When last we spoke, I confessed my worry that the left is starting down that same path the right began to carve out over twenty years ago. And if I am correct about this, it should be worrisome to you as well — especially if you yourself are on the left.
After all, even though we tend to think of today’s GOP behaving in ways typical of a minority opposition party, the truth is that today’s Republican party and its base is an animal unlike anything we have ever before seen in a democratic society. (At least to my knowledge.) And the primary victim of the path they have chosen has not been the American people (though they are certainly a very close second), but American conservatism itself.
But before we decide whether or not the left is on a certain path, it seems wise to first ask ourselves what this path looks like. So we’re going to need to spend some time looking in the rearview mirror. To that end, allow me to share two anecdotes which are separated by a mere twenty years.
It is the mid-1990s, and conservative GOP officials are scrambling. The liberal president they were sure they had squarely in their sights has turned the tables on them.
A little over two years prior, the young and brash Good Old Boy from Arkansas had come to Washington full of progressive ideals, and had made his first order of business nationalizing the US healthcare system. In what might have been a miscalculation born of nepotism, corruption, or simple faith in the woman he loved, he handed the duties of this pipe dream over to his wife. Its failure was spectacular, and arguably contributed more than anything else to his party’s losing control of Congress for the first time in four decades. The Republicans had rightly smelled blood.
Now, however, Bill Clinton has bounced back by doing the thing GOP operatives thought him incapable of doing: co-opting boilerplate conservative issues. In short order he has claimed victory on the law and order front by signing into law both an easing of requirements for wiretapping suspected criminals and a streamlining of killing death row inmates. He has stolen thunder from the Contract With America crowd by advocating the passing of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, which greatly rolls back financial assistance to the nation’s most vulnerable. He has pushed for a reduction in government spending and balanced budget requirements that had been central drivers of the fiscal arm of conservatism for generations, all while giving historic tax breaks to a segment of Americans that traditionally voted for the other guys. Through executive order he has cut back and curtailed affirmative action, even as he pledged his support for it. And of course, in a move that would directly inspire Karl Rove less than a decade later, he has thrown his gays and lesbians allies under the bus in exchange for a few polling points.
All of this has put conservatives in something of an odd position: they are actually winning the battles they most want to win, but the President is getting credit for each victory. They disagree amongst themselves how to handle the President’s sudden granting of legislative wishes. One side is pragmatic, and argues that they should declare a victory of their ideals and embrace the President’s coming around to the “right” side of the fence. After all, these pragmatists argue, if he is suddenly championing and pushing through their own key issues why should they worry? The other side is more confrontational, and insists that they need to swing for the fences in the upcoming election by saying he hasn’t gone far enough, even though they are aware doing so will likely be unpopular with independents.
For the purposes of this post, however, the point of this story is what no one on the right does upon seeing their foe embrace their own ideals and talking points: Declare that if the President is against affirmative action, welfare for the poor, equality for gays and lesbians, and the rights of suspected criminals, then they should now be for those things. The thought that they might do so never even occurs to them. Why would it?
It is 2009.
Barack Obama is the first Democratic president since Clinton. Unlike Clinton, he is knee deep in a serious recession that does not look to be going away. So he reaches for his predecessor’s handbook and co-opts a conservative talking point in a throw-away speech at Texas A&M. Children, he declares, need to learn how to be good, patriotic citizens like they used to be back in the good old days. He suggests to children that they put down their video games, pick up the schoolbooks, and start putting in some time to do something virtuous like help the elderly, or clean up their community. He asks of them, in other words, exactly what Bills Bennett, O’Reilly, and Kristol have partly built careers on for years.
In retrospect, the second most surprising thing about the conservative response to Obama’s milquetoast speech is how quickly those conservatives jettison what is arguably their most bedrock value, as they suddenly insist that encouraging kids to work hard and be good patriotic citizens is an evil path to fascism.
The most surprising thing in retrospect is that when this happens, no one — not conservatives, not liberals, not independent observers, not anyone — is remotely surprised that the right has just surrendered one of its most bedrock principles just to get a few minutes extra time on Fox News over a complete non-issue.
Compare, if you will, those two anecdotes. Set side by side, they beg but one simple, profound question:
What the fuck happened to the right, anyway?
The answer to this question, I believe, is best illustrated by taking a look at events that occurred at a point in time that fell directly between of these two anecdotes, a half a world away.
Of all the books written so far about the Bush Presidency, I would argue that the most important is Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone. Written in 2006, it is an in-depth look at the first year of the US occupation of Iraq following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
If he has an opinion on the war itself, Chandrasekaran does not share it in the book; instead, he focuses on the very real efforts of the Bush administration to keep their promises about positioning Iraq to be the Jeffersonian City On a Hill of the Arab world. The long-term success or failure of this endeavor is debatable (and is probably still in progress), but there is no doubt that our initial efforts there were disastrous. What makes Imperial Life so important as a work of journalism is that it details exactly why it was such a failure. And in doing so, Chandrasekaran inadvertently presents the perfect microcosm of not only the entire Bush administration, but 21st century movement conservatism in general.
For example, take the position of Senior Advisor to the Iraqi Ministry of Health. When the United States initially made its rebuilding-Iraq plans prior to the war’s start, Skip Burkle, Jr. was chosen to head up the team to repair and modernize Iraq’s health care system. His boyish nickname aside, Burkle was both a worthy and obvious choice: Along with a masters degree in public health, Burkle’s resume boasts post-graduate degrees from Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth and Berkley. He was the founder and Director of the World Health Organization’s Center of Excellence in Disaster Management and Humanitarian Assistance. And if all of that makes him seem too “eggheady,” Burkle was also a retired Captain in the Naval Reserve, a two-time bronze-medal winner who served in the first Gulf War. If he were a character from a Tom Clancy novel, we’d criticize Clancy for writing a character too unrealistically perfect in his expertise. And make no mistake, this was a job that needed such expertise: On Day One, Burkle would run a multi-billion dollar industry with over 6,000 employees, and would be charged with resuscitating a thoroughly demolished and out-of-date healthcare system serving a country overflowing with wounded and diseased citizens.
Just prior to shipping out, however, Burkle was replaced by James K Haveman. Haveman had no real experience, training, or education related to public policy on the scale of the Iraq project. True, he had run Michigan’s health department for a short time, but that was a primarily a political and ceremonial position. Prior to his being picked by the Bush administration, Haveman’s most applicable management experience was running a Christian adoption agency whose mission was to council unwed pregnant women against having abortions. The reason for giving the nod to Haveman over Burkle? Haveman was judged a more “pure” and “loyal” conservative.
When he arrived in Iraq, the country’s entire healthcare system was in shambles. Not knowing how to even begin addressing the issues of understaffed, underfunded and thoroughly looted hospitals and clinics, Haveman decided to ignore those issue and instead focus on a smaller, more conservatively “pure” task: privatizing the pharmacies and networking with American pharmaceutical reps.
As Imperial Life shows, people like Haveman were the rule and not the exception. As Chandrasekaran began talking to the official “experts” being sent to Iraq, it became obvious that almost no one picked to rebuild Iraq had much (or any) experience in the various fields they were chosen to be experts in. Instead, potential job applicants were asked questions such as, “Who did you vote for in 2000?,” “What party to do you belong to, and how long have you been a member?,” and — my personal favorite — “Tell us your views on Roe vs. Wade.” Lucrative employment contracts for those overseeing the recreation of things such as water systems, waste management, and the building of infrastructure were awarded to the staffers of, friends of, and the children of donors to GOP congressmen and conservative think tanks who knew literally nothing about water systems, waste management, and the building of infrastructure. Jay Hallen, the young man tasked with the rebuilding of the Iraqi stock market, knew when he arrived that he wanted to privatize all aspects of the exchange. Unfortunately, that’s about all he did know. Despite having sweeping authority over the Iraqi economy, Hallen had never studied finance of any kind. By his own admission, he’d never even followed the financial news or the stock market at home; he found all that stuff boring. But he was picked at the age of twenty-four because he had been a loyal volunteer working the Florida recount in 2000.
At the time, cronyism was blamed on much of these kinds of miscues. But even though cronyism existed (and it absolutely did), I would like to posit the theory that the bigger culprit was a maniacal and unwavering faith in the ideology of American, talk-radio style Conservatism. Those who came over from the US had lived in a self-created media bubble that was already becoming an echo chamber. When they arrived, they built their own bubble in the middle of Baghdad, the American Green Zone. Setting themselves up is Hussein’s palace and surrounding themselves with literal walls to the actual Iraqis, the American civilian employees learned to accept only the data that correlated with the narrative that they were doing everything right. As Chandrasekaran observes, many seemed blissfully unaware of how little they knew, clinging instead to the belief that the repeated uttering of conservative aphorisms would somehow make the beleaguered nation magically repair itself.
Here is a thing you might not know about the government if your main source of information about it is the electronic media: It’s boring. It’s aggressively, achingly, mind-numbingly dull. Government isn’t actually two guys yelling at each other about Roe v. Wade. It’s meat inspectors, and traffic light repairmen, and street pavers, and feasibility studies, and intelligence reports about things that will never in a million years happen, and mountains upon mountains of forms. It’s a hundred million things being done every day that make sure the wheels don’t fall off. By the mid-2000s, the ranks of the Bush administration — and the GOP itself — were already filling up with those who had caught the fever of movement conservatism through talk radio. To them, government was a place where two guys shouted at each other about Roe v. Wade. Spouting knee-jerk aphorisms about bootstraps and taxes wasn’t a just way to get to Washington; it was what they had come to Washington to do.
Even before the Great Obama Freak Out, the signs of rot in the right were beginning to show — though most of us were still unaware of its depth at the time. The immediate aftermath of the Iraqi War showed us exactly where conservatism was headed, but it never occurred to most of us that it was happening at the time. The war itself was turned over to military experts, who secured a quick victory based not only on their overpowering military but also sound, disciplined tactics. To the Americans who had cut themselves off from media that wasn’t talk radio or Fox News, however, those generals had won because they were true believers of the conservative ideal. When the time came to turn Iraq over to American civilians to rebuild, they made the logical conclusions based on that belief: They sent the most “pure” conservatives, regardless of knowledge and experience, and assumed there was nothing more to be done. And because they had built such an enclosed media bubble for themselves, when it quickly went to s**t they were able to convince themselves that the only thing that kept them from succeeding was those who weren’t conservative enough (usually the mainstream media).
Even the elections of 2004 and 2006 were something of an eye-opener, in retrospect. The GOP was already defining itself not by who it was so much as who it wasn’t: They weren’t liberal. They weren’t the anti-Americans. They weren’t the gays. They weren’t the Mexicans. They ran the country into the ground, and at each misstep they blamed those who weren’t in power. The rallying cry of conservatism in the mid-2000s — at a time when they controlled all branches of government — was the anemic, “think how much worse the other guys would be.”
And of course, this surrender to ideology over competency was not relegated to those conservatives in the Middle East.
For example, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina the administration seemed flummoxed to learn that FEMA was actually expected to do things that might require a manger that understood what it was his agency did. Prior to heading up FEMA, Mike Brown ran the International Arabian Horse Association. (He is now a syndicated conservative talk show host, natch.) Brown was chosen to be FEMA’s director for the same reason Haveman was chosen to rebuild Iraq’s healthcare system: each was deemed a sufficiently “pure” conservative.
As a later congressional investigation showed, while Katrina ‘s devastation mounted Brown began emailing his subordinates asking, “can I go home now,” and emailed a female friend asking her to “please come rescue me” because he found actual disaster relief boring. Here is the first email he received from his staff in the field during the disaster:
Mike, Mickey and other medical equipment people have a 42-foot trailer full of beds, wheelchairs, oxygen concentrators, etc. They are wanting to take them where they can be used but need direction. Mickey specializes in ventilator patients so can be very helpful with acute care patients. If you could have someone contact him and let him know if he can be of service, he would appreciate it. Know you are busy but they really want to help.
Brown’s response to this email was similar to almost every other report he received. He simply forwarded it to another staffer with the message “Can we use these people?” — four days later. When it became obvious to the rest of the country that FEMA’s management was ill-prepared to handle a natural disaster, Brown began to implement damage-control protocols, one of the biggest of which was — I swear I am not making this up — rolling up his sleeves “to look more hard working” in front of cameras.
To this day, there is not a single conservative I know of that does not blame public anger at Mike Brown on the “lamestream media playing gotcha.”
Symbolism is more important than governance.
Purity is more important than competence.
Compromise is a sign of weakness.
Who we are is less important than who the enemy is.
Data that contradicts the Ideology is a lie; institutions that publish such data are the enemy; those individuals who consider such data are heretics.
These are the mantras the right began embracing in the mid-90s, as they slowly began to replace their reverence for the real Ronald Reagan with a worship of the caricature of Reagan drawn by Rush Limbaugh and Roger Ailes. As we’ve discussed before here, they have been able to sustain this path for two decades because for the first time in history, it is more profitable for conservatism’s key players to be losers than winners. But make no mistake, when the right first started down this path two decades ago they looked healthy, vibrant and reasonable in doing so. They looked like they knew what they were doing.
The question remains, then, is it possible the left is now starting down that same path?
Early next week we will take a look at that minority most disenfranchised in modern American society — the developmentally disabled. What we will see is less than pretty, and it will strongly suggests that the left is indeed following suit.
Those looking forward to me beating up the other side of the aisle will have to wait until then.
 For example, no one back home ever thought to send anyone to tackle the failed power plants that were crippling the post-war country. The Americans had generators and 24-hour electricity; none of these Limbaugh-come-lately viceroys bothered enough to consider that power might be needed elsewhere. Steve Browning, a member of the Army Corps of Engineers and one of the few real heroes of the occupation, eventually addressed it on his own personal time and by his own personal initiative because no one in charge would. Everyone else was happy to gather in groups in air-conditioned dining rooms and wax rhapsodic about how wonderful life in Iraq would be once they had instituted a flat tax. (Also notable was their menu during these discussions: bacon, ham, hot dogs, and pork chops, made by lower-class Muslim citizens who were willing to do anything to put food on their own tables. According to Chandrasekaran, this was not a case of willful disrespect by the occupiers; rather, no one there knew enough about Middle-eastern culture for the scale of the faux pas to ever resonate.)