Saturday, February 28, 2009

Liberals and Terrorism

Among liberals, there is a widely held belief that says that while 9/11 was a horrible act, and that there is no excuse for those who perpetrated it, the United States is not free of all blame. Those who follow this line of thought think that the 9/11 attacks were a response to America’s foreign policy, and we would be well advised to take a look at those causes. As NIC chairman Chas Freeman said “[A]nd what of America’s lack of introspection about September 11? Instead of asking what might have caused the attack, or questioning the propriety of the national response to it, there is an ugly mood of chauvinism. Before Americans call on others to examine themselves, we should examine ourselves.”

First, it’s worth noting that the idea that 9/11 was motivated by U.S. foreign policy is one of the most blindingly obvious suggestions imaginable. Of course 9/11 was due to anger over American foreign policy—that’s hardly a major revelation. Nobody needs to ask themselves what caused 9/11—it was caused by anger over America’s power and (it must be said) arrogance in foreign policy. (Were there other reasons? Of course, but I think that that one works for a simple analysis).

So most people can agree that America’s foreign policy was responsible, at least in large part, for 9/11. The question is: what should we do with that information?

Most liberals appear to think that America should take this information and alter our foreign policy in response. If we know why terrorists strike, and change in response, terrorism will cease (or at least slow) because the pool of potential terrorists will dry up due to lack of incentive.

Further, this line of thought gives terrorists some degree of moral equivalence with America. After all, America has been guilty of crimes as well—Palestine, Serbia, Iraq. (Are those instances actually examples of American wrongdoing? They are for many liberals, and definitely for radical Muslims). So the difference between 9/11 and U.S. foreign policy is one of degree, but not type. (In fairness, the difference in degree here is incalculably large).

This theory is unsound. Assume, for the moment, that American foreign policy is flawed. Should we really change it as a response to mass murder? That would seem to provide an incentive for terrorists. After all, if a proper response to terrorism is to “examine ourselves” (in the words of Chas Freeman), terrorism would be a pretty effective policy persuasion tool.

Has America always been blameless? No, and Americans should constantly examine their country’s actions. But that examination should be done as a part of the democratic process, and not in response to the murderous actions of terrorists.

But even apart from the incentive factor, changing U.S. policy in response to terrorism serves to legitimatize terrorism. “Chauvinism,” at least to some degree, is the proper response to terrorism. When faced with a terrorist attack, the question should never be “what do they want?” Rather, it should be “how might this sort of thing be prevented?”

Liberals, at least most liberals, seem incapable of understanding that point. They try to assign as little blame as possible on the mindset that caused 9/11. This is probably an example of the intense Amerocentrism common on the Left—the idea that the U.S. is responsible for everything, good or bad, that goes on in the world. Since 9/11 was a major world event, leftists can’t imagine that it could possibly be the result of forces beyond U.S. control.

This attitude towards terrorism is destructive, not to mention stupid. It gives terrorists the two things they want most: power and legitimacy. And that isn’t the foundation for an effective anti-terror policy.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Improve the Message, Not the Messenger

After the Republican defeats in 2006 and 2008, the GOP came to the realization that it lagged far behind the Democratic party when it came to circulating its message. The Democrats had a well-organized network of online activists and an active blogosphere, which combined to spread Democrat talking points. The Republicans had…not much—a few blogs that had half the audience that the liberal ones had, and that spent as much time attacking Republicans as Democrats.

So Democrats had a clear online advantage. This translated into a powerful edge in the election—Barack Obama got millions more from online donations than John McCain did. Obama’s website was a useful networking site for his supporters, while McCain’s was a typical campaign site.

After the election, Republicans looked at the online situation and decided that things needed to change. So Republican and conservative strategists started planning for online domination—Facebook groups, strategy blogs, protest websites. The idea is that conservatives and Republicans (the two aren’t always mutually inclusive) will have an efficient online network in the Democrat model, making organization and party-building much easier. An added bonus is an expected increase in support from young people.

There are two problems with this strategy. The first: it follows the liberal model too closely. True, the liberal blogosphere has been extremely valuable to the Democratic party (though I think that perhaps its import has been exaggerated), and it’s obvious that the Internet will play an increasingly important role in politics.

But the Internet is constantly changing, constantly evolving. What is cool on the Internet now may be utterly passé in a year. Just four years ago, Republicans had the upper hand in the blogosphere—in well under a year, the balance of power utterly changed. A year ago, the Daily Kos was getting presidential candidates at its yearly convention—now, Time magazine has declared the Daily Kos nothing more than a collection of DNC talking points. Just two years ago, MySpace was the online place to be—now everyone who’s anyone has a Facebook.

So given the rapid pace of change on the Internet, the model the GOP is trying to follow may be totally outdated in just months. Republicans should look to the future for inspiration, instead of the past; they should be trying to adopt the Internet 2.0 as their model, instead of doing what has already been done.

The second reason the Republican online effort is misguided: they are putting the messengers before the message. Imagine that the RNC’s website was just as attractive and useful as the DNC’s is; pretend that Redstate and The Next Right were as attractive and interesting as the Daily Kos; say that there were an abundance of opportunities for Republicans to volunteer and network.

It would all still be totally worthless without a good, strong message. Building a great communications network without a strong message is like sticking a wonderful luxury hotel in Wyoming—there’s just not much you can do with it. And even if Republicans have the best network in the world, the party would be just as moribund as it is now if there isn’t an equally strong message to go with it.

If the message is good, if people respond to it, it will get out somehow. It’s possible to extend the reach of that message through technology, and doing so is important (as the success of the Democratic party has shown). But the strength of the message is the most important factor. As I think it’s hard to say that the decade-old, recycled bromides the Republicans have been spouting since Obama’s election constitutes a good message. And neither does constantly mentioning Joe Plumber. If Republicans want to be taken seriously, they will have to improve the message before enhancing the messenger.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Advancing Conservatism: Is It Possible?

Imagine, for the moment, the following scenario. It’s 2012. Bobby Jindal has just been elected with 61% of the vote. The Republicans have taken a filibuster proof majority in the Senate, and have a forty seat advantage in the House. Also, assume that all these Republican Congressmen are staunch conservatives—there aren’t any “RINOs” here. (This isn’t a very likely scenario). So Republicans have both a near total control of the government and a national mandate.

What would they do? How would they change the country? I don’t know what they’d do to advance a really conservative agenda. And worse, I can’t even begin to imagine what they could do to advance that agenda. Reform Social Security? Roll back the welfare state? Reduce the ease of abortion? Is there anyone, even the most optimistic conservative, who actually thinks that it would be possible for the Republican party to make a meaningful difference on any of those issues?

If so, they are very wrong, because the GOP has tried to do all of those things in the recent past. In 1996, congressional Republicans—with a great deal of controversy and trouble—managed to pass the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act. It was hailed as a great victory for Republicans.

And what did this bill change? Most importantly, it decreed that welfare wasn’t an entitlement program. And it put limits on the amount of federal aid individuals could receive. (No federal aid for more than two consecutive or five total years). And it tried to discourage out-of-wedlock births.

All good things, to be sure. But hardly enough to start rolling back the New Deal or Great Society. This bill didn’t slow down the advance of government in the least—it merely made government welfare smarter and more effective. And while that is good, that sort of thing won’t create a classically conservative nation.

Reform Social Security? George W. Bush pushed for a plan that would give Americans more flexibility regarding Social Security. The plan would have let workers open investment accounts, which would serve as a substitute for Social Security payments. Not drastic stuff (certainly nowhere near ending the program). But voters were horrified, and the notion was quickly dropped.

Ending abortion? Bush appointed constructionist Supreme Court justices, and has appointed mostly conservative judges to the lower courts as well. And Republicans have done what they could to reduce abortion for years—repealing the Mexico City policy and passing parental notification laws. Yet the status of abortion in the United States is nearly identical to what it was forty years ago. The abortion rate is similar, and it is every bit as easy to get an abortion (easier, really) now than it was then.

All three of these efforts weren’t (in the big picture) very effective. But they represented the best the Republican party could do. Why couldn’t the GOP do more to push back liberalism? Quite simply, because liberal (or statist) policies have become so ingrained the U.S. (and all Western democracies) that they now represent the status quo; the default setting for political debate. It would be literally impossible to push them back—about as difficult as it would be to abolish Congress.

But if Social Security, Medicare, and the rest of Big Government aren’t going away, what are conservatives to do? Most conservative thought assumes a universe where, if conservatives work hard and make progress, it would be possible to create a truly conservative (low taxes, low welfare, low regulation) state.

If we assume (and I think it’s a safe assumption) that this isn’t possible, what are conservatives to do? The first option is to keep trying, which is a noble but quixotic policy doomed to failure. The second option is to accept big government as a fait accompli and try to make it work unintrusively and efficiently, which would spell the end of conservatism as we know it. Neither option is good—but conservatives have to choose either one or the other.

And a semantic point: it there a bigger misnomer in politics than “conservatism?” Whatever conservatives are trying to “conserve” passed away before the last World War, if indeed it ever existed, and it probably didn’t. Liberalism is the status quo, and leftists are the true conservatives.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Holder Was Right

Eric Holder couldn’t have wanted to be involved in a fairly major controversy within a month of his appointment as Attorney General. If he could, he would probably modify his remarks at an African American History Month event, where he said that
“though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards. Though race related issues continue to occupy a significant portion of our political discussion, and though there remain many unresolved racial issues in this nation, we, average Americans, simply do not talk enough with each other about race. …As a nation we have done a pretty good job in melding the races in the workplace. We work with one another, lunch together and, when the event is at the workplace during work hours or shortly thereafter, we socialize with one another fairly well, irrespective of race. And outside the workplace the situation is even more bleak in that there is almost no significant interaction between us. On Saturdays and Sundays America in the year 2009 does not, in some ways, differ significantly from the country that existed some fifty years ago. This is truly sad.”


Drudge highlighted the speech, so it got a lot of publicity and came in from criticism from the usual suspects. Jonah Goldberg wrote a column condemning the “nation of cowards” line (though he later revised his criticism after reading the entire text). The conservative blogosphere exploded. Even Maureen Dowd wrote a column criticizing Holder, saying that we “don’t need sermons from liberal virtuecrats, any more than from conservative virtuecrats.”

It’s too bad Holder is coming in for all this criticism, because he happens to be absolutely correct. Racial attitudes in the United States are as bad (or worse) as Holder paints them. Regarding race, America is a nation of cowards, and there are many, many unresolved racial issues in this nation. Holder shouldn’t be condemned—he should be praised for his honest and clear-sighted view of our racial politics.

Is America a racial nation of cowards? Indisputably, yes. The last great racial discussion revolved around the question of whether it was racist for the New York Post to publish a cartoon showing a chimp being shot. Admittedly, a minor controversy (it’ll be forgotten in a month), but it is a good example of America’s racial dialogue.

The last major racial discussion before Chimpgate (the question of whether Obama’s election signaled the advent of a post racial America) started with uncharacteristic intelligence. But that couldn’t last—by the end of the election, Obama supporters were accusing the Republican party in general, and Sarah Palin in particular, of being racist, while conservatives threw the reverse racism tag around every bit as wildly and unfairly as their liberal counterparts.

The last major racial debate before Obama? Don Imus. Before that? Trent Lott.
And neither of this gaffes were the stuff of intelligent racial dialogue—in both cases, Americans were forced to assume outrage at slips of the tongue, if a cruel and insensitive slip in Imus’ case. Holder was generous to call Americans “cowards” when it comes to race—I think “idiots” might work better.

Lost in the furors over Imus and the Post and Lott is the obvious but little spoken truth that America is de facto segregated, and that in practice, racial interaction has changed little in the past fifty years. (Racial attitudes, on the other hand, have changed considerably).

Blacks and whites, for the most apart, live entirely segregated lives. In most places, it is possible tell exactly where the white part of town ends and the black section begins. Blacks and whites listen to different music, speak differently, and rarely intermarry.

In addition, they usually have separate jobs. Blacks tend to hold lower income blue-collar jobs, while whites have jobs across the economic spectrum, but concentrated in middle and upper middle class positions.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that America’s race relations follow a separate but equal policy. African-Americans are free to marry anyone they want, go anywhere they want to, vote, and participate fully in American culture. But they don’t—instead, black culture exists as a subculture sharply segregated from the American mainstream.

The solution to this problem? Holder vaguely mentioned impromptu interracial discussions through artificial opportunities to engage one another, a solution so shallow and ineffective that I can’t believe that even Holder really thinks it would work. (Perhaps he is afraid to suggest anything more controversial—perhaps he can be included in the “nation of cowards”) Others think that that black race hustlers like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are to blame for America’s voluntary segregation, but it seems unlikely that many people, black or white, take their social cues from Al Sharpton.

The real reason for this phenomenon, I think, is that America has a long history of segregation, and that history cannot be eradicated in one generation, or even many generations. It will be a long time before blacks and whites fulfill Martin Luther King’s dream, if they do, and the sad truth is that there is little either government or societal leaders can do to expedite King’s vision.

Monday, February 9, 2009

On Hiatus

For the past few weeks, I’ve only been able to write four posts, instead of my usual five. My posts have been shorter, and it’s been hard to find stuff to write about. Usually, finding a topic is the easy part, but lately it’s been a real chore.

I think I’m burned out. I’ve been blogging pretty consistently for almost two years. I’m tired of blogging every day, and I think my writing has suffered because of it. So I’m taking a break. Just a short one, just two weeks, then I’ll start back in. I think this will be a net plus—in the short run, I’ll lose some readers, but I think the break will improve the blog in the long run.

I’ll start blogging again on the 23rd of February. I’ll try to enjoy my break, and come back again better than ever.

Thanks,

Daniel Ruwe

P.S. My email address is danielruwe@yahoo.com. If you email me, I'll send you an email reminding you when I start blogging again.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Did Palin hurt McCain?

As Obama starts his presidency, people wonder about the fate of the other memorable politician of the 2008 election, Sarah Palin. She divides opinion like no other political figure since Hillary Clinton—liberals see her existence as a symptom of everything wrong with the Republican party, while most conservatives are fiercely protective of her and see Palin as their best hope for the future. But both sides have one thing in common—everyone is trying to understand the phenomenon that is Sarah Palin.

In order to understand Palin, it is crucial to get the facts straight. It seems to now be accepted as incontrovertible fact among liberals that Palin hurt John McCain’s candidacy, and was (and is) a major liability to the Republican party.

First, exit polls indicated that Palin was not a liability for McCain. (Though the accuracy of exit polls is very, very doubtful). About sixty percent of voters said she impacted their decision, and more (though not that many more) of those voters voted for McCain than Barack Obama. So it isn’t as if Sarah Palin drove many voters away from McCain.

The real reason for McCain’s defeat was the economy. (At least, the economy sealed his fate—the election was always an uphill battle for him, and he very well could have lost even in a bull market). The economy started to worsen in the middle of September. John McCain announced that he was suspending his campaign to deal with the economic crisis on September 24th. It was on September 26th that McCain fell out of the margin of error in the Rasmussen tracking poll, and never recovered.

In retrospect, it seems that one of John McCain’s fatal blunders was his decision to suspend his campaign to try to fix the financial mess. When he announced his decision, I wrote that “[s]uspending his campaign is a bold move by McCain; one that will either succeed spectacularly or fail miserably.” It seems safe to say that it failed miserably. John McCain lost because of the economic collapse, not because he picked Sarah Palin to be his running mate.

So why does the media focus on Palin’s role in McCain’s loss? Because Palin’s story was the most (or one of the most) interesting narrative of the election, and too many in the media would rather focus on an interesting story than an accurate one. It is much more interesting to attribute McCain’s loss to his selection of an inexperienced, attractive hockey mom than to boring economic issues.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Governing: It's Harder Than It Looks

In 2006, Nancy Pelosi promised that the newly elected Democratic Congress would be the “most ethical in history.” It wasn’t. After Pelosi and the Democrats took Congress, Washington corruption didn’t end. William Jefferson became infamous for hiding cash in his freezer. Pork projects continued abated—in fact, the Democrats introduced even more of them.

Likewise, when Barack Obama ran in 2008, he promised that his administration would renounce the corruption and dishonesty he saw in the Bush Administration, and would usher in a new pragmatic, whatever works era of government. (In contrast to George Bush’s “unconscionable ineptitude.”) If Bush represented old Washington politics (greed before accountability, and partisanship before efficiency), Obama represented the new—he was supposed to bring integrity and efficiency to Washington.

Thing is, though, Obama hasn’t been able to bring either quality to government. A simply staggering proportion of his cabinet choices are guilty of some ethical lapse. Obama’s first choice for Secretary of Commerce, Bill Richardson, was forced to step down after being caught up in a “pay-for-play” scandal similar to that of former Illinois Rod Blagovich. Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner neglected to pay Social Security and Medicare taxes for years. Tom Daschle managed to “forget” to pay over $100,000 worth of taxes on a limo service, which forced him to withdraw his nomination. (And made Obama admit he “screwed up.”) And his proposed chief performance officer, Nancy Killefer, was also forced to withdraw her candidacy after embarrassing tax issues came to light.

(And, of course, there is the issue of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. Her work with her husband’s foundation would seem to indicate some severe conflicts of interest—but after years of Clinton corruption, Congress seems to have thrown up its hands and simply nominated her without a fight).

Sometimes it seems as though Obama didn’t even bother to vet these candidates. But he did—he must have. (Although given that his goal was to hit the ground running with his Cabinet already assembled, his vetting must have been rushed.) But governing is harder than it looks—and corrupt politicians are good at getting away with dishonesty. Obama didn’t want to nominate dishonest people for his cabinet, and the fact he did was due more to inexcusable, if inevitable, human error than calculated malfeasance. But Obama promised more than that—he promised a totally open, honest administration—and he has been unable to deliver.

Similarly, Obama hasn’t been able to deliver on his promises of a competent, efficient government. One of the reasons he tried to rush his Cabinet nominees through was so that he could hit the ground running and pass a stimulus bill quickly. (In fact, there was some hope that Congress could have a bill ready for him to sign his first day in office). Obama made passing his stimulus bill quickly a priority. And he has utterly failed.

In Keynesian economics, the fact that money is spent at all during hard times is much more important than where the money goes. (Keynes even went so far as to declare that it is better for the government to waste money during recessions than to not spend it.) But Obama got a little carried away, or rather let his allies in Congress get carried away. Spending $hundreds of million on new roads is something most Americans can support. Spending that money on contraception funding, however…not so much.

What does Obama’s failure tell us? That governing is hard. The opposition party has no executive responsibilities, meaning that it can stonewall and agitate without having to come up with its own solutions. (Think the Republicans would be so strongly opposed to the stimulus if they were the ones in power?). In addition to placating the Republicans, Obama must also satisfy his own Democrats. And of course he has also got to keep the base enthusiastic, the middle content, and the opposition placated. It’s not an easy job. And so far, Obama hasn’t been very good at it.

The Man of Steele

Last Monday, Michael Steele was elected chairman of the Republican National Committee. Most of the media attention focused on his race (black), with a lot of comparisons being made with Barack Obama’s election of President of the United State. And as with Obama, it’s hard not to be at least a little inspired that the leaders of both major political parties are black men; men who only sixty years ago would have had trouble simply voting.

But Michael Steele is more than just a black face. His vision of the RNC is fundamentally different from that of former chairmen. Mike Duncan, Steele’s predecessor, saw raising money as his primary goal. Directing the ideology and strategy of the Republican party came second.

Not so with Steele. He sees himself as the public face (or at least one of the major public faces), of the Republican party. He means to shape the party over the course of his tenure—emphasize winning issues and candidates, and weed out those issues and candidates that aren’t attracting voters. Steele will do his best to remake the Republican party.

Is this is a good thing? It can be. Putting men like Steele in positions of power is a high risk, high reward gamble. If Steele’s ideas work, the Republican party will be incalculably stronger. But if they don’t—if he turns voters off and can’t rally the Republican base—his tenure will be a disaster.

Mike Duncan was a safe pick—he was very good at fundraising, but stayed in the background and didn’t rock the boat much. Steele isn’t as safe. But given where the Republican party is politically, I think picking someone like Steele is the way to go. And given Steele’s past record, his chances of success are reasonably good.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Yelling "Stop"

As Barack Obama begins his occupancy of the White House, conservatives are rallying around and attempting to heed William F. Buckley’s example and “stand athwart history yelling ‘stop’.” They are seeking to stop Obama from instituting a sort of European style quasisocialism, and to prevent liberal style collectivist values from becoming entrenched in law.

That’s a worthy goal. But also one that is, in the long run, futile. Eventually, leftism must prevail. Conservatism as we know it cannot hold it back forever.

The reason for this is that all (or virtually all; the exceptions are few enough to be ignored) people do believe that greed is good. People want money: the most money for the least amount of work. And it is a whole lot easier to just vote yourself money instead of going to all the trouble to work for it. That explains why government programs are so popular. They might not be particularly efficient. But it is quite often more efficient to get an inferior product for free than to have to pay for a superior one.

(And yes, government programs are free. Unless you happen to be in the top, say, five percent of wage earners, you’re probably not paying for any significant chunk of government aid. The wealthiest one percent alone account for about a third of tax revenues—the average taxpayer’s dollars are a drop in the bucket).

The history of the United States bears this fact out. The Founding Fathers were the quintessential small-government libertarians—they were afraid that giving the federal government an army would give it too much power. So they designed a government to make it nearly impossible for the federal government to get too much control.

The Articles of Confederation didn’t work so well. So they tried again, and gave the federal government a bit more power with the Constitution. Although the federal government had much more power under the new model, it was still pretty limited. But as soon as it was enacted, the federal government started growing. In the beginning, the federal government didn’t even have a navy. Next thing you know, it’s fighting the Barbary pirates and starting a national bank and regulating commerce and ratifying the Fourteenth Amendment and declaring a military draft and the next thing you know, the Great Depression starts. And then government really took off.

During the Depression, the government started managing the economy and retirement. And to pay for all that, it raised tax rates to a nigh-confiscatory level (especially after World War II). Then came the Great Society, where the federal government set its eye on eradicating poverty, and set about reforming healthcare. And then…you get the idea.

The point of all this is that all of these expansions of government were driven by one common factor: the will of the voters. The common people wanted a national bank, and Social Security, and Medicare. These things weren’t forced on them overnight—people asked for them. The most popular presidents have been those who expanded government the most. (Hebert Hoover and Calvin Coolidge are not remembered as particularly good presidents. Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt are. Guess which ones expanded government more.) Big government is a key tenet of liberalism—but is driven by the demands of the common man.

And no one wants to lose anything coming to him. That’s why conservatives have been so completely incapable of rolling back any welfare programs. The people want their free money—and they won’t stand for anyone taking it from them.

Most people, nowadays, assume that democracy is the perfect form of government and to suggest otherwise is simple lunacy. (Personally, I agree with Winston Churchill: democracy is the worst form of government—except for all the others). But many philosophers have pointed out that in a democracy, there is little or nothing to prevent the people from voting themselves whatever they wish. And that is a weakness of democracy—the American democratic experiment is a perfect example of this.

Conservatism has been defined as “standing athwart history yelling ‘stop’”. But history doesn’t stop. It is possible to slow it down—conservatives have done an excellent job of doing so over the past half century. But in the end, all their efforts are ultimately doomed to failure.