[The following post also appears at Malcolm Redfellow’s World Service.
This should assuage fears that Malcolm has retired from the game.]
Malcolm recalls, sometime after the last mid-century, serially and endlessly proving the congruence of triangles. In distant retrospect, he wonders how it was done, why it was important, and in what ways that acquired skill has subsequently helped with the vicissitudes of life.
Sunday week, the New York Times gave half-a-page (below the fold: after all, it is summer) to a think-piece by Patricia Cohen: Conservative Thinkers Think Again.
The first apex of Cohen’s tripodial argument is:
almost everyone seems to agree that no matter who captures the White House in November, the movement that has ruled the Republican Party since the 1960s and mostly dominated American politics since 1980 has lost its way.
Reading that, Malcolm’s political antennae twitched. This sounds remarkably congruent with the thesis that, back home in Britain, Cameron’s Tories have become electable by discarding principle and becoming Blairites. Philip Gould was saying just more than two years since:
Ideologically, strategically, politically New Labour has won and they [the Tories] have lost. The assumptions, the arguments, the values, the policy prescriptions with which the Conservatives threatened and cajoled us with for so many years have been found to be bogus and collapsed under the pressure of eight years of modernised progressive government.
What has happened to the Conservative party … is the political equivalent of the collapse of the Berlin wall. New Labour has pushed and they have capitulated; turned, in a decade, from conquering army to hapless would-be clones, proving that in the long march of British politics, we were right and they were wrong.
Partisan stuff, but just that was expounded in greater depth and detail by the Economist‘s Bagehot column on 8th May:
The big electoral tent that New Labour built may have collapsed, but many of its intellectual pillars are still standing. Indeed, the revival of the Conservatives under David Cameron arguably represents the project’s final triumph.
There was enough truth there to worry the true believers, for example Tim Montgomerie’s small but merry band of back-biters.
It’s worth keeping an eye on the Tory blogsites for their sheer lunacy and the boundless distrust of the Cameroonies.
Curiously, and in another piece of congruence, that ConservativeHome thread itself referred back to a New York Times piece by David Brooks, arguing that US conservatives had to go the same Damascus road as Cameron had trod. Stripped of its trappings, Brooks’s article is selling Danny Kruger’s antinomial:
[Cameroonies] want voters to think of the Tories as the party of society while Labor is the party of the state. They want the country to see the Tories as the party of decentralized organic networks and the Laborites as the party of top-down mechanistic control.
Those longer in the tooth might see that aperçu as a direct lift from campaign plan Rab Butler’s Conservative Research Department originated in the the Attlee years.
Back with Patricia Cohen, the second axis of her argument is David Frum’s: Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again. She reminds us of Frum’s Grand Old Duke of York march from anatomising the failings of Reagan’s Presidency (mainly the failure to check the burgeoning of Big Government) to writing speeches for Shrub, and now resiling to his starting-place:
Mr. Frum is one of those who has undergone a conversion (or two). His book “Dead Right,” published in 1994, was a brisk catalog of Reagan’s failures (especially his failure to reduce the size of government). Then, after writing speeches for President Bush, Mr. Frum wrote “The Right Man,” in which he characterized President Bush’s leadership as “nothing short of superb.” But in his newest book, “Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again,” Mr. Frum confesses that his former boss has “led his party to the brink of disaster.”
Out of that, (as Cohen represents him) Frum concocts something that smells of Cameroonies:
Not only does he now promote an idea that has long been conservative heresy — that tax rates have gone as low as they can — he also calls for new taxes on consumption and energy. Taxing “those forms of energy that present political and environmental risks,” he writes, “would look exactly like the carbon tax advocated by global-warming crusaders.”
Mr. Frum also departs from the smaller-government-is-always-better-government dogma and concedes that there are some areas where government has to step in — for instance, prison reform. His list here includes “opportunities for education and self-improvement; conjugal visits; mentoring and support for prisoners’ children.”
Take that alongside the gospel of Arthur C. Brooks, the incoming president of the American Enterprise Institute — the intellectual home of the likes of Wolfowitz, John Bolton and aforementioned Frum. Brooks’s current line is Gross National Happiness: we are happier when a few of us earn indecently more, and social inequality grows:
If we can solve problems of absolute deprivation, such as hunger and homelessness, then rewarding hard work will continue to serve as a positive stimulant to achievement. Redistribution and taxation, beyond what’s necessary to pay for key services, weaken America’s willingness and ability to thrive.
This vision promotes policies focused not on wiping out economic inequality, but rather on enhancing economic mobility. They include improving educational opportunities, aggressively addressing cultural impediments to success, enhancing the fluidity of labor markets, searching for ways to include all citizens in America’s investing revolution, and protecting the climate of American entrepreneurship.
What greases the gears of the unequal society is good, old-fashioned charity. Fair enough: however, to Malcolm, it read as the recipe as before, the converse of Kinnock’s speech of 15 May 1987 (anyone who has not read Geoff Barton’s overview of that should do so.)
In other words:
if you lose your job, you need to be young, fit, flexible and mobile; else your best tactic is to retreat to your Connecticut estate, grow your trust fund, and assuage your conscience by frequent gifts to the likes of Professor Brooks’s AEI.
We’re on the homeward stretch, with the third leg of Ms Cohen’s tripod. This is another book from the neo-neo-Con school of social studies: Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam’s The Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream. To save us all time, the title is a full and effective précis.
Now, Anglo-politicos might readily recognise the tone of the next bit:
Mr. Douthat says that social conservatives have gotten stuck and need to move beyond their focus on gay marriage and abortion — a focus, he said, that does nothing to help a single African-American mother trying to raise a family. Instead, conservatives need to “figure out a way to talk about the problem of family breakdown and the extent to which that’s linked to social mobility, economic troubles.”
Does that not sound remarkably akin to Cameroon “broken society”?
What all this exposes is the fragility of the Rightist “ideology” across two continents.
Cohen concluded her piece by Douhat
recognising just that about the US Right:
“There was this tremendous generation of intellectuals who came of age in the ’70s and ’80s, but I think there’s been some difficulty in establishing a new generation,” Mr. Douthat said. “On the right, a lot of them did their best work 20 years ago.”
That could, just as easily, be a UK Tory yearning for the only true faithful proto-Thatcherism of Keith Joseph:
Keith Joseph did as much as any other single person around the world to reshape the debate about government and marketplace, to take a variety of ideas and bind them together into a powerful critique of the mixed economy and, in the course of things, help shape them into a political program.
Just as Montgomerie and his cadre lust for orthodox doctrinaire certainties, so Cohen finds her US doubters:
Megan McArdle, a libertarian writer, thinks conservative organizations will actually have a tougher time influencing policy if Senator McCain is elected. “He doesn’t have an ideological framework,” she said. “He has a superhero view of politics. There are good guys and bad guys and you’ve got to elect the good guys to kick the butts of the bad guys.”
With Mr. Bush, she said, conservative intellectuals knew what to expect. He was reliable, even if that meant “in some ways reliably bad.” By contrast, “McCain is not exactly beloved by the think tank world because he’s a loose cannon.”
It is difficult to propose any occasion when a political grouping has renewed itself while in power. Such searching for the fount of political youth can only be done in Opposition. The corollary of that politico-geometric theorem is that the British Tories have not applied themselves to the text-book.
There is no evidence of original thinking on the British Right. It is merely objects, orts and imitations derived from the Blair-Brown project which they repeatedly deride. Meanwhile, a substantial proportion of Tory MPs prepared to voice an opinion prefer Obama to McCain. That in itself speaks volumes.
[Completed over-night in mid-Altantic, as the Boeing 777-200 of Continental flight CO28 returned Malcolm to the fray.]