Ask Standing On The Shoulders Of Giant Midgets: voting conservative

>> Friday, June 10, 2011

And now for day two of Ask Standing On The Shoulders Of Giant Midgets! Reaching into the mailbag... no, I guess that would actually be scanning the comments thread--scanning the comments thread, our question today comes from Dave ("Leanright"), who wants to know:

Political Question: If you had no choice but to choose from a Republican or conservative for president, who would you choose, and why?

I have to confess, when I first read the question, I started overthinking it, blinkered by the climate I'm swimming in. I started pondering whether there was any Republican I might vote for, and then I looked at the question again and realized:

Actually, Dave, I'll almost certainly be voting for a conservative candidate in 2012. The same one I voted for in 2008, matter of fact. Because for all his faults, he's still a smart and charismatic centrist.

It says a lot about the United States that we live in a time and place where a conservative technocratic centrist is branded a "socialist" and reactionary, right-wing libertarian anarchists get dubbed "conservatives" by some sort of default, because if the Democrats are "leftists" then their opponents must be the opposite of that. Unfortunately, none of what this says about us is good. It says, for instance, that on the whole we are profoundly ignorant when it comes to history, economics, ideology and politics. It says that we have no eye for nuance, assuming that if there are two things they must be opposites when the fact is that in much of the world and throughout much of modern history, party politics isn't practiced as some sort of absurdly reductive dialectical struggle to the death but as a matter of parties across a spectrum of interests and ideologies fighting over what makes for acceptable compromises. It says that those we've entrusted to lead us, educate us, inform us, and advise us have failed in some fundamental way to create an informed and educated populace able to make informed choices--which, if true, suggests that democracy in the United States is a failing experiment.

Barack Obama's presidency has been a pragmatic one, and there may not be anything wrong with pragmatism. It depends, I guess, on how one feels about his ideals. I don't know if Obama's conservative administration is a reflection of an educated, intelligent man sacrificing his ideals for the sake of addressing possibly intractable domestic and foreign problems, or whether it's a reflection of the Columbia and Harvard-educated president's actual principles; I can't say that it matters. But his domestic policy, in any case, is more Nixon than Johnson, his foreign policy more Eisenhower than Kennedy. Obama isn't governing with the boldly progressive economic agenda of Franklin Roosevelt or the stridently populist agenda of Theodore Roosevelt, his foreign policy certainly doesn't look anything like the globally-progressive visions of Woodrow Wilson or William McKinley, presidents who considered spreading Western Civilization a holy crusade justifying military adventurism abroad.

No, Obama governs like a post-World War II Republican. The cautious approach to the civil war in Libya strikes me as exactly the way Eisenhower approached such matters--take Eisenhower's approach to the colonial revolt in French Indochina (Vietnam). The banking and automotive industry bailouts were initiated by the Bush Administration and don't exactly analogize to Nixon's farm subsidies, but I think we could call them compatible approaches--it's hard to imagine that if the crises had been swapped, Nixon wouldn't have bailed out banks and Bush and Obama wouldn't have bailed out farmers. And, of course, Obama's most controversial accomplishment, healthcare reform, is routinely compared to Nixon's healthcare proposals, even to the point of saying that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was modeled after Nixon's unpassed healthcare reform package (see here, here, and here; former Nixon lackey and rape-apologist Ben Stein claims that Nixon's proposed healthcare reform would have been more comprehensive than the ACA, a claim which might even be true, though coming from Stein one has one's doubts).

A couple of months ago, Michael Lind posted a piece in Salon arguing that Obama has been emulating Eisenhower's domestic policy and John Kennedy's foreign policy, instead of (more wisely) emulating Ike's foreign policy and JFK's domestic policy. It's an interesting article and worth a read, though I don't know that I agree with Lind that Obama is emulating Kennedy's foreign policy. What we have is a cautious approach to Libya (reminiscent of Eisenhower's approach to Vietnam) and an approach to the wars started by his predecessor that isn't unlike Nixon's approach to the war started by his predecessors; the only public indication that Obama may share Kennedy's fondness for unconventional forces would be the incursion into Pakistan to kill bin Laden, and here again a better comparison might be to Richard Nixon's illegal deployments across the Cambodian and Laotian borders (n.b. the strike into Pakistan may have been illegal as a matter of international law but, as far as I know, was within the authorization granted by Congress; Nixon's incursions may have been illegal as a matter of international law and airstrikes against targets in Cambodia after January, 1971 are widely--I would even say generally--believed to have violated the Cooper-Church Amendment, which effectively rescinded any Congressional authorizations to conduct the war beyond Vietnam).

Does one really want to say Eisenhower and Nixon were liberals? They were Republicans and conservatives, and I don't think the recent redefinition of those terms to mean "Ayn Rand bootlickers and fundamentalist Jesus freaks" ought to change that. Eisenhower was a decent president in a lot of ways and Nixon, tragically, could have been if he hadn't been such a paranoid, bigoted, insecure criminal. As far as policies go, even where I disagree with those two, they represented a principled political tradition that the Republican party has apparently forgotten existed or has disavowed. But that's where we are, isn't it? Which is pretty damn sad, y'know? And, of course, Ike and Nixon were millions of miles from the pre-Depression founding principles of their party: Theodore Roosevelt was a great president and Abraham Lincoln the greatest, but both of them were men with bold progressive visions of one country with a strong Federal government defending the rights of man; defending them, one might add, against entrenched business interests willing to use human beings as if they were animals or machines, to be abused and discarded and cheaply replaced. If the present GOP is an embarrassment to figures like Eisenhower and Nixon, it's a disgrace to TR and Lincoln.

I somehow doubt that's where Dave expected me to go with that answer. I suspect, perhaps wrongly, nevertheless, that he wanted me to either search my brain for a current Republican who I think is an all-right guy (or girl) or concede (if only by implication) that I'm so blindly partisan that I can't even bring myself to name a living Republican (or libertarian, because I'm sure Dave didn't mean me to name a conservative in the European mold like Obama or either Clinton) who ought to hold office. I can do both and neither.

For starters, there are lots of Republicans and conservatives who are good, decent, intelligent, likable people. Sure. I think I'd enjoy having a beer with Mike Huckabee, for instance (though nonsense like this has me reconsidering that). Wouldn't want him within a hundred yards of the Oval Office, but he's probably a fun guy to hang around and shoot the shit with. There are Republicans I've voted for in judicial races because I knew them personally and/or consider them friends and thought they'd do a good job doing the job of a judge, though I don't know that I could support them as policymakers if they ran for legislative or some executive offices (sorry!).

But what I really want in a leader is an intelligent person who, ideally, will represent my principles. (I think my principles are generally good for people and for the country, but then I would, wouldn't I?) I'm not necessarily fixed on my principles carrying the day if they're aired and have a shot at influencing the results; that is, I'm far from infallible and some of my ideas may not be the best or even good, but if someone representing those ideals sits down with his or her opponents and at the end of things everybody comes to what my proxy agrees is a good compromise (or at least the best that can be done), I'm okay with that.

And what I really don't care about is whether he or she is someone I'd like to have a beer with. You hear people say that, that they voted for someone because they related to him or her; that's profoundly stupid. I don't care if I relate to my preferred leader; indeed, if he's a son-of-a-bitch but he's my son-of-a-bitch, that works for me. Franklin Roosevelt was a great president who wasn't above trying to stack the Supreme Court, Abraham Lincoln was (as I said a moment ago) probably our greatest president and he suspended habeas corpus; I don't like either of those moments in FDR's or Lincoln's presidencies, but I also get what they were trying to do, and while I don't believe ends ever justify means, I grok that FDR and Lincoln would have been my sons-of-bitches had I been alive in either man's era. Does that make sense? Court packing and suspending the most important fundamental liberty extant in Anglo-American law are fundamentally bad things, but FDR and Lincoln were on the side of the angels, so there is that.

If I can't get that, I'll vote for someone who won't burn the house down and might even fix it up a bit--and that's why I'll be voting for a conservative Democrat in 2012. And if I feel my choices are equally awful?

Well, in 2000 I mistakenly believed exactly that, and I voted for Ralph Nader and I'm not embarrassed by that and never have been. I did the best with the information I had at the time, and although every one of my premises proved wrong and in retrospect I might have voted differently, you work with what you have at the time, not what you get at some future time. I thought Bush wasn't any worse than Gore; that was wrong, obviously. I thought that a vote for the Greens would help them with financing and balloting issues in North Carolina in future races; that turned out to be wrong, too, oops. I thought Ralph Nader wasn't a narcissistic tool; well, yeah, three for three so far, right? I thought my vote in red-state North Carolina wouldn't matter anyway; I may have been dead-right on that one. But the point is, I'm willing to vote for a third-party candidate or abstain if I feel like there's no choice, and I'd vote for a (preferably moderate) conservative if I thought the alternative was holy fuck are you kidding me?

(Yes, today's GOP in a nutshell: the party of holy fuck are you kidding me?)

Hope that answered the question! Keep 'em comin', gang!


Janiece Friday, June 10, 2011 at 12:54:00 PM EDT  

Ayn Rand bootlickers and fundamentalist Jesus freaks may just be the best description of the far right I've heard this week, although I might add "emotionally retarded, immoral tools" to the list, as well.

I mean, crap - I used to be a Republican, for many years, in fact. And while my movement to the liberal center was a direct result of my own personal growth as a human being, their current policy positions make my skin crawl - and I'd like to think that would have been the case back when I was a small "r" Republican, too.

Having the extremists be "the new normal" makes me sad, sad, sad.

Anne C. Friday, June 10, 2011 at 1:05:00 PM EDT  

The fact that our current president is in most respects a centrist is one of the primary reasons I like him. I left the Democratic Party years ago because of the increasing habit of politicians of both parties to think of themselves and the party first and their constituents and the moral implications second.

Well written, Eric.

Seth Friday, June 10, 2011 at 2:26:00 PM EDT  

Follow-up question: would you consider voting for a strong libertarian like Gary Johnson if he somehow, by a crazy miracle, got the Republican nom? Put it this way: if there were a Republican who vowed to repeal the Patriot Act, get us out of the Middle East, and end the War on Drugs, would that make him an interesting candidate to you, even though he would probably also want to repeal the ACA and, maybe, Social Security?

Eric Friday, June 10, 2011 at 4:04:00 PM EDT  

Seth, that's a good question. One of the screwed-up things about the American system is that there's overlap between left-wing philosophies and civil libertarianism. Indeed, I have flirted with the idea of supporting libertarian candidates over the years precisely because of the kinds of issues you mention. And given a choice of evils, a small-government candidate who was going to repeal the PATRIOT act and end the War On Drugs would (all things being equal) be preferable to the typical Republican candidate who talks about "small government" while expanding the scope and financing of the police state and military-industrial complex.

That parenthetical "all things being equal" comes in because the guy we're probably talking about is perennial presidential candidate Ron Paul, who has a raft of other issues that make him a problematic choice. From a civil liberties and antiwar perspective, the guy is somebody a liberal could live with and even try to admire despite his views on the social compact. Then you get into, for instance, Paul's entanglement with white supremacists and militias, and of course those awful newsletters from the '90s, and you go, "ew".

The other thing is that--and this seems appropriate, now that I think about it--as I've gotten older, I've come to realize just how infantile hardcore libertarianism is. I mean, when I was a teenager and hearing about the Libertarian Party for the first time, the civil libertarian aspects meshed with my leftist leanings and the scrappiness of a struggling third-party meshed with my youthful disaffectedness. And that initial appeal continued to trail into my early '20s: there's a sort of noble savagery or heroic anarchy to the philosophy that appeals to people who haven't grown up, that appeals to a sort of smug self-righteousness that's very much a property of adolescents; after all, the only way libertarianism could actually work would be if you imagine a sort of science-fiction-ey frontier planet where people live on these remote tracts where there's no need for laws because everyone is on an equal basis and does for themselves, and on those rare occasions someone interacts with somebody else, cheating is inefficient because there aren't enough people or disparity in position for it to be worthwhile. People who say libertarianism can't work aren't quite right, because a libertarian anarchy could work... for a few years on a just-colonized alien world in a fantasy universe, so maybe that's the same thing after all. You can mind game it and imagine what kind of conditions would be needed under which it would work, you just can't actually create those conditions in any foreseeable human society (except, possibly, the post-apocalyptic, if living in the Mad Max-verse strikes you as a good time to be had by all).


Eric Friday, June 10, 2011 at 4:04:00 PM EDT  


I digress. What I was trying to get to is that libertarianism is one thing when you're eighteen, but when you're nearing forty it seems really fucking stupid. Not all laws are bad ones, not even all arbitrary laws--I mean, what the fuck does a hardcore libertarian anarchist do when he sees a traffic light, right? Or a crosswalk? And that's before you even get into a sense of history and an awareness of social and economic disparity. At some point, if you grow up, you start thinking that if democratic forms of government aren't about people pulling together and figure out ways to take care of each other, what's the point in having them? And then the real debate between responsible conservatives and liberals becomes a conversation about the best way to satisfy the sole raison d'être of legitimate government, how are people going to satisfy their responsibilities under the social contract.

Since libertarians effectively deny the social contract exists at all, there's not even a point in talking to them past some point.

Plus, y'know, I think there's a whole self-evident question of the fitness for office and/or the motivations of someone who believes government is illegitimate but wants to be a member of it. So there's that.

Janiece Friday, June 10, 2011 at 6:25:00 PM EDT  

Eric, you just put your finger in the sore for me in terms of so many libertarians. While it appears that many libertarians want government out of their lives and deny the social contract, they also simultaneously feed at the public trough (Ayn Rand herself, my ex-husband) or participate in government (the Pauls). Somehow they don't think that's a bad deal. It's just a bad deal when other people want to belly up.

Hypocrites, one and all.

Dr. Phil (Physics) Friday, June 10, 2011 at 10:53:00 PM EDT  

Only Nixon can go to China.

Only Nixon could create Amtrak. (grin)

Dr. Phil

filelalaine Saturday, June 11, 2011 at 11:46:00 AM EDT  

Picking a president is like picking a spouse: a crapshoot. You think you know them enough to make a commitment based on the promising pretty-pretty they show you when they're courting you, but how they are in the role of/after the faite accomplie is unfortunately not always a fulfillment of said promised. And (as much as I hate to admit it) it is entirely based on luck. Pure dumb luck!

And for the record, and in the slight chance that anyone cares at all about my humble opinion, I don't think that Obama is necessarily a centrist, I think he starts out seemingly strong on the left, but is easily swayed back and forth, landing, in the end, in the center where he was left last when he ran out of steam.

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