In response to the symposium question: "What Is the Future of Conservatism in the Wake of the 2012 Election?"
To the Editor:
As a conservative, I must admit my disappointment in the numerous yet diversely lame replies to your symposium question: “What Is the Future of Conservatism in the Wake of the 2012 Election?” [January]. The responses were as distressing as the outcome of the election. In printing lines like those of David Frum—“The next Republican coalition will not repeal universal health coverage. That commitment is here to stay, and high time, too”—it would seem that COMMENTARY, like Chief Justice John Roberts, has become another challenge to the survival of conservatism. Let’s hope the wisest conservatives were not invited or declined to answer your question.
Syracuse, New York
To the Editor:
According to the respective bylines of the 53 contributors to your January symposium, 26 are people currently affiliated with the media, 16 are currently affiliated with academia, seven are politically affiliated, and the remaining four are affiliated with organizations. They are all talking to each other and no one else. COMMENTARY should try finding conservatives on college campuses, teaching in the public school systems, or in the mainstream media.
The authors did not engage the deep concerns we regular folks have regarding the future of this country. What is being done by these conservatives to take their cogent arguments directly to the people? President Reagan, who was hated by the press and academia, bypassed them and spoke directly to the people—and was successful. He did it without talk radio and Fox News. Where is the current equivalent of Bill Buckley, who so eloquently destroyed liberal shibboleths? Conservative principles and conservatism will never be liked, appreciated, or accepted by liberal institutions. We need new messengers and political leaders who are fearless and will go on the offensive to get the conservative message out. Waiting for the next election, next viable candidate, or next crisis to save the day is as much of a plan as waiting for Godot. Who will speak for the American people?
West Windsor, New Jersey
To the Editor:
If conservatives are meant to see the world as it really is, then we must be realistic about Barack Obama. We are familiar with his leftist tendencies. Yet he has also embraced most of President Bush’s anti-terror measures, decapitated al-Qaeda affiliates, stood up to China, made school reform part of his agenda, and retained the Bush tax cuts for most Americans. His chief of staff resigned to become mayor of Chicago, where he metaphorically gave the teachers’ union a swift kick.
President Obama is an ideologue constrained by political reality. For purposes of your January symposium, the political constraints are noteworthy. Americans believe that we must defend our homeland, keep tax rates low, and reduce public-trade-union influence. If a conservative from the 1960s were transplanted to 2013, he would be overjoyed at what he saw. Yet conservatives must heed November’s siren. We must remove the creeping “progressive” standard that many on the left now seek to establish. They would return us to the misery of statist policies that failed in the past. The conservative agenda must be one of progress and reform, both as a tactic and a strategy.
Conservatives must insist that public schools and charter schools instill lessons of civic virtue and teach the founding American principles so that their students may become responsible citizens. They must help nonprofit organizations that can offer university programs to stimulate interest in those patterns of behavior that lead to successful lives, such as family stability and sense of community. The conservative strategic interest in reforming the sensibilities of young people will not necessarily pay off in the next election, or in elections that soon follow. Yet it is, by definition, the way to restore America.
Thomas M. Selman
Silver Spring, Maryland
To the Editor:
In the January issue, COMMENTARY asked the right question: “What Is the Future of Conservatism in the Wake of the 2012 Election?” But most if not all of the contributors to the symposium explicitly or implicitly answered a different question: “Can the GOP win a presidential election?” The GOP has ceased to represent constitutional conservatism. While it may be to the right of the Democratic Party, that is not a tough standard to attain, and much of the GOP (the Tea Party caucus excepted) simply stands for rewarding lobbying interests that are different from those of the Democrats, and for merely trimming the growth in the size of the federal government. Discussing the tactics and personnel the GOP will need to win the presidency hardly helps our country. Politicians project the views of voters, not the other way around. Thus the real issue for conservatism in this country is that there is no appetite for it among the vast majority of Americans.
Most of today’s voters have been educated in a public school system and a college system where they only learned to revere the munificence, and speak the language, of government. This was different when Ronald Reagan was first elected. At that time, many voters were probably educated in a period when liberalism’s infection of our education system was less pervasive and mature; and so, more Americans were open to believing in the principles that formed the basis of the Founding. Reagan was the right man with the right message, but he also had the right audience. That audience just doesn’t exist today en masse.
Thus my answer to the question actually posed by COMMENTARY: The future of conservatism is bleak until we can dismantle the public school system and redeem liberal arts education in our universities. If that happens, we can teach a new generation of Americans the beauty and effectiveness of the principles of Jefferson, Madison, Hayek, von Mises, Rand, etc. As our economy approaches the impenetrable wall represented by the laws of economics, conservatism in America may have a bright long-term future. But we are reminded of the Old Testament and the ancient Israelites, required to wander in the desert for 40 years to rid themselves of the generation that preferred the security of slavery in Egypt to the uncertainty of freedom. The desirable future in America can’t begin until this generation—which prefers the security of economic slavery under liberalism to the uncertainty of constitutional conservatism—moves on.
Mamaroneck, New York
To the Editor:
Your January issue presents a buffet of thought-provoking, insightful articles on the future of conservatism. But the most penetrating observation was made before the election, by Mitt Romney: “If they want more stuff from government, tell them to go vote for the other guy—more free stuff.” They did want more free stuff. They did vote for the other guy. By doing so, the voters validated the old prediction of various attributions: “The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public’s money.”
What we need is nothing less than another Great Awakening. Is this likely, considering our diverse population? Is it even possible, considering that many recent immigrants came here in search of prosperity but brought with them their Old World attachment to a powerful, paternalistic central government? And even if it is possible, who will lead it? Not mainstream churches or synagogues, which have been influenced by leftism much more than leftism has been influenced by them. Who will feel a calling to restore our faith in Dennis Prager’s American trinity of In God We Trust, E Pluribus Unum, and Liberty? Unless we restore the first two, we will surely lose the third. I devoutly hope to see such a person, but hope is not a policy.
David C. Stolinsky
Los Angeles, California
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Must-Reads from Magazine
A Trump of their own.
There were many arguments for opposing Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency, but the retort usually boiled down to a single glib sentence: “But he fights.”
Donald Trump could accuse John McCain of bringing dishonor upon the country and George W. Bush of being complicit in the September 11th attacks. He could make racist or misogynistic comments and even call Republican primary voters “stupid”; none of it mattered. “We right-thinking people have tried dignity,” read one typical example of this period’s pro-Trump apologia. “And the results were always the same.”
If you can get over the moral bankruptcy and selective memory inherent in this posture, it has its own compelling logic. Driving an eighteen-wheel truck through the standards of decorum that govern political discourse is certainly liberating. If there is no threshold at which the means discredit the ends, then everything is permitted. That kind of freedom has bipartisan appeal.
Democrats who once lamented the death of decency at Trump’s hands were apparently only troubled by their party’s disparity in this new rhetorical arms race. The opposition party seems perfectly happy to see standards torn down so long as their side is doing the demolition.
This week, with passions surrounding Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court reaching a crescendo, Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono demonstrated that Democrats, too, are easily seduced by emotionally gratifying partisan outbursts. “They’ve extended a finger,” Hirono said of how Judiciary Committee Republicans have behaved toward Dr. Christine Blasey Ford since she was revealed as the woman accusing Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct as a minor. “That’s how I look at it.”
That’s an odd way to characterize the committee chairman’s offers to allow Dr. Blasey Ford the opportunity to have her story told before Congress in whatever setting she felt most comfortable. Those offers ranged from a public hearing to a private hearing to a staff interview, either publicly or behind closed doors, to even arranging for staffers to interview her at her home in California. Hirono was not similarly enraged by the fact that it was her fellow Democrats who violated Blasey Ford’s confidentiality and leaked her name to the press, forcing her to go public. But the appeal of pugnacity for its own sake isn’t rooted in consistency.
Hirono went on to demonstrate her churlish bona fides in the manner that most satisfies voters who find that kind of unthinking animus compelling: rank bigotry.
“Guess who’s perpetuating all these kinds of actions? It’s the men in this country,” Hirono continued. “Just shut up and step up. Do the right thing.” The antagonistic generalization of an entire demographic group designed to exacerbate a sense of grievance among members of another demographic group is condemnable when it’s Trump doing the generalizing and exacerbating. In Hirono’s case, it occasioned a glamorous profile piece in the Washington Post.
Hirono was feted for achieving “hero” status on the left and for channeling “the anger of the party’s base.” Her style was described as “blunt” amid an exploration of her political maturation and background as the U.S. Senate’s only immigrant. “I’ve been fighting these fights for a—I was going to say f-ing long time,” Hirono told the Post. The senator added that, despite a lack of evidence or testimony from the accuser, she believes Blasey Ford’s account of the assault over Kavanaugh’s denials and previewed her intention to “make more attention-grabbing comments” soon. Presumably, those remarks will be more “attention-grabbing” than even rank misandry.
This is a perfect encapsulation of the appeal of the fighter. It isn’t what the fight achieves but the reaction it inspires that has the most allure. But those who confuse being provocative with being effective risk falling into a trap. Trump’s defenders did not mourn the standards of decency through which Trump punched a massive hole, but the alt-right and their noxious fellow travelers also came out of that breach. The left, too, has its share of violent, aggressively mendacious, and anti-intellectual elements. They’ve already taken advantage of reduced barriers to entry into legitimate national politics. Lowering them further only benefits charlatans, hucksters, and the maladjusted.
What’s more, the “fire in the belly,” as Hillary Clinton’s former press secretary Brian Fallon euphemistically describes Hirono’s chauvinistic agitation, is frequently counterproductive. Her comments channel the liberal id, but they don’t make Republicans more willing to compromise. What Donald Trump’s supporters call “telling it like it is” is often just being a jerk. No other Republican but Trump would have callously called into question Blasey Ford’s accounting of events, for example. Indeed, even the most reckless of Republicans have avoided questioning Blasey Ford’s recollection, but not Trump. He just says what’s in his gut, but his gut has made the Republican mission of confirming Kavanaugh to the Court before the start of its new term on October 1 that much more difficult. The number of times that Trump’s loose talk prevented Republicans from advancing the ball should give pause to those who believe power is the only factor that matters.
It’s unlikely that these appeals will reach those for whom provocation for provocation’s sake is a virtue. “But he fights” is not an argument. It’s a sentiment. Hirono’s bluster might not advance Democratic prospects, but it makes Brian Fallon feel like Democrats share his anxieties. And, for some, that’s all that matters. That tells you a lot about where the Democratic Party is today, and where the country will be in 2020.
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A lesson from Finland.
High-ranking politicians are entitled to freedom of speech and conscience. That shouldn’t be a controversial statement, but it often is, especially in European countries where the range of acceptable views is narrow–and narrowing. Just ask Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini, who spent the summer fighting off an investigation into his participation at an anti-abortion vigil in Canada. On Friday, Soini survived a no-confidence vote in Parliament over the issue.
“In general, I’m worried that Christianity is being squeezed,” he told me in a phone interview Friday, hours after his colleagues voted 100 to 60 to allow him to keep his post. “There is a tendency to squeeze Christianity out of the public square.”
Soini had long been associated with the anti-immigration, Euroskeptic Finns Party, though last year he defected and formed a new conservative group, known as Blue Reform. Before coming to power, Soini could sometimes be heard railing against “market liberals” and “NATO hawks.” But when I interviewed him in Helsinki in 2015, soon after he was appointed foreign minister, he told me his country wouldn’t hesitate to join NATO if Russian aggression continued to escalate. He’s also a vociferous supporter of Israel.
Through all the shifts of ideology and fortune, one point has remained fixed in his worldview: Soini is a devout Catholic, having converted from Lutheranism as a young man in the 1980s, and he firmly believes in the dignity of human life from conception to natural death. “I have been in politics for many years,” he said. “Everyone knows my pro-life stance.” The trouble is that “many people want me to have my views only in private.”
Hence his ordeal of the past few months. It all began in May when Soini was in Ottawa for a meeting of the Arctic Council, of which Finland is a member. At the church he attended for Mass, he spotted a flyer for an anti-abortion vigil, to be held the following evening. He attended the vigil as a private citizen: “I wasn’t performing as a minister but in my personal capacity. This happened in my spare time.”
A colleague posted a photo of the event on his private Twitter page, however, which is how local media in Finland got wind of his presence at the rally. The complaints soon poured into the office of the chancellor of justice, who supervises the legal conduct of government ministers. A four-month investigation followed. Soini didn’t break any laws, the chancellor concluded, but he should have been more circumspect when abroad, even in his spare time.
Soini wasn’t entirely oblivious to the fact that he was treading on sensitive ground. A top diplomat can never quite operate like a private citizen, much as a private citizen can’t act like a diplomat (someone tell John Kerry). Still, does anyone imagine that Soini would land in such hot water if he had attended a vigil for action on climate change? Or one in favor of abortion rights?
“No, no, no. I wouldn’t say so … The Finnish official line is that I should be careful because abortion is legal in Finland and Canada.” So the outrage is issue-specific and, to be precise, worldview-specific. In Nordic countries, especially, the political culture is consensus-based to a fault, and the consensus is that the outcome of the 1960s sexual revolution will never be up for debate. Next door in Sweden, midwives are blacklisted from the profession for espousing anti-abortion views. Ditto for Norwegian doctors who refuse to dispense IUDs and abortifacients on conscience grounds.
The consensus expects ministers to bring their views into line or keep their mouths shut. “This is of course clearly politics,” Soini told me. “I think I have freedom of conscience. I haven’t done anything wrong. This is me practicing my religion.” And the free exercise of religion means having the right to espouse the moral teachings of one’s faith—or it means nothing.
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Banality and evil.
A week ago, I wondered what was going on in Sunspot, New Mexico. The FBI had swept into this mountain-top solar observatory, complete with Black Hawk helicopters, evacuated everyone, and closed the place down with no explanation whatever. Local police were politely told to butt out. It was like the first scene in a 1950’s Hollywood sci-fi movie, probably starring Walter Pidgeon.
Well, now we know, at least according to the New York Post.
If you’re hoping for little green men saying, “Take me to your leader,” you’re in for a disappointment. It seems the observatory head had discovered a laptop with child pornography on it that belonged to the janitor. The janitor then made veiled threats and in came the Black Hawks.
In sum, an all-too-earthly explanation with a little law-enforcement overkill thrown in.
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The demands of the politicized life.
John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, has been the subject of withering criticism of late, but I’m grateful to him. Yes, he shouldn’t have refused to write a recommendation for a student merely because the semester abroad program she was applying to was in Israel. But at least he exposed what the boycott movement is about, aspects of which I suspect some of its blither endorsers are unaware.
We are routinely told, as we were by the American Studies Association, that boycott actions against Israel are “limited to institutions and their official representatives.” But Cheney-Lippold reminds us that the boycott, even if read in this narrow way, obligates professors to refuse to assist their own students when those students seek to participate in study abroad programs in Israel. Dan Avnon, an Israeli academic, learned years ago that the same goes for Israel faculty members seeking to participate in exchange programs sponsored by Israeli universities. They, too, must be turned away regardless of their position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When the American Studies Association boycott of Israel was announced, over two hundred college presidents or provosts properly and publicly rejected it. But even they might not have imagined that the boycott was more than a symbolic gesture. Thanks to Professor Cheney-Lippold, they now know that it involves actions that disserve their students. Yes, Cheney-Lippold now says he was mistaken when he wrote that “many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel.” But he is hardly a lone wolf in hyper-politicized disciplines like American Studies, Asian-American Studies, and Women’s Studies, whose professional associations have taken stands in favor of boycotting Israel. Administrators looking at bids to expand such programs should take note of their admirably open opposition to the exchange of ideas.
Cheney-Lippold, like other boycott defenders, points to the supposed 2005 “call of Palestinian civil society” to justify his singling out of Israel. “I support,” he says in comments to the student newspaper, “communities who organize themselves and ask for international support to achieve equal rights, freedom and to prevent violations of international law.” Set aside the absurdity of this reasoning (“Why am I not boycotting China on behalf of Tibet? Because China has been much more effective in stifling civil society!”). Focus instead on what Cheney- Lippold could have found out by Googling. The first endorser of the call of “civil society” is the Council of National and Islamic Forces (NIF) in Palestine, which includes Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and other groups that trade not only in violent resistance but in violence that directly targets noncombatants.
That’s remained par for the course for the boycott movement. In October 2015, in the midst of the series of stabbings deemed “the knife intifada,” the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel shared a call for an International Day with the “new generation of Palestinians” then “rising up against Israel’s brutal, decades-old system of occupation.” To be sure, they did not directly endorse attacks on civilians, but they did issue their statement of solidarity with “Palestinian popular resistance” one day after four attacks that left three Israelis–all civilians–dead.
The boycott movement, in other words, can sign on to a solidarity movement that includes the targeting of civilians for death, but cannot sign letters of recommendation for their own undergraduates if those undergraduates seek to learn in Israel. That tells us all we need to know about the boycott movement. It was nice of Cheney-Lippold to tell us.