Sunday, December 12, 2021

Republican Pestilence: A New Disease or Just a Variant?

By Political Editor Izzy Stone
and Health Correspondent Vincent Boom-Batz, M.D.

America will shortly reach an appalling tomb – [Surely, milestone? – Ed.] in the COVID pandemic: 800,000 lives lost, most unnecessarily.

Every real scientist has told America that the best answer is mass vaccination: if everyone is vaccinated, then the ability of the virus to kill, injure, mutate, and spread is crippled.  Further, the vaccines have proven to be almost utterly devoid of threatening side effects.

And that's why every single Republican Senator voted last week to cripple the mass vaccination program by blocking President Biden's rule that large corporations must ensure, among the other rules that apply to them regarding the health and well-being of their employees and consumers of their products, that their employees are either vaccinated or tested weekly.

Every single one.  That includes lovable moderates like Senators Wilfred M. “Profiles in Courage” Romney, Susan “He's Just Playing With It” Collins, Lisa “It's Grim Up North” Murkowski and even Republican Senators who have decided to hang it up and thus cannot blame their votes on political cowardice, like Senators Portman, Burr, and Toomey.

How could an entire party vote to prolong the nation's pandemic agony and promote an agenda that if allowed to take effect will kill tens if not hundreds of thousands more with no offsetting benefit?

Let's ask the man with all the wrong answers:

This week, he put down his sopprasata sub long enough to agonize in the Atlantic about the broader related question, which was what happened to the rich philosophical world of American conservatism.  Let's just say his concern is pretty rich itself.

He starts out with a tired trope: the failure of (many) postwar housing projects as a symbol of the failure of liberalism and the endorsement of the conservative program to address poverty with “benign neglect.”

These initiatives failed according to the Conservative Mind because  “Human society is unalterably complex....If you try to reengineer it based on the simplistic schema of your own reason, you will unintentionally cause significant harm.”

Of course, that's not what was going on at all.  Chicago public housing was segregated by order of well-known liberal Mayor Richard Daley. That same lovable liberal and his henchpersons did nothing to address the systemic racism that had blighted the lives of the Black tenants in Chicago public housing. Instead they perpetuated it. So when the buildings, but not the systemic racism, crumbled, it was a triumph of Conservatism!

In Brooks's fanciful and fatuous retelling, “I was enchanted by their [Conservatives, apparently] way of looking at the world. In conservatism I found not a mere alternative policy agenda [which was what? – Ed.], but a deeper and more resonant account of human nature, a more comprehensive understanding of wisdom, an inspiring description of the highest ethical life and the nurturing community.”

He must have been deeply impressed when the Conservative Messiah, St. Ronald of Bitburg, offered inspiring descriptions of the highest ethical life and nurturing community by inveighing against “welfare queens” and “strapping young bucks buying T-bone steaks with food stamps.”  Or when Crooked Dick Nixon's designated Deep Conservative Thinker, Pat “Just leave the bottle ” Moynihan proposed to replace discredited Great Society programs with – nothing.  

If you get the impression that the Conservative thought project had no room in its nurturing community for a critical examination of race and class in America, and how they worked together to oppress and immiserate communities of color, then we'd like to buy you a Italian cold-cut sandwich, unless you are a lower-class minority group member in which case you get a taco instead.

When American Conservatism had good ideas.

Now that you, the humble Atlantic reader, have grasped the beauty and ethical rigor of Conservative ideology, you can share Brooks's shock at seeing what it has become: “what passes for the worldview of “the right” is a set of resentful animosities, a partisan attachment to Donald Trump or Tucker Carlson, a sort of mental brutalism. The rich philosophical perspective that dazzled me then has been reduced to Fox News and voter suppression.” 

Because one thing you can say about Republicans like Dick Nixon and Spiro Agnew or their intellectual flacks like William Safire: they never trafficked in “resentful animosities.”  If you forget about the Safire/Agnew attack on the free press as “nattering nabobs of negativism,” or Nixon's celebration of the National Guard execution of unarmed protesters at Kent State, or white construction workers who attacked antiwar protesters on Wall Street, etc., etc.

In fact the Republican Party and its Conservative deep thinkers have done nothing but promote “resentful animosities” since 1964.  They called it the “Southern Strategy,” and like most Conservative ideas it was simple: stoke the anger of white racists, causing them to transfer their loyalty to the party that embodied their racist “nurturing community.”

And of course a well-educated observer of politics and society has figured out the linkage between the racist Republican appeal of the 60s, 70s, and 80s and the insanely violent white backlash insurrection that is the Republican Party of our time.

If that's the answer you wrote down, no sub for you!

Brooks instead is doubling down on the conservative drivel of his youth, while being careful to isolate its words from the reality of white racism and unregulated predatory capitalism:

I recently went back and reread the yellowing conservatism [sic] books that I have lugged around with me over the decades. I wondered whether I’d be embarrassed or ashamed of them, knowing what conservatism has devolved into. I have to tell you that I wasn’t embarrassed; I was enthralled all over again, and I came away thinking that conservatism is truer and more profound than ever.

Oh, boy.  Let's skip his efforts to trace American Conservatism to 1562 (as it more properly dates from 1619).  Let's cut right to what Brooks sees as its last stand:

Mitt Romney?  What's that glorious salmon in the great stream of Conservative Thought up to these days? 

It seems like a long time since this piece began, but we think he's the same Mitt Romney who we  met earlier voting against a vaccine-or-test mandate scientifically designed to limit the carnage of a pandemic that has removed 800,000 Americans from their nurturing communities.

It's also the same Mitt Romney who has refused to back the revival of the Voting Rights Act to protect democracy from the unrelenting white supremacist attack that will stop at nothing, legal or otherwise, to establish its perpetual dominance of American government despite the inconvenient fact that most people don't share its views.

So on two of the life-or-death issues of our time, that pillar of Traditional Conservative Values is firmly on the side of death, disease, and disenfranchisement.  If he's your best advertisement for your values, either you need better PR or, more likely, your values always sucked.

The lost Burkean glory days of American Conservatism

It's pretty to think of American Conservatism as Hamiltonian unicorns and Jeffersonian rainbows gamboling in the Burkean flower beds, but in a deeper sense it's pretty disingenuous.  Does Brooks really think he can overlook 421 years of institutionalized racism, including Jefferson's own slave labor colony, and we won't notice?  It's not his first marriage, it's history.

He must also be oblivious, or hope that the rest of us are oblivious, to real American Conservative thought articulated by real Americans (unlike Burke whom we remember as an English fellow).

We remember William F. Buckley, Jr., widely hailed as the Plato of modern American conservatism, arguing against the 1964 Civil Rights Act on the basis of pure racism.  

We remember the strain of paranoid conservatism embodied in the John Birch Society that saw Communism behind every drop of fluoridated water and every chord of a Pete Seeger concert.  

We remember how American Conservatives sought then (and now!) to destroy public education because it was either Socialist or the kids might learn something (like slavery was a bad thing, no matter how adorable Scarlett O'Hara was).

And we also remember how in the 70's and 80's conservatives used jibber-jabber about the absolute importance of culture to blame poor people for their own plight, an almost weekly argument put forward in proud Brandeis grad Marty Peretz's wretched New Republic.

But guess what – that particular bit of American Conservative nonsense Brooks remembers:

Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s brilliant dictum—which builds on a Burkean wisdom forged in a world of animosity and corrosive flux—has never been more worth heeding than it is now: The central conservative truth is that culture matters most; the central liberal truth is that politics can change culture.

(Maybe if Pat didn't kill off a fifth of Johnnie Walker every night, he wouldn't have suffered from so much corrosive flux.)

Culture matters most was the attack line used to destroy the welfare state on the grounds that the poors were so uncultured they would just waste public assistance on beer and Doritos, so let them rot in underfunded and unmaintained public housing. This blaming-the-victim argument held sway for decades in American life.

If only the poor were cultured, like Marty

Unfortunately for this overripe bit of misdirection, we have learned that the culture of the non-poors, most recently exemplified by their attack on the U.S. Capitol and their attempted lynchings of the Vice President and the Speaker of the House, leaves something to be desired as well.

It also turns out that culture doesn't create poverty, but poverty and hopelessness create all the terrible things American Conservatives warned us about, although when white people do them, somehow it's not so bad.

For all that, Brooks and his fellow American Conservatives were on to something, although they of course got to the exact wrong answer.  A culture of racism, of misogyny, of unearned white male grievance, of gun violence, and of predatory capitalism manipulated by billionaires acting out of insatiable greed and vanity does resist all political efforts to change it and improve the lives of those harmed by that culture.

At its extreme, such a culture chooses authoritarianism over democracy, mob violence over the rule of law, and pervasive disinformation over educating its young. In its current insane incarnation, American Conservative praxis is now engaged in sacrificing the lives of hundreds of thousands of American lives by opposing worker safety regulation in a time of pandemic.

So David and Pat may lift a glass (in Moynihan's case, the entire bottle) to the supposedly great tradition of American Conservative thought.  But when we think of the lives lost, ruined, and at risk today thanks to the modern expositors of that very tradition, like Mitt Romney, we'll skip the celebration.

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