The conservative mainstreaming of pernicious ideas gradually overcame a more cautious postwar American pragmatism.
By Mike Lofgren
I recently attended a conference at the Niskanen Center. It was a think tank gabfest at which the participants were disillusioned conservatives hoping to chart a course toward a saner political center-right. Jonathan Chait did a near-ecstatic write-up of the meeting and its promise of a conservative movement with fewer XYY chromosomes. Jeet Heer was less optimistic.
What impressed me, however, was the elegiac note struck even by those thoroughly disenchanted participants who believed that American conservatism had not been hijacked by know-nothings, but contained the seeds of its own perversion.
They were almost uniformly nostalgic about the early 1980s, when most of them turned to the Republican Party. “Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive. But to be young was very heaven,” or so it once seemed to these conservative apostates looking to the past. Back then, there was intellectual ferment on the Right, and the GOP was the party of ideas. But what were those ideas when considered in the cold light of empirical reality rather than soft-focus nostalgia?
Thirty-five years have given us plenty of time to test the truth of the main tenets of the Republican coalition when applied across economics, national security, social policy, and governance. Several of the most significant ideas follow:
Starve the beast. This was a popular rationale for tax cuts (beyond the real, tacit one of further enriching political donors) offered by reigning conservative demigod Milton Friedman. If you reduce revenue, it will force hated Big Government to shrink accordingly. Not only has this scheme never worked out, Republican administrations have expanded the national debt significantly more than Democratic ones.
Tax cuts pay for themselves (or even increase revenue). This absurd myth is still being mouthed by true believers like Paul Ryan, even as he leaves the speakership with an unprecedented record of fiscal failure at a time of a generally good economy.
The crazy implication of this tax-cut theology ought to be that if you cut taxes to zero, revenues will be infinite. This theory and “starve the beast” also achieve the difficult feat of each being completely wrong while flatly contradicting one another. It’s like believing simultaneously in the Young Earth Creation and Steady State models of the universe – two contradictory and demonstrably false hypotheses.
Efficient markets hypothesis. Wall Street must, by a Newtonian law of nature, allocate capital and risk in the most efficient manner possible. Therefore, who needs regulations? A glance at the numerous financial panics throughout history ought to have disproved this idea, but Federal Reserve board chairman Alan Greenspan embraced it along with Ayn Rand’s other crank notions. In 1999, Brooksley Born, chair of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, attempted to argue that the near total deregulation of the futures market was a bad idea. Greenspan and the rest of the free-market establishment mowed her down, and so one more cause of the 2008 financial meltdown was set in concrete.
Government is the problem. Uttered by no less than Saint Ronnie, this sentiment is the leitmotiv of conservative thought. Funny, though, it somehow excludes the Pentagon, which consumes more than half the discretionary budget. And it’s rarely practiced by those who preach it (many of whom have spent entire careers on the federal payroll). The disproportionately Republican voters of the hurricane belt expect FEMA (an agency that some conservatives otherwise believe exists to put them in concentration camps) to promptly write a check for damage caused by choosing to build in a flood zone. (Personal story: as a budget committee staffer, I got considerable phone traffic from the office of Mississippi Senator Trent Lott about expediting relief when Katrina wiped out the senator’s house in Pascagoula). This reflex has become so Pavlovian that residents of Harlan County, KY, severely dependent on federal aid to prevent brute starvation, bitterly denounce government.
The gold standard. What John Maynard Keynes called the barbarous metal is an object of totemic worship by conservatives. Beginning with the Reagan candidacy, it has been a hardy quadrennial in GOP platforms. It is a product of the fallacy of misplaced concreteness: because you can see and touch gold, it represents for some deluded souls an avatar of value more lustrous than real wealth produced by labor.
In reality, the gold standard was only common from the mid-1870s until 1914 (a period characterized by many international panics), and was promptly suspended during World War I, when countries fighting for their lives could no longer afford the luxury of gold theology. Great Britain’s postwar attempt to restore the gold standard was a failure, and virtually all countries abandoned the classic gold standard during the Depression, opting for a hybrid gold-exchange standard which itself collapsed in 1971.
Look at any conservative website, though, and advertisers are usually hawking overpriced gold coins; half-baked schemes to reinstate the gold standard frequently appear even in “respectable” conservative publications. President Trump has advocated the gold standard. Given his recent reverse-Midas touch with the stock market, be very afraid.
Run government like a business. This chestnut is rarely questioned, although a moment’s thought proves it fallacious. Businesses sell products to customers for profitable revenue. Government is a citizens’ compact to provide a gamut of services from policing to disease research to protecting land held in common to national defense, all financed by taxes. Government officials must obey governmental and constitutional rules; they are not autocratic CEOs who run their firms as they see fit.
The analogy is even more strained given that Republicans often seem to choose Enron as their governance model. In line with its mantra that government doesn’t work, the GOP sets out to make it a self-fulfilling prophecy by adopting an exploitative rather than public service model. The merger of government with predatory business practices has now reached a culmination in the Trump administration, where everything from the location of the FBI headquarters to the security of the Middle East hinges on the private and opaque financial interests of the Trump Organization.
Law and order/personal responsibility. In the 1980s and 1990s, the GOP styled itself the Party of Personal Responsibility: “no defining deviancy down!” as scolds like Bill Bennett incessantly reminded us. Republican amendments to crime bills competed to be the toughest on crime, with capital punishment preferred. Many liberals called it coded racism, but it ultimately became something even worse: more like the Leninist who-whom principle whereby something is only a crime depending on the political status of the perpetrator.
Sexual harassment ceases to be heinous when potentially committed by a GOP aspirant to office, and we hear a lot these days about how campaign finance violations or even conspiring with an adversarial foreign power are mere “process crimes” if they’re even illegal. Once upon a time, crack cocaine abusers deserved life imprisonment and traffickers death; now that opioid abuse is literally destroying a state that Trump carried by 42 percent, the GOP is suddenly all about compassion and the need for treatment.
Authoritarianism good/totalitarianism bad. Back in the early 80s, right-wing talking head Jeane Kirkpatrick caused a stir when she theorized that authoritarian regimes were to be tolerated, even indulged, because somehow they would evolve into democracies. But totalitarian regimes, meaning communist ones, were incapable of spontaneously democratizing and had to be resisted tooth and nail. This notion was prompted by the need to explain U.S. support for regimes like Chile or South Africa, while we opposed ones like Nicaragua. Rather than analysis, it was basically arbitrary labeling: four legs, good, two legs bad.
The fall of the Berlin Wall was massive disproof of the theory, but so are subsequent events: there is no consistent pattern to the transformation of either so-called authoritarian regimes or totalitarian states into democracies – or to the now-frequent backsliding of democracies into despotism.
There have never been rational criteria for U.S. obsequiousness toward feudal tyrannies like Saudi Arabia while we remain unremittingly hostile to Iran, which at least has something resembling a parliament. Trump, as usual, has carried Kirkpatrick’s scheme to a bizarrely ironic conclusion: he prefers authoritarian rulers like Recep Erdoğan or Mohammed bin Salman to democratic leaders responsible to their legislatures.
Blame America First/liberals hate America. This dogma got its legs when – again – Jeane Kirkpatrick pontificated that those critical of US foreign policy just wanted to “blame America first.” It culminated in the common post-9/11 belief that anyone skeptical of the existence of WMD in Iraq hated America. But like many beliefs (voter fraud, “class warfare,” etc.), it contains a massive dose of psychological projection. American conservatism is steeped in a cultural pessimism that sees our best days behind us, with America forever ruined by minorities, foreigners, and socialists (and sometimes uppity women).
Likewise, conservative economists like James M. Buchanan were never comfortable with American democracy, and felt the need to ring-fence billionaires’ property rights against it. Fundamentalists see secular society as irredeemably sinful; those who are Christian reconstructionists want to overturn the Constitution in favor of theocracy. NRA-style gun nuts posit a sacred right to armed insurrection and overthrow.
Examples of this mentality include Jerry Falwell saying America got what it deserved on 9/11 (because: gays) and a legion of Trump apologists rationalizing that collusion with a hostile foreign power is harmless – or maybe, by means of Republican alchemy, even a higher act of patriotism.
These are but a few of the crackpot nostrums peddled by conservatives in their supposed intellectual golden age. While movement eggheads like Milton Friedman seem like hopelessly unworldly lunatics (he once posited that we didn’t need a Food and Drug Administration because manufacturers would ensure safe products out of market efficiency and the goodness of their hearts – yeah, sure they would), they prevailed over time.
The infiltration and dominance of the Republican base by religious fundamentalists, whose creed is magic thinking reinforced by unwavering obedience to accepted authority, helped metastasize this syndrome of dogmatic illogic. It was also boosted by the rise of an integrated, conservative media-entertainment complex, whose non-stop, nation-blanketing repetition of falsehoods assisted their popular acceptance.
The conservative mainstreaming of pernicious ideas gradually overcame a more cautious postwar American pragmatism, dearly won after the misery of the Great Depression and the horror of World War II. The political movement that started as what Keynes described as the “frenzy [of] some academic scribbler of a few years back” has now, under Donald Trump, become like the children gone savage in Lord of the Flies, heeding not reason but the rattle of bones and the beat of tom-toms.