This was written in 2015, during the primary season leading to the 2016 Presidential election (and while my book on ‘conservatism’ was in the throes of its final drafting). At the time, this blog was on an unintended hiatus due to intractable technical issues. I vaguely recall trying to figure out who to send it to before giving up all hope of ever getting anyone to listen.
I stumbled across it today when I was looking for something else on my computer. Remarkably, despite a few stray topical references, I think it holds up as well in today’s post-Trump political environment as it did in that dewy-eyed pre-Trump era….
28 June 2015
For as long as I can remember — and my memory goes back to Lyndon Johnson – the electoral message of the Democratic party has included, fairly prominently, the following proposition:
Vote for me! I’ll give you something and make somebody else pay for it!
In recent elections that proposition has not only been featured prominently, it has been the highlight. Remember the 1%? Remember how “the rich” are not paying their “fair share”? Remember Thomas Frank’s lament, “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” What was his argument?
Hey, we promised to give you something and make someone else pay for it! You must not have been listening!
Alas, all too often that has also been a featured part of the Republican electoral message, although they had to cloak it in some other kind of fiscal piety. But not in the last Presidential election! No, that year they were straightforward about what their economic platform was:
Vote for me! I won’t give you anything today, or even tomorrow, but I promise, somehow, I’ll make you rich next Thursday! Really! Trust me!
Kind of makes you wonder how Mitt Romney managed to get as many votes as he did.
Yes, the Republican Party has been featuring its grumpy old men and its “back in the day…” cultural attitudes, and it has paid for that. Yes, it needs to have a serious internal conversation about what really are the core Republican principles, to differentiate them from the cultural and emotional fetishes that seem to absorb its “activists”.
But, in the end, even if they could get past all that, the question remains: how do you convince people to refuse a free lunch? How do you counter the allure of getting something for nothing?
You have to explain why that can’t work!
And alas, again. Perpetual motion is a perpetual fantasy and explaining why it won’t work has always been an intellectual task that requires intellectual heavy lifting. It requires teaching. It requires patience. It requires imagination. It requires sustained argument instead of gotcha moments. It requires a mastery of facts and logic, not of symbols and fulmination.
And it requires all that of a Republican leadership, and an activist base, that seems in such full retreat from intellectualism it may be none of them know what the word means.
The idea the Democratic Party has to sell is simple and easy to grasp:
You have too little money and respect. They have too much money and respect. If we take money and respect from them and give it to you, then everyone will have just the right amount of money and respect. Q.E.D.
There is no intellectual content to that. It doesn’t require any thought. It doesn’t require any imagination. It is an argument about direct effect, immediate and tangible.
And it sure feels good, at least to those who imagine they will receive and to those who feel guilty about being in a position to give. So what if the math doesn’t work? So what if we ignore what comes next? So what if using the government to steal what you want doesn’t actually make stealing right? So what if respect is not actually a transferrable commodity?
And here come the Republicans to rain on the parade:
What happened on Wall Street was stupidity, not theft. It’s not an excuse to turn thief, in turn. What you have is yours. What they have is theirs. They have no right to take from you to keep for themselves; we have no more right to take from them to give to you.
Other than the basic acknowledgement of inherent individual moral value, respect is something you earn by your behavior, not something you claim as a God-given right.
Actually, for the most part people have a lot because they produce a lot. If you don’t let them keep it, they won’t produce as much of it and we’ll all be poorer.
Giving a government the kind of authority they would need to enforce that redistribution is a bad idea! Without fail, it will end up being used to do all kinds of other things to interfere with how you live your life.
People running governments are as self-interested as any others and, so, any effort by government to re-distribute money from one person or use to another is going to end up corrupted by political interest rather than guided by public interest.
A society in which people expect to be taken care of, rather than expecting to take care of themselves, is a society that has infantilized its citizens. For now they want to take care of your material needs, but they won’t stop there. Soon (now), they’ll want to protect you from mental or emotional harms. Soon (now), they’ll insist on protecting you not only from others but from yourself. Soon (now), they’ll start telling you what they will permit you to do, what they will permit you to say, what they will permit you to think, what they will permit you to feel.
Oh, I’m sorry. That isn’t what the Republicans have been saying. They’ve been incensed about birth control. They’ve tried to stir up a panic over “death panels”. They’ve been obsessing about President Obama’s birth certificate. They’ve been busy cutting government spending to zero by shutting down the government. They’ve been holding months of hearings to determine whether or not the President initially and temporarily mis-identified the cause of what happened at a chaotic African diplomatic post in the middle of a civil war, and why Hillary Clinton was not held personally responsible for the ensuing low-level security debacle.
But, even if they had been saying those things, it’s almost certain they would have been doing so inarticulately and in a way destined to alienate people rather than to connect with them. Those are all arguments about moral rules or about projections and extrapolations into the future. Those are all arguments based on premises about what is right and wrong, or about how what we do now will change people’s and institutions’ behavior later. They are arguments about what constitutes a public good. They are arguments about consequences, both intended and unintended. They are intellectual arguments that require intellectual support; but the Republican Party has decided that intellectual prowess is a disqualification both for its candidates and for its spokesmen.
And anyway, let’s face it: it’s a hard sell. It is asking people to live with their real pain now to avoid some nebulous pain some day in the future. Or, worse, it is asking people to sacrifice their own well-being to preserve some abstract principle that they may only vaguely understand or care about.
It is asking people to ignore what they feel. To get them even to listen requires making them feel something else, and more intensely. It requires not only teaching them to understand but convincing them to care.
Make the conversation about autonomy. Who hasn’t wanted out from under their parents’ thumb? Who likes to feel constantly in someone else’s debt? Who likes to be told where they can and can’t go, what they may or may not do or how they may and may not do it? Who likes being condescended to? Who likes being told they are too stupid or too ignorant or too gullible to be able to know what they need and want? Who likes being told they are too immature to judge for themselves what is good for them? Who likes being told they must depend on others, that they are not competent to, and therefore are not to be permitted to, do for themselves?
Make the conversation about opportunity. A society without risk is a society without reward. Who grows up dreaming about making it medium? Who’s great life ambition is to have exactly what everyone else has, no different and no more? Who thinks having no chance for success is a fair trade for never having to worry about failure? Or who thinks no one may succeed unless everyone does?
Make the conversation about justice. Not equality, but consequences consistent with actions. Who likes to see anyone get away with bad behavior? Who likes to see good guys come in last? Who thinks how you are treated ought to be disconnected from how you have behaved? Not equality, but equity. Remember the little red hen? Who thinks fairness requires that everyone have the same share, regardless of how much they did to earn it? Who thinks those who play by the rules and those that break them deserve the same fate?
Make the conversation about values, but make it about what should be normative not what should be condemned. Agree that tolerance is a virtue but ask, “does ‘tolerance’ really mean cheerfully accepting anything and everything that anyone can dream up?” We shouldn’t forbid eccentricity or dissent, or even hedonism and pugnacity, but must we glorify them? Are we not allowed to say that some things must be permitted but are, nonetheless, repugnant and socially caustic, worthy of social condemnation? Are we not allowed to identify and embrace the “norm” with which most people can at least feel unthreatened if not comfortable? Can we not aspire to social cohesion instead of social balkanization?
Make the conversation about the ideal of e pluribus unum, about forging, appreciating, and embracing a common American culture rather than about remaining aloof within fortified cultural enclaves. If we welcome strangers to live among us, is it wrong to expect them to accommodate our ways at least as much as we accommodate theirs? Is it xenophobic to feel that one requesting a place in your home should respect the house rules and customs, at least in the public areas?
And, for God’s sake (and for ours), back up those conversations with actual plans!
You want to talk about opportunity? First, look around and see how our current system deprives people of opportunity. Figure out what we can do to fix that, even if it means reforming business practices or cultural norms or religious dogmas or legal doctrines that have either outgrown their usefulness or were never useful in the first place, and even if it means spending more money in the short term to create an environment where you can spend less money in the long term.
You want to talk about autonomy? Talk about responsibilities along with rights, courtesy and self-restraint along with liberty. Remind people that even Democrats once asked us to consider what we all, and not just “rich people”, might do for our country. Remind people that imposing your ways on others is selfish, even if your ways are “right”.
You want to talk about justice? Look at how the market is not free – look at crony capitalism and rent-seeking and externalities that occur when private profit results from public costs – and do as much about that as you do about illegal immigrants or about crime.
You want to talk about values? Talk about the things that ought to unite us rather than harping on things over which we are divided.
In other words, have an actual and practical program for action rather than vague platitudes about making government “smaller” or “getting back to core values” or “growing the economy”.
And, finally, get real. A program like that requires a generation or more to take root, not a single term in office, because it requires convincing people to follow you, not merely ordering them to. Overreach, and your program will be aborted at the next election. If ‘conservatism’ means anything, it means careful and gradual change not drastic and sudden upheaval.
Maybe you took the Congress. Maybe you will take the Presidency. But that doesn’t make you the king! Perhaps, some day, Republicans will be able to claim they outnumber Democrats. So what? That doesn’t give you the moral right to ram down their throats what they find despicable, any more than, right now, they have the moral right to ram things you find despicable down yours.
If the majority gets everything it wants, that is pure and unconstrained democracy, mob rule dressed up in ideological regalia. The founding fathers wisely rejected that. You say you are a conservative. Conserve their vision.
© Copyright 2015, Augustus P. Lowell