Tag Archives: The End of the Republic

Elites Through The Ages

Razib Khan surveys the rise of democratic populism in the United States:

New England was the last redoubt of the Federalist vision of hierarchical conservatism, from limited white male suffrage to established churches. Additionally, the rise to the fore of what during the Enlightenment would be termed “Enthusiasm” is notable, as democratic politics turns into a quadrennial performance. In religious terms there was an alliance at both ends of the theological spectrum; Free Thinkers & Deists in Philadelphia made common cause with Baptist “Back Country” farmers and nominally Episcopalian “Low Country” planters against the urbane Congregationalist ascendancy of New England. The historical reality of the rise of democratic populism, and something of an amnesia about the nature of the republic during its early years (when democracy was something of a term of insult), leads to the peculiarities of the American Right, which is in many measures a descendant of classical liberalism.

I find this interesting because we seem to have gradually replaced explicit barriers to political participation with more subtle cultural and social hurdles. Much has been made of President-Elect Barack Obama’s sterling establishment credentials. And while Obama is undoubtedly a unique historical figure, his academic pedigree reflects certain core assumptions about where our presidents should come from. Similarly, John Kennedy may have been our first Irish Catholic president, but his background and political advisers epitomized establishment thinking. Given these circumstances, it’s hardly surprising that the United States’ first black president came to the White House by way of Harvard Law School rather than Howard University.

Poll taxes and property requirements were blunt instruments for stymieing populist anxieties, but mediating cultural institutions like elite schools serve much the same function. The backlash against the bailout, for example, was largely ignored by experts driving government policy. In the midst of an economic meltdown, the credentials of a Paulson or a Bernanke were certainly reassuring, but it’s worth remembering that their approach to crisis management wasn’t nearly as considered as many of us (myself included) first assumed. All of which begs the question: do soft cultural barriers actually do a better job of weeding out incompetence and diluting the influence of an excitable public? Elite groupthink is probably an inevitable result of any non-egalitarian social arrangement, but the recent crisis suggests our unique brand of meritocratic elitism is particularly susceptible to arrogant short-sightedness


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Filed under Conservatism, Political Philosophy, Politics

Was The Edge Unavailable?

U2’s Bono is poised to become the New York Times‘ next columnist. Yes, that Bono. And yes, that New York Times.

My own unsolicited advice for newspaper editors can be found here. I didn’t think to suggest the addition of celebrity columnists, but then again, I’m no expert.

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National Review Pushes Buckley Out The Door

Well, that’s a sentence I never thought I’d write.

Once again demonstrating the conservative movement’s appreciation for dissent, dialog, and mutual toleration, National Review and Christopher Buckley have decided to part ways over the latter’s Obama endorsement. The alacrity with which National Review accepted Buckley’s resignation – not to mention conservatives’ extremely unpleasant reaction to his (tentative) support for Obama – are proof enough of Republican idiocy:

Since my Obama endorsement, Kathleen [Kathleen Parker – another conservative Palin skeptic] and I have become BFFs and now trade incoming hate-mails. No one has yet suggested my dear old Mum should have aborted me, but it’s pretty darned angry out there in Right Wing Land. One editor at National Review—a friend of 30 years—emailed me that he thought my opinions “cretinous.” One thoughtful correspondent, who feels that I have “betrayed”—the b-word has been much used in all this—my father and the conservative movement generally, said he plans to devote the rest of his life to getting people to cancel their subscriptions to National Review. But there was one bright spot: To those who wrote me to demand, “Cancel my subscription,” I was able to quote the title of my father’s last book, a delicious compendium of his NR “Notes and Asides”: Cancel Your Own Goddam Subscription.

From National Review, Rich Lowry’s version is rather different:

Chris is up with a post at The Daily Beast, “Sorry, Dad, I Was Fired.” I’d like to clarify this “firing” business. Over the weekend, Chris wrote us a jaunty e-mail with the subject line “A Sincere Offer,” in which he offered to resign his column on NR’s back page and said that if we accepted, there “would be no hard feelings, only warmest regards and understanding.” We took the offer sincerely. Chris had done us the favor of writing the column beginning seven issues ago on a “trial basis” (his words), while our regular back-page columnist, Mark Steyn, was on hiatus. Now, Mark is back to writing again, and—I’m delighted to say—will be on NR’s back-page in the new issue.

Thank goodness the conservative movement’s flagship magazine has managed to preserve its stable of complete hacks incisive political observers. Later generations will surely speak of Steyn, Mark Levin, Victor Davis Hanson, and the inimitable K-Lo in the same breath as Russell Kirk, Buckley the Elder, H.L. Mencken, and Albert Nock.

UPDATE: Arch-conservative, errr, flaming liberal Heather Mac Donald of the quasi-socialist Manhattan Institute has the temerity to express her own disenchantment with the Palin pick. Ready the tar and feathers!

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Dystopian Dream Girl

I meant to flag this a few days ago, but Michael Lind penned a few truly disturbing predictions for TNR in the wake of the bailout (emphases mine):

In democracies, temporary spending programs tend to become permanent, so the “normal” government share of GDP in the U.S. may rise to 35 or even 40 percent. This will not be the end of the world, but it will be the end of America’s small-government exceptionalism.

Another likely consequence is a shift of welfare benefits onto business. Confronted with a national debt that may exceed GDP, Congress will avoid creating expensive new social programs. Instead, politicians may use unfunded mandates or tax credits to pressure corporations into doing the job of the welfare state.

The results of this predicted realignment promise to combine all the worst features of mid-century Leftism and the modern GOP:

The U.S. economy a decade from now may be dominated by a few huge universal banks and a small number of gigantic corporations, all of them “too big to fail.” In return for implicit government bail-out guarantees, these swollen private-sector Leviathans will abandon “greed is good” rhetoric for noble sentiments about corporate responsibility. The emerging system might be called “lemon corporatism.” A managerial state dominated by oligopolies and monopolies, where government encourages employer paternalism as an alternative to public welfare spending, would resemble contemporary Japan and the dystopian America of “Rollerball.”

Barring new, unavoidable conflicts, the Pentagon is also likely to be downsized, following the reduction of the U.S. efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. will remain the leading great power, but there will be no new American century, nor will Europe, hit even worse than the U.S., be a plausible partner in a Pax Atlantica. As in the 1970s, the U.S. will find itself in a multipolar world, struggling in both the commercial and the military arenas.

Something similar was suggested by National Review’s Robert Conquest in 2000:

In any case, at the political level, we see a meld of state and capitalist bureaucracies into something resembling a corporatist society. And it may be noted that this type of corporatism, with a capitalist element merged into (and controlled by) the state machine, is the sort of order that seems to be emerging in China. If so, we see an aberrant and paradoxical confirmation of the old “convergence” theory advanced by John Kenneth Galbraith and others. Such a corporatism, if established in Western societies, is bound to lead to a degeneration of democratic habits, civic relations, and, in the long run, mental independence, and so to an inability to cope with world or other problems.

Incidentally, I part ways with Lind on his predictions of American military decline. In a relative sense, the emergence of powerful strategic competitors could reduce the United States’ global influence, but I find it very difficult to imagine either party challenging the military-industrial complex. Obama is widely-derided as the most liberal presidential nominee in recent memory, but he’s done nothing to reduce our absurd defense expenditures, and his vision of the United States’ foreign policy is also quite expansive. Instead of cutting military spending, our political class will probably use their incestuous relationship with the defense industry as a template for “reforming” the rest of the economy.

Per Conquest, a corporatist approach to governance and social welfare will erode popular accountability on a massive scale. The results of the bailout debacle presage an elite consensus that is particularly damaging participatory democracy. Rule by technocrats and insiders will become the only way to plausibly navigate our Byzantine web of private sector institutions and public sector regulations. Much of this will take place at the transnational level – just now we’ve learned that the United States and Europe are considering massive cash infusions in return for nationalization “partial ownership stakes” in several major banks. The exigencies of the situation, we’re told, foreclose the possibility of careful deliberation. We must sit back quietly while the experts determine the best course of action. Things are simply too complicated for the voters to get involved.

None of this is entirely unprecedented, but Lind’s vision of the future is downright frightening. I’m not sure how any democracy can survive when its citizens are shut out of the deliberative process.

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Don’t call it a comeback

The bailout passes the House. So much for the next great populist uprising . . .

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Contemptuous Governance

Economics of Contempt had this to say about House Republican Adam Putnam’s call for more oversight:

Sure, because all Paulson and Bernanke have had to do in the past few weeks is rescue Fannie and Freddie twice (including a nationalization the second time around), coordinate a frantic search for a buyer for Lehman, oversee Lehman’s bankruptcy, help save Merrill Lynch by strong-arming BofA into buying Merrill at the last minute, put together a bailout package for the largest insurance company in America (AIG), stop a potentially devastating run on money market accounts, and negotiate the largest government bailout in the U.S. since the Great Depression.

When, exactly, does Putnam think Paulson and Bernanke had all these opportunities to come chat with Congressmen?

On some level, I sympathize with Bernanke and Paulson. They were swamped, and briefing uninformed Congressional representatives must seem terribly tedious in the midst of a crisis. But my God – shouldn’t we make time for democratic oversight during an emergency? Isn’t that when accountability is most necessary? Or do we cede de facto authority to the Treasury Department whenever an economic meltdown looms?

Maybe House Republicans (and Democrats) are little more than petulant children, but there’s something to be said for making our economic response a bit more transparent and accountable. If nothing else, improving the process would help bring a lot of us on board who accept the necessity of some type of bailout, but otherwise feel like we were completely railroaded by the Administration.

Bernanke and Paulson would surely reply that the economic crisis is simply too complicated for effective oversight. We don’t have time for meetings, hearings, and testimony on Capitol Hill. But that raises a different set of questions. Has the complexity of our financial system rendered legislative accountability irrelevant? Is ceding de facto authority to the Treasury Department our only option during a crisis of this magnitude? What does that say about the need for democratic oversight in general?

UPDATE: Via Patrick Deneen, Representative Marcy Kaptur stands tall. I have to say that this segment perfectly encapsulates my own feelings on the need for greater legislative accountability:

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Filed under Economics, Uncategorized

Our Proud Heritage

Several days ago, Marc Ambinder reported that conservative think tanks were told to keep quiet on the bailout. Now the Heritage Foundation has released a borderline incoherent response entitled “The Bailout Package: Vital and Acceptable.”

At first blush, Heritage seems to endorse the proposal:

While there are those in Congress who would push the role of government far beyond what is necessary in this crisis, the core technical parts of the negotiated package are acceptable. Important protections for taxpayers have been added to the original plan. And while some questionable and potentially counterproductive features have also been added, other egregious proposals—such as enormous handouts to activist housing groups—were stripped away during the negotiations. Taken together, the main financial measures are likely to accomplish the goal, and the unwise measures are sufficiently limited to warrant passage.

But then the authors suggest that key provisions remain unconstitutional:

Thus serious constitutional concerns remain and should be addressed in putting together a statute to deal with this current and hopefully temporary credit emergency. The constitutional questionability of some provisions is worrying, as is the centralization of power. Nonetheless, the situation is so grave that we must take unusual measures now and accept some negotiated arrangements that remain very troubling, provided they are limited in extent and time and are not accepted as a permanent part of our government.

This maddeningly vague formulation – what exactly should a “statute to deal with this current and hopefully temporary credit emergency” look like? – gets at the fundamental bankruptcy of movement conservatism. Provided there’s an emergency of sufficient magnitude, “serious constitutional concerns” can be brushed aside without so much as a backward glance.

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