I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Andrew Sullivan and the hollow "Conservative Soul"

(updated below)

There is a serious fraud emerging in the political landscape that, though easily predictable and predicted, is now being perpetrated with full force -- namely, that the so-called "conservative movement" is not responsible for the destruction wrought on the country by the Bush presidency and the loyal Republican Congress which followed him. Even more audaciously, the claim is emerging that the "conservative movement" is actually the prime victim here, because its lofty "principles" have been betrayed and repudiated by the President and the Congress which have ruled our country for the last six years.

This cry of victimization was the principal theme at the so-called "National Review Institute conservative summit" held this weekend, at which one conservative luminary after the next paraded on stage to lament that the unpopular President and rejected GOP-controlled Congress "abandoned" conservatism and failed for that reason. As but one illustrative example, here is National Review Editor Rich Lowry in his opening remarks, introducing Newt Gingrich, whom Lowry afterwards described as "inspiring, brilliant, creative, visionary":

It is, in all seriousness, it is a distressing and depressing time to be a conservative. I'm reminded of the old saying by Mao -- things are always darkest before they go completely black.

In recent years, we have watched a Republican Congress disgrace itself with its association with scandal, with its willful lack of fiscal discipline, and with its utter disinterest in the reforms that America needs. And at the same time, we watched a Republican President abet or passively accept the excesses of his Congressional party and, more importantly, fail to take the steps - until perhaps now - fail to take the steps to win a major foreign war. . . .

So we need to figure out a way how to make conservative policy and principles appealing and relevant again to the American public, and we need to do it together.

Note the passive tone Lowry uses to signify a lack of agency, even victimhood -- "we have watched a Republican Congress disgrace itself . . . " and "we watched a Republican President abet or passively accept the excesses of his Congressional party . . . . " Poor Lowry and his fellow movement conservatives: they have stood by helplessly and with such sadness as the country was damaged by a President and Congress which abandoned and violated their conservative principles and left conservatives isolated and with nowhere to turn.

But the deceit here is manifest. Lowry and his "conservative" comrades were anything but passive observers over the last six years. They did far more than "watch" as the President and the Congress "disgraced" themselves and damaged this country. It was self-identified "conservatives" who were the principal cheerleaders, the most ardent and loyal propagandists, propping up George Bush and his blindly loyal Republican Congress.

It was they who continuously told America that George Bush was the unified reincarnation of the Great American Conservative Hero Ronald Reagan and the Great Warrior Defender of Freedom, Winston Churchill, all wrapped up in one glorious, powerful package. It was this same conservative movement -- now pretending to lament the abandonment of conservatism by Bush and the Congress -- which was the single greatest source of Bush's political support, which twice elected him and propped up his presidency and the movement which followed it.

So why, after six years of glorifying George Bush and devoting their full-fledged loyalty to him and the GOP-controlled Congress are conservatives like Lowry and Gingrich suddenly insisting that Bush is an anti-conservative and the GOP-led Congress the opposite of conservative virtue? The answer is as obvious as it is revealing. They are desperately trying to disclaim responsibility for the disasters that they wrought in the name of "conservatism," by repudiating the political figures whom they named as the standard-bearers of their movement but whom America has now so decisively rejected.

George Bush has not changed in the slightest. He is exactly the same as he was when he was converted into the hero and icon of the "conservative movement." The only thing that has changed is that Bush is no longer the wildly popular President which conservatives sought to embrace, but instead is a deeply disliked figured, increasingly detested by Americans, from whom conservatives now wish to shield themselves. And in this regard, these self-proclaimed great devotees of Conservative Political Principles have revealed themselves to have none.

When he was popular, George Bush was the Embodiment of Conservatism. Now that he is rejected on a historic scale, he is the Betrayer of Conservatism. That is because "Conservatism" -- while definable on a theoretical plane -- has come to have no practical meaning in this country other than a quest for ever-expanding government power for its own sake. When George Bush enabled those ends, he was The Great Conservative. Now that he impedes them, he is the Judas of the Conservative Movement. It is just that simple and transparent.

* * * * *

It is in this context that Andrew Sullivan's book, The Conservative Soul, is highly worth reading, both because of how revealing and frustrating it is at the same time. Sullivan was one of the very few conservatives who repudiated Bush and the Bush movement when Bush was still popular.

He did so based on the recognition that the Bush presidency never had anything to do with the Goldwater/Reagan "conservative principles" which one finds in textbooks and think tanks (but never in reality). Instead, the Bush movement is a rank fundamentalist and authoritarian movement which sought to vest virtually unlimited power in George Bush as Leader (and will do the same with its next Leader), and to expand, rather than contract, federal power in order to forcibly implement its view of the Good and to perpetuate its own power. That is what "political conservatism" in this country has become.

Sullivan's general critique of the Bush administration, and his specific complaint that it has fundamentally deviated from the abstract conservative principles to which people like Lowry profess fidelity, is both accurate and persuasive. Along those lines, Sullivan cites the borderline-religious belief in tax cuts, depicted not as sound policy but as a moral good, to be pursued "unrelated to any empirical context of consistent rationale," and thus imposed even in the face of suffocating deficits and the virtually unprecedented expansion of government spending.

And it was this same evangelical certainty in the movement's Rightness that not only led the administration to invade Iraq but to persist in the occupation and to insist that things were going well, even in the face of mountains of undeniable empirical evidence to the contrary:

In that worldview, what matters was the ideological analysis: good versus evil. What mattered was the assertion of the United States' right to act alone if necessary to defend its own security. What mattered was the zero-sum analysis that we had to choose between war against Saddam and a potential mushroom cloud in an American city. It was this rigid and abstract analysis that essentially abolished the idea that the war was subject to rational debate. . . . The fundamentalist makes his mind up instantly, makes the fundamental decision, and cannot, by necessity, stop short at a later date and ask himself if he's right. Such second-guessing undermines his entire worldview. It threatens his psychological core.

And this authoritarian mindset, as John Dean so ably documented, leads to all sorts of excesses and amoral behavior. As Sullivan put it: "Self-surrender to authority first; conscience and self-determination second."

So this is all well and good as far as it goes. Personally (and I'm aware that this is going to grate on a lot of sensibilities), I think Sullivan is an excellent writer and a commendable and insightful political thinker. As is evident from his book and his blog, he explicitly examines and frequently re-visits the first principles underlying his beliefs, which is why he is open to rational opposition and to changing his mind about his political views, even on fundamental questions. That is a trait that is all too rare.

That is what makes The Conservative Soul worth reading. It highlights the true philosophical and psychological roots of the Bush movement -- its first principles -- and reveals just how rotted those fundamentalist roots are. It does this as well as, if not better than, any other book has done. And it makes a unique and compelling case for the virtue of doubt, something from which anyone with strong political convictions would probably benefit.

As is true for many people who are driven by their passions, Sullivan himself is certainly prone to excessive, blinding emotion arising from his own self-righteous certainties. That is a flaw that has led him astray in the past into hysteria-based crusades and rather ignoble accusations against others who expressed certain political views, including anti-war and anti-Bush views which Sullivan himself has now come to embrace.

His admissions of error in that regard, while commendable, are less complete and repentant than one would like. He refers to his "analytical errors in the past few years" -- meaning, principally, his support for the war in Iraq specifically and the Bush presidency generally -- but then attributes those errors to a noble cause: "outrage at the atrocity of September 11."

But Sullivan was not merely wrong on the question of Iraq and related matters. He was really one of the leaders of the ugly lynch mobs which impugned not just the judgment, but the motives and patriotism, of Americans who did not succumb to the errors of judgment and raging hysteria which consumed Sullivan. And it's certainly understandable that some people, particularly those who were the targets of that bile, are unlikely ever to think positively about him.

On balance, though, I think the virtues of Sullivan as a political commentator easily outweigh his sins, and The Conservative Soul illustrates why. When he was cheering on George Bush and the Iraq invasion in 2002 and 2003, Sullivan was a virtual hero to Bush supporters. He was far and away the most popular right-wing pundit at the time, and he had a large and loyal constituency. He could have easily maintained and even expanded that popularity -- and preserved the material and other advantages which accompany it -- simply by adhering to his views.

But he didn't do that. He gradually recognized what the Bush movement really was and, as a result, turned on the President and repudiated the political movement which was his fan base. He did so even though he had to know that he would never really be welcomed by liberals, with whom he had been warring for a decade at least. Knowingly alienating oneself from one's core supporters, while being well-aware that it is likely to leave one isolated and without a real constituency, is a commendable act which requires courage. Courage is also required to publicly repudiate one's prior, emphatically advocated positions. That's something which most people, I think, would find very difficult, if not impossible, to do.

And, as an aside, because he has been such a polarizing figure, Sullivan's courage in other, even more important respects has been quite under-appreciated -- courage exemplified by being openly gay at a time when most people weren't, and as part of a political movement where that could only impede him; being one of the first public figures in America to openly disclose his HIV status and to talk openly about living with the virus; and advocating gay marriage long before it was anything remotely like a mainstream topic. Though most people have a strident and absolute view of Sullivan one way or the other, he is a complicated, intelligent, thoughtful and unpredictable political commentator -- open to modifying his views and admitting error -- all of which sets him apart -- and, I think, above -- the majority of the trite, standardized, lifeless pundits who dominate our political discourse.

* * * * * *

All of this brings us back to Rich Lowry and Newt Gingrich and the emerging deceit which the conservative movement is attempting to perpetrate. In contrast to the vast majority of so-called "conservatives" who loyally stood by and cheered on the Bush Presidency and the "disgraced" Republican Congress, there were a handful of conservatives who -- long before Bush's popularity collapsed -- were pointing out just how "un-conservative" the Bush movement was. Sullivan was one such person, along with people like Bruce Bartlett and Pat Buchanan and The American Conservative. And they were treated like blasphemers and pariahs by the Lowry/National Review/Gingrich/Weekly Standard conservatives, because the "Conservative Movement" became synonymous with the Bush Movement, and it therefore became impossible to repudiate the latter without being cast out of the former.

One of the principal flaws of Sullivan's book is that it speaks of "political conservatism" in a way that exists only in the abstract but never in reality. The fabled Goldwater/Reagan small-government "conservatism of doubt" which Sullivan hails -- like the purified, magnanimous form of Communism -- exists, for better or worse, only in myth.

While it is true that Bush has presided over extraordinary growth in federal spending, so did Reagan. Though Bush's deficit spending exceeds that of Reagan's, it does so only by degree, not level. The pornography-obsessed Ed Meese and the utter lawlessness of the Iran-contra scandal were merely the Reagan precursors to the Bush excesses which Sullivan finds so "anti-conservative." The Bush presidency is an extension, an outgrowth, of the roots of political conservatism in this country, not a betrayal of them.

All of the attributes which have made the Bush presidency so disastrous are not in conflict with political conservatism as it exists in reality. Those attributes -- vast expansions of federal power to implement moralistic agendas and to perpetuate political power, along with authoritarian faith in the Leader -- are not violations of "conservative principles." Those have become the defining attributes of the Conservative Movement in this country.

That is why the warnings from Sullivan and others that the Republican Party was acting in violation of "conservative principles" fell on deaf ears and even prompted such hostility -- until, that is, Bush's popularity collapsed. "Conservative principles" are marketing props used by the Conservative Movement to achieve political power, not actual beliefs. Sullivan's principal argument that the Bush presidency never adhered to conservative principles is true enough, but the same can be said of the entire American conservative political movement. That is why they bred and elevated George Bush for six years, and suddenly "realized" that he was "not a conservative" only once political expediency required it.

UPDATE: For a sense of just how much of a precursor the Reagan administration was with regard to the Bush administration's sheer lawlessness, I highly recommend this superb 1987 Bill Moyers documentary on the Iran-Contra affair (which features convict Elliot Abrams, a member of both administrations). Some of the parallels are quite astounding, really almost exact (h/t reader CW). Respect for the "rule of law" is, of course, included in the Pantheon of Conservative Principles.

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