Monthly Archives: June 2017

The GOP’s Preexisting Condition

 

It is not true that the preamble of the Senate Republican health care plan consists solely of a villainous mustache twirl. Nor does it conclude with an evil cackle. In between, though, the bill is cartoonishly mean spirited. Here’s the short version: It proposes chucking millions of poor people off of their healthcare plans while providing a massive tax break for the rich. It does raise the question of who, exactly, Mitch McConnell had in that secret lair writing this thing.  Dick Dastardly and Gargamel, maybe?

Enough of McConnell’s own troops blanched at the bill’s kid show villainy that a vote planned for this week was immediately punted to sometime else. After months of secret confabs and assurances of a bigger-er and better-er healthcare plan, the Senate Republicans basically said screw it and belly flopped into the same steaming pile of political doo-doo their House colleagues just perfumed themselves with. Whatever the ultimate fate of healthcare reform in this Congress, both chambers have now made one thing crystal clear: Despite years of high-horsing on the issue, the Republican Party doesn’t have a freakin’ clue about what it should do about healthcare. It is pretty unanimous in proclaiming that Obamacare must go. But as lots of people like lots of parts of Obamacare–no preexisting conditions, keeping kids on parental plans, and retaining Medicaid expansion—making it go without ticking off a lot of people is getting increasingly hard.

What congressional Republicans are trying to do doesn’t make a whole lot of political sense. The basic task they’ve set for themselves is to replace an increasingly popular program with something that is definitely different, but tries to do the same thing, at least enough so that people won’t notice the new plan leaves the elderly, the infirm and the poor less well-off while benefiting the wealthy.  Hmm. Good luck threading that needle. Thus far, the strategy of repeal and replace advocates basically boils down to promising moonbeams and bubble love while delivering not just tough medicine, but not much medicine at all. The GOP rhetorically favors what it legislatively opposes. It is entirely against Obamacare, but is for its central policy objectives. It is against people losing coverage, but crafts legislation guaranteeing that they will. It promises a better plan, which is so bad that it doesn’t want anyone to read it. How the heck did the Republican Party managed to paint itself into such a ridiculous corner?

Well, here’s the scoop. It’s no secret that the Republican Party doesn’t like Obamacare. What seems to have gotten lost in all the through-the-looking-glass world of healthcare politics is that the Democratic Party didn’t like it much either. If you actually want to understand the risible, farcical state of healthcare politics in the United States, that’s a critical and often overlooked fact. The fight over Obamacare is not, as it is so often portrayed, a battle between the left and the right. It’s the left trying to get the right to take yes for an answer, while the right absolutely refuses and instead insists on going through with an epic self-inflicted ass whooping.

What the Democrats really wanted was not Obamacare. What they wanted (and still want), was a universal, single-payer system. In other words, something where you’d be dunned a payroll tax which would support a sort of Medicare for everyone program. Most other industrialized democracies have some version of this. Yet back in 2009/10, even in the warm after-glow of their freshly minted congressional majorities, Dems knew they were never going to get what they wanted. Single-payer smacked of socialized healthcare, which guaranteed full-throated Republican opposition and made the politics, at best, tricky. But single-payer also threatened the interests of a lot pretty powerful groups—insurance companies, for-profit hospitals, swaths of healthcare professionals—who saw that approach as diminishing their livelihoods, or even extinguishing them entirely. That made the politics not just tricky, but pretty much impossible.

So back in 2009 the Dems controlled Congress and the White House—just like Republicans do now—and they wanted to do something about healthcare. They especially wanted to do something about the millions of Americans who had no coverage at all, but their preferred policy, a single-payer system predicated on compulsory social insurance payments, was a non-starter. So what Plan B that might actually be feasible? What the Dems hit on was, wait for it, a Republican plan. That became what we know as Obamacare. It’s true. The basic ideas behind Obamacare had been floated for decades by the GOP. Back in the 1970s the Nixon administration tried to push a program that looks very much like Obamacare. In the 1990s a Senate plan was backed by a who’s who of Republican heavy hitters that, among other things, proposed individual mandates, insurance markets, subsidies for those who couldn’t afford premiums, and a ban on preexisting condition exemptions. In 2006 Massachusetts actually adopted a state-level forerunner of Obamacare, requiring all its citizens to purchase health care, providing subsidies for those who couldn’t afford coverage, and mandating employer provide plans. The governor who championed it was Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican Party presidential nominee.

All the stuff that the Obamacare repeal and replace squad has railed against for years – the individual mandate, a massive expansion of the federal Medicaid program, scads of government dough to subsidize insurance premiums – are mostly Republican ideas. Don’t take my word for it. Fox News said more or less the same thing. For Democrats Plan B was largely Republican Plan A. The Dems tried to shoehorn something in between those two points on the not entirely nutso assumption it provided a shot at substantive bipartisan reform.

Didn’t work out that way, did it? The Republican Party was all for its ideas unless Democrats—especially Obama–were also for them. They sure as heck weren’t taking yes for an answer from that crowd. So the GOP took powder, had a hissy, and, pretty cynically, went after the major legislative achievement of Obama’s first term with spectacular alternative-facts like Sarah Palin death panel fairy tales.

Completely cooked up horror stories aside, the truth is there’s plenty to criticize about Obamacare. Even for its supporters it has always been viewed as more of a least bad feasible option rather than an end all and be all. But it’s hard to make any improvements if one side resolutely insists the entire thing reads like the script of Omen III, even if that same side wrote most of the script. And that’s pretty much how the GOP got itself in the fix it is in. It hasn’t got any better ideas than Obamacare because Obamacare was its best healthcare idea. This whole wave-the-bloody-shirt, anti-Obamacare crusade has, no doubt, been politically useful, but it also means the Republican Party has spent the better part of a decade knocking the stuffing out of its own thoughts and theories on healthcare policy.

It’s slowly seems to be dawning on GOP leaders (President Trump excepted) that it might not have been such a good idea to make its most promising healthcare policy proposals politically toxic. They have screamed long and loud that Obamacare is a disaster and given a chance they’d prove they can do better. That got them out of the political wilderness. But now they are out of ideas.

They may also find themselves out of luck. The standard GOP policy fallback—whatever the problem is, cut taxes—is not going to work here. The Republican Party had a good political run by demonizing Obamacare. That’s about to end because the electorate called its bluff and said, “okay you win, whaddaya you got?” The answer they’ve come up with–a waffle between warmed over Obamacare and Dickensian-levels of cold-heartedness—is not exactly what the doctor ordered.

Kansas Comes to its Senses

There’s a general consensus among professional observers of politics that the federal government is, to use the correct technical term, ate up with dumb ass. POTUS is potty, Congress is cuckoo, and partisanship has gone postal. Maybe so, but there are some hopeful signs down at the state level that all the insane-in-the-membrane political fever is breaking.

Case in point is Kansas. Five years ago, Gov. Sam Brownback led a mostly successful charge to fully implement the low tax, small government political agenda long lusted after by Milton Friedman fanboys, Laffer Curve libertarians, and Koch brothers conservatives. The basic plan was to free Kansas entrepreneurs from the shackles of onerous (or even any) taxation, and they’d use the extra dough to unleash innovation, create jobs and usher in a new era of prosperity and plenty for the Sunflower State.  It didn’t happen. They just stopped paying taxes. And the government went broke. Go figure.

What was truly looney about Kansas’ whole hog embrace of right-wing economic policy was not that they tried it. What the heck, you never know unless you try. Well, they tried. And tried. And tried. And the same thing happened every stinkin’ year—the government sank one level deeper into the budgetary doo-doo. If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, then the Kansas government was clinically deranged.

For years, Brownback and his troops insisted things were going to get better. Any day now, the low tax economic miracle would arrive and, hoo-boy, wouldn’t those smug so-and-sos in the states surrounding Kansas be sorry they hadn’t followed suit. While Kansas government sank a full fathoms five into the financial ooze, those other states were foolishly taxing their citizens and throwing away that money on functioning public education systems, decent roads, and a modicum of fiduciary responsibility. Like any of that’s going to underpin economic growth. Suckers.

Unfortunately for Brownback the electorate got tired of waiting for his fiscal Godot to show up. After half-a-decade of watching its government madly clicking its Ruby Red supply-side slippers and leaving them all down at the heels, Kansans had finally had enough. Last election they bounced the Brownback/Tea Party wing of the GOP out on its behind and elected just enough moderate Republicans and Democrats to give common sense a fighting chance in the state legislature. And fight it did. The Kansas legislature passed legislation that, more or less, said, “the nut jobbery stops now.” Brownback vetoed it. The legislature—just—overrode the veto a couple of weeks ago.

The return of common sense was greeted glumly in some quarters. Some could of this could be chalked up to supply side true believers like Brownback, who kept begging everyone to keep chugging the Kool Aid because, seriously guys, just two more swallows we’ll all be piddling rainbows. It was celebrated by others, and not always in a sporting way. The schadenfreude squad was out in full force, and a lot of tut-tutting and told-you-sos could be heard coming from the neighborhood Keynesians. The lesson they are drawing is that you don’t boost an economy by destroying the state’s ability to provide the public goods and services that make it possible.

That’s a perfectly reasonable inference, but I seriously doubt Kansas’ experience will impart any universally agreed upon economic wisdom to the left or right. Conservatives will insist the underlying logic was sound, it was just the execution that was off. Maybe it would’ve worked if Kansas had not just cut taxes, but also stopped squandering the few dollars it did have on frou-frou like roads and teachers, and then cut all corporate regulation down to a single, voluntary “try not to kill anyone” rule of thumb. Liberals will likely infer the conservatives had the causal logic backwards. Clearly, if you cut taxes the economy tanks, ergo the best way to boost economic fortunes is to tax the snot out of everything. Thus we should start a vigorous program of taxing and spending and beggar government in the usual way. It’s tradition for chrissakes.

While it’s not likely to resolve partisan differences on economic policy, there is a political lesson that will—or at least should—be crystal clear from the Kansas experience. To wit: If you’ve got the chutzpah you can get away with promising the electorate caviar while feeding them horse shit. But you better be careful. By the third or fourth course, even some of the ideological faithful are going to start noticing those sturgeon’s eggs smack of horse flop. That tends to take the shine off a policy agenda and leave the voters with a very bad taste in their mouths.

And that, funnily enough, is about as hopeful a message as you’ll find in American politics these days. The big news from Kansas is not the epic failure of its self-proclaimed, “real live experiment” on the Republican Party’s most cherished economic prescription, though fail it did. The big news is that the electorate took note of the failure. Alternative-facts didn’t muscle out the actual evidence, and voters not only called BS they actually backed candidates for office—mostly moderate Republicans—whose prudence-to-piffle ratio promised a more centrist, reality-based notion of governance. This is not an occasion to get too misty eyed about the innate wisdom of the people. Let’s not forget this is the same group who for years happily noshed on Brownback’s equine butt pucks and trotted off to the polls to vote for seconds.

But there’s still some glimmer of hope there. Voters did, eventually, notice that their government was inept on a colossal scale and, just, did something about it before their chief executive carted them all the way to crazy town. Hopefully that’s a lesson from Kansas the rest of the country can learn from.

 

Anarchy in the UK

In 1962 Dean Acheson famously stuck a fork into the battered carcass of the United Kingdom by saying, “Great Britain has lost an empire and not yet found a role.” Fast forward about fifty years and it’s more accurate to say Great Britain has lost its marbles and not yet found a poll, or at least any yardstick of public opinion that is (a) accurate, and (b) makes any damn sense.

A couple of years ago the Brits confounded survey predictions and stunned the experts by voting to leave the European Union. Last week they did it again, only this time rather than voting to leave the EU they voted to kneecap their own government just as it starts haggling over the divorce settlement. Rather than strengthening the Tory government’s majority and its negotiating position—the long-predicted and expected outcome—the voters not only embraced “none of the above”, they actually got the bugger elected. The UK now has a sort of zombie government. It’s ambulatory, but struggling to achieve political sentience.

In this looking glass British political world, the big winner of the election was the loser. This is Labour Party leader and seventies space cadet Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn’s politics, basically a mish-mash of socialist tripe and Hugo Chavez bumper stickers, were thought to be too loony even for an electorate long known for its tolerance of eccentricity. But by promising free everything, lunch included, he locked up the youth vote which—and this almost never, ever happens—actually showed up and voted. The fact that Corbyn’s sums didn’t add up didn’t seem to matter. Apparently a super-rich oligarch living in Chelsea was going to be forced to pay for everything. Or something like that.

The big loser was the winner Prime Minister Theresa May. She not only ran a gobsmackingly tone-deaf campaign, she just couldn’t connect with voters. She tried adopting a Margaret Thatcher iron lady sort of image. It didn’t work, mostly because the composition of her character seems to be roughly nine parts gelatin to one part of any sort of ferrous material. She flopped and flipped (nickname: Theresa May, Maybe Not), and a song titled “Liar, Liar” was not only dedicated to her, it hit the top of the charts. Given a chance to inject some much-needed color into her monochrome effort on the hustings, she opted for a nice shade of beige. Lobbed a softball by an interviewer asking what was “the naughtiest thing you’ve ever done?” she replied by saying she’d run through a wheat field when she was younger. Not run through nekkid, or with her hair on fire, or carrying her favorite bong because the bobbies were raiding the rave. Nope, nothing like that.  Just an impish trot through a patch of maturing cereals. What a rascal.

Well, the Thatcher in the Rye ran her party right into the political weeds. The Tory disaster was all optional, the product of a snap election called deliberately to give British government a more powerful majority to deal with the EU in the Brexit negotiations. And it would be good for Britain to have a strong united front at that table, because the EU definitely wants a kilo (2.2 pounds) of flesh as the price for the UK regaining its sovereignty and the right to deregulate the curvature of its bananas (don’t ask, EU regulations are a pig’s breakfast of illogic*). Well, not only do the Tories not have a strengthened majority, they now have no majority at all. To govern they’ve had to cobble together a coalition with the Democratic Unionist Party, possibly the last functioning political organization non-ironically advocating Imperial rule (up yours Dean Acheson). Good luck with that chaps.

Does any of this really matter to those of staring agog from this side of the pond? Who really cares if the British government’s own voters sent them to the negotiating table with their credibility knackered and their trousers around their ankles? I mean, what with the controversial transition of the White House into Kremlin West, the GOP’s attempt to remove its own vertebral column, and nut jobs spraying lead at congressional charity baseball teams, we’ve got enough on our political plate.

Well, yes, that’s the point. The United Kingdom is important to the United States because it’d be nice if someone kept an eye on the global store while we go wackadoodle, and from an American point of view the UK is the assistant manager of choice. Not because the UK is subservient or a suck-up (well, not all the time), but because it shares with the United States a highly similar set of liberal democratic and market values. True, the British Lion doesn’t quite have the roar that it used to. Okay, it can’t roar at all. But it still has a pretty fierce meow.

The UK has the fifth largest economy in the world, a permanent seat at the UN Security Council, a set of respected and professional military/intelligence capabilities, and is one of only five nations with a true deep water navy (that means if it says to another country we’re going to come over there and kick your ass, they could actually give it a go). The only other nation on the planet with similar stature, capabilities and US-friendly values is France. And being as France is, um, full of the French, the UK is pretty much it as the practical option for an international bestest buddy, or at least the option more likely to help cover America’s back as opposed to piddle up it.

As the Brits seem to be taking a powder from rationality at the very same time as the United States, however, there’s nobody really minding the store at all. Right now there’s a deafening sucking sound in geopolitics. That’s the vacuum being created as America and the United Kingdom announce they’re going to their rooms for some alone time (translation: to engage in  spirited sessions of ideological self-abuse punctuated by lots of noisy navel gazing).  Filling that vacuum—whether they like it or not–are China, Russia and assorted lesser opportunistic types hoping to bite off a chunk of US butt. Caught up in these centrifugal forces are some reasonably sane nations, notably the Germans. And the Germans probably can—just—keep things from going completely tits up in Europe, though the French will want the credit, of course.  But the Germans are unlikely going to do more than that because they are still apologizing for that whole evil-genius-global-domination World War II thing.

We’ll all be better off if the British could, you know, elect an actual government and  get back to being an engaged and reasonable participant in global politics. And just as a coda to that Acheson quote, as a loud and proud Brit let me offer a rebuttal to any similar snarky condescension still remaining among our American cousins. The Empire had to go, of course. It was patriarchal, racist, and infused with outrageous snobbery and hubris. Plus, having a quarter of the planet ruled from a smallish island in the North Atlantic is just a dodgy proposition from a liberal democratic perspective. But it’s not like the Empire went missing because we couldn’t remember if we put it on the shelf or in our pants pockets. We did not so much lose an Empire as sacrifice it in order that the Nazis and Imperial Japan would not have theirs. That was, hands down, the best trade ever made in the history of geopolitics. Even if it did mean that for decades afterwards the entire population of the United Kingdom had to live on warm beer and snot butties while condescending Yanks diagnosed their ills and made fun of their teeth.

Absent Empire the Brits did find another global role for themselves. It was being a buttinski, but a very British buttinski.  Routinely insufferable and occasionally barmy, but at the core decent and level headed, and mostly willing to do the right thing without too much chest beating or fuss and bother. And, god knows, we could use more of that in the world, especially now America has come unglued.

So, UK, if you could see your way to getting back your stiff upper lip old self, and do it toot suite, we’d all appreciate it.

*OK you asked: EU Commission regulation 2257/94 stipulates that bananas must be free of “abnormal curvature.”

Low Times for Higher Ed

According to Philip Arthur Fisher, twentieth century super-investor and all-around smarty pants, “the stock market is filled with individuals who know the price of everything, but the value of nothing.” These days it’s not just the stock market infested with such philistine philosophies. Fiduciary myopia, the propensity to be all penny eyed and pound mulish, dominates the public sector.

Here’s an example. Let’s say I know of an investment opportunity with a guaranteed annual return of 800 percent. Sure, it sounds like too-good-to-be-true Bernie Madoff bunkum. But it’s not a Ponzi swindle, it’s real. For every buck you put in, you get eight bucks back. Year. After. Year.  After. Year. You’d probably say sign me up for some of that action. So you’re clearly not an elected official, especially a state governor with a business background. Then you’d basically be saying, “A whole buck? Let’s make it 75 cents and save a quarter!” And then you could boast to the taxpayer about saving them four bits. Or, to put it another way, cost them two dollars.

The investment whereof I speak is higher education, which is being shorted big time by the wolves of Bawl Street. Indeed, it’s gotten so bad that some public universities are essentially being privatized by the governments that own them.  This huge disinvestment in higher education–I’ll get to the numbers in a bit—has, no doubt, saved some governments some dough and cut the tax dunnage of the average Jane and Joe by a few pennies. But it’s costing the lot of them more than they can imagine.

Public universities are kind of astonishing institutions. Most people think of them as academies of advanced learning. And, yeah, they do a lot of educatin’. Right now, roughly three-quarters of students in college are enrolled in dear old State U or its equivalent. But public universities do a lot more. For instance, they are also in the bidness of bidness. In a single year public research universities will spin off more than 500 start-ups, apply for more than 10,000 patents, and generate untold billions in local business sales.

Public universities are also prodigious idea factories, with tons of useful stuff constantly percolating out of their R and D shops. The internet, for example, which was birthed in Leonard Kleinrock’s lab at UCLA. Other stuff we find useful that was significantly or primarily developed by public research universities include LEDs, ATMs, laser eye surgery, bar codes, and sonic toothbrushes. Whatever the problem or challenge society faces—anything from a need for a longer lasting lightbulb to better dental hygiene—you can bet your bippy some public university is all over the search for a solution.  They’ve developed new antibiotics, gene therapy and the wetsuit. They came up with the McRib sandwich fer cryin’ out lout (you’re welcome).

Oh yeah, they are also the closet thing American society has to an escalator to the middle class. The median mid-career salary of a graduate at a university like mine is eighty-two grand. True, on that salary you won’t be swilling cocktails at this weekend’s Mar-a-Largo crass bash. But that’ll get you a reasonably comfy middle-class billet. These days a college degree may be no golden ticket to easy street, but it’s still the closest thing to an all access pass to main street.

Add all this up and it’s clear that public universities are a good deal. Especially for the states that house them. The eight-to-one bang for buck ratio mentioned above is based on an economic analysis of the impact of the University of Nebraska. Now, NU is a big expense for the state – it dumps in north of a half-billion dollars annually into the university system, which is somewhere between eleven and twelve grand per student. The economic impact of that system, though, is roughly $4 billion – an 800-percent return. The university accounts for about 4 percent of state GDP, accounts for one out of every 36 jobs, provides most of the doctors and nurses, and it also houses the most sacred religious site in all of Husker Land – Memorial Stadium, a football temple that, no foolin’, becomes the state’s third largest city on football Saturdays.

Keep in mind that 800-percent return is just the economic impact. The social and cultural impact of educating a huge swath of citizenry, sparking innovation, launching careers, and generally opening eyes and minds is tougher to monetize. While I haven’t got an exact number to point to here, it’s safe to say that in technical terms the impact here is, like, mega-big.

While any honest crunching of numbers shows public universities to be a good deal, many state governments no longer consider them a good investment. Pretty much every state in the union has been dis-investing in higher education over the past decade, in some cases drastically.  Here at the University of Nebraska, for example, per-pupil state funding has dropped by a fifth in inflation-adjusted terms since the turn of the century, and higher education spending a proportion of the budget has been in a pretty linear nosedive for a couple of decades.

And public universities in Nebraska, comparatively speaking, are doing well. Nationally, states are spending about 20 percent less per-student than they were eight or nine years ago, and higher education spending as a proportion of state budgets has shrunk nearly a third over the past 15 or 20 years.  Some big flagship state universities already get so little support they are already effectively privatized. For example, only about 16 percent of the University of Michigan’s general fund budget is taxpayer supported.

State leaders are not exactly hiding what they’ve been up to with higher education budgets. Some of the squeeze was unavoidable (we had that whole Great Recession thing), but some governors wear their cheeseparing as a sort of ideological merit badge. Scott Walker in Wisconsin, Susana Marinez in New Mexico, Sam Brownback in Kansas, Pete Ricketts in Nebraska—there’s a long list of state leaders loudly and proudly pinching pennies in ways that inevitably lead to unburdening their constituents of untold pounds.

The most obvious effects of all this budget beggaring is program cuts and tuition increases—the two primary options public universities have to deal with eroding state support. The end result is not just that we’re producing an entire generation of loan drones, millennials whose social and economic opportunities are pretty severely constricted by debt taken on to pay for school. It also means that for many, college is just not an option. Economic diversity is shrinking at public universities, primarily because those on the lower end of the economic scale can’t afford it. We’re taking the most powerful engine of upward mobility our society has devised and restricting the fuel intake to two cylinders.

Now there is a legitimate debate to be had on whether the average Joe or Jane should be coughing up an extra few bucks so the kegger brigade down at the U can keep itself solvent. Fair enough. What about sonic toothbrushes, though, what are they worth to the average taxpayer? LEDs? The internet? The antibiotics that might save that same Joe and Jane? What about the dang doctor you need to administer those antibiotics? What about the thousands of indirectly supported jobs that help keep the economy humming? What about the football team for chrissake? (There, I said it).

The point is public universities are worth a lot more to the states that own them than people realize. That includes a lot of elected officials. This crowd often knows what higher education costs. They are often clueless about its real value.

Whatever Happened to Conservatism?

William F. Buckley is rightly remembered for his witty prolixity, a certain ability to enliven political discourse by unzipping the Oxford English Dictionary’s big boy pants and letting fly an epic stream of loquacity. Buckley often spritzed this legendary lexical incontinence over various angry sparks of right-wing nut jobbery, a deliberate effort to dampen the influence of dogma drones and conspiracy whackos threatening to hijack conservatism and spirit it off to cuckoo-ville.

While the primary target of his verbal strafing undoubtedly was the political left, he remains an instructive character for contemporary politics exactly because of his consistent willingness to take on his own side.  Buckley arguably did more than any other single individual to shape the modern conservative movement, to supply its cerebral ballast, to trial balloon its more popular tenets, and he certainly provided the campaign’s most influential megaphone (he founded the National Review). The ascension of Ronald Reagan and the subsequent mainstreaming of conservatism as a political force was built in no small part on the decades of preparatory work undertaken by Buckley.

Part of that labor was a conscious and ongoing effort to save conservatism from the worst instincts of its own allies. The National Review for decades was the outlet of conservative thought. As editor Buckley was the pilot in conservatism’s cockpit and he had definite ideas about approving the passenger manifest. He excommunicated Ayn Rand, arguing that her “hard, schematic, implacable, unyielding dogmatism” was not just intrinsically objectionable, but incompatible with conservatism. He chased out the John Birch Society crowd by publicly pointing out they were all at least two beers short of a six-pack. Buckley’s basic case against the Birchers was that trafficking in nutty conspiracy theories and interpreting your own subjective wannabes as objective fact is no basis for a sustainable political movement. He described Robert Welch, co-founder of the John Birch Society, as having “a very special set of views which reality rejects.”*

As a conservative, Buckley instinctively sought to defend the status quo rather than advocate change, but he was curious about the world, had a healthy respect for facts and intellectual inquiry, and was willing to change his mind if persuaded of the case to do so. He once faced down a group of moral majority flap and doodle mongers (Rev. Jerry Falwell among them) incensed at his forceful advocacy for drug legalization. He justified himself thus to his skeptical conservative audience:  “It is a sovereign responsibility of rational people to take empirical data into the general reckoning. I was against the position I am now taking until I became convinced by the data that it was a futile position” (you can see a video clip here). Buckley never lost an abiding conviction that a “conservative seeks to be grounded in reality.

Yeah, I wonder what happened to that. I’m not sure when conservatism decided to stop questioning itself, became so quick to get the wobbles in the face of data and facts, and got so willing to abandon not just intellectual honesty but intellectual curiosity. But it has. Don’t take my word for it, plenty of conservatives are saying more or less the same thing. David Brooks. Charlie Sykes. George Will. Bill Kristol. The conservative movement and the Republican Party, the political vessel which has carried its water for five decades or more, is shot through with phonies, Pharisees, and fib merchants, it is bedeviled by shallow thinking and deep delusions. And the heirs of Buckley know it.

Right now there is a case to be made that Buckley did not really make conservatism safe for mainstream politics, he just helped create a Trojan horse for the distasteful extremes he tried to shoo away. The characters he spent decades trying to fence out of the conservative political project are now in charge of it, their most unsavory tendencies fueled by populism’s oxygen and glowing fire-furnace hot.  At the core of this seems to a lot of angry white guys who define conservatism as little more than me-first nationalism.  I think that it is  more something Buckley would mourn than support.

For example, questioning the cause these days is not considered a healthy exercise in intellectual self-examination, it is apostasy. Inconvenient facts, be they significant (climate change) or trivial (crowd size), are simply substituted with more convenient alternative-facts. Deep thinking on policy has been reduced to a repetitive chant of “tax cuts good, government bad, Democrats evil.” Violence against journalists questioning the party line is trivialized or openly celebrated. Entire swaths of elected conservatives sell out their creed for fealty to a president trafficking in tweet cheats. The national voice of the movement now belongs to bumper sticker bully-boys like Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh, people whose framework for intellectual debate is insult, incite, indict, then yell, grunt, and repeat. There’s not a lot of characters in that crew that could be described as possessing traits of genuine curiosity, of intellectual seriousness and flexibility, of respectful garrulity, wit, and humor. In other words, it’s hard to see a space where a Bill Buckley type would fit in contemporary conservatism.

And that’s a shame. I say this without an atom of sarcasm or mockery: Having a movement centered on a principled (emphasis: principled) case for the limits of government is a good thing for the Republic. Not because I agree with it—on many issues I just don’t buy the arguments. But because it keeps the other side intellectually honest, because it forces the case for government action to be clearly articulated and justified, and might even prevent unwarranted or harmful statist over-reach. And given the rumblings over in the Bernie Bro and Liz Warren bloc of pie-eyed lefties, the complete hash Trump is making of his presidency, and the GOP’s embrace of much that reality rejects, we’re likely to need it sooner rather than later.

There still exist plenty of principled elected conservatives (Ben Sasse), conservatives with bags of intellectual candle power willing to ask tough questions of their own side (Brooks, David Frum), and platforms where serious long-form policy analysis rather than sound-bite point scoring is still a hallmark of conservative intellectual endeavor (the lads over at the National Review are still chugging along, if not necessarily all in the same direction). So the chances for a revival of Buckley-type conservatism are far from zero, even if they are not particularly good. It’s a matter of numbers, and the Buckley-ites currently do not have them.

So unless there’s some as yet unknown Buckley avatar waiting in the wings, conservatism—and, as long as conservatives are in charge, the rest of us—will just have to ride out its contemporary smoochie-poo embrace of its own distasteful underbelly. What a pisser.

 

*These quotes are pulled from a Buckley essay entitled “What Is Conservatism.” I couldn’t find an online link, but it’s included in The Jeweller’s Eye, a book of his collected speeches and columns that can probably be found under a layer of dust in most large-ish libraries. And before I get button-holed on this, I’m well aware Buckley had some pretty big political skeletons of his own—a big flirt with McCarthyism, for example, and, at least in his early days, some pretty wince-inducing views on civil rights. Still, his willingness to constructively engage with those he disagreed with and a genuine (if far from perfect) embrace of empiricism makes him, in my own humble opinion, a useful and enlightening foil to examine contemporary conservatism.