Tuesday, September 16, 2008

What's The Matter With (Ar)Kansas? The Perils of Palin and Conservative Myopia

The recent outpouring of admiration amongst conservatives for Sarah Palin isn't surprising. In a Republican Party where heretics are regularly threatened and excommunicated for the mildest deviations, the ascension of an independent-minded, cultural conservative from one of the most non-cosmopolitan places in the United States is a welcome sign indeed.

Though she has been criticized by politicians and pundits for her inexperience, the fact is that Palin has long been a principled advocate for her family, town and state. As a woman with tangible personal attachments to her hard right positions on God and guns, the Alaska Governor is arguably as good a public figure the Republican Party might find to represent the principled, small town conservatism of family, faith and flag.

Or is she?

During the Republican presidential primaries there was another candidate from a small town and from a state that could be defined as "middle American" with similar conservative credentials. Like Palin, he had an impeccable, consistent record on both right-to-life and Second Amendment issues. A former man of the cloth, he was a strong, folksy public speaker, with an outside-the-beltway mindset that appealed to the populist sensibilities of his Southern and Christian voting base. Nonetheless, Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee garnered little support from traditionalists and virtually no support from paleoconservatives even when he was the last man standing in the way of a John McCain nomination.

The typical mainstream media portrayal of Huckabee was that of a dopey hick from the Ozarks who had stumbled his way into a high-stakes presidential race by virtue of his religiosity in a party popularly perceived as being dominated by a "religious Right." In reality, of course, Huckabee's public disavowal of the theory of evolution and his comparison of abortion to slavery were as embarrassing to the GOP as they were buffoonish to the New York Times.

While Huckabee's down-to-earth speaking style and status as a Christian leader were no doubt factors, his initial success had more to do with his attachment to the Fair Tax than it did to his position on the Virgin birth. In the lead-up to the Iowa Caucus, Huckabee was out of money and almost totally devoid of staff or advertising. His campaign adopted a "follow the leader" strategy as Huckabee followed the Fair Tax caravan to multiple events and meetings. Again, one can bet the Wall Street Journal crowd were not appreciative of Huckabee's populist sympathies and his Republican opponents spent more time dismissing the Fair Tax than not.

I am not a supporter a national sales tax nor did I support the campaign of Governor Huckabee in the Republican primaries. Nonetheless, the same anti-establishment, populist and grassroots themes that attracted Huckabee supporters are the same qualities the same crowd seems to admire in Sarah Palin.

In the words of an unidentified Robert Taft supporter, speaking of the 1952 primary season, these voters are "the vanishing Americans, pushed around by big business, big labor, big government and big military." The enemy is the bigness of the American Empire, and while they are not exactly opponents of it, they are not actively part of its machinery either.

What many see in Huckabee and now Palin is authenticity and a sense of place that other American political figures lack. The willingness of both candidates to buck the party elites in a direction that reflects the will of their constituencies and not the will of their donors is something that seems wholly unique in today's political culture. In large part, this explains the prior success of Huckabee, though it does not explain his failure to build a broad coalition, something Palin seems to have had no trouble doing.

To be fair, Huckabee had many disadvantages that Palin does not have. For starters he is not an attractive woman and mother of five. More importantly however, Huckabee had competition for the job he was seeking; Palin was given hers in large part because of who she is.

During the GOP primary campaign, the candidacies of Duncan Hunter and Tom Tancredo held more credibility with Christian conservatives worried about immigration and trade than anything Huckabee was offering. Tracking farther right (and farther into the grassroots) most anti-war, small government paleoconservatives rallied around the Ron Paul phenomenon, myself included.

Even the pragmatic wing of the conservative movement failed to rally around Huckabee. Instead, they came out in favor of the quintessential Eastern elite candidacy of technocratic ex-governor Mitt Romney (who was both metropolitan and metrosexual). Though former pastor Huckabee did have supporters in certain religious circles and publications, he was never the choice of movement conservatives and even when they were despairing over the possibility of a McCain nomination, the Right showed little interest in rallying to Huckabee in the hopes of placing a roadblock before the "Straight Talk Express."

Now the same folks who attacked Huckabee as a "liberal" for promoting America First public works projects and showing Christian mercy in the commutation of criminals serving lengthy sentences in Arkansas prisons, are rallying to the cause of a woman who supported the "economic nationalist" Pat Buchanan for President, and has no known record on immigration or trade.

Though conservatism is non-ideological, it is intimately attached to the concept of "first principles" as a building block to all political, cultural and social action. First steps are good steps, but the fear of co-option is real, and must be guarded against at all costs.

The fact that someone as culturally conservative and politically unconventional as Mike Huckabee was able to get as far as he did in the race for the Republican nomination is undoubtedly a good sign for the traditionalist conservatives. So is the ascension of Sarah Palin.

But if one could not support Huckabee during the primary because he was wrong on the war, wishy-washy on immigration and soft on the welfare state - how can one now support the presidential candidacy of the archetypical neoconservative simply because his choice for vice president might be incrementally better than the average GOP representative?

Conservatives have long championed a return to "realism" in the foreign policy arena even as a misguided "realism" in the electoral arena has consistently left them with unsatisfying candidates and unfulfilled policy proposals. The Vice Presidential nomination of Sarah Palin is not a departure from this trend, but rather its most recent fulfillment.


GCU Prosthetic Conscience said...

Though conservatism is non-ideological, it is intimately attached to the concept of "first principles" as a building block to all political, cultural and social action.

I'm sorry, but I simply can't accept the characterization of conservatism as non-ideological. I may agree that conservatism is mystified (in the Marxist sense) so that it does not appear ideological, but really, conservatism is the original ideology.

Daniel McCarthy said...

The other part of the sentence GCU cites is also problematic: as I was aware when I was involved in setting up ISI's web journal, "First Principles" is not actually a conservative concept. "First principles" -- which happens to be the name of a work by Herbert Spencer, among other things -- implies the construction of philosophical (or political?) systems on a rational basis. It's abstract and aprioristic. Not that that's necessarily wrong -- I'd argue that in many fields, first principles are right and indispensable -- but traditionalist conservatism is usually based on taking the world as it is, not constructing systems from rationally conceived first principles. There are few conservatives, however, who think things through carefully enough to realize this.

Dylan Waco said...

Both points are relevant and important.

To Dan's point, I think in large part the collapse of the conservative movement is linked to the collapse of realism as the guiding perspective of its adherents and leaders. To be fair I'm not sure "realists" were ever the dominant strain at the top of the policy heap, but they were at least involved in the discussion and often had the loudest, must trusted voices. Now they arguably have less traction than non-interventionists do.

As for "first principles," I can't disagree with your point and in large part you have simply expanded upon the argument I was trying to make. That said the roots of conservatism lay in a commitment to community, tradition and culture. The absorption of relativist thinking within the "movement" is one of the more obvious telltale signs of conservative capitulation to the worst attitudes and antics of corporate liberalism. Absent some attachment to "first principles", or at least some concept of "original sin", I don't see how any conservative, decentralist, traditionalist or libertarian movement can gain any traction..and again I say this as someone who agrees with the crux of your argument.

Regarding Jason's point, while I would have a hard time defending the argument that todays "conservatives" are not ideologues of the worst sort, the original American conservative intellectuals were remarkably anti-ideological in their writings and commitments. I am not just parroting Kirk in making this assessment, but rather pointing to words of Kirk, Weaver, Nisbet, et. In fact this lack of ideology at times confuses folks attempting to explore the conservative canon, a fact that has become readily apparent to me in a post-Paul campaign universe. To be frank it may be a weakness of conservatism in a post-modern world (lord I hate that term).

The Old Right is a different matter of course.

Michael said...

I cannot really comment on this blog's central issue, that of Palin's nomination, but as for conservatism being ideological, the way I understand the term is as a system of ideas all having their root in and all being corollaries of a central idea. I do not think this describes conservatism, because the movement has always shunned new innovating ideas for what experience has taught. It might be true to say that conservatism has acted as a frictive against new ideas, in favor of what has emerged through history as tried and true. Richard Weaver's book is called Ideas Have Consequences, not Bad Ideas Have Consequences But Good Ideas Are Okay. Moreover, most ideologies are abstract and theoretical in nature, lacking real application. To add to this, an ideologue is often unapologetic about his belief system, and yet a conservative admits that nothing in the world -- including tradition -- can be perfect. Conservatives don't claim that traditional ways are ideal or perfected, just that they are the best ways that are possible. It may seem like a slight distinction, but it is an important one.

GCU Prosthetic Conscience said...

Re: Dylan, I think we are probably using the term ideology in different senses. I do take the point (that Michael elaborates on) that traditional conservatism is about human imperfectability, and if you take ideology to be a blueprint for a perfect world, traditional conservatism is not ideological. But I'm used to using the term in the broader sense of a "political worldview;" a way of looking at human relations that explains why they are the way the are, and why they should or shouldn't change.

But more specifically, the dominant ideology is the political worldview that "naturalizes" present conditions, and makes them appear to be inevitable consequences of the way the world is. In that sense, traditional conservatism is the original ideology, that served to rationalize the inequalities of the age when it was the dominant ideology (which it no longer is, of course -- that would be neoliberalism).

In the broader sense of the term, it's not bad for something to be an ideology. You'd more or less have to not think about the world around you in order to not have an ideology.

nrobyar said...

I think the testament to Huckabee's success is that he got as far as he did in SPITE of lack of support from conservative leaders who didn't think he had the traction. He got more delegates per $ spent than ANY candidate. He did that because of his message and the way he delivered it. While Huckabee had to EARN his political position, Palin had hers handed to her by McCain, admittedly for political reasons, not for the best choice to govern. Had McCain chosen for those qualities, he most certainly would have chosen Huckabee. As with Obama and many other "celebrity types" who rise quickly and crash the same way, time will tell whether Palin weathers the storm of public scrunity. Huckabee survived. He has staying power and his political future is boundless.