What's to Be Done About Conservatives?
What's to be done about American conservatives and the Republican Party? For decades, they've stood for plutocracy and bigotry, and using the latter to achieve the former. Almost none of their policies help Americans as a whole; instead, their policies benefit a select few, most often those who are already rich and powerful. Conservatives and Republicans serve their donors, not the majority of their constituents. On the merits, their policies are awful, so they lie about them constantly. About their only true principle is acquiring more power and keeping it, by almost any means necessary – norms of governance, democratic representation and fair play be damned.
Their supporters come in different flavors, mostly unsavory. Many simply seek short-term personal gain, ignoring long-term harm, to their descendants if not themselves. Others, the dark money crowd and their eager servants, truly wish to further entrench the powerful as a ruling class. The most rabid members of the conservative base are frightening, cherishing spite more than their own children. (Who needs a decent wage when you can 'own the libs'? Who needs bread when you have the Fox News circus?) The remainder are mostly loyal Republican voters – "nearly 90 per cent of self-described Republicans voted for Trump, very similar to the proportion in previous elections." None of the horrible things Trump said or did prior to the 2016 election were dealbreakers for them. They rationalized that Hillary Clinton was worse or simply voted their true values instead of their stated ones. To use the terms of an old post, conservatives are a mix of reckless addicts, stealthy extremists and proud zealots, with far too few sober adults to be found.
As for the media, good journalists still exist and always deserve support, but many corporate media outlets aren't truly focused on creating a more informed citizenry. Instead, they churn out a thin, news-like substance to try to fill their never-ending news cycle – they need volume, and high quality isn't cost-effective. Conscientious citizens might want good, better government, and the fact-checking and other essential information to help achieve that – and some journalists really do work hard to provide it – but media company owners need sales and profits. Stories deemed too complex aren't covered – for example, explaining the abuse of Senate procedures and contextualizing them. More importantly, calling out one political side is simply not good business, especially when one side is consistently worse about lying, violating political norms and screwing over the citizenry. One of our national political discourse's key scourges is false equivalence, or "both siderism," claiming both sides are just as bad even when evidence to the contrary stands overwhelming. (For much more on this, see the archives of Digby, driftglass, alicublog, Balloon Juice, LGM or my own archives.)
Related to this, in our current mainstream national political discourse, we generally do not discuss policy in any meaningful way. That's not to say everyone needs to read policy papers, which will always be done by a more niche group – but we do not discuss policies and their proven or likely effects. We do not talk about their effect on actual human beings and their lives. We do not accurately assign praise or blame to politicians and political parties, or engage in more nuanced analysis and discussion. For instance, who did this tax bill benefit, and who did it benefit the most? How successful was this antipoverty measure? What effects did providing more health care have on this community? Maybe we could provide some statistics, but also talk to some people, and put a human face on these issues? Coverage on the 2016 presidential race almost entirely ignored policy issues and focused on shallow issues with false balance. Obviously, this approach gives a tremendous, unfair advantage to the candidates with worse policies, nebulous positions or a vaguer grasp of important issues. It makes it much easier for them to bullshit, which really doesn't help for the whole informed citizenry, better government thing.
For all their faults, though, mainstream corporate media outlets normally get basic facts correct. Some media outlets are little more than propaganda operations. Dodgy left-leaning outlets do exist, but don't have nearly the influence of conservative outlets, most of all Fox News. Rank-and-file conservatives believe false things and are fearful in part because they have been lied to and fed fear. Several studies have shown that Fox News viewers score less accurately on basic news tests than people who don't watch the news, yet Fox News viewers are also more likely to believe that they're better-informed than their fellow citizens. Stewing in Fox News makes them both less informed and more certain. (That's a feature, not a bug, of course.)
Ideally, policies would be discussed on their merits, and praise and blame (or measured, nuanced assessments) would be accurately assigned. In actual practice, due to all the factors discussed above, conservatives and Republicans are rarely held accountable for their policies and decisions. The conservative movement works to prevent any such reckoning.
(It might help to look at some specific policies. but before that, a brief segue.)
Conservative Versus Republican
Anyone's who criticized conservatives in some depth has probably encountered pushback that, for example, George W. Bush wasn't a true conservative, or Trump isn't, or neither of them is emblematic of the true Republican Party (never mind those pesky votes and other support).
It's true that "conservative" and "Republican" aren't always synonymous, but since the two major political parties realigned in the 1960s, the Republican Party has been more conservative on almost every issue, and the majority of Republicans consistently identify themselves as conservative. As Digby's observed, conservatives like to pretend that conservatism cannot fail; it can only be failed. (Self-described libertarians love this "no true Scotsman" game, too.) Every time conservatives are discredited, it's common to see a disowning of key figures, plus conservative rebranding efforts. We'll also see pundits yearning for the more reasonable, decent conservatives and Republicans of yesteryear, and not just for, say, Eisenhower (for whom some good arguments can be made), but Goldwater, Nixon, Reagan, and both Bushes, among others. Although those individuals may indeed have been better than the current crop in some particulars, an honest, fair assessment would judge that many of their policies stunk and quite a few of them had pretty crazy views. The Democratic Party has become more liberal over time, and the Republican Party more conservative, but the Republican drift has been more extreme. The Republican Party Platform of 1956 would be denounced as socialist by the conservatives and Republicans of today. In contrast, the Democratic Party Platform of 1972 is quite similar to recent platforms on many issues, except that contemporary platforms are much stronger on LGBT rights and other social issues. The Democratic Party does have an establishmentarian, corporatist faction, but also a more liberal one. The Republican Party is not a mirror image; it's purged almost all nonconservatives from office. Republican officials are more conservative and extreme than many members of their own party, and much more conservative and extreme than their constituents as a whole. Voters may have more variety, but when it comes to political figures, for practical purposes, "conservative" and "Republican" are generally effectively the same. Accordingly, in this piece I'm using the terms fairly interchangeably unless the distinction matters (for instance, discussing conservative Democrats).
As for Trump specifically, occasionally, we'll see some bullshit arguments that he's some sort of aberration, but some style differences aside, Trump is firmly in the conservative tradition. Some conservatives effectively admit this – they might criticize Trump's style, but support his policies nonetheless. Neither major political party is entirely pure or evil, but comparisons are both possible and essential. The truth is, Republicans are primarily to blame for the political problems in Washington, D.C. and the nation, and that definitely includes the rise of Trump.
Conservative policies almost always benefit the rich and powerful – the donor class – rather than average constituents and the country. That's no accident. Although sincerely held ideology might drive some conservatives and Republicans, in many cases, their motivation amounts to simple corruption. For the horrendous Republican tax bill of December 2017, Republican representative Chris Collins flat-out admitted, "My donors are basically saying, 'Get it done or don’t ever call me again.' " (And sure enough, after the bill passed, the donors were pleased.) Let's take a look at some policies.
Inequality: Wealth and income inequality in the U.S. are at their worst since the gilded age, and are likely to become more extreme. This neofeudal model stands in sharp contrast to the New Deal and post-WWII policies aimed at helping the nation as a whole. Those policies gave the U.S. the "great compression," a period of enormous economic growth, decreased inequality, an expansion of the middle class and shared prosperity (with some important caveats about denied opportunities based on race, gender, etc.). A model of hoarding power and prosperity versus sharing it is probably the defining difference between conservatives and nonconservatives (liberals and so-called moderates). The aforementioned 2017 Republican tax bill was designed – like Reagan's and all major Republican tax proposals since Bush's twin tax cuts – to massively benefit the already wealthy. It remains bad fiscal, economic and social policy. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities summarizes, "The major tax legislation enacted last December will cost approximately $1.5 trillion over the next decade and deliver windfall gains to wealthy households and profitable corporations, further widening the gap between those at the top of the income ladder and the rest of the nation." (As the report continues, wage stagnation certainly doesn't help.) Those are features, not bugs, as are decades of conservatives yelling that any effort to lessen massive inequality is communism. Americans as a whole want a more fair system, but Republicans are more likely to think the current system is already fair and that poverty is due a lack of effort instead of circumstances beyond one's control. (They are wrong.) However, Americans really have no idea how bad inequality is, and even rank-and-file Republicans favor a more equitable distribution when it's presented as a choice. Inequality remains a major issue beyond economic matters – conservatives and Republicans stand for acquiring more power and keeping it, even if it hurts the country at large.
Climate Change: The Trump administration, true to Republican form, has decided to ignore climate change, including the government's own National Climate Assessment. Meanwhile, an alarming new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns of potentially terrible consequences as soon as 2040. Some Democrats are also beholden to the fossil fuel industry, but industry donations heavily favor Republicans, and conservative Republicans are the group most opposed to acknowledging climate change and to doing anything about it. That position is one of many conservative shibboleths to affirm tribal identity. Climate change is arguably the single most important issue we face, because human life on the planet could significantly, negatively change if it's not addressed. Yet the Republican Party is just about the only major political party in the world to deny climate change and oppose universal health care. Speaking of which…
Health Care: The Affordable Care Act is about the most conservative health care plan possible that can actually work – it doesn't dismantle private, for-profit health insurance, and uses that mechanism to provide health care for the majority of Americans. It's a far cry from the better, universal health care systems that most other industrialized nations have, and that liberals favor, but the ACA has had a positive effect: "In 2016, there were 28.6 million Americans without health insurance, down from more than 48 million in 2010." Rather than addressing that remaining gap, Republicans voted to repeal the ACA over 70 times as of July 2017. Republicans had promised for several years to produce an alternative to the ACA, but never offered a coherent, workable plan. When Republicans finally did produce something, their plan allowed states to waive the provision that prevents insurance companies from refusing to cover or to charge more to people with pre-existing conditions. Such a move would save for-profit insurance companies money, of course, but would be absolutely horrible for citizens. Naturally, conservatives lied about this. It's important to note how much bad faith has featured in conservative arguments about health care, captured by Jonathan Chait's "Heritage uncertainty principle": "Conservative health-care-policy ideas reside in an uncertain state of quasi-existence. You can describe the policies in the abstract, sometimes even in detail, but any attempt to reproduce them in physical form will cause such proposals to disappear instantly."
The Social Safety Net: The usual Republican pattern since Reagan has been to pass tax cuts heavily favoring the rich, increase military spending (optional), create a deficit, and then claim the shortfall has to been made up by cutting the social safety net, especially Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Sure enough, the Republican "starve the beast" gambit is right on time, with Republicans calling to cut Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell even blamed the deficit on social spending and not the obvious culprit, his own tax bill, because he has no shame. It's crucial to notice that rank-and-file conservatives will publicly rail against social spending, but they're in favor of it when it benefits themselves – they just don't want it going to Those Other People. As Matt Taibbi concluded after interviewing supposedly anti-government conservatives, "they're full of shit."
Norms of Process and Governance: It would be hard to overstate just how much Newt Gingrich did to destroy Congress as a functioning institution in the 1990s, making the Republican Party far more tribal, vicious and dysfunctional to this day. More recently, in 2016, Mitch McConnell refused to grant a hearing to then-President Obama's Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland. It was a stunning abuse of power and violation of norms, but McConnell's bragged about it (because again, he has no shame). Meanwhile, Republican state legislatures in Wisconsin, Michigan and North Carolina, after losing the governorship to Democrats, have moved to limit the powers of the governor that were just fine when in Republican hands. Conservatives have an attitude that any election they don't win is inherently illegitimate, because the other guys aren't supposed to win and any abuse of power or change of the rules is thus justified. They'll argue for the power of the majority when in the majority, but will fight ruthlessly for minority rule when they're not. They do not want a fair system. They simply do not care about the will of the people if it doesn't align with their goals.
Democracy and Representative Government: Related to the norms above, the majority of conservative Republicans oppose making voting easier for everyone. Conservatives keep working to suppress voting , and this has a strong racial component. (Before the parties realigned in the 1960s, some of those anti-voting social conservatives were Southern Democrats.) Both parties have been guilty of gerrymandering, but after the 2010 midterm elections, the Republicans have been worse and gerrymandering is likely to become more pronounced. Conservatism has always had an anti-democratic streak. In 1980, Paul Weyrich, cofounder of the conservative Heritage Foundation and also the so-called Moral Majority, said:
Now many of our Christians have what I call the "goo-goo" syndrome – good government. They want everybody to vote. I don't want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people – they never have been from the beginning of our country and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.
It'd be remiss not to also mention the racist Southern Strategy that's been key to most Republican presidential runs since Goldwater. It hasn't always worked, luckily, but winning elections through bigotry is not something to be proud of.
Wall Street and Consumer Protections: Both major parties are pretty beholden to Wall Street and the financial industry. Still, to quote a 2016 post:
. . . the Republican Party is demonstratively worse, opposing and trying to water down the Dodd-Frank Act (rather than seeing it as not going far enough), trying to block the creation and staffing of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (and then trying to weaken or eliminate it) and generally supporting plutocracy. Liberal activists aren't shy about criticizing the Democrats on this issue.
Predictably, the Trump administration has moved to curtail the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau even more. Financial companies make a killing as it is, but why protect average constituents when you can serve wealthy donors instead?
Attending and Affording College: Without going into depth on this issue, conservatives consistently work against the interests of students and for rich lenders instead.
Gun Safety: It's possible to support both gun ownership and reasonable restrictions for public safety, but the National Rifle Association, which once was a more moderate "sportsman" group, has for decades opposed almost every and any measure restricting firearms. Just this year, the NRA has issued rabid, apocalyptic, hyperpartisan ads, and has tried to bully doctors into silence: "Someone should tell self-important anti-gun doctors to stay in their lane. Half of the articles in Annals of Internal Medicine are pushing for gun control. Most upsetting, however, the medical community seems to have consulted NO ONE but themselves." (Yes, why hasn't the medical community consulted non-doctors about a health issue? How unfair! Trauma surgeons have responded to this ludicrousness, of course.) It's no surprise the NRA heavily favors donations to Republicans. Conservative arguments about gun safety often ignore the history of the Second Amendment, and the U.S. has an odd, destructive gun culture that complicates most discussions. Perhaps most galling is how the NRA and conservatives have worked to block research into gun violence. They're not arguing for better policies. They're actively preventing a more informed discussion, probably because they know enough to fear accurate conclusions.
Reproductive Freedom: Little has changed in decades, sadly – conservatives continue to attack reproductive freedom and women's rights, and the Trump administration has predictably done the same.
LGBT Issues: Some conservatives have gotten better on these, but as usual for conservatives on social issues, improvement is more the result of being dragged along by the culture than leading the cause. Opposing gay rights is a socially conservative movement, and it's no secret that homophobes overwhelmingly identify as conservatives and/or Republicans. Some try to use the patina of religion to justify their attitudes, but it's still bigotry. During his presidential campaign, Trump unconvincingly promised to protect gay rights, but of course he has been horrible.
Immigration Reform: Back during an 1980 debate, George H. W. Bush and Ronald Reagan were asked about how "illegal" immigrants and their children should be treated. Both candidates spoke about treating immigrants well, about how they were good people and should be made citizens. Both men would be booed by their party today. A recent study estimates the number of undocumented immigrants at 10.7 million. That number may be decreasing, but it's still far too high to make any kind of arrest-and-deportation scheme practical; a road-to-citizenship plan would be far more realistic and also much more humane. Trump's proposal to build a physical wall on the border is likewise ridiculously unrealistic and ignores glaring practical issues. Back in 2012, then-presidential-candidate Mitt Romney suggested a ludicrous self-deportation policy. The Trump administration has done the same, but also crafted a broader, crueler immigration policy. Indeed, it's hard to keep up with all the horrific stories from the border. Trump launched his presidential campaign with racist statements, and that approach remains central to his pitch and appeal.
Other Issues: I still haven't covered foreign policy, military spending, due process, torture, supporting the arts, and many other issues, but I've done that at some length in other pieces. Briefly: There's broad bipartisan agreement on general imperialism and military spending, although Republican presidential candidates always agitate for greater military expenditures, even though the U.S. military budget dwarfs that of the rest of the world. Many conservatives generally show a juvenile hostility toward the State Department, the United Nations and the value of diplomacy in general. Republicans were unwilling to hold the Bush administration accountable for lying the U.S. into the Iraq War and starting a torture regime. Democrats deserve some credit for leading a detailed torture investigation, but it's still classified, and real accountability remains unlikely. Obama's "look forward" policy was a mistake, because torture is more likely to come back. Just witness Trump's imbecilic, macho bragging about torture, Mike Pence refusing to disown it and Trump appointing a CIA head complicit in the torture regime who refused to condemn torture as immoral. Finally, in a sharply different vein, conservatives routinely threaten the relatively meager federal funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, NPR and PBS as an affirmation of tribal identity and just to be assholes.
Conservative policies are awful on the merits. That also means their positions leave little room for common ground, which doesn't have value if the ideas stink, no matter how much some pundits fetishize bipartisanship.
It wouldn't be right to abandon political outreach completely, but it's wise to identify who can actually be reached and who's a lost cause, at least in the short run. It's folly to expect conservative and Republican leaders to develop a conscience. It's dangerous to believe that their donors, who have invested in a long game of increased and hoarded power, want a democracy and a fair system. It's madness to think that rank-and-file conservatives and Republicans will abandon spite or party loyalty. And it's wishful thinking that mainstream corporate media outlets will abandon bothsiderism bullshit and other shallow analysis, no matter how much it hurts the nation. For now and the foreseeable future, the key thing to do about American conservatives and the Republican Party is to vigorously oppose them. It's up to the rest of us who care about good policy and responsible governance to talk, learn from each other, support each other and mobilize.