Lots of fuss this week in the blogosphere about George Packer’s article in the New Yorker entitled “The Fall of Conservatism”. It’s an interesting article, which draws in roughly equal measure from Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland and interviews with Nixon political adviser, opposition researcher, and speechwriter Pat Buchanan (author of the phrase “the Silent Majority”). A lot of the bulk of the article is related to Nixonland, but the lines that have caused the most buzz have been Buchanan’s:
“From Day One, Nixon and I talked about
creating a new majority… shearing off huge segments of FDR’s New Deal
coalition, which LBJ had held together: Northern Catholic ethnics and Southern
Protestant conservatives – what we called the Daley-Rizzo Democrats in the
North and, frankly, the Wallace Democrats in the South.”
...and from a memo that he wrote to Nixon in 1971:
stickers calling for black Presidential and especially Vice-Presidential
candidates should be spread out in the ghettoes of the country,… We should do
what is within our power to have a black nominated for Number Two, at least at
the Democratic National Convention.”
He hoped these tactics could
the Democratic Party and country in half; my view is that we would have far the
Buchanan had been a Goldwater conservative in 1964, but it was his and Nixon’s brand of “Culture War” conservatism that came to produce the electoral strength of the Republican party for the last thirty years, and whose dominance of that party has become so complete that even in the face of disastrous results, it still holds sway today (hence the nonsensical power of the son of an admiral calling the self-made son of an immigrant and absentee father and a relatively poor single mother an “elitist” and a “limousine liberal”).
Packer’s major point (embodied in the article’s subtitle – “Have the Republicans run out of ideas?”) is that the dominance of the Culture War has led conservatives away from the reasoned critique of liberal government’s shortcomings into an identity politics that was never very accurate, is less so now, and make no attempt to produce actual social policy other than “let the free market do it”. In an era in which the unfettered free market is demonstrably responsible for both the decline of American values of community and equality, and a great deal of human suffering both here and abroad, the proposition that the answer to these problems is more free market capitalism and less regulation is both intellectually bankrupt and politically unsalable.
Andrew Sullivan makes an interesting reply to Packer’s article, one which makes the classical conservative case more clearly and more honestly than any of the other conservative replies I’ve read. That’s interesting in itself, in that Sullivan’s personal story (a gay British expat whose disgust with the Republican party has led him to support Barack Obama) makes a complete hash of the culture war argument, but apart from that curious juxtaposition, I think his answer describes something that the recent dominance of conservative politics has already revealed – conservatism is better at policy criticism than at policy creation.
The conservative thinkers Packer interviewed for his piece are uniformly pessimistic about the prospects for their movement, and several seem to note the decline as having begun in 1994 and accelerated to total collapse over the last seven years. It’s telling that those are turning points marked by increases in conservative Republican political ascendancy – first in the legislature and then in both the executive and judicial branches.
Aside from the inherently disabling effects of having come to power through the tactic of a culture war on any group attempting to assemble a governing coalition (it being politically tricky to cut deals with people when your very political life depends on demonizing them at every turn and assuming a posture of perpetual victimhood at their hands), the fact that the central premise of the conservative argument was that government could do nothing right necessarily doomed the project of conservative governance.
In that sense, it’s not that conservatives have run out of ideas, it’s that they never had any constructive ideas in the first place. Conservatism worked as a critique of liberal policy, and even had some good things to say about the unintended consequences and arrogant excesses of liberal policymakers (though not anywhere near as many good things as it claimed). Once its foot soldiers came to power, though, they were without any concept of what to do, so as Packer puts it, “Instead of just limiting government, the Gingrich revolutionaries set out to disable it.”
They succeeded famously, of course, as the barrage of governmental failures of the last few years has amply demonstrated. We can only hope and work for a proper comeuppance for that project this fall, and then we can only hope that they haven’t been so successful that the government that’s left is incapable of doing anything to solve the mountain of problems they leave behind.
Bill and Hillary Clinton both command a good deal of respect in the Democratic party, but their inclusion is a net loser for an Obama ticket, it seems to me. None of these assessments are particularly original, and none of them require a great deal of inspection to reveal. I’d suggest that if, as he claims, Abrams is getting letters indicating that Obama supporters are made crazy by the very idea of a Clinton VP candidacy, it may be that at least some of those letters are actually made crazy by the fact that despite having had most of these deficiencies pointed out to him repeatedly, Abrams seems unable to recognize them, and instead keeps mischaracterizing the opposition to such a move as being entirely emotionally driven.1 – Clinton brings very little to the ticket in terms of either geographical balance or experience. She’s a liberal senator from a liberal northeastern state, and it’s reasonable to expect that those voters are already sold on Obama.
2 – She has a negative rating with some 45% of the electorate. I don’t think that’s fair or deserved, but it’s not something an Obama candidacy should have to contend with – he’s trying to win the presidency, not make a point.
3 – There is no guarantee that Clinton will bring along those working class whites who won’t vote for Obama if Obama can’t bring them along himself. The demographic that won’t vote for Obama in a general election won’t be mollified by having Clinton on the ticket, and several of the states (Pennsylvania excluded) in which she has been running up these large numbers are states in which the Democrats don’t have a prayer of winning in the fall anyway. Adding a woman to the ticket along with an African-American just increases the number of people who will vote Republican to accommodate their prejudices.
4 – The very experience in Washington that Clinton’s been running on is a liability to many voters who have been inspired by Obama’s message about changing the political culture in Washington and reducing the power of lobbyists. Bill Clinton was nowhere near as bad as the subsequent explicit relationship between the Republican party and K Street, but his fund-raising power was largely driven by his success at raising money from the traditional political sources used by both parties. Obama’s fund-raising has been completely different, raising money in huge quantities from millions of small donors on the premise that it was the only way to break the stranglehold of corporate interests on Washington’s politics. Those donors and many of Obama’s other supporters are likely to be very disheartened by the dilution of that message.
5 – Clinton’s vote to authorize George Bush’s war damages another case that Obama has been and is likely to continue to be very effective in making against John McCain – that he has been (and continues to be) a supporter of that same policy. With Clinton on the ticket, he has a much harder time making that case that experience is less important that good judgment, because Clinton shares that failure of judgment with McCain.
6 – This may be a little too far removed from the basic political considerations, but I would think that for Obama, having Clinton as a running mate means sharing a ticket and a White House with both Hillary and Bill Clinton. I’m not sure what the net political effect of having Bill Clinton so closely aligned with the Obama campaign is, but from a governing perspective, having a past president so closely involved with one’s own presidency has to be a managerial nightmare.
Another great Bloggingheads diavlog posted yesterday, this one the regular science feature, between John Horgan and Thomas Homer-Dixon of the Trudeau Centre, about Homer-Dixon's writing, particularly his new book, The Upside of Down. Homer-Dixon's area of study is the sources of conflict and strategies for resolving it, and he shared some very interesting thoughts about ways to conceive of how societies succeed or fail. For a historical underpinning to his thesis, he uses a discussion of ancient Rome.
Much has been written about comparisons between the Roman empire and the present day USA, with included speculations about how societies' influence wax and wane. This is hardly new - Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (published beginning in 1776) was devoted to the same subject, with the same sort of emphasis on what Rome's decline could teach contemporary thinkers about their own society.
Homer-Dixon, though, has not written an updated Decline and Fall. Gibbon attributed Rome's decline to a decay of "civic virtue", but Homer-Dixon has a different idea. His analysis depends on a thesis that societies have an inherent tendency to increased complexity, and that there is a mutually reinforcing relationship between that complexity and an increasing need for energy inputs. He asserts that in the preindustrial age that Rome rose and fell in, the way they transported energy was in the form of food (if all your work is done by people and animals, grain is fuel).
This was new to me, and it's pretty compelling. Homer-Dixon points out that since the sole source of energy in ancient times was from animals and people who ate food, that's the best metric of energy input. He notes that the population of the city of Rome reached somewhere between 1 and 1.5 million inhabitants. The specific number is uncertain, but either figure would be much larger than any other western city before or since Rome, up until the industrial revolution was well established. Rome and the broader Italian peninsula maintained a population that was over 30% urban, a remarkable achievement, considering that no other society managed to support an urban population over 5%.
Homer-Dixon notes that the way Rome achieved these remarkable urban concentrations was by redistributing food incredibly efficiently, and that those efficiencies required increasing central control of the empire's food sources, as well as a steady increase in the number of cultivated acres serving Rome's population - eventually the entire Mediterranean basin and well beyond. Rome's system of roads is famous for making it easier and faster to move the legions around the empire, but it also made it easier to move food from the provinces to the imperial center, and those two types of movement, Homer-Dixon asserts, were closely related.
The decline of Rome, then, was in large part a result of a decline in Rome's ability to feed itself, as the increasing size of the empire made moving that food around increasingly difficult. This is a classic supply line problem, and was effectively a decrease in "Energy Return On Investment", or "EROI". As the lands providing the food get farther and farther from the city itself, a progressively higher percentage of the food taken in tribute from the provinces is spent getting the food back to Rome - more food goes into the bellies of the oxen pulling the carts, more goes into feeding the drivers of the carts, more goes into those who build and maintain the roads, more goes into the bellies of the soldiers required to keep the whole business going, and less and less actually made it back to Rome. Homer-Dixon points out that the emperor Diocletian completely militarized the Roman empire in order to maintain this efficiency, but his doing so dramatically changed the empire, and it only preserved it for about 80 years, after which it collapsed anyway.
What's interesting about this discussion for us in the present day is that we too are suffering from a rapidly decreasing EROI. Homer-Dixon notes that when we started drilling for oil, the EROI for oil was about 100:1, i.e., we got about 100 barrels of oil back for every barrel we spent exploring and drilling for oil. It's now down to 17:1 and dropping fast. Tar sands in Alberta, he observes, have an EROI of about 4:1. Ethanol production is about 1:1, which means that ethanol programs are nothing more than a subsidy to agribusiness, and do nothing to help our general energy picture. We need another source of energy that will give us a better return, if we are to prevent serious shocks to our system from the failure of the oil supply. In order to complicate that problem, we also have to find a replacement that doesn't produce so much CO2 that we see an unsurvivable spike in the global temperature, adding to the stresses we have to deal with as a society (or possibly trumping all of them at once).
Nuclear power, at 20:1, looks pretty good by some comparisons, but Homer-Dixon notes that those analyses don't count the energy (or financial) costs of storing or disposing of waste (which we don't have a good solution for yet at any price), and maybe more importantly, don't count the cost of dismantling aging power plants when they are worn out. We haven't had to do much of that yet, but Homer-Dixon notes that when we do (and we will, since nuclear reactors do wear out and ours are beginning to get pretty old), those costs will be very high, as the components of a decommissioned nuclear reactor are way too "hot" for humans to handle - we'll need robots to do the work, and then we'll need to transport tons of radioactive parts to someplace where we can keep them (for centuries). All of this will cost lots of energy, and externalizing that cost ruins the analysis that makes nuclear energy's EROI look good.
All of that decline in EROI would be bad enough, but Homer-Dixon points out that the complexity that massive energy inputs create puts large societies in another double bind. That double bind is created by the fact that the more developed and complex a society becomes, the more tightly integrated its parts are, and the less resistant to shocks caused by the failure of its energy supplies. Consider a group of, say, six people climbing a mountain. It's safer for those people to be roped together in most cases, and most such groups are roped for safety when they make such ascents - if one person slips, the rest of the group can save them. If two or three slip, though, the rope stops being an asset and begins to be a liability, since it's possible that everyone falls off the mountain. That's a tightly coupled system - it's very good at dealing with problems within a certain range of difficulty, and makes that easier, but it makes dealing with really threatening problems worse.
Homer-Dixon uses another analogy to describe the problem - he describes driving in the fast lane of a crowded California freeway at speed when his engine went dead, and says that the process of getting out of the fast lane and onto the shoulder almost got him killed, because since everyone was tailgating, the freeway worked very efficiently as long as everyone did his part, but nobody was able to deal with a car that had failed to keep its speed up. He points out that we have begun to see numerous examples of the problems of tightly coupled societies being magnified by their interconnectedness, from the blackout of the northeast power grid in 2003, to the outbreaks of SARS and other illnesses that have gone global so quickly, to the tremors that have gone through financial markets around the world as a result of the home mortgage crisis in the US and its effect on credit houses.
After all of this discussion, I confess that my fascination with the elegance of the explanation was warring with my desire to go hide under the bed, or as Horgan puts it, start stockpiling food, guns, and ammo on a remote location close to a reliable water supply, and Homer-Dixon does say that he was moved to write the book as he realized that more and more of the individual specialists in the various disciplines whose research is brought to bear in this sort of multidisciplinary approach were increasingly pessimistic. In the end, though, my fascination won out (abetted somewhat by the reiteration of the conclusion that becoming a survivalist, aside from being deeply creepy, is unlikely to work).
Homer-Dixon makes the point that our best bet is to solve the problem (since hiding from it both has real risk of failing as a strategy and sacrifices a good deal of what makes life worth living), and while he pulls no punches about how severe the problem is, he does think that given widespread and real recognition of how profound the challenge is, that we probably can solve it. It will take an enormous and multifarious effort, but we've made such efforts before, and they've succeeded. We do have problem-solving resources at our disposal that we've never had before, if we will decide to use them.
The stakes are at least as high now as they've been for previous such national projects. Unlike the "war on terror" that we've been being told was so desperate a conflict for the last several years, this actually is an existential threat, according to Homer-Dixon, maybe the most serious the species has ever faced. We are probably too late to prevent the impacts of a number of shocks to the systems we rely on already, but we may not yet be too late to keep everyone from falling of the mountain, as long as we get busy immediately, both trying to solve the problem and preparing for the cultural and sociological shocks it will cause.
We'd better get busy. If we don't, someday there may be some distant future scholars trying to figure out how so large and powerful a civilization managed to collapse so quickly, just as we look at Mayan ruins, Anasazi pueblos at Chaco canyon, or the heads of Easter Island. Or they may be arguing about a society they know a little more about, the way we discuss ancient Rome. The worst case, of course, is that there is nobody left to wonder at all.
I saw an interesting conversation on one of my favorite sites, Bloggingheads.tv, between the New Republic’s Jonathan Chait and Ross Douthat of Atlantic Monthly and the National Review. As most bloggingheads exchanges (“diavlogs”) are, this one was pretty wide-ranging in focus, but there was one part of it that was particularly thought provoking.
In a discussion of the relative political strengths of John McCain and Barack Obama, Douthat made the case that there was more substance than Chait credits to the “character” votes of those who were swayed by conservative populism. Moreover, he said that even in regard to issues, the public voted on character.
He used as an example, the votes for George Bush in 2004, which he said were driven by an assessment that Bush would be tougher on terrorism than Kerry would be. Chait pointed out that there had been no difference between the two candidates’ stated positions and hence no real reason to suppose this would be true, and Douthat mentioned Bush’s rhetoric indicated to voters that he would be the one "tough enough to waterboard the second in command of Al Qaeda". When Chait noted that nobody knew in 2004 that the US was in the business of waterboarding or otherwise torturing its prisoners, Douthat conceded that was so, but asserted that voters were still voting for someone tough enough to torture, even in advance of that knowledge.
It seems to me that this is mostly right, and the fear of terror campaign that formed the central premise of the Republican pitch in the 2004 election succeeded in large part because Republican strategists correctly evaluated the inclination of the public to err on the side of zealotry in pursuit of terrorists.
Where I think (and fervently hope) Douthat is wrong is that he thinks this inclination persists to this day, and makes McCain a stronger candidate than Obama. Oddly, I think that’s partly because he’s right that enough Americans in 2004 were willing to vote for someone "tough enough" to torture someone before they knew he had actually authorized torturing people. It’s much easier to conceive of the world as an episode of 24 while you’re still talking about hypothetical situations, and Jack Bauer is much more appealing as a fictional character than as an actual loose cannon running around on the streets of American cities, particularly when you begin to recognize that the real world doesn’t come in the same Manichean certainties that abound in moronic TV scripts and Bush (and McCain) foreign policy statements.
Once you realize that actual torturers can flow from this sort of fear-based policy, it becomes entirely plausible that it's actually "tougher" to find some other way to preserve the society of which we have been justly proud for generations than to eviscerate its principles from the inside by torturing people.