Is a general theory of conservatism possible?

I’m catching up on Krugman’s NYT blog and my mind got stuck on this. It’s easy and lazy to invent personal faults as scapegoats for political policy and ideology that you don’t like and don’t understand. Building a model that analyzes and predicts that behavior is a little more involved than that.

Krugman, via Josh Barro, notes that Republicans don’t seem to have a policy for how to deal with recessions:

As [Barro] says, GOP policy prescriptions – deregulate, cut spending (especially on the poor), and cut taxes (on the rich) – are the same when unemployment is above 9 percent as when it is below 5.

Conservative policies being driven by doctrine rather than practical concerns explains that easily enough, but is there more to it than that?

Krugman thinks so, and I agree with him:

Why would someone really smart … reject the very notion of a failure of aggregate demand? The answer has to be political – the sense that acknowledging that markets fail, ever, would be the thin edge of the wedge for liberal policies.

This is one piece of what may be a sort of general theory of modern conservatism. Here’s another from Julian Sanchez in 2010 (I strongly urge reading the entire piece):

One of the more striking features of the contemporary conservative movement is the extent to which it has been moving toward epistemic closure. Reality is defined by a multimedia array of interconnected and cross promoting conservative blogs, radio programs, magazines, and of course, Fox News. Whatever conflicts with that reality can be dismissed out of hand because it comes from the liberal media, and is therefore ipso facto not to be trusted. (How do you know they’re liberal? Well, they disagree with the conservative media!) […]

Rather, it’s that anything that breaks down the tacit equivalence between “critic of conservatives” and “wicked liberal smear artist” undermines the effectiveness of the entire information filter.  If disagreement is not in itself evidence of malign intent or moral degeneracy, people start feeling an obligation to engage it sincerely–maybe even when it comes from the New York Times.

If any of this is true, it can’t just apply in a vacuum. The inability or unwillingness of conservatives to propose different economic policies for different economic conditions is too close to the id to not apply in other areas. The explanation is probably wrong if it doesn’t.

The question then is can a model be built that cogently explains these things in retrospect, while also being capable of explaining everything else without prior examination.

Some sort of self-definition by alienation and isolation seems likely, but it’s not a new argument that conservatives don’t have any true core principals, that they define themselves by what they oppose rather than what they stand for. That “model” falls apart when applied to cultural issues like abortion and contraception, policies often justified by association (religion) rather than exclusion.

Yet epistemic closure and the inability of conservatives to acknowledge and deal with recessions on a policy level both point in that direction.

Republicans invented almost all of Obamacare yet oppose it in the strongest terms. The last time a small business tax cut plan came up in Congress from Democrats, Republicans filibustered it despite demanding it in prior months and years.

Both of those things can be explained by the recession policy problem if you expand it a little bit, the sense that acknowledging that government can do something good, ever, “would be the thin edge of the wedge for liberal policies.” When you define right and wrong by who does something or where it came from, rather than what it is on the merits, it’s not illogical to support something today and then oppose it completely tomorrow.

Alienation (rejection of anything from the outside) and isolation (empowerment through separatism) seem like key components, but there’s something missing here. Maybe more than one thing. If a thing like social conservatism can’t be incorporated then the theory/model is junk. But I don’t feel like this is junk.

I think there’s enough here to say that Republicans don’t govern on a pragmatic level, which is really, really bad when it comes to running a government. The question is why.

Paul Tenny

Paul Tenny

I'm not a journalist but I do it anyway. I cover elections and have interviewed television writers and producers.
Paul Tenny

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