Sunday, October 29, 2006

As the pendulum swings

As a bit of popular philosophy, the pendulum theory of equilibrium as applied to social and political alignments over time has garnered wide appeal. There seems to be some aspect of human nature that establishes a long term equilibrium between opposing generational passions for order and liberty, tradition and innovation, authority and rebellion. Just as a secular trend toward one pole or another seems to have gained permanent status, the pendulum theory posits that the seeds for its decline have already been planted and are generating sprouts underneath the shade of its canopy.
This article may just point to such a sign of the peak of conservative influence:

GOP and Man at Yale
The intellectual dexterity that once distinguished campus conservatives has given way to mindless Republican boosterism.
by Daniel McCarthy

James R. Lawrence III doesn’t look like a campus misfit. The North Carolina State University senior has the kind of clean-cut, buttoned-down appearance one expects of a major in biomedical engineering, a field whose academic rigors leave little room for an “Animal House” or Abbie Hoffman way of life. But Lawrence is more unusual than his demeanor might suggest. He’s distinctly in the minority of a minority, as both a campus conservative and one who’s against the Iraq War.

In the eyes of some of his friends on the Right, that makes Lawrence really a kind of leftist. When he published an editorial for the anniversary of Hiroshima criticizing Harry Truman’s use of nuclear weapons against Japan, one of his colleagues on the campus conservative paper, The Broadside, suggested he was its “token liberal.” That isn’t surprising—student conservatives across the country tend to resent any suggestion that U.S. foreign policy could be immoral. But it is ironic, considering that one of the classic texts of postwar conservatism, Richard M. Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences, was written in response to the horrors of the Second World War, including America’s use of nuclear weapons. “The atomic bomb was a final blow to the code of humanity,” Weaver wrote to a friend in 1945.

Lawrence cited Weaver and Human Events founding editor Felix Morley in his article, but that counted for little. The young men and women of the Right aren’t reading much Richard Weaver these days—nor much Robert Nisbet or Russell Kirk, to name two other seminal conservative thinkers critical of modern warfare. The time when Young Americans for Freedom wore badges blazoned with the slogan “Don’t Immanentize the Eschaton” has long passed. Now College Republicans parade in shirts proclaiming “George W. Bush Is My Homeboy.” The campus Right has almost always been more activist than intellectual, just as the wider movement has been more political than cultural. But where once students were at least familiar with the names Kirk and Weaver, or Mises and Nock, today they look to Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter for guidance. They’re little acquainted with the wisdom of the contemporary Right’s founding generation, and it shows.

I think what this indicates is that Republicanism has become the new "club" defining the path to advancement, power and influence in the culture. Once a political movement has succeeded to the point where it becomes a vested interest in the government, its defining principles and motives become corrupted by the institutional imperative of sustaining and increasing the penetration of movement members into the various organs of government, education and the media. Once there, members develop career and economic imperatives that compete with or trump the ideals and principles upon which the movemement was initially founded. Activism leads to careerism, and ambitious career oriented students fill the ranks. Once a certain point of inflection is passed, the movement has more to lose than to gain from change, and becomes brittle and reactionary.

Some other signs to look for are when cant, ridicule and hyperbole are substituted for reasoned argument by the more popular voices of the movement. Here's a sampling from a conservative's fireside reading list by Ben Shapiro, one of the younger voices on the Right:

Bankrupt, David Limbaugh
Godless, Ann Coulter
Unhinged, Michelle Malkin

One could add Ramesh Ponnoru's "The Party of Death" to the list. It is all the rage among conservative writers to invoke the Left with single word invectives. Political debate becomes guerilla warfare. Ann Coulter is the queen of invective conservatism and has established the publishing trend with her earlier books "Treason" and "Slander".

I would have to say that the biggest sign has to be when long-standing principles of the movement are compromised or abandoned in favor of a "deal with the devil" to cement the loyalty of a powerful constituency. This is the point when a small group of movement leaders "bet the house" on what they believe is the wave of the future, but end up fracturing the coalition that brought them to power, with the result that disaffected parties are wooed to the other party. The movement is then wedded to a single constituency, and becomes more and more radicalized by its demands.

The Democrats made this pact with the devil in 1973 when they bet the house on secular urban liberals and feminists with their embrace of Roe vs Wade, thus driving Catholics and red state working class Democrats into the Republican fold.

The Republicans may be making the same mistake now by betting the house on the Evangelical, or "values" vote. These voters are primarily concerned with conservative social issues like abortion, gay marriage, school prayer, evolution and church-state separation issues. They are not primarily fiscal conservatives, and in many ways welcome the expansion of government programs as a way to influence social trends. Their willingness to ignore fiscal discipline has alienated the fiscal conservatives, and their willingness to push government remedys for social issues like gay marriage or end-of-life issues like in the Terry Schiavo affair have alienated libertarians and small government federalists.

Has the pendulum reached it's inflection point? We may know more next week.


Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Times change. When I was at State, the philosophy department consisted of one moonlighting Baptist minister; today it is home to one of Singer's leading American acolytes in speciesism.

'God and Man at Yale' had been published a decade before I got there, but I doubt anyone on campus had ever read it. Yale was awfully remote from the South in the '60s.

Except for me, all the students were conservatives, but they got it at church. Some few may have read Kirk's newspaper columns, but their conservatism was visceral and churchly, not intellectual.

Anyhow, I question the pendulum metaphor. If it applies to some extent in western political thought, it is invisible in any non-western system I know of. Ralph Peters possibly overstates the degree of stagnation in, eg, southwest Asia, but it's hard to see any pendulum effect in China, India, Egypt.

October 29, 2006 12:49 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

I think a better metaphor (and, possibly, closer to being analytically true) is that the US is a societal example of self organized complexity.

Most, if not all, such systems revolve chaotically around an attractor.

Arab Islamic societies' organization is externally imposed. No telling what's going to happen when the wraps come off.


Their willingness to ignore fiscal discipline ... push government remedys for social issues like gay marriage or end-of-life issues like in the Terry Schiavo affair have alienated libertarians and small government federalists.

Exactly. Other than gut feel (probably the consequence of generalizing from personal experience), I'd guess libertarian conservatives somewhat outnumber values conservatives.

Until this election, the Republican party was easily the least worst alternative, and so could count on libertarian conservatives.

But maybe not any more. If I ran the DNC, I'd be chucking the base, and running a values and national defense based campaign that emphasized fiscal responsibility, limited government, and federalism.

Okay, so I have the vapors.

When I first registered to vote at 18, I checked the Democrat box because, well, it sounded more democratic.

In practice, though, I have always voted Republican.

But maybe not this time.

BTW, those young conservatives should ditch their reading list and adopt in its entirety the one at hush, don't tell anyone.

October 29, 2006 7:29 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Link busted, Skipper.

The libertarian conservatives at, eg, Instapundit are disgusted with the GOP and holding premortems on the defeat of the Republicans, but I don't think they actually plan to vote Democratic themselves.

October 30, 2006 8:36 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Sorry. But still don't tell anyone.

October 30, 2006 9:37 AM  

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