Conservatives: Not “Collectivist,” Corporate

by A. Jay Adler on June 22, 2010
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You can make an argument for anything. You really can. Birthers. 9/11 Truthers. The world is run by the Tri-Lateral Commission or the World Wide Jewish Conspiracy. The mob killed Kennedy. Castro killed Kennedy. The CIA killed Kennedy. Every other democracy in the world is, literally, dangerously inferior to that of the United States and if we adopt any of the others’ practices – say, universal health care – death panels will soon be slipping us Soylent Green. They can’t keep a secret in Washington, but they can in Roswell, New Mexico for sixty years: aliens are among us – though we never landed on the moon. Hugo Chavez is a great democrat. (Bring it on, Oliver.) Obama is a fascist. Gaza is still occupied, even though Israel withdrew. Repressive, racist, murderous organizations are national liberation movements of self-determination. BP is a victim of presidential bullying.

All of these are, alas, just a start. And, indeed, made for all of them are lengthy, intricate arguments, densely convoluted with complex webs of factual assertion and easily obscured, unfounded premises. You couldn’t dissuade adherents if, like a careful lepidopterist, you attempted logically to pin their arguments to the board, because even then they’ll squirm for their lives. There are many reasons people get lost in the dark in the following of such arguments, and one of them is that they are inclined to believe them to begin.

Take, for instance, the BP escrow fund, for the establishment of which Obama held BP down, while Rahm Emmanuel worked over the corporate kidneys “Chicago style” and Joe Biden threw democracy out the window with the Gulf Coast bathwater. This presidential mugging, as some on the Right would have it, was the subject of one my questions yesterday. Here is another question for you.

Have you heard anyone on the Right talking up the “unitary executive” theory of the presidency since Obama came into office? Didn’t think so. Pretty amazing, no? Bush and Cheney are in office, with external threats to be met, and for the Right, externally or internally (warrantless wiretaps, evasion of habeas corpus for citizens deemed terrorists) the oval office begins to look like the privy chamber of George III. There is nothing the President can do (shades of Richard Nixon in the body of John Yoo) that isn’t legal if the President says it’s legal. With Obama in office, any exercise of Presidential authority and weight – the sheer force of political will provided added heft by the aura of the office – becomes a threat to the republic, especially if it messes with the holy of holies, big business.

The Right talks a good game of advocating for small business, and of course the laissez faire it promotes helps small businesses too, when it doesn’t nearly bring down the global economy or wreck the world, but Joe Barton didn’t apologize to any of the small business owners on the Gulf. He apologized to BP, and in the days since we have understood that this was no gaffe of the moment. Of course, it was no accident because it was a prepared statement. But we have since seen the evidence that Barton’s apology was part of a concerted campaign in the offing. From the predictable idiot twins Palin and Bachman to the more professorial intonations of Newt Gingrich (who, do not forget, is the father of the political world in which we live) comparing Obama to Hugo Chavez, there was a typical political talking point en route from the kitchen until Barton dropped the platter coming through the double doors. (Barton, you a-hole, you weren’t supposed to actually apologize to them.)

One way or another, however, the prime political allegiances of the Right are always revealed. The immediate cause here was the constant impetus to find fault with Obama, and then to pretend that our democracy was at risk from this overweening exercise of power. (And a study still waits of how the range of conservative criticisms of Obama have been a retributive rhetorical mirror of those levied against George W. Bush: not smart, not smart; master of malapropism, can’t talk without teleprompter; Texas oil money, “Chicago-style”; unqualified child of privilege, affirmative action baby – it goes on.) But the truth that emerges, like a slip of the tongue, is the fraud of conservative championing of common folk.

I won’t review here the arguments of Thomas Frank and others of how the Right managed these past three decades and more to persuade the vast majority of the nation to vote against its interests. The right likes to inveigh against collectivism. We are a nation of individuals: damn the collective! And another of my questions yesterday provided a statement of conservative principle, including that damnation, that could have been spoken at any tea party rally or even by many current Republican lawmakers. It was, instead, a 1980 statement of The Beliefs and Principles of The John Birch Society, read into the Congressional record by then representative Larry McDonald of Georgia.

The root meaning of “corporate,” from “the Latin corporatus, past participle of corporare to make into a body, from corpor-, corpus,” is to unite into one body. A corporation is a collective. Liberals have one vision of collectivity, conservatives another. Neither need diminish individuality; each can, rather, enhance it. (I own stock. I like my dividends. They are very helpful to me as an individual. So was unemployment insurance when I needed it.) But while, philosophically, the Right champions the individual, and critiques the Left for mostly abstract and theoretical concern for the common person, the Gulf disaster and the Barton brouhaha reveal, once again, a different truth.

Conservative commitment to the individual is to the dream of individual potential. That is the American dream, right? The achievement, success, and fortune all of us in the proper environment have available to us, if we have it in us. So conservatism always ends up the protector of that potential, which is to be the protector, in the present, of those with more. After all, you may one day have more, and you’ll want it protected too. Your parents may have only jobs on a Gulf shrimper and no health insurance now – but one day they could be rich, and you and they will be dammed if the long arm of greedy incompetent government is going to reach into their pockets and take a cut of that wealth before you get it. Better trust your fate to BP. And Newt Gingrich. And Joe Barton. And to an unregulated corporate universe. Because who knows, one day you too may be a corporation.

None of this is to defend Obama’s handling of the oil spill. He has done a poor job. But the best thing he has done has been the escrow account. He acted like the kind of President we all want in a difficult situation, when we aren’t blinded by ideological disposition: strong, decisive, breaking no laws, acting with the power of his office to help the people he governs as much as circumstance will allow. Immediately when possible.

In about 30-45 days, according to escrow account administrator Kenneth Feinberg, who performed the same job well and unimpeachably (contra the autopilot predictions of Gingrich) for the 9/11 victims fund, thousands of victimized individuals along the Gulf will begin receiving compensation checks for their losses. They won’t be waiting twenty years – after they have lost their businesses, their jobs, and their health – for the culmination of a finely theoretical conservative litigation process. (Now conservatives love litigation!)

There is something to be said for caring about the individual now.

AJA

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Dr Stuart Jeanne Bramhall June 23, 2010 at 2:33 pm

Very thoughtful post. I think there used to be a Republican Party. In fact I used to belong to it. My mother was a precinct captain. We genuinely believed that it was our hard work – going door to door getting people in our neighborhood to renew their memberships – was the life blood of the party. And that the people we elected to be delegates in the county and state conventions would express our voice in choosing the candidates who would become candidates in the primary, congressional and presidential elections. And over time we discovered that we had no say at all – either in the candidates who were chosen or the party platform. That all this was decided in smoke filled back rooms by corporate king makers. We all supported abortion rights – it seemed like a good way to reduce the welfare roles. The day the Republican Party adopted an anti-abortion platform my grandfather turned his portrait of Richard Nixon to the wall. As far as I can see the present Republican Party is nothing more than a “product” dreamed up by some public relations firm. I write about my journey from Republican Party activist to place holder on the FBI No Fly List in my recent memoir THE MOST REVOLUTIONARY ACT: MEMOIR OF AN AMERICAN REFUGEE (I presently live in exile in New Zealand)

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copithorne June 22, 2010 at 11:04 pm

After considerable investigation, I have satisfied myself that contemporary conservative/Republican politics is not rooted in a philosophy of public policy. It is a tribal identification oriented around the consolations of being a victim and having enemies.

There is no intellectual integrity involved. They will attack with whatever cudgel is at hand regardless of whether yesterday they were defending the same behavior when conducted by a tribe member.

Being a victim and having enemies is probably the most common use of politics in human history. But it is a misuse.

And America, as the world’s preeminent symbol of modernity, consistently attracts the animosity of people who are anxious about modernity.

If anybody comes across a Republican/conservative politician or pundit engaged in public policy with intellectual integrity, I would gladly take a look. I would put Tom Campbell and Paul Ryan at the horizon closest to intellectual integrity. And Sarah Palin proved to me that the balance of power in the Republican party is held by people who aren’t engaged in public policy.

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