived, once he revealed himself in the 1980s as a kind of libertarian rather than a dogmatic reactionary. Regardless of the timing of Goldwater's rehabilitation, Goldberg is irked by liberals' failure to accompany their late discovery of various conservatives' good points with appropriate mea culpas for their past slanders of said worthies. He seems to think that any acknowledgment that a Republican was right about something obliges a Democrat to admit that he or she was wrong about that something. It doesn't follow, if only because liberal praise for past Republicans focuses on character rather than policy. Democrats praise Reagan for the supposed inspirational effect of his optimism, not for supply-side economics or the Strategic Defense Initiative. Republican propagandists protest that Reagan's optimism was inseparable from his ideology, but some philosophical conservatives have noted how Reaganite entrepreneurial optimism, often fueled by credit, contradicts the pessimistic essence of conservative philosophy. The Reagan of posterity, apotheosized by the media, is not an ideologue but an orator, a necessary cheerleader for America in a moment of malaise. Liberals can tentatively embrace such a Reagan without abandoning their own views, or repudiating their warnings against Reagan the candidate.

Goldberg seems baffled by the effect I noted while commenting on Cal Thomas's centennial column. The main reason Republicans look better to liberals in retrospect is that, in most cases, the responsibilities of office require them to govern in a more pragmatic manner than their electoral rhetoric threatened. As I wrote before, it's the same homogenizing imperative that makes Democratic leaders look disappointing to their base constituents while still in office. Candidates who seem like ideologues often can't govern as ideologues -- or simply won't, if you want to be more cynical about it. The responsibilities of office require a Democratic President to perpetuate a Republican war, for instance, and keep Republicans from ever cutting budgets as drastically as primary voters would wish. Partisan imperatives, meanwhile, keep either party from acknowledging this about the other while both are in campaign mode. Pragmatism can only be honored once a politician is dead, retired or, in Goldwater's case, no longer perceived as a threat to the planet. Maybe if Republicans campaigned in the manner or style in which they'd probably govern, at least in some cases, rather than in rabble-rousing vote-getting mode, they might be treated while campaigning the way they'd like to be afterward.

It's also probably true, as Goldberg suspects, that Democrats discover the virtues of dead Republicans in order to make current Republicans look less virtuous. He mentions the argument made in several places that Reagan could not win a Republican primary today, but doesn't take it seriously enough to dispute it. The argument goes that Reagan was too "pragmatic" to win among the rabid GOP base. I don't agree with it, because the premise confuses Reagan the President with Reagan the candidate. Even accepting the premise that Reagan governed more pragmatically than expected, he never campaigned more pragmatically, to my knowledge. He always promised the base the red meat that he allegedly failed, on many occasions, to deliver. If some conservatives feel that Reagan betrayed them in the Eighties, he could just as easily fool them in 2012 -- unless you accept the argument that the likes of Sarah Palin, the radio talkers and the Tea Partiers are more rabid than Reagan ever was. As a matter of pure rhetoric that may be so, but by their acts will we know them eventually -- if we really want to know.

3 comments:

Crhymethinc said...

Or maybe they praise Reagan because he is dead and, therefore, a good conservative.

Samuel Wilson said...

Well,...the dead are certainly the soundest conservatives, though libertarians may like them even better....

Crhymethinc said...

Are there cannibal libertarians?