A Short Conservative Primer for Liberals

Rick Perlstein gave a speech at Princeton over the weekend. Matt Welch finds this the “interesting stuff” presented:

…it wasn’t long into the research before I found myself wrestling with a historiographic problem.

What to make of the fact that some of the names who pioneered this anti-Nixonian movement of principle showed up in the dankest recesses of the Nixon administration? People like Douglas Caddy, of course, the co-founder of the effort to draft Goldwater for vice-president in 1960 and YAF’s first president, who was the man the White House called on to represent the Watergate burglars in 1972. And people like the guy inaugurated as YAF’s chair in the 1965 with those stirring words about truth: Tom Charles Huston–who, as the author of the first extra-legal espionage and sabotage plan in the Nixon White House, can fairly be called an architect of Watergate…

…Perhaps that is why it has becomes my thesis that the Republicans are less the party of Goldwater, and more the party of Watergate–and this not despite the operational ascendecy of the conservative movement in its councils but in some sense because of it.

Ths simple answer is that there is more than one conservative movement. If Huston was a member of the current ruling class, I’d not be surprised to see him as a signatory to the Wolfowitz Bush Doctrine. It is also important to remember that Pat Buchanan writes for antiwar.com. Libertarians split from the YAF in 1969.

What is even more interesting to me is that liberals don’t seem to get what makes conservatism tick. From the speech:

I get the question all the time from smart liberal friends: what is conservatism, anyway? They’re baffled. “As far as I can tell, anything someone on the right does is, by definition, ethical. It’s not about the act, or even the motivation. It’s about who’s perpetrating it.” It has become the name for a movement that can scream from the rooftops that every Supreme Court nominee should have an expiditious up-or-down vote, then 15 seconds later demand tortuous proceduralism when that nominee is Harriet Miers. Flexibility is the first principle of politics.

I’m not baffled. Most Republicans and far too many “conservatives” are not guided by principal as much as they are by identifying with someone they feel exhibits their principles. Their mindset is typically so authoritarian that it is hard for them to buck their annointed or appointed leaders. I see this all the time in Republican politics, and my home state of Alabama is a classic example. They got behind Governor Riley until they found out he wanted to raise taxes in the name of Jesus. Now they’ve shifted (one recent poll notwithstanding) to Roy Moore, who would likely outlaw anything fun in the name of Jesus. What makes Republican politics work is a bunch of authoritarian sheep (both party loyalists and conservatives alike) blindly following their perceived leader without truly questioning the costs or principles involved. There are but a few exceptions.

Stephen Gordon

I like tasteful cigars, private property, American whiskey, fast cars, hot women, pre-bailout Jeeps, fine dining, worthwhile literature, low taxes, original music, personal privacy and self-defense rights -- but not necessarily in this order.

  1. Stephen, read the whole speech. You do what I point to here:

    his part of my talk, I imagine, is long after the point a constitutive operation of conservative intellectual work has clicked on in your minds: the part where you argue that malefactor A or B or C, or transgression X or Y or Z, is not “really” conservative. In conservative intellectual discourse there is no such thing as a bad conservative. Conservatism never fails. It is only failed. One guy will get up, at a conference like this, and say conservatism, in its proper conception, is 33 1/3 percent this, 33 1/3 percent that, 33 1/3 percent the other thing. Another rises to declaim that the proper admixture is 50-25-25.

    It is, among other things, a strategy of psychological innocence. If the first guy turns out to be someone you would not care to be associated with, you have an easy, Platonic, out: with his crazy 33-33-33 formula–well, maybe he’s a Republican. Or a neocon, or a paleo. He’s certainly not a conservative. The structure holds whether it’s William Kristol calling out Pat Buchanan, or Pat Buchanan calling out William Kristol.

    As the Internet’s smartest liberal blogger, Digby, puts it, tongue only partially in cheek: “‘Conservative’ is a magic word that applies to those who are in other conservatives’ good graces. Until they aren’t. At which point they are liberals.”

  2. Oh snap, you got called out… just kidding.

    Thanks Rick for dropping by and clarifying. I think that last part is especially true of conservative pundits in the MSM who regularly trash their targets as liberal (O’Reilly and the ACLU) when they do or say something they don’t agree with.

  3. Rick makes a good point in his comments. We see this a lot in the Libertarian movement too; Person A (self-identified as a Libertarian) supports some unpopular thing and the rest of the Libertarians array themselves in a circular firing squad to decry Person A as “not a real Libertarian.”

    Yours truly,

  4. Rick,

    I agree with your assessment, in general. The few notable exceptions are people like Bob Barr and Pat Buchanan. I don’t see people accusing either of them of being “not a conservative” or “liberal”.

    What I am curious about is the glue which seems to hold the “conservative” bloc together. The various subgroups of conservatives have managed to control Congress and the White House for some time, without employing many real (Goldwater) conservative values (i.e. adherence to the Constitution, smaller government and decreased government spending). Your article prompted the thought process that authoritarianism may well be the answer (and I’ll likely survey on this soon to pique my curiosity).


    Your point is not only accurate, but perhaps understated. We eat our own like no other political grouping I have seen — much like some of the early communist/socialist struggles.