Jay Reding.com

The Creation Of A Conservative

David Mamet has a frank and amazing essay in The Village Voice about how he ended up going from being a “brain-dead liberal” to a conservative:

I wrote a play about politics (November, Barrymore Theater, Broadway, some seats still available). And as part of the “writing process,” as I believe it’s called, I started thinking about politics. This comment is not actually as jejune as it might seem. Porgy and Bess is a buncha good songs but has nothing to do with race relations, which is the flag of convenience under which it sailed.

But my play, it turned out, was actually about politics, which is to say, about the polemic between persons of two opposing views. The argument in my play is between a president who is self-interested, corrupt, suborned, and realistic, and his leftish, lesbian, utopian-socialist speechwriter.

The play, while being a laugh a minute, is, when it’s at home, a disputation between reason and faith, or perhaps between the conservative (or tragic) view and the liberal (or perfectionist) view. The conservative president in the piece holds that people are each out to make a living, and the best way for government to facilitate that is to stay out of the way, as the inevitable abuses and failures of this system (free-market economics) are less than those of government intervention.

I took the liberal view for many decades, but I believe I have changed my mind.

Mamet’s piece is well worth reading, especially for those who are “brain-dead liberals” as it explains some of the reasons why Mamet drifted away from liberal orthodoxy. He ended up re-examining many of his old assumptions and prejudices and finding them lacking: his distrust of the military, his dislike of corporations, his view of government. He asks one of the most important questions that a person can ask about political philosophy:

And I began to question my distrust of the “Bad, Bad Military” of my youth, which, I saw, was then and is now made up of those men and women who actually risk their lives to protect the rest of us from a very hostile world. Is the military always right? No. Neither is government, nor are the corporations—they are just different signposts for the particular amalgamation of our country into separate working groups, if you will. Are these groups infallible, free from the possibility of mismanagement, corruption, or crime? No, and neither are you or I. So, taking the tragic view, the question was not “Is everything perfect?” but “How could it be better, at what cost, and according to whose definition?” Put into which form, things appeared to me to be unfolding pretty well.

Mamet hits on the fundamental difference between liberalism and conservatism as political philosophies in 21st Century America. Liberalism is an ideology that seeks perfection: we have to give everyone healthcare, we have to end poverty, we have to make everyone in the world “respect” us, we have to stop all semblances of racism. Those are the imperatives of liberalism. On their own, and as abstract goals, there’s nothing wrong with them at all. Who wouldn’t want to end poverty? Who wouldn’t want to see a world without racism, war, oppression or dominance?

Where liberals fail to understand conservatism is that they seem to think that conservatism stands for the proposition that war, racism and poverty are all fine and we shouldn’t care about them. That facile misunderstanding is why liberals never really seem to be able to engage with conservatives on a fundamentally deep level, and why liberals tend to ascribe all sorts of sinister motivations to conservatives.

Mamet, however, hints at the real basis for conservatism. We can’t cure war. We can’t end all poverty. We can’t make people into angels when they are not. The fundamental principle of conservatism can be roughly summed up into this: “sometimes life just sucks.” Even if we could fix the problems that create war, poverty, racism and injustice to do so would be to have a society robbed of free will—because the root of all these problems are found in human nature itself. That’s why Mamet rightly describes conservatism as the “tragic” view of human nature and liberalism as the “perfectionist” view of human nature. Conservatives recognize that there is no permanent solution for the ills of mankind—there are only advances which can ameliorate our conditions. We can’t create heaven on earth, we can only fumble around as best we can.

That is why liberals and conservatives don’t get along, and politically may never will. (Personally, of course, it’s a different matter. I’ve known many ardent socialists who are far more engaging than many of the people on my political side of the aisle. Sometimes one must simply agree to disagree.) A liberal sees a problem like health care and understands that the only viable solution is to make sure that everyone gets health care for free. It doesn’t matter whether or not that particular goal is attainable. It’s why liberals don’t tend to discuss things like cost/benefit analyses or economic concerns or questions of feasibility. The goal is to give everyone health care, and if that goal is not reached then the whole liberal world order breaks down. If we can’t give everyone health care for free than liberals have to tacitly acknowledge the central conceit of conservatism: that human nature doesn’t allow us to reshape society to our Platonic ideal. Then all liberalism becomes is a pale shade of conservatism. Without liberalism’s central conceit that collective action can radically transform the world, liberalism becomes rather hollow.

That doesn’t at all mean that liberals have bad motives—quite the contrary liberals almost always are idealistic in some fashion. The problem is that liberalism can never really mesh itself with reality: liberal means can never achieve liberal ends. The welfare state perpetuates a cycle of dependence. A foreign policy of naïvete emboldens dictators who subsequently move to slaughter more innocents. A government that takes it as its mission to help people ends up restricting the freedom of all.

My biggest criticism of liberalism is that it is too idealistic. If you’re absolutely convinced of the righteousness of your cause, why bother to examine your beliefs? At that point, an ideology becomes stagnant and inflexible. (It should be noted that Andrew Sullivan argues in his book A Conservatism of Doubt that conservatism is stagnating itself. His criticism aren’t always on the mark, but are worth examining.)

Liberalism today is a stagnant ideology. Liberals may win election (although usually be masquerading as moderates), but liberalism lacks any real understanding of itself. Most liberals these days begin and end their political understanding with their dislike of President Bush (who is not only not the living symbol of conservatism, but not particularly conservative at all in many respects). For one, Bush is a lame duck President. More importantly, any ideology that defines itself by what it is not is barely an ideology at all.

Mamet’s conversion from “brain-dead liberal” to conservative happened because he started to think more deeply about why he believed what he believed. This country would be much better off if more people—liberal or conservative—did the same.

10 responses to “The Creation Of A Conservative”

  1. Mark says:

    “Liberalism is an ideology that seeks perfection: we have to give everyone healthcare, we have to end poverty, we have to make everyone in the world “respect” us, we have to stop all semblances of racism. Those are the imperatives of liberalism. On their own, and as abstract goals, there’s nothing wrong with them at all. Who wouldn’t want to end poverty? Who wouldn’t want to see a world without racism, war, oppression or dominance?”

    By contrast, conservatism is an ideology that, either self-servingly or out of mere unambitious dehumanizing defeatism, throws its hands up in the air at every crossroads of social justice and advancement. In the last century, American conservatives have obstructed efforts to bust up monopolies, allow women to vote, unbalance the budget in an effort to put unemployed Americans to work during the Great Depression, provide income for senior citizens, and desegregate a racially polarized American South. The logic of David Mamet and Jay Reding suggests that all of those past conservative obstructions to progress were the right thing to do. Any attempt to improve the unacceptable domestic status quo is a fanciful pursuit of “perfection” in your worldview.

    With few exceptions, “liberal” efforts to nudge society forward HAVE been worthwhile and HAVE improved our standard of living. I think liberals get it wrong sometime myself, but by and large wholeheartedly reject the thesis that the state is guilty of pursuing perfection if it attempts to, among other things, shrink poverty and undo racial inequities….and I challenge you or David Mamet to explain to me how we’d be better off today if we had taken the conservatives advice throughout the 21st century.

    “Where liberals fail to understand conservatism is that they seem to think that conservatism stands for the proposition that war, racism and poverty are all fine and we shouldn’t care about them.”

    Given that you’re on record in the paragraph above saying that state action is tantamount to pursuit of unattainable perfection, it makes it pretty tough for you to now say you really do care about poverty and racism.

    “Even if we could fix the problems that create war, poverty, racism and injustice to do so would be to have a society robbed of free will—because the root of all these problems are found in human nature itself.”

    The two are only mutually exclusive for those with a vested interested in obstructing progress.

    “Most liberals these days begin and end their political understanding with their dislike of President Bush”

    For political reasons, the opposition party always has and always will compare and contrast their agenda to that of the empowered party. This is nothing new….so why do you keep pretending it is?

    “This country would be much better off if more people—liberal or conservative—did the same.”

    Every shred of anecdotal evidence suggests that Americans HAVE reassessed their political beliefs in the last three years….and have arrived at an entirely different conclusion than David Mamet.

  2. Jay Reding says:

    By contrast, conservatism is an ideology that, either self-servingly or out of mere unambitious dehumanizing defeatism, throws its hands up in the air at every crossroads of social justice and advancement. In the last century, American conservatives have obstructed efforts to bust up monopolies, allow women to vote, unbalance the budget in an effort to put unemployed Americans to work during the Great Depression, provide income for senior citizens, and desegregate a racially polarized American South. The logic of David Mamet and Jay Reding suggests that all of those past conservative obstructions to progress were the right thing to do. Any attempt to improve the unacceptable domestic status quo is a fanciful pursuit of “perfection” in your worldview.

    No it isn’t. You missed the point, precisely as I figured you (and other liberals) would.

    Conservatives don’t believe that progress is impossible, but that any attempt to improve the “unacceptable” domestic status quo has to be evaluated rationally and dispassionate or the so-called “progress” could make things even worse.

    With few exceptions, “liberal” efforts to nudge society forward HAVE been worthwhile and HAVE improved our standard of living. I think liberals get it wrong sometime myself, but by and large wholeheartedly reject the thesis that the state is guilty of pursuing perfection if it attempts to, among other things, shrink poverty and undo racial inequities….and I challenge you or David Mamet to explain to me how we’d be better off today if we had taken the conservatives advice throughout the 21st century.

    For roughly the latter half of the 20th Century, we did follow conservatism. In that time, the Cold War ended, major measures of poverty declined, and standards of living skyrocketed. What’s called “liberalism” (and is really more accurately described as “statism”) lost. Even Europe is trending away from it, even if tentatively. The last real attempt at American socialism didn’t survive FDR.

    Given that you’re on record in the paragraph above saying that state action is tantamount to pursuit of unattainable perfection, it makes it pretty tough for you to now say you really do care about poverty and racism.

    See, this is what I’m talking about. That argument is a straw man. As I said – “Where liberals fail to understand conservatism is that they seem to think that conservatism stands for the proposition that war, racism and poverty are all fine and we shouldn’t care about them. That facile misunderstanding is why liberals never really seem to be able to engage with conservatives on a fundamentally deep level, and why liberals tend to ascribe all sorts of sinister motivations to conservatives.”

    QED, apparently.

    The two are only mutually exclusive for those with a vested interested in obstructing progress.

    History says otherwise. Every attempt to create a “utopian” state has ended in disaster and has always become totalitarian. One cannot concentrate power in the state and then naively expect the state not to abuse it.

    For political reasons, the opposition party always has and always will compare and contrast their agenda to that of the empowered party. This is nothing new….so why do you keep pretending it is?

    Read the comments to Mamet’s article. There’s a difference between comparing and contrasting and basing your entire ideological position on the blind hatred of one individual.

    Every shred of anecdotal evidence suggests that Americans HAVE reassessed their political beliefs in the last three years….and have arrived at an entirely different conclusion than David Mamet.

    This is an example of why you’re such a limited thinker. You can’t see beyond the lens of crude party politics. How many out-and-out unabashed liberals actually won in 2006? Jon Tester certainly didn’t run as a liberal. Neither did Jim Webb. Nor did Tim Walz. Unless you want to argue that the only thing that defines a liberal is opposition to the Iraq War, which is rather silly. The idea that because a political party won in an 6th year election (which is what normally happens) means that there’s been a huge ideological shift in the American electorate is groundless. The only way the Democrats won is by embracing the center on most issues, not by running as open liberals.

    A temporal shift in party politics doesn’t mean that an ideology is losing. This may blow your mind, but political parties aren’t the same as political ideologies…

  3. Dlapin says:

    An excellent exposition of Mamet’s conversion! And your suggestion for agreeing to disagree is, unfortunately, the only way to keep most of my political philosophy discussions from degenerating into fisticuffs.

  4. Mark says:

    “Conservatives don’t believe that progress is impossible, but that any attempt to improve the “unacceptable” domestic status quo has to be evaluated rationally and dispassionate or the so-called “progress” could make things even worse.”

    Which is essentially saying nothing. As a direct consequence of being a democracy, matters of social progress are evaluated ad nauseum before ultimately being voted upon and enacted into law. As for “dispassionate” analysis of such laws, we’ll see how “dispassionate” you conservatives are during the debate about extending Bush’s tax cuts…..or abortion…or gay marriage. There’s plenty of hyperventilation on both sides, and conservatives could always be counted upon to be far from “dispassionate” in the defense of the racist, sexist, plutocratic status quo throughout the major battles of the 20th century.

    “For roughly the latter half of the 20th Century, we did follow conservatism. In that time, the Cold War ended, major measures of poverty declined, and standards of living skyrocketed. What’s called “liberalism” (and is really more accurately described as “statism”) lost. Even Europe is trending away from it, even if tentatively. The last real attempt at American socialism didn’t survive FDR.”

    The latter half of the 20th century? Come again. The 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s were the heyday of modern liberalism, and although “perfection” was certainly not attained, poverty rates and real wages soared. It was only in the 1980’s when the country shifted rightward that poverty rates began to ascend and real wages began stagnating. I’ll be the first to admit that modern-day poverty growth and income stagnancy is largely due to the appeasement of illegal immigration by a coalition of conservatives and liberals with their own agendas. As I said, liberalism sometimes gets it wrong. Historically, however, whatever downfalls that may emerge from a “culture of dependency” brought upon by liberalism pale in comparison to the growth in the collective standard of living.

    “That facile misunderstanding is why liberals never really seem to be able to engage with conservatives on a fundamentally deep level, and why liberals tend to ascribe all sorts of sinister motivations to conservatives”

    I’ve come across plenty of arrogance by conservatives in my day, but this may take the blue ribbon in self-proclaimed kingmaking. Since you are a conservative and prefer conservative arguments, you write off all liberal debate as a failure “to engage with conservatives on a fundamentally deep level”. Requoting your own mind-blowing arrogance is not advancing an argument that started out with the talking point that passionate pursuit of correcting society’s ills is fundamentally wrong.

    “History says otherwise. Every attempt to create a “utopian” state has ended in disaster and has always become totalitarian.”

    Unfortunately for your argument, there are no such examples of “pursuit of utopia leading to totalitarianism” in the American history books….because it didn’t happen. For all the high and mighty talk of how your ideological dissenters “fail to engage conservatives on a fundamentally deep level”, you guys always seem to lapse into cartoonish delirium equating American liberals to the Stalinists of the Soviet revolution. There’s nothing “fundamentally deep” about that.

    “This is an example of why you’re such a limited thinker. You can’t see beyond the lens of crude party politics.”

    Party politics, particularly in today’s ideologically polarized America, is the most tangible metric with which to measure the shifting values of Americans. Even if most Americans don’t identify themselves as “liberal”, their positions on issues and the political candidates they are now more likely to vote for than in recent memory both suggest David Mamet is in the minority with his transition to your worldview.

    “How many out-and-out unabashed liberals actually won in 2006? Jon Tester certainly didn’t run as a liberal. Neither did Jim Webb. Nor did Tim Walz.”

    You’re using some pretty lame examples there….unless you’re suggesting that support of gun rights is the only issue that defines a conservative. Tester ran a mainstream Democratic campaign. Webb wrote op-ed pieces to the Wall Street Journal that mirrored the populist overtones of John Edwards’ Presidential campaign. And I struggle to think of a single conservative bullet point from which the proudly progressive Tim Walz ran with during his campaign. Ironically, the one high-profile contest where the Democrats lost in 2006 was the Senate race in which the Democrat basically told voters Republicans were right 90% of the time and blurred differences between himself and his opponent….and that was Tennessee, where Democrat Harold Ford came up short against a lame Republican challenger.

    “The idea that because a political party won in an 6th year election (which is what normally happens) means that there’s been a huge ideological shift in the American electorate is groundless.”

    The Democratic Party, even as it has moved decidedly to the left in the last four years, has a voter affiliation advantage of 49-33 in the year 2008. Continue to underestimate that at your own peril.

    “The only way the Democrats won is by embracing the center on most issues, not by running as open liberals.”

    A frequently deployed talking point that runs contrary to reality. On issues of both guns and butter, the Democratic freshmen of 2006 ran left of center. Just because Heath Shuler opposes abortion doesn’t mean he’s not closer to my worldview than yours. It was in the pre-2006 era when Democrats ran as inoffensive “moderates” (Brad Carson, Harold Ford) and proceeded to lose more often than not. Funny how conservatives either missed out on the transformation or choose to argue that black is in fact white.

    “This may blow your mind, but political parties aren’t the same as political ideologies…”

    That may not have been the case back when conservatives were Democrats because Sherman was mean to Atlanta and liberals were Republicans because their great-granddaddies really admired Abe Lincoln, but ideology and political party affiliation are becomingly more intertwined with each passing year…..and it really shouldn’t blow your mind to recognize that.

  5. Jay Reding says:

    As a direct consequence of being a democracy, matters of social progress are evaluated ad nauseum before ultimately being voted upon and enacted into law.

    Unless you have the Supreme Court doing it, as they did with Roe

    The latter half of the 20th century? Come again. The 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s were the heyday of modern liberalism, and although “perfection” was certainly not attained, poverty rates and real wages soared. It was only in the 1980’s when the country shifted rightward that poverty rates began to ascend and real wages began stagnating. I’ll be the first to admit that modern-day poverty growth and income stagnancy is largely due to the appeasement of illegal immigration by a coalition of conservatives and liberals with their own agendas. As I said, liberalism sometimes gets it wrong. Historically, however, whatever downfalls that may emerge from a “culture of dependency” brought upon by liberalism pale in comparison to the growth in the collective standard of living.

    History, again, proves you wrong. Modern liberalism’s heyday was the 1930s with the New Deal, and it slowly died out since then. JFK slashed tax rates. Deregulation began in the 1970s and continued through the 1980s. The growth of the American conservative movement began in 1955 when Buckley founded National Review.

    And if those decades were the “heyday” of modern liberalism, that doesn’t paint modern liberalism in a very good light. The “Sexual Revolution” of the 1960s helped spawn the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. The “Me Generation” embraced narcissism under the banner of revolution. The 1970s brought stagflation, “malaise”, and an expansion of Soviet domination. Our current war started in 1979 with the Iranian Revolution (and arguably before that when Sadat was killed).

    The list could go on, but I suspect that someone who doesn’t know a lot about history should be more careful about describing what the “heyday” of liberalism really was.

    Unfortunately for your argument, there are no such examples of “pursuit of utopia leading to totalitarianism” in the American history books….because it didn’t happen. For all the high and mighty talk of how your ideological dissenters “fail to engage conservatives on a fundamentally deep level”, you guys always seem to lapse into cartoonish delirium equating American liberals to the Stalinists of the Soviet revolution. There’s nothing “fundamentally deep” about that.

    Nice try, but your argument is disingenous. For one, I wasn’t describing American liberals specifically. Secondly, the reason why that hasn’t happened in America was because we have a classically liberal political tradition than prevents it. Even so, the closest this country has ever come to fascism was under the New Deal when the power of the state expanded dramatically, but even that didn’t last more than a few years until Americans saw what state control ends up doing to a nation after coming home from Europe and Japan.

    Party politics, particularly in today’s ideologically polarized America, is the most tangible metric with which to measure the shifting values of Americans. Even if most Americans don’t identify themselves as “liberal”, their positions on issues and the political candidates they are now more likely to vote for than in recent memory both suggest David Mamet is in the minority with his transition to your worldview.

    The main thrust of your argument is wrong. Party preference shifts all the time. Ideological preference doesn’t. Nearly twice as many people describe themselves as conservative than liberal. You don’t see Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama running on how liberal they are–quite the opposite in fact. Liberals don’t call themselves “progressive” because they think it sounds better, it’s because being an unabashed liberal is political suicide.

    The Democratic Party, even as it has moved decidedly to the left in the last four years, has a voter affiliation advantage of 49-33 in the year 2008. Continue to underestimate that at your own peril.

    Which still operates under the wrong assertion that all of a sudden America is a liberal country. Again, partisan preference is not the same as ideological preference.

    That’s why you’re such a limited thinker — everything to you is about politics. You can’t see past red and blue, and you don’t have the intellectual understanding of your own ideology to defend it on its own merits. Your whole argument is premised on the idea that because an idea is popular, that means that it’s right. Even if the Democrats sweep the next election, that doesn’t mean that America is suddenly a liberal country, any more than when Bill Clinton won in 1992 with a Democratic Congress it meant that America was ready to embrace Fabian socialism.

    If you can’t think deeper than a poll, you’re not thinking deeply enough.

  6. Mark says:

    “History, again, proves you wrong. Modern liberalism’s heyday was the 1930s with the New Deal, and it slowly died out since then. JFK slashed tax rates. Deregulation began in the 1970s and continued through the 1980s. The growth of the American conservative movement began in 1955 when Buckley founded National Review.”

    So let me get this straight. The horrific era that brought us the Great Society and the era of “free love” that you conservatives so thoroughly despise was actually the “conservative era”? Ronald Reagan’s insistence on the desperate need for change was really a repudiation of the conservative American society that had been ongoing for more than 30 years by 1980? Wow….and all because John F. Kennedy cut the top tax rate to 72% back in 1961.

    In that case, who was your favorite conservative before Reagan? Lyndon Johnson or Jimmy Carter? Or maybe Tip O’Neill? Howard Metzenbaum? Eugene McCarthy? So many conservatives to choose from that conservative-dominant era….that somehow simultaneously paralleled what every conservative still alive decries as the era where America lost its way.

    Anybody else confused?

    “The “Me Generation” embraced narcissism under the banner of revolution.”

    Um, actually, the Me Generation advocated tax cuts for themselves and budget cuts for the homeless back in the 1980’s.

    “The 1970s brought stagflation, “malaise”, and an expansion of Soviet domination. Our current war started in 1979 with the Iranian Revolution (and arguably before that when Sadat was killed).”

    Wait a minute. I thought the 1970’s was the third consecutive decade of conservatives controlling America. Which is it, buddy?

    “The list could go on, but I suspect that someone who doesn’t know a lot about history should be more careful about describing what the “heyday” of liberalism really was”

    I don’t think there’s too many people who would concur with you that, because William Buckley put out a magazine in 1955, the period in American history most reviled by modern-day conservatives was actually an era of conservative ideological dominance. I’m getting dizzy just watching you spin.

    “For one, I wasn’t describing American liberals specifically.”

    Your implication is nonetheless that there’s ultimately no daylight between the liberalism of Paul Wellstone and the “liberalism” of Joseph Stalin….that the goals of Barack Obama invariably lead to the outcomes of Fidel Castro. It’s a leap of faith that ultimately renders conservative talking points to be just as specious as the worst offenders among liberals.

    “Party preference shifts all the time. Ideological preference doesn’t. Nearly twice as many people describe themselves as conservative than liberal.”

    Most people don’t have a firm enough understanding of what the various ideologies stand for to sufficiently define themselves. Two generations ago, conservatism was an ideology that was generally rejected by a segment of society that was, in practice, very conservative. I’m betting most George Wallace voters of 1968 would have rejected the “conservative” label. The conservative brand was simply uncool at the time. Today, after a very effective demagoguery of the term “liberal” by conservatives, it’s liberals who are on defense in the identity wars even as the country is now moving decidedly against your worldview. Self-identification of ideology is arguably a much LESS effective indicator of actual ideological perspective than are voting patterns, particularly in an era where ideological polarization defines voting habits more clearly than in any time in memory.

    “That’s why you’re such a limited thinker — everything to you is about politics. You can’t see past red and blue, and you don’t have the intellectual understanding of your own ideology to defend it on its own merits.”

    So are you seriously suggesting that your little love letter to David Mamet was based on something other than an expectation that he will now vote the same way as you do in elections? If Mamet announced tomorrow that he planned to vote for Barack Obama in the upcoming election, would you still be heaping praise on his epiphany that conservatives are his kinda people? For you to suggest on this deeply political blog that conservatism and Republican voting habits are not intertwined renders this entire blog entry ultimately pointless.

  7. […] JayReding has a thoughtful response to David Mamet’s admission of becoming conservative and ceasing to be a “brain-dead liberal.” […]

  8. Jay Reding says:

    So let me get this straight. The horrific era that brought us the Great Society and the era of “free love” that you conservatives so thoroughly despise was actually the “conservative era”? Ronald Reagan’s insistence on the desperate need for change was really a repudiation of the conservative American society that had been ongoing for more than 30 years by 1980? Wow….and all because John F. Kennedy cut the top tax rate to 72% back in 1961.

    No, but it was the beginning of the conservative era. Modern American conservative began as a unified political movement in the 1950s with Buckley and National Review. It led to Goldwater, and Goldwater led to Reagan. Again, this doesn’t seem to register with you but there is not a one-to-one correlation between ideological movements and political parties.

    I don’t think there’s too many people who would concur with you that, because William Buckley put out a magazine in 1955, the period in American history most reviled by modern-day conservatives was actually an era of conservative ideological dominance. I’m getting dizzy just watching you spin.

    That’s because you can’t read closely enough to follow an argument. Again, there’s a difference between ideological and political movements. The conservative movement started as an ideological movement long before it gained any political power. The conservative movement gained strength because it was able to offer a critique of the failures of the liberalism of the 1960s and 1970s. Again, just because conservatism didn’t have political power does not at all mean that it wasn’t gaining ground as an ideology.

    Your implication is nonetheless that there’s ultimately no daylight between the liberalism of Paul Wellstone and the “liberalism” of Joseph Stalin….that the goals of Barack Obama invariably lead to the outcomes of Fidel Castro. It’s a leap of faith that ultimately renders conservative talking points to be just as specious as the worst offenders among liberals.

    No, that’s what you want the argument to be because you don’t have the intellectual understanding of your own political beliefs to defend them on their own terms. Every part of your comments here have been an attack on conservatism, not a defense of liberalism. Like most liberals, your entire worldview is predicated not on understanding what you believe, but the notion that the other side is bad. That isn’t an ideology, that’s being a reactionary. You keep proving my point—liberalism today is a reactionary movement. It doesn’t understand its own roots, and therefore it can’t defend itself on its own merits. If all liberals can do to justify their beliefs is proffer attacks on the other side, then liberalism has little of real substance to offer.

    Most people don’t have a firm enough understanding of what the various ideologies stand for to sufficiently define themselves. Two generations ago, conservatism was an ideology that was generally rejected by a segment of society that was, in practice, very conservative. I’m betting most George Wallace voters of 1968 would have rejected the “conservative” label. The conservative brand was simply uncool at the time. Today, after a very effective demagoguery of the term “liberal” by conservatives, it’s liberals who are on defense in the identity wars even as the country is now moving decidedly against your worldview. Self-identification of ideology is arguably a much LESS effective indicator of actual ideological perspective than are voting patterns, particularly in an era where ideological polarization defines voting habits more clearly than in any time in memory.

    There’s a big reason why that point is wrong: people vote for candidates, not ideologies. Voting behavior is a lot more strongly linked to individual perceptions of candidates than political ideology—especially since most people don’t have a political ideology to begin with. The argument that the Democratic victory in 2006 means that the nation really is liberal doesn’t hold—it has a lot more to do with the Republicans acting like chumps than some major reorganization of the American political spectrum.

    So are you seriously suggesting that your little love letter to David Mamet was based on something other than an expectation that he will now vote the same way as you do in elections? If Mamet announced tomorrow that he planned to vote for Barack Obama in the upcoming election, would you still be heaping praise on his epiphany that conservatives are his kinda people? For you to suggest on this deeply political blog that conservatism and Republican voting habits are not intertwined renders this entire blog entry ultimately pointless.

    Conservatism is only linked to Republican voting habits inasmuch as conservatives have a natural home in the Republican Party—and I’ve criticized the GOP plenty of times for being insufficiently conservative on a whole host of issues.

    Ultimately, your inability to see the world beyond the simple lens of partisan politics displays one of the key faults of liberalism today: it’s entirely unaware of its own ideological foundations. You don’t at all seem to be a liberal because you know what liberalism really is, you’re a liberalism because you’ve been taught to hate Republicans. That’s why you keep circling back to politics with everything, because you can’t rely on first principles to defend your own arguments.

    It’s certainly possible to be a liberal based on a consistent set of first principles, but most liberals don’t understand their own ideology well enough to stand their ground—so they do exactly what you’ve done consistent here; attack Republicans rather than defend your own first principles.

  9. Mark says:

    “No, but it was the beginning of the conservative era. Modern American conservative began as a unified political movement in the 1950s with Buckley and National Review. It led to Goldwater, and Goldwater led to Reagan. Again, this doesn’t seem to register with you but there is not a one-to-one correlation between ideological movements and political parties”

    You originally said that America was ruled by a conservative ethos for most of the second half of the 20th century. Nothing came up about the first three-fifths of that second half of the century being conservative’s “long beginning”. Jay Reding trying to have it both ways. Imagine that!

    “The conservative movement started as an ideological movement long
    before it gained any political power.”

    In that case, this comment from your previous retort has been negated. “For roughly the latter half of the 20th Century, we did follow conservatism.” Which is it, Jay? “WE” as a nation did not follow conservatism for the latter half of the 20th century….a tiny cohort of pointy-headed blue bloods did.

    And much of modern-day conservatism was the prevailing ideological
    wisdom in the 1920’s before going into retreat in the 1930’s and
    1940’s. Since the mere existence of William F. Buckley and Barry
    Goldwater was enough for you to imply that “we did follow conservatism for roughly the latter half of the 20th century”, are you then suggesting that there were no conservative equivalents on the radar screen in the 1930’s and 1940’s? Were there no high-profile dissenting opinions to the dogma of FDR that were at least as renowned as the soundly rejected Buckley and Goldwater? I honestly don’t ever recall you digging yourself in a deeper hole than what you have here.

    “No, that’s what you want the argument to be because you don’t have the intellectual understanding of your own political beliefs to defend them on their own terms….liberalism today is a reactionary movement. It doesn’t understand its own roots, and therefore it can’t defend itself on its own merits. If all liberals can do to justify their beliefs is proffer attacks on the other side, then liberalism has little of real substance to offer.”

    I’m actually not gonna completely disagree with you there. Liberal
    ideology is harder to clearly outline since being open-minded to
    alternative perspectives usually means a lack of a bullet-pointed
    consensus on the solutions to the world’s problems. That’s part of the reason why liberalism has fallen out of fashion in the last quarter century. The smug self-assurance in the hearts of conservatives is not shared by liberals who are more likely to see a gray area on a number of issues. Most conservatives are like you….cocky little shits who think you’ve got every aspect of this old world figured out. Rightly or wrongly, it’s easier for people to get behind that kind of worldview, particularly insofar as there are clear heroes (the military, entrepreneurs) and clear villains (government, teachers, the bogeyman overseas) rather than layers of nuance that require deeper evaluation. With that in mind, I would argue that the 21-year-old protestors shouting down Karl Rove speeches on universities across America behave like conservatives even though most would identify themselves as liberals. The entire campus culture has become more like what you would equate as “reactionary” than it is liberal and definitely does blur the definition of the term “liberal”. By the same token, your definition of “conservatism” as ideology where the world’s
    problems are dealt with by “dispassionate analysis” of the facts is
    similarly contradicted by the screaming heads of self-identified
    conservatives filling up radio airwaves, so at the end of the day, we cancel each other out with our examples of the other side’s split
    personality disorders.

    “Ultimately, your inability to see the world beyond the simple lens of partisan politics displays one of the key faults of liberalism today: it’s entirely unaware of its own ideological foundations.”

    I ask you again, if David Mamet announced tomorrow that he planned to vote for Barack Obama, would you not immediately distance yourself from his “I’m-now-a-conservative” essay that you drooled all over the other day? To suggest that your endorsement of ideological conservatism implied no overlap in political conservatism is playing your readers for fools.

  10. Jay Reding says:

    Ah, Mark, the court jester of Jay Reding.com—once again you do your silly little dance. There are times when I honestly wonder whether you aren’t secretly a conservative activist creating the perfect parody of small-minded and shrill liberals—but not even the most feverish spin-meisters at the RNC could do such a good job of it.

    Again, once more unto the breach, as ripping apart your arguments is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel—but since this post has garnered quite a bit of attention, it may be instructive to show exactly how well you keep proving my points:

    You originally said that America was ruled by a conservative ethos for most of the second half of the 20th century. Nothing came up about the first three-fifths of that second half of the century being conservative’s “long beginning”. Jay Reding trying to have it both ways. Imagine that!

    Actually, no, I did not say that. What I said was this:

    “For roughly the latter half of the 20th Century, we did follow conservatism. In that time, the Cold War ended, major measures of poverty declined, and standards of living skyrocketed. What’s called “liberalism” (and is really more accurately described as “statism”) lost. Even Europe is trending away from it, even if tentatively. The last real attempt at American socialism didn’t survive FDR.”

    The reality is that even the Democratic politicians of the late 20th Century were more conservative than FDR’s attempts at American socialism. Kennedy was an ardent Cold Warrior and a tax-cutter. LBJ was the last liberal to win the Presidency, but even his brand of liberalism was weak sauce compared to the New Deal. In 1964, Goldwater signaled the beginning of conservatism in organized politics. In 1968 the left wing took over the Democratic Party, handing the election to Richard Nixon, another ardent Cold Warrior. At this time, Ronald Reagan was setting the agenda for the future. By 1980 conservatism had won the White House. By the Clinton years, even the Democrats had substantially embraced conservative principles. Clinton signed welfare reform into law, slashed taxes in 1996, and expanded free trade.

    Again, your central conceit is that all that matters is who hold elected office: which completely misses the point. Conservatism grew and flourished between 1955 and 1980, even though it hadn’t yet translated that ideological development into political success. Conservative leaders like Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Lech Walesa, and Pope John Paul II led to the end of the Soviet Empire. The seemingly inevitable rise of socialism never materialized, despite many on the left who argued that the rise of socialism was inevitable.

    And much of modern-day conservatism was the prevailing ideological
    wisdom in the 1920’s before going into retreat in the 1930’s and 1940’s

    No, it wan’t, Laissez-faire was generally the rule, but the 1920s were a time of massive protectionism and American isolationism. The fact that you have a straw man view of conservatism doesn’t let you understand how conservatism developed.

    Since the mere existence of William F. Buckley and Barry Goldwater was enough for you to imply that “we did follow conservatism for roughly the latter half of the 20th century”, are you then suggesting that there were no conservative equivalents on the radar screen in the 1930’s and 1940’s?

    No, there were not. The modern conservative movement wasn’t organized until the 1950s with Russell Kirk and William F. Buckley developing the foundations of American conservatism. Some of the pieces were there, but there was no ideological movement at that time.

    Were there no high-profile dissenting opinions to the dogma of FDR that were at least as renowned as the soundly rejected Buckley and Goldwater? I honestly don’t ever recall you digging yourself in a deeper hole than what you have here.

    The only one digging oneself a hole is you… of course there were dissenting opinions to the New Deal. But there was no conservative movement in the modern sense until much later.

    I’m actually not gonna completely disagree with you there. Liberal ideology is harder to clearly outline since being open-minded to alternative perspectives usually means a lack of a bullet-pointed consensus on the solutions to the world’s problems. That’s part of the reason why liberalism has fallen out of fashion in the last quarter century.

    How silly. Liberal ideology is harder to outline because it has no intellectual basis. Liberalism has fallen out of favor not because it’s so incredibly open-minded but because it doesn’t have any real answers. Liberalism doesn’t work because liberal means can never achieve liberal ends. Modern liberals could create their perfect utopia, and it would fail horrendously.

    Trying to define liberalism as the good is a silly argument, but nowhere near as silly as what follows:

    The smug self-assurance in the hearts of conservatives is not shared by liberals who are more likely to see a gray area on a number of issues. Most conservatives are like you….cocky little shits who think you’ve got every aspect of this old world figured out.

    That’s pathetic. You can’t justify your own worldview, so you pretend that what you stand for is everything that’s good, and everyone else is bad. That’s childish thinking, and it proves my point.

    Not once have you been able to defend liberalism on its own merits. You haven’t identified one single basic principle of why liberalism is superior. All you can do is bash conservatism, and ideology you don’t even try to understand.

    Rightly or wrongly, it’s easier for people to get behind that kind of worldview, particularly insofar as there are clear heroes (the military, entrepreneurs) and clear villains (government, teachers, the bogeyman overseas) rather than layers of nuance that require deeper evaluation. With that in mind, I would argue that the 21-year-old protestors shouting down Karl Rove speeches on universities across America behave like conservatives even though most would identify themselves as liberals.

    Of course! Why the left wing is all of a sudden the right wing! Up is down! Black is white! Ignorance is freedom!

    Please, that’s just pathetic.

    By the same token, your definition of “conservatism” as ideology where the world’s
    problems are dealt with by “dispassionate analysis” of the facts is similarly contradicted by the screaming heads of self-identified conservatives filling up radio airwaves, so at the end of the day, we cancel each other out with our examples of the other side’s split personality disorders.

    Not even close.

    Conservatism is the superior ideology, because it has the right set of first principles. Conservatism, quite simply, works. It works specifically because it rejects radical change, it refuses to break from tradition for little reason, and it recognizes the imperfectable nature of humanity.

    I ask you again, if David Mamet announced tomorrow that he planned to vote for Barack Obama, would you not immediately distance yourself from his “I’m-now-a-conservative” essay that you drooled all over the other day? To suggest that your endorsement of ideological conservatism implied no overlap in political conservatism is playing your readers for fools.

    Had you bothered to read my original post, I cited Andrew Sullivan, who happens to be a very open Obama supporter. Your statement was not only self-refuting, but preemptively self-refuted.

    Those things happen when you don’t bother to read and understand an argument before critiquing it.

    All along, you keep proving my points over and over again. You (like many liberals), can’t offer a defense of liberalism on its own merits. You can’t explain why liberalism is the superior ideological position because you don’t have any clue what the first principles of liberalism really are. That’s why your whole line of argumentation is based on cheap attacks and appeals to political popularity. You can’t argue on the same plane as my argument because you can’t think abstractly enough to move beyond crude politics.

    Hell, I can make a better case for liberalism than you can. You could have argued that liberalism is not flawed because the political order that conservatism seeks to conserve doesn’t work: that rights are not innate, not self-evident, and not given by any Creator. Rather, rights are a creature of the state, and only the state can adequately defend them. That the Constitution is a “living document” and a political order that seeks to defend an 18th Century construct can’t be relevant to the America of today.

    But, that’s not the argument you made. Instead, you proved my point. I said that liberals are reactionaries: and how did you react to my argument? By making the reactionary statement that “Most conservatives are like you….cocky little shits who think you’ve got every aspect of this old world figured out.”

    Thanks for proving my point, though.