The December American Conservative hit my mailbox this week with eagerly-awaited commentary on the presidential election. As regular readers will recall, the Conservative favors neither the neocon/globalist tendencies within the Republican party nor, more predictably, the statist tendencies of the Democratic party. Influenced by co-founder Pat Buchanan, the magazine defined itself as a forum for "paleoconservatives" who despite their often reactionary cultural views have often been more open to ideas from the "left" than their more conventional fellow Republicans and claimed common ground with the left in opposition to the invasion of Iraq. No fans of Mitt Romney were likely to be found in the Conservative's pages, nor does there seem to be much mourning over Romney's defeat. "The GOP's greatest problem is not an inability to win elections," the lead editorial claims, "but its inability to govern in a principled and prudent conservative fashion." Romney would only have proven this again, the editorial implies.
To emphasize the importance of prudence, the December issue gives five pages to Bruce Bartlett, the former think-tanker ostracized by the GOP mainstream for criticizing George W. Bush. As Bartlett writes here, he "grew totally to despise the man for his stupidity, cockiness, arrogance, ignorance and cluelessness." But his disaffection with Dubya only presaged Bartlett's deeper estrangement from the Republican intelligentsia, who suffer, in the faddish terminology of the moment, from "epistemic closure," which Bartlett translates as "living in their own bubble where nonsensical ideas circulate with no contradiction."
Bartlett feels that he began as a critic from Bush's right, chiding him and the Republicans who controlled Congress for rampant pork-barrel spending. He discovered that epistemic closure is sometimes an economic imperative. His fall from GOP grace accelerated once people determined that "my criticism was threatening contributions from right-wing millionaires in Dallas." He lost his think-tank job because his boss claimed that an as-yet unpublished book by Bartlett was "already costing the organization contributions." I'm reminded of the Republican donors Joe Scarborough spoke of following the election, who complained that they had wasted their money donating to SuperPACs because the PACS assured them that Romney would win. Such people demand affirmation, not information, while Bartlett continued to inform himself. He started a book on the rise and fall of economic theories, expecting to show that Keynesian demand-side economics had had its moment, during the Depression, but was no longer relevant in changed circumstances. To his credit, Bartlett, an early champion of supply-side economics, intended to show that his preferred theory also had a limited lifespan. What surprised him was his realization, based on his research, that in the 21st century "we needed Keynesian policies again...We still need more aggregate demand, and the Republican idea that tax cuts for the rich will save us becomes more ridiculous by the day." Bartlett now sees himself to President Obama's left on fiscal issues, characterizing himself as "somewhere on the center-left" while Obama himself "is not a leftist. In fact, he's barely a liberal." Bartlett refuses to confess himself a liberal, but laments that "these days they are the only people who will listen to me." Republicans won't be on the road to recovery, he claims with slight arrogance, until they "once again start asking my opinion," -- and apparently the Conservative editors agree with him.
Pat Buchanan feels that Republicans have succumbed to globalization. Noting Romney's failure, Buchanan sees the Man From Bain as a scapegoat for "the de-industrialization of America [in which] the Republican Party has been a culpable co-conspirator." Buchanan is a double protectionist, specifically concerned with protecting American workers from outsourcing and from competition for jobs from immigrants. He rejects all suggestions of outreach to Hispanic voters, who voted less readily for Romney than they did for Bush. Despite Bush's relative popularity with that demographic, Buchanan feels that Hispanics in general are destined to be Democrats, on the assumption that Hispanic immigrants will not get the skills-intensive jobs the country still offers, but will become dependent upon government. "Why would they vote for a party that is going to cut taxes they do not pay, but take away government benefits they do receive?" he asks. That extends to immigrants from anywhere but Europe, in Buchanan's view. Unless something can be done soon to reverse demographic trends, Buchanan warns, the GOP faces an "existential crisis." If no power can restore the country's manufacturing sector, he may be right, but why can't any power do that? People like Buchanan talk a good game about protecting workers, but to the extent that they still see capitalism as the morally superior system of economic organization, they can't help but concede defeat once the bosses take their jobs elsewhere, since the alternative violates their ideal of liberty. To the extent that he is a protectionist, in his advocacy of tariffs and other measures against imports, Buchanan is willing to violate the absolute ideal of economic liberty, but to the extent that he is a conservative, in his defense of property and "free enterprise," a moment must come when he will choose liberty over protection, to workers' detriment.
American conservatism has long been torn between an American commitment to liberty and a conservative dedication to order. Their intellectual gamble depends on a balance being struck between liberty and order, the balance itself depending on some kind of morality keeps liberty from becoming license and order from becoming oppression. Should the balance fail, however, perceptions may become skewed -- if too strong a commitment to liberty makes order appear more oppressive, or vice versa. Inescapably, definitions of both liberty and order are open to challenge. This becomes more problematic the more thinkers are inclined, as American conservatives often are, to see things in intellectual or moral terms rather in practical material terms. Is order (or liberty) simply the prevalence of a certain moral code, or can -- or must -- either be measured in terms of the physical well being of citizens? Editor Daniel McCarthy hopes that his magazine's thoughtful readers can begin shaping change at "the level of philosophy and education" instead of wasting their resources by throwing them at Karl Rove. That's an admirable idea, but he should bear in mind that American conservatives still have a lot of thinking to do before they try to educate the rest of us.