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Goodbye 20th Century

This week in the New Yorker, George Packer writes about “the fall of conservatism”. Usually, such screeds amount to little more than “progressive” triumphalism, one-dimensional “analysis” of the failings of the Bush Administration, or barely-informed rants about “neocons”, but Packer avoids most of that and an awful lot of his piece rings true.

“Conservatism”, at least of the classic Nixon/Reagan variety, is a spent force, a movement that lost its raison d’etre the moment the Soviet Union collapsed and after which it itself collapsed into an uneasy alliance of “libertarians, evangelicals, neoconservatives, Wall Street, [and] working-class traditionalists”. It was the remains of a movement that found itself holding the reins of government and realized it had no idea what to do with them.

Conservatives (or at least Republicans), Packer argues, had figured out how to win elections — look no further than the machinations of Karl Rove — but what we ended up with was President Bush, whose entire term in office has consisted of a series of stupefying blunders — a political thrashing-about, if you will, that has had the effect of destroying whatever credibility “conservatism” had left with the public (and let’s be frank, whether or not “Republican” really equates to “conservative” these days is irrelevant to a public that almost always conflates the two).

I’m not going to attempt to summarize the whole of Packer’s article; it’s a fairly substantial piece that deserves to be read in full. I will, however, state that I largely agree with his conclusions (though in this election year that has, in so many ways, celebrated the “spirit of ’68”, I disagree with him when he claims that liberals have really engaged in many serious “rebranding efforts” or “earnest policy retreats”, but I digress). For years, the “conservatism” I encountered resembled little more than intellectual parochialism and slavish Reagan-worship.

I think it should be pretty clear to everyone that those days are over. If John McCain wins this election — and I seriously doubt he will — it won’t be because he’s a great candidate with fresh new ideas; he’s a Republican in the post-Reagan, post-Gingrich, George W. Bush mold. If he wins, it’ll be because Barack Obama will have been unable to overcome working-class white distrust, feminist bitterness over his triumph over Hillary Clinton, and simple, brute racism. A win for John McCain basically means political stagnation.

Still, I’d be lying through my teeth if I claimed I had all the answers (or any answers, for that matter). But Packer’s article has got me thinking. If conservatism is going to have any chance of regaining any sort of credibility, it’s going to have to come in a form not of a kind with what we’ve become accustomed to since Nixon. Instead of hearkening back to the halcyon days of Reagan, some new ideas are going to have to be laid on the table for once.

Got any?

  1. Chris Holman says:

    Well, in answer to that follow-up question Sean, I think it’s a lot easier (literally and figuratively) to kill someone with a gun than, say, with a knife or a bat. Surely the latter can accomplish the feat, but pulling a trigger is not the same as smashing someone’s skull in with a bat. Granted, the effect can often look similar.

  2. Sean says:

    I think what Gsims is essentially asking is…does the removal of guns from society stop murderous or otherwise criminal intent?

    And Guy, Switzerland has some of the highest gun ownership in the world.

  3. Chris Holman says:

    You should read Kopel’s comments on Switzerland. You’re putting Switzerland and Japan together in a strange way. They are ‘safe’, but the point is that Switzerland is crammed full of weapons whereas Japan is not.

    I’m sure you’re a smart person and all, but you’re attacking the messenger with the statistics that were cited and not addressing the information conveyed. All sources have bias.

    34,000 is a small number in comparison to other causes of death. I’m not debating that. I’m not even pushing an anti-gun agenda. You are attacking a line of inquiry pretty vociferously. : ) Are you saying that murders and suicides would remain at the same number if firearms were eliminated altogether?

    To answer your question, violence does not get worse if a gun is used. However, the question I’m asking is: Would Americans still murder each other at such a high rate if guns were removed from the equation? Keeping in mind that 2/3 of our murders happen via firearms.

    As for guns being a societal problem, I think that this might play out differently across the spectrum of society. This is getting back to Kopel’s question/comments that I cited above.

  4. Gsim says:

    Chris, The Violence Policy Center is hardly an unbiased source regarding gun or crime statistics. They have what you might call an agenda.

    I don’t need to site any sources to say conclusively that countries without the private ownership of firearms still have violent crime. You can do a quick internet search and prove it to yourself if need be.

    I repeat my question. Does violence somehow get worse because a gun is used? Isn’t murder murder? Are you going to honestly say that if gang members don’t have easy access to firearms they are going to stop hurting each other? I suspect they’ll just use machetes and bats to murder their rivals.

    Also, it may be true that Japan and Switzerland have strict gun control and are safest countries. But they also have other commonalities. Could it be that they don’t kill each other for other reasons? Such as, extremely low rates of poverty and racial homologous populations?

    Lastly, that 34,000 deaths in 1996, is exactly the inflated figures I mentioned previously.

    You remove the suicides and gang related murders from that twisted statistic and you are reduced to a number that is actually benign, which is why suicides and violent career criminals must be included. You got to push that previously mentioned agenda somehow.

    I’ll be convinced guns are a huge societal problem when thousands and thousands of non-criminal and happy people die from guns each year.

  5. Timothy says:

    T – It’s full of stars, it’s full of stars.

  6. Chris Holman says:

    Question: What does it mean when many American children grow up “playing guns” ? What about guns in video games? Any significance? Just posing questions.

  7. Chris Holman says:

    A caveat: the impact guns have on socialization will vary across society, and I imagine there are some circles in American society where guns play a larger role in this socialization and, in my opinion, in a negative way. That is not to say that it cannot have a positive influence in other scenarios.

    I just think that, in general, guns play little to no role in the socialization of individuals who live in our midst.

  8. Chris Holman says:

    I don’t begrudge Nik too much…but as we all know, I had a problem with one of his articles. : ) But yeah…anyway. About Switzerland. I’m not sure if you’re referring to Kopel here, but even in his work, “The Samurai, The Mountie and The Cowboy” (1992) he notes that, “I looked at gun control in seven democratic nations in addition to the United States. I found that, of the seven nations I studied, the two safest nations by a wide margin had very strict gun control laws.”

    The first nation, with few guns, is Japan. The other nation, is Switzerland.

    He goes on to say that, “What I think Switzerland and Japan collectively suggest is that the issue is, not how many guns are there in the society but, how guns are viewed in the society and how they fit into the overall system of socializing individuals in the society.”

    If we are to follow his line of thinking, we must answer that question for the U.S. How ARE guns viewed here and how do they fit into the system of socializing individuals in the society? The former is harder to answer, but the latter is much easier—guns serve little to no purpose in the overall system of socializing individuals in our society. Perhaps things would be different in the U.S. if we had firearms because of mandatory military service and this tradition (I guess that’s the word) had an effect on how our society organized itself. Men would have to serve in the military, they would have their ‘conscript buddies’ and maintaining weapons at home would truly be in the mold of national defense and not what we find here in the U.S. Until we have a similar situation to the Swiss, I’m not so sure how much good it does to compare the U.S. with Switzerland.

    Here’s the link to his comments:

    He has a particularly interesting comment at the end:

    “American homicides, unlike homicides in other nations, are generally perpetrated with guns; about two-thirds of our homicides are with firearms. Rapes in the United States are rarely perpetrated with guns; only about seven percent of rapes involve guns. If you compare how disproportionately more murders we have than other countries do and also look at how much disproportionately more rapes we do than other countries, you find that they’re both about the same. In other words, Americans are more criminal across the board, not just for the kind of crimes which easy availability of guns might lead to, such as homicide, but for all kinds of violent confrontational crimes.”

    If this is true, would it really be a bad idea to make firearms a more restricted avenue for criminal Americans to commit their crimes?

  9. Sean Jin says:

    To his credit, Nik Antovich is an intelligent person and deserve more than the hating he gets.

    Chris, speaking on the firearms issue…what about Switzerland?

  10. Chris Holman says:

    Gsim, one last thing. I found this site and it outlines the deaths by state in 1996. You’re right that it’s not an epidemic. Only 34,000+ died in 1996 because of firearms. Still, that’s not a totally benign number. However, I’ll take your line of thinking another direction by stating that if in fact the numbers are ‘low’ and the general population doesn’t die from firearms…why again do people need firearms to protect themselves from people who aren’t killing them?

  11. Chris Holman says:

    Sean, if I misunderstood some points, I apologize. I read and responded along the way, so any corrections on my criticisms are more than welcome. I’m glad that you aren’t as far along as it seemed at points in libertarianism…or, rather, the drowning of the government in the bathtub. And you’re right, I have meant to say that in person.

    Gsim, can you post any references that back up your speculative statements? I’m not saying that countries with strict gun control are utopias. I’m saying that the availability of firearms leads to deaths because of firearms at rates in the US that far exceed those in other countries. In fact, according to this report (by the CDC) some countries in their report had zero deaths due to firearms. So, for me, it begs the question as to what role the availability of firearms plays in the US statistics. It seems pretty logical that the more guns and gun possessors there are, the more likely that guns will be used—intentionally or unintentionally—to end life. As I said, I’m not against firearms. I just think that a lot of weaponry out there is superfluous to anything the 2nd amendment ever dreamed of. Here’s the report I referred above, “Editorial Note: The findings in this report document a high rate of death among U.S. children associated with violence and unintentional firearm-related injuries, particularly in comparison with other industrialized countries”

    Tiffany, I agree with what you’ve said. Props indeed and definitely better than a lot of what Anty has to offer. : )

    T, it’s hard to respond to an article the length of Sean’s and not use so many words. Sorry for the scroller.

  12. T says:

    Oh my God. So many words.

  13. Tiffany says:

    I’d like to see your reply, Sean. I disagrees with parts of your article too, and though I thought you gestured at some important points, you never really got there and were quite off base some other times.

    Of course, conservatism is big idea, and difficult to tackle in one go, much less in one page. So props for the effort – it was certainly more intellectual than, say, Nick Antovich.

  14. Sean says:

    You are insinuating that I am advocating for some form of orderless anarchy.
    You seem to have missed my caveat that government exists to enforce the rights of the people. Hence your “rational application of government powers”.

  15. Sean says:

    Chris, I know you’ve been dying to tell me that in person. I can only say that I’m glad it came out here, because I’m a poor debater in person.

  16. Gsim says:

    Many deaths from firearms? Not in the general populus.

    Lots of gang members killing gang members for sure and you can toss in some suicides to inflate the statistics, but it isn’t exactly the huge issue that it is made out to be.

    And those countries you mentioned with strict gun laws aren’t exactly utopias , they have tons of violent crime of their own. How much does it matter if guns are involved?

  17. Chris Holman says:

    Well Sean, you did offer up some interesting speculation about how people feel about getting help from others or the government (you said they get used to it and then just sit around and mooch). Then, you accuse liberals of supporting a state that encourages people to sit around and mooch. Then you turn that into what appears to be a critique of social responsibility and you compare it to spoiling children.

    *So far, a pretty bitter take on your part despite the upbeat language*

    In the next graf, you equate taxes to subjugation at the hands of the government and say that it’s against the ideals of freedom in America. I’ll give you your poke at the government for its irresponsible spending, but you seem to be saying that in America, no one should invest in society or be asked to pay some money into the society that made them successful and wealthy (or at least well-off).

    I’m all for equating conservatism with the individual being more important than the state, but it seems pretty libertarian to me. It also seems to be a slippery slope to a government and society that trusts businesses and individuals to go out of their way to take care of where they live. Will businesses really regulate themselves, or will we end up in a situation where businesses do a cost-benefit analysis and then make enough profit despite any damages to people and place? I understand cynicism when it comes to the government being benevolent and all, but I’m also cynical when it comes to people…maybe moreso. Government can temper the sort of crap that happens when people are allowed to run amok.

    I like the bit about the War on Drugs…but it’s a bad analogy if you ask me considering that this war has been fought with conservatives and liberals in power…small and larger governments…over quite a long time. I might even argue that conservative governments have beefed up such things more than their counterparts. That is ahistorical on my part though in that I can only reference off the top of my head that which I have experienced in my time here.

    I disagree that government cannot help people become better and more responsible as well. In fact, conservatives might point to things like faith-based initiatives as something that can help people become better off and more responsible. As for not enforcing one’s beliefs on the nation, isn’t shrinking government and, as Norquist put it, drowning it in one’s bathtub…a belief? If Paul’s vision was put in place and there was a social anarchy with little governmental control and the reliance of individuals on no one but themselves to act responsibly…a belief that would then be placed onto everyone in the state?

    I don’t know.

    Your take on gun control is strange to me. You seem to be saying that all gun control will do is leave the psychotic people who go on rampages left with other weapons as options. Thus, this antiquated Constitutional right to bear arms being limited means that we only get stabbing sprees, or gassing sprees or something else. I love shooting guns, and I am pro gun ownership, but saying that you need a gun to defend yourself against a murderer is kind of strange. I mean, I wonder what the odds are that any one gun owner will ever find his or herself in a situation where their gun saves their life from an evildoer. Statistics show how many deaths happen in this country because of guns, and they also show how these numbers are drastically lower in countries where guns are heavily restricted. My point, I guess, is that most of the arguments that are pro-gun are pretty lame nowadays and harking back to the Constitution when the obvious intent of the amendment had little to nothing to do with our current situation here in America. I’m not saying it should be struck, but it should be interpreted in a rational way.

    I’m not so sure that society would turn out so hot if the government disappeared. There has been some organizational factor for humans since time immemorial. I’m not for government stomping all over my existence, but again, I’m for a rational application of governmental powers. There are some things that the government has no role in, but there are others that the government needs to be a part of. Drawing it down altogether is asking for the worst…I think anyway.

    You close by accusing the “welfare state” of having no insight and only short-sighted goals. Surprising given that you seem to be arguing for an abandonment of any government sight or goals. Government and conservatism are not mutually exclusive, and I think that where you go wrong, Packer gets it a bit more right. Conservatism can be saved by new, unique takes on what it means. What you argued is old, tired and a dramatic swing in the opposite direction. Kind of like Ron Paul in general I suppose…but hardly what I think conservatism needs.

    Lastly, Paul’s quote on liberty and security has far less to do with what you’re saying and far more to do with the way that the Bush Administration has watered down or smashed a lot of the ways that individuals in America have been traditionally protected from the state’s prying eyes. If we take your conflation to its logical conclusion, you seem to be saying that liberals want a welfare state that takes away all of your freedoms and monitors your every action. I’d say that we’ve gotten closer to the latter with this latest batch of conservatism and I’d also say that the welfare state is another throwback to Reagan that was mostly bullshit and the visceral issue of the day.

    Anyway, I’d say that most people fall in between these lines that are being drawn. Why someone cannot embrace that and step forward to reach across lines and truly serve the interests of the majority in a way that is not over-governmental or too idealistic/romantic about the days of old on the frontier….is beyond me.

    We’re smarter than this.

  18. Sean says:

    Vincent, as for ideas…did you not read my last article in the Holy Cow issue?

    This Packer guy clearly stole my ideas on revamping conservatism.

  19. Chris Holman says:

    I said “plain dumb” a lot. Word association? Perhaps.

  20. Chris Holman says:

    It is a sad day when the current state of affairs makes the 80’s under Reagan look wonderful. I honestly don’t know where it all went wrong for conservatives (small c), but the current brand is anything but what I understand of the word’s meaning(s).

    On one hand, if McCain wins, the ensuing snafu that we’re faced with will remain in Republican hands. I kind of like that because I want this breed of Republican to be politically neutered. On the other hand, McCain could surprise everyone and do some good things. Granted, I think it would be more of the same with a little twist and the stagnation you mentioned.

    The fragmentation in the conservative world is pretty crazy it seems. At least, from this independent’s point of view anyway. What could all of the factions come together on? Emotional issues are just plain dumb and not, I would think, desirable as organizational principles. I think a mix of someone in between Ron Paul and Jim Webb could do some good, but that’s mainly because they both speak their minds and are not idiots. The tendency for a lot of the Republicans in power to pander to the most ignorant of points of view, etc. is also stammering to me. How can any movement really right its ship when the people at the helm are chicken-hawk war mongers who are seemingly mentally deficient but are more likely just plain dumb?

  21. Sean says:

    Finally, somebody that recognizes that Reagan wasn’t as great of a conservative as everyone seems to think.

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