Archives for the 'Conservatism' Category

Forked-Tongue Express

Anybody reading McCain’s answers to an executive-power questionairre published in the Boston Globe last December could be excused for thinking that a McCain administration would represent at least a slight departure from the Bush team’s extravagant theories of presidential prerogative. “I don’t think the president has the right to disobey any law,” he said when asked about FISA. Alas, it seems that McCain has lately discovered the wondrous penumbras and emanations that supposedly issue from Article II. Charlie Savage has the goods.

Posted on Jun 7, 2008 in Conservatism, Cult of the Presidency, Executive Power | 6 Comments


My college friend Jerry Russello, author of The Postmodern Imagination of Russell Kirk, has an interview with me running on the website of the Kirk Center’s University Bookman.

I write a little bit about Kirk in the section of the book labeled “How Conservatives Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Imperial Presidency.” Kirk, to his credit, was never really able to stop worrying. Search his name on the Heritage Foundation website and you’ll find some stuff that would get Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh to cry treason. Here’s Kirk in the wake of Gulf War I:

it would be ruinous for the Republicans to convert themselves into a party of high deeds in distant lands and higher taxes on the home front. Such a New World Order, like the Pax Romana, might create a wilderness and call it peace; at best, it would reduce the chocolate ration from thirty grams to twenty. And in the fullness of time, the angry peoples of the world would pull down the American Empire, despite its military ingenuity and its protestations of kindness and gentleness — even as the Soviet Empire is being pulled down today, thanks be to God.

I like this one, too (and quote it in the book):

The conservative endeavors to so limit and balance political power that anarchy or tyranny may not arise. in every age, nevertheless, men and women are tempted to overthrow the limitations upon power, for the sake of some fancied temporary advantage. It is characteristic of the radical that he thinks of power as a force for good–so long as the power falls into his hands. In the name of liberty, the French and Russian revolutionaries abolished the old restraints upon power; but power cannot be abolished; it always finds its way into someone’s hands. That power which the revolutionaries had thought oppressive in the hands of the old regime became many times as tyrannical in the hands of the radical new masters of the state.

Knowing human nature for a mixture of good and evil, the conservative does not put his trust in mere benevolence. Constitutional restrictions, political checks and balances, adequate enforcement of the laws, the old intricate web-of restraints upon will and appetite–these the conservative approves as instruments of freedom and order.

Man, remember conservatives? They used to believe stuff like that. Some of them still do, but they’re few and far between. Today Heritage’s Russell Kirk lecture goes to the likes of John Yoo. Seriously.

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Posted on May 19, 2008 in Conservatism, Cult of the Presidency, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

…How He Chooses to Run the Country Is between Him and His God

“It’s not for me to second-guess the president of the United States.”

–Rep. Tom Cole, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, “reject[ing] the notion of a dramatic break with Bush.”

Posted on May 15, 2008 in Conservatism, Cult of the Presidency, Executive Power | 12 Comments

Legacy Hunting

In the new Atlantic (not online yet), Ross Douthat makes the case that history–or historians, at any rate–may end up being a lot kinder to President Bush than he deserves. Douthat writes that judging by the periodic presidential rankings issued by presidential scholars:

Americans tend to forgive their leaders for the crimes and errors of the moment…. we’ve forgiven Teddy Roosevelt his role in the bloody and disgraceful occupation of the Phillipines. It’s why we’ve pardoned Woodrow Wilson for the part his feckless idealism played in unleashing decades of strife and tyranny in Europe. It’s why we’ve granted Harry Truman absolution for the military blundering that prolonged the Korean War and brought us to the brink of nuclear conflict…. These well-respected presidents have benefited as well, from the American tendency to overvalue activist leaders. So a bad president like Wilson is preferred, in our rankings and our hearts, to a good but undistinguished manager like Calvin Coolidge…

Douthat’s absolutely right that the presidential rankings reflect a bias toward activism, a preference for those presidents who dream big and dare great things, even when they leave wreckage in their wake. As I point out in The Cult of the Presidency:

Social psychologist Dean Keith Simonton used regression analysis to examine the factors that the rankers reward, demonstrating that, besides years in office, years at war are most strongly correlated with higher standing. Another scholar who, like Simonton, ran the numbers on presidential greatness, concluded that “Without the compelling urgency of war… a great individual will have considerable difficulty in gaining recognition as a great president.” In 2005, conservative law professor Eric Posner suggested that the academic consensus proved that “imperial presidents perform better than limited-power republican presidents.” Posner looked at the 2000 presidential poll conducted by the Wall Street Journal and the Federalist Society (the first to control for the rankers’ political affiliation) and categorized each of the presidents ranked in the poll as either “republican” or “imperial.” The high status of the imperialists led Posner to conclude that there was a powerful argument for unleashing the Imperial Presidency: “much of the structure of the presidency—especially in foreign affairs—is hampered by 18th-century restrictions that were motivated by fears of monarchy. By pushing against these restrictions, Bush… is further modernizing the office of the presidency and preparing it for the challenges ahead.”….

In the perverse calculus that governs the presidential rankings, a man’s worth is measured not by how much harm he avoided, not by how well he presided over domestic peace, but by how skillfully he exploited catastrophes to spur revolutionary change. Is it any wonder, then, that presidents, who walk the halls with the portraits of past greats, sometimes long for an enormous crisis in which to prove themselves? Should we be surprised if they’re tempted to resort to militarism when the impossible tasks they’ve signed up for—“managing” the economy, keeping Americans safe from every sort of harm—up to and including spiritual “malaise”—prove difficult to fulfill? If presidents are too quick to invoke the war metaphor, if they find themselves drawn toward sweeping theories of executive power and an exalted, quasi-religious view of their station, then perhaps that’s because the people who fill out their report cards reward such behavior.

Buy the book, already.


Posted on May 11, 2008 in Conservatism, Cult of the Presidency | 25 Comments

Promote Others

If you’re in DC tomorrow (register and) come on down to Cato for a forum on Bill Kauffmann’s new book Ain’t My America: The Long, Noble History of Antiwar Conservatism and Middle-American Anti-Imperialism. I’d say “great new book,” but I don’t have it yet, so I can’t. But I’ve read other Kauffman books and his one-page history column in the old American Enterprise magazine was a consistent gem (or maybe a raisin), so I’m sure it’s great. You’ve gotta love a guy who retroactively opposes the interstate highway system, not just on constitutionalist grounds, but because it made America ugly. From the event flyer:

Conservatives love war, empire, and the military-industrial complex. They abhor peace, the sole and rightful property of liberals. Right? Wrong.

According to Bill Kauffman, true conservatives have always resisted the imperial and military impulse: it drains the treasury, curtails domestic liberties, breaks down families, and vulgarizes culture. From the Federalists who opposed the War of 1812, to the striving of Robert Taft (known as “Mr. Republican”) to keep the United States out of Korea, to the latter-day libertarian critics of the Iraq war, there has historically been nothing unusual about anti-war activists on the political right. And while these critics of U.S. military crusades have been vilified by the party of George W. Bush, their conservative vision of a peaceful, decentralized, and noninterventionist America gives us a glimpse of the country we could have had—and might yet attain. Passionate and witty, Ain’t My America is an eye-opening exploration of the forgotten history of right-wing peace movements—and a clarion call to anti-war conservatives of today.

Tyler Cowen recommends the book, though he suggests (by linking to a picture of kimchi) that antiwar conservatives were wrong to question our undeclared, conscript-fought war in Korea. I know, I know, the kimchi part’s a joke.


Posted on May 7, 2008 in Conservatism, Domestic Policy, Foreign Policy and Defense | 8 Comments

Hosanna in the Highest

I’m back in DC in front of a computer again, and I see that George W. Bush recently returned to Greensburg, Kansas to speak at a high-school graduation, a year after he’d been there the first time. Greensburg, you may or may not recall, got pretty hard by a tornado a year ago. On his 2007 post-tornado visit(ation?), Bush declared:

I bring the prayers and concerns of the people of this country to this town of Greensburg, Kansas…. My mission is to — today, though, is to lift people’s spirits as best as I possibly can and to hopefully touch somebody’s soul by representing our country, and to let people know that while there was a dark day in the past, there’s brighter days ahead.

For years, I’ve been hearing conservatives say how “down to earth” the president is. But would a regular guy talk about himself as a prayer-bearing soul-toucher? Or maybe when they say “down to earth” they mean literally descended from on high?


Posted on May 5, 2008 in Civil Liberties, Conservatism, Cult of the Presidency, Domestic Policy | 6 Comments

“Vote The Rascals In”

Sunday’s NYT has an article by Sam Tanenhaus, that mentions Norman Mailer’s 1969 bid for mayor of NYC. It’s one of my favorite political campaigns ever. I just finished Managing Mailer, an account of the race written by his campaign manager. Mailer was my kind of Purple American: “I am running to the Left and the Right of every man in this race…. I am running on everything from Black Power to Irish self-righteousness.” The campaign had the best slogan in history: “No More Bullshit,” and a candidate who was full of it and endearingly so.

Mailer and Breslin’s platform was a sort of three-bong-hit Jeffersonianism. As Time magazine described at the time:

His candidacy is improbable; yet in the course of his campaign Mailer has put forward some provocative ideas. Many merely peck at the periphery of urban problems, frequently with a large mea sure of hyperbole…. He… suggests that Coney Island be turned into a Las Vegas East, with legalized gambling that would add sizably to the tax revenues. Most of all, however, Mailer has based his campaign on two ideas: that New York City should become a separate 51st state, and that the city ought to be divided into many relatively autonomous neighborhoods.

Neighborhood Power. On the financial side, Mailer argues that the city pays $14 billion in income taxes to Washington and Albany — but gets back only $3 billion. If the city were a separate state,* it would get to keep a greater proportion of the tax money it exports. What is more, it would be freed from legislative control by the present state government, which is often hostile to city demands. At the same time, says Mailer, if he is elected in November, “a small miracle would have happened. At that moment the city would have declared that it had lost faith in the old ways of solving political problems and that it wished to embark on a new conception of politics.” Then, says Mailer, there would be delegated “some real power to the neighborhoods.” …. Early in his campaign, blithely exaggerating to dramatize his point, Mailer proclaimed: “We’ll have compulsory free love in those neighborhoods that vote for it, and compulsory attendance at church on Sunday in those that vote for that.”

The campaign was replete with wacked-out ideas: “a monthly ‘Sweet Sunday,’ when every form of mechanical transportation — including elevators — would be halted,” “a World Series of stickball to be held in the deserted Wall Street district on weekends,” and “a zoo in every neighborhood.” But it sure beat the smoking bans and goo-goo liberalism of Bloomberg.

Fun fact: Guess who was the only candidate for City Council that Mailer’s running mate, Jimmy Breslin, finished ahead of? Answer: Charlie Rangel.


Posted on Apr 14, 2008 in Conservatism, Liberalism | 7 Comments

“A Cause Greater”

John McCain courted controversy recently with a new campaign slogan that some saw as a thinly veiled attack on Barack Obama’s eclectic background and upbringing. I don’t know if that interpretation is right, but McCain’s new tagline sounds like something out of Team America or Steven Colbert: “The American President Americans Have Been Waiting For” (And So Can You!).

Less ridiculous, and perhaps more unsettling, are McCain’s repeated appeals to “a cause greater than self-interest,” and his attacks on “cynicism,” which, as a determined cynic, I take very personally.

In his speeches, McCain periodically sneers at American opulence and suggests that leaving Americans alone to pursue their own visions of happiness is a narrow and ignoble goal for government. As I point out in my new book (buy it, for the love of God!) that’s a common sentiment among the American intelligentsia, and one that’s been used repeatedly to concentrate power in the executive branch:

Like intellectuals the world over, many American pundits and scholars, right and left, view bourgeois contentment with disdain. Normal people appear to like “normalcy,” Warren Harding’s term for peace and prosperity, just fine. But all too many professional thinkers look out upon 300 million people living their lives by their own design and see something impermissibly hollow in the spectacle.

McCain’s campaign speeches reflect that theme. Here he is in a recent speech at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, telling his audience that if you “sacrifice for a cause greater than yourself, [you'll] invest your life with the eminence of that cause, your self-respect assured.” Here he is on his campaign webpage, insisting that “each and every one of us has a duty to serve a cause greater than our own self-interest.”

I’m not a Randian, so I’m not inclined to condemn this stuff as whim-worshipping altruism. In the abstract, I agree with the statement that when you turn away from your own self-interest, narrowly construed, and adopt a higher purpose than your own pleasure (which purpose need not, and ought not, have anything to do with service to the state), “your self-respect [will be] assured.” But why is any of this McCain’s business? The president is supposed to be a limited constitutional officer, not a national life coach-cum-self-help guru.

Making the case for “a cause greater” in the Naval Academy speech, McCain declared that

when healthy skepticism sours into corrosive cynicism our expectations of our government become reduced to the delivery of services. And to some people the expectations of liberty are reduced to the right to choose among competing brands of designer coffee.

Oh my, not “designer coffee”! The reflexive contempt for peace and prosperity McCain displays here is the essence of National Greatness Conservatism, and, as Matt Welch has pointed out in Myth of a Maverick, his devastating critique of the Arizona senator, John McCain is to National Greatness Conservatism as Barry Goldwater was to conservatism proper: the electoral standard bearer for the philosophy.

In his book, Welch quotes a May 1999 commencement address McCain gave at Johns Hopkins University, warning that America was threatened by a “pervasive public cynicism” toward government “as dangerous in its way as war and depression have been in the past.” In the same speech McCain mused, “With every new Dow Jones record, something gnaws at my conscience that we should not be lulled into unfeeling contentment.” (There’s a bright side to our current economic woes I guess: McCain’s conscience is spared that old gnawing feeling.)

McCain’s sometime ideological guru and op-ed page cheerleader, David Brooks, expresses similar themes in his writings. Even in Bobos in Paradise, Brooks’s foray into “comic sociology,” he warns darkly of “the temptations that accompany affluence.” “The fear is that America will decline not because it overstretches, but because it enervates as its leading citizens decide that the pleasures of an oversized kitchen are more satisfying than the conflicts and challenges of patriotic service.” (As a young man, Brooks served abroad with the Wall Street Journal Europe.)

Designer coffee, oversized kitchens, Belgian beer, and iPods–you might embrace such things because they make life more pleasant, but as Brooks and McCain point out, that’s precisely the problem. These products of prosperity are the lures that plague us, the temptations that make us soft and weak, that keep us from true National Greatness.

What can we Bobos do to make ourselves tougher, to save ourselves from the wonderful distractions capitalism continually creates? John McCain provided an answer in a little-noticed article in the Washington Monthly, written shortly after 9/11. In it, McCain called for a quasi-militarized domestic national service corps as a way to address a “spiritual crisis in our national culture.” What Senator McCain envisioned was, well, rather creepy–a sort of jackbooted Politics of Meaning.

McCain praised City Year, an AmeriCorps initiative operating in 13 cities: “City Year members wear uniforms, work in teams, learn public speaking skills, and gather together for daily calisthenics, often in highly public places such as in front of city hall.” He also endorsed the National Civilian Community Corps, “a service program consciously structured along military lines,” in which enrollees “not only wear uniforms and work in teams… but actually live together in barracks on former military bases.” McCain calls for expanding these two initiatives and “spread[ing] their group-cohesion techniques to other AmeriCorps programs.”

“Group cohesion” and calisthenics in front of city hall reflect a version of patriotism, to be sure, albeit one that seems more North Korean than American. But all in all, the article provides further evidence of Welch’s claim that McCain has an essentially “militaristic conception of citizenship.”

Some have compared McCain to JFK, and there’s something to that comparison. But Milton Friedman said everything that needs to be said about the notion that service to the state ought to be the lodestar of presidential politics. In Capitalism and Freedom, Friedman wrote that neither half of JFK’s “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” “expresses a relation between the citizen and his government that is worthy of the ideals of free men in a free society.” As Friedman put it:

To the free man, the country is the collection of individuals who compose it, not something over and above them. He is proud of a common heritage and loyal to common traditions. But he regards government as a means, an instrumentality, neither a grantor of favors and gifts, nor a master or god to be blindly worshipped and served. He recognizes no national goal except as it is the consensus of the goals that the citizens severally serve. He recognizes no national purpose except as it is the consensus of the purposes for which the citizens severally strive.

All of which gives us another reason to admire Milton Friedman: before National Greatness Conservatism was invented, Friedman was against it.

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Posted on Apr 12, 2008 in Conservatism, Cult of the Presidency, Uncategorized | 31 Comments

Over at the Cato Blog…

…I’ve got a post on that voodoo that Yoo do so well.

Posted on Apr 9, 2008 in Civil Liberties, Conservatism, Executive Power | 6 Comments

You Had Me at “Live Lobsters”

So my dad, who, like me, is a fan of pulpy noir detective novels and shows, sends me an email telling me to set my Tivo for this. I click the link and read:

In the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant in Edinburgh, corrupt cop Brendan McCabe is being drowned in a tank of live lobsters.

That is perhaps the best sentence I’ve ever read.

Posted on Oct 6, 2007 in Arts and Culture, Asides, Civil Liberties, Conservatism, Cult of the Presidency, Domestic Policy, Executive Power, Foreign Policy and Defense, Human Nature, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Uncategorized | 1 Comment