Because the New Yorker was made for ink-on-paper reading and it arrives days and days late here, I didn’t get to the George Packer essay everyone was talking about until Saturday. I read it poolside, presumably in the presence of actual conservatives, based on recent election results.
“The Fall of Conservatism” lays out, perhaps too optimistically for my money, how the political movement that defined my adulthood lost its way and now teeters like a shack on the beach awaiting November’s hurricane. My initial reaction: Well, we’ll see. Pat Buchanan gets the money-shot quote, paraphrasing Eric Hoffer: “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.” I’ve seen the racketeers for some time now; it seems like a hundred years ago that I started telling people the success of buffoons like Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh indicated the right had run out of steak and was selling nothing but sizzle, but obviously I was wrong about that one. Packer mentions in passing the two great rocky shoals conservatism wrecked itself on — Iraq and Katrina, but these were only rocks that showed above the waterline. It’s one thing to argue that government is always incompetent; it’s quite another to staff government agencies with incompetents and then, when they’re revealed as such, yell, “See!? See!?”
I might add that it’s one thing to praise business and unfettered capitalism like some sort of god, and quite another to look the other way when corrupt financial markets can drain billions from American pockets and reward the perpetrators, but that’s another discussion.
Here’s what struck and saddened me: The way the GOP gained power through what Kevin Phillips called “positive polarization.” Divide and conquer, basically, but not only divide — demonize. People who disagreed with you weren’t just wrong, they were evil. In the midst of it, a woman called my newspaper and informed my editor she would be canceling her subscription because a certain female columnist had described herself as a feminist, and this was simply too much to be endured. Packer thinks it’s on its way out. I can only hope so:
Yet the polarization of America, which we now call the “culture wars,” has been dissipating for a long time. Because we can’t anticipate what ideas and language will dominate the next cycle of American politics, the previous era’s key words—“élite,” “mainstream,” “real,” “values,” “patriotic,” “snob,” “liberal” — seem as potent as ever. Indeed, they have shown up in the current campaign: North Carolina and Mississippi Republicans have produced ads linking local Democrats to Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama’s controversial former pastor. The right-wing group Citizens United has said that it will run ads portraying Obama as yet another “limousine liberal.” But these are the spasms of nerve endings in an organism that’s brain-dead.
We’ll see. I lived in deep-red country for 20 years and learned to get along with people who considered a self-described feminist to be a she-devil. Part of my belligerent attitude of late has to do with leaving that place for a more purple-hued environment, but I worry that positive polarization has caught me, too. I certainly wouldn’t pay for a newspaper that carried Ann Coulter’s column. Maybe that’s the real legacy of the last 40 years: We disagree, therefore, you suck.
Anyway, I think Roy gets it right: Do not count out this movement, even with half its teeth missing, syphilis overtaking its bloodstream and the odor of the grave emanating with every howl:
The conservative heavy thinkers to whom Packer gives much credence may feel as if the world has passed them by, but the racketeers really run the show. As formerly grumbling conservative operatives learn to love McCain and go all-in for the big win, philosophy is the least of their concerns, and their whither-conservatism thumb-suckers become mere padding for pages filled with stories about Obama’s Muslim past, inability to bowl, and other such boob-bait. If you think they can’t pull it off because their approach lacks intellectual vitality, you may be overthinking the whole thing.
Josh Marshall makes some good points, too.
That’s what I did on Saturday, when I had to readjust my pool chair six times to find the right balance between out-in-the-sun (too bright to read) and under-the-umbrella (too cold to concentrate). It didn’t even touch 70, but the pool was open (and heated) and by god, we were going. The lifeguards sat around glumly in sweats, hoping no one needed saving. Sunday was warmer and Monday was downright hot — upper 80s. I went to sleep last night with all the windows open and the ceiling fans on, and woke up 90 minutes later with the blinds banging and cold air rushing in to reclaim us. Again. Current temperature: 48, and fuck you very much, Canadian air mass. Frost warning (!!!!!!!) tonight.
As the previous post demonstrates, I finally took up Alan’s fancy shotgun and took my chances on the skeet range. The double I got on that station wasn’t typical, but I did pretty well — hit maybe 30 percent of the
faces of my enemies rendered in brittle ceramic clay pigeons, some fairly tough. I didn’t get any of the “rabbits” — targets launched to roll along the ground — but I came close, and I nailed a few in the incredibly satisfying ways they blow apart. I thought “vaporizing in midair” was my favorite, but then I experienced “breaking into three pieces, each spinning off on its own symmetrical trajectory,” and that was the new standard of excellence.
For what its worth, none of the targets carried the face of the president. Hey, I’m evolving!
So, bloggage of a related note: Anyone see “Recount”? What did we think? I found it surprisingly engaging for being unafraid to take on fairly complicated legal concepts, but nearly unwatchable just the same, if only for its arousal of the old we disagree/you suck anger. I came away hoping someone learned a lesson or two in that mess, and maybe, by 2006, we did — the corrupt GOP establishment that nearly turned Ohio 2004 into a rerun of Florida 2000 was ejected on its ear. But the elements that let the fiasco happen are, most likely, still in place somewhere. I thought Gore did the right thing at the time, but when I see what actually happened as a result of that election, maybe not so much.
Skipped Rob’s torture session this morning, so I’m off to ride my bike until my legs fall off. Make merry in the first day of quasi-summer, when the furnace will likely come on.