Friday, September 11, 2015

[Some] Sympathy for the Devils-post I


Of the myriad opinions offered up on the success so far of Donald Trump in the Republican nominee race, the only consensus is that it is the result of the failure of Republican leadership. Now, I’m far from a fan of either Boehner or McConnell, think both have been too cautious, especially since 2014, but I think this explanation for Trump is true only up to a point. Moreover, it is a point which adheres to a rather comforting but delusional trope that the fault is always with the politicians. Somehow in a democracy the voters never get what they want.

Now to be sure the relationship between constituent and politician in a democracy is a complex one. I’m not na├»ve enough to think that politicians can’t have and pursue their own ambitions contrary to the voters, but by and large I take politicians to have one real skill, getting elected. And getting elected means being able to gauge votes. In making a point about ISIL Charles Krauthammer observed that the cold war was won because it was pursued by the leadership of both the Democrat and Republican Party. True enough, but he left out that the faction in the Democratic Party that opposed that war didn’t dominate the party like it does now. The point? It wasn’t the leadership that has changed so much as the voters selecting the leaders.

If memory serves, it is in Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding by way of explaining the social unrest of the late 60’s that Pat Moynihan observes that frustration is the difference between expectations and results. Moynihan’s point was that the War on Poverty and other social initiatives of the Johnson administration greatly raised expectations, when actual conditions on the ground didn’t change very much the result was unrest, riots.

Alas, I think the Republican leadership explanation for conservative ills is another example of Moynihan’s frustration equation. Conservatives invested in conservative causes think the movement is far stronger than it actually is. During the Bush years I regularly encountered the notion that the US was a center-right country. I didn’t buy it then and I certainly don’t buy it now. In Obama’s first term I regularly read conservative opinion that seemed to think that if only the Republican leadership were stout enough the Obama agenda could be thwarted never mind that the Republicans held the House as against the Senate, the Executive, the media, and the culture. In the aftermath of the 2014 election there was column after column on how the Republican Party had never been stronger because of the gains made at the state level. Great, Republicans are now in a better position to decide whether to institute or not institute a health care exchange, to expand or not expand Medicare. Not nothing, but not exactly a formidable position of strength either.

Yes, Republican leadership is part of the reason for Trump. But I think more telling is that Trump wasn’t a conservative until yesterday, regularly makes political statements that are anything but conservative. Theatrics and frustration only covers all of this if you want it to, if you want the MacGuffin to be of no account. But looked at more soberly I think it suggests that even within the Republican Party conservative principles are only surface deep. Trump, and just about anywhere else you should care to look, should tell you that conservatism isn’t as strong as conservatives think it is. The first step in recovery is to admit you have a problem.

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